In which the fear of revealing my fear of Fear Itself is greater than the fear of Fear Itself.
[CN: abuse, mental health, brain injury, detailed explanation of why I’m probably so screwed up]
I find it helpful to hear the experiences of those who are different to me; I think it gives us all an opportunity to understand why some people get a rougher deal than others, or why common tropes turn out the way they just do. Here’s some memories from my childhood, which wasn’t a terribly happy one. I wrote this post a long time ago, but felt uneasy about publishing it. However, I know that others may gain something from it – in that it’s not shameful to talk about a difficult past, or that your family might still love you while not acting in your best interests. And maybe it will prevent us making the same mistakes with future generations. It contains some very personal memories, and some potentially identifying information. So I held back on hitting “publish” for a long time due to fear of criticism, fear of people “helping” me by getting involved, and of course, the fear that was instilled in me by the details below. But a part of my recovery is in taking chances, and pushing myself just that little bit more. And facing up to difficult situations instead of hiding from them. One of my biggest fears is of allowing myself to be vulnerable. So, with a deep breath, here goes…
From some of my other posts recently, you may have noticed that I’ve been really sick. And it’s with a set of illnesses that I found it difficult to talk about, which sets the scene for this post. See, I minimised my problems and felt like I did not have permission to be unwell.
|I grew up in a very conservative (i.e. totally oppressive and batshit insane) household, I got bullied at school, and witnessed those who were somehow “defective” (that is, not a complete clone of your typical cool kid) getting even worse treatment, and I picked up some harmful beliefs and behaviours as a result.
When you’re living in a bubble, you don’t realise what things are like outside of it. The wider world was not as dangerous and unforgiving as I had been conditioned to believe, and I was actually shocked when people in positions of power not only accepted that I was terribly unwell and frightened, but they seemed to care about me getting better.
Mental health issues already attract a stigma, and this was something that was reinforced at home. “Losing one’s marbles” – a secret code for dementia or any illness involving delusions or loss of cognitive ability – was the worst possible thing that could happen. And it was not to be sympathised with: it was to be kept hidden and never, ever, spoken about.
My caregivers were secretive generally, and had a fear of authority. Not in the healthy, questioning, sense, but in a paranoid “the state is out to get us” sort of way. Looking back, I know it must have been difficult for them living in a crap area with no prospects of improvement. One of the adults in my family was working-class, and intelligent yet unskilled. The other came from a better-off family, but was less capable intellectually. And so they were primed for manual work. When they were growing up, these jobs were seen as respectable, although low-paying (but enough to live on). But in the early 80s, these jobs were valued less and became more scarce as our economy moved toward service-oriented jobs. They could only survive through dependence on the state, which has its curses as well as blessings.
And so they were unemployed since before my birth, over 3 decades ago. Being in this situation, your options are limited, and you worry about things that never cross a wealthier person’s mind. I don’t know how much of this perception is real or imagined, but there seemed to be a shadow hanging over the family of Social Services getting involved (with hindsight, they really should have been), and so I was admonished for revealing anything about our home life to anyone (even friends and neighbours). Often, my caregivers struggled through situations where they could have asked for assistance. For example, I was eligible for free school meals, but my caregivers insisted on making me a packed lunch, perhaps out of pride, or a sense we weren’t entitled to handouts.
|It was ridiculous. I wasn’t allowed friends round to the house, in case they told their parents how scruffy it was. It took three years of pestering for me to be allowed to join the Brownies, lest I reveal anything suspect to Brown Owl, for her to pass on to the secretive and dangerous Powers That Be. I was not to talk about how things were to any of my teachers, and so when one of them asked me, out of genuine concern, if everything was OK at home, I lied and said “yes”.
A neighbour mentioned that they had received some help from Social Services regarding their rebellious son, and was singing the council’s praises. But my caregivers were unconvinced. One of them advised her to be cautious: “don’t let them get involved; they’ll take your children away”. But not even ordinary people were to be trusted – my caregivers obsessed over me being abducted or abused by a stranger, and so they kept me indoors all day until I was fourteen (they also walked me to school until this time, which explains part of the bullying). I was told not to talk to “strange people”, lest I be kidnapped, murdered, or both.
