I almost threw a man overboard last weekend and, alas, I’m not talking figuratively. I almost grabbed the poor guy and hurled him from the top deck of a 19th century war ship.

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HMS Victory: aka HMS Hypervigilant

We were visiting the HMS Victory, a stunning ship with a spectacular past, currently parked up in a dry dock in Portsmouth, England. The ship has been restored to as close to its original set up as it can get (only considerably cleaner, quieter and less smelly I should imagine). We had chosen the top deck of the Victory for our lucky fin’s inaugural outing with her walking reigns and we weren’t disappointed. She cruised from bow to stern and back again and only stopped here or there to poke a stationary cannonball or to stroke the shiny plaque where Admiral Nelson fell.

A little history, to help me set the scene: In 1797, on the island of Tenerife, Horatio Nelson received a musket ball to his right arm, just above the elbow. Medical necessity at the time meant that his arm was amputated right then and there. A few years later, during the infamous Battle of Trafalgar, the Lord Admiral wore the right sleeve of his naval jacket pinned up against his chest, as if he was simply resting a hand there in thought. (Incidentally, and largely unrelated, I find it really difficult and a little hilarious to imagine Horatio Nelson referring to his missing arm as his ‘lucky fin’ or his ‘little arm’!)

NPG D21490; Horatio Nelson by George Baxter, after  Lemuel Francis Abbott
Horatio “Nemo” Nelson

Back in the modern day, as we trod in the footsteps of a famous lucky-finned forefather, we hadn’t actually given Horatio’s limb difference a moment’s thought. If I’m being honest, I hadn’t really given the ship a huge amount of thought either (anyone who knows me will know that it takes a lot to distract me from such a significant historical artefact), because I was enjoying watching Hero too much. It’s an odd thing, now that she’s walking, I seem to have returned to that completely besotted newborn stage, where I just can’t get enough of watching her in action. She’s simply awesome!

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Lucky Fin Love!

Anyway, as we made our way towards the bow of the ship in search of the stairs to take us back below deck, I heard a fellow visitor cry out:

“Oh my goodness! What happened to your arm? Did you lose it like Nelson?”

The guy was laughing his head off and talking loudly enough for the entire crew to hear. Now, I tend to avoid conflict like the plague, as followers of my blog will probably have guessed. However, for some reason, this time I swelled up like the Hulk. How dare he bring up her limb difference in such an appallingly callous way. How dare he point it out to us, completely out of the blue, when it was the very last thing on our minds right then.

My shoulders hunched, my fists clenched, I spun around with the full intention of seizing the guy by the shoulders and lunching him bodily over the gunwales. There was going to be no comical splashing into the waters below for this guy, oh no; it was the litter-strewn concrete of the dry dock floor for him!

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That was me, second from the right…

As I turned, catching a look of surprise, horror and amusement on my husband’s face as I did so, I noticed another kid on the deck. This boy was about eight or nine and had pulled his arm into his shirt and tucked up the sleeve like Horatio Nelson. As rapidly as my rage had erupted, I seemed to turn back into a human again, my clothing maybe a little torn and my husband a little terrified after an otherwise uneventful transformation. This awful human being, the one who had no idea how close to imminent death he had just come, was actually talking to his son about something entirely unrelated and separate from our daughter (who was still toddling, totally unawares, about the deck).

It took me a few minutes to calm down from this entirely non event. My heart was going like a sail in a storm and I had so much adrenalin in my body that my hands were almost shaking. As we descended below deck, and away from the innocent and unawares father-and-son duo, the word ‘hypervigilant’ came to mind. It’s a term I’d not really thought of before, but had come across at our recent Reach family weekend during a talk from Orla Duncan, a psychosocial nurse who specialises in supporting children with a physical difference and their families.

Orla had talked about how people with a difference of any kind, and parents of children with a difference of any kind, can sometimes become hypervigilant when they are out and about in public. She explained how they can feel so insecure or vulnerable that their subconscious is almost looking for that stare or listening for that comment.

She talked of an experiment involving actors with large fake scars drawn across their faces. The actors looked in the mirror at their difference before heading out into the busy streets. However, just before they stepped out, a make up artist came forward under the pretence of touching up their makeup, instead they actually removed it completely. Upon their return, despite looking entirely “normal”, every single actor reported feeling like they were being stared at and that they were being judged and victimised by other people.

The end result being, of course, that because they were aware of their difference they were expecting some kind of reaction from those around them. They felt that their difference made them stand out from the crowd and it gave them a ‘me against them’ mentality. In short, they created their own reality by looking around at people, catching others’ eyes and acting on edge. People probably were staring at them, but not at all for the reason they were expecting.

I’m not for a minute suggesting that we go out all day every day and glare at unsuspecting bystanders, daring them to make a comment or even to notice Hero’s hand. We certainly don’t. There’s been plenty of occasions of late where, because her difference is so normal to us, people have looked and I’ve genuinely wondered whether she had food on her top and that’s why they were curious. I even had to lean round to check at one point.

Yet Orla certainly has a point. If she didn’t that man would have passed me by without a second glance, let alone an impulse to kill. When you get to the point where you are a second away from committing a very messy and a very public murder in full view, not only of your own child but of the victim’s as well, you’ve got to wonder whether your subconscious is perhaps a tad more wired than you give it credit for. Interestingly, it’s not something I think I had really experienced before the “Macdonald’s Incident”. Being as how we’ve encountered nothing of the sort since then, I’d like to hope that my subconscious will be able to chill and enjoy this time of genuine peace, happiness and excitement that the rest of me is feeling as our little lucky fin lets loose her sails and finds her own heading with flying colours.

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One thought on “The hypervigilance trap: a cautionary tale

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