Image credit: Jon Sen
THIS IS DIFFICULT to share, as I stare at a blank page and muse on my life, but seems so very necessary. Not merely because of the theme – identity, my self-hood, its drivers and its turning points – but because it names something I was never properly able to claim in my childhood. It breaks a silence about my life, that at one time I was mute, too depressed and too ashamed to talk about; gives me back a voice and redeems the permission to have a voice. This is to move out and away from the conflicts and tyrannies of childhood, where who I was was disguised, hidden and lost. My life has been a lifelong search towards self-acceptance and self-valuing; towards a better, truer sense of identity. It is possible that in order to be oneself, it may feel as though you are letting other people down. I felt that way for a long time. I think the worst thing possible would be to leave this world before you know who you are. Before you’ve had the chance to experience that fullness and aliveness, for and in of itself; whatever its shape, however expressed, with no need to diminish it or cower in shame. I understand now, that for a long, long while you can live out a tragedy that isn’t even yours. Parents can lay a shadow over you for a long time.
As a teenager growing up in an outwardly projected middle-class home, I knew I was very much struggling in some deep, flawed way in myself. And I mean struggling with mental health issues; deep unfathomable depressions, panics, anxieties that I could barely name but I felt might sweep me away. Holding on to reality and my vulnerable rather plastic and changeable identity was a borderline balancing act. A daily battle. Not a given. The stark truth I know now but didn’t know then was that I didn’t feel safe and I didn’t feel seen. And I was doing my best to gloss over the utter dread of that. Complicit with, and also acting out, the roles and needs of my parents. Their ways of operating. I had, if you like, intuitively, already counted myself out of the picture of our family life. Already betrayed myself and my nascent identity on their altar. By not believing that I mattered I was adeptly playing a painful false part and I was lost. But this was my secret and my burden and I was barely conscious of this loss myself.
British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott says, ‘It is a joy to be hidden, but a disaster not to be found.’ It is a disaster to have given up on yourself, before your life has truly begun.
My dad was brought up in the thirties and forties in a single-parent working-class home. His father had been booted out when he was three months old. ‘Booted out’ is apposite. I learned after my father had died that his father, my grandfather, whom he had never wished to know and perhaps never forgiven, had been a professional footballer. There it was in plain English on my father’s birth certificate when I went with my mum to register his death. Anyway, grandfather was unmentionable. Dad left school at seventeen. His mum needed money. My mum was more materially privileged. Brought up in a nice South London home, she had a nanny and went to finishing school. Her father ran, for a while, a successful sausage business, but she never saw much of him, as he was always working in his Marylebone office or away in Germany on business trips; her mum, she told me, she ‘wasn’t close to’. As women did back then, in the sixties, Mum went to secretarial college. Mum was troubled by panic attacks through her late teens and early twenties, and lost her best friend in a car accident in her early twenties. Mum and Dad met in the big central office of the General Electric Company in the heart of London. Dad was a junior electronic sales person, Mum a secretary.
Neither of my parents was a rounded, secure, emotionally aware individual. They were living with post-war ideals and making the best of it. At home they always appeared time-short and never relaxed. It was as if keeping still made them feel anxious. Quite simply they themselves were wounded, codependent and deeply wrapped up in their own worlds. To admit that they had a son with mental health difficulties would have been to imply they had done something wrong, or at least to suggest things weren’t quite right. Mum wouldn’t have coped with the social shame. Their way was to ignore things, brush them under the carpet. Dad’s life was an unacknowledged treadmill struggle as it was. A martyrdom he called the ‘grind’ and for which we felt responsible. Mum’s life was a spinning-top charade of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ and ushering her children about. Dad was martyred to work. Mum was thrice martyred: to work, to us and to him. There was neither space nor time in the family environment for nuance, nor for the true feelings of others. Everything got drawn into the whirlpool, the vortex, of making them feel good about themselves and in particular the all-consuming well that was my father. Everything depended on what sort of mood he was in. Somewhere along the line I slipped underground. Gave up hope that their world had what I needed.
