The power of a circuit breaker

Author Kathryn Heyman on the power of a ‘circuit breaker’

In taking pause we may find the ability to create a new habit and even a new sense of self.

Published at vogue.com.au 21 August 2021

I was twenty the first time I discovered the power of a circuit breaker. I’d been battered by a series of traumatic events that culminated in a brutal sexual assault trial. Winter arrived in Sydney after the trial, as though signifying the end of something greater than a single season. The trial, the turns within it, marked the end of me. Or at least, the end of this version of myself. I was wet with the sopping sense of shame it left, unable to shake it or the habits that formed in its wake.

Rain sheeted down on the last day of the trial, sudden and brutal the way Sydney rains are, leaving oil-slicked puddles across the roads and footpaths. When I left the courthouse, I untied my hair from the tight bun I’d scraped it into and walked through the downpour until my clothes clung to me like plastic wrap to a sausage. I felt as though I’d been compressed and minced, pulped in a machine. Churned through. I had no hat, no coat, no umbrella, and I let the water pound on my head, dripping down my back. If it hailed, I didn’t feel it. I couldn’t tell if it was warm or cold, could barely hear the traffic I stepped dully into, hardly blinked at the driver who tooted his horn at me, shouting that I’d get myself killed.

Later, I sat outside the Hopetoun Hotel with my friend Sylvie, always wise, always courageous. She took a swig of cider and said, “You need to go somewhere else.” She spread her arms wide and sang the refrain from We Gotta Get Out Of This Place and I thought: yes. I longed to be somewhere different, to be someone different.

How far, I wondered, would I need to travel to get away from myself and from the story which I was in? The story of drifting without purpose, of never feeling that I was enough.

I had not yet read the poetry of Philip Larkin, nor come across his explanation that, removed from the familiar, you are perceived differently, and so you perceive yourself differently. But even then, I knew the possibilities of elsewhere, knew that if I reached there, I could be different too. Sylvie was right. I knew it. And so, I bolted.

Like a wild animal operating solely on instinct, I headed north from Sydney, as far as I could go, until the land ran out and that still wasn’t far enough. And then, I stepped on to a fishing boat—the Ocean Thief—and headed out into the Timor Sea. I was un-muscled, unused to physical work; I had no idea what I was in for.

But when I stepped on to the Ocean Thief and saw my first ocean sunset with that great orange disc crashing down, seabirds swooping and fluttering I understood that something new was possible. The work in those first weeks was mystifying and I was ill-prepared. I hadn’t known the way my body would shake with working, before unravelling with exhaustion. I didn’t anticipate that this unravelling would come with a stirring up of the past, a tearing up of memory. While we churned the depth of the gulf, my carefully buried memories stirred and swam up. I’d been dancing, shouting over the sound of my own story. On the Ocean Thief, with such a narrow field of distraction, everything that I’d been shouting over—all the din, all the churning mud—came swimming up. I thought that being at sea would make me forget. Instead, it made me remember.

After four weeks, the life I’d left behind seemed more alien than my new life on the rusted trawler. For the first time, I could feel my muscles, could hold tight to the metal trawling boom as it tilted on a roiling sea while tropical storms lashed at my face. Holding tight despite fear, being useful, these things were new. And so, I was new.

My months on the Ocean Thief culminated in treachery and failure. Yet when I stepped back on to land after that wild, disastrous season, I was transformed. Stronger, yes, but more than that. I had found the beginning of the self I wanted to be, had experienced the power of elsewhere.

My life is immensely different now from the one I was in as a traumatised young woman. But that twenty-year-old self taught me the thing which sustains all elements of my life now: the power and importance of removing myself from my patterns. When I find myself now—in my family life, my internal life, my professional life—to be in a spiralling pattern, I know enough to stop trying. Stop trying to make it work without removing myself from the situation. It’s not uncommon for sailors, mid-storm or in high winds, to heave to—in other words, stop trying to wrangle the sail, manage the rudder. You simply stop. Draw breath. Gather your thoughts and either wait for the wind to pass or try a different tack. The power is in the pause.

When we are in storms, even minor ones, we can feel like we must keep fighting the elements, keep sailing, keep winning. The circuit-breaker is my not-so-secret weapon. These days, I’m not going to hitch-hike off into the wild unknown and jump on a fishing boat with a group of strangers. But I find other ways of creating the pause that helps me reset. Sometimes, when I’m in particular stress, fed up with my own habits, I head off to a convent or a monastery, where I eat alone, and spend a week in silence. Often, a single day in nature will do it—walking in the national park, sitting beneath a tree, getting my face and body in the ocean. I carried that practice into my family life—dragging my children off for a half day walk, or a swim, at precisely the moments when I most longed to shout at them or send them off to their own elsewhere, without me. If I have only an hour, or sometimes less, I imagine myself as a little sailing dinghy, resetting in the storm. I have some hypnosis apps that I listen to (my personal favourite is Ailsa Frank, a British hypnotherapist) which can allow me that reset in less than half an hour, or I take a bath and allow myself to breathe.

I thought, back then, that the Ocean Thief and that wild season in the Timor Sea would be the end of me. But it was my beginning. I’m grateful that my storm-battered and broken younger self showed me a better way. At its heart, the practice I’m describing is simply this: stop doing what you’re doing, draw breath, and let a different habit emerge. Heave-to, me hearties, heave-to.

Kathryn Heyman is the author of Fury, out now.

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