The Meandering Social Worker

wandering : wondering : learning


True grief

As the impact of words of the book sank into Karen’s understanding she knew with certainty that there was still much to learn about the full impact the Father Christmas discovery had had on her life.  She was developing a different perspective on her childhood experiences and behaviours.  Her new understanding was bringing about changes in her life as she finally realised just what she had lost as a result of her extreme and unusual reaction to learning her parents had lied to her all those years ago.  It was shocking to her to realise that her reaction had been so extreme she had pushed herself into developing behaviours that looked like an avoidant attachment so extreme as to have been almost psychopathic.

Karen had never allowed herself to be loved, to feel loved.   She had long ago recognised that she had always lived her life on an emotional plateau, never experiencing real grief but also never experiencing true joy.  Now she was beginning to understand the reality of what that had meant for her life, the impact of that on herself and those around her.

After their separation her first husband had made a puzzling comment about having thought for a while she was ‘becoming normal’.  She had always thought it a bizarre and irrelevant comment borne out of bitterness over the separation.  She was beginning to understand that he may have seen something she had never seen but not recognised or known how to articulate it.  Now she was able to understand a little of the perspective of the ‘other side’.  And it was not a comfortable experience for her.  She began to wonder just how much she had contributed to the breakdown of that marriage.

Karen had never had children.  There had been times in her life when she had yearned to have children, but circumstances had never allowed this and she had become largely resigned to not experiencing motherhood.  In fact, as the years had passed she had become more ambivalent about having or not having children.  She could see the pros and cons.  The deterioration of her marital relationship would have produced a traumatic environment for children to grow up in.  Now she could see an additional irony.  She herself would have nurtured children who would have grown up with emotional problems.  Sadly she concluded that fate had delivered the right outcome.

She grieved too for the loss her parents’ had experienced, without ever really knowing what they had lost or why.  Her mum had always called her a ‘peculiar child’.  Karen had never allowed her mum to have a normal mother and daughter relationship with her.  Karen knew what it looked like, she had seen it in her mum’s relationship with her own mum, her friends’ relationships with their parents, her cousins’ relationships with their parents.  But she didn’t understand it; she didn’t understand how they could be like that; she didn’t understand that what she saw was normal; she didn’t understand that what she was doing and experiencing was not normal.  As time had gone on she had all but forgotten the normal start she had had to life, the normal love and relationships she had known until she was five.  Only with her dad had she really felt relaxed.  Now she understood why: he had never put any emotional pressure on her.

Karen found herself grieving for other effects on her life, the experiences she had not had, the things she had never achieved.  Karen had always shunned ambition: ambition meant doing something, whether succeeding or failing, drawing people’s attention to yourself, having to receive praise or consolation.  She would have liked to have taken up acting, done drama at school, been in the school play, but that would have meant her parents would have wanted to come and watch her perform, it would have given them a reason to be proud and she hadn’t wanted that.  So she never tried.  Karen had been a moderate achiever, never excelling, never failing, always hitting the middle range.

As the weeks and months passed Karen was amused to find herself with tears in her eyes while watching a film.  She had never cried while watching a film before, something her mother had always thought strange.

Karen knew she should change the way she behaved in her relationships, particularly with her parents.  She considered this.  To change dramatically the way she behaved would be difficult.  First, she was not sure she could genuinely feel and demonstrate what were to her still new emotions.  Secondly, to change suddenly would raise questions she still did not want to answer.  Her dad, who as an adult had studied psychology, had read the Freudian analysis she had written as a student when she was 36, describing the Father Christmas event from both a Freudian perspective and the perspective of his critics.  Her dad’s reaction had already been one of bitterness and anger.  She doubted if her mother would have the capacity to understand what had happened and the whole truth would only cause her pointless pain and grief.  It was better she did not give them cause to ask the questions.

As the days turned into weeks and months Karen finally understood that she had never truly and deeply loved herself, her parents or any other, because she had never learned how to love.  And she had never learned how to love because she had never known love, she had rejected it before she could receive it.

Finally Karen cried, feeling emotions she had no recollection of having felt before.  She cried for herself, for the pretty little child who had never known love, joy, happiness, fun.  She cried for her parents who had nurtured her and care for her physically but never been rewarded with a child’s love given unconditionally in return.

