The demand for more Council Tax drops through the letterbox. Rage, powerlessness, frustration, undermining all efforts to stay in the black, out of control. An easy solution – get another form and list the extra person in the house. What’s the problem?
You are at the bakery in the supermarket and you want your loaf sliced. So does the man and woman beside you and all the loaves are the same – well nearly the same. The baker takes all three together and comes back to dish them out. The man gets the first crusty one and the little lady sporting the good cause sweatshirt the second crusty one, announcing merrily to all and sundry that she always chooses a well-baked one. Well, so do you, and if you were assertive enough you would point that out and stand your ground good humouredly, but it comes out something like, “Keep your crusty one then and I’ll have the horrible one.”
The bread itself could be a hard act to swallow if you were not used to swallowing hard things anyway.
The car arrives at the garage for a 30,000 mile service. They want your Driving License before handing over the courtesy car.
Why is this sick, weak feeling rushing from the tips of your toes straight to your tear ducts?
Because there is, of course, another way – a lift home to collect the license – just thirty minutes in a lifetime.
Co-dependency (addiction to a supportive role in a relationship), its a word you hear others talk about knowingly and you think you know its meaning – that it is something to do with being dependent on someone or something concrete. But you’re not dependent on anything, are you? You certainly haven’t gone out and got drunk every wet day (or dry day).
You have studiously avoided drunks wherever and whenever they manifested themselves, whether it’s in a pub, shop, dance party – you shrink away like the proverbial violet – anyone is better than the drunk. Anyway, you are afraid of them like a child might be afraid of the dark.
But you were a child once and you were alone and in the dark and your father was downstairs drunk, again!
No he wasn’t, he was coming up the stairs, coming into your bedroom, you are terrified. What is he going to do? What is going to happen? Terror! But he is a gentle man and he does nothing. He just wants to be sure that you will never leave him, even though your mother wants to take me away from him. You promise to stay, feeling bewildered. This is the first you have ever heard of this. He goes back downstairs and you must have fallen asleep because the subsequent days are just part of childhood again but this event stays in your memory like a beacon that lures you to the rocks instead of keeping you away.
The drinking goes on and you are always afraid at night when you are on your own and him downstairs drinking and maybe singing. Something might happen.
You wish your mother was back from the cinema or Dublin or wherever. But there’s nothing to be afraid of, is there? No-one hits you, yells at you. But there is a great secret, betrayed only by the knowing looks of others – you are ashamed.
You are ashamed too of being ashamed.
Ashamed that your father makes such a spectacle of himself and doesn’t care about how he looks or whether he changes his clothes or washes himself. He doesn’t even sleep in the same room as your mother anymore.
You remember a few times when he joked with you and rolled up the silver cigarette wrappers into little egg cup shapes and you want him to be like that and clean and respectable and strong like other fathers.
But you will keep the secret to yourself that isn’t even a secret (you know that already). You don’t talk about it, you don’t talk about yourself, you don’t talk about your family, you keep your hopes and dreams to yourself but you don’t know why.
At school fear was all around too. When you had to learn your catechism off by heart (and you can still recall it when the chips are down!) everyone had to stand at the back and round the desks and if you got the answer wrong you were made to kneel down in the middle and get the cane on the hand. Sums were the same, except you were allowed to sit down if you were right and stand at the back for another round of the cane if you were wrong.
Irish and English were OK for you, so you just watched thankfully as someone else was victimised. Friday afternoon we all examined our consciences, or had them examined for us. Had we done this, that or the other, or even thought about it?
The punishment for any secrecy here would be the fires of hell.
Then off we marched two by two to the church to have our confessions heard, to be forgiven if we held nothing back, and afterwards we compared the penances we were given. If you got more Hail Mary’s than the others, you might have been a bigger sinner!
Did I say no-one hit me at home? Well, there were the times you told a fib and you had your bare bum ‘thrashed’ with the back of a hairbrush – and this was your loving and sober mum!
Funny, isn’t it? The alcoholic never touched you but the sober one did.
Probably it was for your own good. You would never want to tell a fib again.
Then there was the money running out. You were aware of it in an unspoken way again. You just noticed something in the air.
The lack of financial security was somehow tangible.
You knew for sure much later on when he just disappeared to England as a dry alcoholic leaving a huge overdraft and a house and shop, which in those days were worth nothing at all. Not to mention the farm that was lost through a bodged up court case. He refused to perjure himself and lost the lot.
You see, he had a lot of good and admirable qualities, if only he was not an alcoholic. And could have been helped more when he was dry. Money is an issue for you now and lack of it bothers you an awful lot. The line between a roof over your head and the arches at Charing Cross is a fine one indeed.
