The little girl – she must have been seven or eight years old – sat on the stairs in the dark of the hallway and concentrated really hard. If she could just stay quiet enough, breathe more shallowly and strain her ears, she would be able to hear what was being said, and work out if it was her fault. She opened her eyes wider and stared through the bannister rails at the crack of light under the kitchen door, as if she might be able to see the words, and that way understand better if she had caused them.
She stayed on the stairs until the talking petered out, the adults moving to their individual comfort zones, where they would cut themselves off from each other and stew on unknown complaints. Still she would sit deadly still, desperately waiting for the moment when she might be able to move back into her bedroom without setting off the two creaking stairs and giving herself away to an angry parent. She was supposed to be in bed asleep.
She would know in the morning if the discussion had reached a resolution or not, when she would analyse the breakfast exchanges for signs of cold, leftover bad feeling. Then she would either be able to brush it off and move into her own pursuits – lessons, friendships, the netball team she never got picked for – or she would traipse to school with a sense of doom that would hang around until the grown-ups seemed to be friends again.
When midlife leaves you feeling flat
At the beginning of 2021 I’d had enough of the way I’d been living. I’d been struggling with debilitating menopause symptoms for 4 years; I wasn’t sleeping well, and I was in so much pain that I found it hard to keep up with exercise. My work focus had changed, and my relationship with my children was evolving as they moved into the teenage years. I started to wonder what I might do with the rest of my life, but instead of it being an exciting prospect I was left feeling flat. I procrastinated, doubted myself, and for the first time ever fell flat on my face with imposter syndrome.
I had been stagnating for 4 years and I knew something had to change, but I couldn’t even figure out what I wanted, never mind what to do about getting it! So I self-referred on the NHS for mental health support. Over the last nine months I’ve had group therapy and one-to-one counselling and, at the risk of sounding clichéd, I’ve peeled layers off the onion. I reckon I’m about a quarter of the way down to the core.
My counselling journey
I want to tell you about my counselling sessions, in case you recognise anything of yourself in my story. I’ve let out glimpses on my Instagram account and some of you been kind enough to tell me that you feel the same. Perhaps this is a midlife thing, common to lots fo us. But rather than accept it I’ve decided to change it. It’s hard. It’s really hard, and I’m only part way there, but something is happening that makes me feel like I need to keep going. If these posts help anyone else going through a similar process I’ll be glad. But if not, please bear with me – I’ll be back with gift guides, teenager “me-too” posts and menopause hacks before you know it.
Read on for what’s been happening to my dreams!
Sometimes in my counselling sessions I’ve had a lightbulb moment. It’s not an illumination filled with glitter and party poppers kind of lightbulb; it’s more of a dim flicker in a dank cellar (and I’m thinking of a Breaking Bad kind of cellar here). I can’t describe it clearly, but it often feels like something I’ve always known that’s been buried out of sight for a long time. Such a long time that I can’t even remember it.
Losing myself in motherhood
The story above is part of a process of “re-parenting” that I’ve been advised to do. You see the thing about me is that I work flat out to make sure everyone in my life is happy before I get to myself. I thought that came with being a mum – my kids are my world and I want to send them out into their lives knowing I’ve done the absolute best I could to raise them to be decent, kind, resilient, independent, capable individuals. Like every parent I know. And kids, if one day you read this I want you to know that none of this is down to you – you’re amazing, and have cared for me in ways you haven’t even noticed. But I’ve lost myself.
It’s not just being a mum though. I do it for my husband too – little things I think will make his life better, managing my relationship with him to maximise good things rather than negatives. AND my friends, my work colleagues, other bloggers, and my own mum who is struggling with old age. I think hard about what they’re all feeling when I interact with them, and what they need from me in order to think well of me. It comes naturally to me, and yet it’s exhausting. And when I inevitably fail sometimes it can be devastating.
Being a people pleaser as a child
I’ve discussed all this with my counsellor, and then gone back further. Back to the corporate career where I did things no one else would do because of the kudos. I took on massive challenges and beat them, because I never let anything get the better of me. And I loved impressing people. I loved the accolades, and the grapevine comments that made their way back to me “Helen’s impressive, a force to be reckoned with, one to watch.” I ticked off every promotion, rising to the top, and it felt amazing, checking all the boxes, doing the expected things, winning at life. Until I got as far as I could go and realised that it hadn’t ever been what I’d wanted after all. And I had no idea who I really was.
There were times in my life when I acted for myself rather than for the esteem of others, and that’s another layer of the onion that will no doubt need to be peeled at some point. But I keep going back to that little girl on the stairs, because she’s the one who needs to be told now that she is worth it.
Because now I know that she sat on those stairs because she was trying to control a situation that caused emotions she didn’t like. Feelings like anxiety, fear, and loneliness. She worried that her parents might split up, and she didn’t want the change that would bring. She worried that they might be arguing about something she’d done, and she didn’t want to be the focal point of their disapproval. Because that was never nice. She can’t remember now, at 54, but she knows she probably got angry once about something she wanted (as all toddlers do), and was made to understand very clearly that that behaviour wasn’t allowed.
