Last week, hubby and I took the daughter and the dogs on a 5 day trip in a vintage VW camper van. It was really fabulous, simply great, all we’d hoped for… That’s the story and we’re sticking to it.
“Yeah so, we’re going off for a few days in a vintage VW camper van!”, I do wide-eyed smile, nod repeatedly and bounce on my heels a little.
“Wow! Fantastic! I would love to do that!”, friend does wide-eyed smile back, clutches arms across chest, hugs self whilst biting lower lip excitedly and doing little twisty dance.
“I know, I know, I CAN’T WAIT!”, I reciprocate self-hugging twisty dance whilst sucking in air excitedly through closed teeth, then roll eyes, do humble head-shake and shoulder shrug as if I still can’t believe how sweet life is.
Squeal-filled teenage glee. That is generally how pre-trip conversations with (shallow) friend went.
Inside I was less enthused (and I suspect friend was too). We were no longer lusted-up twenty-somethings who could shag or sleep anywhere, even over a wheelie bin, any more. We were in our forties. We had ACHES. We were taking the Aspie daughter. We were taking two dogs who bark constantly, one who is travel-sick. There was a £500 security deposit to try not to lose.
I was eating a lot of anticipatory crisps.
…the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.
My (mid) life is cognitive dissonance. Being an autism parent is cognitive dissonance. Taking an autistic, sensory defensive kid who rarely leaves the house on a camper van holiday, even if it was their idea, is cognitive dissonance with a side order of insanity.
My crisps consumption is the outward symptom of a brain constantly trying and failing to achieve what is called ‘dissonance reduction’ over some crap or other. Dissonance reduction can be achieved in four ways (thank you to Wikipedia for) the apt example: a person who has decided that they will no longer eat high fat food, but eats a high-fat doughnut:
- Change behavior or cognition (“I will not eat any more of this doughnut”)
- Justify behavior or cognition by changing the conflicting cognition (“I’m allowed to cheat every once in a while”)
- Justify behavior or cognition by adding new cognitions (“I’ll spend 30 extra minutes at the gym to work this off”)
- Ignore or deny any information that conflicts with existing beliefs (“This doughnut is not high in fat”)
Generally, if I can’t get option four to work for me then it is all about getting enough crisps.
Back to the camper van mini-break, it was going to be amazing. I was going to feel young and carefree. I used to be infamous for my catchphrase of “rock and roll”, uttered with a ‘who gives’ shrug and a cigarette in my teeth, I didn’t do fazed and fearful. But at the same time, I was sure that it was going to be utter shitty hell. I was going to hurt and feel old and even more tired than I did already. I was terrified that it would result in the mother-fucker-of-all-meltdowns from daughter and we’d be back home within a day, and trapped in the bedroom again for several months as a consequence, several hundred quid lighter.
It was all I could do not to rip open the family-sized Kettle Chips and breathe into the bag to stop hyperventilating in panic as we went to collect “Buttercup”… but actually:
- After the initial freak out at the loudness of the engine and the vibrations: daughter loved it. The ‘old’ stink thankfully didn’t bother her, she could be naked and wrapped up in a duvet with a doggy on each side and she could see for miles with no one really able to see her… perfect.
- Even though the cute gingham curtains were filthy oily, and a mix-up in understanding meant that the expected fridge didn’t exist, and there were loose wires and peeling linings and general levels of unloved-feeling wear and tear, and even though it had not been very well prepared for us e.g. the carpet still grass-covered from the previous day’s booking at a wedding (FFS): I loved it.
- Despite that driving a 40+ year old metal box with no power steering and brakes made of marshmallows was more wildly stressful than wildly romantic and a seat that promised a bum number than numb: husband loved it.
So we were off! Driving at maximum 50 miles an hour in, and planning to sleep in, a dirty tin can for the price of a long weekend in a luxury hotel and I was bizarrely euphoric. Dissonance resolved. We did a good thing!
Maybe just maybe for once we were going to be like a normal family, maybe even a moderately cool normal family…
As two non-skinny adults, a child with long razor-sharp toenails who sleeps like a starfish and two dogs is too much for a camper van, we had brought an awning and a double airbed. En route, we realised that we had forgotten the pump.
