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.
What does your name say about you? I’ve had the polite “could you spell that please?” and the insulting “Blimey – did you ever think of changing it?” Today I found the true meaning of “it’s got your name on it” when I saw my mum’s name on a brick in a wall. Not graffiti, you understand; engraved on a brass plaque attached to one of a hundred bricks to help raise money to maintain the beautiful grounds of a local park. “Margaret Beldom” – just that. Simple, uncomplicated, peaceful amongst other names and bathed in sunlight. When I spotted it I stopped and said out (very) loud, “Aaaah – here you are” and a huge beam spread across my face. Here you are, Mum. Part of me, part of this wall, a name that hundreds of people are going to see and wonder about. The lyrics to Pink Floyd’s song, Another Brick in the Wall, took on totally new meanings. “We don’t need no education.” Mum had very little and ran away from school all the time, but it didn’t stop her being incredibly creative, resourceful, anti-establishment (applause please) and helping other people live meaningful lives. “We don’t need no thought control.” Are you kidding? Mum, having her thinking repressed? I don’t think so. “No dark sarcasm in the classroom.” Well, SHE might not have done, but I did when Mum turned up with jumpers for me to put on despite it being summer, porridge to eat or her version of my homework. “Teachers, leave those kids alone.” Hmmm, yes. Having to stand on the desk while being told that ‘You kids from broken homes with crazy parents are all alike’ didn’t do much for my confidence. It made me an independent thinker though, where creating poems, stories and pictures was far more satisfying than learning my 6 times table or hearing silly nonsense about all-powerful deities forcing fathers to kill their sons or eat their own babies.
One brick above my mum’s was another surprise – one I had engraved for my wonderful step-grandmother and professional pianist, Audrey who used to live in Finchley. Weird, or is it, that they were engraved months apart and end up next to each other? Audrey’s first encounter with my mum was when a flame-haired, screaming banshee turned up on her doorstep with two little children saying “If she wants him, she can have his children.” This was after mum saw a random name on a birthday card, put 6 and 6 together to make 99 and thumbed a lift across London to wreak havoc. I don’t remember it, but it’s etched in my step mum’s brain as you can imagine. Such a dramatic event actually pulled her and my dad together to hatch a survival plan now that there was a real life vigilante on the loose, likely to turn up anywhere, dragging bewildered children along. They were colleagues, nothing had occurred between them, but mum, with her uncanny gift of foresight had predicted the future. With those wonderful hindsight glasses on I can see that this was Mum off-loading her kids onto people she thought had more space, money and sanity than she did. I remember there being an awful lot of arguing, plate throwing and door slamming at the time. Same old, same old. She used to tell me that our (future) step mum liked cuddles and being naked with my father, whereas she didn’t. Talk about a recipe for promiscuity and a deep-rooted confusion between love and sex in a young girl. That’s another story.
Funny that thirty years later I ended up buying a home that was on the same road where Audrey was married and round the corner to the house she was born. Not so random after all, maybe. What do you think? My sister thinks that it would amuse Mum and Audrey and she’s right. They both had a wicked sense of humour, disobeyed convention and made people laugh.
All in all you’re not just another brick in the wall, Mum. You’re my brick and it’s not just any old wall, it’s Grade II listed. Shine on you crazy diamond.
