I have been inspired to write this post after reading one of my favourite bloggers. Lisa speaks about how she was doing a great job working with adults with learning difficulties and puppets, working intuitively and from the heart, recognising that sometimes it is best to lead from behind. She was using a song that was suggested by one of the group and was creating magic, bringing smiles from the sullen and inspiring the painfully shy to perform for the first time. Marvellous hey? Not according to the powers that be who in their wisdom decided that the work she was doing was age inappropriate.
Please read the post for yourself first.
Now while I do understand that it is important not to patronise anyone, whether they be vulnerable adults or children, I do strongly believe that the accusation of “age-inappropriate” is used inappropriately.
Let me explain.
We are all human beings whether we are children, adults or vulnerable adults. No matter what our status in the world we all share the need to be loved and to give love. We all delight in laughter. We all share the experience of pain, be it physical or mental, or often both. Laughter and feeling loved makes us grow stronger. Indeed, medical tests have shown that laughter strengthens our immune systems. Serious adults attend Laughter clinics or Laughter Yoga to get rid of nasty stress. Adults indulge in silly only for serious reasons it seems. Children don’t have this hang up, children indulge in laughter because it feels good and it’s fun. Why are adults so scared of being silly? Is it because we are wearing a mask? Is it because we are frightened that someone may see our vulnerable inner child if we do decide to let the mask slip and let go a little? Let me tell you from first hand experience, being silly is a serious thing. It has nothing to do with age. It has everything to do with valuing your mental and physical well being and embracing the wholeness of the human being, including your inner child who wants to laugh and blow raspberries. Your inner child is not to be a secret. We all have one. Some are just not allowed to come out of the naughty corner it seems.
A few years ago I received a phone call from the Puppet Centre Trust in Battersea. They were looking for a puppeteer to work on a pilot project for puppets to be used in a secure unit in a very large Mental Health Institution. There was no money involved, this was going to be a test project to see if puppets had a place with vulnerable adults. I didn’t need any pushing, I leaped at the chance.
I was briefed that the puppet making session had to be carefully considered. No sharp instruments, ( no blades/needles/scissors etc), nothing heavy that could be thrown, no glues, no string that could be used for constricting. ..
Okay now I was scared. I knew that the people I was going to be working with were in a secure unit, in a locked ward because they had either harmed others or were a threat to themselves. My partner was very uneasy about me going there, he really didn’t like the idea of me putting myself in such a vulnerable situation. I knew I had to do it. But HOW was I going to make puppets with those sort of restrictions?
I sat and pre-made foam ‘muppet -style’ blank heads. I carefully cut out noses, eyes, etc from foam and sticky backed plastic and brought along options for hair. Pre-cut pieces of cloth were to serve as the body. All the people had to do was assemble the puppets. I was proud of my ‘out of the box’ preparation. Everyone involved in the project would be able to make their own puppet without any danger .
I decided I would take along my fairy puppet Fifi to introduce the concept of puppets and to bring a bit of laughter to what is , after all a very depressing place.
Well, I was shown around the ward by the locum occupational therapist, who’s idea for the pilot project it was. She had a keen interest in Drama therapy and so had asked for this pilot to be introduced. She introduced me to one of the hot shot psychiatrists there, a young man who had apparently zoomed up the ranks due to his intelligence and aptitude for the job. He loved my fairy. In fact he loved my fairy so much that he grabbed me by the arm, dragging me round to all the other staff in the ward, saying… ” Go on , do it, show them the Fairy.”
Now as flattered as I was by this man’s clear enthusiasm for my comedy, warning bells started to ring. I wasn’t there to entertain the staff. This was meant to be about the clients in the ward. Was he taking my silliness seriously? I started to doubt it.
I got on with the job. I met with some fascinating human beings. But for the grace of God go I , was the thought that was ringing around my head. No more able to put up the US and THEM wall, I quickly realised that the truth was nearer to the fact that it is all US together.
A very down at heel pretty lady proudly showed me snapshots of her and her family when things were good. It was hard not to baulk, the very glamorous woman in the shots barely recognisable in the woman who was holding them. She had suffered a nervous breakdown but was counting the days until she could return to her family. She loved Fifi the Fairy. She laughed and sang with her and asked me sensible, adult questions about puppetry whilst entering into the playfulness of the moment.
A man who had lost the power of speech through alcohol abuse sat in front of Fifi, smiling and making his own puppet . It was the most animated the staff had ever seen him.
Another young woman who kept insisting she had been wrongfully sectioned chatted seriously to me about my puppet, asking lots of technical questions in between protesting her ‘innocence’. The locum watched this interaction carefully as we worked. As the woman made her puppet, she was very serious until she put on the last feature and then suddenly cracked. She started crying and sobbing and telling the puppet to go away. Apparently the puppet looked like someone, a man that she didn’t want to see.I carefully undid the puppet, until we were left with a blank head form and gently asked the girl to start over. She did , but near completion of the next attempt, the same thing happened. The locum nodded at me and after whispered to me that this event had been very useful for the staff as they hadn’t had any real insight into this young woman’s situation until now as she had been so heavily emotionally defended. I gently suggested to the young lady in question that maybe today wasn’t a good day for puppet making and instead she had a chat with my puppet Fifi instead.
The locum told me of a woman who was refusing to come to the common room to participate in the project but would I be prepared to go to her with my puppet. So I did. Fifi met a lady who was very shy, scared and nervous, but with humour and curiosity, gently coaxed this lovely soul into a smile and some contact. She came out of her room to stroke the puppet and the smile was worth more than gold.
A young girl had just entered the unit with her mother. She was terrified, nervous and crying. Fifi chatted to her, got her smiling in a few minutes and created an atmosphere that was far less hostile and bleak than what she had formerly encountered. Fifi and the girl sang a few songs and had a few cuddles. It didn’t take much to reassure her that she was going to be okay. I only hope when I left, she was.
Over the week that I worked in the unit, I encountered lots of tragic cases of loss, desperation, bewilderment and confusion. I also encountered some very pure hearts and warm human beings. I like to think that in that very bleak environment of the locked ward, with it’s grey walls and jigsaw puzzles with missing pieces and constant Jeremy Kyle on the television and the ‘unofficial’ smoking room, that I had brought a warmth and some simple lightness of spirit with my puppet and her silliness. Instead of blank faces, there were smiles, instead of dead eyes there were giggles. Surely something to be celebrated?
No-one in any position of authority witnessed my work. Only the locum who wasn’t going to be staying , saw what I achieved with my fairy.
The pilot never got any further.
On ward round the young psychiatrist who had been so excited to play with my fairy was asked by the ‘top dogs’ if there had been someone doing puppets in the ward. ‘ Oh yes,’ he replied, ‘ There was a lady here with fairy sending all the patients psychotic’. ..!
This was meant to be a joke. Clearly.
Oh the folly of youth. Damn that psychiatrist and his throw away jests!
The locum tried to quickly mop up that verbal diarrhea but it was stinking all over the floor. The damage had been done. The top dogs wanted that ‘tree hugging liberal arty-farty type’ ( me) out of there .
No amount of protestations could change their minds. They would rather stick to their drugs. They were tested. They worked didn’t they?
If anyone out there would like to take this further , I’m ready.
I just need an invite. No stuffy -up themselves types need apply. I’m no tree-hugger, I’m just a simple woman who believes that laughter and feeling valued and validated actually does some good when you’re depressed. Call me daft.
Being silly is a serious business and I think I am due a little respect.
Here’s a great post by the Action for Happiness Campaign about the benefits of laughter. Need I say more?