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Sandra Dean – Registered Member


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A photo of me, as a child, and an excerpt of my memoir ‘My Alien Self: My Journey Back to Me’ depicting that time…

Me (Amanda Green) as a young child

Me (Amanda Green) as a young child

So, here’s a photo of me as a young child…

And an excerpt from ‘My Alien Self: My Journey Back to Me’ …

‘Many doctors have asked me about my childhood and my earliest memories. And I always told them the same thing: one of my earliest memories was the feeling of being lost.

Even with such a large family it’s possible to feel that way. In fact I often wonder if I’ve always been lost; in one way or another. Perhaps those early memories are a metaphor for my life.

I was in a department store that first time I felt truly lost.  Mum and Dad hadn’t noticed me wandering off. Next thing, I remember standing there on my own. I was thinking maybe they’d forgotten me. Where were they? Maybe I did something wrong? But what did I do?  Finally I was approached by a stranger. She used the tannoy; there is a lost child in the toy department. Did she mean me? Was I lost?

Then we waited.

And waited.

And waited.

It must’ve only been a couple of minutes but it seemed like hours before they came to get me.  My dad looked flustered, asking me why I’d just wandered off; Oh Amanda, never do that again.  But seeing him there all I felt was joy, overwhelming joy that I wasn’t lost anymore.  I was found. I was safe. For now.

The next time I remember feeling lost was my introductory appointment at my first school, a few weeks before I started. Of course now it’s a haze in my memory. So long ago.  But I still remember the feeling of being lost.

 

We remember only fragments of childhood

 

I was standing in the classroom, a room full of children, strangers.  They were all looking at me.  I was a lost child again.  What was happening? What had I done? That’s when I saw them – brightly patterned pots in the middle of each table and me in that moment thinking the only thing that mattered was what was inside them.  I could hear the teacher talking to Mum but in that moment the nerves dissolved to nothing.  I had set my mind to those pots with their colours.  I guess I stopped being lost, lost instead in the colour – the possibility of what I was to become.

When I think about it now I see how, like so many moments in life, the ability to climb inside a moment, to be absorbed by something so completely was a way of not thinking; of not seeing.  You see, while I was just being a normal little girl, there was always that shadow over our family. Maybe that was what made us different, not that I would have understood it. I just always knew my mum was sick. In fact my mum had catatonic schizophrenia.

But all I knew was she wasn’t the same as other mums. And that meant I wasn’t the same as the other children.

Did the teachers know?

Did they know that big fancy word for what was wrong with Mum? Could they see it?

What about me?

But I wasn’t like her. I could climb inside the colour and lose myself. Some kinds of lost were OK. ‘

I recall birthdays growing up too, so many birthdays it seems when you look back, so much longer than a year in between then, as if time had a different speed.And there I was, turning six. I see it now.  We played Tom and Jerry and Roadrunner on my much loved projector.  It was asilent film which we projected onto the lounge door.  I caught sight of Mum stood there in her in her size 18 black t-shirt, grey A-line skirt, black tights and slippers.  Her hair dyed dark brown, frizzy from perming, her eyes slightly staring.  So there we were, all so normal.

The six-year old me was standing there with my fingers crossed hoping Mum would act like the other mums did.  Please let this be fun. But I needn’t have worried; my little friend Harry was there too, my good friend and Mum behaved.  My friends behaved.  It was all fine.  In fact it was a great party – one I will never forget.  Mum made me feel very special that day.  I was very proud of her and very happy to share my day with my friends and no hitches.

It was the first and last birthday party I ever had – a happy, normal birthday party just like any regular child, remembered as any normal happy child remembers fragments of childhood.

 

As I think of these times now, I think how sometimes you can go back to a place – see it how it was, not how it is. I can see that house now, me there, as a child. I can close my eyes and enter through the front door, into a small hall, from which one door led to a rectangle lounge/dining room where we all crammed ourselves into on the odd occasion we were all together – usually only for a Sunday roast.  It has patterned wallpaper and mismatched furniture – some dark wood, some pine wood – and looks cluttered with ornaments and tacky holiday souvenirs.

I wonder when I first realised that the paintwork was supposed to be white, not nicotine yellow, or that other peoples’ houses didn’t have the constant aroma of cigarettes.  When my family were smoking I could see the haze in the air, like we were always scarfed in a mist, like some of those early memories are now.  We had a tall standalone ashtray that they could put by their side so they didn’t have to get up.  It was white and silver, and often full to its brim with fag butts.  You put the cigarette in, pressed the middle and it span so the cigarette would disappear into the receptacle below and the lack of air in there would put the cigarette out.  Mum would have washing hanging up on the curtain rail at the far end.  It’s funny the things you remember.

