I see myself as having experienced a protracted ordeal of several phases: my parents' divorce, two years of the Wicked Stepmother, and my bizarre first marriage. The latter provided enough stress that I couldn't keep covering up the effects of the earlier trials. It was the final straw, if you like. And it pushed me onto the path back to normal life, which was my psychotherapy.
It appeared that I had already returned to normal life simply by getting out from under the Stepmother's roof. I had a few years when things must have looked normal enough on the outside, as I lived the life of a university student and then got my first job and rose rapidly to a position of responsibility. (These years included first love, which was also first sexual awakening, and the subsequent break-up of that relationship, but I don't count that as an ordeal even though it ended in disappointment.)
But it was only an appearance of normality. The traumas and stress made cracks in my psyche, and eventually I shattered. I am one who breaks down very quietly, as my therapist later remarked, so that even the people closest to me would not have been aware of how much was wrong. There were months of breaking down quietly before the final, dramatic collapse – but not so quietly that I could quite conceal it from myself. I tried, but it became impossible to deny. I hoped, though, to conceal it from others, until finally I couldn't. I was very scared, desperately trying to hold myself together against increasing disintegration. In the end, going into therapy became less terrifying than trying to go on without it.
I look back at what I learned from the whole experience. There was much I learned during the years of therapy, but before that there were things I learned from the ordeal — sad things, mostly, or which have their basis in sad experiences. I can see how they played out in my life afterwards, which is the proof that they were thoroughly learned.
I learned that you can't necessarily trust those you love to take care of you, not even someone who has always up until now been the best Dad in the world and has given you no reason to believe that this could ever change – who probably would not have believed it of himself, beforehand.
And I learned that if someone is in my care, I have to stay with that responsibility. I couldn’t, I discovered, go away even for a long weekend, leaving my little brother among enemies, and think that would make no difference. My presence not only counted for something, it was crucial. When I was there, I couldn't protect him entirely, but I managed to stand up for him enough to mitigate most things. Let’s just say, if anyone was standing up for him in those days, it was me, and only me – and it did some good, if not enough.
So when my sons' father, while they were still very young, fell in love with another woman – one, moreover, who lived in another country – I made damn sure to win him away from her again. I was by no means a perfect mother, but at least I trusted myself to love my kids and have their best interests at heart. I gave them a great Dad, and to be fair I don't think the woman he fell for would have been unkind to any child – but there was no way I was going to take a chance on it. I was never going to see them get a stepmother, nor let them go far away from me into someone else's care. And I didn't trust their father to be selfless enough; I knew that fathers are not always sufficiently clear-headed and protective.
Much later, when my last husband, Andrew, had to go into a nursing home because I was physically unable to give him the care he needed, I visited him three times a day – even though the first place, from which I very soon extricated him, tried hard to discourage me from coming so often. That was my darling husband – no way would I not spend as much time with him as I could, no way would I not keep a close eye on the care he was getting. And a good thing I did!
I've never put a pet into an animal home either, when I've gone away. I've always been able to get people to come in and look after them whom I and they know well. If I couldn't, I wouldn't go. That is still the case. I am just not prepared to take anything at face value when it comes to the care and wellbeing of loved ones in my charge.
I look back and realise I had more courage and more cunning than I thought. I had to learn how to stand up for my brother and me without being so confrontational about it that it would make matters worse. I had to really hone my gift of the gab! I had to learn how to form arguments that would appeal to my adversaries, whilst not letting them see I regarded them as adversaries.
Ever since, I have been very good at talking myself out of trouble – including, one time, a potential date-rape when I was alone and quite at the man’s mercy. It’s a very useful skill! One thing it involves is being able to tune in and read the other person accurately, to anticipate their reactions; so no doubt it honed my intuition too. I see that I have a lot to thank the Stepmother for, and in a way I am grateful, though not with any personal warmth towards her.
I would not easily put myself in anyone’s power again, either. For instance, I don't think I would ever become involved with a potentially violent man, although many women do, because I would be able to read their energy too well. I never have been involved with any such man. The ones I have been involved with have usually been capable of strong views, and we have sometimes had heated differences of opinion, but it was all verbal; there was never any threat to me.
Similarly, I have never let anyone control me mentally or emotionally. I might in some circumstances keep my own counsel rather than stirring up dissension – the words, ‘You could be right’ or, ‘Well, you’re entitled to your opinion’ sometimes come in handy! – but I am not swayed by others’ opinions unless they meet my own tests of logic, integrity, etc.
I’m not so stupid as to hold to a viewpoint which is obviously mistaken; I will change my mind if the evidence warrants it. But I can't be tricked into it, because I can tell when someone is trying. And I can't be browbeaten. I have a core so stubborn, it might made of granite.
In the next episode I’ll look at what I learned from my therapy.