My Mother, and The Blackest of Dogs

This is a very, very long post, and a deeply personal one, and it really may not be your thing – there are no clever pictures or gags. I’ve been wrestling with writing something about my Mother’s death for two and a half years, and, because of the complex nature of our relationship, it’s not something I’ve been able to face. Similarly, I’ve spent the afternoon wondering whether I should make this public, because it may not be received well in some places. But, there are two sides to every story, and my Mother had no hesitation in telling everyone that I was ‘not her daughter’, over and over again, so I feel it’s only right to say this stuff at last.

You can stop reading now if you like, that’s fine. But if you do want to know the rest, then you’d better go get some tea.

My Mother was a deeply unhappy person; she had a desperate and constant need for emotional reassurance. It was the product of a hostile childhood, utterly tragic, and a terrible thing to behold. And sadly, it wasn’t something that she ever managed to grow past – it was programmed in, as these things inevitably are. She suffered from appalling, lifelong depression, and she deserved all the pity, and all the love, and all the support, in the world. However, that love was very difficult to offer, because her depression came with a rather nasty side effect.

In short, she needed someone to blame. When I was little, my Father filled that position (long story not being told here). Once he’d gone, however, there was a vacancy. And then I reached thirteen and had the temerity to grow up – I went to a public school (which made me grow up very quickly), I went through puberty and got difficult and grumpy. Suddenly, to her horror and grief, I was no longer a sweet and pliable (and very quiet) little girl. I was a teenager.

And that was where they started: the judgements, the accusations. All the bitterness that she’d aimed at my Father started to come at me. It started small: telling me that I’d ‘rejected’ her, that ‘I didn’t love her’, that ‘I’d turned away from her, broken our elastic’. And I was only a teenager, and I didn’t understand. It was upsetting, and unkind. I tried, in my small way, to explain to her that I loved her but she didn’t listen. I don’t think she could. And in the fullness of time, as her depression and overthinking slowly picked at it and picked at it and it swelled out of all rationality, it grew into ‘you rejected me because I sent you to Ardingly’. And I tried, again, to explain to her that this was not the case, had never been the case. Eventually, as I grew older, it became, ‘you rejected me, because I sent you to Ardingly, where you were bullied’, (actually, the bullying was fairly minor). And I kept trying to make her understand that this had never happened, that I had just grown up, no different to any other child. It was just puberty, nothing more.

It sounds like such a little thing, until I tell you that she kept this up for more than thirty years – telling me, relentlessly, obsessively, over and over and over, that I’d ‘rejected’ her when I was thirteen, that I ‘didn’t love her’, round and round the same track, again and again and again. And it didn’t matter what I did, or said, or how hard I tried to make her understand that I was just a teenager, doing what teenagers do – she was utterly convinced that I’d turned on her, and she just never got past it. Calm explanations were eventually met with red-faced screaming, ‘You never listen, Dan, why don’t you listen, Dan, you’re not hearing me, Dan, you’re awful to me, Dan.’ If I got upset or cried (and it was pretty horrible), she’d scream abuse at me, or spit at me, in utter contempt, that I was ‘faking it’. (I couldn’t cry in front of her, even when she was dying, without her bitterly flinging the same accusation). And if I got angry – well, Gods forbid, that just justified her belief. In my late teens and early twenties, when I came back to Oxted to visit her, this was the sole topic of conversation on every single evening we spent together. Round and round and round.

No, that’s not an exaggeration.

This is only the beginning – it’s the backdrop, if you like – and this part of the story ends in two ways. At twenty-six or twenty-seven, I was at a small dinner party in her flat, and she started the ‘You rejected me, you hate me’ speech in front of her guests, two people I’d never met before. And I asked her to stop. And she kept going, telling these people (in deadly seriousness), ‘My awful daughter, she’s been so dreadful, she doesn’t love me, you know’. I asked her, a second time, to stop. But she still kept going – entering the second phase of the conversation, which was to turn it around and ask for justification, ‘But I had to send her to that school, it was an amazing opportunity, I was working, it was all such a terrible struggle’. (All of which is true – it was an amazing opportunity, and she did work very hard, and struggle). One of the guests, his name was Rob, (and I remember it very clearly), then asked her to please change the subject. The dinner came to an awkward end, and, once they’d gone, she turned on me with such incredible, vitriolic anger that she absolutely took my breath away. She vented at me, ‘You’re an embarrassment, you embarrassed me in front of my friends!’, and I just stood there, stunned.

