Dear Mariella

I’ve left my dam­ag­ing child­hood be­hind me, but why do I feel guilty?

The Observer Magazine - - Travel - @mariel­laf1

The dilemma I’m 28 and was born and raised in a north­ern min­ing town. I went to univer­sity quite late in life, trained to be a so­cial worker and now work in child pro­tec­tion, which I love. When I went to univer­sity, I left that old life com­pletely and had a few great years. I now don’t have any­thing to do with my fam­ily. My cur­rent job makes me re­alise the ef­fect my child­hood ex­pe­ri­ences have had on me, and the im­pact of some re­ally aw­ful things that were go­ing on in my fam­ily. Noth­ing specif­i­cally bad hap­pened to me, but our lives are so dif­fer­ent now. I live in the south and love my life. But I feel guilty that I haven’t spo­ken to my mum or sib­lings for years, that any­thing could have hap­pened to them and I wouldn’t even know. I feel bad for not want­ing to get in touch, and I know I’ll re­gret it if I don’t. But I just can’t bring my­self to do it. I tell peo­ple all the time about the im­por­tance of fam­ily on our iden­tity and sense of be­long­ing, but I don’t get any of that my­self. I don’t know what I’m scared of.

Mariella replies Me nei­ther. Not specif­i­cally, any­way, but that’s be­cause you don’t of­fer up any de­tails. Not that I need them in or­der to re­spond, but if crimes were com­mit­ted or be­hav­iour oc­curred that emo­tion­ally or phys­i­cally re­main a present dan­ger for you or fam­ily mem­bers, you have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to ad­dress that. It goes with­out say­ing that you would cer­tainly ben­e­fit from seek­ing the sup­port and ad­vice of a pro­fes­sional.

You’ve clearly been drawn to your job for a rea­son and I’m sure your com­mit­ment to it and plea­sure in it are in some way at­tached to what you’ve lived through. How clever you were to seek out a pro­fes­sion that might help you trans­late or at least fil­ter your own ex­pe­ri­ences. I’m in­trigued by why you haven’t sought to delve a bit deeper into your own do­mes­tic past as you seek to help oth­ers sur­vive theirs. It could well be be­cause the trauma you en­dured is non­spe­cific, but it could also be be­cause for­get­ting is so much eas­ier than re­count­ing.

You’ve clearly trav­elled an enor­mous dis­tance, lit­er­ally as well as emo­tion­ally, from those dark days, but the hu­man psy­che is no re­specter of years past or dis­tance trav­elled. My chil­dren are pos­i­tively shocked when I de­scribe my own 70s school days where cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment was rife and we lived in the full aware­ness that vi­o­lence hap­pened within homes more often than it did out on the street.

There are peo­ple from that pe­riod I’d be happy never to en­counter again and have no cu­rios­ity about their fates as a re­sult of their be­hav­iour. That sort of em­phatic shut­down is harder to achieve with im­me­di­ate fam­ily and not nec­es­sar­ily the health­i­est re­sponse to life ex­pe­ri­ences. “The past is a for­eign coun­try, they do things dif­fer­ently there,” wrote LP Hart­ley, and as you al­lude to in your let­ter, those were times with un­recog­nis­able so­cial and be­havioural ex­pec­ta­tions.

Your let­ter doesn’t make it clear who the vic­tims and op­pres­sors were in this not-so-long-past child­hood. I’m guess­ing you were let down by those who should have been pro­tect­ing you and, al­though put­ting dis­tance be­tween you re­lieves you of the ev­ery­day re­minders of their fail­ures, it doesn’t al­ter the way it has hard­wired you emo­tion­ally. Unchecked, it will im­pact on how you deal with your own emo­tional life. There is no es­cape from past ex­pe­ri­ences, only ways to bet­ter un­der­stand and utilise the legacy you have in­her­ited to avoid re­peat­ing it your­self.

I’m older than you but the so­ci­etal changes that have oc­curred in the past decade or so and the lo­ca­tion of our child­hoods mean we have, I sus­pect, a lot in com­mon. Those were dark days shaped by un­re­pressed anger, al­co­hol and trau­ma­tised adults whose way of cop­ing with their own in­her­i­tance was to hand down the dam­age to the next gen­er­a­tion. That’s still hap­pen­ing, as you are well placed to know, but what we have now are proper chan­nels through which to ex­press our­selves and to share our ex­pe­ri­ences. Do­ing so with hon­esty and ap­pli­ca­tion not only helps us but also oth­ers in the process.

Cut­ting off from your fam­ily may have been ex­actly what you needed to do for your own sur­vival and it may well be some­thing you are bet­ter off con­tin­u­ing. But to do some­thing so rad­i­cal does sug­gest that what you have lived through was dam­ag­ing and that’s what I would urge you to con­front.

You work in an arena where find­ing some­one to talk to should not be a prob­lem and while, in the short-term, re­vis­it­ing darker days may seen like a pun­ish­ment, in the long run I sense it’s where lib­er­a­tion lies. We are liv­ing through tu­mul­tuous times and there has been plenty of pos­i­tive change when it comes to what is con­sid­ered ac­cept­able for a child to have to tol­er­ate.

You don’t have to cast your­self as an aveng­ing an­gel, re­turn­ing to the crimes of the past breath­ing fire and damna­tion. You might, how­ever, want to make sure the pat­terns you learned back then aren’t lurk­ing some­where, ready to take you hostage when you find your­self in height­ened emo­tional wa­ters. Ex­am­in­ing the past doesn’t mean you have to go back there. ■

Make sure the pat­terns you learned back then aren’t still lurk­ing

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