His shape abutted like the looming Inselbergs:
grey, dark and unyielding.
On good days a rose light sparked over him,
set him off in the setting sun, ignited his upper flanks,
softened the cliffs, enlarged his own magnificence.
He carried my life before him like an erratic boulder.
This man I couldn’t fathom. He said he was
needless of love, but this did not set me free.
There is a scored grain in the terraced Torridonian rocks,
eight hundred million years old, chiselled and filed by ice.
His shape was large, brooding, like Suilven,
Cùl Mòr, Stac Pollaidh: held its form
even in the dark of night, loomed larger,
reared over the coastal crofts
and repulsed the low Lewisian land to the lip of the sea.
Dad took a job in South Wales, when I was seven, leaving his beloved London (though ‘beloved’, he was also ‘sick of it’ – this was a Dad trope: he labelled all his experiences negatively or with a contradiction) and we moved to a new-build house, on a prim and polite, purpose-built, modern cul-de-sac in a small village in Wales, while he worked forty-five minutes away, in a manufacturing company, situated on the banks of the Usk, that was experiencing massive decline. He worked long hours, chain-smoked, kept going with sugar-laden coffees and came home tired, irascible, stressed and put upon. He was moody and unpredictable, baleful and very hard to be around. Sometimes he was up, spirited, making jokes, always sarcastic and caustic digs at people, and other times he was down, morose and self-pitying. If he was down, I felt no one else in the family had the right to be happy. Mum worked hard but frustratingly laboured to serve his every need. Totally. A willing, highly strung martyrdom. I loved her. And wanted to save her from ‘Him’. It was a very confusing, disorientating world to be a part of. I spent a lot of the time trying to make my parents happy or trying to get away from the sense of discord and threat. Dad’s incendiary personality would kick off at the smallest thing; leaving Mum in an anxious tiz to defuse things back to an uneasy ‘OK’. We went round and round in circles of stress. I spent more and more time alone, either out in the nearby fields, walking our Labrador, or in my room. It was around this time I turned to books: to poetry and novels. I was desperate to understand what I felt and was trying to explain to myself what was going on. I needed other voices and other lives to connect to. The coming-of-age tales of Herman Hesse’s novels gave me courage; and the poetry of Rilke and Hölderlin, in particular, put words to difficult, raw feelings I felt unable to calibrate, let alone name. Their themes of ‘absence’ and ‘loss’ spoke to me. These books meant a great deal and held up my interior world.
All through secondary school
Dad came home from work starkly depressed.
How easily life is defined by someone else’s stress.
Eight sugared coffees weren’t enough to lift him.
He’d stare into his mug of Nescafé
the way some people draw down the moon.
Me and my sister, we knew what to do.
We walked a wide berth around him.
Not much a father more a wounded bear:
shackled to work, the mortgage, a nudging wife, suburban rooms.
He mauled us with his gloom
and we never did learn what had truly stung him.
My parents navigated life’s difficulties with straplines. One of Dad’s, predictably, was: ‘If you’re going to cry, I’ll give you something to cry about.’ Whenever there was a Dad-cloud hanging over everyone, Mum used to say, ‘We always hurt the ones we love,’ as if that settled everything. I became very used to his hurtful quips over the years. He was a seasoned practitioner in the spiky, nasty put-down and he had little visible love or charm to mitigate the effects. ‘Love’, to him, seemed a dirty word. Never once did I hear it pass his lips. You can get caught in a repetitious loop. I tried to do nice things for him. It took all my strength to approach him. Made him coffees, got his slippers when he was back from work, but often things got flung back in my face. I got treated with belittling words and cruel actions. The coffee got flung over the vegetable patch, where he was digging – I hadn’t let the kettle boil fully; the lager can I bought from the village shop for Father’s Day when I was twelve never got drunk – he didn’t like lager. Repeated scenes like these are hard to let go of.
