Saturday, 19 April 2008

Spring Cleaning of the Mind

Laying in bed this Saturday morning all cosy and hugged up, my mind drifted back, way back and maybe it is a sign to me to write it down. These last weeks I have been feeling better about my life and my past in a "letting go" kind of way. I've blogged about epsiodes from my past but I have deleted the mainly painful posts. It was really helpful to write them but there came a point when I felt it was all just dirty linen pegged up in public. I often run by instincts and if I feel to hang up some more washing then I'll put it down to some more spring cleaning and see it constructively too.

Summer of 1978
Aged fifteen during the punk years should have been the prime of my life. Instead I led a cloistered existence between school and home attending to every need of my mother and never getting it quite right. My mother was handy with anything wooden, in particular wooden handled feather dusters and long wooden spoons. She only used the handles and could create quite a swish and pain. They were her weapons of choice in administering punishment to us kids, and the number she got through as they broke across our bodies was quite impressive. I am surprised she could afford to keep replacing them but she did. One of her mantras then, quite public to us kids, was to never, ever leave a mark that could be seen. In those days, that meant if it was under your clothes then no-one would have to see the marks.

My older brother was the apple of her eye and she obviously preferred his company back then, though he wasn't immune to the blows. He in turn, used to take it out on me. So on the one side there was my mother and on the other my brother was beating me up. He knew what my mother was up to but I don't think she particularly knew what he was up to with me. In the pecking order of things I was pretty low down. So I kept quiet in order to keep the peace giving my brother free reign to continue his battery of me throughout our childhood.

I was six/seven years old when my mother was pregnant with my younger sibling. I was terrified she would have another girl and treat her like me so when my little sister was born I both adored her and vowed to myself to always love and protect her so she wouldn't get what I had. In the end, my sister's life took a different path being the angel blonde-haired child with a musical gift. Unlike dark haired me who reminded my mother of one of her sisters who she (unfairly) felt was cruel and devious. But my sister was also subjected to my mother's physical and mental brutality though she ended up with a different brand of it that I don't think I could have coped with it!

The Turning Points
In 1978 I can't remember which of these two events happened first but they were fairly close. I have written before about the first of these events, not that it was the only example nor was it the most serious, because it wasn't. It was because it had such a mental effect on me. The indignation and sense of self that it created inasmuch as I finally realised this was not acceptable.

It was washing day and as requested, presented my clothes for washing. There were times my mother insisted all clothes were turned inside out and other times that they must be in the right way and one never knew what was the right or wrong way anymore. I'm not talking about socks being scrunched up, I mean seriously all must be turned completely inside out. Now, I can see that is typically Aspergers but her way of handling it was her. I had gotten it wrong on this occasion and in her fury she lashed out at me with bare fists. In the impact I was knocked to the floor which she thought was wimpish of me since she reckoned she hadn't hit me that hard. This infuriated her more so she launched into me with kicks as I lay prone on the floor protecting my face. What got me was laying there, being kicked by my own mother and thinking I'm fifteen years old and this shouldn't be happening. I was developing a sense of self.

At some other point during the summer, us three kids were home alone and doing the chores. Things got out of hand as they often do ..... I think my brother was messing around with the vacuum cleaner and attacking us with it as it sucked. I think I might have struck back for a change and so my brother blew up in the way he does. His arms lengthen as his fists tighten, his face puffs up, his body goes red and seems to grow six inches. (Maybe the creator of the Incredible Hulk saw my brother in action once!) He launched into me with anger, as I cowered on the sofa trying to be a tiny ball he couldn't hurt. Don't forget I was very tiny until the age of sixteen. He took hold of my ankles and pulled me up into the air, upside down and began to hammer my body, head first into the floor. It might be relevant to say that we lived in a inner city tower block in those days with floors made of concrete with only thin carpet covering it. My little sister looked on horrified and remembers it to this day.

Somehow, with my sister's help I managed to escape and with my sister ran to the bedroom I shared with her and barricaded ourselves in. My brother was still on the warpath and proceeded to kick the door in. His foot didn't go all the way through and just smashed a hole through the front of the door. That door was the first door one saw as one came into the flat. The hallway that my mother had recently decorated with orange and green carpet tiles (it was the 70s!) and created almost a mock conservatory with vines and whatnot. That was it, I knew we were going to be in big trouble with my mother. Never mind that I had just been beaten up!

