Memories keep coming back to me.
Bright flashes of nostalgia.
Just normal things,
but normal things that I’ve not thought about probably ever.
Since they first happened maybe.
(It just so happens that I can’t recall any of them right now)
But it’s things like the smell of warm summer air walking home from the rugby club.
Or watching the carnival week parade from the bay window of Mum and Dad’s bedroom in Malvern house.
Or the feeling of warm sand between your toes when you have to put your trainers back on at the end of a long day on the beach.
In between things.
In between the crying and screaming and sleepless nights and multiples of 7 or 49.
Do these things make up for the other things?
The in between things.
Chopped banana and grapes and Rosie and Jim.
Forts made from bushes.
Over-sized hand-me-down clothes.
A plaster on a scrubbed knee that you’d wear with pride
someone took care of me.
3 thoughts on “the in between things”
TW: This is rather bleak in places, but concludes optimistically.
This comment is also my reply to other posts on here, ‘Waiting’, ‘Hospital Flowers’, ‘Interlude/Interruption’, ‘Stop blaming women…’and ‘Ashamed’ because for me they are connected by an underlying theme. Once again, I shudder with self-recognition at their contents. These are my words, but the ideas are lifted from the all those psychotherapy books I love to read. It is offered with only benevolent intent, so if it disturbs, please accept my apologies. It is me reading your posts through the prism of my own similar experiences. It may well be telling you things you already know. I quote two influential psychiatrists, Thomas Szasz (TS) and R.D. Laing (RDL), both of whom are essential reading for anyone interested in ‘mental health’ issues. Indeed, their ideas are why I put ‘mental health’ in quotes, as many might realise from their inspiring words.
Crying, screaming, sleepless nights and presumably compulsive mental arithmetic, the amplified significance of the knee plaster, the salience of sympathy only for bodily illness, all suggest a strong need for reassurance in the face of ongoing severe distress.
Accepting how our childhood experiences hurt us and threaten our adult potential requires such intense emotional courage that no, there is now way at all that ‘these things make up for the other things’. ‘Recovery’ from ‘mental illness’ requires the courage to confront the quagmire of family politics, which goes against our evolution, in which our family tribe was the only means of survival. A yearning for the comfort of the mundane and the prosaic in between the frightening comes easily. What could be more reassuring than thinking, it was never that bad really, they loved me really….just storms in teacups…
The theory is that early in life as soon as the developing child starts to realise she exists independently of her carers, she also learns a fear of annihilation, because this independence also creates a realisation that she is dependent on others for her survival, so the essential drive to sustain life becomes as one with the need for approval and security. To later become an autonomous adult she needs her burgeoning emotional interactions with the people around her to be validated, from which her personality can then mature.
If she is lucky she will be loved and accepted unconditionally for what and who she is, and grow up respecting and valuing herself. She will grow to be her authentic self, literally taking that self-acceptance for granted, precisely because it was granted her by unconditional parental love and acceptance in the critical formative years throughout which her personality was developing. If she has been emotionally validated in this way the ever-present fear of annihilation will be mitigated.
But if she is unlucky, if she is born to harsh and critical parents who are themselves too damaged to offer unconditional love and acceptance, such that they unconsciously expect her to meet their needs instead at the expense of her own, she learns to deny herself, and her need for uncritical acceptance goes unrecognised and unmet. Thus she is forced to develop a false self to mitigate that ever-present fear of annihilation occasioned by the absence of parental validation. And so her burgeoning sense of self is thwarted and fails to bloom. This is the fear that drives the extreme behaviour that can eventually be ‘diagnosed’ as ‘mental illness’.
When the growing child starts to protest and rebel against the impossible situation of meeting parental needs at the expense of her own, the family becomes the scene of a desperate power battle.
TS said ‘in the animal kingdom, the rule is, eat or be eaten; in the human kingdom, define or be defined’.
Because the parents have the power to have the rebel defined as ‘mentally ill’, and therefore needing ‘treatment’, they can escape the challenge of confronting what is really going on in the family, by maintaining that the child’s symptoms are the result of her ‘illness’ rather than their parental failure to validate her. Pathologizing the child by locating the ‘illness’ in the ‘patient’ is merely an expression of the family power dynamic, but a dangerously strong one.
RDL said: “Insanity is a perfectly natural adjustment to a totally unnatural and negative environment.”
TS said: “Labeling a child as mentally ill is stigmatization, not diagnosis. Giving a child a psychiatric drug is poisoning, not treatment.”
But the illusion is not always so easily maintained, because what is kept opaque within the family can be so clearly visible outside of it. Thus ‘mental’ illness typically does not attract the same sympathies as the physical, because it is a threat to the family power control dynamic, giving rise to accusations such as ‘you are faking it’, ‘pull yourself together’, ‘ungrateful bitch’, ‘after all I did for you’ and worse, which are actually gaslighting.
All this is a black echo that puts an impossible strain on the child herself. Desperately seeking relief through self-destructive behaviour whilst having to maintaining the false self to survive the hypocrisy of the family is neurologically very expensive and she becomes exhausted and likely to attract a diagnosis of ‘depression’, which is really burn-out from the pressure cooker of family life. In some cases this burn-out, the sheer mental duress of suppressing the true self to present the false self, to ensure survival by appeasing those with power over her, can eventually upset the finely tuned electro-chemical balance of the brain itself, so as to cause pseudoseizures, which are some kind of brain spasms that present like epilepsy, but are shown not to be so. And if the crushing duress is sufficiently severe, and exacerbated by some kind of emotional crisis, parts of the repressed true self can even be heard internally as external voices, in a kind of transient psychosis.