When you grow up with an alcoholic parent, secrecy, bullying, financial insecurity, shame, and no ChildLine, your imagination and inner life (as well as co-dependency) grow at an amazing rate.
You roam through the woods or by the river or cycle out to Tara by yourself. You sit and imagine you were there a couple of thousand years ago with the High King surrounded by all his soldiers and beautiful women. Everything is in colours of gold and bronze and bright green and musicians are playing beautiful music on harps. The sun is always shining and you can see about twenty miles to the sea and you are happy. You retreat into books about schoolgirls in England who play hockey and something strange called lacrosse and have midnight feasts in the dorm and go home to big houses and rich, sober parents in the ‘hols’. Even Just William has a safe place to go at the end of his adventures, but you like the fact that he doesn’t like it very much. You might even be like Alice and disappear through the looking glass.
But now, fifty years and more later, you know what co-dependency means – you have just looked it up in the new edition of the Oxford Dictionary. A huge revelation. It doesn’t mean what you thought it meant at all.
You know why you always wanted, as a teenager, to be helping others who seemed less fortunate than yourself, indeed they were.
They were children of travelling people living in caravans on the side of the road and you went and helped them prepare for their First Holy Communion. Or maybe you were visiting someone dying with TB.
You wanted to spend your life ‘helping’ others.
You became, primarily, a listener rather than a developer of your own innate talents (whatever they were). The notion of self-development for its own sake was not even dreamed of. Now you begin to understand why you fled the guys with the good jobs and professions and good families. You had to find someone who needed to be supported – and who didn’t drink either. And you did.
I can still hear my mother’s words, “You are marrying him because you feel sorry for him and that is not enough for a marriage.” She was almost right but I didn’t know it or understand. I just wanted to love and support him. And, in addition, he was kind, allowed me to talk, for the first time, about my background and feelings, and he was safe and sober! The fact that he never talked about his hurt but kept up the barricades is another story and nothing at all to do with drink. The walls were always up and, though you knew he needed you to break them down, he never let you do it, really.
When you get divorced you are free to be yourself again and you feel liberated. But you also feel overwhelmed with guilt. Guilty that you have probably changed your beautiful children forever.
You do your best to reassure them that it is not their fault and that they are loved by both of you. But it is never the same again. No more shared meals and happy times – yes there were happy times in a sort of innocent and unworldly way. But the world and people and events intrude and somehow you can’t keep them out or find a place to put them that will enable you to carry on.
You meet them head on in the old way you have always dealt with unhappiness – you retreat into yourself, you don’t talk about it to the ones who matter and are in it with you as well.
You fantasise and imagine other things and places and people. You feel ashamed, unprotected, and you want to escape but you want to stay too, very badly. You want to escape but you want to take all your lovely people with you and all be together alone on an island in the middle of the sea where no-one can intrude and spoil things or laugh or make you ashamed of what you are and what your life is. You know it would be OK there. But you can’t go there. You have to stay. You do the very best you can and keep a smiling face for the outside world – you cannot tell anybody! Then it all happens anyway and everyone finds out and feels upset that you didn’t tell them.
So there you are divorced anyway, even though you didn’t really want to be. The wall was too thick and too high – there was no way through or over.
It’s the worst thing to happen since you were little and alone and frightened and ashamed and unprotected. You do the same again – you keep it as ‘secret’ as possible!
Years later this seems a lot of nonsense. You are now learning that there are other people out there who do care and who do listen and who don’t condemn. So what about the others who do! Well, you don’t have to seek out there company, do you?
A great strength comes with great sadness.
When you embrace the strength, other strengths and visions come into your life and you get more strength. One builds on the other and you pick yourself up and turn your face to the sun and you reach for the moon and thank God you fall among the stars. You can laugh again and be a friend again and, hopefully, a good mother. And there are millions of books out there to help you as well. Not just simply the ones where you can lose yourself in imagination. But books that pour light on the whole human condition and help you see and understand about things like giving and receiving; the power of generosity; karma; how we are all part of the same universe and the same God; (didn’t you already learn all this in those catechism classes? Why were they so menacing?) and things just continue to get better, if you let them.
You know now that for every negative emotion there is an opposite positive. You have begun to turn the
powerlessness into strength
rage into joy
secrecy into openness
guilt into forgiveness and peace
tears into laughter
fear into courage
co-dependency into mature friendship (you’re still not sure what the opposite is!)
shame into pride (not the first of the seven deadly sins variety you hope!)
lack of control into more control over your life
victim-hood into assertiveness
Just think what life can be like when you turn it all upside down like this!
You could be strong, assertive, courageous, joyful, fun-loving, open, a good friend, proud of your achievements, in control of your life, generous, forgiving, and maybe even a safe port of call for those in need of finding the same for themselves (some things take longer than others!)
Just do it. You could be in danger of having a seriously good life.