“We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” — Jonathan Gottschall, (2013) The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Mariner Books.
I’ve always loved making up stories. We all love them; as highly complex social creatures we have evolved to be curious about the lives of others, and stories help us feel connected. We read about heroes, and wish we were brave. We read about antagonists and recoil at their evil (or unwillingly admire it). We read about cute little animals dressed up in human clothes, and smile at the anthropomorphism, because we relate everything back to ourselves, remind ourselves of our humanity. We crave stories that engage us, that thrill us, perversely, even tales that terrify us. To experience vicariously the lives of others. And we are all storytellers. We enjoy recounting our experiences, our loves, our hates, our political opinions, to others who will listen and who then tell their own stories as a reward. So we can relate. That is in the nature of being the complex, highly developed social animals that we are.
And then there are the stories we tell ourselves too. We tell them in the silent noise of our memories, in vivid daydreams, and the too-real depths of nightmare sleep. Those stories are often as unreal as any fictions; although the events recalled may be accurate, the perceptions are often misremembered (memory is notoriously unreliable); or they become tangled and twisted and end up becoming our own horror stories, worse than any writer could create. Because in our over-developed, modern brains, these tangled twisted misrememberings are real.
As mentioned before, I’ve grown up as a people-pleasing, body-loathing, anxious person, which has led to several bouts of deep depression. The stories I’ve told myself – I’m rubbish at everything, I’m stupid, I’m ugly, I’m fat, I’m unlovable – have developed over many years into patterns. Into fictions I’ve learned to believe.
Once upon a time, there was a little girl. She was adored by her parents, who used to told her how perfect she was, how much they had longed and longed for her, so much, that when she came along, she was more precious than all the jewels in the world. She was cared for and cossetted, wrapped up in soft cotton, especially by her mother, who believed that the world was a Bad Place for her little girl to go out into.
‘You might be taken away if you leave the safety of our home,’ the mother would say. ‘There are Bad People out there who would do anything to hurt a precious creature such as yourself.’ And she would look out of the window at the Big Bad World, and the Bad People who lived in it, with terror in her eyes, and the little girl would look too, and she began to feel afraid.
Who really knows where our anxieties stem from? Through a lot of counselling – this time, and others – I’ve come to learn the origins of my own. I was a cossetted only child, I was, without sounding ungrateful, loved too much. So much that I always felt I had to prove how much I loved back. Of course that didn’t go through my young mind – not exactly like that – but pleasing my parents, respecting my parents and those older than me, members of my family who would protect me, was all I knew. If I did anything to rock that particular boat, then I would suffer, and everyone I loved would be hurt. And so the storyline began: I can’t be on my own. If I’m on my own, Bad Things will happen. And the people I love will suffer.
And then my mother went out to work. Or tried to.
The little girl doesn’t understand what’s happening. Her mother is dressing herself up; she looks different somehow, although the little girl can’t really say why. It’s quite early in the morning too, and yet they’re getting ready to go out. When the little girl asks why, the mother says, ‘Mummy has a new job. So you’re going to meet a new lady who’ll look after you.’
The little girl doesn’t like the sound of that. She knows that having ‘a job’ means leaving the house to go somewhere to ‘work’. She knows this because her father goes out to work and brings home money to live on, and to buy her new dollies. But although she feels scared, she doesn’t believe her mother with leave her, and so she allows her mother to get her dressed, and follows her like a lamb to the slaughter (although this is a term she has never heard, but I’m saying it here now, because that’s what she was).
I was about three years old, pre-school anyway, and this was the very first time my mother had ever left me with anyone else. Including, at that stage, my father, because our activities at weekend were always family events. So being faced with Something New was scary. But even as we walked away from our house, round the corner into another street, I didn’t believe anything would really change. That’s the thing about children – even in the worst scenarios, they trust.
The little girl looks toward the house they’ve arrived at. It’s a house much like the one she lives in, a terraced house, but it looks looming and forbidding, somehow tumbledown and threatening, like one of the scary castles she’s learned about in fairy tales. She clings to her mother’s hand more tightly, and looks up at her. Her mother looks down at her and smiles. She drags her feet as they walk to the front door. It’s black, like the sealed entrance to a cave, and the little girl doesn’t want to go in, in case there are monsters. She feels tears threatening; her throat closes up. She clings tighter still to her mother, who has knocked on the door. A witch opens it. She is dressed in a wrap-over housecoat that looks tatty and stained. Her hair is hidden under a scarf tied like a turban, but the strands that escape it are grey and flimsy. She wears no makeup on her coarse features, and she is smoking a cigarette, which she holds between two yellow-stained fingers. When she smiles, it’s like the opening of a grave. The little girl’s mother doesn’t seem worried though. Instead she smiles and tells the little girl the witch’s name, and that she’s going to stay with her while Mummy goes to work. The little girl doesn’t take it in, doesn’t understand. All she understands, with rush of utter terror, is that her mother is going to leave her with The Witch. With a Bad Person.
She opens her mouth and begins to scream.
In the end, my mother did leave me with the woman, who of course, wasn’t a witch at all, but a reliable adult who never intended me any harm at all. But I screamed all morning, and all the next day too. I screamed and cried so much that my poor mother had to leave her job and stay at home with me again. She didn’t get her next job until I was at school, and then it was part-time; she was always home when I was. Now I understand the sacrifice she made then. Now I understand the need she had to be something other than a mother – it was never good enough for her. But of course that little girl I was then didn’t understand. And so a terrible fear of abandonment was added to the list of narratives I was beginning to tell myself.
I’ve always loved making up stories…