Slipping the Leash – A Memoir
I have kept myself so very tightly bound for so very long that I haven’t had to think about doing it, it’s just been second nature. Now, I know I will never be able to share my light if I don’t unbind myself and release who I am – but how to unbind myself?
This has been my conundrum for the last year or two. I still need to protect myself, of course, as we all do, but I’ll never live the life I came here to live if I can’t be who I really am.
From a young age I was told that I should respect my elders, I should be seen and not heard, that I’m too honest and my opinion was wrong, that my truth was a lie and the truth that I spoke meant I was mentally unstable and dismissed as lies. The power adults have over children can be unfair, and children can gather labels they don’t deserve.
I was not a liar! My truth was too inconvenient for the adults who were afraid of hearing it, and for the damning picture it painted of a relative, now long since dead.
So, leashed and suitably labelled, the smear campaign about me commenced and continues even now, 30 years later. I moved away from everyone and everything that tied me to that childhood, thankfully my mum did eventually follow me.
Of course, it’s not that simple is it?
Yes, I moved away, but in reality, it was 10 years too late. I couldn’t remove that stain on my soul and lived with the legacy of keeping my mouth shut. I smiled sweetly and nodded, regardless of my opinion, and became the happy to please puppy. I was just missing the wagging tail.
I was bullied at school, I kept my mouth shut.
I was punched and humiliated by a boyfriend and although I didn’t hang around too long, I still kept my mouth shut.
My self-worth was low.
Experience had taught me that speaking up wasn’t the right thing, so I always kept the proverbial cart on the wheels and never rocked any boats. The cost? The cost I now see was great; the cost was my true self. I had zero self-confidence, just a strong sense of self-preservation. Thankfully, art was my constant companion and a much-needed release valve. I might have actually become the ‘mentally unstable’ person I’d been labelled without it.
By continually keeping my mouth shut, my inner self became very tangled and murky. I had dark moments. I never did drugs or self-harmed and, although alcohol was a feature of my teens and 20s, it was moderated-ish. A strong and dependable mum, a loving maternal grandmother and art definitely kept me on the right side of the tracks. Thank you!
I always had strong opinions and a distinct sense of justice, so keeping quiet was toxic.
I completed school, followed up with A-level art and then moved onto college – art college of course. University: I was 19 years old and there wasn’t a cat in hell’s chance I was staying local. University was escape! WOOHOO!
GROWING AND FINDING
It is fair to say I didn’t work as hard as I should have in my first year. I wasn’t some nuts disco diva; Ye Olde Black Boy was my favourite haunt and there wasn’t far to stumble home.
I learned to cook, and I ate well. In fact, my meal plate became a little like a thrown down gauntlet. There were 16 of us in our first year flat and with increasing flair the foodies rose to the surface. Hardly a bean or slice of toast in sight, we were the roast chicken and Yorkshire pud students, the aubergine wraps and beef bourguignon students and it was awesome.
However, as I neared the end of my first year of student life, I did realise I was in danger of screwing things up as I hadn’t knuckled down enough. You see, I’d finally gained a true sense of belonging and I’d grasped it. Now though, it was time to address my dreams. As I got my nose to the grindstone, I promised myself that I wasn’t going to screw up this opportunity and I didn’t. I scraped it out of the bag for my first year and then kept my word to myself for the second and third years.
In my third year my mum started to go through a divorce from my then stepfather. It was nasty and my foundations were rocked. Thankfully, I discovered my theory teacher had ears for my troubles and my tutoring sessions for my dissertation also became my counselling sessions. I kept going and I not only achieved my degree with honours, but a large amount of respect from Judy, my tutor. It meant a lot!
There was one thing left to conquer: London. That’s where I wanted my first ‘proper’ job. My mum had a new house and a shiny new divorce, I decorated my box room and made some bedding from fabric I liked. I found myself a placement where I could flex my design muscles and gain some experience while I hunted for the aspiring role.
I can’t tell you how many letters of enquiry I sent, maybe 50, maybe more. I went up and down the country by train for interviews, was always alone and always scared; but I did it because I knew what I wanted. Finally, I landed a job less that 10 minutes away from Heathrow airport. I packed up everything I had, got a graduate loan so I could afford my first months’ rent and left. Day one of my new job was my birthday, what a gift to myself! Look what I’d achieved! All without rocking a single boat and all in opposition of the belittlers, naysayers and disbelievers.
