On estrangement

You may have seen news today on Meghan Markle’s decision to tale action against a British newspaper and Prince Harry’s rush to defend her. I am not a fan of the royal family at all, but I dislike the way the press has treated her and I might also understand his response. No-one has any right to pass judgement on estrangement and the prurient interest in it here, plus a tabloid rush to pass judgement, seems to have led to what has happened. You simply do not know what someone’s actions have cost someone else and you do not know what that former relationship has effected in terms of psychological damage. I don’t know the ins and outs of what has happened here, but I certainly think it is a private matter in public people. And, more to the point, I know about estrangement and why we might choose to make decisions to sever ties. And I simply do not agree that blood is thicker than water though I have heard this all my life. Family is beautiful, but if elements of it hurt you badly, you should not feel you need to maintain contact with those elements. In my case, it was a calamitous nervous breakdown when my youngest was eight months old that clarified a decision and a better process; when things came to a head again shortly before I was discharged from long-term therapeutic support, I thought that my need to stay away and our need to keep our boys away would be fully understood, but it was not.

Let me tell you a bit about that.

I should like to write very freely in this post, but I can only do so to a certain point. This, in itself, speaks volumes. It’s because I grew up with a lie. And it wasn’t even entirely a lie. Some bits of it were true and beautiful and kind. And the bits that were not true and beautiful and kind spun me into dissociation, sent me mad or provided, latterly – and God knows why I didn’t see, hadn’t grasped it before – some dark materials for writing. And through that, I came to see that I might have made my way through some things with a pretty sturdy imagination, plus I had the utter blessing of reading – because it was my escape and how I found my way through a world I did not understand.

And the reason I can only write freely to a certain point is that the lie was and is upheld by others. Sometimes they should do better and have done better; not entirely fail to believe someone because they didn’t see it with their own eyes. But a lot of the time the lie is upheld because it’s only a lie to the person who was on the receiving end of it. All they saw were the bits that were beautiful and true and kind.

When a person or people are systematically cruel to you in such a way as you are short-circuited in some manner so that your brain doesn’t work properly; when you flick awake, posed and ready for action as others groggily come to; when you have repeated nightmares, dissociative episodes, panic attacks and when you develop severe depression and an OCD which is predicated on atoning in ritualistic ways for some terrible crimes you believe you have committed and to atone in some small way for the terrible person you think you are; when all this happens and you know in your bones, the taste in your mouth, what you hear and the very colours behind your eyes, what is behind it, then this is a response – and baby I get the multi-sensory version and very tiring it is too – that is not normal. And it didn’t come from nowhere. This is a sustained and complex trauma and it has informed everything that has come after it. My shaky decisions, perilous lack of self belief, running away from rather than to something – the opportunities I have missed and denied myself because I thought I was not good enough or, frankly because I was too crazy to cope.

And yet the sources of this trauma may have been good parents, friends, colleagues, siblings, members of the community and all those things because people don’t tend to be one thing. Unfortunately, as a young child, if you see those you are frightened of routinely praised, loved and respected by others, then you believe the problem must be you.

For me, the problems were upheld – I suppose it was like an accidental gaslighting really – through my adult life and it is only comparatively recently that I have distanced myself from those who still praised and upheld those I was scared of and who reduced me, in my head, to nothing. I found I simply couldn’t listen any more. From the person who decided it would be a good idea to tell me on my wedding day what a disappointment I was, to those who, again and again, urged me to allow my three sons to have relationships with certain people when I knew, Mr Bookworm and I knew, that they meant them no good. It should have been radically obvious and yet, somehow, it was not.

So, when you hear about those who choose to estrange themselves from people, don’t make assumptions as it’s not generally a decision borne lightly. I doubt very much that it will have been this way with Meghan Markle. A latter day intense privilege must not cauterise your nerve endings; surely it cannot remove troubling memory or pain. So treat someone who has chosen to estrange themselves with compassion and don’t intrude on their decision. And also, if it is something you need to do, and you go ahead, I wish you all the love in the world. Anna x

 

 

 

x

A Christmas that’s blue?My bravehearts, you have YOU.

I wonder if you’re looking forward to Christmas? I am, now – but this process has taken a long time. In brief, I lost my mother just before Christmas and my dad eighteen months before that; in the five years prior to that, I had also lost all the relatives who were most significant to me then and the beloved godmother who loved me in a way – I truly believe – which my mother never did. I loved my mother dearly, my father, too, but if you’ve read my first book, you will see that a lot of very dark and complex things went on and were either not known about or were not…seen…by my extended family. I’ve the scars from all that and there will always be scenarios when I feel tender about might have beens, as loss bubbles up. And Christmas has a habit of swatting you back to your earliest pathology. Do you find that, too? I don’t fancy being frightened kid any more.