It was the first time that I’d understood something fundamental: that my Mother didn’t just say all this stuff to me. That she went round telling everybody about ‘her awful daughter’, that ‘she didn’t have a daughter’, that I ‘didn’t love her’. Telling people about this terrible ‘rejection’, and all about this depression-conjured Carnival Grotesque that bore my name and face… I didn’t speak to her for quite some time, after that.

The second end to this part of the story came many, many years later, when my son reached his nines and tens. It was history repeating itself, and one of the most tragic and painful things I’ve ever seen – watching my Mother break her own heart, and being powerless to stop it happening. I watched her undermine her love for her beloved and adored grandson in exactly the same way as she’d done with me. I watched her grief and pain and anguish as it all happened again, the same exact pattern: ‘He’s rejected me, Dan’. And I tried, again, to make her understand, ‘No, Mum, he’s just growing up’ – love manifests differently in a nine-year-old who’s playing BattleSomething on the iPad than it does in a bright and wriggling toddler. But it just kept coming, expanding all the time, ‘You’ve turned him against me, Dan, you’ve made him reject me because you’re jealous, Dan, you’re trying to get him to hate me’. And the worst thing of all was that she’d completely done it to herself – with the depression, with the worry, with the constant overthinking. And it hurt her so much. And, of course, it all started again, the screaming, the hate, the accusations, the going round telling everyone about my latest crime, about how I’d turned her beloved grandson against her because I was ‘jealous’. And I tried to explain, over and over again, ‘Mum, it’s in your head, don’t do this to yourself’, but she wouldn’t listen. She would bawl at me that ‘didn’t know what I was talking about, I didn’t understand’. My Mother adored Isaac, she was a third parent to him as his father and I both worked – she loved him more than anything and we wouldn’t have got through the first five years of his life without her… and watching her doubt and undermine her love for him was absolutely heart-breaking. She needed his love so much, and yet she convinced herself that it wasn’t there.

But, horrific though that is, that’s all just the background. There’s the whole of the rest of the story to go.

Starting with the imagined ‘rejection’, my Mother’s depression found a thousand ways to blame and judge me. It found a thousand things that I could be accused of, a thousand wrongs that I had done her, and that she could carry round to her friends and tell them that she ‘didn’t have a daughter, she’d never had a daughter’ – and hence get the gentleness and compassion that she so craved. She told everyone, for years, that she ‘gave me money’, that she ‘kept’ me, that I ‘kept boys’, that she ‘gave me money to give to boys’… not a word of which is actually true. (I didn’t as much as get pocket money as a child). Yes, there were cheques Christmas and birthday, and the occasional twenty quid in the meantime – and everyone was very generous when Isaac was born – but she never, ever ‘gave me money’, and I’ve never ‘given money to boys’. There were a too many boyfriends, I know that, and I did spend rather a long time unemployed after I left Uni – so I can only guess that, to my Daily Mail-reading, Conservative-voting Mother, the scruffy boys and the unemployment marked both them and me as the worst kind of scrounger. (It’s ironic, though, that the unemployment taught me a very valuable lesson: I’ve been church mouse poor almost all my life and I’ve learned to ruthlessly managed my income. I’ve never lived outside my means. I’ve never not paid a bill. I’ve never run up debt, I’ve never had a massive overdraft or overspent on a credit card. Nothing. Tooting my own here for a minute (and probably because I’ve always been so poor): I manage money better than anyone else I know). In similar vein, she was forever telling people that she ‘followed me round with a cheque book’, implying that she scuttled along behind me in some ‘ungrateful teen’ comedy sketch. But this too isn’t true – it’s a twisting of the endless shopping trips that were her preferred social outlet. These shared trips were very much her choice of activity and I would go with her (of course I would) and she would buy me clothes – because she wanted to. And then, two days later, she would turn on me, and then would come the screaming and the accusations. Again. (And when I asked her to stop buying me things, of course, I was ungrateful and selfish and I ‘always looked so dreadful’ but I’m coming to that).

I was not the daughter my Mother wanted – that was very apparent. She was exceptionally beautiful, her personal style and elegance were astonishing, even right up to her death. And she was a fighter, by the Gods, she was a fighter – despite her crippling mental horrors, she put her ‘face on’, and she went to work, every single day of her life. No calling in sick for Jan Ware, no giving up, no excuses for unemployment or slacking. She did take tablets – Valium, Prozac – in order to cope, but there’s no shame in accepting help, and cope she bloody well did. Even now, I stand in awe of her sheer stubbornness.

