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Season 3 01 The Cure for Sleep with Tanya Shadrick on Substack: Voices

Welcome to the first issue in Season Three of The Cure for Sleep: Stories From (& Beyond) the Book which you can read in full over on my free Substack. This month’s invitation to write concerns the voices around us. Subscribers were invited to respond to the following prompt: What messages did you receive from family, community, institutions when growing up? What was praised? What Punished?

Any stories received on this theme will be curated below. Click on each name to go direct to that reader’s contribution.

Oh, the messages we receive as children! The confusion of them! The stickiness!

And let’s be honest, a certain reality to them. The reality of that time, place, family, a state of mind…

One message immediately springs to mind. It was a message from my dad that shaped my early years like no other. It was a meme of my childhood. It was like a sticker with no small print, or story behind it, or explanation. That’s the trouble with memes, they rarely come with a context. They don’t inspire questioning and feeling around them.

The message often made me freeze with fear, it kept me quiet, it kept me locked in my bedroom. But also, it kept me reading, dreaming, craving for a better and safer place to be. Ultimately it did lead me to questioning too but that was much later. And acceptance… later still.

The message still haunts me and follows me around, but I can look at it with different eyes, because now I can see a bigger picture and a story behind it.

‘It takes one second to make the wrong decision. That one second could ruin your whole life.’

You can’t really argue with that. I just wish he realised that years of fear can also cause irreparable damage.

Elena Yates

For a long time I believed I had to have been adopted.

More truthfully, I wanted a different history. Perhaps I was a changeling swapped at birth in a strange hospital mix-up or left by mischievous Faery folk.

But I only had to look in the mirror, the curve of my face, the blue knowing eyes, to see my mother and grandmother reflected there. The truth was clear to see. But I did not feel I belonged to this family; I felt so different it was hard to imagine that I was of the same bloodline.

My ancestors are hardy folk, pioneers that left familiar people and places, to travel to a new world on the other side of many oceans. These were woman who, heavily pregnant, trudged through thick mud in long skirts, toddler on the hip in a strange land where there was nothing they knew as home and hearth. The men cut trees and worked many days and nights. There was always something to do and someone had to do it. Their hardworking ethic, the grim determination, is etched into my bones, handed down as a blessing and a curse.

I was a free-spirited nature child. I sang to the trees. Danced endless hours with the nature beings, both seen and unseen. I rescued injured birds and stray cats. I cried for the hurt animals and was sick at the sound of trees being felled. Not exactly a practical match for a generations-old farming family.

The unspoken family motto was: ‘If you are not working you are not worthwhile.’

Even the definition of working was narrowed by convention and conformity. The slow cold creeping mist of this legacy began to rise as I left childhood and I succumbed.

Carole Mahood

Silence, shush. We don’t talk about that.

I was fifteen when I found out I had a cousin living in my home town who wasn’t allowed to be mentioned. She came up to me in a car park one evening and said ‘I’m your cousin’. My uncle ‘couldn’t keep it in his pants’ apparently. Dirty little secret. He was in the navy.

‘Likely a child in every port,’ they said. There was also another son, adopted by his sister. I grew up with him but didn’t know the truth of his father until I was an adult. Another cousin spent time inside. That wasn’t mentioned either. Shush. Then there was Auntie Mary, who had a child out of wedlock & the child was raised as her sister. Secret after dusty cobwebbed secret.

My mum had an affair with the neighbour. Over the fence at the back of the house. I remember sitting on the blue metal swing age 9 hearing them whispering and feeling my blood run cold. Shush. Life we as knew it fell apart soon after. Dad crying on the sofa as my mum took everything.

Shush, we don’t talk about that became the motto for my childhood. A big empty space. We don’t talk about anything. A total lack of clear, guiding voices. My parents. Distant, distracted. Elsewhere. At 50, I can unravel the empty silence. To parent myself. To talk about everything all the time.

I ask my children: How are you? How do you feel? What do you think? What’s important to you? What music do you like? Who are you? What would you like to be when you grow up? Are you ok? Do you need a cuddle? I love you.

Helen Louise

I have always been surrounded by much more than my fair share of people with very little curiosity and imagination, let alone ambition and determination. All my life I have heard:

‘It can’t be done’
‘It’s too difficult’
‘You won’t make it’
‘No, no, no.’

From ‘Don’t take that job, the bus ride is too long’ through to ‘What would you want to go to university for?’, the amount of bad (often unsolicited) advice I have been given throughout my life is astonishing. Exasperating.

And the effort it has taken me to quieten these voices down and grow as someone conscious of living on a beautiful planet full of possibilities has been huge. It took me a while, but now I mostly follow my instinct and it has not failed me yet.

I will never forget a conversation I had about Revolutionary Road (the Sam Mendes film based on the wonderful novel by Richard Yates). I was discussing it with a colleague who was becoming a friend, someone I thought was one of the most adventurous people I knew.

