When I was 19, my best friend–who’d taken a year out before going to Uni–left our hometown and moved over an hour away. I know that doesn’t sound like much of a distance but this was 1982, I’d already failed 2 driving tests and couldn’t afford to take another one, let alone buy a car if I passed. Anyway, there’d’ve been busses; I know. But I was never a brave soul (unless alcohol was involved) and had little enough confidence to step on the bus to work every morning, let alone work out how to get to Leicester (as well as knowing that I’d fret all the way there over whether I was even actually welcome, or invited at all… so, so little faith in myself).
And what with him having left my immediate vicinity, my nan having died 6months previously, just as I’d left school and not been allowed to go to Art college, I felt as if I’d been ripped from the safety of timetables and teachers I could talk to; friends I could relate to, and left high and dry in a scary world where people did meaningless jobs in return for cash. I hadn’t the first clue what I was meant to do, or where I was supposed to go. I had that ‘peeing my pants at the school gates’ feeling all over again. Every time I woke up. And so I blamed it on my periods. Because what else could I do?
Hindsight, though, being the clever fellow he is restrospectively, now tells me that this 19 year old girl wasfrightened, lonely, bereaved, distrustful, under-confident, super-scared . She was in a forest of dark, tall trees where no sunlight filtered through. She’d lost the social support network that the Sixth form had provided for her, she’d lost the only emotional support she ever had in the shape of her Nan, and she’d been told she wasn’t going to college because she’d onlyt be wasting her parents’ money. This girl was adrift. I feel so sad for her, even now. But back then I was just told to get on with it. That’s what everyone else did, and that was what I should do. This is life. What made me imagine I was any diffferent to anyone else?
My only other friend had already got married to a boy who’d gatecrashed my 18th Birthday party the year before and I hadn’t heard from her since. I can’t even remember going to her wedding.
One day I got on the bus as usual, paid my money as usual, felt all the hard, judgemental stares as I made my way to a vacant seat as usual, and tried to focus on something outside the window so I wouldn’t have to make eye contact with anyone as usual. I walked up the hill to the offices where I was working as a VDU operator (remember those?) and once at my desk, collapsed. I’d taken the whole bottle of Valium that my doctor had prescribed me for ‘nerves’ the week before. Only, because they weren’t doing anything to help, I’d decided to take a few more. And once I’d started swilling them back with my breakfast tea I couldn’t stop. There probably weren’t more than 12 or 15 in there so once they’d started to take effect I simply passed out.
The next thing I knew I was sitting outside a Psychiatrists’ office at the Mental Wing of our hospital and although on the next chair, my mum wouldn’t even look at me. Dad was sitting in the car outside waiting. I’d already told them a few weeks earlier that my line manager at work had been trying to make me go out with him, that every time I’d refused, he’d demoted me at work – to the point that these days he had me working on a production line in a basement pressing integrated circuits into holes and waiting for a red or green buzzer to light up. He’d told me precisely what I needed to do if I wanted my real job back again. My parents had scoffed at this and replied that if girls like me wore skirts that tight then what did they expect?
Looking back that feeling was like being suspended on a piece of cobweb… you know, when it slowly drops, lower, lower, that fragile transparent line which doesn’t look capable of holding any weight at all. And I still don’t know what was beneath me. I don’t think I actually cared. Why should I when nobody else seemed to?
I based my worth back then on how worthy others viewed me. I guess in a way I still do. A couple of days before I took those tablets I wrote to my best friend at Uni and told him how I was feeling, how alone, miserable, wretched I felt and that I couldn’t go on feeling this way; didn’t feel as if anyone cared. I didn’t hear from him. Nothing. No response. Until the weekend after, when he phoned as if nothing had happened (and by then I’d been made to feel so ashamed and guilty – nobody was talking about it, therefore I didn’t either – that I didn’t even mention it) and said he hadn’t received anything from me.
I was SO relieved a) because after the way my parents were reacting, the last thing I wanted was for my best friend to ignore me and call me weak and selfish as well and b) it proved that he hadn’t been ignoring me; that he was still my best friend and at least I could reply on him even if I couldn’t rely on the Royal Mail.
But then, recently he confessed he had, in fact, received the letter. Futhermore, he didn’t respond because ‘that would’ve been playing into your hands; it’s what you wanted me to do.’
Yes. It had been. All I’d needed was a sign that somebody, somewhere, actually cared about me; about what would happen to me. It’d been my Cry for Help even though I hadn’t known back then this was what it was called.
I often wonder how differently I may have turned out if I’d been given the help, support and encouragement that those with mental health issues are afforded today. I wonder if somebody in a professional capacity had taken my parents to one side and said: look, she really, really needs someone to hold her hand, give her a hug and tell her they’re on her side and that she’s loved, that I’d have found a spark of strength inside me which I still struggle to find and hold onto.
My dad did finally tell me (the night he died – because let’s leave it until the last possible moment) to tell me that although he’d never said it, he’d loved me from the minute he set eyes on me and that he was sorry if he and my mum had let me down.
How do you tell your dying father that it’s a bit late for sorry? I just gave him the reply everyone wants to hear: “Never mind, it’s fine.”
Fine. The *worst four-letter word in the world.
*apart from the ‘C’-one, of course.