I’m no long for this world

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?”
“Every day?”

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.

 

What we mean when we say “I don’t want to deprive my kids of a relationship with their grandparents”

I wanted to talk about this because I think a lot of us get stuck on this point when we are starting to recover and considering cutting contact with our parents.

I don’t want to deprive my children of a relationship with their grandparents.

What do you mean when you say that? Do you really mean it, that you want it, that you are going to be happy watching your kids grow to love our abusive parents? Really? Here are these two tiny, vulnerable, wonderful people who I produced out of my own body and who scare the crap out of me when they get hurt to the point that I had to be sat down with a glass of water in the GP’s surgery the time one of them fell off a park bench and cut her lip. And here is the woman who once when I was 9 grabbed me by the hair and threw me to the floor for scratching my nose.* Am I going to be happy if these people make friends? Am I fuck.

OK, then I don’t feel I have the right to stop my parents having a relationship with my children

But why don’t you feel like you have the right?

Who should make the decisions about who my kids? You, right? And your other half. And the kids, as they get older – but right now, they are under 6, they are still learning to judge character, and it’s not only your right but your bloody job to keep them safe from abusive people.

Maybe I don’t have the right to call my mother abusive? Maybe it’s not my place to label her that way? I strongly believe she has NPD, but we have to leave the diagnoses to the psychiatrists, don’t we?

I would say that if you have lived with a person day and night for 16 years or more, you have a far better insight into their personality than any psychiatrist. But it doesn’t even matter. As Richard Grannon says: if someone’s being a dick, they’re a dick.  You don’t need to have the formal diagnosis to know someone’s an awful human being. The diagnosis is useful when you’re first coming into recovery because it lets you find descriptions of the behaviour, and it’s labelled abusive, and you feel validated. But it was always abusive, even before you knew it was called NPD (or BPD or paranoid PD or whatever the flavour is).

But my abuser has met my children and they were lovely to them.

Sometimes they are, specially if the kids are too small to argue back. You probably discounted the boundary-pushing shit: when they took the baby off you and wouldn’t give it back despite you asking politely several times; when they called themselves “mum” and you “gran” (don’t make that face, my mother actually did this); when they fed the kid fucking chocolate at 4 months old. You turn the other cheek because what is the other option? It’s all so fucking petty, you don’t know how to tackle them.

It won’t stay petty though, will it? And you know that. If you do call them out on their behaviour there’ll be a massive fight and at the end of it they still won’t stop doing the things that they do. And as the kids get older, it’ll get worse – massively overgenerous birthday and Christmas presents, constant feeding up with sweets, needling about how they would let the kid do this and that great thing only mummy won’t let you. They might not be the slightest bit interested in abusing your child, actually. They might just be back to have another shot at you. Gaslight you into believing they are awesome grandparents and were probably awesome parents too; it’s just you, you were always the problem. Or they might be in for a game of setting siblings against each other, one golden child and one scapegoat. The possibilities are many and varied. It’s never good.

But… they’re my parents. 

They are. Poor you. You deserved love and care and safety, and you got abuse and fear and control. You don’t owe them a thing.

But what will other people say?

Other people might judge you harshly, it’s true. But you can take it. You’re a great parent, you’re such a loving parent that you would actually have considered keeping the person in your life who most betrayed you, just because you don’t want to deprive your child of a few goes on the swings and a bit of cake baking. You are seriously fucking nice. And you have a responsibility to keep your children safe, which is why you also going to be awesome when you cut contact with your abusers, when the shit rains down from friends and family, you are going to be like an umbrella and shelter your kids from all of that.

 

 

 

 

*If you had a nice childhood (or if you had a shit one and you’re still in “it never did me any harm” denial about it) you might be sitting there thinking, that’s not that bad, I mean if that’s the worst she ever did… it’s hardly putting out cigarettes on your arms is it?

I would ask you to come with me on an imaginative journey. You’re on the board of your kid’s school and you have to interview teachers for your kid’s class. One of them has a history of extreme violence to kids (the cigarette thing maybe), one only minor acts of violence like the hair pulling, nothing that would cause an injury, and the third candidate let’s say they’ve never laid a finger on a child, preferring instead to humiliate them with names like “stupid”, “fat”, “ugly”. Which one do you choose? I tell you who you fucking choose you choose none of them because that’s your kid and why the hell would you let someone with a history of abuse within 10 feet of them?

Right?

I blame the parents

A leader is best when people barely know that he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worst when they despise him. Fail to honor people, They fail to honor you. But of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aims fulfilled, they will all say, “We did this ourselves.” Laozi, Chinese philosopher, 500 BC, via the Kaiser Chiefs (don’t say I’m not keeping it highbrow)

It was blazing hot here yesterday so I took the kids to the outdoor pool for the first time since last year. My god what a difference 8 months has made to them! Last year I was wall-eyed trying to keep track of them and the little one kept hanging onto my arm. This year they can swim a bit, and are massively more confident in the water and on the slides and stuff. I’ve finally got to that blessed state of motherhood where I can go to the pool and sit on the edge with my feet in the water and do fuck all while the kids go “look at this mummy!” and jump off stuff. It was pretty awesome.

Then, one of their little colleagues from kindergarten showed up. She’s a couple of years older and in school now, and was under the extremely light supervision of someone else’s mum, and my kids started playing with her at the pool. They then asked if they could take their towels over to where she was, and the three of them spent most of the afternoon going between the pool and their towels with me hanging about nearby.

I can imagine what this felt like to them – proper grown up freedom. They spent most of the afternoon alone with their friend, going from the pool to the poolside, deciding what to do together, all that. I faded right into the background. But from my perspective I was still busy looking after them – I had eyes on them all afternoon, as it’s a busy pool. I was not sat there reading my phone.