In the story, Frank and April Wheeler have a troubled marriage and he complains constantly about the dull job he has to hold to support the family; so, April comes up with a perfect, practical plan that would allow them to move to Paris, where she would support them and Frank would be free to chase his dreams. My colleague did not understand how April could think it would work out.

‘But she had it all perfectly planned!’ I can still hear myself saying that in a heated tone. Frank was clearly just not up to the challenge…

My almost-friend and I have not spoken in years, with the exception of one Facebook interaction when someone died. Life really is too short.

maria simoes

The Parable of the Ladder-Maker

Words make formidable fences, rising to tower above us, easily reinforced with yet more words if they prove to be not sufficiently strong.

My parents made their fences from sentences that started ‘People like us don’t…’ and for 14 years I lived contentedly behind those fences, made secure by other words that encouraged me to ‘Work hard at school’ and ‘Look for a good job.’ I was never conscious of the contradiction at the heart of that domestic claustrophobia. I was stifled within the fences. Until I found that beyond the fence there was the possibility of a life spent more easily outdoors.

I met people who appeared not to recognise those same fences; who walked, and ran, and climbed, and swam, and talked of places that existed only in my dreams. They led me to believe that words could also be used to make ladders, indeed that words were in many ways better suited to fashioning ladders than building fences. I decided to become a ladder-maker.

Suddenly discovering they had raised a ladder-maker came as a shock to my parents. They raised their fences higher and made impassioned statements.

‘People like us can’t have lives beyond the fence.’

I challenged them, showing them my story-ladders: ‘I met somebody who….’; ‘It’s really cheap to go…’; ‘I’m reading this book…’

My challenges only seemed to provoke them, and I had to acknowledge that for some reason they needed the fences I was trying so hard to leave behind.

Finally, at 16, my story-ladders grew stronger and higher than their fences. I traded the security of their home for the uncertain freedoms of independence, knowing that when I encountered other fences, in other places, my story-ladders were always a means of escape.

Geoff cox

Thread, prod, pull. Thread, prod, pull.

My first rag rug starts to take shape. Scraps of material reformed into a shaggy design, unique to me. Choosing to do something for fun, despite one part of my brain repeatedly poking at me – ‘Get your nose to the grindstone.’

He wanted me to have a better life. More chances. Less struggle. Scarcity drove the voices of his ancestors from the far reaches of Ireland and Eastern Europe, telling him, ‘You’d better buckle down.’

It worked for a while. Until he couldn’t stop. Couldn’t say no.

Psychologists talk about ways we can loosen ourselves from the grip of our mental schema – learning to quieten the reverberations of the past that influence our relationships, feelings and actions.

I dip my hand into the box of fabric strips and draw out a harlequin of colour. Begin again. Thread, prod, pull; thread, prod, pull.

Soothed by the rhythm, there are times when I can set the rug aside and allow my fingers to sink into its soft strands.

Jo Regan

‘Good things come in small packages’

What my mother said when I cut Aged 4 labels off the clothes my eight-year-old self wore. I imagined myself as a rose gold ring inside a navy blue jewellery box.

My only sibling was a decade older than me. ‘We had to wait a long time and lost a lot of babies before you came,’ explained my mother when I found her crying in bed one November afternoon. ‘But that’s okay because then we got you and that wouldn’t have happened if the other little girls had stayed.’

‘Good things come to those who wait,’ she said. I was special, precious, adored. Then why, in the Super8 movies, does my brother glower as I dance in a kilt and a too-large tam-o’-shanter? Why, when our parents went dancing, did he push my head down the toilet, or lock me in dark cupboards and the boot of his car? What made him tie me to a chair and spray a soda stream with such force that the wallpaper behind me dissolved?

‘You’ve ruined my evening,’ said my mother when I tried to report my brother’s brutality.

‘I was toughening you because you were tiny,’ said David years later when I’d learned to fight with words, and he had his own family to control.

‘We wanted lots of children,’ said my dad as we watched the news in his room in Harbour House. They were covering the Bristol Royal Hospital’s baby death scandal and it had made him cry, remembering Sally-Anne, the still-born that had lasted the longest of all their lost babies. ‘But we told you we only wanted a boy and a girl. To make you feel wanted. To give you confidence. To make you feel better.’

Rosalyn Huxley

‘Where’s the other 3%?’ I was asked.

I’d just got 97% on my maths exam – I can’t remember if it was a particularly important exam, but even if it wasn’t, I was so proud. I couldn’t wait to tell him.

It still makes my eyes prickle, over 30 years on. I wasn’t good enough. And that started it – or maybe it didn’t, maybe it had started earlier. Actually, definitely.

Two fathers.

This comment was from my stepfather who lived with us; my real father lived with my stepfather’s family. Unusual to swop fathers with a best friend, but that is what happened when we were little. Two fathers, two families each with two children. Hearing how great the other two children were, how talented, sporty, musical, academic – hearing their achievements both from my father when he visited, and from my stepfather when he returned from his visit, the same night.

In hearing how amazing the other children were, I heard how I was not. It didn’t occur to wonder then, but I do wonder more recently: did the other children hear the same about me & my sister? Received and internalised the same message?

