I danced, sang, and did anything to distract people from my mum’s crazy behaviour and until recently, I thought this was normal and “cute”. However, conversations with a therapist who is helping me process the death of four close friends and the sudden passing of my dear dad, have made me realise that it was anything but normal. It was a coping mechanism, sure. It was a way of making me feel happier by banishing the “scary monster”, OK. But it was the result of having a dysfunctional mum whose erratic, unpredictable behaviour made me want to hide in cupboards and tear up tutus. It was the behaviour of a little girl going through mental health problems which were never spotted because she was so good at hiding them.
This is a hard blog to write and I’ve been wondering about sharing experiences and insight, but as it’s Children’s Mental Health Week it feels like the timing is right.
Creating fantasy lands, disappearing into fairy tales and imagining life as a princess or ballerina sums up my early life. I hated school. I found teachers ridiculous. I stayed away from the other kids who would make “crazy” gestures whenever my mum turned up at school or sent me to school in weird outfits. Who’d have thought that a yellow T-shirt, bright red hot pants and wellingtons would mean another day in the school office with Mrs Partridge? She was sweet and I asked her once why she walked like a dinosaur as she held her elbows tight into her waist and let her hands droop down in front of her, making her bottom stand out. (Ooh, I said “bottom”). I can remember her being very amused when I showed her how ballerinas held themselves properly and her frowning face when I demonstrated how she should do it to look more normal. OK, I was 6. I didn’t understand that you shouldn’t say things like that to grown-ups in case they got upset. But most grown-ups were upset, weren’t they? Cross and bemused people getting in the way of my stories. Silly people. I inherited a bit of my mum’s no-filter approach to life because let’s face it, grown-ups were weirdos, so you might as well have fun turning them into fun characters and story inhabitants, right? So what if they got their angry face on? Twirl, point, hop and twirl.
Cope, cope, hide, dance, cope, cope.
I remember loving the game of hide and seek. I got good at it. I could find places where nobody could ever find me until I sneezed or coughed. I managed almost a whole day at junior school and only emerged when I heard unfamiliar male voices shouting my name. And whenever I needed time out to de-tox from Mum’s craziness I could hide in my fantasy world where I was a princess and nobody, not even Mrs Partridge could make me concentrate on lessons or take anything seriously. And there were times that I did what the teachers told me: leave the classroom if I wasn’t going to concentrate or take part. Well, they DID say to leave, but they didn’t say that I had to stay in the corridor outside the classroom did they?
Mum was going through a particularly difficult emotional episode when I was in my early teens. I was aware that she’d not been around as much and, to be honest, I was having more fun with my friends than with anyone in my stressful family at the time. I was living with my Dad who’d recently married my stepmother. Dad told me to go and visit Mum and was greeted with my, “Nah, another time.” response. He insisted I went to see her, which was unusual for Dad as he normally cursed her existence under his breath whenever I spoke about her. Go and see her? Ohh Kaaay, whatever. She was in her room in the guest house with two or three friends. Sitting in a chair near the window, wrapped in a blanket, she saw me, stretched out her hands and beckoned me to her. I froze. I just couldn’t go to her. I was angry with her for causing all the fuss and put my hand up in the classic “talk to the hand” gesture that hadn’t yet been invented. She buckled, her face crumpled and she started crying. The more pleading her friends did, the more adamant I was to stay in the doorway and not go in. I did eventually, but I really didn’t want to and on the way home I went into the cinema instead of going straight back to Dad’s. Mum was worried I’d been kidnapped and had called the police, Dad was furious with my disappearance and I just wanted a cupboard to hide in to get away from the whole lot of them with a big fat key to stop anyone coming in. I’d never really forgiven myself for being so cruel to my mum and I’ve realised recently that silence, a steely stare and a metaphorical “talk to the hand” has become my default for dealing with difficult people in my personal life. Occasionally the angry monster has emerged if I’ve been pushed into losing my temper, but I have to be really pushed. The odd mug-throwing or stomping off is OK, isn’t it? But that pent-up emotional repression isn’t.