But then, if I was naughty (which was a lot of the time, seeing as everything was forbidden), one of the responsible adults in my life told me that they’d have me “taken away” – a threat which stayed with me well into my adult years.
I’m not sure where these beliefs came from, but there was an epidemic of sensationalist and nonsensical scaremongering in the popular press at the time, from ritualistic satanic abuse, to video nasties, to “stranger danger”. My caregivers bought into all of this, unable to see that the danger from keeping a child isolated and ignorant was far greater than the spectres they tried to “protect” them from.
Add to the mix a little bit of religion. The controlling, evangelical, fundamentalist type. One member of my family stopped going to church in the mid-80s, because the new vicar wasn’t pious enough. The weird thing was that all of this happened in a C of E community; you know, the nice, inoffensive, coffee morning types. Well something else was at play. The community was extremely isolated, and impoverished. The churches had a tight grip on their flock, who in many cases couldn’t see a life outside of the community. It wasn’t that the Church itself created this poisonous combination, but many of the strange ideas voiced in Church, RE lessons and in the home, combined with severe isolation, were a perfect recipe for frightening the uneducated masses into submission.
The main way my caregivers exercised this control was by filtering out any material deemed offensive, blasphemous or controversial from my life. I don’t think they actually referred to a list of “Unsuitable Material For Good Christian Children” but anything discussing youth culture or adult themes (you know, the coming-of-age stuff like Stand By Me or Judy Blume novels) was not allowed in the home. I once brought home a book containing a humorous retelling of the Genesis story, for the purpose of satirising relationships between the sexes (pretty highbrow stuff for an 11-year-old), and my caregivers were livid as fuck because this was a blasphemous text mocking the Bible.
But there was a loophole. I wasn’t allowed to watch the same programmes as my friends, to listen to popular music, or access any written material deemed inappropriate or insufficiently Christian – in the home.
Although my caregivers kept me on a short leash (a metaphorical one, it wasn’t that bad); during the times when I was away from home (basically when I was at school), I was able to access a wealth of informative and exciting material. I wasn’t allowed to live a normal teenage life, or to experience the things that many of my friends did, but I was able to learn about life and growing up from books, films, magazines and playground gossip. And I deceived my family incredibly skilfully. I learnt which topics I should omit from descriptions of my day, what subjects and particular words were off-limits, and how to get exactly what I wanted while convincing my caregivers that I was the pure, innocent child they imagined me to be (Pro Parenting Tip: if you don’t trust your kids, you’ll teach them to become untrustworthy. And really, really good liars).
And so, I lived a double life. Inside my brain, there was the real me: learning about life and understanding the things that adults wanted to shield me from. And then there was my public persona: quiet, meek (as I was instructed to be), innocent, secretive, and obedient (by ordinary standards).
In my GCSE year, I became seriously ill (like, I could have died sort of ill), and the disease was fortunately caught in enough time to allow me to carry on living, and luckily, to only have a few life-limiting after-effects. My family didn’t know if I would live or die, and there was a reasonable chance that I could have been brain-damaged to the extent that I would be permanently mentally disabled. And, as my caregivers had a strong history of, they immediately went into doomsday mode. Their overprotective grip became even tighter. Following surgery, I made not-quite-a-full-recovery, but my cognitive abilities seemed unaffected (although I did panic a little when I was unable to do differential equations in my head 3 days after the op – talk about a first world problem). My caregivers kept me out of school for months afterwards, telling teachers and friends that I was too tired / unwell to leave the home. This came to an end when my school got a phone call from the hospital, asking how I was getting on. But my family would still make things up, like telling doctors I was too tired to walk to the shops (completely untrue, but it meant they could keep me indoors out of harm’s way).
