How Pirates Got Me Into Psychotherapy

To those who have seen the pirate TV-show Black Sails, the stories of the Ship Inside Your Head may ring famliar. Especially the ones involving my personal Captain, First Mate and Deckhand.

This month is the 7th anniversary of when the first foundations of Ship Psychology sailed over the horizon and into my life. It also marks the conclusion of the journey that I originally created the Ship for.

So what better time than now to share the long (but still nowhere near detailed enough) tale of how a bunch of pirates got me into psychotherapy, and saved my life!

“The most important element of a healthy ship is trust. Trust between men. Trust between captain and crew. Without it, a ship is doomed.”

-- Capt. Flint, Black Sails (S1E1)

True Honour Among Thieves

Trust has always been important on ships. A crew depends on each other to depend on each other to sail their vessel, to navigate storms, and survive battles and bad weather. So to survive, they much work together. To work together, there has to be trust among the crew. Even when every man Jack on board is a murderer and a thief.

For that reason, pirate ships were organised quite differently from Navy ships or merchantmen. Rather than a strict hierarchy, pirates in the early 18th century, the Golden Age of Piracy, ran their ships on a basis of equality:

One man, one vote, and the majority vote wins.

This was unique, especially at the time. Typically, then and now, a captain’s word is law and both captain and officers are untouchable. Not so on a pirate ship: a disgruntled crew unhappy with their captain’s performance could decide to vote the bloke off and appoint someone else in his stead.

What has pirates voting for stuff got to do with psychology? Everything!

Because you can only organise a group of people by majority vote if the people in that group trust each other at least a little bit…

A Story of Mutual Mistrust

This is where Black Sails comes in, the epically brilliant Starz TV-series that mixes historical pirates with key characters from R.L. Stevenson’s classic book Treasure Island into a phenomenally well-developed story. There are so many facets and themes that I can’t hope to do its intricacies justice. You’ll just have to watch it and see yourself!

For the purpose of this post, I will focus solely on the aspect that inspired Ship Psychology

The root cause of mistrust between Captain James Flint and his crew, and what that can teach us about mental health.

James Flint: the Cunning Captain

Capt. Flint (Toby Stephens)

At the opening of the first episode, it’s crystal clear that the dreaded Captain Flint (of Treasure Island fame) is only a political hair’s width away from being fired by his men. 

Their displeasure couldn’t come at a worse time for him, because he needs them: he has a lead on a truly life-changing prize worth millions, and he needs a well-armed ship and a capable crew to take that prize.

Problem is, he doesn’t trust his crew. Certainly not enough to tell them what they are hunting for. 

Bigger problem is, his men don’t trust him, either. They keep him on as captain because he has earned them lots of money so far, even if he also has a disturbingly extensive record of lying to them.

Flint’s sharp mind, strategic insight and strong intellect are his greatest assets, but also the cause of these problems. As a man, he is calculating, ruthless and methodical about achieving his goals, despite the raw passion that drives him. As a captain, he makes cold-hearted decisions that his men don’t understand.

So his men feel their captain doesn’t care about them, and they resent him for that – all the more when circumstances leave them no choice but to obey him.

Billy Bones: The Caring First Mate

The men on the crew are, on the whole, more emotional in their way of thinking. They live in the moment, follow their gut feeling while chasing small dreams and base desires. Most of them are uneducated, and some simply aren’t the sharpest knife in the drawer. That is why they don’t deal with the captain themselves, but through a spokesperson.

That spokesperson and general embodiment of the crew’s mentality is Billy Bones, the ship’s bosun and later first mate.

In Black Sails, he’s nothing like the old drunk he has become by the time of Treasure Island. Yet.

Despite his young age, Bones is a strong fighter and experienced sailor who has earned the trust, respect and loyalty of men twice his age. He is likeable, social, and empathic. The men are his brothers and their interest is always on his mind in every decision he makes.

Billy Bones (Tom Hopper)

Inevitable Conflicts

But Bones can’t get a grasp on how Flint thinks or how to deal with him. Despite his attempts to earn the captain’s confidence, Bones’ mentality (what is best for his brothers is the decisive factor) clashes with Flint’s calculated rational arguments to the contrary.

