A familiar through-line
From the outside we looked like a normal family. We lived in an area that local kids called Spam Valley and Corn-beef Canyon because they thought we couldn’t afford to eat well living in the ‘bought’ houses. My mum stayed home to care for myself and my sisters and dad worked in the oil industry.
We were dressed nicely, made to look perfect like dolls and when I look back on pictures there is something slightly sinister in that. That’s because behind the shiny tonged hair, the pained smiles and the frilly dresses we were hiding a big unspoken secret.
My dad was an alcoholic and my mum was his enabler.
No-one, not the grandparents who we saw every weekend or the godparents who visited regularly ever mentioned or asked what was going on. Perhaps they really didn’t know as I think my mum tried to portray the ‘perfect family’ to everyone.
But I knew, I saw, I felt.
Crashing, smashing, shouting, yelling and worse; the silence before. I could feel the pent up tension that arose as we watched a film like Ghostbusters as a family. I knew Dad would soon announce he was going to the pub and then that moment of togetherness would be over. I grew accustomed to having a permanent tug in my stomach waiting for things to kick off and for him to come back home.
Money would be taken from any means to fund his drinking; from mum’s handbag, from my pocket money and eventually he used all the money he earned which meant ripped clothes in high school and counting out brown coins at the local supermarket.
My friend would ask about the patchwork of squares on the brown veneer bathroom door where he’d previously punched holes. I’d make up some elaborate story which I can’t now recall. We’d lie at the top of the stairs on our bellies watching as he bounced off walls, furniture and doors like he was in a pinball machine after the pub. He would bow and apologise to the furniture; to the piano stool and to the glass cabinet he had just crashed into which we used to cover our mouths and giggle at.
As I got older however, I felt embarrassed and full of shame.
I started to hate the covering up and the pretending we had to do. Like being sent out onto the street late at night to pull him out of a taxi, stepping over him as he lay sprawled on the cold steps at the back door in the morning. I grew to gag at the smell of sweat and stale whiskey that seemed to hang permanently in the air.
Mum told us once after he had swallowed some pills and was rushed to hospital that he had an illness and we had to be good to him. Help him more. But as soon as he was well, he was back at the pub.
I find it funny now that my grandparents and godparents showed no concern; surely someone must have realised? My mum was to far into the depths of denial to wonder about how things may have affected us. I felt I could never tell anyone as we were to be good, keep quiet and pretend everything was ok.
It was only recently that I began to think about the stuffed down, supressed emotions I must have felt and how some relationships I have been in have felt similar. I started to wonder;
Have I subconsciously put myself in those situations?
Was I trying to heal what had happened to me in my past? Tried to heal the abandonment I felt by my father and the emotional neglect I had felt by my mother? Heal the anger?
Was it possible that because I had grown up thinking that it was normal behaviour that I had sought out similar, familiar places and people?
Perhaps I was trying to finish the story. Find someone who cared for me enough to stay with me and show true interest in what I was doing. Someone who spoke kindly, softly; someone honest and trustworthy. Perhaps the child within was seeking completion of the story instead of the foggy mess that lingered after dad left and mum had a breakdown.
That child within has had to carry on the suppression, the fear, the anger because if anything was ever mentioned about my dad to my mum she could ‘get ill’.
So the godparents and grandparents continued to visit only now their concern was with mum.
‘You’ll have to look after your mum now,’ I was told in no uncertain terms.
Is it any wonder that I eventually escaped into what felt familiar? Strong capable yet emotionally distant men. Friends and employers who seem to be full of self-interest and neglect?
The connection, the through-line, seems to be appearing out of the fog. I’ve been seeking completion from all the wrong people. Perhaps I’ve been emotionally distant and neglectful to myself. Perhaps I’ve sought those relationships to confirm to myself that I am not worthy of love, safety and I need to hide, please and keep quiet.
What I think I’m realising is that the only person who can complete my story is me.