I’ve always said that being a child in a single parent family never really affected me. I’ve turned out pretty well, all things considered. While I think the trope of the troubled child of a broken marriage is a load of bollocks for many of us, I remember when I finally had to admit that actually, yeah, it did affect me. I watched a TED Talk that could have been about me. The speaker related the story of her childhood, of how she became a good girl to help her struggling parents in the only way she could. Much of the rest of the talk didn’t resonate with me, but for the first five minutes I felt like I’d been slapped.
Not long after I was born my family was already falling apart. By the time I was five my parents were in the process of divorcing and my alcoholic father died. My Mother left him despite her enduring love for this broken man for the sake of my brother and I, and uprooted her life to move back to her home town. She returned to work full-time and worked every waking hour to make our lives happy. Although she was supported by my grandparents, who looked after us a good amount of the time, I was always aware of the stress she was under. A large part of that time in my life is hazy in my memories, with some memories completely fabricated to hide more painful ones – for example, my memory of my Mum telling me that my Dad had died is completely false and I can’t remember the real version at all, despite having been told since. It’s completely buried.
I was very young, with an even younger brother that I adored, but also happened to be a little shit. This isn’t opinion, but fact. He was objectively a complete terror, and my Mum has said that had he been born first, I wouldn’t exist. I was always a good child, but some time around the time of the divorce and my Dad’s death that shifted. I was still the happy, altruistic child I had always been, but it wasn’t just because I was built that way. I remember an evening when I was around six, playing with my brother and his wooden train set, knowing that my Mum was in the kitchen on a very important phone call. Naturally, my brother started screaming bloody murder. I remember the panic I felt in that moment. I couldn’t let him disturb Mummy! She had barely been home from work for an hour and was busy, I didn’t think she’d even eaten yet. I was desperate to make him be quiet. I remember trying to cheer him up by distracting him with the trains, by talking about Thomas the Tank Engine, but nothing was working. Ultimately, I remember running into the mantelpiece above the fire and hitting my head on it in a comedic fashion, because he found it funny when I fell over. I had a bruise on my forehead the next day, but it worked, and my Mum was able to get on with her evening in relative peace.
No one ever asked me to look after him, entertain him, or do anything to help. I just did it anyway. I realise this sounds like an awful humble-brag, but I’m trying to make it clear that this was something I took upon myself – I was never expected or asked to do these things. I still do it. Almost every waking moment is filled with thoughts of other people. I am aggressively selfless, often to my own detriment – at 26 years old it’s finally catching up with me.
I say finally, but the truth is that since about the age of eighteen I’ve been slowly crumbling, still giving too much and receiving too little. Over time I’ve come to expect from others the same as I give, but the reality is that I give too much and to expect the same in return is madness. I can’t keep giving so much of myself away, but I don’t know how to stop it. The only time I can think of myself is when I’m alone, but extended alone time comes with its own whole host of problems.
This isn’t something I really know how to go about fixing, so deeply rooted is it in my sense of self. I’m currently waiting for some kind of talking therapy (probably CBT, hopefully something that goes a bit deeper) on the NHS to tackle these problems and the recent ways I’ve been reacting to them, which to put it simply, is very badly. I’m a little out of control at the moment, but I honestly don’t know when I was last feeling in control. As I struggle to identify who I am and separate it from this overly-generous aspect born out of a slightly broken but ultimately happy childhood, I lose track of my current life. In the end though, I just feel guilty. I feel guilty for all the things I’m neglecting as my mental state deteriorates, I feel guilty for not doing more to support others and now I feel guilty for not doing enough for myself. I’m a big ball of guilt and sadness and rage, one which – lately – explodes at the lightest touch.
I’d love to tell you all that I’m getting better for just having recognised this, but I’ve been aware of it for years with seemingly no progress made. True to form, when it was only affecting me I ignored it and didn’t seek help, but the second it began to affect my partner (my moodswings are a real treat) I booked a doctor’s appointment. Honestly, sometimes I think there’s no helping me. If anyone out there can relate the hit me up, even better if you’ve come out of the other side able to value yourself and others without feeling guilty for doing so. Hopefully the NHS will help me unpick this tangled mess of emotions, but right now it’s just me, confused and angry, and my boyfriend picking up the pieces. I hate to leave this on a negative note, so I’ll end by saying that even though I can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, I think I’m at least in the tunnel, not just wandering the moors of despair somewhere near it. Talk about stretching a metaphor…