No worries: we hit an out-of-town retail park on the way and we bought a new pump! Still winning!
We were off to Mersea Island, a few square miles of arable farmland, camping and caravan sites in the estuaries of the Blackwater and Colne rivers as they converge to hit the sea, famous for its (estuary) mud and delicious oysters. It is accessed by road bridge and technically only fully an island at high tide, for about half an hour, by less than a foot of water over the road bridge. I like that. An island for pedantic possibly dissonance-liking types.
I used to go to Mersea when I was a kid. It was ace.
We arrived just before bum numbness became unbearable.
The campsite we had chosen was gorgeous and immaculate, not empty nor overcrowded, the facilities exemplary. We were still onto a good thing…
Daughter took the dogs for a little walk around, they pulled her over. Grazed knees, an instantly black-bruised swollen thumb joint and floods of tears. I was then torn between futile attempts at comfort and even more futile attempts at assisting husband in trying to assemble the awning in sudden gale-force winds without openly arguing or crying.
Three, yes three, hideous hours later, all that was left to do was inflate the airbed before sundown and race to the pub for last food orders. The newly bought pump made three million decibels of noise like a steam engine but expelled air at about the same effective rate and pressure as a farting fairy.
The last time I had heard a noise like that was in my late teens when the head gasket blew on my mini doing 65mph down the M4… 30 excruciating minutes later, the airbed wasn’t even a quarter full. It was the final straw for husband, who cannot bear to be a noise nuisance. Stressed, he decided to give up and head for the pub, and sleep on a back-breakingly ineffective layer of towels instead.
In part compassion and part awe of his silent contained rage I offered to have the dogs as well as the child with me in the van… suffice to say at 1am I was hopping around the campsite with cramp, blinded by frustrated tears from lack of sleep, trying to find B&Bs on an iPhone with next-to-no signal. I was pitiful.
So pitiful and so overtired that the next night I blew up the double airbed using lung power alone so I could get some sleep. Sat on the grass by the tent with my back to the other campers on the field, huffing and puffing, I probably looked like a hippopotamus having a giant-sized panic attack. I sure felt like one.
That night was even better, I awoke at about 3am desperate for a wee (having put it off too long for someone who doesn’t do their pelvic floor exercises) and as I struggled into flip-flops and hoody for the trek to the loos, the smaller of the
dogs rat-bags little shits escaped through a small gap where the awning zip didn’t quite close and shot off across the field in the dark.
I found her after about 10 minutes of cuss-filled whisper-shouting and pleading. Just long enough that when I lunged out to grab the little $%£@%!@ and get her lead on, I lost the last desperate little bit of ‘clench’ I had and peed all over myself.
I also lost the last desperate grip on my (OK, ridiculous) mental image that I might have looked all sun-soaked and loaf-about cool sort-of Abercrombie and Fitch spring-break style in my new slouchy PJ bottoms and cutesy vest. The mirror in the toilet block confirmed that I was a saggy-titted gums-bared madwoman shuffling along with a cheap LED lantern and a flannel, talking to herself, legs-akimbo and somehow leaving wet footprints on a dry night…
To try and restore my faith in the escapade, I cajoled family into a very long dull walk to make a special trip to the lovely beach by the caravan park I used to stay at as a kid. I don’t know whether it was my memory failing me and romanticising my past, or 35-ish years of crap commercial impact, but I am sure that there used to be *some* sand… now there was just the thick sticky sinky mud, rocks and screamingly sharp discarded oyster shell fragments.
Cognitive dissonance again as I looked from my husband’s and daughter’s completely underwhelmed faces across to the mud, stone and shell low-tide landscape. I had promised a child’s paradise, I was sure that the one in my head wasn’t one I’d just invented…
In all seriousness, you could not take kids there on holiday unless you were evil because any normal soft-skinned child would have feet that looked and felt like they had been through a paper shredder after five minutes on that “beach”.
The glorious sea wall that we had climbed and played on and taken loads of walks along as kids was completely collapsed in places, cordoned off as beyond unsafe. The lovely weather-beaten water-smoothed wooden ramp down to the now-vanished sand that we spent all the hours of our summer holidays playing on and underneath had been replaced by an already-decaying concrete one.
