You must delve into your own past, Mariella Frostrup tells a social worker who has no contact with her own family
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.