We don’t have a relationship with the still-living other child to ask; and the best friend died relatively recently (no longer a friend for many years before that). I believe she felt as I did though.

The father died long ago. The stepfather has revealed so much grief, loss and trauma it makes me ache for him. So there won’t be apologies from either of them, but I have eventually found forgiveness anyway. For these fathers, for all of us children.

Maybe we all got things wrong. But maybe, actually definitely, we were all always good enough.

BECs MaCkenzie

Yes, well, but you didn’t top all the subjects. You’ve won the prize! Straighten your hair up before you go on stage. How will anyone ever know how smart you are if you only study arts?

And so, every success was a failure and nothing that I did was ever good enough. I was never good enough. Staring out the window, staring through the pages of a book, staring at the screen. All these ways to be seen to be absorbed in work, in study, in thought.

I learned early on that if you appeared to be a certain way then you could fool people into believing it to be so.

In the fourth grade, my eyes riveted to an Ancient Egyptian documentary, in part captivated but also knowing that adopting this posture would earn me points, would cement myself in the eyes of the teacher as a serious student.

In the high school quadrangle, I would pull out my serious-looking hardback black notebook with the red corners and set to furious scribbling.

I would carry my Norton Anthology of Literature face out in my arms as I walked the university campus.

Always with her head in a book; she must be so smart!

You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But in fooling people, I also fooled myself. I believed that if I only read enough books, studied harder and longer than anyone else, achieved all those top scores, then yes, wasn’t I smart? Wasn’t I worthy? Wasn’t I of value?

I was playing a part and it was exhausting. To this day, I no longer know whether I am being myself or being what I think it is that others want me to be. Actually, that’s a lie. I know – I’m just too scared to drop the facade.

emily tamas

My father was a big man; a nineteen-twenties man, an out of wedlock man who shone with a harsh light. A price tag hung around his neck that displayed his worth. A birth-certificate-name-missing man who turned into a disapproving man.

The poem I presented to him aged sixteen never reached his consciousness; it broke apart and blew away in his huff! of disapproving breath.

He was a sabotaged man – a branded man. I lived for the gentler strokes of education which opened up avenues of possibilities; helped me to rationalise and dismantle the harmful scaffolding I was building up inside. Gave me the strength in later years to wrap up my father in forgiveness as time wore him down and mellowed his malice.

I journeyed through acts of healing; felt the flow of voices piercing my adolescent weaknesses. I sifted through tangled feelings and the unvarnished response of others. The weight and gravity of choices emptied out a version of me.

The metalwork teacher forged a haven in his workshop at school; that wise old scroller of steel fed me a dialogue of support and understanding. I hit the anvil hard – beat out life’s rhythm, shaping steel and skin.

‘Hit it harder!’ he cried. ‘It’s the wrong shape.’

I was hitting it harder,, but from the inside – hammering out my imperfections, trying to harden my resolve. The price of battling disapproval and bending the knee destabilized me; deepened my resentments and internalised an unkeeled form of me; but the soft skim of a girlfriend’s smile gave this Libran some balance; softened the brittleness crystallising within. The snatcher of smiles threw me into uncertainty and I veered into the unknown only to be rescued by loving hands.

I witnessed and I was in my turn witnessed.

StevE Harrison

Longing makes the early bird wake to sing the light into being, to sing for territory, to sing for a mate, also to kill the worm. Birds long for the north and then the south. Women often long to be birds. My great grandma saw yellow finches after her stroke. My grandma never had a bird feeder, too much mess, brings mice, can’t be bothered, your pap will get upset. My mom arranged ceramic birds in a curio. They told me I held the promise of change. No one knew the disruption it would create. I once saw a hawk swoop down and snatch a sparrow, at night I hear the begging call of the great horned owl.

Sheila Knell

 I call them ‘Boo Radley’s porch’ moments.

If you’ve read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, then recall that passage two pages from its close. It moved me when I first read it.

Scout, nine years old, walks alongside Boo Radley to his home after the harrowing events that end the novel. Boo slips inside, but Scout remains on his porch, and looks. For the first time, she sees her town – its folk, their quirks and lives – as Boo does. Boo – reviled for no reason other than his difference – has sat there all those years, watching his neighbours with fondness, not hate. Scout’s understanding blossoms; she steps into Boo’s shoes.

I recall an English lesson at school, discussing Andrew Marvell’s poem ‘To His Coy Mistress’, in which Marvell exhorts his virginal love to embark on a passionate love affair together. Our feared English teacher – stiff, unlaughing, tightly permed – made us read the poem aloud. How embarrassing for us teenage girls! We finished, fidgeting, mortified. Then our teacher asked that question.

‘So, if Marvell had written this poem for you, what would you do?’

My pen clattered to the floor. Someone giggled. No-one answered.

‘Well,’ she said, clearly irritated, ‘I’d have been bowled over.’

Later, I told my mother how horrified we had been. I will never forget her gentle remonstration in explaining our teacher had once been engaged, but her fiancé died fighting in the Second World War. She had never met anyone else.

