Monday, February 7, 2011

BBC Radio 4 - In Pursuit of Happiness

Here's a chance to listen to a really interesting - and not uncritical - discussion of wellbeing, aired last Friday on Radio 4. This will only be 'live' for a few more days, so listen whilst you can...
In Pursuit of Happiness

Friday, February 4, 2011

Untangling the Twists

My dad died when I was eight, and my second dad died just before I turned eleven. My mum re-married and I had another step-dad by the time I was thirteen - but, although I didn't hate him, I couldn't bear to let him get near me emotionally, as I was convinced that he would die too... so I pulled up the metaphorical drawbridge and hid behind my fists... 

The day I returned to school after my second dad died I went up to the biggest kid in the playground and started laying into him like a snarling whirlwind. A teacher separated us and slapped this big, hulking innocent round the face, saying, "pick on someone your own size". My mummy always reminded me that I was the spit of her dad - a self-obsessed abusive bastard of a man. She told me that all of her children were a disappointment to her - especially me. It was a relief when I was kicked out at of 'home' in my late teens, as being homeless was the better option. 

In this piece I'm going to share a little bit of how I begin to make sense of all that now that my life has a sense of meaning and purpose. Learning is also about living NOW and learning to love oneself...

I have a torn photo of me as a toddler gently stroking a sparrow with my pudgy hand. All too soon this soft hand, expressing a gentle touch, would become a pulverising fist. I loved creatures which flew - birds and butterflies. I was entranced by their flight, their freedom; I knew these things to be miraculous, and I was compelled to reach out to them. 
By the age of twelve the boy with a gentle touch was priming mouse-traps with bread to trap and maim birds. In my twisted way I thought that hurting something I loved would confirm the fact that I really was bad. It was, looking back, an act of quiet desperation. But, for all this rage and destructiveness and self loathing, I was still a child; albeit, a child without a childhood.
Baby Finger

One of my poems about this period in my life-course ends with the line - "... and I was only as young as I was allowed to be." Here are some memories from way back then... 
" Whack! I swung round and, as a reflex, landed a piss-baller of punch into his solar plexus. I knocked him unconscious, and it was just him and me. So he was lying flat-out, kind of twitching and convulsing. He came round after a little while. I helped him up, and he shook the tweetie birds out of his thick skull."

That's a description of me decking a P.E. teacher. I was about fourteen at the time. I was the youngest brother from a family of boxers. I exercised obsessively: between 500-1000 sit-ups and press-ups a day; 45 minutes skipping; 5 miles at least five days a week. Raw eggs and milk and white horse oils for my aching muscles. I was in permanent training... training, that is, to run away from myself. 
Here are another couple of glimpses of me back then...
" When I got time to say it, I'd calmly whisper to opponents,
'What you need to know, is that I don't care if I live or die.'
I'd always be looking into their eyes as I spoke. This would give me an advantage, as they would then tend to guard their head, and would be particularly vulnerable to body-punches."
I had no peace of mind - especially after the age of twelve. I couldn't sleep, and 'cause I had to share a bedroom with my brothers, I'd sit on the bog and read a dictionary [remarkably, I've still got it, all torn and tattered!]. You see, I felt that I didn't have enough words to ARTiculate myself. If I got more words in my head, then perhaps I'd be able to start speaking and stop hiding behind my fists. Possibly then I'd become truer to myself, because in some vague - and terrifying way - I knew that my public persona was a sham. 

Inside, I felt numb and alone and scared. My mum was constantly telling me that I was shit, and was forever pointing out all the things I couldn't do. The pressure was always on my brothers and sister to demonstrate 'loyalty' to her. We were actively encouraged to grass each other up, and I seemed to get the fag end of the deal, because I was struggling to be alive. During this period - in some ways my darkest days - I felt an incredible discontinuity between the inner world of my head, and the outer world around me. It was like I needed a social decompression chamber in order to move between these different worlds."

I recently got back in touch with my best mate from these times. He sent me a list of over 50 kids I'd smashed up (detatched retina; broken ribs; K.O.; K.O etc). Where I grew up we didn't play fight. 
I can't help wondering who that was back then. Who the hell was that boy? He's me, and he's not me. I've got the words from that dictionary, but I have none of the fury any more. That's not a bad exchange I suppose. Through a lot of hard work I have made myself better, and it has allowed me to become the silly-wise-foolish-shy show-off I am today.
So here I am now; I still can't sleep, and I'm using the words handed to me by that scared, hyper-sensitive "psycho-boy" to try and untangle our story. Here I am, a First Class graduate who teaches history but wasn't allowed to do an History O-level (GCSE in new money) because I was deemed to be too thick. 

To some extent I'm resigned to the fact that I'll always be recovering from those dayze. However, life is good for me now - and, although I sometimes look back, this is the time I would rather live in. I am surrounded by Love, and am grateful for that. It didn't just happen that way either. My process of recovery was assisted by some very good people along the way who believed in me when I most definitely didn't believe in myself. I'll also take some credit for making some good choices. 

Nowadays, I chose to use the sometimes painful experiences of my life course to inform my 'empathy bank'. I try and make something good and positive from all of those tangled twists. Things can get better.