Things that are dangerous to know

People have been telling me since I was 15 that one day I will write a book. This comment was first made after I handed in a piece of English GCSE coursework. This particular assignment was to write a short autobiography. Any higher in the education system and I would have failed in respect of that stipulation about length; I eventually ended up with 26 typed pages, single spaced. Luckily for me, flouting the word count didn’t become an offence until A levels, so my saga was returned with a perfect mark. I remember my head of year, Mr. Russell, walking into class a few minutes after these assignments had been returned to us, sitting down directly behind me at the table where our newly marked work had been piled, and starting to sift through. I liked Mr. Russell, he wasn’t someone to be afraid of, so I paid him no attention until he started to laugh. I looked over my shoulder and noticed a familiar sentence – he was laughing at my coursework, a chapter (of course I had chapters for an autobiography that was supposed to be four sides of A4. Precocious might be an appropriate word) I had entitled “10 Things I Learned From Our German Exchange Trip”, one bullet point of which was “Trust the colloquialism section of a phrase book at your own risk. Doing so could lead to awkward silences over spaghetti bolognese as you try frantically to work out exactly how you have just insulted your host family’s uncle”. Mr. Russell caught my eye, leaned forward and whispered “When you write your first book, I want a signed copy”.

Another notable feature of the autobiography was that it included my first attempt to write about my experience of being bullied a few years previously. This felt like a huge risk, as I had always been unable to talk about what had happened – whenever I had tried in the past, I had felt so ashamed I lost all ability to put words into sentences. Writing about it, knowing that other people would read those words, felt liberating. In the library at lunchtime, a boy in my class came over and asked why our year head was asking for my autograph. I hadn’t always been friendly with this particular boy – until he had come out as gay the year before he had been quite vicious, and an armchair psychologist could have accused him of directing mockery at others so no one would notice enough to guess and laugh at his own secrets. But relieved of this pressure he was actually very sweet, and so I let him read through my work. When he came to the section about bullying, he looked up at me and said “We really hurt you, didn’t we?”. It was so unexpected I had no idea how to reply. I eventually mumbled something to the affirmative, and accepted his apology. I then pointed him to my thoughts on the German Exchange, subconsciously aping his prior technique of misdirecting those at risk of noticing his vulnerability by clowning around. The difference was, whereas he had learned that ridiculing others distracted attention from himself, I had learned to ridicule myself before anyone else could get there. All of my jokes were at my own expense.

The reactions to my writing were confusing but, for the most part, gratifying. I discovered that writing well was something I could gain praise for, and that being honest about difficult experiences could sometimes produce unexpected reactions in people. It felt profoundly validating to get an apology from one of the main perpetrators of the bullying. Bullying which is mostly perpetrated with words is so difficult to pin down. During the worse phases I would sometimes think “I can’t take this any longer, if anything else happens during this lesson I will have to tell someone, I’m not making this up, this is awful” – and then it WOULD happen, someone would say something nasty and what was I supposed to do? Go to the teacher and say “Dan called me a loser”? Picking one incident alone as a breaking point never worked, because individually, each insult or action could easily be brushed off as trivial pre-teen banter, and my distress clearly an overreaction. I had no way of seeing that the damage was not just in the specific incidents, but the cumulative effect over the years: my self esteem was eroded, I was ostracised, I was suicidal by the time I was 11 years old. And at last, years later people had started to understand that. What’s more, because school wasn’t quite so unendingly awful for me by the time I was 15, it was safe for me to begin to understand that. It would have been impossible to keep getting up in the mornings if I’d realised just how bad it was at the time.

My autobiography was incomplete in just one respect. At various points, describing some childhood incident, I had started to write something less than favourable about one of my parents – and stopped. Some things were just too dangerous to write. Because when I was 15, my family had only owned a computer for a couple of months, and as I was so slow on a keyboard, my mum had kindly offered to type my coursework out for me when I was done handwriting the draft.

It was a year or two later that I started writing in earnest. My first audience was the Something Fishy message board for people with eating disorders, and they rewarded well for openness, honesty, and willingness to dig for the meanings behind certain thoughts and behaviours. I felt torn in two directions. On one hand, I desperately craved validation and understanding for what I was going through because it was extremely lacking at home, but on the other, I punished myself severely for writing anything that would have been unacceptable to my parents. Being vulnerable was terrifying, and as still happens now, set off a lengthy monologue in my head about what an awful, lying, manipulative, attention seeking waste of space I was. I found myself trying to cover the footprints of my distress as I went: one sentence dedicated to how scared I was of my eating disorder, another three insisting that I wasn’t genuinely unwell, just pretending for attention (a phrase borrowed from my mother: I had been playing at being crazy for so long I must be starting to believe it). A paragraph describing flashbacks about particularly traumatic experiences relating to the bullying, followed by a few hundred words on how little I had to complain about compared to people who had been bullied with physical or sexual violence. A post about something my mum had said or done that had resulted in self harm and a trip to hospital, accompanied by an explanation of how and why I deserved it and why no one should blame mum because she’d had a hard life. And throughout it all, I made people laugh with strange turns of phrase and self-deprecating jokes.