So, my understanding blossomed as I found myself on Boo Radley’s porch, seeing my teacher’s inner life glistening beneath her stern exterior: her griefs, joys, her ability to be bowled over by a poet’s words. I had misjudged her, and I was ashamed. Funny, looking back, she became my favourite teacher.

Amanda Scott

A room made from geraniums, pelargoniums, ferns; from stringy, precious orchids and African violets that seem dead or nothing but one dusty, velvet leaf.

Mrs Eaton understands these plants that my family would disregard, that are ‘too much like hard work’; they have no desire to learn new or difficult things. She lets me water the conservatory plants with a small brass watering can and I pretend that I live here as she guides me gently, says kindly, ‘On you go’.

She explains how some plants slumber, almost asleep, for months – no, not quite 100 years, she says, smiling, but how clever that I thought of that, remembered the story. One day, she continues, when you are not looking for it, indeed had forgotten it, the plant wakes up and you discover a new green leaf, and see that it’s not dead at all or to be thrown away, as things are at our house when they become worn or ‘chatty’. In a misplaced extravagance of the fashionable, much is given up on there, it can feel that I am given up on too, overlooked like one of these violets; perhaps one day I will be a lovely surprise or discovery: I learn how to wait patiently and long.

Heavy curtains unspool to the floor like a reverie. Inside tall windows I read, draw, stare at the sky; clocks tick and chime, somewhere in the house there is music, fruit cake on a china plate that tells a story. I imbibe kindness and attention from Mrs Eaton: it is as if I am real, as if I am here. She encourages me to cultivate my shy self-expression which, untended, is stifled by the weeds and thorns of place and blood ties, what is real and true in me kept from the light.

Donna Maynard

Half a glass of red was enough for the words to pour: ‘You’ll never amount to anything, being so shy.’ Said to a thirteen year old, said with a snarl that left her silently weeping as he topped up.

Shame, branded on my cheeks, flared up across the decades.

I later implored my NHS counsellor to turn the harsh lamp away from me. Trapped in a tiny room at the back of the village health centre I was distracted by toads smearing the windowpane with muddy webbed feet. They reminded me of Catherine’s tormented spirit at the window in Wuthering Heights. I got the giggles observing us, two adult strangers in the room. He mentioned his daughters, his ex-wife. Confusing. In retrospect I feel sad.

There was a ghost at the health centre. A pond had been paved over by a recent extension, leaving no place for migrating, maternity-loyal amphibians to spawn.

‘You’ll probably suffer from chronic, lifelong, low-level depression,’ the counsellor claimed.

I winced but jutted my chin. ‘Great, thanks. I don’t believe you,’ I told this man.

Age sixteen. Maybe my English teacher could be a mentor? He championed me even though I sometimes fell asleep in class. ‘You’re so naive,’ my friend told me (in our first week students had seen him stroke my arm. Odd but harmless.)

‘Any ideas for a career?’ He asked.
‘Journalist?’ I replied.
‘You’re far too shy,’ he laughed.

My teenage nature diary noted kingfishers courting in the tropical green glade of spring. A dozen grass snakes of varying colours, draped around a willow tree. A weasel moving squeaking kits. Hundreds of eviscerated toads: carnage!

The nature notes petered out in a punky, sarcastic scrawl. But I’d already discovered that silence and serene curiosity for the wild would always be my guide.

J Sinclair

As a small child, I was told to be a good girl, a good little helper with my younger sisters. Yet, at almost two, I couldn’t have been much help to my mother, when my mother almost died of mastitis after my sister’s birth. Or at three, at my next sister’s birth.

Outwardly I tried to be ‘good’, but internally I seethed. I remember holding a tiny soft doll, plush, pastel-coloured and sweet, and stabbing it with a needle, imagining that it was one of my sisters. Immediately I was filled with a heady, full-body feeling. Red and fierce and full of life. Instead of tiny and helpless, I was all-powerful, huge and strong.

Soon, very soon, this fiery feeling was replaced with horror, fear and shock. Someone was going to see through me and know that I was bad. Worse still, I was going to be rejected. Instantly, I pushed down the anger and rage into the deepest recesses of my being. I began to believe that I had to be a good girl, meaning: be quiet, compliant, don’t take up too much space. And any feelings of anger or rage were not to be expressed, too dangerous.

I became a shy child, fearful of my words and my body and the impact they might make on the world around me. These messages of early childhood were reinforced by school and later by work. My own voice and inner life, they were dangerous and not to be trusted. They were too much. I was too much. I needed a glass wall between me and the world, protecting me from the world but more than that, protecting the world from me.

Recently, I have learned to craft healing dolls that speak for me, saying everything, gradually dissolving that wall.

erika cleveland

Like many kids, I grew up surrounded by a roar of voices telling me what children should and shouldn’t do. These voices were shaping my life in their image, until I was old enough to know that it wasn’t the look I was going for.