And then as I was recovering, I had to cope with the expectations of others that I wasn’t quite “right”, and that I shouldn’t push myself too hard, or strive for the things I needed, not just wanted, to make my life complete. Everyone treated me like an invalid or mentally incompetent person. Mental illness has a stigma, but I got a taste of what to expect by having a physiological brain problem in advance of my mental health difficulties. The treatment of brain injuries and diseases has come a long way (although we still know relatively little about the brain and mind) in the last 50 years, but myths still persist. I heard the unflattering and harmful phrase “she could have been a vegetable” uttered by people who cared about me, so imagine what those who didn’t know me were thinking.
I spent the remainder of my teenage years trying to be a normal adolescent, hiding the truth from my family, and desperately trying to be accepted by the outside world.
But I escaped all of this, at the first possible opportunity. I secured a place at a good university, packed my bags and left just two months after my 18th birthday. Freedom at last. And I had no idea of how to use this new-found freedom. Responsibilities were not a concept I was familiar with, having been molly-coddled up until this point, and to say I went off the rails is a massive understatement. Being in the structured environment of school, I was academically brilliant and was able to direct my mental efforts precisely towards whatever problem needed solving. Without these boundaries, my life was in complete chaos. I had no idea how to handle it. Living alone for the first time after being institutionalised as much as domesticated, I struggled to hold my life together. At this point I was just about able to care for myself, but I felt stupid asking how things were done (that I’d never even had to think of before), and I became very withdrawn and did the bare minimum necessary to survive. I spent a lot of time in my room, and things like going to the supermarket, or doing my laundry, were fraught with stress, as not only would I have to interact with strange people, but I would have to pretend to be a normal adult, performing tasks with ease, like any 18-year-old should be able to.
|Any suggestion of social incompetence was viewed by me as a serious personal failing, and so I kept my problems hidden, never spoke up, and missed a lot of opportunities. But I did take up a lot of opportunities that I regret now. Not so much because of the actual things I did, but because I was wasting time, acting like a total knob and doing myself a great disservice by trying to fit in when I wasn’t able to and didn’t really want to. Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll were my chosen vices, in that order of preference. I did the whole of my teenage years in the first six months of University – with predictable effects. I was failing at uni, unable to complete work that a year earlier I would have found easy, and I was sodding miserable, because I was living an unhealthy and unfulfilling lifestyle, but saw no other way of doing things. And I couldn’t talk to anyone about it. That had been drummed into me from an early age.|
Looking back, I probably was depressed for most of my time at university. I knew that help was available, but I didn’t want to take up the offer, in case it meant dire consequences for me in some imagined way. I had a single counselling appointment at the insistence of my tutors, in which I didn’t talk about what was actually getting me down, I just attributed my struggles to an overall sense of malaise (which I did have, but there was so much more to it).
I struggled through uni, doing it all for myself, carrying the burden I felt was mine to bear, and scraped a 2:1. I had done it, but I was directionless and miserable. Maybe a part of me thought that this is what all graduates experience. I secured myself a good job, and embarked upon my career as an engineer. I actually did alright for the first couple of years, although I didn’t feel like I was stretched at all. This was really frustrating, and I found myself questioning if this career path was really right for me. I since realised that this was a part of the culture at the time, and things have improved a lot since then (even though only a little over a decade has passed).
But I hadn’t gotten over my vulnerabilities and inability to do “adult” properly, and so I was an easy target for those wishing to exploit me. I had been brought up to expect shoddy treatment from others, and I was a complete doormat. Even when I knew that people were lying to me or screwing me over, I just let them – I felt powerless to do anything else.