Now, in my dad’s family, there was conflict and dissension; there was untreated and severe mental illness which I had some measure of as a child and which terrified me; there were suicides and what I now know to be eating disorders which killed at least one of them. I do not see any of my remaining relatives now – and my father had six siblings so I know I must have cousins living not far away; it is a strange and unreal situation. I do not think about it so much until another relative or well-meaning friend brings it up, usually some time around Christmas. I shiver.

‘You ought to try and get in touch with your father’s family.’

But you see, when I think of it all, of my father’s family, I feel so sad. I can salvage a memory of the most beautiful tree you ever saw at Christmas; it was in my grandparents’ house and it had tiny musical instruments you could actually play; I can bring to mind a pretty little brass saxophone now. But all this is gone. Why? Because when I buried my mother, some of my father’s clan came and, as I turned from the grave, two younger aunts and a cousin tapped on the arm before leaving abruptly. They said, ‘We will not be seeing you again.’ So there’s me, barely an adult, having just lost both parents and there we are. No, I never saw them again because all communication stopped. I know that people say blood’s thicker than water, but I disagree. Blood is thick, alright – but sometimes family links are meaningless.

There, I said it.

If a group of people makes it clear that you have no place in their life and that they do not and never loved you, why would you pursue them? Yes, this hurts; it hurts particularly at Christmas, but this is really where your self care and command of yourself need to kick in. Build more family. You may have a partner, children (I am married, have three boys and help to take care of others’ children); you may not. You are not in any way lesser because you do not. I’m not having that, oh no no no. If you possibly can, try to think that family is a flexible construct. You can build it of your friends. Once you truly accept that, there’s a feeling of liberation.

If you feel lonely, unloved, come and see me. Because I know, I just know, I am going to love you. And I’ve got the pies and mulled wine. And sugared almonds.

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I mentioned before about my parents. Well, there were many good things and I don’t want to be ungrateful for those. I loved my mother, in particular, with a passion. But my experience, broadly, was of one brutal and sneering parent (my mum) and of another (my dad) who failed to protect me from her. It was made clear, again and again, that I was an unwanted child. That I was the bringer of harm. I was weird kid and eldritch child and any manner of things. I remember wonderful routines and beautiful decorations at Christmas; I also remember being frightened and lonely. I have had years of managing mental health problems, from the OCD that ruled much of my activity in childhood and early teens, to depression, generalised anxiety, the nightmares which are the bringer of insomnia (I always have the same nightmares, more or less) and the dissociative episodes which are managed but not cured. Were I to hunt for a root for all that, I should test my pulse and say…yes: there it is in the ghost of Christmas past when I was given a present unsmilingly and told I did not deserve it. And it was such a beautiful present. It might have been lying beside me as I was kicked in my side or had my hair pulled. As part of all this was a much older sibling who, to me, was angel and devil. He disappeared from my life altogether and then re-emerged. My mother, like my dad, came from a big family but, with a couple of exceptions, when he re-emerged with a new wife, they killed the fatted calf. Because there should not and cannot be – I don’t want to overload you with detail here – a link (meaningless anyway) between my sibling and my young family, recent extended family events at Christmas have involved him and her and not me, not the kids everyone should, I would say, be focused on or more protective of. The loyalty and the love that I hope I have shown my entire life are valued – and I cannot say that I am without family members who value me and who have been understanding and loving – but it is easier to go along with the person who may leave again and go along with it for the sake of my dead mother. So, I have had to entirely reshape my family dynamic and, this year, for the first time in years, we are spending it all at home, the five of us, the cats. the ladybird colony upstairs, the hens clucking away outside. The home I always thought I could not build or have.

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And I feel so lucky. We will ring my husband’s family in the US. We try. Again, my husband has made the difficult decision not to see his birth father any more. He tried to make it work from his parents’ acrimonious divorce onwards; that was when he was a kid. He can no longer do it. He is loved, our boys are loved, but then again there are fractured relationships in that family because of two difficult divorces, remarriage and where the kids settle into all that. Or haven’t in all cases. Some families manage it well; it would be fair to say that this one has not. In this particular case, we make the best of it. Because it’s what you do. You take the love and joy where you can; when you get stronger, you realise you can move away from the things that hurt. When you are a child, it is not the same at all. There’s another reason why we are at home this Christmas. My husband wants to hunker down there and for his sons to feel the solidity of that home.

Again, a voice pipes up. ‘You should make contact with your dad. It’s Christmas.’ My husband is altogether more phlegmatic than I am. He just says, ‘Nope.’