There were also those who sent messages without using their voices yet somehow I could still hear them. I couldn’t understand them at first, but I soon learned to. I learned what I could and couldn’t do and say, and I learned that really, I couldn’t do anything at all. I could only be in it as it happened to me. Accepting and absorbing and moving through it moment by moment.

All I knew was what I felt and I frequently felt different to what I was being told. I could feel that my tummy hurt and my head hurt and I wanted to cry but the unspoken messages said I didn’t. So I didn’t.

It was my life until one day came when everything felt like yesterday yet something felt different. It was like a voice inside of me sensed something new. I knew something had changed. It was as though I could understand more, although I couldn’t really say anything, I couldn’t put it all into words, not just yet. Not out loud for sure, and not even in the safe space inside of me, not for a while yet. But in that very moment what I knew for sure was that a voice inside had made me feel bigger and stronger all at once.

My voice had made me feel more than the unspoken voices, and my message would become clearer and I would become stronger and my life was changing!

Tracey Mayor

I can’t remember when I first understood that I was different, but I can clearly remember an interaction with the child who lived nearest me on the village street when I was no more than four or five: ‘You have no daddy. He died in the war.’

Now, I knew I had a daddy but he wasn’t part of my life, for reasons I didn’t understand at the time. I also knew, even at that young age, that there had been no recent war, but it was evident that in 1980s rural Ireland, some explanation had to be provided for a child without a father.

Having since learned the horrendous fate of many unmarried mothers at that time, packed off to Magdalen laundries and seeing their babies die or be put up for adoption, I consider myself and my mother very lucky not to have faced complete ostracism, such were the prevailing societal values and the messaging of the Catholic church.

Nevertheless, I was the only child in my class in primary school who didn’t have a father, and even the otherwise kindly local shopkeeper seemed to take some pains to always refer to me by my mother’s surname, despite my correcting him on a number of occasions, as she had, unusually, registered me under that of my father. I often wonder what that man’s motivation was; could he just not accept that a child born out of wedlock could have her father’s surname, or did he take some perverse pleasure in tormenting that same child?

Lucky though I may have been – and my mother later married and supplied me with a wonderful father – my difference was apparent to me from a very early age, and that sense of being an outsider has coloured my entire life.

Tracey Kennedy

 I heard that I was loved. I was beautiful. I was clever.

Sometimes it drove me bonkers and a lot of the time I didn’t believe it, but it was good to hear, and I know I was lucky. I’ve heard myself do the same with my sons, and it drives them mad… but old habits die-hard and I hope that, like me, they appreciate that this lines your soul.

Strange then that there are voices that haunt me from my mum’s yearning to create a love-filled world…

What would Pollyanna say? If you don’t know Pollyanna, you are supposed to see the gift in any negative thing. As a child I loved this game and it worked, became a habit. As an adult I wanted to beat the living daylights out of Pollyanna, so far had she dug into my soul.

Sometimes, you want to hold on to the crap, stare it in the face and really see the shape of it – you can’t always shine a piece of shit!

Weirdly, I’m embracing her a little more often as I age. She can now more appropriately sing her tune and I can join her in a way that doesn’t negate difficulties but helps me get through them.

The other voice that cuts deep is the shame of expressing anger. Being angry spoils a happy world. That one’s harder to shift and I still reel back from confrontation, sometimes from difficult honesty, and feel real fear if someone is angry with me. Of course, I do feel anger – it festers and bursts out of me in a frustrated explosion and its toxicity burns me deep each time, the shame hovering like a bad smell in a closed room.

I wonder what of my voice with linger for my sons?

Kaz Field

Good as New

‘There was a bit of scalp on the mattress but I cleaned it off and bleached it so, flip it other side up, and should be good as new,’ my friend’s dad said casually, as we loaded the van.

My new furniture for the empty flat was coming direct from a near-distant neighbour, her last possessions. Responsibility had come to my benefactors, nobody else to help or to mourn. The end of that stranger’s life coincided with my getting keys from the council, first ones I had ever possessed, as she had laid there alone.

One week earlier I had been taken up to see the third floor maisonette, six miles from here, all downhill. Around the communal entrance to the stairwell was a rainbow of hi-vis misery, green ambulance, yellow police, orange council, and a black body bag.

‘You live here, do you? He must have been in there a month,’ one of the council workers shouted, angry. The first-floor key holder leaving in a bag, silent. I wanted to say I had only just got my keys, but it seemed a pointless explanation. Changed nothing.

Climbing the steps a week later with a bed, a wardrobe, a cabinet, from another departed and forgotten soul. Accents deepened as we manhandled dark wooded heaviness. They avoided noticing the empty flat, roll end carpets not meeting walls in any direction.

‘I’ll pop by and stick my nose through the letterbox, see how you’re doing,’ my friend laughed.

Later, silence in those empty rooms except sandpaper at work on the waves of lacquered varnish. Isolated industry focussed on the cabinet. Weeks to reveal raw wood, clean and fresh. No more treacle varnish, now light Danish oil blended with essential perfumes.

Bright amongst the darkness, good as new.

