loose connections

Another long and warbly blog-as-shrink post about the dysfunctional relationship I have with my parents. 

In the car with Dad, travelling the hour and a half cross-country to a football match.  We were both trying hard to talk in a way we don’t usually: deeper business things than we’d speak of around Mum, shared self-employment workflow gripes.  It had surprised me, his level of conversational effort.  Then we spoke about sport, we led into our shared physical attributes, many of which I’ve inherited from him and most of which I’m grateful for – build, metabolism – if not the hair, or increasing lack of it.  He could have kept that.

Then he said: “speaking of the things we share, do you ever think you might have problems with depression?”

That came out of the blue and I sort of froze.

“Um, dunno.  Maybe?” I said, and looked out of the window to my left, away from him, scared of eye-contact.  We’d spoken of such things before, but not for a couple of years.

In that moment I saw myself through his lens.  It wasn’t easy viewing.  Had my parents finally considered my lifestyle – although it’s been roughly the same for over two years – and recognised that I might not always be happy, that my sluggish silence around them might indicate more than an overly protracted teenage phase?

How bad did I get?  I was ok really, wasn’t I?  It was something I’d pondered from time to time.  Sure I get down-days like everyone, perhaps a little more frequently given my general lack of contact with humans, but it never got that bad, did it?

I’ve read around the subject a little, for a number of reasons including general personal interest.  My gloominess is never as all-consuming and paralysing as I’ve seen it described.  I shake myself out of it eventually; I do something or am lightened by something, I see a great goal, take a walk, watch a gorgeous sunset, drive into the mountains, absently stare at a ludicrously beautiful female in the street.  There’s usually something which jolts me out and forces perspective.  It’s never been the case that I can’t get out of bed or leave the flat, can’t move or function.

No, I’m well enough acclimatised to coping with sporadic unhappiness and able to ride it without pills, thanks.

He went on to advertise antidepressants, which he’s now taken for twenty years or more, and how they help him.  Apparently he experimented with coming off them recently and his mood rapidly plummeted so he resumed again; only low dosages but enough.  They really help, he underlined.  And it’s important too, because your moods affect the people close to you.

“Well I’m alright.  There’s no-one close to me.”

It was intended it as blackly comic but he didn’t laugh.  I can never predict when he’ll laugh.  A primary tactic of mine in breaking down barriers and getting closer to people is light teasing.  I’ve never felt comfortable doing this with Dad, so sensitive and serious is he about always being in the right.  His anger is formidable and he often seems to emit a general sense of obfuscation, a glaring inability to say ‘I don’t know’ about things he clearly doesn’t know.  He has a tendency to try and smugly predict gameshow answers out loud, to generate a fillip of superior righteousness, however small.  Not always successfully.  It’s always mildly amusing when he’s wrong.

Perhaps he wanted me to take antidepressants so I’ll be happier and more upbeat on my visits home and Mum won’t worry about me.  Yet I still can’t imagine ever being chatty around them.

Maybe there’s an extent to which we all tend to regress around our parents, presenting earlier versions of ourselves which accurately reflect their experience of us.  When you reach the stage of bringing home a partner you begin to present a combination of two sides: the old you who your parents know, together with the current you who is liked or maybe even loved by your partner – and who you probably like better as a result; a more developed and happier side of you.  Without that you still keep showing the old you.  If you never had a brilliantly open relationship with your parents to start with, the upshot is that you’ll likely slump into a self-fulfilling despondency.

Little impels me to disclose much detail to my family; I am that infamous “dark horse” and “closed book”.  I’d happily disclose more to a complete stranger; to you, than to them.  There’s a natural reticence with them that shames me.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t occasionally feel like snapping.


Is it because they essentially bore the tits off me?  The endless commentary of minutiae and tales of village life which I find it impossible to feign an interest in.  You’re not allowed to say that though, because it’s cruel.  Family is The One Big Thing we must universally cherish above everything else.

Dad will offer help if asked and if it doesn’t clash with any other plans he’s made, but he won’t go out of his way.  He regularly visits the city where I live on business.  He never tells me.  We never go for a coffee or a pint.  It’d probably feel awkward if he did.  He never visited me in my three years in London.  He’s not that bothered.

