Scroungers, Strivers and Schadenfreude

imageI haven’t been able to watch more than a minute of Benefits Street. The reaction of those who refer to the people featured as “thieving scum” etc pushes me to a place that’s beyond anger; a sort of deep disappointment, hopelessness. I know they will never be convinced of another point of view, unless it happens to them.

I was homeless once. I had to queue in the dole office to get a benefits cheque as I was ‘of no fixed abode’. There wasn’t any drugs, drink, or mental illness involved – I had to get away from home due to my mother’s spiralling violence and abuse.

I was young, innocent, frightened and not streetwise, in the least. My story could have had a very bad ending. I was one step away from hopeless.

Some friends of friends had a squat in London, so at least I wasn’t out on the streets; but I remember the grinding cold, the continuous ache in my bones and hunger. After a while, my nutrition was really bad due to lack of funds. I bought spaghetti, oxo cubes, cheap bread. There were no food banks back then.

Strangely enough, I was safe. Safer than I had been at home. The guys in the squat were bikers, who had a strong moralistic code. They would even send me off to stay with their mothers or grandmothers if they had a party. They looked after me like a band of hairy, greasy, leather clad, big brothers.

I never begged, but strangers were still kind. The chip shop owner used to give me food. The people at the local pub allowed me to use their bathroom, the bakery used to slip me a loaf about to go stale. Sounds Dickensian, but this was only a couple of decades back.

We all got ill. With no heating or hot water, it’s an effort to keep clean (although I bathed the best I could with a basin of water every day). The cold air was the worst, it got into your lungs and carried any passing cold right into the trachea. I got asthma eventually, after a series of chest infections. It’s a weakness I still carry.

I looked like a waif in an army greatcoat far too big for me, woolen hats, Dr Martens and layers upon layers of clothing over my jeans. A long way from the immaculate beribboned child I once was or the flamboyant art student I was but a few months before. Fashion was long gone.

I got out when things changed. The population of a squat is a transient one. As my surrogate brothers moved on, new people took their place.They were mainly middle class rebels, with a bit of money, which was spent on drugs.

Soon I felt unsafe. I managed to get a decrepit, half derelict house in a rough part of London through a housing association. Downstairs was uninhabitable, dark, damp and full of rubble. I didn’t want to think about the rats. Upstairs was as bright and clean as I could make it, with donations from friends, skip diving and junk shops. It was an address, at least.

I finished my studies, got a job and everything changed. I was one of the lucky ones, well educated and with the will to turn my life around.

After a few years of working my way up, I was running a small company, turning over £4m a year, with a share of the profits. I had tens of thousands in the bank, which I spent.

I could buy anything I wanted to. A sports car. Luxury holidays. Dinner at the best restaurants. Cases of Champagne. Cocktails in the swankier bars. Designer clothes – a massive apartment, decorated to the highest specifications. Lending my friends large sums of money. Frequent weekends away for my friends. It was a manic circus around me.

It was all so meaningless. Just wrapping paper. All that money kept me distant from my friends in different jobs, the teachers, the care workers, the actors, the struggling designers.

I didn’t want to hang out with people like me, I didn’t like the middle class rich, all babies, property, school catchments and tennis clubs. I had nothing to say to them. I still don’t.

Maybe it’s because I have seen both sides of the story, I feel happiest somewhere in the middle. I decided to work part time a few years back, but 4 days a week quickly became 7 and, although I wasn’t earning anything like I used to, I was still highly paid compared to many of my peers and partners.

It burnt me in the end, all that ‘striving’. All I ended up with was a great deal of “stuff” and mental and physical exhaustion, which is a kind of living death.

Now all I need is enough to get by. I can live luxuriously enough on half my last salary. I know that there’s always a story behind hardship, most people aren’t feckless ‘scroungers’, they have got trapped. And it’s no fun, I can promise you that.

It only takes one turn of the wheel of fate and it could be you.

Maybe we should try sympathy instead of schadenfreude.

