My mother was quite simply a beautiful soul. I was sixteen when she died just three weeks after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Yet in the time we had together, she shared with me a lifetime of wisdom and kindness that continues nurturing me to this day. When I was a little girl, there was a time that I felt so very alone I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was sure that nobody understood me, and that nobody would want to get to know me anyway, because I was so very different from everyone else. I was not adept at beating isolation at that time.
What was this thing that caused me to shrink away? It all started at four years old, when I met my new-born sister for the first time, and then also given the shocking news that my beloved father had very suddenly passed away. I experienced both elation and despair (and everything in between) one after the other, within just a few minutes.
It would have been a tough enough experience for any adult to endure. For the four-year-old me, it was utterly devastating. This was why I felt so very alone. So isolated. So convinced nobody would ever be able to understand.
Life would never be the same
I remember gradually becoming aware of whispering grownups all around me. I started to notice that they all started bringing me little gifts – sweets, toys, books and all manner of small gifts… something they hadn’t ever done before. These were always accompanied by a strange look in their faces that I’d never really noticed before. I understand now that it must have been concern, and likely confusion as well – after all, how is anyone meant to engage with a little girl who’s just lost her father and gained a new sister? To me though, that look merely confirmed that I was different. Things had changed and that life would never be the same again.
I became highly sensitised. Noticing even the smallest change of mood or expression, and always on guard to make sure that everything was ok. Looking out for any signs of danger that my world might again be rocked. This was amplified by the unconscious decision I’d made to be the protector. It was clear my mother was sad and tired. My father had always been the joker of the family, so I decided that’s what I would become. I also decided I’d share the load of looking after my baby sister. Every spare second of the day or night, I would go to her cot to confirm she was ok, and to reassure her I was here with her. She used to cry a lot (who wouldn’t having been born into such sadness!) and I would sing to her, stroke her head and count her little fingers and toes.
I’m sure none of my family had the slightest idea that I’d be waking up two or three times in the night, just to creep into my mother’s room and check on the baby while she was sleeping! To me, it was an important job and something that simply had to be done.
This is why I felt so very different. This is why I hid away. It was too much to bear, feeling so raw and so confused. And so very aware of all the other stuff that was going on around me! I started building walls to protect myself and wore the mask of a comedian to keep people at a distance. It worked. For a few years anyway. Until we moved over a hundred miles away to be nearer to my mum’s parents. To me, it may as well have been a different country. Once again, I was on high alert… and scared.
It was at this time that I have the first memory of actively being guided to seek similarities that would soothe me, rather than focus on the differences that were scaring me. It was my first day at a new school, and now not only was I different because of everything that had happened before, but I was also different because I was new and from a completely different area.
My mum was a larger than life character, full of joy and laughter, and a hint of mischief. Seeing my fear, she turned to me in the car, looked me in the eye and said “Melanie, it’s ok to be scared. It’s normal. This is a whole new world for you. It’s ok, I understand” and then came the glint in her eye as she continued with a smile “and anyway, if you ever get frightened of anyone – including the teachers – just imagine them sitting on the lavatory. It’s something we all do, every single one of us, no matter who we are or where we come from”
I took her advice and gleefully engaged my imagination countless times that day, as I have done on many occasions since. Whilst it was a simple piece of advice (that also managed to make me giggle, always a bonus so far as I’m concerned!) it was profound in the fact that my mother had shown me how to look for similarities with other people. I learned to look for things that we share in common (even the funny things) and discovered that I felt safer and somehow more connected with the people and the world around me.
Not long after that, she went a few steps further with this lesson, when I came home from school upset and confused by something my friend had said. She’d been really angry because of something her father had or hadn’t done, and was cross with me because I couldn’t understand why she was reacting that way. The truth was that underneath I really didn’t feel like offering any kind of sympathy because, after all, she was lucky enough to even have a father who loved her and who was alive!
I remember my beautiful mother sitting me down and giving me this very simple yet deeply insightful explanation. It went something like this…
It makes no difference what pain people are dealing with because everyone’s experience is unique to them. Every injury is different, and yet everyone hurts the same. For some people, the fact that they may be suffering from an ingrowing toenail (my mother had a great deal of experience in that particular area!) whilst another is dealing with a death in the family, in no way diminishes the pain they may be feeling. If it’s the worst thing they’re facing in their life at this moment in time, it’s the most suffering they can feel.
And then came the bolt of lightning:
“Your Daddy died Melanie, and I understand that nobody will ever feel the same pain that you do. They’re lucky. Very lucky. And so are you. Because you can understand what suffering feels like. Which means when somebody’s worst misery is an ingrowing toenail, you can identify with them and share their pain”
At that moment I felt peace. I felt warmth. I felt a rush of compassion. Of connection and of love. And, to my utter surprise, I no longer felt alone.
I realised that it wasn’t just about helping others come to terms with whatever was happening to them, it was also about finally understanding I wasn’t the only one to endure pain. That there were so many other people, just like me. People who were hurting. People looking for understanding and acceptance.
The very next day I reached out to my friend again and asked her to tell me what had happened and how she was feeling. I was able to hear and understand. Connecting together in the experience, I know we both came away feeling lighter and even closer as a result.
I fundamentally believe that our deepest human desire is for love and acceptance. I’m also certain that the #metoo movement is fundamentally about human connection rather than condemnation of perpetrators. And I’m determined to continue standing up for similarities, not for differences. In a world where there is so much focus on what is wrong about people, places, cultures and beliefs… can you imagine how it could be when we choose to focus instead on what we share in common? I can. And it makes me smile in the face of whatever is going on around me.
And even if there’s nothing else that springs to mind, the fact remains that my mother was absolutely right. Imagining people on the lavatory continues to be a fabulous leveller, and always makes me smile.