Peter Shukie

Lost and Found

I’m not sure when it happened, when I stopped being her and became me, full of self-doubt and confusion. I still cling to a handful of childhood memories like a treasure map – one as a six year old at an uncle’s wedding dancing without a hint of self-consciousness, another at around ten, barefoot digging in the dirt in the bush behind our home, totally unafraid of the wilderness surrounding me.

I also remember moments of deep shame, usually about sex. It was made clear that there were parameters to being a girl. That being fully me and being loved were mutually exclusive.

I realise now that I spent most of my childhood in a delicious soup of deep connection and increasing disassociation. I don’t remember a tipping point or waking up one morning to a voice not my own but I do remember the despair of having travelled too far beyond myself. That if I didn’t start finding my way back, there would be no return.

I’ve spent the years since seeking reunion with myself and waking up to the truth of a life lived in a pattern not of my own making. That it was time to throw away the written and unwritten rulebooks on how to be a woman and to live as if there are none.

Now I spend my days creating a clearing for what was once afraid and hidden and I listen for what shows up. I am remembering how to recognize myself in what I love and relearning the courage to lean towards that. I am regaining my own trust so that even when I find myself far from home and in the far reaches of others opinions,

I know there is always a way back.

amanda cooke

There was an afternoon.

I remember being curled up against his chest like a comma, the whiteness of his shirt, the smell. He wasn’t usually home in the daytime. I think he read me a story. I was four years old. There were daffodils in a blue jug on the window sill. Another time, a Saturday, curtains drawn against the sun, he was watching the racing. I went into the room shyly, holding my Tressy doll. Hello love, he said, eyes not leaving the screen. His voice was kind. And that’s it. My good memories.

The rest of the time I didn’t matter. Dad came home from work, tossed chocolate bars at us. Chocolate equalled love. Still does. If he was in a bad mood he’d erupt. If we raced to the bathroom in time, we were okay. There was a lock on the door. The red stripes on our legs if he caught us, and lashed out, his face strained. When he was 12, at the start of the war in 1939, dad was evacuated to Canada with his three siblings. His parents thought he would be safer there. They thought he would be back by Christmas. For six years he lived with strangers. Someone, some other human, decided to separate the children on arrival. He didn’t matter. When he came home, he immediately signed up for the army, lying about his age to enlist. They sent him to Africa. He was untethered. He read a lot of books.

I read a lot of books. They helped me to survive, like I imagine they helped dad. He died seven years ago. I feel his presence often. Tiny white feathers appear inexplicably, on my desk, on a sleeve. Since becoming a parent myself, I understand how hard it must have been for him. I understand now his sense of abandonment, his lack. I miss him. I love him.

Kerry Whitley

The tale I tell is about truth.

Who holds the monopoly on truth? Is it the teller or the receiver of the message?

Growing up my Italian father would often tell the story of my conception and birth. ‘We already had two sons and she kept nagging me for a girl. I would tell her: My grandmother had seven sons trying for a girl. Enough is enough.’

Except enough wasn’t enough. Only more was enough. After a late night of poker and a guard that was down, I was conceived. In those days it wasn’t standard practice for a husband to be present at the birth of his child. Instead, my birth was announced by a nurse on the end of a phone. My maternal grandmother was in the room with my father. She’d been knitting in pink for months. I pictured my father cupping his hand over the telephone’s speaker and announcing: ‘It’s a girl.’ Excitement in his voice, a heart bursting with pride and happiness. Only to be matched in enthusiasm by my grandmother who, despite her 73 years, jumped nearly as high as the ceiling, I was told.

The message I was given was that I was a longed-for and loved little girl. What better message in the whole wide world to receive?

And yet…as time went on amidst the joy, the jealousy, the clamour, the chaos, the fullness and the emptiness of my journey from child to adult, I needed to test the weight of expectation that accompanied my being in the world, to fully understand its limitations and to know my version of its truth.

Lou Hudson

‘People will talk about you….’

If I heard that now – in the context it was said to me four decades ago – I would most likely respond wryly with ‘Good! – I’m so pleased: acceptance and difference is a beautiful thing.’

Back in the late 70s, the early 80s, there was so much prejudice, judgement, ignorance and fear. I wasn’t confident, I was scared of what was going to happen to me. I didn’t have the narrative, the maturity, the experience or the opinions to allow me to be me. To believe.

In earlier years, frequently I heard this: ‘Children should be seen and not heard.’ So I thought I must be quiet, stay hidden or small. That stuck in my bones for a long time. Even to this day it rises up. The support (or rather lack of it) and the situations that I leaned into back then felt very uncomfortable and often toxic, but I didn’t know why. I do now, there was no celebration, joy or fun – just a sense of ‘you’re here because you’re different.’ Though these were more the deeply ingrained messages that lived in my head then.

These days I have the confidence and experience to exit anything I’m not comfortable with or to speak up, ask questions. Discussion is good. I was, I thought, being judged or would be for my choices. I would’ve loved to tell my younger self then ‘Wow! – it is brilliant! You are being true to yourself, speaking out, coming out, being visible. You are loved whatever.’ And to tell her of all the fab people and experiences she will meet and have in her life.