What’s in your baggage? Part One of Three

bags2Wounds from a dysfunctional childhood have a habit of reappearing in relationships and causing problems. Unless we can identify the baggage we are carrying around with us, the chances of us having a healthy relationship are low. Imago therapy is usually used for couples but in my case has proved useful in identifying the hidden agenda behind relationships and where things might have gone wrong.

I’ll outline the exercises and tell you what my experience was at the end of each article. I found the results a revelation. If your emotional baggage is making your relationships difficult, or you want to identify hot buttons that made your last relationship fail, this is well worth doing.

As I did, I would suggest discussing your findings with a therapist as some painful themes might up and you will need to deal with them. I am not a therapist so please make sure if you vulnerable about revisiting the past that you have someone around to soothe you afterwards.

It is important to complete one exercise before moving onto or reading the next. They all link up at the end.

Exercise One: childhood wounds

Time: 60 minutes uninterrupted 

Materials – pen and sheet of paper

First 30 minutes:

Begin by sitting in a comfortable chair and concentrate on diaphragmatic breathing. After ten slow deep breaths imagine yourself as a child, entering your original home. See everything from a small child’s point of view and move around the house and find the people who influenced you the most when you were growing up, parents, siblings, caretakers, teachers, relatives etc. Try to keep your people to the most significant ones.

As you meet each person you will see them with a new clarity. Stop and visit each one. Note their positive and negative traits. Tell them what you enjoyed about being with them. Tell them what you didn’t like about being with them. Tell them what you wanted from them but never got. Go ahead and share your anger, hurt or sad feelings.

When you have gathered this information, open your eyes and get your pen and paper ready.

Second 30 minutes: (take 45 minutes if you need to)

1.Draw a circle about 3 inches from the end of the paper. Divide the circle with a line across it horizontally. Label the top half of the circle B and the bottom half A.

2.In the B half of the circle use single, simple words to list the positive traits of the people who influenced you. Group them all generally, such as “Kind” for all that were kind etc. Do not describe them as they are today, remember the traits as a child – use simple words like warm, creative, always there, reliable, clever etc.

3.In the A half of the circle list all the grouped negative traits of the same people in the same way, e.g Angry, Sad, Cruel, Ignoring etc.

4.When you have completed this, circle the positive and negative traits that you think still affect you now.

5.Beneath the circle, write the letter “C” and copy and complete the sentence:

“What I wanted most as a child and didn’t get was……..”

6.Beneath that, write the letter “D” and copy and complete the sentence:

“As a child, I had these negative feeling over and over again, feeling ….”

That’s the first part of the exercise done.

My experience

The positive traits in my care-givers that I circled were:

Artistic, Affectionate. Funny, Intelligent, Nature loving, Curious, Outgoing, Kind, Creative, Musical.

The negative traits in my care-givers that I circled were:

Misunderstanding, Violent, Cruel, Self-pitying, Cold, Unavailable, Angry, Manipulative, Irresponsible, Critical, Selfish, Unreliable, Sly, Controlling, Isolating, Unloving, Didn’t see me

C: What I wanted most and didn’t  get as a child was: love and acceptance.

D: As I child I had these negative feelings over and over again – feeling isolated, unloved, misunderstood and unseen.

Part Two in next post.

Ghost Daddy

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Sometimes even a therapist shakes their head in incredulity at tales from my childhood, many of my friends didn’t believe this one, until I invited them home and they met my spitting and raging mother. I was eleven when this happened and it went on for six long years until I left home at 17. But that’s a whole other story.

One night, around my 11th birthday, I was woken up by my parents shouting. They rarely did this, my mother was very vocal, but my father was a quiet taciturn man, who rarely showed any emotion, apart from crying while watching sentimental old films. Neither of them expressed love and affection either to each other or myself and my brother.

I crept half-way down the stairs to listen. My father had been seen by my mother’s friend, the gossipy and loud “Auntie Bernie” whom I instinctively did not like. Dad had been seen in a pub cuddling up to another woman. His retort to my mother was that she hadn’t been a wife for six years, but I was too young to understand what that meant.

I could hear my mother make threats to my father, also referring us kids as she told him she would make sure he would never see us again. I had a dim knowledge of divorce and ‘broken homes’ and at once felt afraid and that the future was uncertain. I was starting a new school in September, different from any of my friends and some miles away, this change was bothering me enough as it was. I had visions of mother taking us away, maybe back to Ireland and my brother and I would have to start life over again.