This is a difficult paragraph to write, because I know my parents loved me. My dad would have gifted me anything I wished for, but he controlled my safety to such an extent that I felt limited. My mum showed her love by feeding me, caretaking, never with words or warm actions. Her branch of discipline involved dragging me into alleyways, pulling down my knickers and slapping my bottom. I feel wracked with shame typing those words, but they needed to come out. Because whatever ‘naughty’ thing that little girl had said, she didn’t deserve to be humiliated.
That little girl felt shame. She felt anger she wasn’t allowed to express. And so she learned to try and control things.
How I avoid my feelings with control
I admit it. I am quite controlling. I don’t like that about myself, but now I know where it came from. I was never neglected as a child and I knew I was loved. But I was never listened to. My feelings were never obviously taken into account, especially if I disagreed on something, and I knew I had to do as I was told. I rarely did otherwise. I can see now that I learned my feelings weren’t valid or useful, so I distracted myself from them by learning to focus on what was in my control.
I got the same message at school too. I had a problematic relationship with my best friend, who was always the one in charge. I’m writing a letter to her right now to tell her how she let me down, that her behaviour wasn’t really that of a friend. She’ll never read it, but I’ve realised that the important part is me getting to say it.
For as long as I can remember I’ve worried about what people think of me. My parents, my boss, my friends, boyfriends, and my children. Even people I really don’t like. I can wake up sick with shame at 3am over something I said to them at a party, even though they’re not important to me. I’m accounting for my life instead of living it the right way for me.
I keep endless lists, not only of the things I need to do, but also the things I need to remind other people to do, because I can’t be sure that they will do them, even after I’ve asked them to. I respond to problems in my life by putting in place safeguards to prevent them happening again, but I do it for everything, even the smallest things. It makes my to-do list colossal and causes me more stress than the actual event might.
Control as a symptom of anxiety
It’s easy to see where some of my control issues come from. Before my daughter was born I had 2 early miscarriages, an unsuccessful IVF treatment, and surgery. Once pregnant I had to take daily medications to prevent miscarriage.
Then, three weeks after she was born, my baby choked in her sleep. By the time we worked out to turn her upside down and dislodge the lump of partially-digested milk from her throat she was turning blue. I will never forget the fear in her eyes as I held her while she couldn’t breathe. After that I didn’t want to sleep whenever she was sleeping. You can imagine what a wreck that made me.
A few months later I read about a 6 month old baby who’d sadly died after choking on a marshmallow in a local restaurant. I avoided that restaurant for years and refused to allow my daughter a marshmallow, grape, or anything else that could feasibly rob me of my child. At 8 months old she developed bronchiolitis whenever she had a cold, and had to be admitted to hospital for nebulisers regularly. It’s really not uncommon, but I became convinced that I’d cheated fate by having her in the first place, and – as if I was in the parenting version of Final Destination – was destined to lose her.
Where did my control issues begin?
Was it the isolation at school, or the perceived judgement of my parents that turned me into a committed academic? I’m reading a book at the moment in which the author gave me a massive wake up call as she described how she used academic work to distract herself from thinking about her emotions. And there I am, aged 7, asking for homework because I enjoyed my English workbook. Because I was good at it. Because I would get ticks on paper, teacher comments sent home about how conscientious I was, approval from everyone. Was that just another way of getting some control over what people thought of me?
(If you’re interested, the book is by Clare Cogan, and it’s called Reopening the Slammed Door, which I think is an awesome title for a parenting book on teenagers!)
I never relax. I’m very good at the story I tell myself now – I’m just so busy; I’m a mother, I do most of the housekeeping, all of the life admin for my family, and I have have medical conditions that require a lot of headspace – my own and my family’s. It’s all on me. So of course I’m too busy to ever think about resting. But it turns out that’s another distraction technique. It’s to do with the eyes of others on me – “Look how productive I am! Look how well I’m doing!” And there it is again: the reason I drove myself into the ground in a career I didn’t love; the value I place on my qualities as a mother; the coping rather than looking after myself.
I’m tasked by my counsellor with reparenting myself. With going back to that little girl on the stairs and letting her know that she is valuable for who she is and what she wants. That she doesn’t have to find her value in other people’s opinions of her.
Recently I’ve been having a very specific and rather lovely dream. In it I’ve had another baby. This baby is about 4 months old, and super happy. I mean, really – she never cries. Quite often in my dream I’m sleeping, and when I wake up I’ve totally forgotten that I had a baby. It takes me a few moments to remember, and then I panic and go rummaging around in the duvet to find her. She’s always there, snuggled up somewhere in the bed, laughing. She’s such a happy baby. I told my therapist and she didn’t hesitate: “The baby is you Helen.” she told me. “The work you’re doing is quite literally a rebirth of yourself. To a happier version of yourself.”
I’m really not that kind of person, the kind who believes in astrology, psychic signs, and dream meanings. But maybe I should be? Let me know if you’d like me to share more of my journey – I think there’s going to be a lot to write!