In the midst of this grief Karen qualified as a social worker.  But there was another problem that needed to be dealt with.  Another consequence, maybe, of what had happened over thirty five years ago.  A rare pain that had begun and slowly diminished over several years.


The landing

Karen woke in the dark and peered at the clock.  Just gone 3.00 am.  She had gone to bed alone about 11.00 pm, leaving Tony watching the remains of the News on TV.  She was still alone.  She guessed he must have decided to watch a film.

Karen padded out of the bedroom in the dark, heading towards the bathroom.  Out on the landing she paused to listen.  There was no sound of the TV coming from downstairs.  Nor were there any lights on anywhere in the house.  Panic gripped her for a moment as she grew concerned.  Where could he be?

Karen looked to her right and into the smallest bedroom.  From the faint illumination of the street lamp she could see the bed was empty.

Karen looked into the second spare bedroom as she passed on her way to the bathroom.  In the dark it looked as if both the bunks in there were empty too.

Coming back out of the bathroom Karen looked again into the second spare bedroom, her eyes more accustomed to the dark now.  She noticed the shape in the dark recess of the bottom bunk.  Relief flooded through her and she went to him.

“Tony, you alright?  Why didn’t you come to bed?”  Tony made a noise, not really an answer, but clearly he was awake.  “Come on, come to bed, you know you don’t have to worry about disturbing me”.

“I’m sleeping here”.


No answer.

“Is your chest bad?”  Tony’s chest condition was a disability he had long learned to live with but some days it was worse than others.  It has not seemed particularly bad earlier that evening, but she knew from experience that sometimes a chest infection could come on quite quickly.

“No I’m fine”

“Then why don’t you come to bed?”

“I don’t want to”


“You know why”

Karen didn’t know why.  A feeling of fear began to rise in Karen.  The ‘conversation’, if that is what it could be called went on for several more minutes.  Eventually it was clear to Karen that Tony really wasn’t coming to bed.  He wasn’t ill.  He just didn’t want to sleep with her.

Karen was distraught.  As far as she could tell there was something badly wrong in their relationship.  The pain of his action felt as if he had completely left her, even though he was still in the same house.  She began to cry.  She begged him to tell her what was wrong.  He refused to say anything other than “You know what’s wrong”.  He turned his back on her and pretended to sleep.

She walked out of the spare bedroom and sat on the landing, leaning with her back to the railings over the stairs, sobbing loudly, her heart breaking, crying out and begging him to tell her what was wrong.  She stayed there all night, determined to find out why he had so suddenly ‘left’ her without warning.

Eventually, with daylight, Karen left the landing, showered, ate a desultory breakfast on her own and went to work.  After a traumatic night she was still none the wiser as to the cause of the crisis she now found herself in.

That evening the atmosphere was tense.  Tony clearly did not want to talk about what had happened the previous night.  Conversation, such as it was, was restricted to the level of “do you want a cup of tea” and monosyllabic answers to any attempts she made to talk to him.  She still did not know what was wrong and he was still refusing to say anything other than “you know” when she asked him.  Again Karen went to bed about 11.00 pm.  Again Tony stayed up watching the News.  Again he slept in the spare room.  Again the absence of the heat of his body next to her woke Karen in the early hours of the morning.  Again she spent the rest of the night sobbing loudly on the landing, begging Tony to tell her why he didn’t want to be with her.

As the nights wore on Karen spent a little less time sobbing on the landing and returned to bed.  After five nights she only spent an hour on the landing.  She was becoming resigned to the situation; Tony wasn’t telling her what was wrong and there was nothing she could do to change the situation.  On the sixth night Tony came to bed as usual.  He still refused to tell her what had been wrong.  She had no idea why he had punished her in this way.  She had no idea why he had suddenly stopped punishing her.  She had no way of knowing how to prevent the same happening again in the future.  The next few months were very tense for Karen as she lived with an almost unbearable fear of the same thing happening again.   Gradually as the normality of their lives seemed to continue without incident she began to relax a little.  Perhaps what had happened had been a one-off, a strange event that was now over.

