I have a terrible memory for most things. I marvel at friends who can remember every day, date and detail of events from decades ago, when I can barely remember what I did last week. What bothers me in particular is the extent to which I seem to have forgotten about my youth. I have certain episodes that I “remember,” but more in the repeated telling of them than in actual, clear, playback-in-my-head memories. When I meet up with old friends whose memories are more reliable, I find myself being corrected on how things really happened.
So, with that caveat out of the way, here’s how I remember my early teenage years.
Though my mother later told me that I had been quite outgoing and boisterous as an infant, I was a lot more quiet and shy as a teenager. I had my friends at school and although I was keenly interested in the opposite sex, I never had the nerve to do anything about it. I mostly kept my head down and had the aptitude to do well and stay out of trouble at school, but was never really motivated to put in any hard work or be methodical about studying or revising. That’s a pattern that has continued to this day!
At home, I’d become aware of my parents’ arguments over the years and I remember feeling scared listening to their raised voices downstairs. I don’t have a clear memory of my father being around one day and then just gone the next, though that’s how he frames it now – he had tried to understand and help my mother for years as she had battled with what would later be diagnosed as bipolar disorder, until one day she told him to get out, and so he did. That is another pattern that I have to say I have picked up.
The main aspect of the family breaking up that I do clearly remember was having to move out of the house I had loved growing up in and moving to a smaller house next to the (relatively) rough part of Malahide, as well as the sense of shame that I felt about our situation. I may have talked about it with my closest friend, but I don’t remember being able to do that.
After the move, I came across an old suitcase in the garage, in which I found a variety of documents. They included my birth certificate and my parents’ marriage certificate. The realisation that the dates were “the wrong way around” and that I had been born in London illegitimately was earth-shattering for me and definitely added to my sense of shame and desire to hide. To this day, I think that whatever damage this discovery did to my state of mind was mainly down to the way that I found out. I felt angry that this, along with everything else that had happened, had not been properly explained to me. I’m sure my parents did their best – indeed, my mother tried to encourage me to speak with a counsellor – but I was too filled with anger and resentment for them to get through to me. Over time I repressed these feelings and it would be many years before I finally, and dramatically, got to confront and exorcise them. More on that later.
I recall that on the night of the house-warming party for our new house, I was staying over at my best friend’s house. His father came home in a drunken rage (having previously kicked up a storm at our house) and kicked me out, and I cycled home across Malahide with tears pouring down my face. Arriving home, I locked myself in my room, refusing to speak to anyone. That night was the beginning of a dark, isolated period for me.
For reasons that I still don’t understand, my anger became keenly focused on the boy who, until the previous day, had been my best friend. Maybe because he was the only person, as far as I was aware, who knew my family secret, I refused to speak with him on the phone and started avoided him at school. This also meant avoiding pretty much everyone else, so I got into the habit of cycling home from school every lunchtime, eating at home and then cycling back. I became generally reclusive and any time I ventured out with my peers, I had to fight back feelings of anxiety and a need to hide my shameful history. Apart from appearing in a few school photos that other people have shared on Facebook, there is almost no photographic evidence of my existence during those teenage years.
My father remained largely out of the picture at this time. I have vague memories of cycling a couple of times to the house he had in a nearby town. But, having to pay index-linked and increasingly burdensome support to my mother, he ended up working for a series of airlines overseas in places like Algeria, Peru, and Nigeria. So over the period of a decade, I rarely saw him and there was no one else who was a role model or otherwise filled that father-shaped hole in my life.
When I started college in Dublin, I saw it as a chance to start over with a new set of friends who would know nothing about my background. Even then I was partly living a lie, saying nothing of my parents being divorced and pretending that I had a social life and circle of friends in Malahide. But at least I was beginning to reemerge from my shell and lead a relatively normal student life, though I didn’t have the resourcefulness or courage to get a part-time job so that I could move out of the family home and get a flat in the city. I just wasn’t ready or able to be that grown up.
(to be continued)