Taking the managerial role I set about trying to fix the door so that I could cover up my brother's actions. That now seems like sheer madness on my part but at the time I knew we had to keep my mother calm and sweet or else it would be more hellish. The door was one of those cheap construction doors with thin panels and corrugated cardboard in the middle. So I packed it up with stuffing from newspapers and then applied a coat of polyfilla. But the whole mass just sagged in the middle of the door and at some point my parents were going to be coming home. Plan B (or it could have been C or D by then!) was to apply a thin but strong layer of card over the hole and its wet stuffing and pin it into place. That worked quite well but the door was orange (it was the 70s!) to match the orange and green carpet tiles. There was paint left over so I quickly applied a coat to that area, but of course I didn't appreciate about undercoats and applying just a top coat didn't work well at first. Undeterred, and not having a full 24 hours for drying time I went ahead with a second coat of paint. We had to do lots of airing and lots of woodwork polishing elsewhere in the hallway to try and cover up the smell of paint.

With the paint still wet, my parents arrived home and us three kids were the picture of lightness and bright to try not to give anything away. My mother stood transfixed looking down at the patch on the bedroom door, she had a quizzical look on her face but said nothing and carried on. The patch would fool no-one so maybe the thought of how this could be was too much so she left it alone on this occasion. She never did find out about it.

By now, I knew I couldn't do this much more and had to get out but couldn't do anything until I was of legal age to leave school. I plotted and planned to leave school and home at the age of sixteen. Otherwise known, as running away from home. I was fifteen and a half and I knew from the news that other kids who disappear their photos are splashed all over the news. The answer was to make sure I didn't have any recent photos taken of me so that I couldn't be identified. Not that there were many photos being taken of me in those last few years as I was always snivelling and obviously an abomination to my mother who was the photographer of the family. For about six months I consciously avoided any camera activity whatsoever.

1979 - The First Great Escape
As soon as I turned sixteen I started applying for jobs and bunked off school to attend interviews. Other kids at the time were bunking off to do wild things but not me.... job interviews were my lot. It was difficult juggling my time with the postman to make sure that any job letters were not seen by my parents but in those days the posties were reliable. I secured an office job in the city. In the City of London at an insurance company and they seemed to really like me, even though I had applied for a basic office job. That was it. I organised a hostel place, which was much cheaper than renting a room of my own and packed my bags. No-one was at home and my mum was out at work and I wrote a long "I'm sorry" letter to my family.

I was sixteen and a matter of weeks old and seemed to have packed everything except the kitchen sink. I struggled downstairs to the taxi cab office with my load (it might have taken two trips in the lift!) and set off for my new life. Meanwhile, my brother returned home early and found my letter. Somehow he knew to go to the cab office. I had only gone a few streets in the cab when over the cab radio came a message "RTB POB". I knew nothing about cabs, nor about codes but as the driver amended his speed I instantly realised that the message was "Return To Base Passenger On Board". I didn't fight it, I don't know why but I knew it would be futile to fight.

My brother was waiting at the cab office and ushered me back home with all my stuff. We stood in the hallway, the one with the green and orange carpet tiles and for once he spoke gently to me and asked me why. I told him a bit of how he and mum treated me. In his own unique "Mr Innocent" way, utterly believable, he told me that I had imagined it all. The way he said it was chilling and potentially dangerous. Faced with me or my brother, my mother would always believe him even though he was already a known accomplished liar. I knew then that if I stayed I would truly go mad. But I would have to bide my time.

My brother kept quiet about that escape because, like us all, he knew it was better to keep the peace. Besides, he was the kid in the family who had a history of running away and had been doing so since about the age of six (I kid ye not!) and I was the one who always took the flak for him and kept my parents sweet. Or tried to. My mother needed someone to attack to take the pressure off my brother. Yup, he was seventeen years old at this point and busy looking after his own interests.

Pity about the job because I wasn't able to go. I wonder where I would be now in the insurance business if I had followed that path?

1979 - The Second Great Escape
I kept my head down for a while but not too long. I applied for more jobs and secured one as a filing clerk in a branch of the Civil Service. Lowly paid but what one would expect for my age at that time. I told a friend of mine at school what I was doing but not exactly where I was going. I would have been 16 and a couple of months old by then and must have left home on a Friday so that I could settle into the hostel and start work on the Monday. My room in the hostel was shared with a number of other women. No privacy, no security but it was very cheap. I lived on cans of cold baked beans as they were cheap and sustaining. Cold baked beans can taste sweet and delicious when eaten with a peace of mind.