But then I got a boyfriend! He was gorgeous, thought the same way as I did, was responsible, and respected. On paper, a great catch. But in my naivety, I didn’t stop to consider the reasons why an older, married man might be so interested in an awkward 22-year-old who thought they knew everything there is to know about life. I’ll write about the subsequent relationship abuse another time, but the relevant point for this post is that he knew exactly what my insecurities were, and how to use them against me. Put-downs, gaslighting, telling me I was “too smart for my own good”, but also a “silly little girl”. My body was dirty and smelly, and he wouldn’t go out in public with me if I dared to dress the way I wanted to. I was lazy, uncaring, and non-maternal. And because he could see the physical manifestations of my inner turmoil, he would tell me that he was going to have me sectioned. Another reason to keep my mouth shut.
Why didn’t I leave? A number of reasons. I was deluded in thinking that having a house and two children at such a young age was a really mature thing that I shouldn’t throw away. I thought I loved him in spite of his faults. I was frightened that I would be unable to cope on my own (as evidenced by my earlier forays into single life). I thought that no-one would believe me (this did happen, as he’d isolated me from my friends, and was a complete charmer where authority figures were concerned), or that it wasn’t really abuse, or that I was actually the abuser. Or that I’d imagined the whole thing. So I couldn’t tell anyone about that, lest I did get locked up, either in prison or a psychiatric ward.
I did eventually escape that relationship, but my life crumbled. I’m still suffering the effects now, and I’ve only just summoned the courage to confront my demons. There are 10 years of my life that are missing, and I mourn for them. I could have done so much more with my life, and he stole ten precious years from me.
I tried to piece my life back together, holding down jobs that I was more than qualified for, but couldn’t cope with due to my head being full of anxiety and delusions. I moved around a lot as a result, and I sometimes I was physically incapable of even getting myself out of bed, let alone washed, dressed and functioning. I couldn’t look after my home properly, and my ex used this as justification for preventing me from seeing my children. What I really needed was support, but I was scared to ask for it – what if Social Services deemed me a bad mother and took my kids away? I did reach out to some of my friends, but many of them believed the tripe my ex was spouting about me, and the others didn’t want to get involved. So the little help I did try to get was denied to me – why should I bother asking again?
Four years after I left that relationship, I’d recovered to a point where I was able to hold down a permanent job, and it looked like a way of getting my life back on track. Things went great for the first two years, but then I experienced a personal tragedy, and all that shit I’d been holding in exploded out in a glorious fountain of neurotic diarrhoea. I couldn’t get to work on time, I was unable to concentrate or even care about what I was doing, and my OCD and paranoia skyrocketed to the point I was afraid to leave the house, yet also afraid to remain in it. This time my prison was inside my head, and the key to unlock it was alien to me. I struggled on for a couple of months, before my employer got so annoyed with my unreliability that I was on my final warning and about to lose my job. Desperate measures were needed, and I did the first thing that came to mind: consult a solicitor. This wasn’t the most appropriate route, as I have since discovered that my company is committed to employee welfare and diversity, but it was all I could think of at the time. They advised me to tell HR about my mental health problems, because if they knew about them, they could be punished for discriminating against me. So, still on the defensive, I did just that. As with other employers in the past, I expected them to not take it seriously, and find a way to force me out the door using the just-barely-legal means available to them. But no! They did the right thing; they had a proper assessment done, and referred me for private treatment by a psychiatrist. Not only did they want to keep me on, and pay for me to get better, but they cared and treated me in a non-judgemental way. They provided an environment for me to speak openly about my problems, and while it was terrifying and bloody difficult, it was an important first step that I wish I had taken 20 years ago.
They don’t know my full story (neither do my care providers – yet), but I’m feeling safe in revealing my troubling past and mental woes bit-by-bit, knowing that it won’t be held against me or used to control me. And that it’s not actually that unusual to experience things like this, and it’s certainly nothing to be ashamed of. I’m not going to get those missing years back, but I do know that with support, the next ten years can be better, and I can resume almost-normal service.
Sometimes we just need to get something off our chest. Talking about a problem might not solve it – but it can give you some perspective. Desperate times can lead to desperate thoughts – and if you’re struggling, the Samaritans are there 24 hours a day. It’s free to call them on 116123, or you can email firstname.lastname@example.org if you find it easier to get your words down in print.