Monday, 6 October 2008

Fiding out about myself

For most of my life I have been unable to remember most of my childhood - I have had a few little 'snapshots' that have little or no context or connection to each other. Knowing that I didn't have the smoothest or most secure of childhoods, I have simply accepted that my mind shut out painful memories and not worried about it.

Last week we were watching a tv programme about a young anorexic, made with great sympathy and tenderness, and gentle enough in its approach to get the little girl to be trusting and eloquent about herself and her world view. Part way through I had one of those 'OH-MY-GOD' moments, when I suddenly found myself thinking "Yes, I remember doing that, that's just how it is." She was describing how she would hide food, and pretend she had eaten it, and that the idea of eating would sometimes make her feel nauseous, even actually vomit, and it was as if a light had gone on in a dark room in my head. Suddenly I was 8 years old again, sitting in the school dining room, hiding sausages on the little shelf under the edge of the table, feeling sick as I looked at the remaining food on my plate, being terrified at the idea of having to eat it.

Since that 'light bulb moment' the illumination has spread out, and linked together more and more of those little snapshots of memory, filling in many of the gaps in between. I realise that I must have been anorexic when we moved into 43 Castle Street, when I was about 7, as my mother and doctor were both concerned at how thin I was, and how little I ate, so I was prescribed some sort of 'tonic' that I had to take before meals. It was a revolting, thick, green syrup which did quite the opposite of stimulating my appetite!

I also have come to understand just how much my father's brothers and their families did to help us after my father's death. At some stage, after my father's death, but, I think, before my sister's birth, I stayed with my Uncle Herbert and Aunt Ruby and their 2 (at the time) children. They lived in the country somewhere, with (to me) a very long gravel track to the house. I vividly remember (to the extent of bringing tears to my eyes again) running down this track after my mother as she left, eventually falling on my face and skinning my elbows - I still have the scars. My poor mother had no space or strength to recognise or help me with my grief for my father, she was struggling with her own, and the basic need to carry on with the practicalities. Until we moved into 43 Castle Street we had no home, and I was left in the care of Herbert and Ruby, or David and Phyllis, several times, and then I had to share my only remaining parent with a new sister - clearly I must have felt totally deserted and rejected - certainly I was being carried away helplessly on a raging current of incomprehensible events, feeling totally abandoned.

I also remember feeling that everyone wished I had been a boy, that I would, somehow, have been more use to my mother. Somehow, in the wonky thinking of a child, I connected this with advice to 'eat up, so you get to be a big, strong girl' which wasn't really what I thought my mother wanted me to be, after all, she seemed to have plenty of time and attention for my little sister, and she was only a baby - perhaps if I didn't get 'big and strong' I would be more lovable? Looking back, and connecting the memories, i have come to the conclusion that i must have been starving myself from 6 years old till about 9. The turning point was the arrival of my stepfather, Tom Brown.

Tom was only part of our lives for 2-3 years, and I only had contact with him during the school holidays, but during that brief time, his attention was enough to turn around my picture of myself, to make me feel I was alright, and it wasn't all my fault. Sadly, he was unfaithful to my mother, and my sister hated him, so he vanished from my life as suddenly as he had arrived, and then I wasn't even allowed to mention his name. However, his impact on me was such that both my first 2 husbands looked almost exactly like him. He allowed me to 'help' him fix cars, made toys and playthings for me, and generally treated me as someone he enjoyed being with, for the first time since Daddy died, someone made me feel loved and valuable. Unknowingly, I think he literally saved my life.

Having realised that I starved myself for so long, I can now understand why my teeth were always so bad - I deprived myself of vital nutrients at a time when my body was laying down its foundations for my adult life, no wonder my health has always been dodgy. Windows of understanding continue to keep opening, following this one 'light bulb moment', and more and more memories are returning. I find myself grieving for my childhood self, and for my mother, too, I really don't know how she survived - certainly she wouldn't have without David, Phyllis, Herbert and Ruby, and I don't think I would have either, perhaps the reason I have largely cut myself off from my family is that contact with them made me uncomfortable, due to the devastating memories I had repressed in which they played such an important part.