For as long as I can remember my mother has said that as a child I was happy and without resentment but, in the same breath, that I was troublesome. I was constantly asking questions that she couldn’t answer and this angered her. In later years she intimated that I did it deliberately to make her feel inadequate. I still struggle to understand how the natural learning process of a child could be seen to be undermining an adult’s self confidence and intelligence.
When I was seven I was targeted by two bullies at school. They stole from my desk, taunted me in the playground and made my life a misery. At the same time I developed an fascination with books that stays with me. We had no books at home so I used to ask my teacher to let me borrow books from school which I got through at such a pace she said I couldn’t possibly have read them. This made me more miserable and gave the bullies extra ammunition because then it was hinted that I was a little stupid. Even though I found school easy I began to give up trying and found it hard to concentrate because I wasn’t stretched. I was a very unhappy little girl.
As a result of this unhappiness I began to refuse food. I couldn’t seem to swallow it and the constant nausea I felt made it hard for me to want food. I can remember vividly a teacher sitting over me watching me finish off a school lunch that I found impossible to eat. I ate so slowly that we sat there into the afternoon and I missed some classes. When my mother was told of this she resorted to smacking me hard enough for the back of my legs to sting and turn bright red and all the time she was shouting angrily that she was doing it because she loved me. My lack of eating resulted in a plague of boils that covered my body and hard lumps in my ears. By the time I was nine my parents were warned that because of my malnourishment I may actually die. Typically this led to more abuse from my mother along the vein that I was doing it deliberately to antagonise her. My father’s constant mantra was that we had to do anything to keep her happy so that we all could be happy. As soon as I began my last year at primary school my eating improved as my bullies had been caught in the act. I can remember being made to apologise to them when my mother finally heard about the bullying from me and told my teacher I was making nasty stories up. There was no apology from them so an expected liberation from them made me happier. My eating habits never normalised and even now I have periods when I can’t eat or swallow and have to take a liquid diet.
I was smacked a lot. The smallest thing would result in a steel grip around my arm to restrain me while my mother smacked me. The smacks were harder and the shouting was louder when I wet the bed. Though my brother and sister escaped the mental and physical abuse because they were “good children” but they did not escape childhood unscathed. My sister ran away from home twice before the age of 10 and my brother saw a child psychologist at the age of seven after setting fire to his bed. My school often commented that I seemed to have an awful lot of bruises. My mother brushed off the remarks by casually stating I was clumsy.
It seemed that there was very little I could do that was right. As I grew older three things softened my mother’s corrosive attitude: my ability to earn higher than average salaries, my regular if reluctant church attendance and what she termed as my “enviable figure”. I was so thin it was possible to count my ribs. I never really recovered from the food traumas in childhood and in my teenage years meal times were angry occasions during which my mother railed at us about how poor we were and how little money there was. There was often a not so subtle hint that we were about to lose our home. My part of the solution was to eat less and hand over more money. As an adult I now know that we were never poor or in danger of losing our home. My parents managed money badly and we were always a month behind with everything but that is all.
By the time I reached my teens I had learned not to trust those I loved and by the time I was an adult I had learned not to love. I was more than morosely average as a teenager. At the age of 17 I had been ground underneath the heels of those who claimed savage put downs were a form of love. The comments about my plainness and inability to “make the best” of myself were written off as the kind of jokes that families made about each other. I couldn’t help but notice that those kind of “jokes” never got directed to anyone else in my family. There was no fun in our dysfunction.
In my late teens it was obvious, to me at least, that there was something badly wrong with the way my head worked. I could stand on a pavement and feel relatively normal but by the time I’d crossed the road the world would have turned to dust around me, crushing me under the debris of my life. Six or seven yards down the street and the world would become a technicolor experience, a place so full of excitement and joy I couldn’t control the fever inside my head. I didn’t know how to stop it. It scared me, my mother read my diary and decided that sex was the cause. I was 35 before I discovered that I had what has become an extreme kind of bipolar disorder: a tragedy and a blessing.
As a direct result of my warped upbringing it is no surprise that most relationships I’ve had, whether work, friends or sexual, have been at the hands of manipulative and abusive people. It’s a seemingly impossible cycle to break. Trust is the big issue. I don’t just lack trust in others but also in myself. I’ve know this intellectually for a long time but had never felt it emotionally. There had been no epiphany.
Last weekend I had an argument with a friend. We rarely argue and this time it came directly from my trust issues. As we argued I became less and less angry and very calm. As I listened to them expressing their anger at my childish accusations of betrayal of trust it became clear to me that because we were arguing they couldn’t be guilty of breaching that trust. Yes my friend was angry and had every right to be but instead of walking away they were taking the time to assure me that their care and concern was constant. The child in me was being given permission to fear less and love more. Finally my emotions and intellect were in agreement about my lack of trust and I knew that I could begin to move on at last. I can now begin the process of growing up and with the willing co-operation of my close friends and my terrific psychiatrist then this will, I hope, become my reality. It will be difficult and I will have to be prepared to challenge all aspects of my behaviour. I’m going to have to stop and think about why I do things but the pay off will be that I no longer have to be trapped in a frightening childhood.
While writing this I’ve realised that I’m actually a natural optimist and that despite attempts to beat it out of me I have regained my sense of optimism. This changes my life. Being described as a pessimist is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy, a condemnation to a life of borderline misery. Being described as an optimist releases an inbuilt ability to cope. It doesn’t lessen problems to make them more bearable but it does give you the courage to see past the worst times into a more pleasant future. I have learned once more to be alive.