On the Monday I was shown how to do my filing job. Filing and making coffee for the other staff was my role. The staff were really sweet and were much older than me and found me curious. I remember one particularly kind woman was shocked to find that I ate cold baked beans as I had no other money. By the Wednesday I had sussed my job and was doing so well that I had completed all filing tasks, plus the back log, by about midday. Without any qualifications it was clear I was able to do more. On the Friday I was called into the manager's office and given my first week's pay and told that I should come and see the manager again on Monday. From what little was said, it was hinted that I was in for some sort of promotion before too long. I had my first foot in the rung of the Civil Service ladder.

On my way back to the hostel, with my pay in my pocket (paid in cash in a brown envelope at the end of every week in those days) and already assigned to rent and travel leaving barely anything else for food I was feeling really happy and triumphant that I treated myself to a strawberry shake from McDonalds which were fairly new to London in those days.

Adding to the triumphant feeling was having been taken out to dinner at a proper restaurant the night before by one of the women who shared the room in the hostel. I had only been at the hostel a week but we had become friends in the first weekend and not only that, I was fascinated that she worked as an agency nurse and worked all hours for a lot of money but lived in a hostel. She was from the Middle East and had come to the UK because qualified nurses were needed. Living in the hostel cost more than paying for a mortgage and of course there was no privacy and no real life. She was quite able but for some reason hadn't got herself together to sort out accommodation. So I offered to look around for her and found her the perfect house in North London not far from her work. She liked it so much she put in an offer on the Thursday and began the process of buying the house. She took me out for dinner on the Thursday night to celebrate and to thank me. She kindly offered that I would have a room in her house for nothing to help me in return.

No wonder that after my first week of freedom I was feeling so good. My job was going brilliantly well and accommodation was going to improve. Slurping my exotic strawberry shake (that first one was exotic!) I arrived back at the hostel to have the hostel manager call me into her room. Another kindly woman, she made me sit down and told me that my father and brother were in the next room. She told me I had rights and that I didn't have to go home with them. I think she might have guessed the situation. Going back into child mode I knew I couldn't hold out against my parents and packed my bags. I wonder what would have happened if I had taken on board what she had said and refused to go home.

I wonder what happened to my nurse friend. I wonder if she completed on the purchase of that property and I wonder if she ever thinks of me. I don't even remember her name or what she looks like. I don't even remember anything else about her, but she was part of giving me hope.

My father had tracked me down because he interrogated my school friends (he was an ex-police officer) and although didn't have any precise hostel location knew the general area and knocked on every door until he found mine.

On my return my mother said one nice thing. Out of my entire childhood I can remember just one nice thing she said to me. Yes, that still makes me cry. Sat at dinner that night I said something like "thank you for having me back" and she returned with "It's good to have you back". I sat quietly crying into my food with such fucking gratitude. They knew nothing of what I had achieved during that week away and still don't know.

I was returned to school as I was told that I was not legally allowed to leave. When one's birthday falls on a certain date then you are not allowed to leave school until the end of the summer term, and not at the actual age of sixteen. Back at school my meeting with the headmaster is told here!

1979 - The Third Great Escape
Once again, my head was down and I trawled onwards. Life at home was as rubbish as ever and nothing changed. As a result of my previous escapes I learned a number of things: tell no-one anything; leave no clues; travel light; and get a live-in job as there are no accommodation costs to worry about. The writing was on the wall and surely my parents must have seen it. Being a year ahead of myself at school I had to re-sit all my O levels at the normal age and knew I was flunking them all over again. Once more I was secretly job hunting and found a live-in job in a bed and breakfast hotel in West London. There was no point trying to trace my nurse friend as my father could do that too. I graciously waited for my brother to have his birthday and made a quiet exit the day after with only what I could carry. An overstuffed rucksack and a bag and caught a bus down the road. I prayed as the bus drove away. Prayed that nothing would go wrong. I left a little "I'm sorry" note in the back of the fridge, just so that my parents knew I wasn't actually dead. A year later, I was still away discovering life and me. A body of an unidentified young woman had recently been pulled out of a canal and was on the news. She had a scar on her foot, as do I, so I sent my parents some flowers via Interflora to say I was OK. I went to an Interflora well away from my area and paid by cash (a whole week's wage back then!) and used false contact details. I knew well to cover my tracks.