I realise now, after much therapy, that how he was, was utterly indefensible whatever his own unexplored demons. I think at the heart of things I wanted to die. You end up feeling you are the problem. I also was on the slippery downward slope of counting myself out of life – deleting myself from its opportunities. I closed off and closed up, and every move I made felt a guilty one. Something felt rotten in the family. The outcome was that you get depressed. I got depressed. And I gave up. I hid. Coming back to that earlier phrase by Winnicott, I went underground. Swallowed down who I was. And my hopes for my own life evaporated.
A few forgotten objects Dad passed on:
copperplate pens with long nail nibs,
still stained black, one daubed red,
laid to rest
for twenty years in the shed’s office chest;
a Monopoly set
yanked by a seaman uncle from his sinking merchant ship
at the beginning of the war
but without the board;
the balsa houses forest green, the prim hotels lipstick red,
lost on our living room floor,
much else that was yours:
the board, this uncle and your gambling father,
we never saw.
And the chess pieces we played and played.
Of our two sets, the best
hand carved, you varnished and weighted with lead.
The black knight like you
could lose its head.
Dad and I had constant battles. Our relationship was only ever combative and competitive. There were long terrible silences between us; sometimes stand-offs, for days on end, and my mother, going out of her wits, would then plead with me to say sorry. I said ‘sorry’ but had no idea, then, days after, what I was saying sorry for. I had the feeling Dad took some strange glee in these battles. He was playing to win and for keeps. They seemed to fire him up. At least made him feel alive. Anger always seeming his antidote to his prolonged pervasive depression. He seemed to desire to crush me, slowly and wilfully. Kill my spirit. I was very frightened when he was around, but I did my best to hide my fears. In truth, looking back, I’m not sure how I survived.
Unsurprisingly, when I was 23, I had a nervous breakdown. The identity I’d conjured up through childhood carried too many falsities and was built on quicksand; a weird compote of pleasing and attending to Mum and Dad and concealing my deeper anxieties. I didn’t really know who I was. I had a madcap stage play of whirring arguments inside my head I couldn’t get away from; full of too many, disparate, competing voices and strategies that never got aired. Essentially, as often happens with mental health, I was trying to think my way to an OK place rather than just being able to be OK. This was a trapped, inward-looking, lonely space. I’d lost contact with people and with reality, and was frantically trying to work it all out alone, as if there was some single discoverable answer, some truth that could cement me in the wider universe. It was a never-ending search. The disturbed bee hum of unexpressed questions, the thousand buzzing thoughts, splitting off, rampaging in my head, that I was trying to keep hold of, trying to contain, finally became too much and they disintegrated me. I couldn’t answer them all. At the time I had no real thought as to how bad things were getting; it didn’t occur to me to think I was depressed. I couldn’t even say I was unhappy, although I deeply was. I did, though, fear I was going insane, did fear that I was losing my grip on what was real; what was me and what wasn’t me. And the paradox was that the more I tried to hold on, the worse things got. The car crash I’d resisted and battled against for a long, long while finally happened.
Washed up and defeated, I made a sorrowful, sad visit to my old family GP. Unlike others I’d approached, and blindly (because I couldn’t properly name, in my hypochondria, what was wrong), Dr. Jones saw straight into my pain, put me on anti-depressants, and immediately got me psychiatric help.