Maybe I speak so little because I know my words would  go in one ear and out the other, they’d be distracted by thinking about what they want to say next about themselves, or by nothing in particular – which would be easier than listening, then asking a related question and.. you know, having a conversation.  My experience of trying to do this is so often disappointing that I stopped trying.  Now I try to listen, often on cruise-control, and ask questions in the gaps.

They seem to ignore that I’m perfectly chatty and outgoing with my brother, his wife and children, where it’s possible to have adult conversations, to be stupid and muck about with the kids.  And equally mixing with new people at extended family functions.  Their gaze or attention makes me feel artificial, like I’m alienating them by not behaving as they expect.  Perhaps they view it as an act.

Despite all this, Dad’s question wasn’t without a cause.  I probably look miserable and am uncommunicative around them, with little other stimuli than books, the internet and the dog.  But I feel I’ve somehow developed strength in being a loner for such a time.  You develop a pattern of habits which protect you; an appetite for newness, places and experience, an acceptance and fearlessness about being alone for the vast majority of time.  While it’s far from ideal, it means you don’t malinger as much as you might.

It’s a difficult notion for my parents, or possibly most people to empathise with though, because loners are an unorthodox minority group: misunderstood, untrusted, usually responsible for serial killings and massacres.


second fiddle

It’s an easy, long standing joke; one which I naturally inhabit as second child, and one which I play to. 

In the local pub, to neighbours, while sitting next to Mum:  “No, I thought I’d come home because my brother and his family are visiting tomorrow and there’s always a party when they’re here.  There wasn’t even any milk last time I came back.” 

During a cobbled lunch when the six month old tot is lumped onto a rug in the corner of the room: “Get used to it, kid; regular second child treatment.” 

These truths are underscored with a thick line of knowing, black humour. 

Home-made biscuit tins were full, old toys taken out of hiding, meals planned, activities considered, “my” bedroom converted into a playroom.

It’s understandable that a two-point-four family would generate more excitement in a grandmother (my mother) than her difficult, unfathomable second son.  This is acceptable.  (I’m not without comparison to The Stone Roses’ Second Coming). 

This time though, Dad disappoints.  I’d mentioned wanting a car and he’d mentioned looking around here, at home, and back in London too, as there would obviously be more to choose from down there.  With a sturdy and knowledgeable sidekick in my father, I would feel confident in landing a reasonable vehicle.  The more research I did, the more I suspected that there would be a better deal to be had in London. 

In nearly three years there, he has never been down to visit me in London.  I make the effort to sponsor and support him when he runs the London Marathon – and will do again soon.  He also comes down now and then on brief business trips, but we don’t meet up.  I naturally bow to the familial obligation of returning home now and then to feel emasculated and underdeveloped. 

He’s just.. well, not all that bothered really. 

As well being slightly lazy (never cooks or cleans, takes long afternoon dozes), I think he may fear London now, despite living there for a few years in his crazy hedonistic youth.  He’s grown used to a slower pace and the roads he knows which connect villages and small towns.  I sense he’s not assured in managing city traffic and is unnerved by newness generally: easily panicked by plans and travel, never prone to impulse, a meticulous planner.

Yet for all that, a good man: always there for his family, generous with cash, helped out my brother and his family as much as you’d expect with funding houses and cars and children.  The second child has been less demanding in this respect.  

As we trailed a handful of limited garages in our local area, I gleaned from his answers that, having actually thought about it, he wasn’t all that keen to come to London and help me.

I was grateful for his imparted knowledge, The Things To Look For, and that he was willing to take me round these local garages.  But I wanted him to want to help me out that extra mile; make a two hour trip to London sometime, perhaps stay overnight.  It’s not a common sort of request.

Never one to persuade anyone to do anything they seem reticent about, I steered him away from the idea.  Even though I came to understand that I wanted him to counter me and say, “no, no, I can come down.”  It sank in, the familiar realisation that Dad isn’t really all that arsed. 

