There is always something reassuring about being able to relate to something that seems familiar to you in a book or a film on television. It means you not lost and alone in the world. It means that you are not the only one who feels like the Outsider.
As children growing up in a dysfunctional home our function was to endure. We weren’t orphans, we weren’t physically abused and we weren’t abandoned or neglected by our parents. Our parents weren’t selfish people but when I was younger I used to think to myself perhaps they were the wrong fit. Something was wrong; something was the matter.
I am done with wishing the past is dead. I have realised that the past is what shapes us, as does our vivid, colourful and vibrant background and the history we shared with our siblings when we were growing up.
While fresh blossoms are crushed under the flow of the spray of the downpour of winter rain and acid colour spills into the fading white sunlight; the sky burns brightly in the morning light while I am writing this on my computer.
Raised voices in my parents’ darkened bedroom jerk us children back to a reality that is wired very differently from other people’s homes, other children’s families.
Our childhood was dark; filled with trauma that was unspoken of, unhealed sores, open wounds, raw hurting flesh that screamed in anger and in pain when it was touched. Nothing seemed to heal that tenderness for the three of us except hours spent in front of the television or reading.
The thin rain reminds us all of my mother’s rage when she had nobody else left to scream at. It rubbed salt in the wound. It burned and left a unique imprint on our brain.
When the summer rain came it swept everything away. It was swept away under rug and brain and belly. It nourished us to express ourselves creatively.
I had to give my childhood pain, that wasteland a name. As children we were the ‘walking wounded’. All three of us were damaged in some way. At first it was as slow as honey before it descended on our personalities and behaviour. It marked us. It restored us to sanity at times. It also drove us slowly insane in different ways; in ways that could be seen, ways that came in waves of disconnection and ways that seemed invisible.
Parents don’t mean to hurt their children intentionally. They don’t mean to display self-destructive behaviour and become dysfunctional in their relationships in their work and their relationships at home.
The emotional scars and wounds were there long before I turned ten or twelve or remembered what it was like to be a child. As a family we prayed together and we stayed together. When we prayed the ‘Our Father’ we always kept our eyes open and tried to make each other laugh out loud inviting reprisals from our father. But he never said anything. As adults my brother and sister do not go to church. I don’t know if they believe in God or if they have adopted atheism. My mother has sent them DVD’s and CD’s of sermons at the church she goes to. They don’t listen to anything that she has sent them. They are blessed with good jobs, careers they work hard at and enjoy.
I don’t know if they choose to ignore religion or the role that it has played in our lives. I don’t know if they meditate or if they remember their prayers at night.
I want to remember the best of them. Of my parents when I was younger. Of my mother. I remember her perfume that she wore when I was little. Opium. She was like a drug to me. I was addicted to her love. I wanted her to idolise me the way I idolised and worshipped her when I was little.
Daily it seemed when we were children we were stuck in our own reality television show with the volume turned down low so we could here what they were saying. We followed half cryptic sentences like, “I’m leaving you now. I’ve packed my bags and I’m going.”
I wasn’t there when my father moved out briefly. I was in Johannesburg working for a television and film production company. Briefly I had my hands full with life, colour, love and laughter. Things that I enjoyed, that I had a passion for and that I loved doing more than anything else in the world.
I think that even as adults we are trying to make up, reinvent, mask and make sense of the hateful, spiteful, mean, words that they were saying to each other. Still to this day my mother’s abuse is never-ending and unrelenting. She leaves you frozen, a still life portrait, stone cold and unfeeling like a bowl of overripe fruit or damaged rotten tomatoes. Like the weird incompatible combination of strange fruit and estranged families.
My parents were not bad people; they did not set out to hurt us intentionally; the way they were perhaps were as children by their own parents. They had the best intentions for us as children to develop our full potential. They wanted us to succeed where they did not. They wanted us to succeed at all costs.
How many times did they speak about us behind closed doors? What would become of us? Would we make it through the ‘separation’ or ‘divorce’?
There was always this feeling of loss that permeated the air, repeated words like ‘separation’ and ‘divorce’ but it was always temporary; a flight/fight response from reality.
There were also hours were my brother, sister and I were silent cooped up in our bedrooms shell-shocked into a sullen disbelief. It was here my brother discovered Isaac Asimov, sci-fi, Marvel comic books while I discovered a torn and tattered copy of Lady Chatterly’s lover by D.H Lawrence, a book, really a feminist treatise by the French writer Simone de Beauvoir. I held onto these gifts; reading and writing poetry. They gave me courage under fire. It was three of us, me and my siblings against the world. We were reckless, unruly, unforgiving of anyone who wouldn’t or couldn’t understand us, our lives, our unique lifestyle. I didn’t know what my sister discovered. What mess she was in and what was going on in her head. She was the perfect child who cooked when there was no supper. She always made the same meal. She made meat and potatoes in a steaming thick brown broth. She cut up the potatoes in huge chunks.