Whose decision is best – Flint’s or Bones’ – is often ambiguous, even to the audience, but it’s a recurring conflict that gets steadily worse.

It doesn’t help that Flint more than once manipulates Bones’ empathic nature to his own ends. Either by coincidence or by design, the captain manoeuvres his first mate into decisions that are in Flint’s interest and less (or not at all) in that of the men. 

Angered and embittered by this betrayal of his trust, Bones ultimately retaliates against Flint with open defiance: mutiny. But while he has a good heart, he doesn’t have a captain’s cunning. He ends up making several poor judgement calls that spiral out of control, costing him everything – including his brothers he so wanted to protect.

And Flint, despite all his planning, strategies and diplomacy, cannot prevent what remains of his men’s trust slipping through his fingers.

“Without [trust between men], a ship is doomed,” Flint said in the opening episode. By the end of the story, he has proved himself right.

...and Conflicts lead to mistrust

When I first watched Black Sails in 2015, this clash between Flint and Bones – between rational arguments and emotional interests – fascinated me to no end. Their worldviews are so fundamentally different that they cannot help but misunderstand each other.

This scene from season 1 demonstrates that difference beautifully:

From a storytelling perspective, this difference is a fantastic source of conflict to keep a plot going. Indeed, the series’ creators exploit that potential to its full extend. Less fantastic was how perfectly this clash echoed the conflicts that were taking place in my own anxious and severely depressed mind at that time.

Like Flint, I’m intelligent, well-educated, decisive, calculating, and more than a little traumatised by my past.

Like Bones, I’m empathic, loyal, social, emotionally sensitive, and more than a little damaged by people who have abused my loyalty to serve themselves.

These two sides of me had been at war with one another all my life, to the point of driving me to countless suicidal episodes. In one fell swoop, Black Sails changed everything.

Firstly, it showed me what would happen if I kept going the way I had. Without spoiling anything: even with the best possible interpretation of the series’ ambiguous ending in mind,Treasure Island tells us that Bones and Flint both end up damaged well beyond repair.

Secondly, their interaction showed me the root cause of my mental health problems: mental mistrust. My emotions didn’t trust my rational thoughts to take possible dangers seriously enough, and my thoughts didn’t trust my emotions were credible enough to heed them. Flint and Bones showed me the gap between those two mindsets, and the damage that could do.

Determined not to end up like either of them, I set out to bridge that gap.

See It To Fix It

I have always been a very visual person. Everything I feel or think of comes with a mental picture. Therefore it came as no surprise to me that, as I tried to figure out a way out of my mental impasse, I began to visualise my rational side as Captain Flint, and my emotional side as Billy Bones.

And so my brains began toying with those images to represent my mental issues.

Visual Cues

As a long-time writer, I knew well enough that my thoughts, mindset, hopes and fears tended to show up in the stories I wrote. Never directly, but through archetypes and plot patterns that mirrored things from my life. The same happened now.

Daydreaming up all kinds of scenarios gave me a lot of insights about the exact nature of the conflicts between rational thoughts and intuitive emotions, but the impasse itself persisted. In my mind, the images of Bones and Flint were always fighting – although neither of them actually wanted to fight the other.

Months passed, but I still couldn’t picture them in any other way than arguing with words or weapons. No longer true copies from the original characters, I started referring to them as Billy and James.

Their ship didn’t look anything like the proud ‘Walrus’ from the series, either. Rather she was a rotting ‘Black Pearl’-lookalike wreck that only stayed afloat because Billy and James were too stubborn to let her sink.

In all, an accurate visual representation of how I was keeping myself together at the time.

Nothing I tried – things I’d learned from therapy over the years, reading up on new techniques and insights in psychology, new therapy – none of it broke the impasse I was in. Like the two sides of my brains were locked in a tied vote with neither being decisive one way of the other.

The Missing Vote

Despite not breaking the impasse, at least I was having fun! I enjoyed stretching the parallels of the show’s characters to what they had come to mean to me:

James’ skills as a captain reflected such things as map-reading, calculations, time keeping, plotting course and waypoints, strategic planning to reap benefits in the distant future: the executive functions performed by the neocortex part of the brains.