I can imagine that a successful childhood feels like this most of the time. You take steps towards independence when you’re developmentally ready, and while your parents will be right behind you cheering you on, they’re doing it silently, exercising judgement about when to intervene and when to stay the fuck out. You feel like you’re doing it all yourself.

Contrast that with your typical dysfunctional, abusive upbringing. You lack key life skills because nobody could be bothered teaching you them or because it was a convenient way to keep you dependent. Responsibilities and freedoms come when it’s convenient for your parents – you might have to fight for ages to be allowed to do things your friends have been doing for years, or you might be saddled with responsibilities you’re too young to have. And among all of it, your parents, their mood, their approval or disapproval, loom large in your mind.

My intuition is that one of the hallmarks of a successful childhood, therefore, is that as you grow up, and once you’ve grown up, you don’t really see the role your parents played in helping you develop. It feels like you did it yourself. Not to say you’re not grateful, but it’s more for the tangible things – the food on the table, the roof over the head.

No wonder then, if normal people perceive adult children of abusive families as total whiners. “My mother never showed me much love as a child, and now I have self esteem issues.” “My father was unpredictably angry and now I have problems trusting people.” “my family treated me as the scapegoat and I take too much responsibility for other people’s feelings”. God, they must think, what is wrong with these people? Couldn’t they just… develop, like I did? My parents did nothing special. I just grew up. They were just there.

I think that when you are recovering from an abusive childhood, it is essential to understand that your parents did wrong by you. You need to know, so you can stop them abusing your children. You need to know so you can understand what you need to fix. And you need to know so you can get angry, and thereby reawaken the sense of self-preservation that’s been suppressed since forever, and protect yourself from awful people in the here and now. It’s not self-indulgence, it’s not refusing to take responsibility for your own problems. Normal people can have the luxury of pretending that they got here all by themselves, but we have to acknowledge the invisible work that parents do for their children’s psychological development, because our parents didn’t do that work, and the effects are still on us.

All the world is queer save thee and me, and even thou art a little queer

There’s a thing that happens to medical students, they say. Every time they learn about a new illness, because the signs and symptoms are at the front of their minds, they will tend to notice and remember if they have any of the symptoms (while failing to notice any evidence that suggests they don’t have the illness). They’ll spend their first year in med school convinced they have one after another of the illnesses they study. Underactive thyroid one week, menopause the next. Even the blokes.

There’s a name for it: perceptual set. The other example you always hear is cars. When you buy a car, you suddenly notice the same model of car on the road everywhere. You look for it, you find it.

When I first realised my mother probably has NPD, I spent a couple of days experiencing what I thought was perceptual set. I thought about that irritating “friend” who ghosted out of my life when I got a new job. The boss who would let you joke in her meetings, but only if you were one of her favourites. That guy who asked me out on a date like 10 times and then disappeared the second time I saw him. Can these all be real, I thought?

It’s easy to conclude that since you’ve found a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Or that a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.  Lightning doesn’t strike in the same place twice, you find yourself thinking. Maybe the problem isn’t with all these other people. Maybe the problem is me.

Honestly, if you’re even thinking that then you’re probably not the problem. But as a scientist, when I read that around 2% of the population has NPD, but the proportion of significant figures in my life who had NPD appears to be more like 20% then I think there is something going on. And it is not perceptual set, it’s not me trying to overexplain my life with my new toy. It’s this. If we grew up with an abuser, we are primed for relationships with people who grew up in similar environments.

It can play out in different ways.

You can go straight back in for another dose of abuse, that’s the simplest way. You fall in love with someone with NPD – the initial love bombing makes you feel awesome for the first time in forever*, and then when it all goes sour and you’re walking on eggshells and fighting for crumbs of affection, it’s all so familiar that it’s hard to know when it all went wrong. You can find yourself in “friendships” with NPDs and wondering why they remind you so much of your mother and why it is that they have this knack for always saying the most hurtful thing at the most hurtful time, apparently by accident or for the best of intentions.

You can also find yourself making friends with other victims. I think there is just something in the demeanour, maybe the way we hold ourselves, the way we speak. I’m almost at the point where, when I make a new friend, I’m just waiting to be introduced to the overbearing father or the emotionally absent mother. It is so weird. Where are all the normal people? Do they walk among us, unnoticed

Do you know what happens to us when we find normal people? We don’t click. It doesn’t work. We find them boring, or we misread the signals. We mistake their directness for bluntness, we look for the hidden game and when we can’t find it, we assume it’s just more deeply hidden than we can see. We fuck it up.

I went out with a normal person really briefly, 20 years ago. She was lovely. We were young, we were a bit drunk, it was dark – these are the only reasons I can think that we got together, because how I would have had the courage to come onto someone so exotic and sophisticated and… happy, I don’t know.

We tried to date, but it was hopeless. I was sort of overwhelmed by all these feelings of “oh my god this might be the one who saves me, oh to be lifted ashore and live in the balmy warmth of your presence (come on act normal act normal)” and she’d be like “I notice you’re a bit quiet, is there anything wrong?” I actually ended up dumping her during one of these talks because I thought she was trying to dump me, and I thought it would be easier to anticipate her by doing it first. I think I was trying to be helpful. It just did not occur to me that she thought it could be worked on. I just thought she’d sussed me, that she’d seen me for what I really was. It was a confusing and difficult experience for both of us.

Anyway, the point, and there is one, is to say that when you learn about your own dysfunction and then see it all around you, trust your instinct**. It’s there. You’re not imagining it. We do attract people like us into our lives.

