Meal times were a game, a game of speed. If I wanted to have a second helping I needed to eat fast. I developed such a bad habit of speed eating that later on, after I had left home, people questioned what I was doing. The race was against my dad and my two brothers. Dad instigated this and played the game with us. We were all healthy and loved mum’s food, so we battled to be able to have some more.
This was just a small area of frustration in my constant attempts to be noticed and taken seriously. Attempts that were ultimately unsuccessful.
Last week I explored my attempts to run away, attempts that were equally unsuccessful. Why did I feel the need to do this? Read on and learn about the game and how I was always at the bottom of the pile.
I was the youngest of three boys in a very male family. My mother spent most of her life coping with all this aggressive masculinity, but survived. She was proud of her family and saw it as a badge of honour that we ate everything in sight.
I was at the bottom of the pecking order trying to fight my way to the top. I had no idea why I wanted to fight, or what I was hoping to achieve out of it. I was taught, by example, that that is what a man did, and I so wanted to be a man.
It came from my father—the aggressive domination of others. He was not a bad man, indeed he was a caring and loving one. He had learned from his mother to be strong and determined in everything he did. His sister, my aunt, who is now well into her nineties, had the same sense of entitlement and the same tendency to dominate her family.
He always had to have the last word. He always knew the answers and the solutions. He was, though, unable to listen to other people and assimilate what they said. He always had to top them and show that he was right.
I found this enormously frustrating, to the extent that it drove me to anger easily. This drive continued throughout my life and came to define me as a man. On top of the anger and frustration, though, was what I had learned from dad, the overwhelming need to dominate and take control. Once I was out of the family home this tendency in me had free rein. This had appalling consequences as you will see later on.
As three boys we looked up to our dad and admired what he achieved in life—up to a point. This wore off later in life when we came to understand what was going on. All three of us developed problems later in life, due to our stubbornness and need to control.
Dad had grown up in Glasgow in a family torn between a strong mother and a weak, but kindly, father. Glasgow between the wars was a violent and unfriendly place to live. He was determined to get out, for good. He became an accountant and worked hard in his spare time to get a degree which would enable him to move on from the small world he inhabited. He was competitive, working out his needs in running—to win.
My mother was from a poor family living near the shipyards on the Clyde. Her mother was left, between the wars, with a family of seven and no money. She succeeded in bringing them up well, but the experience left a mark on my mum. She wanted out as well, and she wanted a better life.
They started their married life in Glasgow during the war, when dad ran a munitions factory. This was followed by a trip to India, straight after the war, to help set up businesses there. My brothers were born during the war and I came along a few years later. We were all brought up during rationing and the aftermath of war. Immediately after returning from India, dad succeeded in taking his family up in the world, as he had always wanted. The four of them moved south to England, and mum and dad started to establish their comfortable middle class lifestyle.
Dad had fought for this and he was not going to let it fail. This is where his powerful need to control came in. He created the lifestyle, for him and his family, against difficulties. In his mind, if he did not retain control, there would always be people to take it away from him. He worked hard and ensured that his wishes prevailed.
What he achieved was impressive and showed a powerful determination that ensured he came out on top. The three of us boys learned this way of life from him, but we missed out on his reasons and his inner determination. We copied the way he appeared to the world without understanding his will to succeed.
For us it was a game, typified by the way we ate. The outcome was to come out on top, the players were us brothers. Clearly age won out in the game, physical power and experience dictated where it all went. I was at the bottom of the heap. I was my mothers favourite, and as the youngest I remained in this position. This was to be trashed by my brothers.
The eldest focused on tormenting me and ensuring that I was the one caught screaming and fighting when mum came to sort us out. He was an expert at this and succeeded in getting me into trouble on a frequent basis. The middle one seemed to ignore us and get on with his life, but he still played the game.
Dad ensured that I would never forget him by dying, suddenly, on my birthday. We became forever bonded together in a dance of attention. When the three of us boys—now men—sat around drinking beer after his funeral, there was a conversation that brought home to me what it had been like all those years before.
My two elder brothers were sitting discussing what was going to happen to mum, now that dad had gone. They were sorting out where she was going to live and who was going to look after her. They were full of plans and ideas, they were not, however, based on any kind of reality. They did not take mum and her wants into account, and they completely ignored me—I was still the youngest.
I sat and listened to them and said nothing. I felt, again, the powerful urge to jump in and tell them that they were talking nonsense. I felt the need to show them that I was right and that I was the one with the answers. I had learned, since we had last been together many years before, to shut up and listen, and to keep my own counsel.
I knew, inside, that mum would end up living with, or near me. This was not because that was what I wanted, and not because I wanted to spite them. I knew what she wanted and I knew where she would rather spend the time. I left them to their discussion, understanding that what happened was the most important aspect of life. I had discovered that actions spoke louder than words. Mum lived out her day living near me and my family. She was relaxed and happy to spend the time with me.
It took many years for the frustration to die down. In that situation with my brothers I still felt frustrated but I had learned to not let it control me. This is key distinction in my journey, my efforts to not let my natural tendencies control my life. I learned that when you sit with an emotion, especially one that disables your ability to think clearly, it diminishes. It never goes away, but it ceases to be dominant. I will always have inside me the need to control and the tendency to anger, I have dad to thank for that, but they no longer control me.
Next week I will start the story of how I got there. It started with me getting away from the toxic home environment and stepping out on my own. This was a dangerous and difficult journey, but one that I was not going to fail at—sounds a bit like my father…
—Photo Credit: Flickr/BarbaraLN