Having a childhood

I’ve probably said most of this before (have certainly talked about growing up before).  Ah well.

It’s now the general consensus of my family that I was probably born with bipolar disorder.  I’d tend to agree, but it’s difficult to say.  What’s normal for a child?  Aren’t all children singing, dancing, squealing pains in the arse?

In short, I was a brat.  An affectionate brat, hanging off my sister’s arms like a baby koala, but a brat nonetheless.  I alternated between being extremely hyperactive, “entertaining” and attention seeking, to put it mildly to being depressed, withdrawn and wailing.  I was rather clingy, in that I once scratched my sister’s face off for not kissing me before she left for school.  I took in all the strays of the neighbourhood.  I had hallucinations, and was afraid of the TV for a while.  There had been a night when it was in my bedroom, huge and threatening, calling to me.  When I tried to touch it it took on the texture of a pillow and began to eat my arm.  I screamed a fair bit, there.  I followed my sisters everywhere, and they shooed me away.

I laughed a lot, and I cried a lot.  And then boom, along comes being twelve and suddenly I was genuinely crazy.   So maybe if I was born with this and treated for it as a child, I’d have avoided becoming seriously ill and being shuffled around by social workers in my teens then around by psychiatrists in my twenties.  Or maybe not.

I grew up with two mentally ill parents so it was probably chance that either me or my siblings would have inherited a mental illness from them.  My siblings are as much as part of me as my vital organs are, even though we fight and take the piss out of each other.

My family is fairly typical of where we’re from. I’m from a council estate in West Belfast, where at least one parent is on benefits. In my case, it’s my mother, who can no longer work due to -well, multiple problems. My dad was a lowly paid laboratory assistant. True to the Catholic cliché, most families have more than one child and a burning Sacred Heart taking pride of place on the wall.

The first child of my parents was Michelle, born in a flat in Twinbrook in 1982. Paula followed just eleven months later and my parents moved into a house not far away to accommodate their growing family.

I was born in 1985 and my younger brother, Liam, six years later. The tradition of getting pregnant again quickly reinforced itself and Orlaith was born a year later in 1992, during a period when my parents supposedly hated each other. Orlaith was born in a car outside our house. My mother smoked out the backseat window the whole time. She smoked throughout all her pregnancies, meaning that both Orlaith and I were premature; she by two weeks, me by six weeks. I kind of blame her for my tiny stature, but looking at my parents, I grudgingly concede to genetics. My mum is 5ft 2″, my dad was 5ft 6″.

I was born in a lift, provoking endless merry, “Were you born in a lift?” catcalls when I failed to shut doors. Yes, yes I was. The doctor had initially diagnosed the discomfort in my mother’s stomach as constipation. And you wonder why my self esteem is so low.

Our childhood was a bit of a shambles.  All of us have been through it.  I spent it holding mirrors to my parents’ faces to make sure they were still alive, finding my mother’s suicide notes around the house like a warped treasure hunt and plotting ways to kill our dad, just to make him stop shouting, stop drinking, in my sister’s bedroom.  Not that he didn’t try to off himself.  That he did in front of me when I was nine.  It was in an empty ice cream tub (the ones you get from ice cream vans), a pink sort of liquid that me looked delicious.  I asked for some, and was told to get out, and then not long after the ambulance wailed its way to our house.  Not for the first time, and not for the last.

My mum was violent and unpredictable.  She had burnt our Mother’s Day cards one year, and threw things at us for not buying her cigarettes.  All she and my dad did was scream at each other.

She suffered from psychosis.  She thought she was being attacked by rats.  And she lied.  She lied a lot.  About small things, mainly, but about very big things too.  She still lies, but usually harmlessly.  So we all just humour her.  There’s no point in taking her up on it.  She’s had a horrible life, too.  It’s little wonder she’s turned out the way she has, and she isn’t a bad person.  These days, she tries a lot harder.  And these days, it’s very easy for me to recognise symptoms of mental illness in her.  (She had been hospitalised in the past for it.  She never told us a diagnosis, I’m not sure she ever had one.  She was/is a pathological liar, which I think is what she was hospitalised for initially.  If I was going to armchair psychologist her, I’d say she’s probably in my boat, with some extra crazy added for fun).

People are often angry on my behalf when it comes to my parents.  Home was never a sanctuary for any of us.  They wonder why I have anything to do with my mum.  When my dad was alive, they wondered the same about him.  I was grieving, for years before he died.  I grieved the loss of the person I  knew he was underneath, the loss of his life and his years and his ambitions.  And for a long time I hated myself for leaving Belfast at all, when I should have stayed to look after my family, as we had always done.  I felt like I had abandoned them.  And when he died and he wasn’t there to worry about, and cry about, anymore, I wasn’t relieved.   I would rather him be around to cry for and worry about than for him to be gone.