I think, if I’d been older at that point, and living away from home, I might have been quicker to learn through interaction with caring others to take myself and my pain seriously. But after every moment of realisation of how much devastation had been wrought on my mind, and how little love, understanding and support I had at home, I had to go downstairs, sit at the dining table, and eat with the people responsible for a fair amount of my distress. I relied on them still to keep a roof over my head and food on the table, and as I got older and less able to tolerate education, work, and social settings, there were stretches of months at a time when my family and the mental health services were the only people I interacted with. So there was a limit to how much I could cope with other people taking me seriously, and a limit to how much dangerous knowledge I could tolerate at any one time.

I have a history of killing prior versions of myself, dating from my first decision, age 10, to destroy my unacceptable child self, who kept getting herself teased with her ridiculous naivety and lack of cool. I changed the spelling of my name and tried as hard as I could to keep the lid on every reaction I felt, every word I considered speaking, screening frantically for childishness and stupidity. Similarly at age 24, I tried so hard to disown and destroy the teenage version of myself, who knew and spoke of dangerous things. I shoved her in a box and locked her up, and punished any hint of a return to type. This was during my last serious relapse into anorexia, when I became too unwell to live independently (again), and had to find a way of staying in recovery while returning to live with my parents. I settled on absolute denial that my upbringing or life experiences mattered: my eating disorder was an illness, an unfortunate biological predisposition manifest due to unintentional weight loss from the damage psych meds and allergies caused to my digestive system. All teenagers are crazy, I had been no crazier than most, and if it hadn’t been for that bout of malnutrition my adolescent disordered eating would have resolved itself.

Okay, whatever you need to tell yourself to survive.

I don’t have, to hand, a copy of the autobiography I wrote at age 15. I do have a lot of writing from age 17-19: posts from forums, letters to my therapist. I thought I was so melodramatic and ridiculous at that age, but now I realise I was just taking up where others had left off: punishing myself for taking my feelings seriously.

This is one of the things I wrote, age 18. I knew more then than I do now.

You always tell me what a bad baby I was. Hazel says there’s no such thing as a bad baby. Babies cry when they are hurt or hungry, they are not bad. Well, I was a bad baby. I cried for ten months, almost non-stop the way you tell it. It turned out I had a milk allergy, that I had been in agony all that time and no one had realised. But still, when you retell it, you just say I was a bad baby. You still make me feel guilty. I was a bad toddler too. I turned from an angel to a monster overnight when my little sister was born. I put you through so much. I was good when I was being perfect, when I was getting the grades, in all the bands and choirs and getting the lead roles on stage. Then, I was good, you supported me, came to all my concerts and plays. Then everything went wrong. I was hurting, for no apparent reason. Why was that a cardinal sin?

I’ve been going to the dentist almost every week for six weeks, because I have an infection in one of my teeth and it won’t clear up. An hour in the car with you every week. No way out. Last week you started telling me how dad didn’t love you anymore, then that you didn’t care because you don’t need anyone, you are self sufficient. Then how evil gran was for being so cold and shut off from you. Then how you yourself couldn’t help being shut off from me because I have hurt you too much by hurting myself. I have pushed you too far! How many times have you told me that? In arguments: I am evil, I am cold, I am heartless, I am attention seeking, I am playing at being sick, I am just doing this to push you away, I have played at being sick for so long I am actually staring to believe it. ‘Get that stupid zombie look off your face’. In the subtext: I’m allowed to detach from you when you hurt me but you have to stay present while I attack you, tell you I don’t feel anything for you, tell you you have hurt me so much, I’m allowed to disown you, to tell you you are nothing more than a lodger. But don’t you DARE dissociate. You have to feel what you have put me through.

