The other week, my therapist said that I didn’t look like someone who was only just managing to hold it together and not fall apart. That phrase rang with me all the way home.
I have had a lot of practice at holding things together.
When I was a child I held the tears in until I could go and throw myself on my bed and weep into my pillow. Crying was seen as a weakness, especially when my father didn’t acknowledge he’d done anything wrong. I spent so many mealtimes watching 2sis argue with him, only to run away in floods of tears to my father’s shoulder shrug that I decided never to give him the satisfaction of making me cry. He did of course over the years, but as a child I learned to not bother telling him what I really thought or felt.
In the playground I never knew what to say when I was being picked on. How to react to verbal abuse when fighting back wasn’t allowed? I didn’t know what to say, and I knew saying “stop” wouldn’t achieve anything. So I went silent, retreating into myself but trying to not show fear, hurt or pain, to just hold it together until they went away, that may be if they thought it didn’t bother me it would stop.
As an adult, with ex1 I was the one to worry about what was happening, how to deal with it, what I could do. He was the one who would just get drunk and not think about it. Then I had to be supportive when he moaned at me about how hard life was. Holding it together had become so built in that it took me two years to acknowledge that I had the right to divorce an alcoholic husband, who refused to acknowledge he had a problem. When he finally left I discovered a hidden pile of unopened white envelopes, of bills unknown that I had to sort out which seemed to symbolise our difference in attitudes.
As for ex2, he had massive problems with accepting responsibility. He’d lie in bed and hope it would all go away, while somehow also managing to twist it round to being my fault. Meanwhile I’d be trying to carry on a normal family life, not wanting to acknowledge that yet again, I’d picked a dud. It took me far too long to walk away from him and by then I had four children to bring up on my own.
Children make you hold it together. I don’t want to burst into floods of tears in front of them and half scare them to death. I want to appear strong and reliable to them; I’m the only parent, the only responsible adult they have. When they were very small I would occasionally cry out of sheer exhaustion and the older ones would huddle round and cuddle me. It felt as if it was the first time I’d had a positive response to my tears, although no doubt that is an exaggeration.
But the huge tears, the floods, I keep to myself, I let them out in private when I need to and that is getting less often. Whether that is because I don’t need to any more or whether it’s because I don’t want to remember how painful those unacknowledged tears are I really don’t know but when I do cry I think about being alone and I think of all those tears quietly shed.
Holding it together is not just about crying of course. For me it is, or rather it has been, presenting a British stiff upper lip to the world, of not showing the turmoil that is going on in my head and in my heart, of not letting anyone realise that there is anything wrong, of keeping quiet, of pretending, locking myself up deep inside of me where no one can ever see.
Learning to undo all that is so hard.