Ian is playing Friggin’ in the Riggin by the Sex Pistols. He does that when Dad’s not around.  Or Human League. You know he taught me the words to all the songs, from the record inserts, by the time I was about eight or nine.  I have always listened to the words of songs and learnt them, line by line, ever since.

And there’s David – a fan of U2 singing Gloria in 1981 and Sunday bloody Sunday in 1983.

Of course, I had no idea what the true meaning of those songs were at the time.

Mustn’t forget Peter – there he is listening to Blondie.

Sunday Girl became one of my favourites.

 

Music triggers memories

Finally, I see my bedroom with its bright pink curtains, wallpaper covered in a cute girl pattern, pink blankets and white sheets and a white MFI wardrobe, all crammed into the tiny box room. And that room is the same room I slept in as an adult, on and off for over thirty-five years.

There’s a saying about that; we all come back to where we started – some more than others it seems.

Lastly as I take my little tour I see our black and white cat Suds, basking in the sun. An outside cat; day and night, summer or winter.  Dad didn’t like her in the house.  I would make her cardboard box houses when the weather turned cold, which my family found funny.  I often think of her now.

I’ve always felt a deep connection to animals.

So there I was growing up in normal suburbia. I was normal. Everything was normal.

But somehow I always knew it wasn’t.

 

My first school report:

‘Amanda is a sensible girl capable of very good work.  Progressing very satisfactorily.  A willing, well behaved girl’. 

I wasn’t like Mum. Satisfactory. Willing. I got my attention by being good. Not like her, or so I was beginning to realise.

There’s a school photo of that time – me smiling, with my basin haircut, I look so happy.  I suppose I was.

A few weeks later Mum had one of her ‘turns.’ I don’t suppose I really understood it then; that she was hearing voices, that she was catatonic. I might not have known the word but I see her there – motionless and emotionless, as if everything about her was blank. Like she lost all her colours. Maybe she needed one of those pots to crawl into.  Or maybe her kind of lost meant she was unreachable.

In the end she was sectioned and taken into hospital again. I remember the visits but I only remember one journey – the journey home with Dad.  Age six there I was huddled in the front seat of Dad’s car. I stared out the side window into the darkness, so that my face was out of view as I forced back tears.  I wanted to break down, to bawl, to ask questions, but I couldn’t.

When would I see Mummy again? Why did she have to stay in that horrible grey hospital? Why couldn’t she come home with us?

Sometimes Mumwas horrible (screaming, swearing, slamming doors) and sometimes loving and soft at home, but I didn’t want to leave her behind, and I sensed that she hated that place with all the old people sitting around on worn, dull settees, in a big, plain room, nothing cosy about it, more like a waiting area, with all the people waiting for visitors like me and Dad to come and cheer them up.  There must have been about fifteen or so settees, scattered about and I sat on one of them with Mum and Dad and we talked, interrupted by people yelling or waving their arms around. I didn’t want to look.

Most people in that place looked old – and some looked dazed and lifeless.  It didn’t scare me, I had Dad with me, and he would protect me. They weren’t trying to harm me, but Mum said a woman in a wheelchair wanted to hurt her.  She said the woman chased her up the corridor, wheeling fast, in a kind of fury. She wanted to bash her against the wall.  Mum wanted to come home with us but she wasn’t allowed. She didn’t want electroconvulsive treatments (ECT) and medications. That’s what she said.

I didn’t understand.

I guess that place is what fuelled my lifelong fear of hospitals and doctors and just about any situation where I might be trapped and controlled by others. It also taught me to hide my emotions and deal with them in my own way or ignore them.  The stigma surrounding my mother and her illness, and hospitalisations in a well known mental asylum, as they called them then, is what set off my urge to beat the stigma surrounding mental health much later on.  I never knew then that it would be me sitting at a psychiatrist’s office, a victim of the very same stigma.

The difference was, I wasn’t like her: I was free.

 

But growing up wasn’t all bad, it wasn’t all about Mum and her issues.

There was always Auntie Agnes.

I recall the time I got the croup. It took me out of school for six weeks while Mum was still in hospital andI was sent to Great Aunt Agnes’s.  She was actually my dad’s aunt and she showed me a different side to life.

I loved it at Agnes’s house – it was peaceful.  Auntie Agnes and Uncle Albert looked after me at their bungalow – six blissful weeks in a happy home, with no arguments, depression or moods.  Auntie Agnes was seventy-nine years old at that time and was used to looking after us, particularly my brothers; she’d had Peter for the first two years of his life.

I enjoyed it.  Not because I had to have time off school, and not because I was so ill with the croup that I had to be looked after, but because it was Auntie Agnes looking after me.   I liked that house and Agnes’s positive attitude.  She understood me. Maybe she gave me what my own mum couldn’t at the time – normality.

I see her now: Auntie Agnes. She wears a pinafore apron.