“So don’t feel you have to if you…” I said in the car as we drove home from the last small garage, because we often speak to each other in incomplete sentences.  “I mean I’ll happily just go it alone if you’re..”

He didn’t say anything, made a phatic murmuring noise – of which he has a great range.  This one’s meaning was a non-committal yeah, you can do.

A common father-son communication breakdown; I should simply express my wish for him to make the effort.  But I want him to want to himself.  And he doesn’t, so he won’t.

why my father scares me

It was at a rare away game a couple of years ago that we first spoke about it properly.  In a pub beforehand, roughly equidistant between Birmingham New Street station and Birmingham City’s St Andrew’s ground.  A rough and ready sort of venue with no furnishings that would take more than a few minutes to clean.

“It’s a chemical imbalance in the brain,” Dad vehemently explained mental health, depression.  He’s taken medication for years, but is still prone to slumps like today.  Days where his face looks like it might spontaneously fold in on itself.  Days when he’s paralysed by it and Mum bitches about him more than usual.  “He’s done absolutely nothing today, sat there and dozed most of the afternoon.  Then he’ll moan about not sleeping tonight. Could be because he hasn’t been able to exercise, but, you know…?”  I never know.

It could also be because we have an extended family gathering tomorrow.  Not only is Dad crap with children, he also struggles in groups like this.  Which I find strange.  He says he can’t do professional networking, yet he affects an extrovert’s cloak of sociability each Friday night at the small local pub amongst fellow villagers.  He can take the attention then, enjoys it, bathes in it even; he’s done auctioneering and revels in any kind of public speaking.

I cannot fathom why the family scenarios challenge him – still because of his own tricky upbringing, which he left aged fifteen?  Is that still a viable excuse?

So, he could well be nervous, despite the veneer.

During Match Of The Day this evening, Gary Lineker mentioned the mental anguish of a player – Everton midfielder Steven Pienaar screaming at his goalkeeper for unnecessarily kicking a ball long and conceding possession.

This is probably entirely coincidental, but I glanced over to my father and saw him wiping an eye.  He’d looked fragile and on the verge of tears all evening, which isn’t uncommon when he’s like this.  The gesture of hand to eye, whether meaningful or not, added to mopey face: some might want to slap (my mother, brother), but to me it twanged something.  Perhaps because I sense his genes more closely than I’d like.

This physically reflected sagginess of his is never as explicit when there’s company outside us immediate three: my parents and I.  When my brother and his family are here, the carte blanche to wallow is rescinded and he tries harder to banish these external signs.  He looks like the saddest person in the world.  “Just feeling a bit run down,” is all I get on asking him directly if he’s ok.  Mum’s sympathy has long run out, and I can’t blame her.  She just perceives the laziness.

It terrifies me from a selfish point of view too, because I can feel or sense the instability sometimes, the crushing disappointment in self.  Perhaps not to the extent he does.  Hopefully not.  Though perhaps more; I struggle to envisage myself achieving what he’s achieved personally or professionally.

I never want to take medication to regulate emotion – though I’m also aware that this isn’t as uncommon as you might think: I know of several young girls who have; my ex did (pre-me, I might add).

But at not infrequent low, self absorbed ebbs when dark thoughts rise to the top, I feel those infected genes of his fizzing around my neurons like predators, just waiting.  We’ll come, they tease.  Just you wait.

“I get it too sometimes,” I admitted to Dad in that dodgy Brummy pub.  He kept claiming that it’s a chemical imbalance, scientifically proven, like he was almost proud, or at pains to state that he wasn’t some totally freakish fuckup.  We then discussed my brother’s typically effortless scepticism, his shrugging outlook: life is easy, just get on with it.  Which he has and does infuriatingly well.

It’s like a neverending, clawing rugby challenge which tries to haul you down.  Sometimes you feel its gravity harder than others and it takes more effort to carry on, keep going. Other times you’re barely aware that it’s there and breeze through.  But always you live in the nervous fear that it might one day manifest itself in a new and extreme way, succeed in dragging you to the floor and pinning you there.