Two and a half years after leaving home and after one too many breakdowns and with the support of my wonderful boyfriend of a year I contacted my parents again. I wonder where I'd be now if I hadn't done that! Those depressions would have been there anyway and I just had to work through them.

My mother would like nothing more than to know we are where we are at because of her. She appears on the whole to like me now and takes a glow from my achievements. Sad to say but it is just too late. I don't like the way I don't give her a second chance and make allowance that we all make mistakes, but I truly feel I have tried so many times before and had it thrown back in my face and trashed. So I protect myself by keeping from her emotionally. We have lots of contact now, which quite frankly, she is lucky to have but I wonder if she and my father are aware of the emptiness from me.

My father is not beloved by me nor innocent in all this. He was struggling too, to keep the peace with my mother. Often he would allow things to happen because it meant that my mother got whatever it was through her system and order was restored. If that meant me taking punishments for what I didn't do then he allowed it and told me to get on with it because it was better. No! In the long run it wasn't better. Someone should have stopped my mother. Should have set up boundaries of what was acceptable. But there we are. It is done. It is life.

Interestingly, my brother, still with anger issues even now, acknowledged to me in my twenties that what he did to me as a kid was wrong. He has apologised. Thoroughly. Acknowledgment and apologies go a huge way that if he goes before me I know that at his funeral I will be crying with all my heart for his mixed-up soul.

Writing all that has been interesting. I bawled my eyes out at one point but am OK now. Re-reading it seems to distance me from the events and brings perhaps more objectivity. Perhaps I might print a copy of it and go outside and burn it and see what happens.


Steg said...

Speechless and not far from tears myself.

*hugs* although that doesn't do it justice.....

Thursday said...

We are clearly of the same age and I am awestruck by what you went through and how you bravely extracted yourself from your situation whilst I meandered along. You have achieved so much more than I have, figured out so much, kudos to you madam.

Jay said...

So easy to think 'I wouldn't have put up with it' and 'I would have done x, y, z ... ' The reality is that as kids, we think our childhoods are normal, and then when we find they are not, we are so constrained by many things - emotional ties, convention, society's perceptions, lack of maturity etc - that we often cannot help ourselves. For me, the realisation that my childhood was not totally normal came when I had kids of my own and I thought 'hang on a minute ...?' but mine was only mildly skewed compared to yours. Kudos to you for working through such crap and ending up so sane.

Doris said...

Hats off to anyone who managed to read this War & Peace of a post. You get a special hug and a smile for that achievement!

It's OK, I'm fine. Anyway, it is a once upon a time story and not dramas that I am going through now, except through the ghosts and memories.

Thanks, Thursday. Tis true that I did extract myself from my situation but needs must. I would jump to disagree that I achieved more, unless we are just talking about that small window of time. As it happens, writing it has helped me to take greater comfort from what I actually achieved rather than focusing on what I endured. I know that we all have times where we have survived better than we realised. I love the Desiderata as it has helped me to realise I am too am important in this world and that there will always be people who have lesser/greater in this world which doesn't devalue our own experiences. And the same goes for us all.

It is curious that as children we feel we must maintain the status quo at all costs even though that status is skewed. Children are so vulnerable and yet to have outside agencies supposedly to help is such a minefield. At one point, when I was much younger and as a result of my brother's adventurous activities outside the home, outside agencies were involved yet we mobilised into a tight group and no flaws were shown. I can't imagine what would have happened if I had been brave enough to cry out, but I couldn't bear it going wrong and then being subjected to the fall out. Some kids have such a strong sense of self they just would not accept any of it.

As for me ending up sane, well that's pretty subjective ;-)

Anji said...

I'm going to sit and read your post later but in the meantime you've been tagged!

Astryngia said...

My Dear Doris - I read your story with my heart in my mouth! You Never Gave Up - so practical, so smart - you thought things through and kept on thinking. The woman you are today was there already in your teens. I'm so glad that our paths crossed and continue to do so. I would never have made *my* escape without you - but you'd gone before, you knew how to do it. That practical bent - you know how to do everything!!! And I find myself pondering on the concept of past lives...

Astryngia said...

PS And that four leaf Never Gave Up day....

Josephine said...

You teach me so much, you really really do. Your strength and your compassion are huge, and these stories here perhaps show where it comes from.

I am so lucky to know you and count you as a dear friend.

Actually, lucky is way too small a word.

Doris said...