They were sometimes still hard but we ate it. Chewed thoughtfully and said nothing. For a long time nothing came into our little heads, our minds, no matter how smart we thought we were at letting the world see our picture perfect family. When we let the outside world into our little cocoon, our ‘safe’, sad environment we could see straight through the cover at the cracks that were starting to shine through. The cracks that we could no longer hide from each other and the rest of the individuals that we came into contact with on this planet called earth.
When we were children, playing at being sea urchins on the beach my sister and I would watch the sea foam melt into our bronzed toes. We would try not to get the rest of our bodies wet. We don’t go in far when there’s no lifeguard on duty and when no flags are up. On the hot beach today, the water chills us from our flesh to the bone even as we stand at the edge where the rolling waves come to an end. Now my sister wants to record our family history and everything by taking pictures with her cell phone.
We take lots of pictures.
My sister was the super overachiever who came home with medals, diplomas, straight A’s in Mathematics and Physical Science. She won a scholarship to NASA in the US when she was fourteen. She was the child who couldn’t put a foot wrong no matter how hard she tried to be as different as my brother and I were she couldn’t fit into our clique. She never made a big deal out of anything she did. She took it all in her stride. For a long time I never realised she was just copying me; trying to be me in a way I found it impossible to be – perfect without a hair out of place.
She was tracing my movements in primary school and high school slyly. She was cunning. So cunning she was invisible for a long time to both my brother and me when she was growing up. Her feelings, emotions, her delicate state of mind, her vulnerabilities were masked exceptionally well with an efficient flow and ebb, supreme confidence and grace. She was holding up a pattern for me and the whole world to see all the time of me.
I remember once she memorised a poem that I had to say for my Speech and Drama class. I couldn’t read yet. So my parents had to read the words over and over until I could get all the lines of the poem stuck inside my head like a film reel of an editor.
She said it word for word with an iron, determined will that defied her age. She was just a kid, a baby. She could hardly read yet but she had learnt it off by heart from hearing me recite it.
My parents and aunt stood around her with beaming faces, clapping and even then I was always a bit in awe of her. That day I was afraid of her stealing my glory forever. I can still remember what it felt like, the hairs raised at the back of my neck, my spine tingling, chills going through my body that such energy and beauty and grace could come out of such a tiny body, a thing, a human being. I drew my breath in sharply knowing how carefully, how artfully she had watched me so that she could do this; show this to me in her own thoughtful way. But I could never quite figure out and get my head around why she had done it.
I thought that perhaps she was being just like me in a way that I hadn’t seen myself before. I saw me through her eyes just for a few minutes and I had to turn my head away. She hates reading my work; the stories I write today or perhaps hate is too strong a word. She is indifferent to it. I have no idea what she sees there between the lines on the pages when she reads it.
I remember the days when my eyes were drawn deep, dark circles and when I was morose and withdrawn. When I was nineteen and speedily diagnosed with clinical depression. My response to the whole world was that it became a black, dense shadow in twilight. I saw it through brand new eyes, waiting with hopelessness and helplessness, waiting for forgiveness for this thing that I had done wrong.
I was waiting for without a shadow of a doubt for love and forgiveness for what I couldn’t tell you that even now. I was selfish; I was rude, ill-mannered, immature, petty and childish. I was growing up. I was grown up yet I thought I was still a child hanging on to my mother’s apron strings.
Now I cook. It’s my new-found therapy. I cook for my family. It’s something else I’m good at. I’ve always hated liver even when I was a child but liver and sweet fried onions were one of my father’s favourite meals growing up. I tried to make it like his mother used to make it. I still try to make him food and meals that he would like. He praised me every time for every dish I made him. My hero, my god, a giant, a gift to the world he grew up in, came into contact with as he grew older and now as he ages to so many people. To the people he taught as a teacher and the people he worked with.
I am based in Port Elizabeth now. The sun is white. The sea breeze tastes like salt on my tongue and the back of my mouth. Shell-shocked orphaned children on an HIV/Aids documentary film washes over me like a monsoon. I am drawn to war now and documentaries not about animals but about people, emergencies, protests against service delivery. I am drawn to orphans, children who are innocents and displaced people who live in poverty stricken areas and who have hunger in their bellies; people who have to ward off xenophobic attacks.
The more unhappiness that seems to linger inside my head makes me strangely feel ‘normal’. I am one of them now. I am just like everybody else but I know in my heart that my sadness is an illness and one that is overpowering, overwhelming and can be devastating. Female writers and poets have made this ‘look’, sadness, depression, suicidal, on the verge of a nervous breakdown dangerously seductive and attractive. I look at the imprints that people’s handprints make. I find it interesting. I know the small handprints belong to children and I wonder what their childhood is like. If it is anything like mine was I feel tired even a bit stressed out. Children shouldn’t have to grow up in circumstances where they have no thought control over the adults that look after and supervise them.
