Two years ago I wrote my dead mother a letter. It was poetical, but promised murder; ironically, she was already dead and hated poetry for its teasing impulse of hope. That hope had died within in in her prime.
I have had a good deal of mental health problems. A colourful time. I have battled, but not beaten (though read on) and, for as long as I can remember, I have been prone to unrelenting dark moods; anxiety has, not infrequently, kept me secluded and apart. I have been a chronic self-harmer, tried to control the vagaries of a messy world with routine and ritual, twice tried to take my own life. On the first occasion, my mother found me, but refused to take me to hospital. That was a seminal moment. I was fourteen, the age of my eldest son now. I thought, ‘Maybe she doesn’t understand.’ But later I thought, ‘Maybe she just wanted me to die?’ It was hard to feel safe or loved after that, but then I am not sure that I knew what these things meant—so I describe that feeling only with the benefit of hindsight and because, as a mother myself, I feel so sad for my child-self.
In the end, I got the help I needed. Two years ago—and I am in my forties now, a mother of three young ones—I had CAT (Cognitive Analytic Therapy) on the NHS. It changed how I saw myself, my life and my past in profound terms. And it had homework. I am a swot, so I liked that. Ah, not easy homework. Letters to the therapist and, more pertinently to this piece, letters to my dead mother and assorted other folk whose influence weighed heavily and unpleasantly on me as I swam in a sort of viscous, black water. But I got out. CAT helped me to see the world in a brighter, fresher way; to live unladen by enervating memory: to get away from careering but very dead relatives. Writing to my mother was a part of that. I could have written a book on her. Actually, I just did, but back to the moment. I had some things to say and also I had to make a stand and confine her to my past. I would say I am ninety percent there.
My mother has been dead for twenty five years. I might say she’s caused more trouble post mortem than when she was alive and kicking. I can hear her now, as I write this. It’s a sort of hoarse chuckling. She wouldn’t have to use actual words, for just a look would do. For a tiny Welsh lady with multiple health problems, she kicked a lot. And to me, tiny was Goliath. But we know what happened to him. To the outside world she was brilliant. A tiny pretty Welsh woman, full of resources and craft; a tub thumper, campaigner. A respected pillar of the community to whom I may owe my campaigning tendencies. She was too clever for the life in which she found herself and thus was chronically frustrated. Responsibilities and poor health meant she couldn’t get out. I think she swam as best she could through a vast sea of might have beens—such as how her life might have been, on fire with passion and tremendous achievement, had she not been compromised by a weak heart and the attendant illness that visited. And I was another might have been; had I not existed—had she not kept me, the baby who further compromised her physical and emotional reserves, things might have been different. She could have been steadier and able to spread her wings. So when she told me how I had weakened her, I believed her. It is hard not to, still.
Yet, my mother made constant references to how she was strong and I was weak. It should have been the other way round; ironically, it was not because, apparently, I was the child of no good quality or just desire. I think the deathly low moods to which I became accustomed and against which I periodically lost the will to fight visited me at an early age because I became convinced, mixed up with earliest memoires, that I was a scabrous wound, pick, pick picked away. A shouldn’t have been which brought on the ghastly might have beens. I tried to tell her how I felt when I was a little older when she declaimed, as she often did, that I was trial and burden to all around me. Then, she pulled my hair and my ear and said, like a whirlwind of curses, ‘You feel? Everything is all about you. You little bitch! You will dance on my grave after you’ve put me in it.’ We were folding sheets to put in the airing cupboard when she said that. It’s like it was yesterday, the screeches over the laundry-day diligence. A life replete with incongruity. And there was no-one to tell, for she was a middle-class pillar of the community; of good name and standing. So it had to be me, didn’t it? Here was one of the worst things she would say to me. I find it hard to write this even now:
‘Little bitch. You will dance on my grave after you have put me in it. And we ALL know what you’re like!’
It must have been true. She couldn’t empathise with me because I was a nasty little eldritch child. Credence of this followed soon, each time. The doorbell rang. It was the vicar:
‘Oh Mrs Llewellyn, you were so kind to send flowers to my wife when she so poorly and you were so kind to read the closing prayer at Mrs Mobbs’s funeral.’
And the phone rang: ‘Oh Mrs Llewellyn, you have done so much to change the face of this struggling school. You are an inspiration to all teachers and, in fact, to all members of the community.’
And a letter came from the letter box: ‘From Greenham Common: Oh Mrs Llewellyn, it was so kind of you to send us so many cakes and all those beautiful knitted socks and gloves because we protesters don’t half get cold and hungry and it’s people like you who keep us going.’
