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.