Learning to Swim on an Ironing Board

‘Learning to Swim on an Ironing Board’ is a play, 3 years in the making, by Conor A. Originally performed as a house show, it was commissioned by and performed at HOME theatre in Manchester in 2019. And this year it came full-circle and was once again performed at Conor’s home. The event was hosted by Manchester’s Contact Theatre on Friday 12th March 2021. Chloe Courtney, the theatre’s Health and Science Producer, got in touch with me thanks to a lovely recommendation from Drawn Poorly – a zine-making company based in Manchester – I was very honoured to have been a part of it! 

The story-telling one-man play is a metaphor for living with an invisible illness, fibromyalgia. I was diagnosed with this chronic illness almost one year to the day that I was invited to speak on the after-show panel. Fibro means pain, it means fatigue, and it means brain-fog and forgetfulness. And that’s probably why it has taken me 5 days after the event to get this blog post up. It probably could also account for the number of times Conor called on Hannah – affectionately dubbed his “human-shaped reasonable adjustment in the workplace” – to give him a line…written into the play, technical glitches, or just fibromyalgia at work?

Watching the show from my bedroom in Dundee created a wonderfully accessible theatre-going experience, and the play and the way that it was told, resonated with me on a deeply personal level. ‘Learning to Swim on an Ironing Board’ is not a medical lecture, nor is it trying to get the audience to understand fibromyalgia. It is a comedy about eavesdropping – a truly therapeutic technique! A person goes outside. Listens. Takes notes. Looks at the world a little differently. And, importantly, comes out of themselves and their worries and their problems. Their pain and fatigue. The act of eavesdropping – the stories discovered, and told brilliantly throughout this production, allows a person to live again. Getting a diagnosis of fibromyalgia, spiralling in constant pain…it’s all you can think about. You have to learn how to deal, and be in your body, and continue living a fulfilling life.

I gave up work when I was first diagnosed. The theatre-manager/festival hours did not work for me. I’d travelled all over the world on my own, lived in Russia, China, Italy. Moved to Edinburgh, done a Masters Degree, worked three arts jobs. On and on and on. Never stopping for 5 years. I was exhausted and in crippling pain by the time I got to the end of the Festival season in August 2019. Something had to give. And giving up that job in Leith Theatre was crushing.

But ultimately worth it – I set-up Coin-Operated Press, moved to another city with my partner…and we got engaged a few months later!

One year on from diagnosis, I’m working from home on this small art business. I can make my own hours, take breaks when I need to. I have a wonderful business partner who gets it. We balance each other out perfectly. 

Watching ‘Learning to Swim on an Ironing Board’ and being part of the discussion panel that followed, allowed me to find a connection with people going through the same thing as me. Myself and the other panellists all work in the arts and have fibromyalgia and other chronic illnesses. I especially enjoyed hearing Sukhjeen Kaur speak about her experiences. Kaur,  from Chronically Brown, aims to amplify the voices of South Asians living with chronic illness and disability. She started Chronically Brown shortly after being diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis and Fibromyalgia. We talked about how working in the arts has impacted us – from the long work hours to the mental and physical labour required to be able to make rent! There was no need to explain when I needed to take a break to get my meds during the call, or when I had to rely on my notes to jog my memory – everybody already got it because they do that themselves. I’d always rallied against joining any fibromyalgia forums for fear that they would be negative, depressing, spaces. But the sense of community fostered by the people at Contact Theatre during that short performance was incredibly welcoming and reassuring.  

Learning to ask for what I need, embarking on my own therapy journey, getting the right kind of help, and managing my chronic illness. These things continue to be a daily struggle – a routine that I have not yet mastered. Take the meds, ice, heat. Learn to pace. 

I’m getting better at not getting better.

Katie.

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