Lost child to loved momma. Parenting for the sick at heart
‘My childhood was not the terrible of which we read in the papers. It was not an imprisonment or a brutal and terrifying thing, so why I am here?’ This is what I said, apologetically, to a skilled, kind psychologist as she helped to put me back together after I had conspicuously failed to function. I stopped apologising, in the end, at her prompting. What I said—it could have been so much worse—was true. But there was no getting away from it: where I had come from had scuppered me and sent me fearfully scurrying from place to place in search of shelter. So to get better, I had to ‘lie down’, as W. B. Yeats had it in ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’, ‘where all the ladders start/In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart’. And when I did, wounds began to heal—but only after I had confronted things that were frightening and that happened as a commonplace in childhood: the scoff and thump of my brilliant mother; the soft acquiescence then rage of my father; the curses and scorn of a sibling. And I had to do this—had to—because I was mother of three young ones. And they needed me to be well.
I came from a middle class and well connected family, with both parents paragons of the community, and I had a substantially older brother who was, by turns, angel and devil. When he was devil, I thought it must be me. Within this socially lauded family, there was risible dysfunction, for if you, as a child, are repeatedly told that you were lucky to have been kept at all—that you are an aberration, dreadful, responsible for terrible things and that this is a view held by your entire family and that everyone out there in the chilly old world can see who or what you are—then I am not sure it is easy to rebound and feel at ease. It HAS to be you you you. It cannot be her or them, can it? You are not blameless, but are you that bad?
So, as a young kid, I did this.
I packed it down tightly.
I invented an alter ego (partly to have someone else to confess to; partly to provide a more palatable version of my horrid child-self to provide in company) and gradually began elaborate conversations with imaginary friends from books (and their writers) and songs (and their singers). I had to tell someone, otherwise the anxiety and sadness were so bad that I knew I was going to explode. It sort of worked, but it wasn’t a strategy for a lifetime, or as a mother. And, always, up came the voices from behind the chintz:
‘Look at you. You should never have been born!’
When I became a mum, the sorrow did not abate and when I look back at all those years of parenting, I well up: I was looking at my babies through a glass darkly and thought I was blight not blessing to these kids. I didn’t feel at ease or safe. It was that horrid internal narrative, you see.
You you you.
If I told you that, at my lowest points, I could barely hear my babies cry without feeling waves of anxiety; if I said I was frightened that I would somehow—just because I was me—harm them by dint of being their mother, would that make sense? Self-loathing like this is corrosive and hard to tolerate. I had internalised the notion that I was the bringer of terrible events and no matter how hard I set logic to work, I couldn’t get over it.
But there came a different day.
I remember sitting, paralysed, in the front room. My youngest, then six months old, was there with me; the other two were at primary school. I was frightened, that horrid morning, of everything and thought that I had broken irretrievably. But this is also where life shifted; the paradox of the thing. Now, for the first time, I began to let people in. Friends rallied and advocated for me and I want you to know, if you are looking for help or at sea as I was, that eventually I got the help I needed: partly because of CAT—cognitive analytic therapy—delivered by a hugely skilled psychologist and long-term support, and partly because I let others in. It was life-changing to see what friends did, entrusted with my care and thus that of my three boys, and then to be with this clever, kind lady and God Bless the NHS. We unpicked patterns of thought and found new pathways; gradually, I got rid of the nagging voices (and, in fact, those other voices of which I told you!) in my head and became more dependent on my own voice and judgement. I began to look at my world more clearly and understand that there were some people (especially dead ones!) I could say goodbye to and that I could disentangle myself from past situations by freeing myself from blame for terrible occurrences that had happened to others.
Appropriate therapeutic support meant I could heal and re-build. It meant I could be with my children with less anxiety and shame. And I remember that near the end of my support, I came out of MHRS (Mental Health Rescue Services, but I prefer ‘squad’—it’s cooler) and cried a massive cry, up from my toes, like a quake. I was seeing the world from a happy child’s eye: colours were brighter; life was simpler. An epiphany. A breakthrough.
These days, post CAT, are different. It’s imperfect, but I have, in my head, the resources I need. And I know that ultimately, it boils down to this. My kids have seen me sick and well; they know a bit about my own past, but not too much. And when I was really poorly and friends swept in, I knew, despite my distress, and as I wrote above, that this was a turning point. Both in the way my friends were family and in how my kids coped in the midst of crisis and kindness. I wrote about it in my semi-autobiographical book, Killing Hapless Ally. And it went like this:
‘There was no choice but to let the exigencies of motherhood force her to cope. But today, everything was back to front and in the incorrect place; there were two packed lunches in one bag and she was crying and her knees were buckling as she came apart. It is a testament to these children that they went off and out, knowing that they were loved. And knowing you are loved is all, perhaps. Not feeling guilty; dirty; too responsible too soon or with a head full of macabre images and angels howling.
The boys’ eyes were like saucers.’
Knowing you are loved is all. That, I think, cuts to the heart of it. For you and for your children.
Anna Vaught’s debut novel, Killing Hapless Ally, was published by Patrician Press this March. She is currently working on two further novels and a collection of poems. Anna is also a freelance author and blogger, secondary English teacher and tutor, mental health campaigner and advocate and a mother of three boys. www.annavaughtwrites.com or follow her on twitter where she’s @bookwormvaught