Talking that episode through recently, I came to see that I was far too young to understand what was going on, too young to be the one to forgive my mother’s mental state and I have been hanging on to that guilt all my life. I went to see Mum the next day and recently it was pointed out to me that forty+ years ago I’d made sure that Mum was looked after, Dad was OK and not going crimson in the face when talking about her and my stepmother might stick around if I made her smile with my dancing and singing. But who was looking after me during that time? The answer? Well, I’ve always thought it was me. The proper answer, of course, was no one, because everyone assumed I was OK. I think Mrs Partridge was probably the only one who saw what was going on, which is why she would sneak me the odd biscuit, and a cup of orange and ask me if I wanted to talk about anything whenever I was dumped on her for whatever reason. I ALWAYS wanted to talk about being in Cinderella or dancing for the Royal Ballet and I’ve often wondered if things would have been different if I had been encouraged out of my fantasy world. Would I have been so good at dealing with VIPs, creating children’s stories and coaching people to be more confident by having conversations with their younger selves? Probably not, so I’m not wasting any more time wondering. I’m on a mission to dig deep, share and encourage myself to be more honest and hopefully encourage other people to speak out and share their own experiences as the children of mentally unstable parents.
Talking to other people my age who’ve experienced a tricky parent, it’s apparent that children’s strange behaviour or demonstrations of underlying stress weren’t recognised, let alone spoken about openly in public back then. How great that today we have Children’s Mental Health Week where the well-being of young people is top of the agenda.
The angry monster will inevitably appear at times, but she won’t look quite as scary if I imagine her in a red tutu and yellow ballet shoes whenever she threatens to de-rail me.
I was just about to give up the trumpet when my precious mum bought me one. It was dusted aluminium with shiny slides and inner bell. I loved it, but sadly it didn’t love me. Having had tonsil and adenoid surgery I couldn’t maintain the air pressure needed to get a decent note out of it, so the noise of air escaping down my nose was louder than any note I could muster. I decided to take up the trombone which was altogether easier to play and didn’t sound like a balloon about to burst. It was also great for creating sound effects in the school plays and making resonant farty noises to make my granddad guffaw with laughter and my Nan waft her hand in front of her nose (making Pop laugh even more). Mum, bless her heart, would have taken on a new job to pay for the trumpet, so I didn’t tell her for ages that I’d moved on to another instrument. She would have understood, because one of her phrases was “move on, move on” which she did, often.
It’s Mental Health Awareness Week so I’ve dusted off my old trumpet from its case under the sofa and just tried to play it. Thinking about my wonderful mum I’ve tried a chromatic octave scale in her honour and now need to lie down. Another reason for not persevering with the trumpet was that my dad was never keen. I couldn’t really understand why not as he’d played the trumpet himself in the past. I finally got it out of him that he was worried I’d end up in the brass section of an orchestra and as a professional violinist he knew how raucous and misbehaved brass players could be; a bit harsh I thought, however it cemented my love for jazz and the sound of a big band which will never leave me – another thing that Mum did, often.
Having grown up with my mum’s unpredictable, hilarious, embarrassing antics I realise now that I never sought her out for comfort or re-assurance and never really confided in her about anything. God forbid I ever spoke badly about friends or teachers – Mum would be there firing on all cylinders, mis-quoting me (always the worst bit), screaming and probably throwing things. So I kept it all in. My lovely dad was always working showbiz hours, so I didn’t see an awful lot of him. All in all, the only person to really rely upon was myself when I was little. Looking back I can remember being quite happy prancing around in ballet dresses, singing songs and pretending to be a famous performer. I even managed to crow-bar a little dance into the nativity play when I was the Virgin Mary. I don’t think she did pirouettes and arabesques, but who really knows? In my world she did with her skirts hitched up high, a big grin on her face and proper pointy toes.