And yesterday in the car – ‘I gave you everything, I made sure you didn’t know about the money problems, I went without, it’s my fault, I spoilt you’. Doesn’t explain how I knew we were close to being forced into bed and breakfast when I was eight, or how you planned to divorce dad to get away from the legal problems, how I always wore my cousins’ hand-me-downs and we never had holidays and I sat there at Christmas choosing the cheapest things out of catalogues so I wouldn’t upset you and how one year, Christmas was nearly cancelled. It sounds so trivial. It doesn’t explain how I knew when you miscarried. How I comforted you when our dog got sick and when she died I didn’t react while my sister and brothers were devastated. Why I was so proud when I didn’t cry when I got hurt. Why I withdrew from you. Why I couldn’t tell you that the people at school were making me want to kill myself. Why, when I got my period, I was so ashamed I didn’t tell you for ten months, until you forced it out of me. Why I got sick. Why I took to starving to show you how much I was hurting. Why I would rather cut myself to numb my feelings than ask for help. Yeah, I had an idyllic childhood.

And when I needed you most, you cut me off. When I first told someone about the cutting, and they offered to help me tell you, you went to bed so you wouldn’t have to hear. When I first asked for help for my eating you told me, in a cold voice, that you thought I had ‘grown out of that nonsense’. You told me recently that it was perfectly normal for four year olds to have panic attacks. When I was at my sickest you took it as a personal insult and tried to throw me out of the house. When I tried to get on with my life, did the only thing I could and tried to find somewhere else to live, you refused to write a letter saying I couldn’t live at home anymore, so I couldn’t get benefits and couldn’t finance it…you were quite willing to disown me in private, but when it came to making it official, no way.

Nothing is ever consistent with you, is it? You tell me that dad doesn’t love you, that you don’t love him, that he’s a bastard. Then when I grow away from him, or challenge you to do something about it, you deny you said anything. ‘He’s my best friend’. You moan constantly about having too many kids, and about how shit your life is. How you couldn’t become an archaeologist because you are: too shy, too old, too stupid, you don’t have the time, you have too many kids. You start a course, to and make your life better then drop it and somehow always make ME feel guilty. You always have to be the martyr. ‘Oh, I won’t have any’, ‘I’ll go without’, ‘I don’t mind *theatrical sigh*’. ‘I can manage’. I used to call you the queen of guilt trips. You really do have a talent there.

So why is your pain valid and mine not? Why are you always the victim, when it’s me who is hurting so much I’m systematically self destructing, How can this be all my fault?! Why won’t you see that it’s not about you, that not EVERYTHING is about you, that you have taught me that my needs are bad, that I should be able to ‘just cope’, that I CAN’T and that’s why I’m restoring to such extreme cries for help? And if your life is so fucking awful why don’t you DO something about it instead of making me feel guilty for existing?

I think you are scared. You can’t acknowledge the fact that I have reasons for being this way, because that would mean facing up to the fact that you have failed in some way. That you are just like gran, putting your own needs before your child’s, turning into stone and retreating into your own pain when she so desperately needs you. I NEED YOU. You are my MOTHER, damn it. Why won’t you listen to me? You tell me you will, and I try to explain, but you won’t listen…you don’t want to. You bring it all back to you. Say, but WHY? Who hurt you? What’s wrong? Hey, I understand the eating thing, I was anorexic when my dad died when I was 16 but Katy, I had a REASON. You don’t.

And people wonder why I’m so fixated on reasons, why I feel the need to justify every emotion that exists inside me. Every thought must be explained, every action analysed. You wonder why I couldn’t talk to you, why I am so closed off. I hate you. For being a martyr, for making me hate myself, for making me believe I was defective because I couldn’t cope, because I needed help, for making me believe I was evil and cruel, for making me feel such intense guilt I wanted to murder myself. I hate you for not being there for me. For making me feel so inadequate, and weak, and pathetic, and melodramatic, and attention seeking, and BAD. I AM NOT BAD. I HAVE NEVER BEEN BAD. You wonder…you don’t really. You know. You hate me because I am living proof of your neuroses. You cut yourself off from me because I am the embodiment of your needs. You convince yourself that I am just evil, bad, a stupid teenager, because you can see your pain in me, you can see your cruel words on my skin, you can see how fucked up you and the rest of your family are by looking into my eyes, seeing that I’ve been crying again, that I’ve been crying inside for YEARS and you have ignored it. You have created this intolerable pain inside me. You have taught me never to let it out. So you have made me what I am.

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The List

The last time I kept a paper journal was at age 14, and I was hopeless at updating it regularly. I remember writing bad poetry and something incredibly corny about a person I had a crush on. It wasn’t until my family got a computer two years (I’M SO OLD OMG) later that I discovered how helpful it was to translate the confusing contents of my head into black and white text, especially if it was to be read by others on a forum or later, a blog.