Back at square one, I worked through my twenties as a chef. This was not a career choice but something stumbled upon for want of finding anything else. I found a kitchen porter job in a nearby restaurant while trudging around the local job centre. It actually became a very useful place to be, principally, in its split shifts, it absorbed most of my time, and I no longer had the space to deal with and live with the difficulties of just being me. I was usefully occupied and distracted with something outside myself. Within a year, I’d moved from kitchen porter to commis chef, and was part of an award-winning team that was often in the local papers for the excellence of the cuisine. Something had changed and was changing. I got some esteem back and wanted to show what I could do. That I was reliable and a hard worker. That possibly I could even be someone. After a couple of years, I raised my sights even further. I chose to leave the restaurant and had improved enough to work in a local pub while studying two A levels at night school. The depression fog was clearing and I wanted to use my brain. The reward, after a cramming year, was a place to study psychology at Bath University – a completely new beginning. And I was now writing too, consistently. Poetry. Finding my way with a new self-awareness and with words that gave me ways into my various moods and self-states.
My sandwich degree became quite a long journey.
In my final year I became ill with Hodgkin’s disease, cancer of the lymphatic system. And once more, slowly and surely, my life fell apart. I spent six months growing increasingly weak, with occasional visits to the nearby GP that turned up nothing. I was in another difficult time, losing touch with my course and my colleagues, and I was losing track of myself, not knowing what was wrong. Finally, and to my relief, a diagnosis came after a lymph node in my neck, which had swelled to the size of a golf ball, was excised. But by then I had dropped out of my studies; I was too fatigued to travel the mile and a half up the hill to the university campus and had missed too many deadlines. I can remember a painful day when I returned to my parents’ home to tell my mother the news, but only my father was there. He was on the back patio measuring some wood on his Black+Decker workbench. I hadn’t wanted him to be there. I’m not sure how I mouthed the words to tell him but I know, as I mostly did when I was with him, that I’d shrunk to the size of a shrivelled pea. I knew his response would be a negative. Harsh. Indifferent. As if I were giving him some extra problem. Making his life harder. He tutted and kept his head down. He kept on marking up his wood.
Once more I felt I’d failed, felt as though I was letting everyone down and didn’t have whatever was needed to live my own life. It was another dark derailing time. My Uni friends were entering their final year exams and I was heading up to the local hospital, the Bath Royal United, for the painful rituals and assaults of chemotherapy. I felt eviscerated. As if my body was torturing me from the inside out. I hadn’t known physical pain like it. The treatment journey went on for months, with its steroid pills and intravenous drips, in an unrelenting fashion. I’m not religious but my thoughts were turning that way: what did the gods want of my life? What could I give or offer them? Nothing ever seemed enough.
The hardest part was not feeling I had any sense of control over what was happening. I did as my kindly oncology consultants told me and went with the process. I banked my sperm. And I suffered. Some friends fell away, not quite knowing how to cope with a young person poorly with cancer. And other friends helped out when required. Which was hard too, because I don’t like being the centre of attention. Mostly I felt embarrassed and, yes, ashamed. Ashamed for being ill, ashamed of being a demand on my family, ashamed of derailing again. I kept my room in my flat in Bath and got to the hospital for my various appointments and treatments with or without others. Did I find something then, in the months during and after treatment? I’m not sure – I was surviving, as a reflexologist pointed out, not living, but interestingly, with time, the illness removed, burnt away, my more surface-level anxieties and hypochondria.
I’d stared down my own demise on a weekly basis.
What else was there to worry about?
There was a day at my friend Annette’s house, during treatment, where I remember looking down that lonely barrel that I might not survive and that the nothingness that surrounds us all might well take me back. I was lying on her spare bed looking at the ceiling, tearful, my limbs sore and my joints painful, and I felt there was nothing I could do, that if I had to go back, die, and it was all to be over, then that was just the way of things. In that moment it felt like I was doing my spiritual preparations, I was signing the documents, so to speak, and I was saying goodbye, and, strangely, saying goodbye, too, to the body that had carried me in life for my 31 years. I experienced some palpable mind-body split in her house, in that little room; some level of my consciousness, rising up and letting go, and leaving, for some moments, the disabled wreck of my tumour-riddled body. I think then, in that afternoon, I made some sort of ground-zero peace.