Sand doesn’t just vanish… Sadly, after much reflection, I made the new reconciling cognition: the new amusement arcade had been built over the sand. Say no more: it was all a bit of a shit-hole. Absolutely feck me awful.
We did find a sandy beach and daughter did get to do a little swimming in the sea but after two days, the tides weren’t really with us. There is only so much foot-shredding from low-tide oyster shells and skin-sandblasting from high winds that daughter (or we) could take; plus she developed a new irrational shrieking fear of kites, of which there were many, and was no longer prepared to leave the van other than for quick games of aerobie or to pee.
Ironically that was one part of the plan that had successfully come to fruition: the camper van meant that whilst daughter could be happily incarcerated (with her laptop for computer games and DVDs), we could still drive around and see some sights, talk and dream and be together and not feel as trapped as we may well have done in that luxury hotel…
I thought it might be nice to adventure down the other side of the River Colne and look back over to Mersea Island from a little place called Brightlingsea, maybe with some chips, then travel onto some other lovely sounding places: Point Clear, Seawick and the romantically named Bel Air Chalet Estate…
Point Clear – sounds desirable – geographically on a map looks like it could be epic, at the mouth of the river, where it joins with a large creek, a view across to Mersea… fuck me, I know I am middle class but I had no idea, NO IDEA, that there were shanty towns in England. OK, it’s probably a long commute to anywhere offering highly paid employment but that doesn’t stop other parts of the country being gorgeous.
I wish I had more photos but I was too scared to look directly out of the window for long. See link below for Jaywick… Point Clear Bay is much the same.
I don’t even know why Seawick is named on a map. It is a horrifically massive caravan park. Here is a link to the Google Streetview for exactly where the word Seawick appears on the map. Surely you cannot get named on a map for that? Suffice to say we never made it to Bel Air Chalet Estate or Jaywick.
Another day of extreme cognitive dissonance, continually revising our understanding of what it means to be in Essex, to be English, on holiday, human, alive… husband is still having night terrors.
OMG. Never have I been as grateful for my life as when I subsequently looked at pictures of Jaywick.
The Only Way Is Essex? The only way you would get me back to that part of Essex is with a gun to my head. No, I would rather shoot myself.
The trauma made it hard to keep the rose-tinted glasses on about Mersea either.
We ended our stay with a long-anticipated meal at the famous oyster restaurant, but after the obligatory celebratory Instagramming and Facebooking, I slashed my lip open on the shell of the first oyster, instantly auto-filling the cut with lemon juice, my half-lobster was way overcooked to the point of chewy and the toilets were minging.
Nevertheless we sat, holding hands, mewing and aahhing, dragging out the last few moments of sea air and sunshine before the journey home, ill-timed to hit the M25 at rush hour, of course.
The very next day we were at our local car dealer who happened to have a camper van on sale. The day after, we spent several hours at our local camping retailer analysing the pros and cons of different tents. A week on, we are now subscribed to the various VW enthusiast magazines, have alerts set up on AutoTrader and other car sites and the quest to find our very own camper van is on…
If for no other reason than daughter voluntarily showered and brushed her teeth and hair every day – a sign of inner calm, something rarely achieved even at home – we are going to be that happily dysfunctional family who would rather live on petrol station food, get no sleep, sit awkwardly on fold-up chairs, listen to the same 2 DVDs on 24/7 repeat, be on a constant night-time vigil for escaping barking dogs, chugging slowly round the M25 in a rusty stinking tin can that costs us a fortune in repairs and renovations; rather than relax in our lovely newly renovated well-furnished suburban semi-detached house. Or that luxury hotel.
Because bizarrely it doesn’t feel dissonant. It feels honest and simple and free.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
For a great description of cognitive dissonance, or simply if you are female and approaching middle age, then I highly recommend the TedxCanberra talk below from a [strapping Aussie] chap called Ash Donaldson. No, I don’t know who he is but I reckon he was born ready for a “save me from the big spider please” situation and that’s qualification enough for me.