This is Part III (and final) of a series. Parts I & II should be read before reading this article.
- Part I – The Background
- Part II – My Childhood
In 1971 there was
not a lot of no psychological support for myself and my siblings. I think we were just supposed to get on with life. My siblings were placed in a foster home together in a different town. As I was employed, I was placed in a foster home in Timaru. I don’t know if my siblings were offered any counselling, I certainly wasn’t. We were left in the house alone for a week until my mother’s body was found, after all.
Momentary digression here. My foster home didn’t work out so well. One weekend I asked my foster father to cash a cheque for me (no ATMs in those days). He said if I came and sat on the bed with him, he’s give me the money and I didn’t need to give him the cheque. Ah, no way, mate, that ain’t happening. Not today, not ever. I saw the lawyer on Monday to seek permission to move. He assumed I was making it up (after all the guy was a “respected” member of the community while I was the daughter of two suicides) and sent me to see a psychiatrist. I was furious. Not sure of the psychiatrist’s “diagnosis”, but I did move out. Into a share house with three other young women.
I don’t remember Mum’s funeral at all. I know I went, but I have no memory of it. I have little memory of my father’s funeral either, although I know what I wore and that The Last Post was played.
I struggled with feeling guilty. If I hadn’t left home when I did, would Dad have survived? Was my leaving the straw that broke the camel’s back? I felt guilt over my siblings. Mum and Dad were genetically my parents, not a lot I could do about that. But they had sought out adoptees and then just deserted them too?
Yes, I pushed such thoughts aside, to survive, but they were there. The fear and/or sadness of somehow being responsible. After all, I hadn’t been a golden child. I’d had febrile convulsions as a baby, tonsillectomy at four, meningitis at boarding school, appendectomy, measles, mumps, chickenpox, I’d run away from boarding school…..
To lose one parent could be deemed careless: to lose both, the child must have been really unloveable, even evil.
“To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” Oscar Wilde
There was the sense of abandonment. I wasn’t good enough, my parents hadn’t loved me enough to stay. Obviously this contradicted my feeling of guilt about leaving home but I was 15. None of it made sense. I also went through, and still go through, phases of blaming my mother for my father’s death. Yet I know she wasn’t well, so I shouldn’t blame her.
Maybe I’d just been too much trouble…It is only now, now I know about PTSD and the risk of cortisone psychosis, that I can truly comprehend a) it isn’t genetic (a GP assured me of that once I’d “survived” past 50) and b) there were situational factors in their lives over which I had no control. But that is logic. Emotions linger even when facts are known.
If my own parents couldn’t love me enough to stay, how would anyone else love me? As an adult I know that is not rational given the circumstances, but at 15 it was very much a real emotion. My life would be loveless.
The risk of suicidal tendencies being genetic worried me for many years. This was consolidated in my mind when a life insurance company loaded my premium because my parents had committed suicide. I’ve never touched gin as an alcohol. For many years I had a fear of taking valium – until a GP convinced me to use it as a muscle relaxant when I had awful back spasms. Have to say it worked brilliantly for that.
In February 1974 I came to Australia on holiday simply to “see where Mum came from”. I had contact details of Mum’s oldest friend in Sydney. I couldn’t get a direct flight to Sydney so I arrived in Melbourne. I’m still here. I did go to Sydney and met Mum’s friend, but I don’t remember much of that trip at all.
Why did I stay in Australia? I think it was because in Australia I had no past haunting me. In Timaru, everyone knew who I was – that teenager whose parents knocked themselves. I felt I was expected to either do the same or end up pregnant. Here in Melbourne I was just another person. I was judged on my own merits, if you like. There was a freedom to that. So I decided to stay here. I didn’t have to tell anyone anything and generally, people didn’t ask. I was just a young adult migrant.
Hopefully my children have broken the generational cycle. As I look back I am proud of the fact I’m still here. I got an education. I did try to study medicine as an adult. The dream was still there. I went back to school here in Australia, did my HSC part-time while working full-time and raising two young children. I missed medical school entry by two marks. Started a science degree in the hope of doing well enough to transfer. Both kids got chicken pox in the first semester (not vaccines back then). Husband complained about me studying, wanted me to get a job. I gave up. In the end I did a business degree part-time while working full-time: it was easy, I’d been working in that field for years.
I’m unhappy about the four divorces and the disruption to my children’s lives but I suspect that family history has a lot to do with how my life “panned out”. As mentioned in the first of this series, psychologists will tell you two people from dysfunctional backgrounds are not an ideal match for a stable, long-term relationship. My partners were also from disrupted childhoods of one sort of another. Different situations in each case, but no white picket fence childhoods either. Of course, I did not know about these studies until it was too late.
When I was young, I just got on with life as best I could. I pushed the deaths to the back of my mind. There was nothing I could do about it, I couldn’t bring them back, it had been their decisions. All I could do was build a life for myself. It is only now, in these later, health-challenged years, I look back and wonder what trauma did I “inherit”? What trauma have I passed on? Would I be a chronic illness patient today if I had grown up in a stable home? I will never know. Hopefully, in time, science will determine if there is a link for people like me. My GP once said to me she felt I’d been misdiagnosed as a teenager. Misdiagnosed? I’d not been to a doctor as a teenager, there were too many funerals happening.
I did the best I could. I tried. To all those out there with traumatic histories, I salute you. It isn’t easy.
The picture is me in 1973.
Other related articles readers may be interested in:
We Don’t All Look Sick – Invisible Illness