I curl up in bed while my mum makes chai. Tears silently build up as I think about my case worker discharging me in the new year. My mum comes in and tells me the chai’s on the table. Often I wish she could sense what I need better and bring the chai to me. I am sick and sad and all I want to do is stay curled up in bed. I like being sick physically because then my mum will let me stay in bed. But when it comes to emotional stuff, I get little empathy or slack. She just complains that I shouldn’t be in bed at 4:30 in the afternoon.
The tears run up my noise. I am reminded of when I went swimming at a child. I loved the pool. I often did summersaults underwater and got water up my nose.
My childhood probably seems happy on the surface. There was always food on the table and my parents took me to the pool and other fun places. But there was something missing, even back then. My memories of my early childhood are of my younger sister, Mum and I sleeping in the one bedroom, with Dad in another. I had a dream a few years ago where I walked into this bedroom and found Mum lying in her double bed. She was alone, distant, desolate. It was as though a black cloud smothered the room. My father needed his own space, and is only just beginning to realise he is on the autism spectrum like me. Mum never understood his solitary nature. She feels rejected and disappointed by him. She tells me Dad should never have married.
I spent my entire childhood and teenage years marinating in the hostility between my two parents. No wonder I preferred being outside. They’d oscillate like a pendulum between fighting and sex. Their fights were violent. I remember standing between them once to stop them from hitting each other. Often I felt it was my fault. They fought the minute I was born. Just last night my dad told me how my grandparents came over from New-Zealand to help Mum when I was born. Mum was crippled from the birth. I was delivered with forceps and my mum required stitches, a walking frame and physiotherapy. She had to get someone to pick me up and bring me to her. My dad told me he was stressed having Mum’s parents around in a tiny house where he couldn’t have his own space. He wanted to wrap me up in blankets and take me for a walk at night, but my grandfather told him that was a foolish idea and that I’d get sick. The argument escalated and Dad said he threatened to kill my grandfather.
I’m not surprised I have an anxiety disorder given all the fighting and stress I was surrounded by growing up. Dad read my memoir, which begins when I was five years old, and tells me he’s sorry for being absent during all the years I was bullied at school. He said he was just very stressed from work, and probably the marriage I would add. But I’m realising my issues didn’t begin when I was five. Those first five years of my life were not easy either. I didn’t really have a home until I was five and we settled down (though I don’t think I ever really had a home as, with my parents fighting all the time, it was not a place I could truly relax). By the time I was five, I had moved houses more times than I was years old. This meant I had many disrupted attachments.
Moving was a normal part of my life, though now I realise it is unusual for a person to move so much and I realise the impact it had on me. When I was three we moved to Tasmania for my dad’s work. My mum hated Tasmania. She couldn’t find work and felt particularly isolated and depressed there. We stayed there a year, rented two houses, and my sister was born. Everyone loved my sister, especially my mum. I often felt she loved her more than me. Suddenly my sister received all the attention. She and Mum would cuddle in bed and I remember standing outside the room feeling left out. I was sent to kinder with mean kids while my mum stayed home with my sister.
I had a best friend called Kelly who I started school with. But then my parents decided to move back to Victoria. We went to Kelly’s house to say goodbye, and Kelly screamed and cried. Moving so much did not just affect me, but it affected everyone I got close to. It probably affected them even more as I learnt not to form attachments so it didn’t hurt so much when it ended.
I didn’t really develop like a normal child. My growth is stunted. Emotionally I remain stuck at these ages. I found Kelly on Facebook this year and added her as a friend but she never accepted my request. I found a few other girls who I had brief affiliations with when I was at school but I don’t think they want anything more to do with me. They have probably moved on with their lives and wonder why I am adding them. Or maybe they were too hurt by the way we got close and then I disappeared. I left a trail of destruction wherever I went.
These are the things I remember from my early childhood, though there is more stuff that my mum tells me that I do not remember. To maintain people’s reputation I do not want to write about them here.
A feeling of deprivation has been with me all my life. Mum said she did not produce enough breast milk when I was a baby. I have long had a difficult relationship with her, and feel like I’m walking on egg shells around her. We never hug. My sister no longer speaks with her, but I still do. I think she does the best she can, especially as she lacked emotional nurturing herself from her own, troubled mother. She loves in the way she knows how: practically. Then there was the lack of lasting friendships. With the exception of my family, nobody ever stuck around for longer than a year. This pattern continues with my mental health workers, but it is always them severing the connection this time, not me.
When I lay in bed at my mum’s house yesterday, I found a wristband from when I was in hospital. For some reason I found so much comfort holding the wristband. I guess in hospital I finally feel like I’m being taken seriously. All my life I have longed for someone to see I am not ok, that there is something seriously wrong. I don’t feel part of the world of the healthy. I don’t feel part of the Christmas and New Year celebrations. I am traumatised, and feel like I’m on the verge of death. So when in the emergency department I feel like I’m exactly where I belong.
When I was at my mum’s I pulled out my old psychology textbooks and looked up the section on attachment. Something that has stuck with me from when I studied psychology is Harlow and Zimmerman’s (1959) study with baby monkeys. They offered the monkeys two surrogate mothers, one made from wire which held a bottle, and the other made from soft cloth with no bottle. The monkeys preferred the “mother” made from soft cloth, even though it didn’t provide food. The experiment has been used to demonstrate just how important love and affection is for normal childhood development. We are not just wired for food, and relationships with people who seldom feed us are just as significant. Love and affection give us a sense of safety in the world, with the monkeys going on to explore the room, using the cloth “mother” as a “safe base”. Additional experiments by Harlow reveal the long-term devastation caused by deprivation which lead to “profound psychological and emotional distress and even death”.