But, as our shopping trips illustrated, my Mother wanted a girl. A little girl, a girly girl. A girl with whom she could share her interests – and what parent doesn’t want that, on some level? Her interests were her make up, her clothes, her elegance, her impeccable sense of style and colour, her utterly flawless appearance. Her sense of a thing’s worth (always) was all about how it looked. And this need for perfection was both armour and compulsion – it extended to her home, her furniture, her garden, her car, the stairs up to her flat… and, of course, to me. I should have been a real daughter, I should have enjoyed shopping. I should have been able to share her love of clothes, and colours, and cosmetics, and all things stylish and ladylike. I should have found myself a gorgeous husband (‘a man to take of me’) and/or a top job. I should have been flawless – a proper upper-middle class wife, entertaining my friends with dinner and who knows what else… and then, maybe, she would have been proud of me.

But no. I was shabby and bit feckless. I dated scruffy long-hairs. I joined a re-enactment group. I thumped people with swords. I role-played ‘til the wee small hours. I liked fantasy, and science fiction – things she just couldn’t comprehend. In her flat, I found a letter that she’d written to my grandmother and never sent (one of hundreds) in which she raged about how much she hated my lifestyle, my appearance, my hobbies, my friends. ‘I can’t bear to think of her with swords and shields’, it said, and ‘she buys SCIENCE FICTION BOOKS!!!!’ (Huge capitals and underlined many times). And yes, I did buy books – at fifty pence a time from the stall on Norwich Market. But this baffles me still – why was it so wrong for her Literature graduate daughter to ‘waste her money’ on books? Not booze, not drugs, not hookers, not gambling – but books?

The answer, I think, is in how much she detested my appearance – the money I spent on books, I should have been spending on clothes. On making myself flawless. A girl. She used to go on and on at me, ‘You look so awful, Dan, must you go out like that, Dan, I’m not going out with you in that, Dan, put on something of mine.’ ‘Oh, Dan, your skin, oh, Dan, your hair’. ‘Why don’t you wear make-up, Dan, you would look so much nicer’. ‘Smile, Dan, put some colour in your cheeks’. And it wasn’t only clothes; I was ‘cold’, ‘distant’, ‘butch’, ‘masculine’. I remember one occasion where we were shopping (again) in Croydon, and she was so humiliated by my leather jacket (Bones’s leather jacket, and after he’d died) that she actually insisted on walking five paces behind me. And it was all more evidence, of course, as to how utterly I’d disappointed her, and how I wasn’t a real daughter. After all – surely a real daughter would be exactly whom their parent needed them to be?

I wish, now, that I could talk to her – the leather jacket stuff was just armour, and it was exactly like hers. They might have looked very different on the outside, but they did the same job. I wish she hadn’t been so hypercritical – and so afraid. I wish I could have offered her the reassurance she so desperately craved – and that that she would have accepted it from me. I wish that she could have loved me for what I was, rather than hating me for what I wasn’t – and constantly trying to coax/bribe me to change. (And then blaming herself because I was a ‘failure’). I did, once, try to explain to her that I felt more boy than girl – but she just threw it back in my face, again, and told me (and everyone else, as ever) that I was just ‘aggressive’ and ‘unpleasant’, and that I could be so pretty ‘if I just tried’.

The sad thing of about all of this – my Mother was a single parent (and I know how hard that is) and I was an only child. We needed each other, of course we did. We were both alone, and we should have had a better relationship. But I tried, that’s the silly thing. In my own possibly clumsy way, I tried to reach her, I tried to do things for her, I tried so hard… but it was just impossible. We would have a lovely Christmas together (just for example) and two days later, the Brain Weasels would have struck, and she’d be telling me how awful it had been, and much she’d hated it. (After all, it wasn’t perfect). And it was just exhausting.

Stay with me, we’re reaching the end.

For many years, I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand why she was so utterly determined to interpret everything I did as a personal attack, and to hate me even more. Why she insisted on constantly telling everyone these horrendous stories about ‘the terrible things’ that I’d done. I wasn’t terrible, was I? Okay, so I wasn’t what she wanted – I wasn’t successful, or beautiful, or a wonderfully giggly and outgoing girly… but my sins were pretty tame, all things considered. They were scruffy clothes and unemployment and gaming and re-enactment and science fiction. (And the sad thing was that, even in my mid-twenties when I started working, got a flat, and got my shit together – the accusations didn’t stop. Like ‘rejecting’ her, they were completely, obsessively ingrained by then, and they never faded or went away).