 

*If you have small daughters you might get this reference, and yes it was totally deliberate.

** You should just trust your instincts anyway. A feature of an abusive upbringing is being taught not to trust your instincts. In reality, gut reaction might not always be right but it’ll be right a damn sight more often than whatever fucked up scaffold of intellectualisation you put over your mess of childhood-programmed fear, obligation and guilt.

Parents were also children

I’m not talking about the cycle of abuse and forgiving your abusive parents and all that stuff. I mean sure. But not today.

No, what I mean is that I notice in some of the childhood abuse recovery literature that there’s a bit of a mismatch in what we expect off of parents and what we expect off of adult children – who also often become parents.

OK so now I’m going to be really unfair to my two favourite abuse recovery gurus and quote them out of context.

First here’s Richard Grannon talking eloquently about how we have to give ourselves access to the “negative” feelings of fear and anger if we want to heal from narcissistic abuse. I think this is brilliant and I can personally attest to the fact that it works. I used to get this thing where if I woke in the middle of the night I had about 50% chance I’d spend the rest of the night awake with my inner critic reviewing every major life choice of the last 20 years, and slagging them all off. It was like a kind of midnight feast of toxic shame and fear. Then one night I decided to follow the advice to sit with the feelings, so instead of trying to find solutions, to justify my decisions to myself, instead of spending my night anxiously jumping from one thought to another, I just lay there and felt the feelings. Shame, fear, regret – so much regret. It was sore. But it passed. And I haven’t had a night like that since. I don’t wake so often in the night, and when I do, I usually go straight back to sleep. So I know how important it is to feel your feelings even when they are negative.

Then there’s Pete Walker, in his book “The Tao of Fully Feeling”. He says at one point

children need a great deal of permission to explore their immediate environments… It is an awful state of affairs that so many mothers in our culture routinely arouse sympathy with the exasperated complaint “He’s into everything!” when they should instead be proudly exulting in their child’s wonderful sense of exploration.

I thought I could go round my house taking photos of my kids’ wonderful sense of exploration but we moved when they were three so I’ve only got the one.

IMG_20170503_143942799

IDK if you can make it out, but my kids were measuring themselves and marking their height on the wall like that bit off of Bing. I didn’t have the heart to tell them off and also I had no idea who did it so I just pretended I hadn’t seen it.

I mean obviously the house is also packed with great pictures of princesses and sparkly unicorns and awesome grinning frogs and dogs, and I love all that stuff. They’re having a star pony party right now (no idea) and the house rings with the sound of giggling singing voices. It’s great.

But it’s not always great. It is annoying when they empty an entire bottle of your favourite bath oil down the toilet, or walk straight out the door and through a big puddle and get soaked to the skin and you’re late for your work. And although you can be very switched on to the idea that you want your kids to express their emotions, your heart sinks when the emotion is AAAAAAARGH and you’re in the queue at Tescos. Add a bit of sleep deprivation and you’re basically talking actual torture. I mean, what the fuck?

It should be fine, it should be acceptable, to Pete Walker and everyone else, that I feel this way. Annoyance at my kids making a mess is an emotion like any other and I should be able to honour it, just as I honour my kids’ right to feel their emotions. If feeling the feels about my shitty childhood is good for me, why is feeling the feels about my trashed house so bad?

I definitely get the feeling that it’s a bit The Patriarchy – mothers are mothers, not people – so it is hard to think of them belonging to another category, that of adult children with feelings and parents and a childhood of their own. But I think it’s also to do with incomplete recovery and incomplete models of what other people are like.

There’s this thing you see on survivor websites where someone will go “there was this time when I was 9 that I made a pizza and I burnt it and then my dad knocked seven shades of shit out of me and locked me out the house, I put the oven on fan assisted but I set it to the non fan assisted temperature, my mother always said the oven fan didn’t really work but I guess it must have or maybe I put the pizza too high in the oven…” and so on and so on, tons and tons of stuff about whether or not they were to blame for the burnt pizza and you’re like “DUDE. It does not matter what you did or did not do to the pizza. The pizza is not the issue. There is NO good reason to knock seven shades of shit out of a nine year old.”

It’s like because we didn’t experience a normal childhood ourselves, we never learned what a normal childhood is, so we carry around this idealised view, a diametric opposite to our own experience. The kids are perfect, the parents are always perfectly pleased with them, and that’s why nobody ever gets slapped. This serves us well in the early stages of recovery, when we feel we need to justify whatever action we’re taking – NC, LC, simply breaking the dysfunctional family rule of “don’t talk about it” – we want to make the gap between normal and abusive childhood to be as wide as we can make it. After all, nobody put cigarettes out on us. There were never any broken bones.

But as recovery progresses, it should give way to a more realistic view of  childhood, with fewer expectations of everybody. Normal children do annoying shit. Normal parents get annoyed. But the key is that nobody gets abused. How does that work?

Well, clearly if you’ve never been abused, you don’t have that menu of abusive parenting techniques at your fingertips, which makes it easier. But for all parents, even the potential abusers like us (yep, there you go, I said it) there are healthy behaviours we can use to defuse irritation and anger. Like having a whinge to your friends. Pete Walker thinks that complaining about your kids makes you a worse parent. I think it makes you a better one. I think that demanding of yourself that you will constantly be delighted by your kids is far more likely to lead to abuse, because it’s not a toddler’s job to be constantly delightful, and if we expect it, we’re one step down the road to making them responsible for our feelings.

 

The five or so levels of lifetime codependency

I had this great idea for a blog post, I thought. The five levels of codependency recovery. Then a quick google put me back in my place. Lots of people thought of this already: you can already recover/succumb in three stages or four stages or even eight stages.

