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The International Writers Magazine: Life Stories

Caught by the river
Abigail George - an except from a memoir

My life was like a river in which debris of different kinds were caught up.

alone

Like dust melted in the water, that declined quickly, spirited tadpoles with the glinting, ink blot eyes, my river bore witness to my bullish mother, easygoing school life and my still-as-a-coma, unhealthy depression.

All these things influenced my life in varied, advanced, vivid ways; grew me up in years, couriered words that found self-awareness and translation in my writing.

I learnt to cope and live with them in a very special, bold kind of way. However, it was never easy and I wasn’t always so keen to be completely in control of my feelings.

My father was a fat man with florid cheeks. He seemed to be a cheerful, jolly, happy-go-lucky fat man who never found fault with anyone. At least that is how I imagined him to be when I came across a very old photograph of him with his parents. He was wearing a t-shirt and jeans. Of course he was all grown up in the picture; the last vestiges of boyhood out grown, faded away like sea mist. I never told my mother about my discovery. She wouldn’t have stood for it. He was the one subject that she never disclosed anything about. In this respect she was discreet.

Hiroshima. Nagasaki. Fat man. Little boy. I can never remember which nickname fits which city. I used to be in the Quiz team at school. Bright, clever, smart alec that was me. But I remember everything about a man who was not my transitional boyfriend, my lover – even at 22 I cannot say that word without blushing, a mentor or a teacher. A man who was my boss for six months, who I looked up to, who in retrospect I fell in love with. It was of course not reciprocated. He was married and had a small child. Glassy faces peered at me from their photograph on his desk.

I have come across women who delight in telling of their short-lived office romances; their dalliances, flirting at Christmas parties, seductions, pub-crawls, bars and nightclubs but I was quiet and shy and did not make friends easily amongst the women I worked with.

Single, footloose and fancy-free that was who I always aspired to be but always failed to accomplish naturally without any affected humour or flirting. I was always a hard worker, diligent and efficient. Since it was the first time I was gainfully employed I wanted to make a wonderful impression. I was a temp at a television and film production company. To save my money I stayed at the Salvation Army.

My mother wrote me letters from Port Elizabeth and sent me pictures of her and her pintsized white-haired dog. She never discussed why I left or inferred to it in her letters to me. She said she was praying for me, that I had to remain in good, positive spirits and that I should always hope my dire circumstances would change for the better.

Every morning I was bursting at the seams with good humour, smiling at my defeats, accepting my victories quietly and without any fanfare. I brought sandwiches for lunch. I was docile and thoughtful. Offered to make tea when executives, writers and producers were harried and working to deadline, to run errands, anything which in the long run would help in my favour. I never kicked up a fuss even when I was in position to ‘Cry wolf’ when someone tried to make advances.

I longed for the memory of love that I had when I was a child. Don’t ask me why. I just felt inclined to feel that way when I felt at my lowest.

Talking about love always embarrasses me but not when I think about my first love – my mother. She shattered all my illusions about love. It was a forceful, gagging, inhibitory, blinding love that came with lies and grief. It usually left me crying my eyes out when I was a child and didn’t know any better. Tears did not bode well with my mother. She ignored it and I laid the blame solely for that with my absent father.

The burning imprint of my mother’s love; like my depression was toxic, and left my brain in a fog. It was like an open sore or blister I picked at. Each impetus gave rise to flight, a furious scribbling in a private diary. I don’t think her intent was to harm me or spoil me. It was just her way, even if her way was sometimes unpredictable and impudent. Our relationship was always difficult. She wasn’t an inane mother; she never smothered me with adoration, attention. She wasn’t full of fun, always laughing, singing at the top of her voice always although she did do that sometimes.

She instructed me to believe that all love comes with indescribable pain, inescapable devastation, sometimes humiliation and the aftermath ends with hurt.

Yet she reeled me deftly in with what can only be described as a mother’s love when my sadness was formidable; left me fragile, comforted me when I was left dazzled by mania, waited patiently for those episodes of my depression to pass and because of her I escaped undamaged, whole and with the least amount of heartache and brokenness. Although my childhood had sometimes when it had been needed been absent with her tender loving care and touch the bond we had was not lacking.