When we were growing we tried not to rock the boat. In pictures when my kid brother was small he always had a little smile on his face. He doesn’t smile like that anymore in pictures. Instead he is like a mannequin, he poses, sometimes he even shows off a little but that little smile that I still look for is no longer there.
On Sunday afternoons my parents rested. While they were deep in sleep we played games with each other, told each other scary stories. We lived in another world but it was normal to us.
We didn’t really have any other friends in the neighbourhood. We were kept away from other children by our mother. She didn’t want us to mix with the ‘wrong crowd’. We were the wrong crowd. The three of us trapped in an abusive home; as shell-shocked as I’ve said before as a child in war or a child overcoming trauma, no one could ever know the pain that we went through on a daily basis.
How my mother makes my father happy is irrelevant now at this juncture in our lives. We are all adults and have been left to fend for ourselves in the world. How she makes him unhappy is. She hasn’t realised yet how unhappy she makes us children when she makes our father sad. She hasn’t realised yet how much pain, despair and heartache she causes him. I don’t think she will ever know. I don’t think I will ever know the secrets of her own childhood that she carries in her own heart. The relationship she had with both of her parents and her own siblings.
One brother died when he was five years old in a car accident and there is her sister in the family who is an alcoholic and another sister who had a child out of wedlock. What my own mother thinks and feels daily is an anomaly to me. There is no way for me to get through to her. Now she has found religion and God again and the church. I don’t know what sacrifices she made to get here to her own sobriety. I don’t know what ‘crazy’, ‘insane’, ‘abnormal’, ‘dysfunctional family life’ means to her. She calls my medication, my ‘pharmacy’, Smarties.
Nobody outside of our family knew the personal problems we were going through. There were so many secrets embedded in the sometimes oddly normal personas that we carried around with us. We changed them like clockwork to fit in with that day’s scenery or landscape like actors who had many costume changes in a film or whores who worked in bordellos in the wild West; prostitutes who worked the streets.
These effigies were involved in the day to day household debates, at school, church, Sunday school, our Speech and Drama classes with Miss Gilbey and then later Sharon Rother. We even got the chance to act out a little in the plays that were put on at schools and at home for our parents own amusement and delight. What we were actually doing was shielding ourselves from the blows. Those emotional blows, scarring, ribbing, our mother’s mood swings and eternal highs and lows and her ranting and shrieking when one of us did something we weren’t supposed to do. Our childhood was bittersweet. We were like soldiers sharing rations, sharing food, sharing a bond, storytelling in a POW camp.
In high school I was the girl who never cracked a smile. I was a sullen girl with few friends. My brother on the other hand was the popular one in high school. Smart. People, teachers, girls, boys, men and women seemed to respect him and like him immediately. They were drawn to him like bees to pollen. He didn’t have to work for it like I seem to do. And it seemed like I had to be constantly working at it.
Also when he was a teenager he constantly seemed at war with himself. He was constantly acting out. Going for joy rides in my mother’s car, sneaking out to clubs on a Saturday night with his so-called ‘friends’, being involved in skirmishes and once he was caught drinking on the school premises and was suspended for two weeks from school. He was nearly expelled.
The questions I asked myself growing up and still to this day is, “Do my parents make each other happy?” Then when I was a grown up I could finally answer that question. They did love each other. They do love each other. My father respected my mother and she loved him in her own way. She loved him in the best way that she knew how. I didn’t want to blame the person I loved the most in the world anymore – my mother.
It was raining. There was the smell of a wet dog in the air. The dog, my mother’s dog Moby sat cowering on a cushion under the chair by the computer where I was writing. I remembered the times when I was curled up on my bed in the foetal position crying because I couldn’t make any sense out of what was happening to me or my brain. I couldn’t concentrate on anything longer than a few minutes.
I couldn’t read a book other than a few sentences. I felt numb and it was a feeling that I felt often in those weeks of taking the anti-depressants. I suffered in silence with the medication I was taking other than writing or scribbling something down in my diary about it. It was all about how it was making me feel negative, cross, angry at everyone around me, everyone I came into contact with. I felt ambivalent all the time instead of positive and happy.
My life was a never-ending story of the daughter who wanted to be best friends with her mother. Who wished to have a deep, happy and fulfilling bond with her mother but that was not to be. When I was younger it seemed as if we were both always vying for my father’s attention. I was a daddy’s girl. He would always be my hero, the person that I looked up to the most in the world and a giant in my eyes. I looked constantly for his affection and approval in everything I did. My mother finished last. For a long time I didn’t know how much that hurt her.