The reality turned out to be much worse. After a sleepless night worrying about what I had overheard and the terrible burden of guilt that children feel when carrying a secret of this magnitude, I was wary and tearful at breakfast. My mother announced that our father had betrayed all of us and we had the choice of taking her side and never speaking to him again or we would be placed in a care home and she would then kill herself.

My brother and I had no doubt that my mother was capable of doing that. We knew of a care home in the next town, the neighbours referred to it as ‘Heartbreak house’, we had seen the children from there playing in a scruffy yard in old clothes and hardly any toys. It was our idea of hell. We were petrified at the thought.

That’s how my father became “Ghost Daddy”.

Neither of them would leave the family home. They had taken out an enormous mortgage to buy a house in a middle class part of town and spent the early years of their marriage working day and night to pay it. They had no intention of giving it up, no matter what damage was done in the meantime.

My brother and I, having agreed to not speak or contact my father, spent the next six years hearing his key in the door in the evening, his heavy trudge on the stairs and then him moving about on the third floor. He had become a series of sounds. My father had gone but lived on like a ghost like presence.

I think the strain of this experience drove my parents completely mad. I’ve brought the pain of it into my adult relationships. My brother was much younger and hadn’t had much of a relationship with my father, he was and would remain, mother’s favourite. It was me that was suddenly deprived of any male influence on the cusp of puberty.

I didn’t just lose my father. My parents had a strange arrangement where myself and my brother were sent off at weekends to stay with “Uncle Bill and Auntie Bette”, Bill was my dad’s boss. They were a wealthy elderly couple from Yorkshire without children of their own and were surrogate grand-parents to us. From them I got a lot of affection, education, particularly on nature, art and music and the attention I missed out on at home. My brother being a quiet, shy boy was less indulged, but we enjoyed great food, walks in the woods and the countryside and books and other gifts.

When my father was cut off, Bill and Bette were too. Any gifts they sent were returned and my mother refused calls and letters from them with huge aggression. The same went for any and all members of my father’s family, so a swathe of uncles, aunts and cousins were wiped out as well.

A huge rift was created and maintained until my mother’s death by threats and emotional blackmail.

Living with “Ghost Daddy” for those years was intolerable, especially combined with my mother’s increasing violence and unpredictable moods. I bore the brunt as the family scapegoat, but also because I had previously had a relationship of sorts with my father. It was me that was used as a messenger whenever my mother wanted to ask for more money of if an unexpected household problem came up.

My father never rescued us. He never reached out and tried to stop my mother in her madness. He just left money on a table in the hall once a week and moved around like a ghost upstairs. Soon after I left home, he did too. I didn’t see him for thirty years.

It was a living hell. I’m only now starting to heal the scars.

Coming Home

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I always think I’m different
I usually am, a woman of firsts
This time I am one of many
Last in a line of the disappointed

My pride is stung, its swan neck
Bowed low, bruised and bent
I saw the truth that was so ugly
I closed my eyes, held out my hand

The last time I felt so worthless
I was small and giddy with possibility
Tap-dancing prettily for a parent
Whose heart was devoid of love

It felt like coming home.

The right to reproduce?

Does everyone have the inalienable right to reproduce? This is a controversial question for a lot of people. And my answer may well put a few backs up, too. I happen to think that having babies is the biggest responsibility … Continue reading

A cuckoo in the nest #4

I came around from the anaesthetic. There had been problems in the recovery suite, when they had tried to rouse me. I kicked and lashed out at the nurses because I did not want to come back.

The only bed they had for me was in a cancer ward. I looked around at the women who had had their breasts removed and had to carry a drip on wheels with them, thinking how ironic it was that they were trying so hard to keep living, whereas my life was not worth living at all.

In the rush to have me admitted, I had not brought either toiletries or a nightdress, so I was sitting in bed unkempt and weak in a hospital gown. My mother’s first act was to ensure I changed into a suitable nightdress and made me use some dry shampoo and put on makeup. It wasn’t how I felt that was important, it was how I looked. It was, as far as I was concerned, like dressing a corpse.