The city that I lived in when I was grown up represented the highs and the lows, the slumps of my life and the advent that impulsive risk taking that comes with infrangible emotional maturity. The skyscrapers, tall high-rises, flats in the city of Johannesburg indulged me, gave me new pictures, newfound images like the grave disposition of a welcomed newcomer. I didn’t feel like an orphaned newcomer anymore.

It gave me a new sense of freedom and life as I knew it was turned perfectly on its head. Lunchtime I frequented delicatessens for sandwiches, ate fruit that seemed exotic to me like grapefruit, gooseberries and bananas. I did make new friends and met exciting and glamourous people. Very important people who did important work and made a lot of money while doing it. It became formulaic of the city life I wanted to live. It felt like I was caught up by a river. I was no longer self-conscious. I just surrendered and gave in to big city life.

Still I wanted love not the political church. I wanted love not darkness where my heart should be. I wanted love not a sentimental melody filled with schmaltz and nostalgia for all things haunted and past; that became my declaration of independence.

I wanted love to come alive inside of me; to leave me open-minded not jaded.
This, this is what I longed for.

I was a girl when I met the world in Johannesburg – prickly because of the relationship I had with my mother, jaded because I did not grow up with a father.

The world saw someone who was tense, small, fearful; even-tempered but I knew that there was something greater behind the eye of the storm. I knew there was something I was connected to that was somehow greater than me.

But the world I soon found myself in was also a cruel world. It was a world where men who had all the advantages took advantage of naïve and simpleminded young girls who didn’t know any better. I was a very naïve and simpleminded girl from a small town.

To my mind there was nothing good in the life I found myself in except examples of good men that had by default become bad men and did nothing to make up for their reckless behaviour.

This world threw darkness on my strengths, illuminated my vanities and shone a light on my innocence that scratched through all my sensibilities and cracked the veneer of my surface. Of course I decided to free my mind of all the inhibitions I had once I had reached the city and once I had found a suitable boyfriend – a suitable candidate.

Talent will always persist; that is a given, that is the remarkable beauty of giftedness but not youth and beauty and I was eager to lose my virginity – I was eager to become a woman.

Wanted, accepted, cherished I decided was asking for too much. Instead I was loathed, gossiped about, humiliated, hated and I worked out I had to ingratiate myself with the older male in the office and leave the women be. They had immaculate nails and neatly coiffed hair. My hair was always limp, my smile pasted on like a band aid.

They would neither befriend nor mentor me but I was the wiser for it in the long run. I vowed I would never let any man intimidate me, fluster me or frustrate me. But old-fashioned values got the better of me in the end. I wanted to be respected, remembered, not for love affairs best left forgotten and taken seriously. But I am still a romantic at heart.

I close my eyes now. I have so many wonderful memories; positive ones as well as those that are negative which I try to shut out as much as I can. I blur the features of the men I had come to know, the motions, the handsome faces, the leering faces, the screaming mouths, the chanting lips. I remember what the sun was like when I lived there. I remember that the sunshine melted like powder against my cheek.

It is soft and ticklish like fingers reaching for the crook of your arm. It was hard in the beginning keeping track of all the people that I met. Now it is unimportant. I don’t remember them. I doubt if they remember me.

My manic depression is like a big, terrible shadow over me – long and strong. It’s like elastic. It shuts out the light but keeps the darkness within – the enemy within. This invasion has instructed my writing. It informs me of my every move and half the time I live in fear of it. I live in fear of the day when it will no longer sustain me and then what will I do? I would be left vulnerable; naked, my thoughts creepy, perhaps I will be filled with a quickening pulse and my eyes are liquid pools of emptiness once again considering suicide.

Today I have a thousand things going through my mind. You dream that something is going to happen to you. Life is not made of multiple choices; instead it is made up infinite choices that we have to risk common sense and a cure for life for. I am no longer married to searching for a cure for the unexpected penalties of life and the wretched failure of missed opportunities. 

When you can surrender that sickening feeling that morphs you into a battalion; when you place restraint and caution above the impulse to be adventurous, to defy the conventional then that gives me some sought of peace of mind.

I watched them all my life at the schools I went to. Sophisticated grown ups who had the power to destroy any fantasies I had of rising above my station in life. The fantasies I had of being beautiful and powerful. Intelligence was nothing to them, meaningless if you did not have money.