Overall, it was a very peculiar time, one that, through it all, did involve a death – the person who went in to being ill was not the person who emerged on the other side. I again felt, as I had done after my breakdown, that I was utterly unsure of who I was. I again felt I was starting up, all over, from scratch. That strangeness of being someone completely changed, and not completely self-identifiable, who emerged from the trauma, as though waking from a coma, hung over me for the following several years. Even now I see that time of my being ill as a sharp cut-off. As a before and an after. Like a fire break between forest trees. I do have the distinct sense that in one life I have been two separate people.
Eventually, out of the ashes, I got better and I also finished the degree, two years behind schedule. But rather than being full of confidence, I was broken. And once more I’d lost all hope in my own future.
Even though I got a good degree and had loved the subject, and a professor at my university offered me the safe harbour of a funded PhD, I felt the need to get away, beyond the university town that had come to contain too many lonely and intolerable experiences. I went to London and took an opportunity offered on a whim, working in the cut-throat world of publishing sales for ten years. It seems odd now that I did this. But it was an all-and-nothing, commission-only existence, where one had to battle to survive, and this I was completely used to. I also felt an urgency, a pressure to earn some real money, that I had to make up for lost time, for having run aground again, and also it was some bizarre, barely conscious desire to finally get some affirmation and respect from my dad. That I could prove to him I could be a man’s man in the city. The place where he was born and had started from. As I said earlier, your parents can lay a shadow over you for a long time.
I was still doing the sales work when my dad died at 68 from an aneurysm; and it took another three years for me to wake up to my self-deception. I was at my desk calling a banker when I realised, out of the blue, that I was on my last call and I couldn’t do it anymore. I calmly put the receiver down and left my desk, and then left London and moved back to the South West. I had some time out and took a course, an adult learning class in poetry, at Bristol University. The writing hadn’t gone away. I’d written on my bus rides down Kingsland Road, on my way to work in the city, but I was still doing nothing with it. It felt like a secret, a guilty vice. A closet hobby. I never aired it. But it had always been with me and part of my survival, off and on, since I was 17 and had first discovered Dylan Thomas, Jim Morrison and teenage prodigy Rimbaud; before Rilke, Hesse and Hölderlin had arrived and become all-important. The one safe, unimpeded place where I could try and work out my truth. Who we are is, I believe, defined by what we are free to talk about. In my childhood there was a great deal we weren’t free to talk about. There was a tyranny of silence. Wordlessness. You end up not knowing who you are. And also believing who you are isn’t enough.
The course was run by a seasoned, passionate poet. It pushed me to a deeper level of truth and meaning, an authenticity that often wasn’t easy, that went further than I thought I was able. I was struck by how Julie-Ann responded to my work. That she was serious about it. She said it had much more value than I myself appeared to give it. Crucially, she said she believed in it. This was the watershed moment. It woke me up and broke some bad spell I’d lived under all my life. I will be forever grateful to this woman. Without her acknowledgement maybe I’d have stayed in my cave. Sometimes we do meet the right person at the right moment, when we ourselves are better ready to meet them, when a chink in the armour is opened. From a caged place of stubborn secrecy and suppressed silence, finally I’d been given permission to have a voice, which was nothing less than being given back my hidden childhood identity. It was, in one swoop, a recognising of core aspects of who I was that had, for too long, been under wraps. It was a beginning point too, whereafter many things seemed to fall into place.
The sales job had been subterfuge. Once more I’d been playing a part. I didn’t trust my father as a child and that lack of fundamental trust fed back into me. Somehow, I wouldn’t trust myself or my own instincts. The timing had been right, that brief poetry course opened the door to a whole side of my personality that I’d failed to fully possess. That, in fact, I’d done my utmost to shut away. There was no going back to the dissociated darkness. I’d found a little light and had begun a process of reliving that opened out my forties. I could no longer afford not to be myself. There wasn’t time.