This black echo can also damage subsequent adult relationships. This left-over childhood fear is exactly the same fear that infects adult relationships when the false self has become habitual, and unconsciously still seeks the uncritical acceptance (validation) denied in childhood from the adult partner, who may well be unaware of all this, and unable to deliver it. Inevitably the relationship starts to fail the more she unconsciously expects the adult partner to meet the unacknowledged needs that eluded her in childhood. And of course, over on the other side of the bed, as like as not, the other partner may well be similarly snared in their own unconscious black echoes as well.
(How I squirm with recognition as I type this. How I wish I had understood this in my youth. How I wish I had not said those things. How I wish I had not done those things.)
What is typically experiences as stubborn emotional ‘unavailability’ can be nothing more or less than one partner seeking to relate on an adult level that does not, and indeed cannot, connect with the black echo of the other’s unacknowledged left-over childhood needs masquerading as adult feelings. All the numerous variations on this theme share the same underlying process of thwarted childhood emotional validation. How much of the deep pain of separation is loss of the adult partner, and how much is childhood yearning for validation? The bottom line is adult romance can’t fix an invalidating childhood. (Therapist Robin Norwood explored this in depth in her book ‘Women Who Love Too Much’.)
So far so bad. However the good news is that the more this left-over childhood fear of annihilation is acknowledged for what it is, the less powerful it becomes; the more she can start to establish control of her life and learn to do the work of meeting her own needs and accepting herself. Importantly, the black echo itself is vulnerable, because it is not permanent, and because its apparent power over her is just a throw-back to the powerlessness of infancy and childhood, not a reflection or limitation of her considerable adult capabilities. It is, after all, just an echo. Whilst the past can never be undone, the black echoes can indeed be silenced. Always remember that the brain, as well as being the most complicated thing on earth, is also the most flexible. It can and does change itself all the time, via the process of neuroplasticity, and it is everyone’s ticket out.
RDL said: “Pain in this life is not avoidable, but the pain we create avoiding pain is avoidable.”
This is why insight and selfishness are the most important ingredients of recovery. This is why calling out the trauma is so important, because it takes away the power of the fear by reducing the black echo on which it rides. This is how to ‘mend a trust universally broken’. (Easy enough to write, but spectacularly difficult to do in real life I personally found.) But not doing it is harder – more of the same the next time round starts to generate its own black echo. Trust is not a thing than can be ‘broken’, and therefore not something to be ‘fixed’; it is merely an idea that you might, or might not, decide is appropriate depending on the circumstances you find yourself in.
Regarding forgiveness, some psychologist observed that:
‘Forgiveness is not something we do, but, like happiness is something which arises spontaneously from what we do. It is not a virtue but a blessing. We cannot make ourselves forgive any more than we can make ourselves be happy. We can create the conditions where we can be happy, and we can do the things that make us happy, but happiness remains a by-product of what we do. Similarly, we can do the things for which forgiveness is a by-product. We can seek to enlarge our understanding of why these hurtful events occurred. We can do the things which restore a sense of continuity to our life and a sense of value to ourself…It is much easier to discover forgiveness for yourself if you actually seek to understand yourself and to undertake new and creative enterprises. By concentrating on the understanding and the actions we can one day discover that we have lost a burden, and that state of lightness is forgiveness’.
Or as Oscar Wilde put it, ‘Living well is the best revenge’.
Again, thank you so much for such a long and thoughtful response to my post. I really do appreciate it. Apologies for the delay in response, I must’ve missed the notification.
A lot of what you have said resonates with me. I have never thought of “mental illness” being used as a label like that instead of dealing with deep-seated family issues which caused the negative emotions to arise in the first place.
I am currently going through a break up, as you will probably figure out from my next few posts, so I really relate to when you said “The bottom line is adult romance can’t fix an invalidating childhood.” So true.
Thank you again, for your kind words and your lengthy and thought-provoking comments.
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no need to apologise for anything, I am always fascinated to read you comments, but don’t ever feel you have to…
I am pleased if my words have been helpful, and of course it helps me to write them, something satisfying about putting my own thoughts in perspective. I am inspired to respond because you write so well; you are so good at telling it like it is, now matter how uncomfortable it may be.
I am sad to learn about the breakup, it reads like it was someone you wanted to keep? I wonder was it someone you knew for a long time?
On the uncomfortable subject of family politics surrounding ‘diagnosis’, one book that helped me a lot was ‘People of the Lie’ by the psychiatrist M. Scott Peck. It contains some spine-chilling vignettes of parents defining their children as ‘mentally ill’. Grim but compelling, especially when I recognised my own parents therein.
Re Szasz and Laing, I am fascinated to discover that these once-fringe ideas are now swimming in the mainstream. The British Psychological Society recently published their manifesto for long-overdue positive change in today’s UK ‘mental health’ industry, ‘The Power Threat Meaning Framework’. It includes some highly pertinent ideas about what a BPD diagnosis is really about and some feminist-inspired ideas about those diagnostic gender differentials. Given your responses to my thoughts, I think you might find it very interesting. There is a lot of it, no stones unturned, but it is very clearly and carefully written, so one doesn’t need to be a psychologist or psychiatrist to get what they are saying. You can download it for free here:
Click to access PTM%20Main.pdf
All the best.