Then it happened again, about ten months after the first time.  The same scenes were played out again.

The next time the period of apparent normality was a little less than ten months.  The time after that shorter still, and so it went on.  At first Karen would sob loudly on the landing, keeping them both awake.  And little by little her heart became a little more scarred.  Little by little the scars hardened her heart.  Little by little the love she had felt for Tony died inside her.  All she learned from him was that she was somehow at fault and she should know what was wrong.   After several years of this he began to suggest she did not give him enough attention, which was hardly surprising as the remains of her love for him was struggling in the gutter of despair.  Only after ‘the book’ did she truly begin to realise what he might have meant, that the love she thought she felt for him was shallow compared to the love he thought she should feel.


Ending an abusive relationship

As she was learning about and coming to terms with the impact of her own history Karen had tried to tell Tony what had happened and what it meant.  She had hoped he would listen and attempt to understand and help her.  He merely said, “Well it’s about time you got over it then”, in a tone that was clearly not sympathetic.

It was with some irony that Karen recognised that over the years Tony’s behaviour towards her had become increasingly abusive.  As a social worker she could see parallels in the lives of some of the women she was working with who were suffering from domestic violence.  She now understood it was Tony’s way of trying to change her behaviour; to make her find a depth of love and devotion for him.  She also knew it was having the opposite effect.  Right from that very first incident her heart had suffered a little more scarring.  Every time a little bit of the love she had felt for Tony, as inadequate as it was in his view, died.

When they had moved house Karen had ensured there was no longer a useable spare bedroom where Tony could go every time he ‘left’ her.

In response Tony had changed his tactics.  Unable to ‘leave’ her within the home, he threatened to leave the marriage and divorce her.  Each time the threat was made he indicated it was because she had been failing in some way but without really being clear about what she needed to change.  It was the same old story.  Each time he gave her a timescale during which to ‘improve’, a date or event sometime in the near future, or more specifically a set number of days or weeks.  By the time the event or date had arrived the threat had been removed.  Over time the frequency of the threats had grown so they were virtually every week.  Each time the duration of the threat was shorter than the previous time.

The final spark of care she felt for Tony, she could not even call it love any more, died the day of her graduation ceremony.  Three tickets were available per student.  Karen had to choose between inviting her parents, step parents and her husband.  Neither of her parents would be the one to be left out.  The simplest solution would be for just Tony to go; he said he would go and she ordered two tickets.

As the day drew closer Karen mentioned the event, checking Tony would still be going.  So often in the past, when they had been invited to friends for a meal or a party, he would pull out a few days before so she could not be sure whether he would go or not and she had long stopped accepting invitations.  She couldn’t honestly be sure if he would go to her graduation or not.

But things were looking good.  Right up to the morning of the day before the graduation ceremony Tony was saying he would be going.  The atmosphere between them in the house was OK.  Then, as Karen asked him which shirt he would like ironing to wear the next day Tony announced he would not be going.  Karen was distraught.  He knew how important it was to her that he went.  She had valued learning about attachment theory and what that had meant for her personally, she had enjoyed the studies, but she had hated university.  She did not want to go to the graduation ceremony and was only going in order to get the graduation photos her parents would appreciate.  She really wanted the support of someone there with her.  But no, Tony said she didn’t deserve having him put himself out to sit in a cold uncomfortable cathedral for two hours and he wasn’t going.  She could give his ticket to someone else.

Karen could not face telling her mum that Tony had pulled out at the last minute.  She would have had to have told her the full extent of the sorry state of her marriage and she wasn’t ready for that.  She couldn’t face having that conversation with anyone else either.  Not yet.  The work environment was high pressured and, like so many social workers who know their home life doesn’t match the theory, she had no intention of revealing the sorry state of her personal life there.  Tony had already ensured she was cut off from her friends in the church so there was no-one there she could ask to go with her at such short notice.

Karen went to her graduation alone.  Any final spark of love or affection for Tony had just died.

With the threats to leave having escalated to two or three times a week Karen was by now immune to them.  She no longer cared.  In fact she hoped he really would see the threat through one day.  However by now Tony’s was being sexually abusive towards her and she was feeling physically threatened.

