Did what made me also break me? An indulgent mid-life musing…

I went to counselling recently.  Not something I ever thought I would do. But I was ready.  I went to the GP with stomach problems and mentioned my anxiety and then started crying and ended up with a bag of various meds.  I haven’t started taking any of it, I don’t know why.  Well – I do know why.  I’m scared. I don’t want side effects.  I don’t want dependency.  And, I wanted to try other ways to feel better. (I have no qualms about medication, by the way.  I know it can be life changing. I use a lot of pain relief. I know many people who swear by various anti-anxiety and/or anti-depressive meds. But it’s a very personal choice.  And I’m not quite ready.) So, I went on a waiting list for counselling, and got onto a six week course.  I started the first week feeling incredibly self-indulgent and apologetic.  By the last session I felt devastated that it wasn’t carrying on.

All I’d done was turn up and talk about myself for about 50 minutes each week. That’s all.  But I never talk about myself. It was new. I like to swallow things down, keep them buried in there.  It feels a bit like a lot of those things are clawing their way out, now. So it seemed like maybe I should think about dealing with them.

These hours gave me time, they gave me permission to think, to remember, to feel.  They allowed me to consider why I am the way I am. Yes, some people have it worse, much worse.  But in these hours, I was allowed to feel what I was feeling, irrespective of other people, of the outside world.

And then, outside of those hours, I allowed myself to think some more. And some of what I was thinking, I wrote down. My memory isn’t great.  It’s selective and patchy and I’m sure varies from anyone else involved in a given situation.  But, it’s mine. When I wrote down the following, I was revisiting the social side of my teenage years.  Outside of the family home, my adolescence is not a time I remember well, or fondly. It hurts me to look back, I mostly feel sadness and shame and there are many things I blocked out. But these are some of the things that stayed.

I was a weird teenager.  I suppose all teenagers are, are they?  That’s what we’re led to believe, anyway.  Confused, hormonal, tired, emotional, angry – well, that’s enough about how I feel this morning, BOOM! (srsly tho) – but from the age of eleven/twelve, until … um.  I was going to say eighteen but I actually want to say about twenty-two or older, which means for over TEN YEARS, I was a weird, confused mess of a person.

I got my period when I was eleven.  I remember it so clearly, I was in primary seven and we were having some kind of dance practice because we had our OH GOD THE HORROR quali coming up.  We were standing in rows doing something that involved moving our hips – genuinely think it might have been the Agadoo dance – and I became aware of a pain in my tummy.  I thought I needed a poo, but also knew that it felt different.  And then later, I went to the toilet and there was blood on the tissue. I went and told my mum (we’d had the awkward talk, which had happened while she was hanging washing up on the pulley in the kitchen and ended with me saying, so… I could have a baby then? Which was definitely not what she was trying to communicate) and she poured me a bath and gave me a tampon with CONGRATULATIONS written on the wrapper and asked if she could tell dad (I really want to know how *that* conversation went).

Anyway.  That was all very nice and I won’t go into how it was just the start of over thirty years of monthly/more frequent pain and misery because YES WE KNOW and actually what I’ve been thinking about is how it was the start of my adolescence.  My parents hadn’t really been teenagers, or at least they were among the first generation of teenagers, reaching their teens in the 50s.  Until then, and after then for some time in some places, you were a child and then you were an adult.  Middle class teenage rebellions weren’t huge in Scotland then (although my dad grew up in a Church of Scotland, right-wing household then left home for university and became a left-wing atheist, which I have no end of respect for).  And my older sister, her hormones kicked in early and manifested in what was labelled ‘moodiness’ which no one really knew how to deal with.  And then, mine kicked in.  And while my sister’s anger was projected onto her family while she did well at school and with her peers (to my eyes anyway), mine was the other way round.  I was angry with everyone else, I hated everyone else.  I was, by this point, horrifically shy with anyone outside my family. But I was also needy and lonely.  All in all, it was a bad combination.  In first year at school, after a lonely few months, on the instigation of my mother I phoned two classmates and asked them to go to the cinema with me.  It was an enormous step and they both said yes and I was so happy I couldn’t stop smiling.  For a while I was part of a group, I had friends, I belonged.  But it didn’t work out, I began to hate them individually and as a group and was embarrassed to be associated with them.  I had also experienced the start of a romance with a boy, but I was naïve and didn’t know about taking it further, for me just chatting and laughing as we walked home or talked on the phone was special. But, although he didn’t attempt to express it verbally or physically, he wanted more, and when that didn’t happen after a while I got stood up after school and waited so long on the steps that a teacher came out and asked if I was okay. I swallowed down the hurt and said yes, and didn’t tell anyone what had happened.