Awwww what lovely comments to wake up to. I've gone all bashful ;-)

You know I thank you for the tag and will let you know when the deed is done :-)

I love the way you reflect on the things I say or write and bring greater clarity for me and help me to feel better about me. For example, I didn't particularly click on to the "Never gave Up" theme. That is such a strengh I don't particularly honour in me.

You have no idea what an honour it is for me that our paths have entwined and to be such an important person to you in these times. It is a bit of a wow feeling to know that I matter. Utterly selfish of me :-)

On the subject of the Four leaf clover.... so you managed to read my Headmaster post too. Just a year after I wrote that post I was up in Scotland at the Wickerman Festival. It was lovely weather and I insisted on pitching our tent all by myself just because I could and I wanted to see if I really could do it. Typical me eh?! (And amazing the men who stop to try to help and look disapprovingly at those not helping me.) Anyway, we must have pitched in the right place because next morning son was sat outside in the grass and brought me over a four leafed clover.... I thought it was one of those trick ones where one and a bit are held together but no. And then he found another!!! So I went and looked at his patch of grass and found my own - there were lots of them. Can you imagine how excited I was that this species really does exist. Lost its magical good luck qualities but I was delighted none the less.

Hee-hee I can do lucky ;-) Thanks Jo, you really have the kindest heart and although you have so many trials of your own you are going through your love shines through. Methinks we are all lucky to have each other. But it does come down to what we each make of our situations and life has to be grasped and to be lived.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I am 45 years old and am first now coming to grips with the fact that my mother nost likely has undiagnosed asperger. To top it of, I think also my older sister has it. I have so many times tried to talk to my parents about my sisters difficult behavior and how different we have been treated (for kids especially equal treatment is important!)but they never want to discuss it. There were so many episodes in Spring Cleaning of the Mind that I could relate to. My escape was eventually to move with my wonderful husband and two adorable children to the other end of the globe! I try to do all the little things for my kids that my mother never did: tell my kids I love them, that what they do is great, hug them and most importantly, I say I am sorry when I have done something wrong. I hope my kids will have more fond memories of their childhood than I do.

Doris said...

Hi Anonymous and thank you too for taking a moment to share. Good for you for making such significant changes for your next generation. I tried hard not to repeat some of the stuff of my mother but am afraid that in the end there are a few things I could have done better. But in due course things have gotten better between my children and I because our foundations are nothing like the ones I had and whatever difficulties we had were more to do with normal childhood issues. So if you find in time that despite all your efforts that some things go pear shaped keep the faith that it will all work out because you are you and not your mother! Very best to you and yours.

KW said...

How unbelievably alike we are. I am so sorry that it happened to more than just the people in my own family. My parents were from Scotland and my elder sister was born there and whisked away to Canada at 8 mos. My brother and I are Canadian. Other than those minor differences, you and I are alike---including the several attempts at flight before final success. I stayed in the woodwork for 3 years before resurfacing. Alas, it made no difference. The emptiness that existed between my mother and I remains even now that she is dead---because she was helpless to be someone other than herself.

Your comment about your Dad, however . . . wow, I never thought of it from that angle. It explains the remainder of things that hadn't made any sense. My Dad *did* apologise, but I see now that he wasn't completely forthcoming with just exactly why he was apologising.

Thank you, Doris.
PS: printing a copy and burning it is a ritual that accomplishes nothing. Leave the paper blank and cut a snowfake out of it.
PPS: it is a suspicion that I, too, have Asperger Syndrome (soon to be known as Autism Spectrum Condition).

Doris said...

Hello KW - sorry about the delay to publish your comment and my reply. Perhaps we are related!!!! I have Scottish ancestry ;-)

About my dad, well, in the time since my mother died my father has changed so much. We do not talk about the past, possibly because I have no desire to bring it up with him, but he has not brought it up either. There are things that he does which I feel he is doing by way of apology - if that can make any sense. I don't know what to make of it all but I don't bust my brain cells over it and just let things be and develop.

Interesting idea about the blank paper and snowflake. Now I can not get my head round that one! Maybe one just has to do it to know.

As for you having AS (or ASC) then at least you know. It is supposed to be genetic. I know quite a few darling people with AS. I do not believe that abuse and violence go hand in hand with AS. I could wonder if there are some elements of me that are AS but esentially I know that I am not. Or else .... I have learned how to compensate for it! LOL now that would be a turn up for the books.

Doris x