But reading those processes it felt like there was something missing. Maybe it’s just me. But they always seem to tell a story of a person – a woman – whose only sign of codependency is the shit relationships she gets into. The rest of life seems to go OK, only if she could just stop attracting the wrong sort of bloke. And then the recovery process focuses very much on copping on to how shit your current or most recent relationship was and focusing on how to manage your reactions next time, with the single goal of getting into a healthy relationship.

I don’t mean that stuff. I think that’s only half the story. Less than half. There’s a ton of other relationships we have to negotiate in our lives, including our relationship with our kids, ourselves and the things we own and the things we do. And if you were traumatised early enough, I think all of these can be affected. (Anyone else out there still apologising to the furniture when you bump into it?)

So here’s my 5 stages of “lifetime”codependency as opposed to individual relationship codependency. I think they might be aspects actually, as I’m sure these run in parallel. Oh anyway. Here are five things about codependency.

1: Let me atone for the sin of being alive

At this stage you’re still living hour to hour in the trauma. Your default emotions are guilt and fear. The only thing that assuages that is being useful – in your work, with other goals, or by helping other people. You’re uncomfortable with accepting compliments or help, only comfortable when you know you’ve been more helpful to others than they have been to you. You’re probably most comfortable with a job where the tasks are very well defined and you’re able to exceed expectations a lot of the time. You find it damned near impossible to enjoy your free time unless you’re doing something demanding or useful. And it’s not a narcissistic thing – you don’t want to show off, you just need to know you’ve got a store of worthy acts in the bag to earn you your place on this earth.

2: I’m going to be a better person, but don’t anybody feel threatened by that

I’ve put this as 2 because it happened to me when I was quite young. It’s that first inkling that, while you of course had the perfect upbringing and your parents are utterly blameless and when you were punished you deserved it and it’s just a reflection of how bad you are that you sometimes questioned how harsh the punishments were (I AM BEING SARCASTIC HERE, YOUR PARENTS WERE AWFUL, NOBODY SHOULD TREAT A KID LIKE THAT), perhaps there is a nicer way to live your life. So maybe you got really into religion or spirituality or environmentalism, and you found a community of people who tried to use non-violent communication, or had “progressive”, “hippy” (=kind) ideas about how to raise children. Or maybe you were gaslighted (gaslit? That sounds like someone was setting fire to your coat) so you embrace truth and rational thought and you end up becoming a scientist or a statistician or some other job where you regularly get to go “actually if you look at the data, it’s a bit more complicated than that”. The key with all of this is that it becomes your “thing”, your foible, and so it allows you to choose your own values without challenging your parents’ way of life. Which is a lovely thing, or at least it would be if your parents weren’t abusive nutters and your values weren’t TOTALLY STANDARD don’t-be-an-arsehole things like telling the truth and letting your kids choose their own clothes and stuff like that.

3: I’m going to be a good girl even if nobody else is

I think this is a move forward. This is the point where you realise that your relationships may be asymmetric, that your parents have not been nice, but you’re still wedded to the idea of being a good person, so you continue to give all that one-way help and patience. I did this for years with my mother, turned the other cheek to the nasty comments and the occasional dramas, listened to the hour long rants about disappointing family members, did all her little and not so little favours, didn’t think too much about why I could never ask for her help with anything, why I would be unwilling to risk even admitting to her that I needed help with something. I said nothing when my stuff disappeared when we stayed at her house, only to magically turn up again a few months later when I’d done something that pleased her. And so on. “I don’t have control over her behaviour, only my own,” I’d say. “I choose to stay in contact with her and deal with her bullshit so that I don’t have to feel guilty when she’s dead.” But it’s not much of a choice, is it, when you’re doing it to avoid feeling a guilt that your rational brain believes you shouldn’t have to feel? You’re still enslaved at this point, the shackles of guilt are still on you.

4: If I am an arsehole then so be it

This is getting a bit more stagey again. This definitely follows after 3. It’s what happens when you’re still feeling the guilt and perhaps mentally assenting to the idea that you should be feeling guilt, but you’re not willing to do the things to assuage the guilt any more. This is when 20 years of dieting goes up the spout and you gain 2 stone and you’re having cocktails on a Tuesday night because why not? It’s when you go NC with your abusers – probably not in any sort of preplanned way, and probably because of a final big thing that happens but because of some back breaking straw. (This is why estranged parent forums are full of people going “I just can’t understand why he would be so petty as to estrange from us because we wrote his ex-wife’s name on the Christmas card by mistake” and you know they’re thinking “yeah because when he was a little kid and he got bullied at school I’d take him home and beat the crap out of him for not standing up for himself, and he didn’t estrange for that, why the hell is he so upset about the Christmas card?”)

I think in this phase you just can’t be fucked any more, and all the rules go out the window. I reckon if you make a big enough mess of this stage you can probably go back in at about stage 1 again for another go on the merry go round, only this time with self esteem even lower because look what happened when you broke the rules? The key to surviving this stage is to start sorting out the rules that keep you safe from the bullshit rules that keep you shackled to people who don’t deserve your time. This is difficult, because it’s the same people taught you all these rules. You know? My mother taught me that the world is a scary place and that I’m so pathetically unacceptable that only a saintly martyr such as herself would ever really care for me, but she also taught me how to use a pelican crossing. So you have to start examining the rules on their own merits, or else you’ll end up either back in codependent hell or flattened on a level crossing.