She knew enough of domestic violence by now to know the risks were real.  There was no going back.  The next time Tony ‘threatened’ to leave she told him to go.  He said he would have to wait until he had the money for enough petrol to get to Devon.  The next morning Karen went to the bank and withdrew as much as she could.  When she got back home he was all smiles, the threat to leave withdrawn.  When she handed him the money he looked at her in disbelief.  “You really want me to leave?”  But this time Karen wasn’t letting him back down. Turning it round to blame her for chucking him out, he asked her if it was because he hadn’t gone to her graduation.  He couldn’t conceal his grin as he asked.  He knew that much.  If only it was just that.

As he drove away Karen sank to the floor in the kitchen and cried.  Grief and relief.  Karen felt she had worked hard to save her marriage.  She had loved Tony with everything she had when they met and married.  It had not been enough for him.  Would it have been any different if she had been able to feel greater depths of emotion?  She wasn’t sure.  But she had to acknowledge that maybe this was another person who had suffered as an indirect result of what had happened to her over thirty five years ago.


A new beginning

Having grieved for her own losses Karen knew there were people in her past she had hurt, to whom she at least owed an apology if not an explanation.  She began to repair the relationship with her parents, but there was still Peter.  She knew she had hurt him badly at the time she had run away from him, now nearly twenty five years ago.  She couldn’t be sure he would remember her but she needed to try.  It was the one thing outstanding on which she really needed closure.

Tentatively she made contact with him.  She was not sure he would even remember her, and if he did whether he would ever want to speak to her.  Understandably he was cautious.  However he too was newly single and they met up for a chat after work one day.  There were a lot of explanations to be made, apologies and things to be put right.  Karen began to recognise that one of the reasons she had run away in the first place was because their original relationship had had the power to melt away the barriers she has so long erected.  How different her life might have been if she had been able to allow that to happen in her late teens and twenties, instead of having to wait until she read a book at the age of forty to learn how to feel love and pain.

As a new love grew between them Karen finally understood for the first time in her life what it felt like to love and be loved.


“I love you too”


Karen’s mum had always said, “I love you” before she said goodbye to Karen, either in person or on the phone.  Today Karen had replied, “I love you too”.

Karen had to repeat the statement.

Karen’s mum hugged her tighter, a catch in her voice as she said, “I’ve never heard you say that before.”

And Karen knew it was true.  For all the declarations of love her mum had made to her Karen could not remember a time when she had ever told her mum she loved her back.


Epilogue – Karen at 50

“Sometimes I tell people my story, but not often.  I
tend to be slightly embarrassed by it.  I was not abused.  I just had a truly stupid and unusual reaction to an otherwise normal event in a child’s life.  My parents were pretty normal.  My dad had a rough childhood and has a tendency to an avoidant attachment but my mum’s attachment is pretty normal, despite being a child and an evacuee in the last World War.  Considering how strange my behaviour was I sometimes think that perhaps my parents were called upon to display some fairly saintly parenting qualities.

Things have changed a lot since I read that book back when I was 40.  I’ve truly grieved for my losses and learned to love, laugh and cry.  I’ve had to accept that I cannot change the past.  I have tried to gently change the present and so the future.

But I know that the legacy of my reactions as a five year old are still with me, and probably will be to some extent for the rest of my life.  I still default to living life on an emotional plateau, avoiding the highs and lows of excitement and disappointment.  I still have a lower tolerance to emotional stimulation.  I still sometimes fidget and want to get up and make a cup of tea when the results come on for X-Factor, but mostly I resist now.  I learned to read t the end of a book without having to remove the pain of anticipation by reading the final chapter first.  I can still too easily allow diversions to get between me and important relationships, distractions wrought by animals, inanimate objects and especially that modern curse, the Internet.  At least now I have the knowledge and capacity to enable me to override those tendencies, sometimes when I notice, sometimes when they are brought to my attention.

Peter has refused to pander to my continued dislike of surprises, my inability to receive gifts as I deemed myself unworthy of them.  He allows me to continue to minimise birthday celebrations inasmuch as mine pass largely unnoticed but ensures I help others celebrate theirs.  There is a balance in all things.  And I continue to learn new ways to cope, adapt and change.”


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