My first voyage was on a ship called Faith-1, a small product tanker on which my husband was Chief Mate.
As Faith-1 had a shallow draught she could enter and dock at most ports. A gangway would be lowered onto the jetty and we would go down and take a cab into town. Immigration gave us each a shore-pass and that was apparently all we needed to go anywhere in that country!
To my luck, a month after I joined Faith-1, she went off the monotonous Boston-Newfoundland charter she had been on for a whole year! She became a tramping vessel, going to any port where there was cargo to carry.
And so it was that Faith-1 left Boston and crossed the Atlantic Ocean.
She crawled through the narrow Straits of Gibraltar into the blue Mediterranean . . . sailed around the Cape of Good Hope en route to Durban braving dangerously huge waves . . . got dragged by mechanical mules through the locks of the Panama canal . . . cruised through the picturesque Straits of Magellan from the Pacific into the Atlantic Ocean . . . navigated up rivers like the East river into New York, the Rio de la Plata into Buenos Aires, and the Humber into Immingham . . . She docked at tiny ports like Come By Chance in Newfoundland and Ilo in Peru, as well as at large ports like Rotterdam . . . She dry-docked at Lisbon for three whole weeks for an overhaul and paint job . . .
For me, it was like jumping from my narrow life of hospital/home onto that dear little bright orange ship that went everywhere, crisscrossed oceans, landed up on the shores of so many different countries, gave me new towns and cities to explore, new people to meet and a whole lot of new stuff to be amazed by, apart from giving me a lovely cabin, great food and good company on board!
A voyage, in all its variety, is so much like Life itself. Ship and ocean and weather conditions are perfect metaphors for person and life and life’s challenges. And dry-dock is the equivalent of going on vacation to rejuvenate!
Like life, a ship constantly moves forward and has deadlines to meet. She floats on a sea that expects her to navigate responsibly. She is alert to the appearance of unpredictable winds that can quickly go from calm to gale force and unleash Nature’s formidable might. All of this makes a voyage a toy version of the journey of life.
A ship sails for a while, berths at a port to load cargo, sails out again, then stops at another port to discharge it, which is quite like the rhythm of life with its hectic and quiet phases, of doing and just being, verb and noun. To be a chartered ship or a tramping ship is probably one choice we do have – if we have the luxury of freedom!
As in life, other lives go on around us as we sail along our charted course. Pods of dolphins with smiling faces race towards us to play at the ship’s bow. A lone sea lion occasionally floats by with a puzzled look on his cute little face. Flying fish frequently flash past in a streak of silver, just skimming the surface of the sea. Whales spout water in the distance.
Birds roost among pipes on the deck for a few days when we pass islands. Other people in ships and boats pass by. In coastal waters fishermen in their tiny boats come close to us to stare curiously up at our huge vessel and wave to us. Seagulls keep up a raucous din as they swoop down to catch fish.
Aft, the ship wake stretches back quite a ways, to fade away like traces of our day-to-day lives and, ultimately, of the years we walk the Earth. All that remains is the ship’s log.
Some events in life are like surface winds acting on the freeboard, superstructures and deck cargo of a ship. But, just as a ship is stable and can sail in all sorts of weather – not pitch and roll or list every time there are strong surface winds – you mostly manage to go on with your life even through rough times. There is a threshold for a distress alert, and it can’t be the sight of a few whitecaps in Force 4 winds!
Same way, you don’t run to a therapist every time you feel a little anxious or low. That would be like a ship calling a Mayday in ordinary bad weather! You find your balance like you do when you learn to cycle or skate. You do not catastrophise.
Unlike the effects of surface winds, forces acting on the submerged part of the hull of a ship are not easy to discern. When there is an ocean swell – due to a distant storm – you feel it in the way the ship moves. The Captain alters course to keep the swell on the port or starboard bow and makes sure he doesn’t steer the vessel into it. Sometimes he even stops the ship to let a storm pass.
A lot of your deepest feelings are like a swell acting on the part of the hull below the water. They are gut feelings, not intelligible thoughts that come into your mind in clearly formed words. They are like a foreign-language movie without English subtitles. Gut feelings can make you uneasy the same way a swell can make you seasick and nauseous.
A ship’s radar can only detect objects in the air or on the surface of the water, including the periscope of a submarine, but not the sub itself. That would need sonar. Your mind is more like radar and can’t detect stuff deep in your psyche. Therapy attempts to be like sonar but works more like radar. It only sees the periscope of a submarine and tries to reach the sub through it.
Sometimes a naval ship on a mission might mistake a whale for an enemy submarine and torpedo it like the British navy did during the Falklands War. They killed three whales by mistake! That can happen in therapy too. You might waste time and energy zooming in on something that might turn out to be totally irrelevant, a whale that had nothing to do with your war.
Though a little hindsight and analysis are good for course correction, I sometimes wonder if there might be a better way to approach some of life’s more common problems – a common cold has a simpler treatment than pneumonia does.
As a psychiatrist I have done a lot of therapy since it is one of the mainstays of treatment. Over the years I’ve realised that there are limitations to how much you can rummage through infinite stored memories, or plumb the depths of your subconscious, and draw connections to solve your current problems.
There’s also a limit to how much you can transform into a person far removed from your genetic and cultural heritage, your inner self, to fit an image you have in mind, and still be authentic and comfortable in your own skin, though you might feel relieved that you’re dealing better with things and people, and sometimes that’s good enough to reduce stress . . . However, if there are deep-rooted reasons for whatever is happening in your life and your coping mechanisms aren’t enough, you definitely need a therapist.
Telling children “you can do anything” and “you can be anyone you want to be” – so they feel less overwhelmed and more confident – works for some. However, some children grow up taking it literally, believing they are totally invulnerable to life’s blows and roadblocks. As adults they may break rather than bend in a storm, the way a ship might break at amidships due to bad structural design or improper weight distribution of cargo.
A little humility, a little common sense, a little distance, much resilience, more-than-a-little courage, a degree of self-acceptance, and some support from a parent, sibling or friend, should ordinarily help get your derailed life back on the rails. And if it doesn’t, a therapist should be able to help.
Accepting that things won’t always work out the way you plan is one way to bring down your stress level. Life is unpredictable. Luck does play a role. So does your personality. You do not have total control over all that happens. Everything that goes wrong is not always your fault, or anybody else’s; it’s a bad experience, and no doubt you paid a heavy price for it. Yes, and it hurts like hell and you can’t stop crying.
But it could be a catalyst for switching tracks and changing your storyline. Who knows? Well, actually, I do. Chapters end, pages turn, new characters appear, new events occur, circumstances alter . . . life unfolds, and you learn to roll with the punches.