Friday, 30 November 2007

On death, taxes and impressionable young children

Have you ever noticed how sometimes, you will hold a belief so dear to your heart until you write it down, and upon reading it back, the very words on the page that form the core of that conviction suddenly become something to be ridiculed?

That is my hope with this post.

Because it is all based on fear, sometimes I try and work out where the fear is coming from, and what, exactly, it is that I am afraid of when I know that nobody has ever been documented to have died from this.

CBT devotees the world over will tell you that at the basis of any anxiety attack is a fear, and to alleviate that fear you must, through a process of both elimination and demarcation, fence off that fear, challenge that fear, and question the evidence that leads you to believe that this fear is something that is likely to happen.

I wonder what they'd make of this, then.


When I was old enough for my mother to go back to work, she took a job cleaning the communal areas of a large block of flats for elderly people. Technically, the place was accommodation for what were termed in those politically incorrect days of the 1980s, 'the elderly and disabled', although the only disabled people I remember seeing were disabled due to anno-domini rather than genetics or accident. There were no young disabled people there. Only old ones, who died with alarming regularity.

I was seven years old.

One of my earliest memories - for some telling reason, I have no memories before this age - is of my mother, leaning over the bannisters in the long, winding corridor of Level 5, her vacuum cleaner and bucket of cleaning supplies by her side, weeping, and imparting to me the pertinent piece of information that her favourite resident was dead. Twenty eight years later I obviously don't remember the manner of her passing, only that it crucified my mother.

A year later the warden left, and my mother, having already had some experience with the residents, both dead and alive, was given the job. And so, at the age of eight, I was packed up from our comfortable existence in a typical 3-bedroomed semi on a street where I played with other children and rode my bike like a daredevil until I scraped all the skin off my knees and shot berries from peashooters at the rival 'gang' from the other end of the road, and moved to this place - because the job came with on site accommodation.

And there began my very strange existence of growing up in what was, at the time, referred to somewhat proudly as 'sheltered accommodation'.

My mother gave her heart and soul to this job, this place, and these people, sometimes to the detriment of myself and my father. She talked of nothing else for the 20 years she was employed there.

Part of her job description was to call on each resident every day to ensure their well-being. With sixty-five flats to cover, this was not a task for the faint hearted, and took most of the morning. I, being too young to leave alone in the flat for any extended period, was often taken with her. This was the part of the our new life that I enjoyed; I was adopted by tens of kindly old ladies as a surrogate grandchild and consequently, the pile of presents under our christmas tree was, without fail, mountainous.

The other, not so enjoyable part was the 24-hour cover that she supplied. This entailed a call system, the business end of which was in our flat. Several nights a week, the alarm would go off, revealing a panic-stricken old person in their flat on the other end, perhaps having fallen (simple), or perhaps in the grips of a heart attack, or a stroke (not so simple), or perhaps a terrified spouse having discovered their partner of fifty years or more unresponsive - cries for help invading our flat like a muffled fog, a disembodied voice waking me from sleep in the room next door. Many of my nights were spent hiding in corridors, pretending not to watch as the scenes unfolded before my eight, nine, ten year old eyes; my mother waiting for ambulances and worried relatives and comforting as much as she could where she was not permitted by law to give medical aid.

They say that the young child learns from those around her, and I was too young to understand the difference between the simple call from a lonely elderly person, fearful of nothing and needing reassurance, and the not-so-simple medical emergency. What I learned, therefore, was that anything going on in one's body, whether it be medical or emotional or a blend of the two, is a cue to cry for help to avoid death, and when the person providing that help is one's own mother... well, I'm sure to this very impressionable eight-year-old with a somewhat active imagination, it was a powerful suggestion, and one that's very probably stayed with me. To this day, the sight of an ambulance outside somebody's house strikes the fear of a God I'm not sure I believe in into me, and yet it's the very thing I rely on for support and comfort. A twisted paradox, really.

I did not have the luxury of a quote unquote normal childhood, where children are allowed to be children, shielded from hurt and fear and life and death. My childhood was spent in this place, an old people's home, where people got sick and died like leaves falling from a tree and my mother had to deal with the raking up. People dropped dead in their flats. People dropped dead in the corridors, and on one memorable occasion in the middle of the night, someone dropped dead outside the front door. Because it was all part of my mother's work, and 'to be kept apart' from family, even though it invaded our life every day, it was never explained to me. I had no grandparents and I never went through the process of a person's death of my own accord; rather, soaked up like a sponge this strange phenomenon that I saw happen at the periphery of my life, every time it happened.

I lived there until I was 19. My parents, now in their late seventies, still live there; my mother is now retired, and the shoe is now on the other foot. They are residents. I go home maybe once a year. I hate it. I can't bear it.


I really do not know where I am going with this story, only that I needed to tell it. It does explain an awful lot about my need for reassurance, the reason I fly off to hospital with the slightest of complaints - the one that I'm sure that this time, is going to cause me to drop dead. It does explain why every sensation in my body is something to be feared, and why I struggle so much to carry out day-to-day activities when I feel under the weather. Unless I feel 100% healthy, I can not bring myself to leave the flat for fear of aggravating it, feeling ill, needing help, and the fear of becoming suddenly seriously ill or incapacitated is one that drives my existence. It really isn't rocket science to deduce where this problem has come from. How to deal with it though? That's a headscratcher, that I do not have the answers for. But really, do any of us?


Ness said...

That does make a lot of sense. For some reason, this reminded me of a Depeche Mode song, heh.

seahorse said...

The telling can be the unravelling. It won't make sense or lead to moments of epiphany necessarily, but the telling is the 'getting it out' where it can be looked at perhaps in more detail, or perhaps not, depending how you feel. But certainly, strange environments, atmospheres, events we experience as children stay with us. And so your fears, which are your adaptations to coping in a way, are understandable. I hope this post has helped you get some of your past out there.

bohémienne said...

This is how it happened with me. I was always slightly preoccupied with death... but when my own mother died (I was an adult, not an impressionable child), it really became a constant thought, on my mind every day. Gradually, I even started accepting that I would think about and dread it all the time. I was afraid of so many things that were potential killing situations -- planes, etc.

The fear of dying went away only when I found a way of bringing joy into my life. When I realized I could make myself happy (doesn't mean I always do so... I'm weak and lazy at times), then it didn't matter so much that it would end some day, because I can choose to live my life fully right now.

Sorry if that sounded glib. Just how it worked with me.

Ruby said...

They say that a problem shared is a problem halved - which is so true. But I say that a thought/ emotion/ memory written on paper is like walking into a brick wall, doesn't really roll of the tongue as well :), but I find it the best way to face it and see it with warts and all.

I really feel for you, it must have been a scary way to grow up with your own interpretations.

Its such a shame that these things were not discussed with you to give you a better understanding, though as a child it probably still would have been scary living in that environment.

I am glad that you wrote it all out and get a chance to challenge what you can.

It reminded me of my own fear of death for years until I worked in Aged Palliative Care. For me it took away the fear of death and made it a lovely part of our life cycle, after sitting with some great people while they died and to see their pain gone and were finally at peace.

Beliefs are the strangest things, how the same environment gave us totally different views, though the different ages definately plays a part.