But I have already gone through the angry phase.  I have been raging at my parents.  I’ve hated them and resented them.  I resented the things I grew up knowing that you shouldn’t know until you’ve grown up.   I resented the way they treated us and the way they treated each other.

I’ve been angry.  I’m done with being angry.  And that shift happened when I stopped seeing them as just my parents and started seeing them as people.  Instead of anger, now I just feel an overwhelming kind of sadness.  I want my mum to fall in love with someone, or get a part time job, to stop spending all her time looking after my granny.  She’s only fifty two, and I want her to have a life, to have happier years before her than the ones she has behind her.

When I go into any detail about my childhood (“Larkin Trumps”, as my friend Ed calls in), nobody is surprised that I grew up to have a mental illness.  However, I think I’d have grown up that way regardless.  I am not that screwed up about my childhood, and I don’t have any bad feelings towards my parents (though not my family in general; I hate my mum’s side, for the most part, as they’re monstrous human beings who treat her, and us, like shite.  Pity my self control).

I can be quite blunt somtimes and one of the things that illicits short shrift from me is when someone complains about their parents, when their parents have given them everything.  Although I slammed a few doors off their hinges as a teenager,  if you reach adulthood with the same sort of attitude, and without good reason, you a kick up the hole.

I miss my dad, every day.  It was a waste that he died the way he did.  And now my mum and I have reached a plateau of understanding.  We are both sorry.  She’s not the person she was, and it’s no wonder she was that person.  She had a bad upbringing, too, and my dad to contend with.  When people die, we canonise them.  I love my dad, but he put my mum and the rest of us through hell.

I’ve put them through a lot, too.  I was hard to cope with as a child, a mess as a teenager, a tragedy in my twenties.  My family live with the spectre of my illness and the possibility of my suicide and it is not easy for them.  And they have their own problems to deal with as well as mine.  I admire them.  Despite everything, my siblings are strong, compassionate, funny, idiosyncratic people.  They’re not bitter or self pitying, even though they’ve been through a lot.   All of us are a little bit strange.  I’m not the only bizarre Molloy.  But we are fiercely protective of each other.

Maybe it would have been better that I was treated for bipolar disorder as a child.  But I’m glad I wasn’t.  As difficult as my childhood was, it was all mine.  No doctors, no pills, no syndromes.   Had I been diagnosed back then, and treated, what childhood would I have had?  I am twenty three and I can barely cope with the medications.   Twenty three and can barely cope with the illness.

I have so many memories of my childhood that wouldn’t have existed had I been on medication.  Medication is a fog, it is a snow.  A shivering shoot of green may sliver through the white, but not much more, no blooms, no lush gardens.  It is there to make you gently forget, to cap the excess of thought and feelings and exist within a little rectangle; comfortable, but restricting, where nothing much, good or bad, can happen.   Had I been medicated then, I would have been a child that wandered endlessly and never found who, or what, she was looking for.  The illness itself destroyed most of my teenage memories, as well as my very early twenties.  My memory continues to be terrible.  I am thankful for the years left intact.

I probably wouldn’t remember much of my dad by now.  I remember less every day.   I remember holding his hand while walking to the Dairy Farm.  He taught us how to read, he stole books from school to bring to us.  Illicit, in plastic bags, produced from behind his back to our delight.  Riffling through his pockets for sweets (he had pear drops, and long after he stopped eating them, the smell remained, the sweetish smell of alcoholic breath), and finding cigarettes, when he was often on at my mum about smoking (and she lives, on forty a day, and he dies, on ten cans).  Toasted toppers, baths and pyjamas.  Very well done steak and we’d line up with rounds of bread and expectant faces.  He’d cut us little bits.  I remember him hugging me on my communion day and remarking that I never hugged him.  Coming downstairs late at night to find him watching A Muppet’s Christmas Carol with the dog he professed to hate happily snoozing in the crook of his folded up legs.  I remember shaving his head for him, his greyish tufts growing at unruly angles.  And all the bad things, too.  Kicking the door in, his crying, his drinking, his sadness.

I wouldn’t remember watching Prisoner with my mum every night it was on, or Casement Park, or fireworks, or being stuck up a snowy tree on Christmas day and being left there.

I wouldn’t remember Michelle and Paula making me drink wee then laughing, or  shoulder rides in our bedroom, making me so tall I could see over the top bunk.  Or Michelle kicking me off my Kiddy Chef, which I was using to try and reach Paula’s chemistry set.  I broke my thumb.  Or chucking a history book at Liam because he wouldn’t stop snoring, and then he began screaming and I jumped off the bunk to see if he was alright.  Everyone ran in, and I, thinking I’d got away with it, said he just started crying.  But he pointed at me and said, “Seaneen threw a history book at me” and I bolted to the loo.  He must have been awake and was just breathing bizarrely.

