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.