Back in my late teens and early twenties I made what were then life-changing, life-affirming choices with little or no support. I didn’t know that then. Life was precarious at times. Not wanting to be heard or having the confidence to speak out.( Actually – I already had ). Years later I have so much to celebrate and be proud about. I walk a confident, visible path being true to myself. Living a happy, honest, out life.

And people do talk about me too! Good.

Julie Benham

We don’t ask.
We don’t expect much.
We don’t see point of any more education.
Will it lead to a job?
Stay safe, local, don’t dare to dream.
We know our place.
Keep your head down.
Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

sharon C

Too often: predatory panic when I can’t escape a yammering TV or humans who relentlessly *talk.* I derail and derange: brain injury fallout. Childhood: slugged in the solar plexus–the soul-ar plexus–by accusations of mere existence.

Antidotes: whispering beech leaves; ocean’s lull; loon’s lake-echoed trill; a cat purring on my chest; a single beloved voice cooing there, there. Once held to my former husband’s heart, ear to the flesh. My late, best-ever friend, with her soft and lilting Cotswolds accent, would soothe me: Poor wee sausage. She’d read May Sarton’s poems to me as I lay on her fireside rug; tears slipped down my temples and into my ears. My dearest mentor–my soul’s father–invited me to Just allow it to move through in his tender Austrian voice. He survived the Nazis and knew in his marrow what a voice could do.

I used to sing before I became too afraid to speak, before a man I gave my trust to shot insults and orders my way. Still silent but for the necessities now. The written word is my genuine voice; a pseudonym of eventual return. One day, I will reveal the whole truth; restore the shards to joy.

Catherine davies

‘You know what your problem is?’

Such an odd question that isn’t really a question. It’s a permission slip, written by someone else, to explain not what my problem is, but what their problem is with me (something I only realise decades too late).

This question is a get out of jail free card for them which I am compelled to endorse, because of course, the only correct answer to this seems to be ‘No.’ Until that point, I had no idea I even had a problem.

That ‘No’ is where the rot begins to creep in. No, I clearly don’t know myself. No, I must not trust myself. It’s the first time I am forced to think I am broken and someone else is more whole than me. In future I will break more and more easily thanks to this one question and answer.

My problem, it appeared, was that I think too much.
What do you do with a problem like that? I think all the time. I don’t know how to stop thinking. It’s like asking me to stop breathing. As soon as they say I think too much, of course, I start thinking about it. I can’t not think about it, and by the time they stop talking to me, I am fathoms deep in ungovernable thoughts that are threatening to drown me completely.

I ask how to stop thinking too much, but this is where the lesson on my faults stops abruptly. They can point out what is wrong, but they can’t be expected to fix it. They are scornful that I might even dare to ask. This is something I must figure out for myself apparently. I am left with the impression that they know but they won’t say.

I am bereft.

Katy Wheatley

Poetry? Softy!
There was no escaping it
Harsh playground teasing

There was a young man in Devon
For whom books meant heaven
It comes as a shock
When other kids mock
Suppressing his sense of believin’

Poetry scribbled secretly
Or whispered quietly
Ever watchful of the bullies
Minding my stanzas and couplets

Now, I open fresh pages
As memories nibble
Frayed confidence edges
Towards resolution

Poetry? Softly
Whispers escaping, soaring
New playground for words

Barrie Thomson

There were many voices swirling around me when I was young, but the voice that carried the loudest and the longest like an echo in a far-reaching cave, belonged to my father. It wasn’t that he shouted, he never needed to because the intent of his words provided the volume. Often, they were conflicting and contradictory, usually accompanied by a six-pack of Special Brew, but their message was consistent. His unflinching opinion of me was that I was too much, too loud, too quiet, too confident, too shy, too clever, too stupid, too ugly, too useless.

These lectures came almost every evening. Minutes bleeding into hours. Empty cans piling up by the beige armchair he stood me in front of. His eyes dark and intense, framed behind square rimmed glasses, pinning me to the spot as I tried to convince my child’s body to stand straight and still.

Initially these words were met with resistance and challenge. I was curious, inquisitive, questioning; all things a child should be. I was filled with wildness. But eventually, like a steady tide washing shingle from the shore, his words wore the wild away. Chiselling me into an entirely different shape: a cautious, anxious being, scared of speaking out of turn, desperate to keep the peace. His voice taught me to be small, to be quiet, to be timid and obedient. Heavy lessons for a child to handle.

But what is heavy must be put down eventually. Things that can be washed away can be built again; the shingle eventually finds a new beach. Your wildness never truly leaves you, it remains long after you feel as though you have been swept away. And those lessons that my father’s slurred voice taught me, are just things ready to be unlearned now.

Jeni Bell

My interest is identity.