Despite not being a paper journal person, I am a sucker for a pretty notebook. I have about ten lurking in my study, awaiting some sort of divine inspiration. A couple of months ago I went into my study, picked up the prettiest of all the notebooks, and started making some notes. Nothing as complex as sentences, just words or phrases. The first, after reading an article on narcissistic parents, was simply “narcissism (mum?)”. That first entry seems to have set the tone for the whole thing.

In the two months since I wrote those two words, my most aesthetically pleasing notebook has become the repository for all my most unwanted thoughts on attachment and abuse. One of the pages I keep going back to contains a list. I love lists – my thoughts are so chaotic, my head so full, that sometimes I can barely speak coherently for being distracted by it all, and lists help me bring order into that chaos. This particular list describes unhelpful behaviours that my mother, father, or both, displayed when I was younger. The critic in my head is very displeased with the list, calling it a spiteful exercise in criticising my parents, but the critic is the reason I made the list. I have been taught to minimise, deny, ignore, forget, or disbelieve anything they – mostly mum – said or did, and as an adult this is really affecting my ability to take myself and my experiences seriously. I needed the list as proof that I wasn’t making things up, I wasn’t exaggerating. The list includes names I was called, ways in which my experience, opinions or personality was belittled or labelled, unhelpful and untrue beliefs about the world and how one should be in it that were pushed onto me, examples of physical abuse and so on.

When I was about nine, I suddenly started feeling intense dislike – revulsion, even – for my father. I couldn’t say why at the time, but it coincided with the beginnings of puberty and he’s never been very respectful of boundaries, so I came to assume it was some sort of heightened fear of having my privacy invaded. I was also being bullied at school, and he seemed so loud and ‘big’ a character to me that I worried I was also like that, and this was making me more of a target. I wanted to be invisible, so I distanced myself from the person who I saw as the source of my visibility. This still makes sense to me, but I never really considered my mother’s role in all of this. From the age of six or seven she had begun confiding all sorts of worries and stresses in me. I knew we were in a lot of financial trouble, I knew that my parents had considered divorcing in order for mum to escape the debts with us, and I knew dad had considered suicide so we could access his life insurance policy (I understand now that they are often void if a person has committed suicide, but I didn’t know that at seven). Aside from these more dramatic and concerning messages, I had a steady drip, drip, drip of “your father is so frustrating, he doesn’t listen, I don’t think he really loves me, he doesn’t respect my opinions, he’s so bad with business, he’s awful with money, he will ruin us” etc. This, apparently, is called parentification – piling adult stresses onto a child who is too young to cope with them, treating them more as ones own parent than a child. I internalised these complaints with a sense of outrage that my mother was being so unfairly treated, but when I acted accordingly, freezing dad out or being disrespectful, or worse, if I repeated something she’d said, all of a sudden I was in a huge amount of trouble with her. I didn’t understand what I’d done wrong. In this context, it makes perfect sense that I would feel conflicted about my father.

Given I had such difficulties with dad, I expected his list of misdemeanours in my journal to be much longer. In reality, the only major point I could think of was that he is very intolerant of opinions that are different to his, especially ideas he’d consider left wing. This did have a big impact on me growing up – discussions on political and social issues in my family were not discussions, they were an hour of being told extremely loudly (and drunkenly, usually) that you were very wrong and naive and ridiculous and here were all the reasons why and my father was right and the country was going to hell. This wasn’t an infrequent occurrence either, it happened several times a week, and so the twenty-five years I lived at home were a long time to have it vehemently drummed into my head that my opinions were invalid, laughable even. But if you can possibly steer him away from flammable substances such as the Daily Mail or the television, my dad can also be extremely kind, loving, and generous. His less appropriate behaviours are obvious, and as an adult it was much easier for me to name them and untangle myself from them. Now I have a pretty well-developed political and social identity which bears no resemblance to my father’s, and although I doubt the validity of my opinions a lot, I can clearly see where this came from.

The list for my mother is several times as long, and the examples are far more insidious, damaging, and also harder to pin down. It makes me sad to think that throughout my adolescence, my father was the target of all my anger, when in reality that might mostly have been because a) mum set me up to feel that way and b) he was the safer of my parents, the only one I could possibly allow myself to feel anger towards. The worst that would happen if I was angry with him was a bit of a grump about how unfair teenagers were and sometimes the appearance of a guilt-induced gift later on if he felt I actually had a point. Being angry with mum (regardless of whether I was having a teenage tantrum or was justifiably upset about something she’d done) would lead to a tirade of well-aimed abuse, character assassination, absolute denial of whatever I was accusing with the insinuation that I was insane, being given the silent treatment for days, and at the end of it all I would be left in my room, staring into space or cutting myself.