I must have been about 6 or 7 when I was told that I was going to be adopted. The family who were going to give me a new home lived in a huge house in Swiss Cottage with instruments everywhere, a massive garden with dozens of balletic fuchsia bushes and a very loud daughter who thought it was funny to boss me around and remind me that she was the rich one and that I was the poor one. That bit didn’t resonate really, because I don’t think you’re really aware of income snobbery at such a young age – well, I wasn’t. The bit that did resonate was the hope that this might be the end of all the abandoning. Mum was always leaving me with different people, some of whom I knew, some not. My teachers were nice enough, however I didn’t really trust them as they insisted that you can’t get a sun and moon in the same sky or that ALL leaves are green, not red – wrong. It felt as if my dad wasn’t there much and it has only been in later life that I’ve realised that he just didn’t know where I was. He had no real control over Mum’s spontaneous off-loadings and tried to make things seem as normal as possible when I came home again and carried on as normal. it was a bit confusing as I often wondered if he cared that one family used to send me out to the allotment grounds (now Brent Cross Shopping Centre) to dig up earth for their garden with a tiny spade and a whicker shopping trolley. It didn’t matter – I quite enjoyed it really as it gave me time to practice my dance moves and sing songs to myself. I didn’t get adopted of course, because it turned out that the adoption was one of Mum’s stories that made a lot of sense to her as they would have had the money, status and opportunities for me that she didn’t think she could offer. How wrong she was on that count – all I wanted from her was to be there, no matter now crazily she was behaving. OK, maybe without the mis-quotes such as “Sonia tells me that you don’t wash your bottom.” WHAT??? Or ” Sonia won’t be writing an essay about birds because she hasn’t stopped crying about the one you cooked and brought to school.” No amount of protesting would ever convince “that” teacher that I had no idea she ate chicken sandwiches and no, I didn’t expect her to go veggie.
The reason for mentioning all this is that I feel pretty much like the same me as I did back then. I still love joking with people, pulling silly pranks, putting Mum’s antics into anecdotal stories and seeking out the good in most situations. Children make up their minds about what life means when they’re little – I know I did. Mum loved me, but not enough to stick around, so I was probably doing something wrong or had something about me that people didn’t like. Ring any bells? I see it a lot with coaching clients; those old rules we made up for ourselves when we were far too young to make them. I’ve been very lucky to have been able to re-programme my relationship with my mother and see her for who she was – quite simply a woman who wanted everything, but was mentally unable to cope with anything for very long. Her heart was the size of a planet, her voice as shrill as a whistle. She enchanted and infuriated in equal measure and is about to be immortalised in a children’s book which aims to help adults laugh along and explain mental health issues with their kids, classes, grandchildren and friends. It’ll also be a way of children seeing that other mums do silly things too and that talking about it is better than hiding food, breaking things in secret or retreating into your own little world.
It’s been a year hasn’t it? We’ve all lost people we love, been scared into avoiding each other and missing those we’ve been unable to hug. Soon we’ll be able to start venturing out again, enjoying the world around us, seeing loved ones and making lots of noise. And what’s really making me laugh right now is the idea that if my neighbours start up with their 4am loud parties again, I can always get the trumpet out and start practicing in the garden. Now, where did I put that mute?
It is five months since my precious mum passed away and I realised this morning that there are so many life-changing things happening at the moment, some of which I’ve seen and some of which other people have helped me see. Although I think I’ve been seeing life with my eyes wide open, have I been trotting along with my blinkers on?
Yesterday I met up with best friends, old friends, work friends and made a new friend. And as I’ve got a head full of drama ideas, screenplay developments and time management issues, I put my listening ears on so that I could soak up other people’s lives and see life through their eyes. I recommend it if, like me, you’re a chatterbox. I think it’s rare to find best friends working successfully together. Everyone tells you that a) you need to have distance and neutrality in the work environment, b) familiarity can often breed work contempt and c) you should never hire your friends. Not true in my case with one of my besties. Sure, we’ve had a couple of creative wrinkles at some point in the past, but nothing that wasn’t ironed out immediately we listened to each other. Now we’re collaborating on big drama ideas and I have to pinch myself to think that a mad idea from a few years ago might actually be making its way toward the screen. It made me think back to the plays and panto scripts that mum used to write and send off to the biggest West End players she could think of. Fearless and confident in her efforts, even though she had no training and no experience of writing. I’ve still got the letters from some and one in particular sticks in my mind.