By the age of 14 I literally had no friends (other than my one ‘best’ friend from primary school, now at a different high school with lots of good friends of her own, who I was incredibly, pathetically demanding of).  At lunch time I was buying myself a packet of biscuits and walking in the direction of home, sitting on a wall, eating the biscuits, then walking back to school.  My eyes were directed at the ground at all times. I got genuinely desperate, and asked someone – who I felt was somehow beneath me in social standing so would have to say yes – if she wanted to be friends with me.  She said yes and we met after school one time and it was so awkward and boring that I shamelessly gave up on her immediately. I found another friend, but again, somehow, she wasn’t enough for me.  Although I felt this keen neediness and isolation, I was also shallow and judgemental.  I only wanted to be friends with the cool kids.  I didn’t think I was cool enough or pretty enough and I definitely wasn’t popular enough on my own.

And then, it happened.  I wormed my way in.  I social climbed.  AND GUESS WHAT?  It still wasn’t enough.  The one person who I actually had made proper friends with, actually laughed – like, properly laughed – with, mercilessly dumped me after I got paralytically drunk at Hogmanay and disgraced myself in a number of ways.  I never remembered it fully and I don’t know what I said to her, if anything, but I had been showing my preference for the cooler people in school for a while and all in all, she told me her mum had said who needs enemies if you have friends like her and then she gave up on me, which was fair enough I guess.  I kept that inside, too.

It was of my own making, really.  But then, I had this new gang now.  I was part of it.  Or so I liked to think.  But I wasn’t really.  I made a friendship bracelet for one of the girls once and when I gave it to her, her discomfort was palpable.  With one of the other girls, once after an argument with my dad I ‘ran away’ and went to her house, still wearing all the jewellery and make up I’d been trying on, and again, there was an air of awkwardness and no attempt at comfort. During lunch at school a load of us would go to a friend’s flat, it was close by and we could sit in the kitchen and hang out.  I went on my own one time, and no one was there.  I just went and sat in the kitchen for ages and felt really embarrassed as there was a younger sibling there witnessing me being stood up in someone else’s house.  Turned out they were all – this was about eight folk – hiding from me in the flat.  I never knew if this meant I was really one of the group, or if they were just always laughing at me, but it definitely felt like the latter.  Those moments sat deep inside me.

Anyway.  There was a year or so of fun time, I don’t want to paint an entirely miserable picture.  My mum got my friends to organise a surprise 16th birthday party for me, so when I got to my house it was full of school friends, which was genuinely really lovely (even though I knew they weren’t all there for me, the fact that my mum had phoned round folk and they’d all arranged it was touching) and the coolness of our parents on top of the insane amount of gatecrashers and drunkenness and damage and debris in the street the next day earned me and my sisters a reputation as throwers of decent parties.  In fact our house was where people could come and hang and get drunk and crash and in the morning my mum would make tea and provide aspirin and that – despite at the time thinking this was the most embarrassing thing ever – helped my social life no end.  There was also a trip to some cottage somewhere, and I have photos of what to all intents and purposes looks like a group of pretty young things laughing and messing around and being friends.