I didn’t know at that young age that my mother probably had problems of her own. I was too young to realise that she also grew sad, stressed out or depressed about something or probably had grown up problems of not having enough money to make it to the end of the month, emotional security and fitting in with the staff at her school. She was a teacher at a high school near our home which was situated in a comfortable middle class suburb.
After I got put on medication I chewed my fingernails to take the edge off of feeling bored. I began to binge on candy, potato chips and purge. My hair started to fall out. I began to develop a dangerous and bizarre relationship with food. Food seemed to me to be the only thing that seemed to take that strange edge off those first few months. First I decided I didn’t want to eat meat. Then I wasn’t going to eat yoghurt, eat yellow cheeses or drink milk even if it was low fat or skimmed. I wanted to be a vegetarian and only allowed myself to eat fish.
I rested a lot during that time in those first few months when I was first put on drugs for my clinical depression. I took long naps. I needed to sleep but I didn’t want to dream. Dreams could so easily turn into nightmares and sometimes they remained burned on my brain long after I woke up and I would relive them again and again.
What I learned about sex when I hit puberty and became a teenager came from books like from D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterly’s Lover’; Milan Kundera’s ‘The Unbearable Lightness Of Being’. I learnt that sex was all about power and control. This was what my peers were learning about it from their forays into the world of dating, girlfriends and boyfriends. I had my books.
I loved Port Elizabeth. I loved the salt sea breeze against my face on the bus when I was coming home from Johannesburg and we were nearing the station. I loved watching the waves coming in from the ocean at night, the black water of the sea underneath the pier, eating ice-cream with a flake dipped in caramel or sinful chocolate, or sitting at a posh restaurant with my family eating a meal that cost a small fortune that my brother paid for with his gold card without looking at the slip with a second glance.
He does yoga now, goes to the gym to stay healthy, trim and fit, plays poker with the guys at the weekend, plays soccer with his work colleagues and squash when he finds the time in his busy week schedule. He goes out to bars, clubs and posh restaurants at the weekend where he socialises and drinks fine wine. He is intelligent, good-looking and sophisticated. There isn’t time for us to talk anymore. For him to confide in me as easily as he did when he was a child and an adolescent. We all grew up so fast and we all couldn’t wait to get out of that house with the screaming and the emotional abuse.
The hours I spent in libraries shaped me, pulled me up and pushed me away; bad to good
She was my mother so of course I forgave her; I loved her. She was mum, mummy, mother, mama and ma, she did not hug, she did not kiss, or touch us so she brought us books instead of love so we could imagine mothers that could hug and kiss and touch their children.
In everybody’s life every moment is marked somewhat by change whether or not they are indifferent to it or they remain unresponsive to it or aloof. In my adult life I have become like a moth hiding behind the pale white and blue balloon of a shower curtain then flying through the air seamlessly There are empty spaces in between, inside my head and like gossamer wings thoughts, feelings, actions seem to unravel, unfurl, twitch, fidget distractedly, slightly skewed and disorientated. They flit and flap wavering slightly like the drops of liquid falling through the air from the showerhead.
There were times when I couldn’t speak of what I was truly thinking or feeling and then there where times when I didn’t want to say anything that would seem to ruin a perfect moment of loveliness or happiness that I was experiencing. I was so afraid I might say the wrong thing; mess it up; destroy it and hit the self-destruct button.
There were times when it seemed as if my voice was at war with itself, the inter-personal relationships I had with my estranged family – my father’s family, my immediate family that I had contact with, my parents and my younger brother and sister.
There are still times when I think I am blessed to know people like my brother and sister and there are other times when I still think my childhood was pretty unique and special – bittersweet. I realise I am not just a simple, vulnerable human body but also brave, compelling and relevant.
I still have strange dreams at night where I am at the mercy of what is unseen in my daily world and in the morning when I wake up tense or disturbed about what was forthcoming from my subconscious the previous night although it might have been unquiet, intense, fractured, fragmented and yes even romantic. I remember I am still me. I am still a functioning, productive human being who has up days and down days. I am sometimes someone who feels the blues or Holly Golightly’s in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ ‘mean reds’.
I can smell the runny warmth of smoke and ochre in my windswept hair on the beach and when I run my fingers through it I can feel God’s simple design in all the curves, the angles; the beautiful shape of my head in my hands.
When I am feeling like the sky is just a Goodyear blimp just waiting to crash land; bump and grind to a halt on the ground. When life feels like I’m submerged in wet rock pools, muddy puddles that stick like gum to your shoe, slipstreams of floating junk, dirt, flotsam in never-ending potholes that are never repaired I sometimes feel like I got the better end of the deal in a ‘normal’ world after all even if it is blessed by something that I believe to be very real; even if I can’t see this being called God.