5: I’m not perfectly good, or perfectly bad – I’m just normal, and that’s OK

Last stage. Lasts a lifetime. You start identifying the rules of life that you need to live by, the ones that keep you safe and healthy and get you the things that make you happy, and you reject the rules that were about keeping you cowed and compliant and afraid of shame. You start defining what your responsibilities are, and what sits with other people. You stop managing the emotions of adults.

This doesn’t stop the fear or the guilt, athough it puts a good dent in it. You come to the rational conclusion that you are just an ordinary person – neither shameful and unacceptable as you’ve been taught, nor the saintly superhuman you tried to be to keep the guilty feelings at bay. Then with a bit of luck, and a lot of recovery work, your feelings eventually catch up with your thoughts and you can live your life for the first time as no more and no less than a normal adult person.

Any day now. I have high hopes.

I’m going to assume that’s just a thing your face does on its own

I have a workplace superpower: I’m the Awkward Bastard Whisperer.

The first time I realised this was a talent of mine was when I was trying to introduce a new way of working to a team headed up by one of these charmers. He shouted all the way through our first meeting. He started off angry shouting because he couldn’t see the point of this new technology I was hawking, and he ended up enthusiastic shouting once he understood how useful it would be to his team. My boss was delighted, and rewarded me by giving me all the other awkward buggers to work with.

 

It was a skill that continued to be useful when I changed career. First month in my new job I got sent to attend a regular external telecon. One of those nightmare gigs where your boss wants “presence” at the meeting but you’re so junior in your own department that you’re not allowed to tell them anything, and so insignificant to the meeting attendees that you’re not allowed to ask anything either. So your impact is limited to passing the odd well-timed, apposite little gobbet of data along the table while the call is running, and maybe making an intelligent comment before or after the call connects. And the meeting chair has a habit of looking at you like you’re something she just scraped off her chair. Yet somehow, you manage to make friends or evince sympathy or something, to the point that she gives lovely feedback to your boss. And months after the calls are finished she still favours you with a smile in the corridor, an experience so terrifying that you can never quite put your finger on whether your fear is coming from worry that her face will break or whether it’s simply the racial memory of some small primate ancestor, looking up into the grinning maw of whatever pointy-teethed horror was about to bring its life to a premature end. Either way. It wasn’t an easy place to work. I’ll count it as a win.

So what’s my secret?

Dead easy. It’s a strategy I call “I’m going to assume that’s just a thing your face does on its own.” When someone sneers at me, shouts at me, makes passive-aggressive comments, or uses an unpleasant tone, I just pretend they’re basically nice people who have no control over their manner. Their face just does that. It’s not about me.

I mean, it’s probably rarely about me. Who the hell acts like that at work? Most of us have friends and loved ones who we can take all that stuff out on. No look I’m being facetious, but it’s kind of true – most of us can put up a bit of a mask of professionalism at work, be pleasant enough to people we might not ordinarily get on with, in order to get through the day. People who can’t manage that are either overinvested in their work because they have nothing else going on outside of it, or they’re so enslaved by the raging storm of whatever is going on in their heads that they don’t see or can’t control when they’re being unpleasant. Either way, they are not making themselves many work friends, and I can only imagine that it is a relief to them once to see a face not reacting with fear or anger.

It’s a rubbish superpower, though. I wish I didn’t have it. Sure it’s easy for me to read your  cues and see how to calm you down. It’s an absolute breeze for me to be afraid of your aggression, yet step to the one side of it and behave as though you were normal, I was normal, and we were all friends. Talk you off the ledge. Lead you back to normality. It preserved me throughout my childhood, it saved me lots of times. Pete Walker calls it the fawn response. I learned it before I knew how to speak.

Fuck you all, you awkward bastards. Do you know what you look like, when your face does that? Do you know what you sound like?

I’ve learned a new response to those people in the last few years. Turn 180 degrees; walk; keep walking. Sometimes my feet are doing it before my brain even knows what’s happening. It feels so good to let go of the responsibility of taking care of angry people. Our brains are trained to do it but in your heart you don’t want to, you can’t. fucking. be. arsed. Walk away one time, and it becomes so much easier to walk away the next time, and the next. This is a pattern your brain wants to learn. It feels good: let it feel good. Give in. You’ve done enough of this work for one lifetime.

How shouting at my kids makes me feel fat

If I had to sum up my philosophy for parenting after trauma, I would say: don’t try to fix your parenting, but fix yourself, and then parent. (I have a feeling I might have picked that up third hand from Zen Buddhism, except that it probably wasn’t originally about parenting, was it? Do Buddhist monks have kids? Not normally, right?) Kids don’t want your fake parenting, they want your real self. Like, did you ever have the experience that you’re playing with them, and they do something that is really funny, and you laugh – a proper spontaneous belly laugh? And then what happens? They’ll do the thing that made you laugh, over and over again, trying to provoke the same laugh that they got the first time. Because that genuine burst of emotion felt so good.

But what about the bad emotions? The “bad” emotions? You know – fear, anger, sadness? I think you have to take a bit more care – I see this as a gradual transfer of responsibility where you should only really be sharing your feelings fully when your kids are adults, or near to it. Smaller kids need to feel safe, they need to not be parentified – so you need to choose what you share with them, and they need to know that whatever emotions you’re having, you’re OK, they’re OK, and nothing bad’s going to happen.

I find all this fairly easy and instinctive when it comes to fear and sadness. My kids are fine seeing my genuine fear of, say, rollercoasters (because if they pick up that fear it’s not going to impact their daily lives), but as they’ve just been starting swimming lessons I’ve been trying not to make it obvious that I don’t like the water on my head. I’m fine with them seeing me crying at the kitten book scene in Despicable Me, but if someone starts shouting at me in the supermarket car park because whatever, I’ll sniff the tears back and say I’m OK. That sort of thing.

