Viv Gordon is an artist and survivor activist using creativity and her lived experience of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) to break the silence and build a sense of community with other survivors.
Her project Restless is about walking in coastal landscapes using that experience to create performance work that talks about survivor journeys – navigating challenging territory, being on the edge and the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other. This month, Viv is walking just over 100 miles from Starcross to Plymouth on the South West Coast Path coinciding with #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek and #NationalWalkingMonth.
This is Viv’s story….
My journey to activism has been long and complicated. Growing up in 1970’s London, experiencing sexual abuse at home and at school and living in a culture where no-one ever talked about abuse was incredibly stressful. I didn’t even know abuse was a thing so I wasn’t able to understand what had happened to me, I just knew that nowhere felt safe, especially anywhere “behind closed doors”. The only way to survive that was to dissociate. Dissociation is a normal trauma response where the mind disconnects – a bit like the way an overloaded electrical circuit cuts out to protect the larger system. With the dissociation came amnesia – I just forgot what had happened to me or blocked it out – but living with unacknowledged trauma takes a huge toll on our mental and physical health. By young adulthood, things were getting pretty messy – I was chronically anxious, explosively angry and using drugs and alcohol to self medicate. I left my PhD and my student home to live outside as a road protester and became a new age traveller finding that living in tents and caravans felt safer than I ever did in a house.
Outside has always been my happy place. This was true even as a child – in an otherwise grim childhood – my mum passed on her passion for 3 things: Arts and culture; Feminism and radical politics; And walking… We used to hike and camp and youth hostel. Walking and being in nature have always been a place of solace and sanctuary for me. I live with ongoing mental health needs as a result of the abuse – walking calms my nervous system, brings me out of my head and into my body, helps me be more present in the now and connect to bigger, more beautiful perspectives. In nature everything has its own cycles and flow, the adaptability is incredible – the image of a tree on a cliff top is a good example, battered by the wind it bends into new extraordinary shapes but it is not broken.
I didn’t remember being abused until I was 29. At that time CSA was still incredibly taboo – I’d only ever heard 3 people talk about their experiences and it still felt like a big dirty secret. Even though abuse is never a child’s fault, we internalise the stigma, shame and guilt and go through life thinking there must be something wrong with us. A belief that is compounded by the mental health system that pathologises our distress and labels us as disordered. The narratives around the experience are unhelpful – that it was a long time ago, that we should move on and get over it – all survivors know that we live with the impacts of abuse everyday. The icing on the cake is that most of us have no recourse to justice – there is no evidence to take anyone to court and even when there is, convictions are very rare.
I spent a lot of time in therapy (I still do) unpicking what happened to me and how that has affected me, working out that none of it was my fault, forgiving myself for all the chaos I created as a young adult and recognising that all the things I thought were wrong with me, were just very normal responses to trauma. I’ve worked in the arts since 2003 and have a strong sense of social justice. I’ve done several projects about social issues over the years and so in 2014, when I felt ready, it seemed like a natural progression to start making art about surviving sexual abuse. An incredibly challenging but natural progression. Fast forward 7 years and now I work full time on survivor-led arts activism projects that champion voice, visibility and community for survivors. There are an estimated 11 million adult CSA survivors in the UK but our experiences are still very hidden.
The walk I am doing this week is part of the Restless project. There is a very primal link between walking and activism – what do we do if we don’t like something? We walk out. How do we protest? We march… The idea of the powerful, restless sea as a metaphor for activism is at the heart of the project. The sea just keeps going – even when we fill it full of plastic or toxic stuff – it never stops and that continuous action is changing the landscape sometimes slowly and imperceptibly and other times with dramatic rock falls. I’m not celebrating erosion just making a parallel. Activism, continuous collective action, changes the cultural landscape over time. That landscape is one which silences, shames and isolates survivors. I want us to be unstoppable in changing that.
Previous Restless walks have taken place along the Dorset & Somerset coast in 2018 & 2020 and we even released a song in November during lockdown last year. You can find out more about the project here: https://www.vivgordon.com/restless
You can financially support the work we do here: https://www.buymeacoffee.com/vivgordonco