That’s how I remember her – all those hours in the kitchen, preparing food, cooking, cleaning and washing in her twin tub. But she’d wear overalls for digging and tending to the vegetables and fruit in her garden.  And when she went out she made a very good effort to look smart; always with a little face powder, blusher, lipstick and perfume, while wearing two piece outfits with brooches or colourful flowery dresses and a smart jacket, topped off with clip-on earrings, tights, scarf and low heeled sensible shoes.  I still have some of her jewellery and face powder pack and they still smell like Agnes.

The hallway was always cold. There was a coat and umbrella rack and the larder at the end stacked with tins of sardines and spaghetti, homemade jams.  Homely.  Really homely.

The main meal of the day was lunch, and this could be anything from pork or lamb chops, to rib of beef or meat pie.  She grew all her own vegetables, bought her meat from the local butcher, and made everything – pies, suet puddings, cakes and crumbles.

The dining room was the main room – a very sociable place, for eating, talking, visitors, and listening to The Archers on the radio, which sat in one corner of the room on a high shelf – one that I could not reach as a child.  It was nice to listen to The Archers, as it was a story and you didn’t have to look at any pictures or concentrate fully.  Auntie Agnes would listen intently and she followed the whole story for years and years. Whenever I hear of something major happening in The Archers now I always think of Agnes and how since she passed away will never know about it.

Everything is an unfinished story.

The doorframe in that room was painted white but it had dents to show us all growing up.  I had my height etched into their frame in increments.

There were also two upright armchairs in that room – old-fashioned and dark brown, with dark wood arms and frame, finished off with white and beige embroidered cushions.  I would sit in the right hand chair which was always the ‘Agnes chair’ while Agnes was cluttering and washing up in the kitchen and I would often fall asleep.  The other chair was Uncle Albert’s but after he died a few years later, it wasn’t used.  Uncle Albert would tell me jokes: “There was an Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman…” I never totally clicked with Uncle Albert but Agnes loved him, and that’s what mattered.

They’d both take me up to the Salvation Army on Wednesdays and I loved the attention I got.  I think it was this exposure to the over 60s that helped me develop a real respect for my elders, as I loved being in their company, full of wisdom and memories of ‘the old days.’

Agnes always had a yellow rubber duck and some bath bubbles to keep things child like for bath-time.  She would laugh when I got going with the bubble bath.  I would prop my legs up, and whisk my hands under my knees in a kind of paddle steamer way to get the bubbles up as high as the baths edges, giggling all the time.

Eventually, after a few weeks of incarceration, Mum came home from the hospital and I went home. Again it seemed that her illness was ours, and in my head I wanted to see her at the birthday party smiling sweetly and throwing her head back as she laughed – being normal. Or I wanted to be standing with Aunt Agnes with her homemade jams and planning what to eat around the dining room table.

Although Mum had out-patient psychiatrist appointments, not one person – carer, social worker, doctor, came to see if we were OK; if we could cope – ever.

I would often think about that time with Aunt Agnes.

There’s a song called Favourite Things. I’d listen to it on the record player when Mum and I had a music session at home.  I think about that song now and remember the lists I would make in my head when I needed to feel the way I did at Aunt Agnes’s house or happy at home. And how even now they can take me back to the safe warm feeling or maybe not such a warm feeling. At least I feel something.

Smells:  Roast dinner: mouth watering- too long to cook! Cut grass: Nanna’s house. Smoke in the lounge – yeuk! Mint potatoes: yum. Coffee roasting.  Agnes’s face powder.  Mum’s spit and pink lipstick smells on a hankie when cleaning round my mouth.

Sounds: Mum shouting. Mum moaning. Brothers bickering. Agnes cooking and cluttering in the kitchen. Blondie, Sex Pistols and The Human League. The ‘Frog Song’ (the first record I ever bought).Michael Jackson’s 1983 album ‘Thriller’.

Sights: Mum’s face – nasty. Our cat’s face – cuddly. Bright green kitchen cupboards – full. Pink bedroom — home and mine.  Mum and Dad smiling down at me in the lounge as they gave me a teddy bear bigger than me for my birthday.

Tastes: Agnes’s lamb chops, gravy, suet pudding and golden syrup pudding. Roast dinners. Marmite sandwiches. Jacket spuds. Vesta meals.  Cherry drop sweets I would get only at the local hospital whilst waiting with my mum for her appointment.

Touch: Teddy bear’s soft fur. My cat’s fur. My hamster’s fur.  Nanna’s soft face.

TV programmes: Dynasty. Dallas.  Hi-de-Hi. Hart to Hart. Saturday Superstore. Grange Hill and Educated Marmalade.

Somehow, I suppose we all found our way of coping. We had to.  Of course I couldn’t have known then how hard that must’ve been for Dad.

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