Psychotherapist Dr Briony Nicholls gives her take on working with Sarah.
Talking to yourself is, for me, a good sign of your sanity. Sarah and I have been working together for many years now, looking at the challenges of her stressful and solitary expeditions. During that time, we have talked a lot about the need for her to say what’s going on for her. When any of us is under stress and/or finding situations difficult, it can be tempting to try to ignore our responses. We bury our feelings and try to concentrate on solving the problems or moving on to other things. That’s fine, provided the stress is short-term or easily managed. But if we keep burying more and more things, they start to leak out anyway. Our feelings are useful information to ourselves and others. Ultimately, emotions are hard-wired survival mechanisms. So they won’t stay buried for long – they will find a way to affect and overwhelm our thoughts and behaviour until we take account of them.
Sarah’s now been at sea for more than 4 months. It’s hard for most of us to imagine what that’s like. She’s faced constant physical challenges – just living in a tiny and constantly moving space being one of the most basic. She’s also been more alone in that time than most of us would be in a lifetime – physically separated from the world and facing up to the huge physical and psychological trials of the ocean on her own. There are many things out there that she can’t do anything to change – the wind and weather have a massive influence on Happy Socks and Sarah’s progress. So if you want a definition of stress: working to complete a task in the face of external factors that we cannot control in any way, which are preventing our progress, is a pretty good start.
In the face of that daily stress, it’s important for Sarah not to try to ignore or bury it, but instead to take account of her feelings. Saying things out loud – to herself, Chimpy or another person – is a good way to do that. There’s something very important about putting our feelings into words rather than just having them rattle around in our heads, and in having someone else hear those words. (For me, this is one of the key reasons that psychotherapy helps people feel better.)
I’m one of the people lucky enough to talk to Sarah in those times when she reaches out. This isn’t a simple process – Sarah usually has to email me first to arrange a time (around our different time zones) that suits us both to speak on the phone. Even that making contact has a positive effect, because Sarah is already putting some of her thoughts and feelings into words. What an amazing thing it is that I can sit in my office in Oxford, speaking to Sarah floating in the middle of the Pacific. The sat phone is absolutely brilliant, and, there’s always a delay on the line, so mostly I listen to what Sarah has to say, to avoid cutting across her. This simple process is also incredibly powerful. Sarah is able to say what’s on her mind and hear that I’ve heard that. Sure, over the course of a conversation, I’ll offer a few of my thoughts about what she’s saying, and maybe some ideas about what she might do. We’ve worked together since she started preparing to row the Indian Ocean, so we share a ‘short-hand’ of previous discussions and experiences that can inform her current situation. Still, I’m confident that Sarah’s ability to cope with the extreme and prolonged stresses and challenges she’s faced with in her expeditions, and her ability to come though that with a huge level-headedness, is due to a large extent to her ability to talk about what’s going on. Whether that’s to herself, her accompanying fleet of fish, Chimpy, or some of us on land, she’s hearing what’s inside her head, outside.