As a kid, the youngest of three, my two siblings had an unfair head start at going off the rails which meant that someone (me) was left trying to be the “good” and “sensible” one. Being OK turned out to be much more of a burden than I had imagined.
I can remember my mother always telling me how sensible I was as she left me at home when I was sick and off school. She was right. I rarely got into mischief other than the usual search for Christmas presents when the house was empty and the leaves were fallen over an increasingly shivering grey sky. I didn’t like to be left, ever, but I didn’t say so.
Having assumed, at an early age, the responsibility for my mother’s happiness, I didn’t realise until I was approaching my middle age that it was not only a responsibility for which I was ill-equipped but one which had brought me to my knees.
I was the one who grew up and got married. I was the one who had children and supported them with a stressful but well-paid job. I gave to my family the illusion that I had everything sorted and that nothing much could touch me.
In the moments where I teetered precariously on the edge, I would find something funny to detract from my own desperation. Anything to maintain a picture of sanity, stability, and strength.
Over the years a distance grew between my birth family and me.
Although I craved to rely on my roots I dared not draw upon them in case the mask slipped and I was exposed.
Instead of comfort, nurture and direction I felt dislocation, resentment, and isolation. The close proximity of my family a cause of my loneliness rather than the cure for it.
But I was the architect of my own demise.
When we build an image of ourselves based on how we feel those that we love will best thrive we lose sight of our own needs. The cruel irony is that the more bulletproof we appear the less valued we feel. It is as if we have given tacit permission for all of the care and attention to be lavished on our siblings or those outside of our circle because we have given such an effective impression that we are alright without it.
We build a monster that eats us from within until, eventually, it becomes unsustainable.
On the anniversary of my mother’s death this bonfire night I reflected on how fortunate it was that she died before my own breakdown. It was as if her final gift to me was a release from my own self-imposed prison of illusory strength.
In dying she allowed me to live.
It wasn’t that she had prevented me from walking my own path but rather that I had taken the role of protector on for myself. Part of that role is making it invisible to those around you, so you can never be dissuaded from walking it.
The saddest thing of all is that my own story is so unremarkable. I hear versions of it almost every week in one form or another.
My own way of breaking the habit came about through a photo of myself aged around three sitting next to my big sister on a log somewhere out in the countryside. I was wearing a blue and white stripy nylon shirt. I can still remember the feel of the fabric between my fingers.
When I start to lose sight of myself I think of that little boy, in that shirt and shorts, with his brown leather sandals, and what a struggle he had so often without feeling he could talk about it. These days I remind him he can tell me and that everything will be alright. Not because I can protect him from all the pain but because he doesn’t have to be OK all the time. That’s a burden neither of us is interested in carrying.