Also that summer, I spend a week at a Quaker summer school. I wasn’t a quaker and I don’t remember why I went, I know I was worried about the effect it might have on my social life I’d worked so hard on.  But I did go, and I had an amazing time, and sank into a depression when I got back.  I couldn’t articulate why then, but looking back it’s obvious. I’d been able to be myself, and been accepted.  People had been nice to me.  This was so different to what I was used to, such a shock to the system, that I remember writing ‘I love you so much’ as goodbye notes to people I’d never see again after that week.  Emotions overwhelmed me and I couldn’t control them.  Later, I would look back and cringe, and vow not to be so open about my feelings.

It was after that, when I was back home, that things seemed to shift.  I can’t really remember what, or how.  I know there were whisperings of a romance between me and one of the boys, which I remember in two ways.  I remember a horrible, unpleasant experience in a cupboard at a party which I’ve never told anyone about and don’t want to now, and after that I couldn’t even look at him or respond when he repeatedly shouted my name across the playground.  But I also remember him fondly, I remember him lending me a Public Enemy tape and being sweet and funny.  But he ended up going out with one of the other girls, they turned up together at a party and everyone stared at me waiting for a reaction, and I felt sick and embarrassed, although I knew nothing more had been going to happen between us.  That moment never left me, that prickling of my skin, that lurch in my stomach. Although it wasn’t the last time a humiliation like that would happen to me, and I hardened to it before long. Accepted it. Expected it.

For the most part, it’s all kind of fuzzy. Those things hang there in my memory, like the salt crystals on string we created as children.  Other things ball together like dust, rolling around under a sofa, each from its own moment in time but now barely distinguishable.  When I was still sixteen, I was friendless again, and I can’t remember how or why.  But what I do remember, is being on my own again.  Like when I was going for lunch on my own when I was thirteen, I would now go to the pub on my own – this time I could drink and smoke, but the yearning was the same.  I remember getting dressed up to go out, and walking into town.  As I approached a pub (there were two or three where all the school kids gathered – I had fake ID but wasn’t asked once) I would light a cigarette.  I’d walk into the pub, walk up to the bar and get a drink, then just hang around and wait for someone to talk to me.  I’d offer people cigarettes.  I’d always looked a bit different, but it was more pronounced now. I’d dyed my hair purple, then orange, then blonde.  I had got my ears pierced many more times.  I got drunk, a lot.

One time I brought a friend, who was really a friend of my little sisters, and then only fourteen.  I went to one bar and they saw him loitering at the back, and wouldn’t serve me.  We went elsewhere, but not before I’d said hi to some people I had met before, they were from a different school, (a private school!), and were friendly and remembered me.  I met up with them again later. I ended up going out with one of them for a few months and entered into a very long and complicated friendship with another.

The realisation that there were other worlds out there was fairly life changing for me.  I’d felt defined by my shyness, my loneliness, my perceived unattractiveness for so long.  To suddenly know people who wanted to be friends with me, to sleep with me, to be seen with me, was amazing.  I blossomed. But, not in a very nice way.  Because the seeds that had been planted were not borne of happy things. I never stopped aiming low, I never stopped underestimating myself. I also never knew the power of female friendship until very, very recently.

It’s hard not to wonder, now, how different things would have been had social media existed.  As it was, I got my first email address at the age of twenty four.  I joined facebook when I was thirty three.

It’s easy for us to romanticise this, to talk of how glad we are that social media didn’t exist, that we didn’t have selfies and trolls and impossible standards to live up to.  And this is all true.  But we also lived in small, suffocating worlds, full of letters and magazines and landline phones, not knowing that others were out there feeling the same.  I do wonder how I would have fared if I’d been able to find other stories, other people, with a few clicks.  I love that we can travel all over the world, meet other people, educate and inform ourselves in ways that were simply not possible thirty years ago. I love selfies, I love seeing young women take control of their identities, their image.  I love that young queer folk can find others like them, can see others like them.  I love that everyone, literally everyone can be visible, can feel represented.

I do worry that, instead of posting anonymous valentines and repeatedly walking past my amours’ family houses, I would have been a crazed internet stalker and the whole world could have watched my descent into adolescent madness.  But, luckily, we’ll never know.

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