I was 38 when I had my son – plenty of time then to sort my shit out – 20 years later than my mum – you’d think that by then I would have half a clue – you’d be wrong of course. I was clueless.
Because you cannot know what you haven’t been taught or more importantly be aware of what just isn’t in your consciousness. I have heard many people working in the public sector make proclamations like “but everyone knows this stuff” or “it’s really obvious” along with eyes rolled and they just don’t “get it“.
I had half an idea about attachment from a midwifery course I had done so I knew it was important but I didn’t really know what it meant in any meaningful way because some things you just have to feel. How do you know what love feels like? I thought that I could read about it.
I grew up in a family surrounded by alcohol abuse, my father was away a lot and my mother had mental health problems, which manifested in bi-polar type behaviour. She would be okay some days but on other days drunk, depressed, manically cleaning, destructive to herself or the environment (overdoses, paint thrown around, disappearing for the night, progressing to more serious overdoses, self-harm cutting her wrists, setting fire to the house) before eventually leaving and remarrying (phew).
We were teenagers by then but my younger sister was still at school and already drinking and falling. My mum did have one mental health assessment that I recollect and my older sister went with her. All of this was in the 80s and she was, is very strong willed, and lacks insight into her problems.
In the midst of all of this my sisters and I tentatively negotiated the tightrope of our lives never doing anything to upset the delicate balance, helping her when we needed to and doing everything for ourselves. It was never a good idea to ask for anything as it just caused too much pressure in an already fraught situation. My older sister was the surrogate parent and my younger sister the lost child. I am somewhere in between those two and have always naturally taken the caretaking role.
When I was 15, a neighbour who had hit my dad over the back of the head on the way from the pub and left him in the road unconscious sexually assaulted me. My parents had been drinking all night with the man whom my dad had upset by mocking his disabled daughter. He came to seek his revenge after he had told my mum where my dad was and she fled leaving the front door open. I was quite savvy even then and although sleepy I managed to fight him off before he could actually do anything more than grope, suffocate and try to strangle me.
My dad came back from the hospital the next day and I was hysterical because I could not sleep in the house and the GP came to sedate me. We had to be rehoused as the man lived in our street. My dad left home for good shortly after that. There was a court case and the man got community service because we were poor and they did not let me testify. I went back to school the following Monday with strangle marks still visible on my neck, my mum wrote a letter to the headmaster who said it was best not to give me any special treatment because people “might ask questions“.
I am aware that this event taught me several things at a very young age. The first that I had to be ready for anything and that there was no justice and that I was completely and utterly on my own and therefore had to protect myself.
Sometimes if I feel particularly upset I will sit in the house with my coat on, sleep fully clothed, and this gives me enormous comfort.
When I was pregnant, one of my biggest fears was that I couldn’t leave, that I had to depend on someone else. I had been pregnant before and miscarried, I had also had terminations and I think these all stemmed from that same feeling of fear. I didn’t labour and my cervix only dilated 1cm, I felt like a wild animal with its leg in a trap.
I was under the GP in pregnancy and was being signed off from work and I had my health visitor about my mums drinking. The health visitor asked if social services had been involved and I said no and that seemed to appease her. No one asked for any more details and because of my history I often cannot articulate what I am feeling so I just shut down. My mother did not talk to me at all throughout my pregnancy. It was not a nice experience and I felt like a burden to my partner because I was not working. By this time, my dad had left his partner and I found him somewhere to live near us so I saw him quite a bit.
I felt overwhelming emotion when I first saw my son; I had waited so long for him and was thrilled the second that he arrived. He was a chunky 10lb 9ozs which was good because if he had been tiny it would have scared me even more.
I honestly thought that if I stayed with my son 24/7 he would attach to me like osmosis. I did not understand that when he looked into my face he was looking for me to mirror back to him that the world was a safe and trusting place. I was not aware that a lot of the time he probably just saw confusion, fear – terror sometimes, loneliness, worries, tiredness and a complete lack of support.
He was hospitalised at 10 days old – I had blocked his nose when trying to breastfeed him with milk (all that nose to nipple malarkey) and his breathing was affected. My mother had visited me the day before and said “jokingly” that I would not be able to look after him – I was panic-stricken. I sat in the hospital sobbing and said I was giving up breast-feeding (which everyone thought was a great idea!) – Then the next day my milk flooded in.
I soon picked it up and felt quite good about myself. My partner, although initially not understanding how much support I needed because of my own lack of mothering, soon stepped up to his role. This has meant that he is much more hands on than most dads and has helped me massively with things like routines which would not have even occurred to me. I enrolled on some studies at the local university, as I was desperate for someone to mirror back at me that I was doing the right things, as this is what I needed the most and lacked. I went to baby groups that I found excruciating but did meet one nice mum who I am still friends with and has helped me massively.
At 6 months, I went to my GP because I was “worried that people were judging my parenting skills“. The GP sent me for counselling which was helpful and the counsellor referred me for physiotherapy, the referral was for 18 months’ time and never materialised and so I struggled on feeling increasingly anxious. When my son was two, I went back to work as a nurse. I hated it -the anxiety was awful and I felt pressured into it because we had no money. I had to leave him at a nursery where there was one really nice nursery nurse who looked after him but the rest I felt were just judging me and I still feel bad about leaving him there.
This unfortunately set up a pattern of behaviour in myself that has lasted 11 years. The year my son started school my uncle was killed outside a pub and that too was a massive trigger for me. I have paid so much for private therapy and desperately tried to get help with this constant feeling that I am doing it wrong alternating with we are not safe. The result of this is of course that my son is really anxious and that really is the killer blow for me. I have tried talking to the school but it is hard to explain all of this to people who just do not understand trauma. In my experience professionals are obsessed with knowing the salacious details and deciding if people are worthy for them to help. Unfortunately many professionals don’t actually have any solutions, are cynical about real change because it means that they have to stop blaming and labelling people and change their own behaviours, and approach the problem differently and a lot of them just don’t have that range of vision.
What I would really like people to take away from this is the following:
Everyone is worthy of our help – stop “othering” and using “they” statements think “We” as trauma ultimately affects all of us.
Professionals need to know how to get someone out of their (old, reptilian) trauma brain and into their new (frontal) thinking problem solving brain BEFORE they do anything else. This could be as simple as finding a quieter place to talk, smiling or changing their tone. Traumatised people do not do “neutral” – we read this as hostile.
If you do not think you can help someone signpost them to someone who is better able to help – do not ignore requests because it’s “not your job“.
Trust is really important – have integrity when people share their story with you.