‘Are you so strong or is all the weakness in me?’
I just got lost for a while: Koh Rong, Cambodia, Draft chapter for book
Even in paradise you can still be sad…
I’m not friends with my son on social media, it is Anthony (my husband) who monitors things. Sometimes things seem terrible on social media, but when we call things are fine. Or they’ve been fine on the phone then a day or two later seem awful on social media. Or on social media some kind of terrible disaster is reported and then when we call or even if we don’t, within a day or two it’s actually resolved. A, a blogger and millennial, said millennials use a lot of hyperbole, maybe that’s a part of it?
So it was my husband who saw a news interview my son had done, and who gently, piece by piece, told me what it contained. My son is an upcoming artist, being interviewed about his backstory, and one of the things he said, was that he was kicked out of home as a teenager. It’s true, I kicked him out as a teenager.
When he was a child, I would never have thought that would have happened. In a ‘secret’ drawer of my grandmother’s card table, was a leaflet I’d picked up and saved from when I was on a work placement at a child and family place, when my son was eleven. Me still so smug, a confident and loving parent, providing a childhood with friends, fun, parties, dogs, pets. My social work friend saying she’d driven past us on her way home from a horror filled day at work and seen us playing with the dog on the grassy walk, and said we’d made her feel that there was good in the world.
The leaflet said, ‘Parents of teenagers often feel that they have failed.’ Much later, when things had gone wrong, I over related to two mothers from an autism organisation who said, ‘As a mother you feel like you’ve got ‘Guilty’ stamped on one side of you and ‘Failure’ on the other.’ Oh yes, yes, yes. I was on a training day at work, so I couldn’t say anything. Those words weren’t meant for me, I just borrowed them.
Like I’d do a depression questionnaire on myself at work; I never hit the criteria, I ate, I got up for work, I liked to have sex, but did I feel like a failure, did I feel hopeless, did I feel like I wanted to die, yes yes and yes again.
When my son was sixteen I phoned up the housing department of the council. A woman answered, ‘You would have to ask him to leave, he would come here with his bag and we go from there.’ ‘I can’t do that,’ I said. ‘Well, then you haven’t reached the end of your tether yet.’ She added, ‘I did it to mine, and it was the best thing that ever happened to us.’
It took another two years until I reached the end of my tether, screaming on the stairs, wanting to hurt myself, my boyfriend at the time locking away paracetamol and knives in a suitcase. My son was eighteen, spent all his time in his room, threatened to throw the tv out of the bedroom when I tried to make him do anything. Mental health services advised to separate out what was ‘behavioural.’ ‘What would you do if someone else threw the tv out of the window?’ In the long years prior, trashing the house, getting in trouble with the police, truanting, refusing to go to school, social work threatening me with prosecution re the not going to school, school saying I needed to take more responsibility. During my son’s teenage years my confidence as a parent evaporated. Of course, when I look back maybe there were loads of other things I could have done, if I had been a different person. I took his things to my mum’s, he stayed round a girlfriend’s, sofa surfed, and several years later we are all still alive, I am available to help and we get on fine…
…It’s not like I’ve ever forgotten any of that, but to be dragged back there so completely, publicly, more than a decade later, was almost more than I could bear. It was a hilarious contrast that we were on a paradise beach in Cambodia at the time. Oh, the shame, I could barely move, and yet of course I did. In the water, in the heat, over dinner, terrible shame that I couldn’t get away from and the guilt, the guilt. Imagine the worst thing you’ve ever done, something you did years ago when you couldn’t do any better, not only brought right back, but now it’s public. I didn’t hear anything from anyone. Anthony reminded me that those who knew me would know there was more to it than that.
Northamptonshire, April 2019
From Cambodia, Anthony messaged my son, ‘Maybe try not to be quite so hard on your mum,’ and he has toned it down since. Back in the UK, my son invited us to an event where everyone would know about his the backstory- people are interested, his agent emphasises it. It’s his story he’s entitled to it, he has every right to say whatever he wants, and I support his right to say it. Anthony told my son this, from me. Anthony also said, you have a right to say what you like, but it has an effect. Anthony explained, it brings up a lot of emotion for your mum, and the emotion it brings up is shame. My son was unaware that I might find it difficult to go to the event, and my husband explained why I couldn’t go.
Anyway, we went to see the work at his place first, newly produced and framed before being shipped to New York for an exhibition after the show. His agent, his girlfriend, her mum and dad, all her family were going. We left, aside from my young nephew, none of his family would be there, not us, no Dad, no Grandmother, she’s annoyed and upset about the airing-dirty-laundry backstory.
‘I feel bad about us not going.’ It took Anthony to say this. As my friend later said, you’re so lucky you have Anthony. Like the cliché, Do the next right thing. You can’t do anything about the past. All you can do is do the next right thing. If your son has a show, you go. So we went. Yes her family said, ‘I thought you weren’t coming.’ Yes the councillor who had put the event on didn’t shake my hand. In my mind I thought, she thinks I’m scum, some kind of horrible person. But maybe she just doesn’t shake hands. And it doesn’t matter anyway, I’m never going to see her again. And what does it matter what a politician, of all people, thinks of me. It’s more important to show support for your family than to worry about what other people think. I don’t know why I’m still so upset about all this, but I am.
Northamptonshire, June 2019
I went to see a friend, we spoke about Cambodia. In the past she had experienced similar events and feelings and fears, and understood completely. The next day I saw another friend. Her adult child is severely mentally ill and violent. My friend has been pushed beyond the normal limits many times, and many people in her position might consider cutting all contact. ‘She’s my only child,’ she said. She spoke about her sadness over not experiencing the happy milestones that other parents experience.
But all we can do is feel and grieve and eventually, if we can, accept. Stop pushing it away and just allow it. Allow that it happened. Allow that what is, is. Allow that you are sad. Allow that the past can never be altered or undone. And allow that you’re going to go on and be here anyway.
Thank you very much for reading
About the author
Sold house, left job, gave away almost everything else. With husband went travelling for a year, mostly in India. Here are my India highlights. Now back in the UK, living on a narrowboat, and writing a book about the trip, a spiritual/travel memoir, extracts from which appear regularly on this blog.
For photographs of the trip see Instagram travelswithanthony