Here are the facts: I was born in Middle England, former Mercia, to blue-eyed parents. You are one quarter Polish and three quarters English, my father tells me as he teaches me how to count to five: jeden, dwa, trzy, cztery, piec. He guides my tongue over the impossible: shushes, clicks, and tuts. I lie on my tummy on the scratchy plush carpet at my grandparents’, awash in the lilt of these sounds, speech as music, stripped of meaning. It is a rich other world, full of purples, crystal glass, the gold of the cross, the red and white of the flag, a living room presided over by John Paul II. I am proud and eager to show my grandfather I can count, but he laughs and shakes his head, corrects me, looks sad. You are Polish, he laments, and you cannot even speak. I squirm with shame; in that moment, a shadow self splinters off.

Aged 7, we move to southern France. Here, we are Les Anglais. Collectively, Les Petits Anglais. Individually, L’Anglaise. Our family has grown to number five children: piec, cinq. We are fair and blue-eyed among dark curious classmates. There is no school uniform, but our clothes are wrong. Every family quirk is attributed to nationality: our irregular eating habits, our unnatural tolerance of the cold, our incorrigible tardiness. I learn to turn it into a joke: I am Anglaise, I am Other. With time, I come to speak so well I am camouflaged, cloaked in the Accent du Midi. With kohl-rimmed eyes and sun-tanned skin I blend in. But another self has separated.

zofia k stanley

Missing Voices

I remember those worn benches, smoothed by generations of boys’ backsides. Six rows of them, I think. All facing the demonstration table, behind which a revolving blackboard, adorned with equations. The school’s Physics Lecture Theatre, an austere room in which a miserable Maths teacher once declared that one of us would be dead by the age of 25. Carpe diem, eh?

I usually walked into this room about 8.45am, fresh from the walk down Spring Bank, with its grim-looking pubs and bakery smells. The benches were packed with the school’s Jews, busy with homework trading, all looking easy in their knowing of each other. They had exemption from school assembly. I had no choice – the one who lived so far out of town that even the early bus couldn’t get me to that school ritual. So here I came, the outsider, to the room of outsiders. There was no resistance from them, but I didn’t belong.

Sometimes we’d be summoned into the school hall for ‘big’ notices from the Head. Lined up against the wall, the seated would gawp at us as we trooped in, othering us with their stares. This was discomfort. How much easier to be in one of those seats, bound in brotherhood by hymn-singing and common prayer?

As if I weren’t solitary enough already! Moved across the country at six days; a sheltered upbringing in a small and unrooted family; out of step with boys in a farming village who thought the son of a miner’s son posh – and name-called him for kicks. A constant sense of difference killed the hearing of significant voices. I was ‘other’, everywhere. The feeling started early, and bloomed in that room of outsiders.

School taught me the technicalities, but so little of the important stuff.

paul gamble

I started writing when young, regularly losing myself in other worlds. Learning that the Brontës had written tiny sugar paper books, I contrived the same. With Mint Club biscuit wrappers. My mother worried these would attract mice.

I was considered ‘bright’, passing my 11-plus to reach the grammar school. My dad boasted in the pub. My mum proudly told her colleagues and scrimped for my new (second-hand) uniform.

My new-found confidence became less agreeable. Sparking arguments which reheated daily.

One night my father flew into my bedroom, tearing down my curated, precious pop group posters, which fluttered wall to floor. ‘What is this shit?’ He thundered. Who did I think I was? With my pretty boy pictures. They would know nothing of me and wouldn’t want to either. Did I think I would ever become a somebody, with my pointless writing?

I sobbed, devastated. Words wounding more grievously than physical attacks.

The ripping paper only stopped when he reached my library books. Not that he respected them more, but they would incur fines.
My father’s continued fury gathered fuel which ravaged the whole house. Both fabric and family torn.

Within a month everything was gone, my parents, my home, my teenage self-assurance. I moved in with my mother’s relatives. They were kind but didn’t understand me. I was ‘smart’, but not clever. I would be good for office work perhaps, but never university.

My beautiful, fierce English teacher saved me. ‘You have to go,’ she blazed, ‘I’ll tell them at parents’ evening. You need to leave and keep writing.’

I left for university the next year, in a car crammed with luggage and simmering tension. Intending to write and never look back. But in the end managed neither, the past being too painful and the future too hard to imagine.

Davina Adamson

The message of silence.

Nothing. No words. It was a fierce and uncompromising rejection; it spoke volumes in anger, resentment, and regret. It was a message on its own, held with such authority and cruelty. It was considered and deliberate. Punishment, he said.

Often not seen from a distance, but I felt it as it landed all over me. Dished out for the sheer perverted power of it. He controlled the story then, of his own design. A child plunged into the depths of coldness, ignored and disregarded. Respect, they called it.
What a cruel love. Shaped to suit the perpetrator, just because he couldn’t find it in himself to do the work of love. A lost opportunity for sharing stories, memories, hurt, tenderness. We’ll have to leave you in the dark now, for good, they said.

Give me your words, let me take them in. Tell me more, let me collect and caress them, give them love and understanding. Sit down and share what you are thinking. How can I help you? Talk to me if you need to or fall tenderly into stillness. Of course, speak to me, that’s what I am here for. Come my child if you need me, I am here to listen and share, I say.

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