So I carved out my name with self loathing on my skin; hit my head with my fists until the ringing in my ears made me feel a little less alone. It had to be me, me, me because it just had to be. How could it be her? Just look at how marvellous she was! And as a response to stress and anxiety, the self harming stayed for over twenty years. If someone didn’t like me, or someone disapproved of me or said the dreaded words, ‘Oh we ALL know what you’re like’, I scratched it on my own skin because those were, for me, prompts for a sort of annihilation. I say, a sort, because there was always more laundry to be done afterwards.
And still I tried to talk to her.
‘Mummy, I feel so sad!’
Ah, it was all the words of the pitiful, self-indulgent creature. She told me flatly that depression, adolescence or even moods didn’t exist. These were phrases invented by those who peddled what she called ‘Psycho-babble.’ She kept out books for me to see—Dealing with Exceptionally difficult Kids. Is your Child a Monster? Strategies to Cope. Are You a Saint who Birthed a Sinner? They were left out like coffee table books. Her anger was palpable, but denied. She was too pure, too good to be angry. I was the little canker. When her friends came round, she stuffed the books in the cupboard and put out ‘Country Living’ while she and her harping porcelain doll-faced friends (as I saw them in childhood) drank tea and compared martyrdoms.
I believe that my mother was unable to have a strenuous conversation with my father, who was bright but not in her league and possibly not aware that he wasn’t. I used to hear them arguing: ‘Books, opera, you never take me anywhere, I am so bored, bored, bored, I am practically dead.’. Then my father would go and have a burn. The bonfires he always started when indecision, conflict or any sort of hiatus beckoned. He was a good man, but I don’t feel I knew him at all. He was tall and strong and his shoulders like Atlas, but he was weaker than his wife and he would acquiesce when she left a hairball from her daughter on the carpet. He loved her and didn’t want to upset her and also he had to get ready for Evensong because he was a lay preacher and had responsibilities.
Mother’s Day. I cry.
What do I think? I think I miss her ever day and I will never stop. I learned about determination, persistence and campaigning from her. I don’t know whether she believed we had a soul, but she believed in intellect; in using it, deploying it: allowing it to take flight and to animate us. I think she was brilliant. I imbibed so much from her, I feel such sympathy for her because her life could have been so different. I think illness turned to spite and I was an unplanned child she had the heart and gall to keep. As she constantly told me. I wonder if she had vicarious hopes for me; that I would do the things she wouldn’t be able to and yet that was wound up with her own bitterness. Perhaps, as adults, we could have resolved this and got along, healed and communing. I will never know. Not to have had a friendship with her as an adult upsets me, still. Because despite everything that had happened, we had potential.
Did she love me? I think in her own way. Did she want me? I think she hadn’t, but loved me against her will and grew to hate me too. The last time I ever saw her, she had been refusing to speak to me for days. I didn’t know why. She wouldn’t say. That was the punishment. I saw her on a railway platform. I was still waving when she turned away. I never saw her again and I thought that if I saw her dead body I would die too. Yes—I loved her with passion; she loved with spite and flame. It was complicated. Part of me hated her because each day brought with it a fresh knowledge of what a trial and a burden I had been; of the baby that should have been left in the bucket (hence the phrase ‘Baby in the Bucket’ that I used in Killing Hapless Ally) and who had better atone for having been allowed to survive. I internalised that and I can feel tears pricking my eyes and that my fingers are clammy with a little anxiety as I write this. The hoarse chuckling is there, just at my back. As I said, post mortem, she’s still giving me some trouble.
Now, I have three boys of my own to mother; I do my best; I try; I fail; I try again; I ‘fail better’—as Samuel Beckett’s phrase has it. Sometimes, I even succeed. Through it all, I’d be lying if I said my experiences of parenting don’t regularly evoke the melancholy of being parented myself. But at least now, I have the wherewithal to challenge that brooding, for which I have the support of MHRS (Mental Health Rescue Service) to thank. The depression, the OCD which I developed as an attempt to fashion a bewildering world and hold it in my hand with ritual, order and lines of books repeated over and over until I thought, ‘Safe?’; the stalling anxiety; the self loathing and self-harming and the times I tried to destroy my own life: at the heart of all that, a fiery sense that I should not be and everybody knew. I would have to say that it began with her.
Ah, but there’s more to it than that. I’ve forgiven her, written the letter to her as part of the Cognitive Analytic Therapy a hugely skilled team laid on for me. And I put it all down and consigned her to my past. I feel so sorry that she despised hope for the lie it gave her, but I don’t want her to visit and she had to go—at least, to go from me. But love is a many-winged creature and in my letter I also wrote this:
‘And you were my jagged pointing monster, but I loved you Mummy. I loved you. I couldn’t help it. I still love you. And I want you. And I miss you every day and I will never stop.’
Happy Mother’s Day and I think of you always.
I love you, mum. Anna x