Likewise, Billy’s emotional, social and empathic nature, as well as his inability to calculate the consequences of his actions beyond the immediate future, all matched up perfectly with the parts of the brains commonly referred to as the ‘animal brain’.

Then I realised: we humans have THREE brains…

Apart from the neocortex and the animal brain, we have the brainstem. This ancient part of the nervous system connects the rest of our brains to our spine, and from there to the rest of our body. It organises and coordinates all the thousands of tiny processes that keep all of our body’s systems functioning. And it is responsible for our survival instinct.

In short, the primal brain is literally what keeps us alive. Without it, we don’t exist. Yet because it is so essential, we tend to overlook that it is even there.

At that point I realised what was missing on board the Ship Inside My Head: the third vote that would break the impasse.

The Instinctive Deckhand

So, there had to be another character in play. In my daydream stories I had seen plenty of ‘extras’, but never anyone who had the same mental portents as Billy and James.

Nevertheless, there had to be, because I desperately needed to give a face and voice to this essential third party.

Wanting to stay within the Black Sails cast (because why not?), I searched for an apparently minor character whose presence was barely recognised by Flint and Bones, but who had influence on them and their actions anyway. Someone who was straightforward and uncomplicated in their thinking but unafraid to act when they must – like the primal brain.

Ben Gunn (Chris Fisher)

Several characters qualified for this role, but only one of them had anything resembling a relationship with either Bones or Flint: Ben Gunn. 

The Black Sails story arc of his friendship with Bones being broken through no real fault of his before ending up alone and insane on Treasure Island… The parallels with my own neglected instinct were too accurate to ignore. So Ben became the face of the third key member of my Crew.

As a bonus, in my native language the word ‘ben’ translates as ‘am’, as in ‘I am’. A suitable name for this most fundamental part of me.

Ship Psychology: Therapeutic Daydreaming

Finding Ben changed everything about my mental health. With his vote being recognised, the mental impasse was broken and the trust between my rational, emotional and instinctive sides could be rebuild.

This involved undoing a lifetime of traumatic mental damage. A long, tough journey, but worth it. After two decades of being depressed, anxious and suicidal, these three fictional pirates helped me achieve what 15 therapists said wouldn’t be possible anymore: I recovered.

The methods I developed along the way went on to become Ship Psychology.

It took patience and effort, but my Captain, my First Mate and my Deckhand have learned to work together, to listen to each other and speak each other’s languages.

Last year marked the completion of my recovery. Whoot! To treat myself, I commissioned a portrait of my Crew from the incredibly talented artist Lux J. Wood.

James, Billy and Ben. In their character, my Crew no longer resemble Flint, Bones or Gunn, but how I visualise them stayed. Just for my own fun. Because I found out the hard way that even a tiny sliver of enjoyment lightens the darkness more than anything else.

One (wo)man, one ship, one crew

Working on your mental health doesn’t have to be all pain and darkness. On the contrary! Having fun while exploring your own thoughts, feelings and behaviour goes a long way to accept yourself as you are, and to amend what you want to change with love and compassion for yourself.

We all have our own unique Ship, and our own Crew. As we grow and change with experience, so does our Ship and Crew. We are unique individuals, and these visuals are a reflection of ourselves, in this moment.

The human mind is like a pirate ship, where everyone is equal despite their different strengths and specialities, where every Crew Member has an equal vote in a decision, and where every Crew Member trusts one another to work together for the good of the Ship and the Crew.

This is when our mental health is most resilient against the storms, overwhelming waves and even hurricanes that life can throw our way at times.

This is when you feel at home in your own skin. And it is within closer reach than you may think. 

Discovering this – and having fun along the way – is what Ship Psychology is all about!

And if you’d like to get to know your own Crew, why not book a free video call with me! 

About the author

Christel Vogels developed the Ship Psychology Method as a playful means to understand your own mind. As coach and trainer, she teaches people how managing their thoughts, feelings and behaviour can help to improve their mental quality of life.

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