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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Nugent

Mermaids and Shipwrecks - Surviving the NHS.




Over the summer I took a camping trip to the Isles of Scilly. For anyone who hasn’t been, these are a small group of extraordinarily beautiful islands off the Cornish coast. As an English woman, I was left with an uncanny feeling of the familiarity of being in the UK yet in a landscape that feels other worldly. On Fraser island we came across a golden sand beach inlet, filled with seals. I witnessed more than 20 seals poking up their heads just off shore, with two intrepid seals that even came out of the water and up onto the sands. I am still astonished to have had this experience.


Seals for a long time have had stories of mermaids and selkie attached to them and so I was curious to find out more about the folklore there.


Typically the stories of Selkies (or Seal Wives) tell of creatures that can transform back and forth from human to sea creature. They are seals in the water and then shed their seal-skin, whenever they surface on land. According to Welsh legend, a Selkie is born on land, but chooses to live in the sea. For a Selkie, the sea is their one true home. As such a Selkie once initiated into the water, can only stay on land for a short duration of time. They have relationships with humans but one at a time and if they are to marry one, they must keep their Selkie identity a secret. Seal wives live in fear that their magic pelts will be stolen from them and they will no longer be able to return to the sea. It is a delicate balance between love of the partner and the wish to belong, and the need to keep their ‘otherness’ identity intact.


The origins of mermaids, before migrating across the globe, can be found in Assyrian myths from 1000 BCE and the story of Atargatis the beautiful fertility goddess. Atargatis fell in love with a human. She became pregnant with a human child which caused her great shame. In a rage she killed her lover and her baby, before throwing herself into the sea from the guilt of her actions. Her penance was to become half goddess, half fish - always condemned to being able to access only part of her power and as such offer incomplete transformations.


Both of these stories help me think about how hard it is to let humanness in. And what happens if we act on our emotions too readily and do not allow for the fact that we might be changed by our experiences. We can easily create consequences from which we cannot return. They remind me of how much we crave certainty and the importance of holding onto ambivalence. Particularly in times of distress and change. So whilst we do need to try new things and give old things up, we also need to make space for our reactivity, learn how to stay in touch with reality and hold on to what matters to us.


A notable feature of the trip to the Scilly Isles was that everywhere we went, when I enquired about folklore, and particularly that of seal stories, mermaids and selkie, I was met only with stories of shipwrecks. Real ones - not lore.


One shipwreck story that stayed with me was The Scilly naval disaster of 1707. And the fate of a fleet of 21 ships caught in a prolonged storm.


On 21 October 1707 the fleet of ships came into the soundings, indicating that they were coming onto the edge of the continental shelf. At noon that day the weather cleared and good readings of latitude were obtained. Taken together these observations suggested a location about 200 miles west-southwest of Scilly. This was the last observation of latitude. The weather turned and the navigators, from then on, were sailing effectively blind and relying on this increasingly old data to try and accurately calculate their positions, with only charts, books, and compasses on board.


In navigation, dead reckoning is the process of calculating the current position of a moving object by using a previously determined position and incorporating estimates of speed, heading (or direction or course), and elapsed time. The corresponding term in biology, to describe the processes by which animals update their estimates of position or heading, is path integration. The more we are able to understand accurately the information available around us - the better we are at path integrating. A real world example would be the more familiar I am with cars and how fast they move, the easier it is for me to estimate what I need to do when crossing a busy road. A key feature for psychological development and wellbeing is the ability to integrate different parts of our identity - to live more wholly and with this ability comes the ability to steer a more effective course in our lives and better risk assess oncoming dangers.


The process of dead reckoning is subject to cumulative errors. So, the longer you use it, without new information coming in to be integrated, the more likely your judgements are to be completely inaccurate. By 8 PM 22nd October the flagship and several other vessels found themselves among the rocks to the southwest of St Agnes Island. Four ships were lost when they struck the rocks and between 1,400 and 2,000 sailors lost their lives aboard the wrecked vessels, making the incident one of the worst maritime disasters in British naval history. They never knew exactly how many died. For days afterwards, bodies continued to wash onto the shores of the isles along with the wreckage of the warships and personal effects. Many dead sailors from the wrecks were buried on the island of St Agnes.


A number of myths and legends have arisen concerning the disaster.

One story claimed that the Admiral (the Commander-in-Chief of the British Fleets, Sir Cloudesley Shovell) had summoned the sailing masters to the flagship on 22 October for a council regarding the fleet's position - but this was not a situation where the more heads the better. They just didn't have the data. Nor, according to one myth, did they want to take it in when offered: It is said a common sailor on the flagship tried to warn the Admiral they were off course and the ships’ navigators took no heed and the Admiral had the whistleblower hanged at the yardarm for inciting mutiny.


In the training I run on the use of reflective practice groups in organisations, I use sailing metaphors. (This is building on the use of this metaphor in Cynthia Rodgers’ article on dynamic administration). Running a service is a bit like taking a boat out into the high seas. The more competent the crew is with the rigging, the better able they are to face the changeable weather. Although even the best boats and crew cannot survive some storms.


The shipwreck is used for what it is like working with organisations that have lost their bearings and when staff have had to whistleblow. It is not uncommon for services to have been running blind on the use of dead reckoning for sometime. Staff know when their ship is in poor weather and fear of a wreck can spread like contagion throughout an organisation in distress. When this happens, the focus of clinicians is taken up by the anxiety of their situation. People will work together to squash diversity of thought and with the hope that sailing confidently in a particular direction will relieve some tension. People start making decisions based on what ‘feels right’ rather than on what the evidence says.


There is a terror in keeping conscious the lack of certainty and the dangerous waters that are being navigated - yet admitting the reality of not knowing is necessary. For some leaders in charge of navigation, they can feel extreme responsibility for what is happening and shame for putting others in the situation - shame for having the hubris to take on the sea and put fragile human bodies lives at the mercy of these gods. This toxic shame, a bit like Atargatis, can generate feelings of rage that drive a symbolic murderous or suicidal reaction - either a denial of their part in what has been created, that then comes with inability to allow new life to grow or a wish to blame the whistleblowers and kill them all off. Leaders in doing so, are then forced to function in ways that only half or incomplete transformations of services can occur.


For those trying to survive these terrifying conditions, a bit like the seal wives, it is a delicate balance between love of the NHS and the wish to support their service, with the need to keep their ‘otherness’ identity intact. But what then happens when the ship hits the rocks? Many who jump ship - try to go straight to another boat, with the hope of better conditions. For some this is enough. What happens to those lost and those who survive? Those who are left washed up on the beach. Or trapped on a ship, hoping something will turn around. Recovery takes time. Rest alone is not enough. We also know, finding a way to tell your tale is necessary. Are those on land interested in their stories? The Scilly Isles population certainly are interested in their shipwreck stories. They honour these lost seafarers to this day.


In group analysis we place high value on the importance of spaces to speak and hear each other's voices; to give space for difference, expression of pain, loss, protest, conflict and growth from naivety into wisdom. I want to encourage those who are able and have the energy to seek protected spaces out. The mermaids and shipwreck stories, all in their own way, offer hope. They tell us people are capable of remembering. We know what is important. That community and care is available and a life beyond the dangerous high seas exists.



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