The best thing about seasickness is that it leads to one of the best feelings in the world: that moment when, several days into a voyage, I wake up and realise that I feel hungry. I get up to find something to eat, then realise with a sense of joy and relief that I don’t feel sick any more! It’s a wonderful feeling and the knowledge that it would eventually come has sustained me through some pretty miserable bouts of seasickness when I first started going to sea.
The reverse concept also applies. When I’m at home, I train regularly in a couple of martial arts and work out regularly at the gym. That means that my normal state of being is “hurting all over”. After a few weeks, I don’t notice it unless it spikes (which means I’ve broken or torn something). A few days after I go back to sea, I wake up feeling great! When I try to work out why I realise that my general condition of “hurting all over” has changed to “not hurting.” It’s not the pain that’s notable: it’s the absence of it.
I recently spent a period volunteering on a ship. After several months, I found myself sitting in the middle of a crowded dining room, enjoying my lunch and chatting with friends. I didn’t have my back to a wall. I wasn’t in a corner, monitoring the entrances. I wasn’t carrying a kubotan. I wasn’t sleeping with a wedge alarm inside my cabin door. I wasn’t suspicious of the people around me. For the first time in a very long time, I felt safe, and it was wonderful.
I hadn’t realised that feeling unsafe had become normal for me. I hadn’t realised that it had become normal for me to have my guard up all the time. I hadn’t realised that I braced myself every time someone approached me. I hadn’t realised that it was possible to sit with my back to a room of strangers and focus on what was in front of me rather than what might be behind me. I hadn’t realised that it was possible to just smile and say, “Hi, how’s it going?” to random people and not have to brace myself for negative consequences. It was like the pain from training: it was only noticeable when it stopped.
I’ve been back in the real world for nearly two weeks. I’ve consciously tried to hang onto the positive habits from the ship, to assume the best of the random strangers around me, but those draining habits developed for good reasons and they’re coming back.
Every time I smile at a stranger, I brace myself for a negative outcome. Even though I’m not even back in my own country yet, I’ve already found myself helping women who’ve been threatened, stalked and assaulted. I’ve tried to explain to family members that it’s not the victim’s fault, even if they were in a bar having a drink, or they posted on social media that they’d be home on a particular date, or they choose to work in a particular industry.
I think the reason for the difference on that particular ship is that everyone agreed on a set of rules that included not harassing, threatening or assaulting anyone under any circumstances. People could (and frequently did) disagree with each other. We’d talk about it and come to an agreement based on the things we had in common. People could (and frequently did) flirt and start relationships without having to be creepy or threatening, or force themselves into other people’s space. People could be friendly towards others without it being assumed that they were “asking for it.” It made for a positive atmosphere, the like of which I haven’t experienced in a long time.
I chose to work at sea because I love the job. I love the work. I love the ocean, the night watches, the challenges that nature throws at us. I’d become disillusioned because I wasn’t allowed to just get on with doing my job: I always had to constantly guard my back against my shipmates, and it sapped my energy, my love for my work, and my ability to do my job well.
I’m looking forward to getting back to that ship because there’s an amazing amount of peace in feeling safe enough to get on with my life, do my job and be myself without being threatened for it. For the first time in many years, I could finally throw myself completely into doing what I was there to do without having to have a part of my attention guarding my back, and that freed me to do my work to a standard that I could be proud of.
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