I was lonely at times, but I was very content and completely skint. I hugely undervalued myself, lacked confidence and would rarely voice my opinions, but I was so bloody proud of myself.
I worked hard, did a good job and was liked. That was all me. I started to unpick the tangle inside me, and started to realise I was strong, good and could one day feel whole.
The problem was, I was now old enough to understand and I no longer felt fearful, I now felt anger. I still couldn’t open my mouth to let it out though, I’d bound myself far too well. So, the molten lava of anger raged inside me because of the injustice of my childhood. My skin couldn’t hide what was inside and eczema that started as a small patch under my nose soon became like a mask from Phantom of the Opera. It was awful and it hurt. My mum located a skin consultant for me while I found myself a counsellor and started to pour out my woes.
LOVE AND GRIEF
I looked awful, my walls were crumbling and I was a mess. Yet, here at this time I met my Sheppy (it’s what I call him to his face too). He liked me!
Gentle, kind, generous with his heart and words – exactly who I needed. He was my safe harbour and I was his too. He lived in Newcastle under Lyme, where on Earth is that?
I’d never heard of it, but I discovered it one weekend having caught the train from Euston Station.
For a few months in early 2001 he’d come down to London or I’d head up to Staffordshire. Sometimes even back to my mum’s and he’d meet me there. My mum liked him and my Grandma also really warmed to him, he made her chuckle with his dry humour.
I kept seeing my counsellor to try and resolve the issues of my past and my face slowly healed.
June 2, 2001, my mum found my Grandma sat in her chair in the kitchen at her home. She had her phone note book out on the table, open on the page with my mum’s number. She’d taken an overdose to end her life. She’d been disabled for 40 years, couldn’t get out on her own, lived alone and had severe curvature of the spine that caused her great pain. She’d had enough and that was her decision.
I left work, travelled to my mum’s and did not return until after Grandma’s funeral. I was disciplined for the time off so I handed in my notice, packed up my flat, found a new tenant for the landlord and moved in with Sheppy (poor fella). We’d known each other for a whole six months!
Now, not being good at trusting people and having received some truly crap lessons in life, I am very aware I was a challenge for his calm disposition (bloody nightmare probably covers it). Slowly we carved out a little world together; I had a design job, I baked and made a garden and we rumbled along nicely.
NOT IN THE PLAN…WHAT PLAN?
A couple of years elapsed and a day after my birthday I was slowly eroding myself over being ‘late’. Yes, we had a gate crasher. That was not remotely planned! I wasn’t having kids, there was no eventually, I just wasn’t having them! What I knew about myself though, was that I would never overcome actively getting rid of a child. Reluctantly I started to tell people. Sometimes, you need a slap in the face to wake you up to reality…I started to lose blood. Yes, that woke me up. I went into hospital and I promised every Universe that ever existed, that I’d get a grip and look after my child if they let me keep it.
My wish was granted.
MOTHERHOOD AND STUPIDITY
Er…what the hell am I supposed to do now?
Love wasn’t an issue, I had it in spades and I worshipped every inch of my bright and shiny little boy. Motherhood though was not naturally occurring initially.
Having been far too scared to attend any classes prior to having a baby, I was wildly unprepared mentally. Post-natal depression wasn’t the sad miserable variety for me, it was cuttingly vicious and angry. So angry I’d have smashed my car into a wall for a laugh if I hadn’t managed to rein myself in a little. When I was ok, I knew I was merely behaving for a little while. I got no help, I went to no support classes, no doctor spotted it and my mum didn’t live near, so for 18 months I was a barely contained psychotic nut job.
For some insane reason, Sheppy decided to marry me during this period.
Thankfully postnatal depression passed, and everyone survived.
I discovered that things that were important before child (BC) were no longer on my radar. I was mum and I felt I should put away childish things and embrace the role. I sold all my art and photography equipment, everything. I worked three, 12-hour days at work and was a mum for the other four days. I was mentally and physically exhausted, piling on weight but kept on trudging.
