My granny worried, about everything. One of us kids getting onto the balcony of her high rise flat and falling out, about the kids hanging about the flat entrance, about someone from the TV rental company coming to repossess the television they had made a present of when, 20 years after she first rented from them, they could no longer compete with foreign imports and hire purchase and wound up their business. But more than anything she worried about her health.
It was a sort of free-floating worry, not without reason. I don’t think she ever ate anything but biscuits, or drank anything but tea: she claimed to have no appetite, but was morbidly obese, and suffered from varicose ulcers that had to be re-dressed every other day, and would itch so badly under the dressings that she would take a knitting needle and scratch under the bandage, opening up a whole new set of cuts to be infected. She could only walk short distances, and only left her flat once a week when the pensioner’s club came to get her. We went with her once, me and my dad, and it was the only time I ever saw her outside her own house until she was taken to hospital suffering from the stomach cancer that would kill her, 20 years after her husband died, and 20 years after she started telling her family to prepare for her passing.
It was like a family joke. You’d sit there waiting for her to say it. I loved listening to her: her dialect was older than mine, and broader, more musical. Proper Glasgow. Words like “winching”, and “whit dae ye ca’ it”, and looking at my dad, recalling the abusive husband she mourned for 20 years: “aye, the auld man’ll never be deid while you’re still alive.” She loved the wrong people, my granny, and took the right people for granted.
I was thinking about her today when I went into the doctor’s. A year or so ago I checked out my blood pressure, and after years of having a reading so low it was like “are you dead” I’m suddenly at 140/90. I ignored it, and put it out of my mind. Then I checked it again a couple of months later and it was still high. Still, ignore. Then something shifted, I don’t know what. But a month ago I measured it, and it was still about 140/90, and my magic powers of denial must have been offline because I worried about it all night and then phoned the GP.
I thought I was for the chop. I was convinced, this was it. Cholesterol, or blood sugar, or liver function were going to give me away – the effects of all the little comfort blankets that get me through, the evening glass of wine, the crisps, the replacing of sleep with food were going to be recorded in black and white and unavoidably off the table. Conversations would be had, about what my hopes were for the future, about the changing metabolism of the middle aged woman, what you can get away with at 20 that you can’t get away with at 40. I’ve often felt like I was clinging on, just barely managing life, with my habits, my overeating, the nervous nailbiting, the clothes just always ever so slightly too tight and no time to buy more, or at least as a kind of self care it never comes far enough the list of priorities to want to do it. Just a bit of a break would make it easier, just a bit of pressure off. But when things improved: a promotion, more money, lost a bit of weight, whatever – it felt like I adjusted to the new normal almost instantly. And there was always the opportunity for things to go wrong. Couple that with the inevitable slide towards middle age and I’ve felt like I was fighting a losing battle, my whole life.
Anyway, blood and wee was taken and I was given a date to take home and wear a BP monitor for 24 hours. Man, that shit is irritating. It was about 30 degrees yesterday, so the cuff was stuck to my arm in a slick of sweat. It was fucking enormous, designed for someone about a foot taller than me, and I could hardly bend my arm. It went off at the most awkward moments, including when I was holding my daughter down to try and let the A&E doctor examine the massive hole she gouged in her chin yesterday playing on a slide. Because what better day for that to happen? After receiving 3 doses of sedative and utterly failing to fall asleep in any way, the wee one was eventually distracted long enough to get her stitch* and we came home and had dinner and all went to bed early. I had one of those nights you get while camping and while looking after tiny babies, where the periods of sleep mix up with the wakefulness and you get the same thoughts, or music, repeating over and over in your head. I got really lucky – this time it was Depeche Mode’s Cover Me, which is actually an awesome song and I haven’t heard it 18 million times. The last time I had a night like that I got Sofia the First’s I’m Not Ready To Be A Princess on repeat, and I’m not going to link to that on youtube, because I’m not a dick.
So this morning, I went back to the GP’s and gave them back the BP monitor and got the verdict.
Normal. All normal. Cholesterol, liver function, blood sugar. BP is on the high end, but not so high that I need tablets yet. At the next checkup maybe, in 2 years’ time. Or the one after that. But not now. And she showed me the trace. Look at how your BP goes up here, at 2pm. (I was carrying daughter into the hospital). But by 2.15 it is straight back down where it was. And look at the nighttime – it goes right down. You relax into sleep, and your body stops struggling, and it gets rest. That’s how it should be. Some women, she said – is there a family history of high blood pressure? Yes, everyone, pretty much – some women find their blood pressure does begin to climb between 40 and 50. Irrespective of whether they’re fat or thin. You can still be fit and have high blood pressure.