I inherited common sense, decency, morals and deep-seated, grounded values. At home I was a good girl, at school a brainiac; I never had a hair out of place and always performed well. My mother was a teacher. My childhood was happy even though I had an absent father. It was a childhood relatively free of bullies.

I wanted to live like the rich did, without transparency, to live without regret and a diminished capacity to forget. I read books to educate myself on every single subject that I was ignorant on. I tried to make sense of the madness in tabloids, television, politics, current affairs and the daily newspapers.

At twelve years old my mother’s old, greasy lipstick is wet. It stains my teeth and seeps into my lips. It makes my face look separated from the rest of my body – hard, successful at something which I have yet to define. I was quick to adjust with slow, feeling movements, the weight of my hands, the smooth curls that framed my delicate forehead. So I decide never to wear lipstick again. It makes me feel foolish, not like a model in a fast red sports car going to the beach, hair windswept in an advertisement on television.

I learned about the internal power of being alone from a very early age. I was always a loner, an alien outsider, inseparable except from one or two friends. I wandered the aisles of the local libraries in my town reading the poems of Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Anne Sexton, wanting to die a painless death. I grabbed hold of all the ancient retrospectives of women writers I could get my hands on. I learnt about women’s wisdom, philosophy about the female gender and women’s bodies.

Once or twice growing up I veered towards the idea of suicide, then finding it off-putting, arrogant and wondering who would deliver the running commentary at my funeral. I was aloof and serious as a child, depressive as an adult. A manic panic would always give rise when I had to meet new people and when I couldn’t fidget in a meeting when my ideas were called for.

I found melancholy put me at ease in the company of strangers. I was left reaching for self-confidence and a sense of sobriety and self-worth. I could eat up their words, frown at their demeanour, their thick, heavy accents and purse my lips at their chosen clothes, their winter coat’s woody smells, their perfumed hair, their red lips. I was not one of them that I knew. I was different but not in a special way.

I used to write poems about my ongoing battle with manic depression. I used to take first lines from other poems and then claim them, own them and make them my own. Depression or mania comes in degrees; as a deluge or a flood.

It is an unforgiving, ruthless, unrelenting, unstoppable force in which everything emotionally stable, calm and fruitful gives way. It is a pumped up enemy, a loose canon leaving you adrift; leaving you a fool, always on the run, looking for an escape in the treacherous waters of turmoil and despair.

Sometimes you have to learn the hard way to let go, to surrender to the lesson, the curves and shadows of the ring of the darkness visible of the depression. You have to learn that sometimes hope comes with endearing warmth, homely comfort, positive motivation and feedback whether it comes from your family, loved ones or a support group. There are always lessons to be learnt that comes with the love that you sorely crave, need and are given.

My deeply personal feelings gave rise to seeds that sowed bitterness, blame and resentment. I sowed those seeds wanting to die, wanting to face death and yet at the same time realised that although both are very significant they are separate entities.

They were like satellites in orbit, their reality was there but it was out of reach, they seduced me like futility, humility, battalions in battle study, jet black words stuck like Teflon on a page. They were tidal, communicated grievances and left me longing for a Bollywood romance, an English countryside mansion. I was left with the limbs and parts of a doll and the nutty; taste of almonds in my mouth that the tablets left behind.

I am much matured and richer for the interruptions that came into my life with my bouts of mania and depression. I have also learnt how to handle people. I am kinder. My life experiences have still made me feel positive, motivated and hopeful. My mother and I are both growing older and more and more set in our ways. She still grills me. We row. The only way the river changes is when it bends and shapes and surrenders itself, pours itself into the sea. When it is cast adrift and exiled to the ocean; still in the air, feels closure is finally calling it to this exit.

The strained fatigue of my depression still alternates with the unnerving imbalance of the manic state of mind; my hair and eyes are like those of a doll’s yet my body is still warm, my mind has a life of its own.
© Abigail George July 2010
Email address: ageorge2 at telkomsa.net

Fighting against the stigma of mental illness
Abigail George

The trend in today’s society is that shame and stigma still exists around the global issues of mental health. It is imperative that all of us fight for the dignity for sufferers of mental illness.


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