(Whole new chunks in the second half especially)
MEMOIR: ME VERSUS MUM (Major Rewrite)
Mum and I were in my untidy, always messy room, and Mum was telling me off about it again. She and Dad were always on my back about cleaning my room. Clean your room, it’s a pig sty, what’s the matter with you? Always, always, always. I did clean it sometimes, usually only when Mum threatened to come in one day while I was at school at clean it for me, which meant throwing out almost everything, which meant Mum would throw out important things, and things I’d rather Mum not find out I had. Let’s just say I was a teenage boy and I had some very meaningful junk that I was hoarding in very private places.
But this was bigger than just my messy room. Mum and Dad were always telling me off. Every day I was in trouble for some damned thing. I was an only child, too, so there was no-one else to blame for things going wrong, going awry, going missing (I’ve written before about how I went through a weird phase of taking things). It often felt to me that everything about my entire existence was in some way wrong. There were all the many ways I was wrong at school, and when I came home, there were different kinds of wrongness.
I was, I’ve said, a weird, moody, fat, probably not very nice kid. I don’t remember myself as “lovable”. I never had anything like a “winning” personality. There were things I was extremely interested in (astronomy, science and science fiction, and maybe girls), and there was the vast, dreary, lightless void of everything else in Australian life that I was really not interested in. If you were interested even a tiny bit in things that interested me, I probably liked you, and we might be friends. I didn’t have many friends, except for strange times, like when we got a big above-ground swimming pool, when suddenly I had loads of friends. Or when my dad, in one of his manic phases, got me a trail bike when I was 11 (see, “The Motorcycle Incident”). It was a crazy, magnanimous, unasked-for gesture on his part, and it made me, briefly, the most popular kid in school. And when it went away, so did they.
I was weird in lots of ways, and I’ve written about some of them here. Like how there was all sorts of food I would not eat, leading to Scenes and Problems and Upset. I got some serious tellings-off about food, about meals ruined, about my being difficult. I don’t recall wanting to be difficult, or wanting to embarrass my parents, or cause awkward scenes. It was just when I tried to eat certain things I suddenly knew right away that I was going to throw up, immediately, in front of everyone. It was terrifying. I didn’t want to vomit in front of people, but I would if I was forced to eat these things. No-one believed me, not even Mum and Dad. Eating was always an extremely fraught thing for me, and in many respects it still is, even today when I’m grown up and middle-aged. I remember this time when I was a stressed-out little kid, terrified of vomiting, and the trouble I was always in, very well. It was dreadful. I still, to this day, have all kinds of hangups about food and eating. It’s awful.
I was also weird about people, shy to the point of pathology, even with people I liked, even with family. And there was one friend I had, in the early years of my primary school career, who had a way of inspiring in me a towering rage, an anger like I have rarely experienced in the decades since. He had a strange way about him, a knowing, a smugness. Plus, he cheated at games we played, sometimes so obviously that even my legally blind albino mum, playing with us, could tell. He was confounding. We would end up in these situations where I would find myself screaming at him. Screaming. Top of my lungs. I’m not a person given to screaming at people. I’m pretty quiet on the whole. But this guy, when I was a kid, brought out my inner screamer. Why were we friends? I have no idea. When we moved from Wembley to Bassendean in the middle of Grade Six, that was the end of that and in all the years since I’ve never once missed him, and I’m sure the feeling is mutual. I do wonder about myself, though. What the hell was all that about? Was it an early manifestation of my illness? It’s all I can think of.
So there we were, Mum and me, on this ultimate occasion in my room. Mum was exhausted. She was up against it, exhausted. Besides me and all my nonsense, she also had my dad to contend with. He was extremely “unwell”, and was spending a lot of time in bed, smoking and brooding, watching TV, not saying anything. Just burning through the smokes. So Mum was in no mood for any nonsense from me, so she gave me a thorough telling off. She let me have it. My mum was and remains formidable.
I listened to this, and felt something shift and give way. I’d been on the receiving end of this speech for years. I was fed up. I was always wrong. Always in trouble. I was never good enough, always unsatisfactory. I yelled back. Me yelling back was not so surprising. Mum and I yelled lots. Sometimes, even now, we still do. But this time a true thing came out of my mouth. Something that I had been thinking a long time, but kept to myself, held privately because it was unspeakably awful.
I said something along the lines of, Why do you yell at me so much when you obviously hate me?
It was the unsayable thought. I had thought it often but had never dared to say it, but there it was, naked and quivering in the air between us. There was a shocked pause. I could not believe I’d actually said it, that my own parents must hate me, which was why they were always on my back about everything. It must be like sport for them, picking on me all the time like that, the way it was for the bullies at school.
Mum looked as if she were shaken to her marrow. She could not believe I had said the thing, either. That I had even been thinking it. That I saw things that way. She said, and again I’m working from imperfect recollection, that it was because she and Dad loved me so very much that they cared enough to tell me off about things I did wrong. She said if they didn’t love me, they wouldn’t care. They’d ignore me. They’d throw me out, because why keep me? They told me off because they loved me.
This was one of the most important conversations I had ever had in my whole life. It changed everything. It changed my relationship with my parents. I suddenly understood them. I believed them. I was still often difficult, moody and weird (and hey look, I still am), but I understood them. I knew what they were about now. Even my dad, who was so unpredictable and moody, who could be so terribly angry, but then so magnanimous and funny and joyful, so elated and proud of his son–I understood him better, too. They loved me. And even though we still had our fights and arguments, especially when I was so sick, I loved them, too.
Our whole life together pivots around this conversation, and specifically that single exchange. I had believed they picked on me constantly because they were like bullies or something similar, but no. They were parents. I should have realised this beforehand. I should have known this the way I knew our street address and our phone number. I should have remembered years and years of Christmases and birthdays. I should have remembered countless late-night deep and meaningful conversations with my mum in which we talked about all the things weighing on me at the time, and from which I emerged feeling better and more settled. Even when I wasn’t sure what to make of Dad, I could always find safe harbour with Mum, even in the period I’m writing about here. How could I have forgotten all this? But I did forget. When I accused her and Dad of hating me, I believed it. I thought they did, because they were always on my back, always yelling, always picking at me, never letting me rest. There was always something wrong. You get to the point that there are so many things wrong it’s easier to think that what’s wrong is not some thing, but you yourself. And if it’s you that’s wrong all the time, maybe everything would be easier, and everyone would be happier, if you weren’t around anymore.
This is the significance of this conversation in my/our life. These are the stakes. My illness had persuaded me that I was worthless. That I was the wrong thing. It was working on persuading me that everyone would be better off without me. It would make them happier. The illness calls out to you like this, in the sweetest, most convincing of voices. You want to believe it.
But Mum and Dad loved me, and that’s why they were always on my back. That was even more believable. That made sense. We, Mum and Dad and me, still sometimes talk about that conversation, the importance of it, what it meant to me. To them, it was a bit of routine parenting, just another night’s work. But for me, it was life and death. It was everything.