“Dear Margaret, Thank you for sending in your amusing script which we’ve all enjoyed reading. Whilst we have had a lot of fun trying to engage with your storylines we don’t feel that ‘Sonia and the dancing angels’ is quite right for us and are you sure that your 6-year old daughter actually wants to be an actress and ballerina? We wish you all success with the idea and encourage you to attend writing classes or a dramatic writing course to help you focus your creative thoughts. Yours (name left out for obvious reasons), Theatre Manager, The London Palladium”
Re-reading it recently I marvelled at the passive aggressive tone and could almost see the room full of creatives laughing hysterically at Mum’s script. Fair play as it’s not very good and her diagrams for lighting cues and ideas for special effects leave a lot to the imagination. But then I wondered if that letter left a deep impression on me as a child as she was in tears when she showed it to me and apologised to me for getting my hopes up. I took on her sadness and added a tinge of guilt even though I had nothing to be guilty about. I had so many stories and ideas floating around my head when I was little, but I didn’t write them down for fear of getting a similar letter and it could upset Mum again. Later in life I had dreams of writing books, plays and films, but stuck instead to radio production and factual television as I wouldn’t get a letter about them when people sat around laughing hysterically at my silly stories. Often I’d talk about an idea and people did indeed laugh at me, but in a nice way which didn’t make me feel guilty or stupid, just brave and creative. But drama? The idea of having your personal, imaginative story laughed at was unthinkable.
Next up, I saw someone I haven’t seen since his wedding nine years ago and his subsequent move to America. The cliche of ‘it only seems like yesterday’ made us laugh as we recalled our experiences of live radio shows that went wrong, that one extra bottle of red wine, just missing being arrested in Cairo and that we’re both at a place where new ideas and new career breaks are coming at us. Our trio was made up with a man who is now my new work friend. A fascinating, bright and creative man who is a drama producer and used to manage one of the UK’s biggest stars. Another person at that place where the world is beckoning us in a different direction. If we’d all been working on conventional paths we wouldn’t have had the time to meet for a mid-afternoon drink – thank you, Universe. Lots of listening and quite a bit of talking at this point focussed my mind with one of those BANG! moments. Heartbeat in the ears, clarity of vision and the sound of a giant penny clattering its way to the floor. How didn’t I clock this until I articulated it out loud? My New Yorker buddy and his mate (new friend) were waxing lyrical about my adventures in bus driving. It was great regaling them with the stories of my first lessons and subsequent run-ins with youths who wanted to board my training bus (never mime an “L” from the driver seat when you’re trying to show them that you’re a learner driver and they can’t board your bus). The inevitable “WHY DRIVING A BUS?!!!” question came up and I found myself answering it with a philosophical thread that was only emerging as I spoke, although it was obviously deep in my psyche. Flashback to ten years ago when things were going so horribly wrong in Mum’s life and I was in pieces trying to manage work, trips to the police station in Littlehampton, mental health workers and doctors. I broke down a bit with my step mum and dad as it was all getting on top of me. My step mum offered to come down to the coast if that would help and my dad leant back, closed his eyes and drifted back to a painful past, saying “Sometimes I don’t why you bother with her, I’ve often wished her under a bus.” He didn’t mean it literally, of course; he was using the bus as a metaphor for trying to forget. I think back now to any times I’ve left hand-over notes or travel plans. What have I pre-empted it with? “Just in case I’m knocked over by a bus or something… ” So now I realise exactly WHY I decided to drive the bus. I have turned that upsetting, negative thought into something positive that I could own and enjoy, rather than keeping the bus as a trigger to memories of plate smashing, yelling in street and being plonked on other families while things calmed down. Yes, that’s exactly why I did it and until I listened to new voices and really heard their question, I hadn’t realised it.
The final meeting was with two fabulous women who are loud, proud, role models and go-getters. One of whom is helping me build up my public speaking career and the other with whom I’m starting a new venture, based on the idea of sharing experiences and stories with other people who’ve had “alternative” parenting. Both of our mothers were called Margaret and both of them were crazy, but wise in their own way. Watch this space.
What a day – what fantastic people – and my ear drums need a rest. The best part of the day was coming home to my beloved husband who has given me the confidence, peace of mind and support to be able to pursue things I never dreamed I could do.
Blinkers off – ears open – I’m grabbing today firmly with both hands. What discoveries will today bring I wonder?