Gallstones: such an everyday occurrence for doctors. I kept going to my GP telling them I felt sick all the time; every minute of every day. I was told it was stomach acid, later anxiety. When I started to lose a significant amount of weight, I was referred for counselling for fear of becoming anorexic. Over a nine-month period I went from being a size 18 to a size 10 hanging off me, I had lost over eight stone in weight. I was eating tracker bars, melon and marshmallows; everything else made me want to throw my guts up.
I finally had a huge attack of pain and the 111 service called me an ambulance. A blood test and an ultrasound scan later, I was finally diagnosed and told to stay off the bacon. Yeah, thanks for that. I was weak, worn out and still losing weight. I had another attack of pain a week later and collapsed in A&E while waiting to be looked after. I found myself giving up. No one was actually interested in making me better and this was no life; my little boy was better off without me.
Sheppy and mum realised, and the troops rallied. We got an appointment at a different hospital, out of the area, and they organised a surgical appointment for January 2. I could eat again! I had an egg sandwich and it was lovely.
I finally returned to work and continued with life. The opportunity for redundancy came up at work and I took it. I re-sat both my English and Maths qualifications to refresh them and started to pursue teaching. I volunteered at my son’s school and got a lunchtime post in the nursery, while I also attended college to gain a teaching qualification. Later I moved onto an arts and crafts teaching post for the council, so I could be assessed while I completed my teaching qualifications.
Child number two blessed us. Star child as the spirits named him.
We needed a more reliable income than I was getting. I wasn’t managing to secure a position as an art teacher in a college or high school, so, I took an opportunity as an English and maths tutor with a private training provider.
This was not my usual area of work and I worked so incredibly hard in this role to compensate for English and maths not being my specialisms. I always had a good rapport with the learners and got the required results from their time learning with me.
Other than the initial improvement in my own maths and English abilities, this role soon took its toll on me. I was defying the very fabric of who I was, not with the teaching, but as a result of cutting everything creative out of my life.
I wasn’t baking or gardening as I was so busy planning lessons and marking work. I wasn’t designing or creating art as I’d sold all my art equipment. I told myself to keep at it, it would work out. I further dulled my natural instincts by playing online games when I did have time available. While there was a lovely community of people, I got to know and care for, I wasn’t actually caring for me and who I was. I was nodding, smiling, doing and reacting.
My mental health was in the toilet, my eating habits broken. I was screaming inside, and I was trapped, but I kept placating myself that it would somehow be ok.
SLIPPING THE LEASH
Dire circumstances are sometimes needed to wake us up from our zombie-like existence.
My youngest started getting bullied at school. He was covered in scratches and bruises and my complaints were being ignored, plus he was falling behind with his learning and becoming withdrawn. I was so busy marking other kids work, I was neglecting my own.
Pneumonia – a lower lung infection: once…twice…three times. STOP!
I quit. No working my notice period, I was done.
Time to get well. Yes, physically I needed to heal from three bouts of pneumonia. Actually, I needed to heal from 30 years of crushing who I was.
I WAS DONE!
Done with working for others.
Done with hiding who and what I am.
Done at nodding and smiling and being the happy to please puppy.
I’m sat crying writing this part as it’s the first time I’ve shared this and it’s long overdue.
It has been three years since my last bout of pneumonia. It has been three years where I have invested time, energy and money in me. I don’t regret my past, it is part of the fabric of who I am and I’m all the wiser for it. I believe in the inherent goodness of people, I believe we all have a light to shine and I believe in me.
No, my life isn’t perfect now.
I’m overweight – something I endlessly try to rectify, I have down days, I still haven’t reclaimed my love of baking, and the quantity of clay in my garden holds me back from planting a wealth of bee-friendly flowers.
However, I have reclaimed my passion for art, I’m joyfully rebellious and don’t hold my tongue anywhere near as much. I own my own business and I have boys I have time for. The best thing though, the jewel in my crown, is that I look in the mirror and I love myself, even saying kind words to who looks out at me. There are no more tangles or darkness, I’m starting to blossom, and I am grateful.
Written April 2020, by Elaine Shepherd