Finally, I started to value my more personable skills, reflectiveness and thoughtfulness, rather than assume, as my father had done, that they had no place, that they were in fact weaknesses, character flaws. ‘You’re incapable of making decisions,’ he would sarcastically say. Instead, I realised that I might be able to offer something else. I entered therapy and for several years got ‘affirmed’ in a way that had been so desperately lacking in my childhood. Week in and week out. It was life-changing to begin to trust this man, Nigel, my therapist. What’s more, a nurturing man who was stable and solid in who he was. And I returned to my love of psychology with a newly gained confidence to start counselling training. I realised that I’d survived, that I was still here, still trying and still living and I wanted to give something back; not to rescue others but to offer forbearance for their journeys. And, amongst the study, new shift-work for the NHS, and newfound love for marathon running, I committed wholeheartedly to my poetry. No longer hiding, I listened to myself, crafted poems and sent them into the world.
Psychologist Erik Erikson said of the identity crisis that afflicted Martin Luther, that to find a cure is to find a cause. I’d found my cause. More than one. When I took the risk to fully commit to that, everything else started to fall into place. I was no longer second-guessing who I was. No longer denying myself. I was living in line with my true identity that drew on all of me to enact myself and gave a voice to the child who felt he’d had no voice, who felt he’d been left behind and who’d felt silenced.
I learned, too, an important insight around that silence, the cut-off, window-looking-out silence that I’d felt and feared as a child. This was a self-alienated silence, a desolate, disassociated, lonely silence that came from misconnection with others, not moods that merely and randomly happened to me. This was not feeling at home in the world, both inner and outer. This was, mostly, a difficult and unhappy self-state full of anxiety and anguish. A painful place of aloneness that I too regularly sort out and distractedly wander in. Coming back to myself, and my attachment to myself, it has been thoroughly reconfigured. It is hard to describe, but I’ve been brought back into myself through better connections with others, and lost the places I feared. The loneliness and silence has been re-encountered and enlivened. It’s like my skin has finally been turned after being inside out, and is no longer painfully exposed. I feel contained and of myself. My ears are unblocked and I am able to listen to myself, to others, and to hear the outside world a great deal more. You might say what has come back is an attunement, a presence-in-self, that simultaneously has meant a worldly trust: a resonant connect with the turning natural world, and the larger silence that backdrops the noisy, busy city where I live. Of course, even the natural world isn’t completely silent: the universe has a hum, a vibration, as various poets and scientists have suggested. But we do need to find an element of self-space, of fixed rest in ourselves, if we are to hear it. The poems that became my first full-length poetry book, A Watchful Astronomy, were partly about my dad and the cloak of his darkness, but they were also about this emergent, reawakened, realigned self-space within the wider universe; that I could be whole-in-myself, properly awake, and thankfully and joyfully enthralled. A world where the predominant colour was no longer grey or black, where the mood was no longer heavy, stone-like, and depressive. I was re-finding myself in my birthright that was beyond my inheritance, as American novelist, essayist and activist James Baldwin so powerfully described for himself years ago, as he too was coming to terms with his familial conflicts: ‘I was trying to locate myself within a specific inheritance, precisely, to claim the birthright from which that inheritance had so brutally and specifically excluded me.’
Slow revolutions and slow orbits.
Venus in view
bores the black horizon.
These are the stellar cycles.
The day’s deep turning.
The planets pull past.
Jupiter. Venus. Then Mars
conjunct with Uranus.
The parting faces of the moon.
An eclipse. Shadow on the sun.
The tide thick and slow.
Life learns its quiet phases.
We draw close and then, it seems,
with no power of our own
pull apart. Find new orbits.
Patterns of sameness
yet nothing stays the same.
Days decay. There is no way
of taking the distance out of the distance.
Such a small back door to shut out
the crowding stadium of stars.
The venetian blinds stay up.
Outside the silence doesn’t sleep.
Poems from A Watchful Astronomy (Seren Books, 2017)
OCTOBER 2022 Paul Deaton MONK
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