Back in ye olden days, psychologists everywhere were heavily influenced by the ravings of some cray called Freud, who thought that your childhood and how your parents raised you were at the heart of everything that went wrong for you. Healing came through lying on a couch and waxing lyrical about every little failing of your parents—they hadn’t toilet-trained you properly, had never put Fruit Roll-ups in your lunchbox, or they’d had the sheer audacity to die early on you.
My dad went to a Freudian psychologist about 20 years ago, and his subsequent years of angry diatribes about various wrongs from his past created large fractures in our extended family, and eventually led to dad concluding that psychology is a bunch of quackery. Growing up with dad’s crazy theories about the wrongs of his past, and his subsequent deep mistrust of psychology, I was inclined to think the same. It was only when I went to the dark side and (dun-dun-dunnnnnn) went to study it for myself that I came to realise that there was actually a grain of truth buried in old cray Freud’s ideas.
You see, early childhood is a time when your brain is laying down the neural pathways that will shape your brain for life. What happens to you when you’re teeny-tiny can guide how you relate to people later in life—from whether you cling to your man/lady-friends, to whether you’re going to be prone to mental illnesses when you’re finally on the Adulthood Express.
I come from a long line of crays, but in the glorious arrogance of youth, I knew that I was absolutely immune to any ill-effects of my childhood, because mine had been just super, thanks.
I knew in theory that we had been poor; we could only afford to heat one room in the house, I never had a packed lunch, and a lot of my school days were spent shuffling around in shoes that pinched the shit out of my feet. But I also knew that I had the greatest parents ever—that my mum was an inspiration who had single-handedly supported her family for decades, and that my dad was the “cool dad,” the guy who merrily called everyone “chief” and picked me and my posse of friends up from “movie nights” (that would be teenage-speak for “drinking cheap vodka and ringing boys”).
And then my mum told my dad that she was gay, and everything I’d formerly taken for granted fell apart. Mum being gay was never an issue for me (or my sisters); I’ve always known that mum loves the ladies, so when she confessed her sexuality to me, it was a bit of a non-event—it just made sense. I was proud of my mum for coming to terms with who she was.
But mum coming out to the family was the worst day of my life. My dad was sobbing, my sisters were in hysterics—because this meant that my parents were going to divorce. My family’s finest moment was when they all stood up, hugged my mum and said that they loved her and that we were all so proud of her. But oh, how it hurt.
I spiralled into a crippling depression that left me crying in bed for days on end, missing lecture after lecture of my final year at university. The whole foundation of my life was crumbling—my parents weren’t who I thought they were. I’d never heard my dad say a single bad thing about mum until their relationship splintered. He had always sung her praises, and it was clear that he was deeply in love with her. But now my mum was the villain; history was being rewritten, and mum was now the bad guy. And my mum was suddenly a tragic figure; someone who loved my dad, but not in the way that he needed to be loved. And above all, that looming divorce meant that my idyllic childhood was at risk of being exposed as a fraud to the world, because I had no idea what version of history was right.
When it became clear that I wasn’t going to make it out of my bed without some kind of intervention, my dad finally convinced me to get some counselling. So I swallowed my fears of falling down the Freudian rabbit-hole, and I went. My counsellor wasn’t a Freud fanatic by any means, but she understood that I needed to take a look at my childhood to make sense of what I was going through now. So I took a deep breath, choked down my Freudian fears, and started my own personal This is Your Life.
The truth is, my childhood wasn’t the rosy cherubic picture that I’d been holding onto. True, there were moments when I’d known beyond a shadow of a doubt that my parents loved me. When my dad helped me with my homework, when my mum taught me how to bake—those moments were so special to me. But those were relatively rare rays of love, sandwiched in between “free-range parenting” (a euphemism for just leaving me and my three sisters completely alone) and outright abuse.
Most days, we would come home from school to an empty pantry (apart from the old faithfuls—white bread and cheese) and we’d just be ignored and left to fend for ourselves. And then on other days, the bad ones, one of us would set off one of my parent’s tempers, and then we’d have to run for our lives to make it to the only room in the house with a lock on it—the bathroom. On the days we didn’t make it in time, we were dragged downstairs, and then we’d be hit or have our hair pulled while we cried in terror. We were constantly told what awful, manipulative, horrible people we were. The worst part for me was the sheer agony of seeing these things happen to my beloved sisters, especially when I knew that I was the Judas who had got them into trouble.
And remembering all this, I got angry. So angry. I couldn’t understand how my parents, my heroic parents, could have done this. And I did exactly what my dad had done many moons ago—I went loco. The years of pain and hurt exploded from my fingertips. I wrote vitriolic letters to them, I vented to my sisters, I rang my parents and would bitch about one to the other, and I’d get drunk and rage to all and sundry. And the hurt just got worse and worse—I felt so helpless and scared and angry—it was like being trapped in my childhood again.
