Deepening the pool. Childhood memories.
How can I rise above the sadness of a wasted childhood? How can I right the wrongs of the past? Am I damaged? Can I change? Does identifying negative influences and conflicts that were already a part of me aged five help me grow today? The therapy session yesterday was pretty hard going and felt like quite a trauma but I’m happy to have done it.
The main exercise was to imagine the five year old me is sitting on a cushion in the room. She was sitting there, trying not to notice me: the current me. She makes like she isn’t interested, but when I look away, she takes a sideways glance at me. She has a lot of curiosity but not in a typically childlike way as she feels nervous in the company of others. So, she sits there, withdrawn. What do I say to her? If I could say anything what would I say?
The things I wanted to say, she wouldn’t understand. I want to tell her she must have the strength to be true to herself. I want to tell her she must find her own happiness. I want to tell her it’s OK to be who she is. Trust yourself. I want to tell her that it’s good to be open to love and laughter. Get out of your head more. If I could tell her just one thing, I’d say “enjoy now”.
But she wouldn’t understand these things. Instead I notice what she’s looking at. She’s spotted a boy playing outside. He’s riding a bicycle. I ask her if she wants to go and play outside as well, but she isn’t allowed. It’s not safe. Maybe we can play together? She doesn’t want that either, and she’s squirming and getting uncomfortable. How do you feel about that? I know what she’s thinking; she wants to be on her own again now and doesn’t like this adult asking questions. No-one asks her how she’s feeling and she doesn’t have any language to convey what she perpetually feels, which is jealousy of others, self-loathing, feeling different, confusion about the messages she’s getting, anger, resentment. There are good sides to: things she looks forward to like playing football and messing about outdoors, but they are temporary distractions from the turmoil she – I – have always felt.
When I speak to myself as an adult I use what my therapist G calls the ‘critical voice’. I’m constantly aware of G picking me up on this trait I have when I talk about some aspect of myself. I have heard it said that the way we treat ourselves mirrors the way our parents treated us as kids. My parents were highly critical and I grew up in a household ruled by a noxious lifestyle choice – organised religion. There were a lot of commands beginning with “you must always” “you should never” “you’ll go to hell if” “this way is the only way”. I was forced to get my head around serious, adult concepts. I was told that life on earth doesn’t matter as long as you follow religion, because what we’re living for is the afterlife. I was told that anyone that doesn’t follow the same religion as us is a sinner and is going to hell. I suspected from an early age that my parents’ religion was not for me but I had no other person to give my feelings validation or to offer an alternative value system.
This little five year old girl, she is told that some of her friends are sinners. But she sees their households are filled with laughter, hobbies, siblings, activity and affection. For the first time she sees two adults – her friend’s parents – embracing each other and even she notices there is love there. She doesn’t have siblings herself and her parents aren’t in love with each other. And yet adults constantly comment how lucky she is to be an only child. She must be so spoilt! She is so sick of hearing that and it frustrates her that they could be so wrong. She pulls away whenever they try to grab her big cheeks or stroke her curly hair.
I didn’t feel like a child when I was a child. I was party to adult things, not just religion but extramarital affairs that it was just expected I would keep to myself. I was used as a pawn in my parents’ constant battles. I spent my childhood wishing it away, feeling different to others, crippled by shyness, waiting to reach a certain age when I presumed everything would just fall into place. And as an adult I have behaved very childishly. Until I embarked on this journey I wasn’t a fan of taking responsibility for myself. I used people. I took stupid risks. I rebelled. I pissed people off with my erratic or petulant behaviour. I hurt people needlessly. I refused to change or to have an open mind. I was selfish.
That five year old on the cushion seemed like flesh and blood. I can see how she had her hair and what she was wearing. She’s only a memory, distorted by hindsight. But I know how to talk her language and teach her sensitively. It’s not easy going back there but I owe it to myself to look after her.