And a few more pipe up on the subject of my brother. ‘You should try and make contact with your brother. For the boys’ sake. Don’t they deserve to know him?’ I cried a full hour after that, pulling off the M4 at Cardiff Gate. The notion that I had taken something from my children. (And also, The Glamour. What did I look like, banging the steering wheel in the rage that followed as I sat there?) All well meant, but no, they deserve better and no I shouldn’t make contact. Any interest is fleeting, I am scared of him and more now of what he could say than of what he could do and it is incumbent on me to protect my kids, while I can. Families go down rabbit holes to keep the peace. But I am peaceful. What happened there, in my past, my teens and early twenties, caused me immense pain and fractured every area of my life. Why would I put my kids in a place of risk? Why would I enforce on them a contract with a person who has taken no interest in them and in their wellbeing and shows none now. And a kindly relative whom I love (but still whose opinion I must disparage – this is okay, readers) says again and again, ‘You must do what your mother would have wanted’. There I, the gaslit child, ask a question and am met with bafflement.

I say, ‘Why?’

And a well meaning friend: ‘Christmas is for families…’ ‘Yes, but…’ ‘But they wouldn’t have to be alone with him…’ Think about this. It is predicated on fantasy from an otherwise kind and intelligent person. It is nonsense.

I say, ‘But why on earth would I even entertain that?’

What I said about family being a flexible construct. The other day, my friend J Hall wrote this piece: https://jlhallwriter.com/2018/12/14/a-safe-christmas/  J confronted her parents and the results were explosive. I will leave you to read this beautiful piece. But here is an example of what happened next.

Fast forward over a decade and there are no invitations to family Christmas dinner, no more phone calls after the Queen’s speech. The festivities in my wider kin continue without me. Sometimes I wonder if I am missed, or thought of for anything other than a brief, conscience-pricked moment. My family now is my partner.

At Christmas, for those of us that have lost, we feel the heartbeat of those losses. They pulse under our skin, they surge in our veins. When we stop the busy-busy, the undead of abusive Christmases past nip at our heels. They sink in their teeth and bite. Memories appear fully formed, here to bully and ravage.

Many families have been broken, and as adults our worst Christmas is always remembered, and held a little bit closer to us than it is the rest of the year.

She’s right, isn’t she? And brave. And I said to her just the other day that she can now add me to her family, if she would consent. And she said, ‘I do.’ As I write, I’ve had devastating news about a friend. She’s a friend who calls me ‘Sis’. Through the demanding illness of both herself and her husband, her family has not stepped up. We will be there on Christmas day – as the family that was made. And her boys need me. They tell me. Water is sometimes thicker than blood! Let’s go with that image: imagine a thick water, warm, enveloping, doting, loving and providing.  Like your best bath ever! Yes, that.

Now, here’s a feature from yesterday. From the excellent Kerry Hudson, prefaced with this quotation:

‘Christmas without family might be painful, but it’s a hell of a lot easier than Christmas with them.’

https://www.the-pool.com/news-views/opinion/2018/51/christmas-no-family-friends-how-to-cope-kerry-hudson-lowborn

If you’ve been feeling fragile, may it comfort and support you; likewise, through it, I followed some threads on twitter from @MhairiMcF on how very silly it is for people to comment and pass judgement on whether or not Meghan Markle should see her father (in your face Piers Morgan). I felt for her; I’m no fan of anything royal, but I felt for her, making her way forward and expecting her first child. It is not casting aside or cruelty to decide not to see a relation – even a parent – you feel you cannot see. Because some relationships must, at some point, pass on without you. From here, I found wisdom from @ SaliHughes – commenting here on twitter that,

‘If you know better than the Meghan Markle haters, and understand from exp that estrangement from family members is complex, nuanced, difficult but sometimes very necessary, then you can apply to join my FB group. Search for NFE – Necessary Family Estrangement, in the groups tab.’

Practical and wise, that. I want to add, for anyone alone on Christmas day, because of family problems or any other reason – and I mean feeling alone, feeling lonely – then I can thoroughly recommend the hashtag #joinin on Christmas Day, as started by the comedienne Sarah Millican. Here: https://metro.co.uk/2017/12/25/sarah-millicans-joinin-campaign-help-lonely-christmas-7183846/ As Metro put it,

Whether you’re spending the day on your own, are feeling lonely, have suffered a loss or simply find the holidays hard, just click on the hashtag and chat to those feeling the same.

For the past two years, I’ve joined in. I’ve had big bubbles of cry come up – and this despite having the children here. Because I find it hard, still. A huge support and I hope others enjoyed talking to me as much as I did to them.

bauble

I think that’s enough of all this. The sky is azure here; the air is crisp. Hey you. Gird your loins, get some stollen in, dm me, whatever you need, my bravehearts. Go for a walk and listen to the winter song of the robin for a while. Take a holiday from the worries that beset you (and I mean global worries as well as about family and the dearth or paucity of it) and remember my adage: that family is a flexible construct. I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

As you are and on your terms,

Love, Anna x