I wanted to be James Herriot.  I was the St. Francis of Twinbrook.  Bring to me your sick, your lame, your cats, I shall tend to them all.  I’d root in the garden for ladybirds, armed with matchboxes.  One day a robin actually perched on me and sang.  Then when I was ten, I was savaged by a dog and decided to abandon my ambitions of being a vet who writes and to pursue my ambitions of being a canine-phobic who writes.   One day I was going to my granny Molloy’s and a dog started barking at me.  I threw a can of Fanta a it, in the warped belief that it was hungry and it could drink my Fanta.  Turns out you don’t throw things at dogs.  They chase you.

There’s loads of photos of us as kids, up until Orlaith was born and my dad’s alcoholism took irreversible hold. He seemed to have a camera surgically attached to him throughout our formative years; there are a plethora of photographs of us doing mundane things- being in the bath, eating our dinner, coming downstairs in the morning for breakfast, sitting in our bedrooms listening to his Bowie vinyls or dancing to Michael Jackson. It is sad that he stopped taking them. There is almost no evidence of Orlaith’s childhood. What there is had been laminated by my dad.

Had I been on medication as a child I would have become an adult without emotions.   If I’d been diagnosed as a child, every feeling I had, everything I did, would be pathologised.  You don’t analyse as a child, you just are. I miss that.

Even though the lack of treatment probably led to me becoming so ill when I was twelve, it was worth it to have a childhood, even one as turbulent as mine.

10 Responses

  1. Loved this post Seaneen. *hug*

  2. you truly have a beautiful soul.

    i am sorry you lost your father. your parents should be very proud of you and your siblings. they have raised a wonderful daughter.

    god bless.

  3. That fair blew me away Seaneen. Your childhood comes across as beautiful and horrific all at the same time.

    I now have a clearer understanding of your fierce, if seemingly perverse pride in your family. With all their fucked-upness your mum and dad come across as somehow both heartbreaking and heroic.

    No surprise then, that they managed to produce you. For which I will always be grateful to them. Love, Zoe.

  4. I’m right there with ya on looking back. My childhood was so less than optimal, but you just have to come to terms with these things. Being angry takes too much energy.

    My mother called me “sensitive” because it seemed everything made me cry growing up. My sister never got in trouble for upsetting me b/c everything did. I thought every expression that wasn’t a smile was meant to be critical or harsh. I still do, and that’s really hard to work on. My husband tries to react in an overly negative fashion to help me understand that every sigh doesn’t mean something bad. Sometimes a sigh really is just a sigh.

    And such a good point about letting kids be kids. I’m still trying to find a med combo that doesn’t make me a zombie. Emotions shouldn’t be all or nothing.

  5. I’am proud of you seaneen.

  6. It is the opinion of both my mother and my psychiatrist that I was born with bipolar disorder.

    I can remember tremendous peaks and troughs throughout my life, going back to the age of about 3. My mother had to be extremely careful about exposing me to certain things because I was so ‘sensitive’. Some days I’d tear around all day yelling, and on others I hole up in my room with my Lego and go to sleep on my floor.

    I don’t feel I’ve been robbed of a childhood. I just feel that mine was a little different.

  7. One day you’ll write that book.

    I actually think you’ve already written virtually the whole of one on this blog. I seem to recall that you want to be a novelist, really. But I reckon you could pull together an autobiography with much of the material you’ve already written down.

  8. im very proud of you too. our childhood was werid but strangely happy at times its always hard to explain it but you manage to better than anyone xxx

  9. Reblogged this on Everyday Voices and commented:
    This is one entry I’ve read over and over. This brave woman sharing her childhood experiences of having an alcoholic parent and a parent with mental illness. She herself suffers from mental illness, the symptoms began at age 12. She speaks with such candor and emotion about her family, herself and her hopes for the future. Her forgiveness of her parents, seeing them as “people” not as her “parents”.

    Also, check out the rest of her blog; she writes extensively about what it’s like to live with mental illness. To medicate or not. Is psychiatry helpful or not? Is therapy helpful. Of course these speak to her own experiences but they are a good insight.

    She lives in the U.K., which means she gets free mental health treatment when she needs it. It’s not perfect and is inadequate at times, but much better than the US where you have to be rich to get the mental health treatment you need. Everything is not a straight line, it’s not so straightforward, medication is good, to not medicate is dangerous, therapy is helpful, therapy is crap…, what to do when there’s an episode, to do a section hold or not, there are many nuances and options on choosing the best mental health care for yourself. A lot of states (or countries) take that choice away from you if they deem you too dangerous or unfit but once stabilized, you should be able to choose the kind of mental health care you want.

    Especially with mental illness, it’s hard to put all of your shit out there. There’s still a taboo or element of shame attached to having or admitting you have a mental illness. All of your choices are questioned because of your mental state, though making poor choices and having a mental illness are not mutually exclusive.

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