I stayed in hospital a few more days, until the poison was out of my system and I could walk more or less upright. The wound was neat, in the crease of my belly, small and low “so you’ll still look good in a bikini” the surgeon said.

I was not expected back at school for a while, so spent my time in my room or lying on a sun lounger in the garden, it was the summer of 1976, the hottest on record, I soon got my first deep golden tan.

I had missed my exams, so had to go into school to take them separately. I read up on the subjects the night before and did my best to regurgitate that hastily acquired knowledge on the page. I didn’t care if I passed or failed. Academic achievement was not something my mother measured me by.

Eventually, I got 9 O levels with good grades. The brown envelope arrived one day while my mother was at work. In my joy and surprise I told one of the neighbours, who encouraged me to ring my mother. Her response was disinterested as I feared. What are you going to do with those? She asked.

I now had some proof that I was worth something, at least to the outside world, if not my family. I started to make plans to go to art college and gathered together a portfolio of work that I had done at school during the past two years, as well as some drawings I had made at home.

My application got me an interview at a local university for their Foundation Art Course. I was not allowed to apply further afield by my mother who said she needed me at home to help her take care of the house and my younger brother. I was called in for interview, but when I went to find my portfolio it was empty. My mother had thrown all my work away.

When I challenged her, she said she thought it was rubbish. I cried and accused her of sabotaging my chances of getting into art school. She laughed and said I was wasting my time studying any longer and I should be looking for work so I could pay my way. I’m sick of keeping you, she said.

I went for the interview anyway. The foundation art course was always over-subscribed and I was dismayed to see the dozens of potential students sitting in front of their easels, with their impressive looking leather portfolios. I was filled with resentment and hatred of my mother as I sat down, picked up the charcoal and waited for instructions.

That passion must have showed in my work. The subject was a goat’s skull, on a bed of textural moss on a battered bentwood chair. Textures and tones. Lots of them. To be rendered in mono using just a piece of charcoal. I got to work, putting all my anger and hatred into the lines, I worked fast and then was tapped on the shoulder by the department head. Come with me, he said. Bring that.

I was the first up and immediately thought they were eliminating me on lack of talent. In fact, the opposite was true.

In the office, the head of department and another teacher, both hippyish looking men in their thirties looked at each other and the department head said, you’ve got so much further than anyone else, I’d be fascinated to see your portfolio, do you always draw like this?

I haven’t got my portfolio. It’s lost. I said, almost in tears now, my chance so close but lost. They could see I was blinking back the tears and that I wanted to do this so much. This is what we’ll do, he said. We will keep a place open for you if you will take on an assignment over the next two weeks.

They asked me to draw the view from my bedroom window, a still life using found objects, a portrait, a piece using mixed media on the theme of humans and machines and a photograph that depicted the mood of a season.

I hurriedly and gratefully agreed and left the college high on the scent of an opportunity. It would be hard work, but I would show them I could do it. I had already got an A in Art at O/S level and I knew, with mother out at work, I could complete the project without her knowing or potentially ruining anything. I would get a Saturday job to help fund my materials and give her some money to shut her up.

Over the next few days I worked so hard that I got cramps in my hands and my eyes hurt. The boiling anger at my mother’s treatment of me fuelled me and I was able to direct this into my work, making it vibrant and intense. A series of almost instinctive marks that I was sometimes unconscious of making. I was experiencing flow.

I painted the view from my window, a long suburban garden with the sinister shadow of a Victorian school in stark contrast to my mother’s nodding roses and the sprawling lawn. I went to a wrecking yard and picked up pieces of old cars, a shattered speedo, a piece of aluminium bumper and a tangle of coloured wires to make a collage.

I went to the boating lake at a nearby park and photographed children laughing in brightly coloured pedaloes to depict summer, raided the fruit bowl to draw a softly smudged still life in pastels and bribed my brother with sweets to sit still for a portrait in textured acrylics. I was done and had shown I could draw, paint and create in a variety of styles.

I was accepted on the course and would start the following September. I was on the road to being free at last. Doing something for me.