The thing is I knew that. Look at Andrew Marr, a marathoning overachiever about the size of a whippet. Lifestyle can have an effect on blood pressure but genetics does too. But I was always going to blame lifestyle first.
I remember when I was about 8, I think. I started getting these brown stripes on my front teeth. They weren’t sore, it wasn’t decay, but I couldn’t get rid of them by brushing my teeth. I know that for a fact because when my mother noticed them, she eventually (after about a week) took matters into her own hands and held me down and brushed my teeth until my gums were bleeding. Didn’t work.
It must have been my fault somehow, she mused. Oh yes. About 6 months earlier, school had invited in a dental nurse who had emphasised to us the correct way to use a toothbrush. I’d come home with a new toothbrush and disclosing tablets and proudly showed off my great brushing technique to my mother, who had to have all her teeth removed at the age of 19, and who dismissed the nurse’s advice as nonsense.
Now, this night was being recalled to her. Had I been brushing my teeth the way the nurse had said? I had, hadn’t I? And now after 6 months the effects were being seen. Not brushing properly had resulted in these deposits on my teeth, that now were too fixed to the enamel to come off with brushing. (I imagine it was the same sort of irremovable grime that attached to the hairs on my top lip when I rubbed my nose with my filthy hands. The hairs did not become noticeably darker until I was 12, but it must have taken a while to build up. And it could be lightened back using the bleach cream that Boots sells to women and teenage girls who have naturally dark hair on their top lips. I suppose I can just be happy that due to the fact that there are women who are in genuine need of such products, filthy nose rubbers like me can also benefit). Time to go to the dentist.
“Does she drink a lot of tea, Mrs ___?”
“What do you mean by a lot?”
I drank 3 cups of tea a day, tea being the only drink available in our house other than cold water. I’d once seen my gran being offered hot water and asked if I could have that too, only to be summoned out to the hall and told that my gran had constipation and needed to have hot water to alleviate it, and that I was to stop trying to draw attention to myself and drink my tea. Oh and sometimes there was irn bru if my dad went to the ice cream van.
I don’t remember what my mother said to the dentist and I didn’t feel any sense of victory, only relief. I was told to back off the tea and it would right itself, and it did – a few weeks later the stripes were gone and as an excellent side effect, the number of drinks allowed in our house had increased to 3, with the addition of a bottle of fruit squash to the weekly shop.
But everything was like that. When I got whooping cough, she went about for 2 weeks telling me I was prolonging my cold by swallowing the phlegm and not spitting it out. When I got chickenpox, she spent the hours before my spots came out lecturing me on how I could hardly expect to feel well if I spent my whole Sunday lying on the sofa in the house instead of coming and playing outside like a normal child. I swear to god, the concept of “I wonder if that kid might be coming down with something” did not exist in her world. I was always to blame for my failings until I got absolved by the GP – the GP being higher than my mother in the social hierarchy. I can be glad I was born into a working class dysfunctional family because I’ve no doubt that if my mother had my education she’d have written off the GP as a quack whenever he didn’t agree with her. Or if she’d been into alternative health. Lavender enemas or fuck knows what. You always have to be grateful it wasn’t worse.
These days I find it hard to acknowledge that any difficulty (physical or otherwise) I have might not be my fault. It feels like it’s always going to be my fault. The psychology books say we learned to keep ourselves feeling safe by blaming our parents’ abuse on our own behaviour. It’s seductive, supposed to be, the feeling that everything is your own fault, because then surely everything is under your control? I don’t know – as an adult I’ve never found it anything other than onerous, the feeling that you could probably fix every damned thing in your life if only you tried hard enough. It’s the serenity prayer, isn’t it? The courage to make changes, the patience to live with what cannot be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference. I’d include in that the wisdom to trust the right people – your doctor, teachers, mentors, people who have your interests at hear – when they tell you, it’s OK, you don’t need to worry, you didn’t cause this and you don’t need to fix it. I’m gradually replacing the voice of my mother with other, caring voices in my life.