It can be stressful. Having to choose your response each time takes effort. It’s one of the reasons I think you need regular breaks and adult contact if you look after kids, to be able to recover from that effort, to not have to do it for 12 hours straight. If we were all in those fabled sort of Back In The Day When All Was Well extended family units with older relatives sharing childcare and everyone sitting round the table shelling peas, this wouldn’t be a source of stress because you’d be in constant contact with other adults and you wouldn’t have to carry the full burden of conversation with the kids, it would be easy. I mean, it would in the hypothetical normal family. In my family it would be horrific but my family’s all fucking mental.

Anyway. That leaves anger. I’m not all that good at anger. It’s a common unwritten rule (ha – they’re all unwritten. That’s half the fun!) in narcissistic families that only the narcissist parent’s anger is acceptable: not only acceptable, but righteous and justified. Kids’ anger is utterly unacceptable. It’s almost the worst thing you can do, be angry, because you’re questioning the system. So to quash any of that nonsense and keep you close by providing narcisstic supply, anger gets really harshly punished. They make sure you know you’re unacceptable, unlovable, and wrong.

You carry it into adulthood, the toxic shame. I’ve had so many experiences where someone will be an utter dick to me, and I’ll get like the slightest bit angry and I’ll start this panicked run-through of everything they said and did and I said and did, trying desperately to convince myself that I’m not the hideously awful person  I now feel like. I sometimes then have to go and do nice things for other people to convince myself I am the sort of person who does nice things.

This shit messes with your life in all sorts of ways. I would say the worst is that it makes you really shite at leaving relationships where you’re being badly treated, but it also makes it bloody hard to parent small children. I wanted to create a home where people could feel free to express all their emotions. I did all that stuff of sitting on the floor in Tescos empathising with their tantrums. “You’re angry. You’re so angry that you can’t eat that green toilet block thing. It’s so annoying! Why do they make it a nice colour if you can’t even eat it?” But I wasn’t doing any work to make my own anger more acceptable to myself, and the asymmetry was always going to bite me in the bum.

So I grew up in a house where only my mother’s anger was acceptable, and mine was abhorrent – and I was creating a situation where my kids’ anger was acceptable, but mine as a mother’s was not on. Look who’s the arsehole in both setups. I’ll give you a clue, it’s the woman who’s standing in the kitchen at 9am inhaling a family bag of artisanal crisps.

The kids were getting older and more annoying, and it turns out that if you eat enough of them, even steak and mustard new potato crisps fried with the skin on eventually lose their ability to anaesthetise the bad feelings. The anger started leaking out of me. Bursting out. I was shouting at them – I’d be nice faced, patient, till maybe about 2 in the afternoon, and then having taken all I could deal with, I’d blow my top and yell at them both.

It was shite anger. First of all, because it happened as a result of an accumulation of annoying things, it didn’t relate to the small, straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back incident I’d blown up at. They’d be looking at me like, I’m sure the last time I rubbed playdoh into the carpet you just laughed it off. Did we… get a new carpet? Why is this a big deal now?

Second, it didn’t actually make me feel any better. You’re supposed to feel better after you’ve had a good shout, but this was end of my tether shouting, not get it out of my system shouting. And it was coming with a big helping of toxic shame.

So what did I feel ashamed about? Being too angry? Too loud? Scaring the kids?

No. What I felt shame about, specifically, as I was shouting, was that I was fat.

Let’s just cut away for a minute and talk about this. Now, I am fat. My BMI is firmly into the overweight category. I come from a stock of people who managed to survive in a country where the best growing crop is the fucking turnip and the winter days are about 25 minutes long. I know how to sit still and conserve energy. And add to that the artisanal crisp-inhaling tendencies, and it adds up. I am, as Kevin Bridges would say, not “documentary” fat – but definitely on the porky side.

I wasn’t fat at all as a kid. I left school aged 17 and I was somewhere between a size 12 and a 14 – average if anything. And yet I’d felt fat my whole childhood. Fat was a massive thing for my mother. She’d been extremely thin as a child, and a teenager – she’d look at her wedding and first anniversary photos, and remark wistfully that she’d been so thin before I came along and ruined her figure. Every few months or so she’d look at me appraisingly, remark that my dance classes or swimming lessons didn’t seem to be working, and launch another  diet. Her and me. She’d go along to Weightwatchers or the local one at the leisure centre, bring it home and we’d pore over it, try and figure out how we’d survive on it. Diet foods would be bought, and I’d be warned how hard it would be: no food after dinner time, no snacks, no sweets. The diets would normally last as long as I lasted: after a week or two of undressed salads and a single weetabix for breakfast I’d break and ask for more food. Regretfully she’d comply and the diet would be shelved, for her as well as me; it was a relatively painless process for me because she was never particularly angry at me for falling off the diet. It was the one thing I was allowed to fail at. I mean she’d fat shame me for it later: it’d come up when we were buying clothes, an experience so painful I’ll be giving it its own post at some point, and it was one of her go-to insults when she was yelling at me. But that was just shaming, not scary, and to me it was worth it – to be able to get off the diet and get enough to eat without sparking off one of her terrifying rages was a pretty good deal, at the time. Shame’s way less painful than fear or hunger.

I started the diets when I was 7.

Anyway, if you’re still following this, let’s cut back to the floor and the playdoh. I’m sitting there shouting and suddenly I get this feeling of toxic shame and it’s got a real flavour of “you’re too fat”. And my conscious mind is sitting there going “what the fuck? We’re going to talk about the crisp habit now? What the fuck is going on? Why are we not talking about the fact that you’re applying inconsistent discipline to your kids, and confusing hell out of them? Why are we now focusing on the size of your arse, which is the same as it was yesterday, when it wasn’t bothering you at all?”

