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Trusting the Bridge
Sometimes, you just need a cliff to leap off...
Music has always been important to me, at different times, certain songs have seemed to encompass my own experiences and when I found one, I would play it endlessly as I tried to make sense of what was going on around and within me.
When I was training to be a therapist, Landslide by Fleetwood Mac1 became the soundtrack to my life as I began letting go of the person I thought I was supposed to be for others and began making space for all of me.
Can the child within my heart rise above?
Can I sail through the changin' ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?
Well I’ve been afraid of changin’
At the same time, there was a series of images that I worked with throughout the middle part of my training.
In the first I was standing at the edge of a cliff, but there was thick mist in front of me so I can’t tell quite where the cliff ends and if anything is beyond it. I am desperate to move forward, I know that where I am isn’t right for me, but I am paralysed with fear that I will inadvertently step off the edge and there would be nothing to catch me. (This always reminds me of the scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where he must cross the invisible bridge on the way to the holy grail.)
In the second I have taken the step off the cliff and I find myself on an infinite bridge that stretches out in front of me with no end in sight. Depending on what was going on for me at the time the bridge morphed from a massive and sturdy suspension bridge to a rickety rope bridge and everything in between. Over time, as I worked with this image, I learnt that I could take things with me on the bridge, and I began gathering all the tools I needed, and most importantly a tent for when I needed to rest.
In the final and rarest of the images I was able to observe the bridge from some distance away, seeing it suspended between two cliffs. The one I had come from was barren and held nothing to nourish me, but the one I moved toward was covered in a lush forest. Below the bridge I could see the mist was still there, it had just moved, but I know it can rise again in the future to leave me disoriented.
I doodled the images constantly and often worked with these metaphors in practice sessions with other students, but it was only when we were exploring working creatively that I was finally able to move forward. In one practice I worked with a fellow student, who a knew well and trusted, using a sandtray and in that session I was finally able to step from the cliff for a final time. For me, it was about valuing myself enough to change even though I knew I was risking some of the things that were most important to me.
What I know now is that I was starting the process of unmasking, even though it would be years before I became aware of my own neurodivergence. (Despite working with autistic students and having a special interest in neurodivergence.) Because through the therapy and reflective practice that was central to my training I had come to know myself and my truth in a whole new way and I couldn’t go back to unknowing it. I had been such a high masker for years, I went into a situation and asked who am I supposed to be in this moment, which parts of me is it safe to share here. And as a queer, geeky autistic woman, often there were not many parts that felt safe, so I learnt to edit myself for others comfort.
In order to be able to finally take the step off the cliff, I had to believe that who I am is ok. Even writing that here, I still feel a part of me waiting for someone to tell me I’m wrong, but I’ve been working on this for over ten years and I know so much more about myself and the world I move through than I did before. I know how to keep myself safe and I know which values to measure myself against. (Mine!)
The images of the cliff and the bridge are still with me all these years later and I often share parts of them with clients who I see moving in a similar direction (even though all our journeys are different). There have been other cliffs and bridges that I have navigated, coming to know my autistic self, choosing to run my own business, navigating long covid, but time and again the bridge had been there to catch me.
I’m aware that many of my bridges are made of privilege, I have an incredibly supportive wife, I have been able to study and gain qualification that let me work in a sustainable way, I live in the north where housing is much more affordable than the costal village where I grew up. But I have also started to make bridges for myself, putting time and resources into smoothing the path for future me, now that I have much more understanding about what I need. Getting to bed early, going outside as much as I can, connecting with and nurturing relationships with people who share my values and many other small steps that all help me to build capacity and self-worth.
I have three tattoos to remind me of these things, each gained at a significant point in my training journey.
A semi-colon ;
This was always my favourite piece of punctuation and represents the spaces in-between the words, the small pauses that give us a chance to breathe and choose our next steps.
An ellipse in square brackets […]
When you are using a quote, but there is a bit you don’t need you use this to signify that you have left a bit out. This reminds me that although there are many parts to my story I get to choose which ones I repeat and give meaning to. I need to acknowledge and make space for all of my history, but I don’t have to be defined by it all.
A bridge with colourful mist
To remind me that even when I cannot see the way forward there will be one and I will carry my bridge (and my tent) with me.
This weekend I went to see some fabulous music and, as sometimes happens when we listen to something live, I found a new connection with a song I had heard many times before. Standing in a room full of (mostly) strangers I found tears rolling down my face as I listened to Sally Pepper singing Cliffs2 and I was transported back to that time in my life, but with all the knowledge I have gained since then. Rather than focusing on the possibility of what I might have lost I was able to think about all I had gained by giving myself permission to take up space and be me.
Sometimes you just need a cliff to leap off,
Sometimes you've just got to pray the water's deep enough.
A new story in the same book, a fresh tale of the step I took.
The cliffs keep coming, but I have the tools I need to navigate the bridges. I’m aware that many of my bridges are strengthened by the parts of my identity and context that do carry privilege, but the thing that makes the most difference is knowledge about myself, understanding of my needs and the compassion that lets me find ways that work with my brain rather than against it. Often that looks like: getting to bed early, going outside as much as I can, connecting with and nurturing relationships with people who share my values and many other small steps that all help me to build capacity and self-worth.
What helps you to step from the cliffs?
What are your bridges made of?
What have you gained from taking the leap?