Sorry Seems to be the Easiest Word
Sorry – for walking in front of you. Sorry – for you letting me go first. Sorry, sorry, sorry. Why do we Brits say it all the time and rarely mean it? It’s a bit like ‘fine’ when we probably mean the opposite. Funny old thing, language. Tony & I have come to Spain for a couple of weeks and when I told Mum she said “Sorry you’re having to go all that way”. I smiled to myself and probed her a little more, trying hard not to ask direct questions or contradict her. “Yes, it’s a long way so it’s great that Easyjet go there from Gatwick. “Don’t go on holiday to Gatwick, it’s far too noisy with all those planes coming and going”. “We’re going to Spain, Mum – up in the mountains with clean air, the distant sound of cow bells and the coast a ten minute drive away”. “I love it when you get all poetic Sonia darling, did I teach you that?” “Yes, Mum. You did.” She’s always had such a way with words, even though she rarely picks up a pen these days. Mum has defaced every book she’s ever owned, even an ancient, once-very-valuable leather bound biblical encyclopedia with exquisite colour plates and hand-decorated capital letters to start each chapter. The man in the antiquarian book shop in Charing Cross shook his head, took off his circular gold-rimmed glasses and handed it back to me with a sad little smile and a sigh of disappointment when I enquired if it could be worth anything. “Yes, it would have been, but have you seen the scribbles?” Scribbles? What scribbles? There they were – Mum’s distinctive hand-written notes in various margins, page headers and on various gilt-rimmed blank pages. Most undecipherable, but one simply said “Sorry, I can’t” under a picture of Christ on the cross. I read the text to see if it referred to anything obvious, but I couldn’t find a connection. Mum was probably reading it when the thought popped into her head and if there was ever paper around, she’d write on it, jotting her feelings down. I know I’ve mentioned this before, so forgive the repetition. I’m about to visit a tiny church in Casares that, if I was religious, would be my own little Mecca and every time I see a figure of Jesus my mind always runs back to that precious book with Mum’s jottings. Sorry for what? What couldn’t she do?
I’ll be thinking of her later today when we go into the tiny, cool chapel that I first visited over ten years ago when my life was in meltdown and I had to escape to silence and beauty. A wonderful friend who I see far too little of (thank you Brendan if you’re reading this), recommended that I went away to somewhere peaceful to reflect and recover. The man I was seeing at the time had crippling depression, no matter what I tried to do or say to support him. Mum was drinking and driving me crackers, I’d lost my job and it felt like my brain had been replaced with cotton wool. I can remember apologising to everyone for everything all the time; Sorry to be so miserable, sorry I haven’t called you, sorry I’m such a rubbish friend, so it was a turning point when I could say thank you to my precious friend David for lending me his beautiful little Spanish house as a retreat. While there I ventured to different villages and stumbled upon Casares on a Sunday. There in my shorts, trainers and casual t-shirt I didn’t dare enter the church for fear of insulting the locals. But it was quiet and a little man beckoned me in, gesturing for me to sit down and wait. Unsure of why I was agreeing to sit alone in a church pew I did as he said and rested there, looking at the statues and crosses, thinking about the comfort they bring to people who genuinely believe. About five minutes later the door opened and the little man ushered a little lady into the church and she spoke a few words of English. “My friend, he told me you need peace. This … this … (she gestured around the church) … this … your sanctuary. Welcome. Stay. She handed me a glass of water and as I drank I couldn’t stop the tears from flowing. I said sorry; sorry for the tears, sorry for interrupting your day, sorry for running away Mum, sorry for being a nuisance. I don’t think she understood, but they smiled at me, gestured around the church and shook their heads. “No sorry, no sorry. Sanctuary”. Such kindness and such a life-changing moment when I felt that I should stop saying sorry all the time. I didn’t need to beg these people to forgive me for anything. They were tender, caring people who saw a sad person and offered her a place to be at peace.
The last time Tony and I visited Casares, we sat in a café overlooking the tiny village square with the church on one corner and I told him about the reason I loved the place so much. An old green Rover car pulled up outside the church and Tony noticed that the last three letters of the number plate were BBC. Amazing, as it’s the place that Tony and I had met each other. How lovely was that? What he hadn’t noticed was that the preceding four numbers of the plate were our home telephone number. I was about to go and talk to the driver when the car disappeared, so who knows, maybe we’ll see it again today and find out who it belongs to. I told Mum about that number plate and she looked at us both and simply said “of course”. I’ll never know what was going through her head when she wrote in all those books, but I do know that she doesn’t have to be sorry for any of it. Not even the hat she drew on the Pope.