This would be a much more satisfying story if, following this disturbing experience, I’d copped on to all of this in one go: my mother projected her disgust at her own body onto me, and used it as a shorthand for how completely unlovable and unacceptable I was, particularly when I broke the rules. Fat was her favourite insult, and getting angry was the worst crime. Of course they were going to be related in my head.

In reality it was much messier. I put it out of my mind and carried on with my life, which as a former abused child is my fucking superpower, and didn’t think about it again until I’d copped on to the fact that I might have that I might have CPTSD, and that feeling fat when I get angry is an emotional flashback.

Nowadays I make an effort to express my anger with the kids at the time it happens, in proportion, and with the proviso that we all still love each other and you can still have a hug (quite often 2 of 2 will ask for a hug in the middle of a telling off, have the hug, and then listen to the rest of the telling off). At first I felt the toxic shame response rearing its head whenever I raised my voice but I told it to fuck off, and it does, mostly. And the kids seem fine – if anything, a bit calmer, although it’s pretty futile trying to detect any effect on your kids from changes in your parenting while they grow and change every day. Just got to hope for the best.

The arrogant codependent

I can only remember getting into trouble once in high school. It was just as well, because I couldn’t cope with it at all.

I was nearly 16, it was early May, and I was just about to sit my exams. I’d started studying in the local library that Easter, I was still going down at weekends and I was planning to do the same as soon as we got released for exam leave. We had about a week left to go of actual classes, and it was all revision and past papers. Even though the hardest bit was still to come, it felt like the end of term. Relaxed, the normal rules nearly suspended.

Nearly. I was in my English class digging around at the bottom of my bag for a book of poems or something. I lifted the contents of the bag onto the desk for a second, and when I look up the Head of English is looking down at me.

“Is that a Walkman?”
“Yes, sorry, I don’t listen to it in school it’s just in my bag. I took it out-”
“You aren’t allowed to bring a Walkman to school. You’re not allowed to bring valuables.”
“I know, it’s just I’m going straight from here to the library so-”
“I’ll let you off this time, Felix*, but if I see that Walkman in here again I will have to give you lines.”

That was it, and then he went and talked to the teacher. I excused myself to go to the toilet and I had, IDK, is there a name for it? A crisis, a meltdown? I cried a lot. I was shaking. One of my colleagues was sent to retrieve me. I couldn’t explain to her why I was so upset. I didn’t know myself.

The truth is, it was pretty much the first time I’d experienced reasonable discipline – you know, someone telling me off, not particularly unpleasantly, reminding me that there was a rule I was aware of and that I’d broken it. That had just never happened to me before. That’s not to say that I wasn’t punished – there was summary justice at home, swift and brutal – but it was for anything and everything, about as predictable as my mother’s mood, and bore very little relation to my actual behaviour. As a result, I had developed a great deal of control over myself so that I gave her very few pretexts to get angry at me. It was like an exclusion zone of good behaviour, 3 ft deep on every side, to try and buy myself a quiet life. And naturally that applied at school as well. There wasn’t much that made my mother angrier than the thought that people might be saying bad things about her. And if she’d ever been contacted by the school about my behaviour – well, I guess at the time I still sort of believed the “loving but overprotective”narrative and I thought that I had to prove myself responsible enough to be allowed to go to university, have a social life, have a boyfriend. Now I’d word it more like she deeply resented me getting any of the trappings of a normal, free life, and if I’d given her the slightest pretext she’d have taken them off me. So I had a lot of incentive not to get into trouble.

The perfect behaviour got me the things I wanted – relative peace from my mother (as a successful student, I was a good enough source of vicarious narcissistic supply that she mostly left me alone) and a good university place. But it meant that I never really experienced what it felt like to be told off, to have to say sorry, to be sorry, to know you were in the wrong.

Fast forward many, many years to this weekend (Holy fuck. It is 25 years since I sat my exams. How the hell did that happen?) and I’m reading the Saturday Guardian and they have a thing in there about a new website for people with crazy-ass parents. And one of the website founders says

“When my mother was elderly and had dementia, I visited her every week. And people who knew us thought I was mad; but I did it because the last thing I wanted was to be like her. I wanted to behave properly, and I always have wanted that.”

I did this for aaaaages. I used to say to my husband that I didn’t want to have to waste my time feeling guilty when my mother died so I was going to be the bigger person and do all the running and maintain some sort of relationship between us and between her and my kids. Under this plan nobody was going to be deprived of anything. Except me, except the peace I bloody deserved, but that was fine – I was still maintaining my three feet of good behaviour between me and anyone’s reasonable expectations of me.

So far, so typically codependent, right? That good behaviour, motivated by a fear of anger, a fear of being bad, so strong and so young put into us that we’re hardly aware it exists. I get it, I know it.

But that’s not all that was going on, was it? Fear and guilt? There’s something else. After a lifetime of living perfectly, of maintaining that cordon, you’ve never known any discipline than your own. Never said sorry. Never been wrong.

It’s pride. Pride kept me in that situation, pride at myself for turning the other cheek, pride that I could plug the gaps, do the running, and somehow make all the relationships work. Never acknowledge what it costs you, because you’re addicted to the fiction that it costs you nothing, that you’re strong enough to deal positively with every negative comment, every acting out, ever jibe, every attack. Don’t do me any fucking favours.