After she died, I had to sort out her home – and I found her diaries, which was one of the horrible, tragic and upsetting things I’ve ever done. I’d seen my Mother’s spite and rage and anger in my life, been on the wrong end of some of it – but even then, I’d had no idea what it was really like, what actually lived in her head. Under that poor, gentle, beautiful woman, with all her tragic stories of how terrible her life, there was a boiling, blistering, bubbling volcano of pure and utter venom, of the kind of spite and vitriol that I can’t even find words to outline. It was shocking, and deeply disturbing – and oddly, it made me respect her strength all the more. How had she been able to cope, to get through each day, with all that in her head? Her hatred saturated everything – not just me. It was her mother, and her family, and her friends, and my father, and the man who fitted the double glazing when I was ten, and the people who parked their cars in the wrong spaces, and the company that re-upholstered her suite, and the microwave she had to send back to John Lewis, and the local council, and on, and on, and on, for years… In her diaries, her need – craving – for perfection became a need for complete control (sometimes this happens with deeply insecure people, I guess it makes them feel safe). If something didn’t live up to her demands – if it wasn’t exactly what she wanted – she would hate and judge and despise and reject it.

And maybe that was what happened to me.

And yet, her diaries also helped me understand. I’ve suffered from the same black depression – the rage, the hate, the need to lash out and blame. It’s taken me a while to sort through all of this, but I know now – all that hatred was just a part of her illness, and not her fault. We all have Brain Weasels, those little monsters that whisper to you in the small hours of the morning – ‘She rejected you’, ‘She turned your grandson against you’, ‘She’ll never amount to anything’ – but, if we’re wise, we learn to recognise them for what they are. We do our best not to listen. But my poor Mother never learned that, she never defeated them and they ruled her thoughts and her life. They ruled how she saw me (and many other things), and they conjured me, year by year, layer by layer, whisper by whisper, into the monster that she displayed to her friends. (She once asked my friend if I went out and left my baby Isaac in the evenings, went ‘to the pub’ and just abandoned him – exactly the kind of bonkers thing that the Brain Weasels put in your head). But I know now. I know what the world looks like when you struggle with the blackest of dogs, I know how your view of people can warp when all you can feel is rage and pain, and I know how terrible and lonely it is to stand in that place. I’ve been fortunate – I’ve come out the other side – but my Mother never could. Her diaries were full of such hurt and such fear – the monsters never left her, and they never, ever gave her any peace.

And so, to the end. I did my best to take care of my Mother when she was sick and dying, of course I did, and it was a pretty harrowing time. And it wasn’t because ‘I wanted her money’ (as she screamed at me constantly, and as she told everyone else), it was because I wanted her to see me as myself, to finally understand who I was, if you like. I wanted her to realise that I was ‘Danie’ and not the failed ‘Daniella’, to respect that I was my own person, and to accept me, warts and all. To really be my Mum. I wanted, before she finally went, to help her lose all that hate and fear and pain and judgement, and all that unfulfilled need for love.

Sadly, I failed. My Mother died still unable to forgive or trust me, still hating and judging me for misdemeanours that had only ever existed in her head.

And that’s been a very, very hard thing to deal with.

Footnote: this is not a story that expects a reaction. I haven’t posted this to get supportive responses, though I do hope that others going through the same thing can take some insight and comfort. I’ve needed to let this out, to try and express this stuff fairly and honestly, for a very long time. I’m no saint, but my Mother did me terrible disservice in the things that she went round telling everybody, and I’ve been wanting to set the record straight – but I had to do so fairly, and without anger. And that’s taken a while.

Depression is a terrible thing – and it’s also very selfish. When your world is darkness, it’s hard to see anything else – you become completely immersed in your own pain, and in the struggle just to get though the day. I know that, I’ve been there. It took my darkness for me to comprehend my Mother’s, and now, two and half years after her death, I wish I could just tell her.

6 thoughts on “My Mother, and The Blackest of Dogs

  1. Much love, Danie :(
    My mum is nowhere near as bad, and I have two sisters to share the load but she has some of the same demons that your mum suffered from, so here if you want to vent *hugs*

  2. This moved me very much, all the more as I had a very complicated relationship with my own mother and it left me struggling when she died.Very courageous to explore something so painful…..

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