Stories are funny things, ethereal and yet eerily concrete, fact-laden and yet totally open to interpretation, to shifts in perspective and the softening of time. My story begins in an Edinburgh hospital, the welcomed, loved daughter of an Army officer and a Scottish speech therapist. My story begins with a christening gown and a promise made in an ancient church. My story begins with a “normal” childhood, well, normal to me anyway!
I grew up in the sheltered, rarified, Downton-Abbey-esque, English upper classes. I went fox-hunting, attended boarding school, played polo and watched a lot of cricket. Home was safe and warm and laden with promise. Summers were filled with holidays in Cornwall and the sun drenched beaches of Malta and France; winters drew in around roaring fires warming ancient halls; spring was heralded by the glimpse of bluebells carpeting a beloved wood and the promise of long days on horseback or in the garden. School was endured. Told, as we were, that it was just as hard on our parents as it was on us, we children crafted survival identities within a Lord of the Flies hierarchy that adults knew not of. We survived, building “character” and “independence”, expression of which was generally unwelcome, non-conformist as it’s expression generally is in the young.
In many ways unremarkable, my childhood and adolescence pointed me down a path unchosen, expected. I would have thought this path not the slightest bit noteworthy had I stayed within my culture and family circle and married a soldier or a country lawyer. Had I stayed the path, eventually it would have been me packing my children off to boarding school with a heavy heart and an empty wallet. Had I been less restless, less longing, less… less me… I would have gone about my days arranging pony club camp, cricket teas, and school runs, ignoring the deepening ache within my soul.
My family tree is rich with strong women and heroic men, with suffering and hardship borne with grace and a stiff upper lip. My school years passed in a blur of miserable terms at school, sharply counter-pointed by wonderful holidays spent galloping over beloved countryside, digging vegetables and drinking gin and tonics with my indefatigable grandmother. I was loved, am loved still, by a family that is delightfully diverse in life choices and yet extraordinarily capable of community and grace. I didn’t always see that grace, and perhaps seeing the community is part of that perspective shift we gain with distance. At the time though, Granny Cecily, my father’s mother, often seemed to be the only port in a storm, my rock, my safe place. A far better writer than me, Amber Haines, in her beautiful book, “Wild in The Hollow” writes, of her own grandmother, the words I lived in my Granny’s home:
“She had the strength of one anointed, one who could claim you. She kept the shame out. It would snarl at the door, but inside was safe. maybe that’s why we rebellious ones always clung to her. She wasn’t our favorite because she was lenient toward us. She was our favorite because she was a reprieve. There was something of the rest of Eden in there, something of my Jesus”
excerpt from “Wild in the Hollow” by Amber Haines
Never very good at expectation, I hated feeling like I didn’t measure up, and as is so often the case for young women who blossom too early, (according to whom, I wonder?) I never felt like I fitted in. I absorbed the words said about me, the bullying and criticism, the insecurities of other foisted upon me to keep the fear at bay in them, and lost myself. The wild-haired girl who galloped bareback over hill and down dale was buried by conformity to a meeker, shallower girlhood, one for whom the word “supposed” became a straight-jacket.
I slogged through my school years laboring under the weight of an identity I hated, the belief that I was unacceptable to my peers, unloved (or unlovable) my family, pervaded my world until I found myself at the brink of a life wasted. My gap year (a British convention whereby after graduation, young people take a year out between school and university to explore the world, serve others and hopefully, grow up a little) was a revelation. I spent it in Brazil, teaching and traveling and discovering myself outside of the context of my family name. I was, for the very first time in my life, not someone’s daughter, or sister or cousin. I suffered no comparison, labored under no expectations and encountered in myself a young woman whom I actually liked! This made homecoming all the more painful, the old clothes didn’t fit, the shoes were uncomfortably restrictive and I didn’t know how to squash my rediscovered personality into my old life. No-one else had changed, but somehow I had begun to discover that the straight-jacket was really made up of fragile post-it notes, stuck on me by others, and, devastatingly often, by myself. I had shed so many that I no longer blended in and it was scary, as freedom often is.
The promise of continued freedom at University was for a while, at least, enticing. But, even though, the school-days names had finally stopped following me, even though I was, momentarily free from the family Name; the hedonistic culture of university life pushed in on me. Since I didn’t feel like I fit in anyway, I decided to reinvent myself as a “bad girl”. Let’s be clear, my expression of “bad” was pretty tame, and since I was still the very definition of posh and well brought up, even a bad girl had standards! I was still broken, however, and looking for confidence and approval in all the wrong places. I took up with all the wrong people and tried to attain the world’s version of “cool”, “sexy” or “beautiful”. Six months passed in a blur of caffeine, booze, parties and lectures I have zero recollection of. When I returned to Oxford after Christmas, I found myself home-less, broken-hearted and friendless, with a serious marijuana and alcohol problem, and desperately praying that second pink line didn’t appear and lead to a trip to the nearest clinic…
In short, to quote Rachel on Friends,
“… it’s like there’s rock bottom, then 50 feet of crap, then me.”
Now, I am not so naive to think that I couldn’t have picked myself up, dusted off the bruises on my heart, and, perhaps my liver 😏 and moved along. After all, my lineage had some pretty incredible examples to follow.. a grandmother who divorced her first husband for lying … another grandmother who parachuted into Mussolini’s Italy during WWII… a mother who had survived raising me (no mean feat!) and gotten her Masters degree at the same time. But that was not my path.