They say pride is the worst of all the cardinal sins, because it prevents you from changing. I think that’s true. We can only get recovery when we admit that we are neither especially good nor especially bad – just normal people, not deserving of abuse, not capable of saintly self-containment 24 hours a day. That normal is enough, in all aspects of our lives – that just because we can cope with the abuse doesn’t mean we have to, or that we should. That good behaviour can be motivated  by love instead of anger if you let it, it doesn’t have to insulate you from the rest of the world, and that it’s by clashing with other people and working out your differences that you actually make friends, not by being a highly-polished stone that slips out of others’ grasp.

*I’m not really called Felix, in case you were wondering.

 

Joining in

We’re away skiing.

I say we. The kids are in a “ski kindergarten” and my other half is away skiing, but I don’t ski. And when I say “I don’t ski”, I don’t mean in the sense of “I’ve never tried it, but it looks kind of cool, so maybe if I ever got the chance…” – I’ve tried it, I didn’t like it, and I’ll poke anyone in the eye who as much as tries to measure me up for a pair of skis.

There’s loads of reasons I don’t like it. Lots of them are to do with kit. I’m always that person fiddling with their laces for the umpteenth time and grumbling that I should’ve worn my old boots even though they’re not waterproof anymore. I hate the way everyone tells you that the fit of the ski boots is essential and then gives you their personal recommendation of sock/thermal tight/boot tightness setting but then when you go to the boot hire place, there’s always like 10,000 people just arrived and they sort of eyeball your feet and go “38 or 39, fuck it here’s a 39.5” and you try them on for 10 seconds and they go “how do they feel” and you go “fucking terrible” and they go “that’s probably about right” and then you’re out the door. My other half always says reassuring words to me at this point but I notice that one of the first things he did when we moved to a place where you can go skiing as a day trip was to spend a good hour at the ski shop getting fitted for his own boots so he can avoid this bit.

Anyway supposing I manage to get the things on and get the planks strapped to my feet and the sticks in my hand (I know they have names, shut up), then I have to get on the ski lift, and I hate that too. Well I don’t mind getting on so much – it’s the getting off. You watch skier after skier neatly drop off and ski round in a nice circle, draw to a stop and then head off joyfully down the slope. Each time I just hope to fall off far enough away that nobody has to pick me up and drag me out the way. This seems the harshest bit of skiing to me, as an adult learner. Once you’re off of there you can fall over and nobody bothers but you need that sort of baseline of competence on a pair of skis to be able to get to the actual slope. One time I did an adult beginner’s class hoping I could learn this most basic skill but guess what, everyone else managed to get off the ski lift without falling over except me, even the people who’ve never been on skis before, so I think I even lack the ability to be a beginner at skiing.

But I think the worst bit for me is the joining in. All the people in the bus, doing the same thing: the routine of it, having your toilet breaks together, and… having to enjoy it. Looking around at all these happy faces, and I’m hating it. WTF is wrong with me? Why can’t I enjoy this? Here are all these other people enjoying it. It’s cost so much money…

…and I’m having an emotional flashback.

I can sense them now. They come with the same flavour: a mulish awkwardness that I don’t think belongs to me but I’ve inherited it anyway. My parents went big on holidays, relatively speaking: we were that brand of very traditional respectable working class who lived in more style on holiday than at home. My mother being an NPD would then get really really angry if you weren’t happy with a rictus grin plastered on your face 24/7, and of course there was no getting away from her, sharing a room, doing things together all day. The best two holidays I ever had were the two years when the Christian Union was in town and I gladly converted for the week or fortnight, in order to have organised events to go to that kept me away from my mother’s beady glare. But outside of that my behaviour would be policed constantly and I’d be shamed for not showing the appropriate holiday emotions. That’s my feeling whenever I go on holiday, then – fear that I’m not like the other people who’re all enjoying themselves, and shame that they can see that on my face.

Compare and contrast. This morning my kids went off for their first morning at ski kindergarten. There were about 20 of them, loaded onto a little tractor trailer together, ill-fitting shoes, runny noses and one or two dummies included. There were tears from some of the kids and most of the adults as we waved them off, and seeing 1 of 2 (shy, has issues with socks) waving out with a smile on her face brought tears of relief to my eyes too. Then we got the talk from the ski school boss. Don’t go out to the ski lift where they’re skiing: don’t go skiing there, don’t go walking there, and if you want to take a picture of them do it from the other side of the valley where they won’t be able to make you out. It’s like the first day of kindergarten, he said – we need to develop a relationship with your kids, so you need to stay out of the way.

It felt like part of what it is to be a German kid. It’s one of those moments when you’re going to be out on your own doing something new and uncomfortable, and the people looking after you will make it happen as easily as possible without letting you fail to do it. So you put your tiny person in the trailer, the same little person who this morning was crying because one of their 8 teddy bears had fallen out of bed in the night, and you trust that they are old enough or young enough or whatever to learn this skill. I love it. I love that it’s acknowledged that they might not like it at first, that they might find it hard. That you’re out here and you’ve driven three hours and spent 2 grand for a holiday to do an activity that in all likelihood will make your kid cry, at least at first. But it’s worth it. And at the end of the week it’ll hold no fear for them, and they’ll have had the irreplaceable experience of having not liked it at first and then gone on to enjoy it.

Coming from an abusive background it’s really hard to know what a normal childhood should look like. I often wonder whether my kids cry and moan too much, are they specially unhappy, am I doing something wrong? (When I was a littler I was constantly cheerful and pleasant – constantly – because I’d been trained to be. You’d never have known I was unhappy. I know that’s not right either). It was validating this morning to be worrying about the kids, putting them on that trailer, welling up because they were smiling and waving back – and then looking about and seeing other parents with tears in their eyes as well. I think I’ll never be much of a joiner in, but I was glad to be in the same boat as everyone else this morning.