Luckily, as long as I don’t allow him to get onto the subject of Nigel Farage, I get along much better with dad these days.

***

Critic would like me to know that I am arrogant, ridiculous, self absorbed, unfair, cruel, making things up, exaggerating, melodramatic, attention seeking and…I dunno, I think ridiculous was in there several times actually, it’s their favourite. I’m writing this quick postscript because if I can label these thoughts as a reflection of how scary it was to write that post, and also of what mum would say if I ever said any of this to her, I can kind of distance myself from it a bit. It might be a good idea to record my reaction to all posts on here actually.

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Not too strong a word

I’ve kept a blog on my recovery from mental health problems for many years now. I wrote quite publicly, thinking that being open and honest would help me feel less ashamed and alone about my experience of eating disorders, self harm, post-traumatic stress and other such delights. In most instances, this worked: I wrote about experiences and thoughts and feelings that filled me with such confusion and shame, and doing so helped me both to make sense of them, and to receive feedback from others that the contents of my head were not so weird and broken as I thought. When I wrote a new post I would challenge my fear of vulnerability: would the world end if everyone on my Facebook friends list (close and extended family, fellow students on my degree, ex-work colleagues, friends, etc) read this? Usually the worst thing that happened – and this wasn’t even common – was an ever-so-slightly invalidating comment about how everyone gets depressed at times: the brush off, the making light of. For the most part, people responded supportively, and I felt more able to talk about that topic again in the future.

This system fell down around my ears when I starting considering my childhood in a new light. For years I had fudged my words around the behaviour of my mother when I was unwell as a teenager. I said that some of the things she did verged on inappropriate, crossed a line, were invalidating or hurtful. I reasoned that having a child with a serious mental illness was stressful, that she didn’t have any support for herself, and that it was understandable that she took things out on me. It took much longer to begin to tentatively label earlier experiences from my childhood as less-than acceptable. Maybe it wasn’t okay that I was made to feel guilty for crying a lot when I was a baby. Maybe the degree of force when I was smacked was excessive, and it wasn’t so normal to be quite so terrified of your parent when they were angry. Maybe I was often treated as my parent’s parent rather than a child. Maybe there was quite a lot of invalidation in my house. Maybe I had good reason to come to the conclusion that my opinions and my personality were unacceptable. Maybe.

It was treacherous territory, because whenever I had questioned my mother’s behaviour as a teenager she had denied everything, even incidents that had happened a few days prior. An example: my eating disorder became very severe when I was 17, and mum told me to move out as my behaviour was so disruptive. I was upset but went to see a local organisation which housed youth who would otherwise be homeless. Because I was under 18, I was told that in order to claim housing benefit I would need a letter from my parents saying our relationship had broken down irreconcilably. The next day I asked her to sign something to this effect – and she flatly denied ever telling me to move out. This sort of thing happened all the time – I’d be attacked in some way, only to be told I was imagining things or exaggerating when I tried to confront her. Repeatedly being made to feel crazy eroded my sense of reality, and so going back over incidents as an adult triggered a huge tirade in my head: I was just being melodramatic, making a mountain out of a molehill, making things out as worse than they were, trying to be the centre of attention, trying to find an excuse for my awful behaviour, I was basically a fucking awful person who deserved everything she got.

Reading up on attachment and on the behaviour of narcissistic parents was a revelation. I had so many thoughts on how this related to my experiences, both as a child and reflected in my mental health as an adult. But although my partner is very supportive and willing to talk things through with me, I really missed having that space to write and discuss my thoughts. I felt unable to use my previous blog, as lots of my relatives know where it is. While I don’t think this is a subject I should feel ashamed of either, being open about this in a space my family could access is not something I feel I or my mental health could cope with right now. Hence, a new blog, harder to find unless one deliberately goes looking – and I don’t think anyone in my family will, hopefully.

Two nights ago, I was writing about a recent lapse into self harm in my journal. One of the reasons I felt I had relapsed was that dealing with self harm, as with eating disorders, is easier than dealing with the things that created the propensity towards self destruction in the first place. Focusing on self harm recovery could mean writing a relapse prevention plan, steps for harm minimisation, exercises to discover what triggered it and how to avoid that situation occurring again, and so on. Focusing on recovery from self harm alone is somehow simpler and less threatening than focusing on recovery from abuse.

That was the first time I had ever written that particular word, despite having spent half of my life so far in and out of therapy – fifteen years in all, as I’m now in my early thirties. I still had to check with my partner that it wasn’t too strong a word. No.

I was emotionally and sometimes physically abused by my mother, and this is my space to write about it.

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