When I was around ten or eleven, I fell off our garage roof, bruised my spine, and temporarily lost the use of my legs. I remember lying on the ground wailing, while, above me, everybody ran around wringing their hands and shouting at each other. It’s probably an invented memory, but that is my family’s traditional response to stress, a tradition I carry on with my own children.
We were a reserved family, shy of demonstrations of emotion, though not of irritation. As a teenager, I went through a period of lightly scoring my wrists with knives. It was the early 80s and self-harm was just becoming a thing, I think. I didn’t know anybody else who was doing this, but I’m fairly certain I didn’t come up with the idea by myself. I was probably doing it to get attention from girls, because I’d had a very safe, stable, and happy upbringing and was absolutely not traumatised or abused. Sure, I was slapped, occasionally, but this was the 70s and 80s: everybody got physically chastised. It didn’t work, but it did us no harm, unless taken too far.
Looking back, though, I guess it’s significant that, of all the ways of getting attention from girls, this was the one I chose.
When my parents discovered it, they went into stress-overdrive. They sat me down, stood over, and interrogated me: What the hell was wrong with me? Did I seriously want therapy? Hmm? Because, if I did, they could arrange it, although god only knew where they’d find the money…
Looking back, my poor parents were probably at a loss what to do. They hadn’t encountered this sort of behaviour from my older siblings and probably didn’t want to encourage it by being too supportive. No one in the 80s was very progressive in these matters, and there weren’t any support networks or online forums, as there might be today. They only had each other to rely on and, no doubt, they reinforced each other’s ideas.
The offer of therapy was clearly made to be rejected. To accept would be pathetic and demeaning. I wasn’t mad, just attention-seeking. Although we’d discuss politics and history ‘till the cows came home, our family simply didn’t discuss our psychological states.
I immediately shelved this memory and avoided examining it for years. Thinking about it now, I guess I was mortified and humiliated. My parents seemed so angry, as if I’d done something awful, as if I’d let everybody down, dreadfully. But, sure enough, I never had the nerve to self-harm again, at least not while I lived with them, which justified their strategy.
The message was clear: outbursts and expression make everybody unhappy. Shut up about it and it’ll go away. I imagine that lesson was reinforced throughout my childhood and I internalised it. That’s why I feel so daunted by therapy and ketchup. (I would never, ever, open up to my parents.)
Or maybe not: every thought process is locked away so tightly that I can only guess at its existence.
Therapy ought to be a golden opportunity to talk about yourself to somebody both trained and paid to take an interest in you, and presumably taking professional pride in listening attentively. It’s a fulfilling experience, but I always enter the room with a profound sense of inadequacy and emptiness. There doesn’t seem anything to say at all. There’s nothing to me. I’m a very ordinary dude who’s wasting everybody’s time, a fraud, an attention seeker, and therapists will feel deeply disappointed and bored with me, unless I can come up with the goods, which I can’t. Rosie, a very troubled patient, here, who’s been in and out of eating disorder clinics for years, screamed at our therapist, Jamie, and threw chairs about. That’s proper therapy behaviour! Jamie must have been delighted. Now, there’s something to work with!
If you’re messed up, if your identity’s evaporating, but you can do anorexia that well, where’s the incentive to recover?