Slowly it dawned on me that I was repeating the mistakes of my parents—blaming everything on my past and letting the resentment of where I had ended up turn me into a bitter old mid-20s crone. Holding on to that all that hurt was slowly poisoning me. And after a childhood of abuse, being doomed to an adulthood of bitterness didn’t seem like a fair bargain to me. So I started the slow process of looking at my childhood from a different perspective; looking at it in a way that didn’t cast me and my sisters as victims, that didn’t necessarily cast my parents as Cruella De Vil, and in a way that allowed me to regroup and start looking forwards again.
True, one of the legacies of my upbringing is a voice inside my head that constantly berates me and tells me that I’m worthless, that I deserve to be unhappy. But that isn’t the full story.
My childhood has given me insight into what happens when people forget that everyone is inherently worthy of love, no matter who they are. Being handed a bad deal in the cards of life doesn’t give you the right to take that out on anyone. And I’d be the first person to tell you that I can Mean Girl with the best of them when I want to, but overall, I think my childhood has made me into a much more compassionate person that I would have been otherwise. I’m much less likely to conclude that someone is ‘just a bad person’ than I am to wonder why they’ve reacted a certain way on that particular day—because I know how unfair it is to be cast as “the bad person”.
It’s made me realise that anyone can be a villain in the right circumstances, but (here’s the point where you can close your eyes and imagine some cheesy music entering the blog)—we can also choose to be the hero. That’s the reason I’m writing my blog—not from some misplaced hero complex (although I would kill for a sweet, sweet cape), but because I hope that it helps someone out there see themselves and what they’ve been through in a different light, and maybe, just maybe, that it gives them the courage to forge ahead.
We, all of us, carry scars from our childhood. We didn’t get much of a say in that. But we do have a say in how we let that affect us going forward.
And the real heroes of my childhood? My sisters. Because through all those years locked in the bathroom, my sisters were there. They were the ones would knock on the door to say when the coast was clear, and when it wasn’t, they’d sneak food in. They were the ones who consoled me after break-ups, who told me when I was being a dickhead to my fine-feathered flock of friends, who gave me sage advice on how to shave your legs, and who let me play Barbies with them when I was secretly waaaay too old. My sisters were just as neglected and mistreated as me—and their kindness, their humour, their unending support, and their absolute superness is living proof that your genes and your environment are not your destiny.
Coming to terms with my childhood meant that I had to shift my view of myself from the victim of my childhood to the survivor of my childhood. It’s been a long, painful journey; I’ve had to let myself grieve for the loss of the idyllic childhood I never had, and to accept the somewhat harsher reality. I know that some of my brain’s wiring has probably gone a bit wonky because of what happened to when I was young, but I also know that I have a choice about what I do with that information. I can either wring my hands over the past, holding onto the hatred that started all the abuse in the first place, or I can choose to move on; to take responsibility for who I am now, and to try my hardest to be kind to the people that need it.
I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that my parents are just as human as I am. They made some truly terrible mistakes, and my family and I all have to live with the repercussions of that. I understand now that they were stressed, overwhelmed and desperate. That they didn’t have close extended family to lean on, that they fell through the net of a church community that didn’t practice what they preached. That they were both led astray by a terribly misguided counselling philosophy that sent them on wild goose chases, searching for others to blame their problems on. None of this excuses what they did, but it helps me to at least understand how it could have happened. Most of all, I know that hurting us was all about them, not due to some fatal flaws in us. Like me, my parents have had to come to terms with what happened, and I know that they deeply regret it.
I know that I would be well within my rights to cut them out of my life, but even after all this, I still love them. Because while they may not have made great parents when I was young, they’re still pretty great people. Moving on isn’t a walk in the park for me; sometimes when my parents show signs of wanting to walk down Victim Memory Lane, I have to resist the urge to grab them by the ear, take them on a tour of my childhood, and say, “Look what you did, you little jerk!” But most days, I love them.
And lest you think that my parents are Wicked Witches of the West (or that I’m merrily outing the skeleton in my family’s closet without their say-so)—you should all know that my parents are brave. When I finished writing this particular bleurgh, I read it through and thought, “Holy crapnel, there is no way in Sam Hill that I can post this.” But my sisters told me that I should, so I sent it to my parents and asked them what they thought. And they both said that it was my story to tell, that if someone gets something out of our story then it will be worth it, and that someone needs to break the chain.
So there you have it. Break the chain, you guys.
More from health