I remember the first time I experienced feelings of shame. I was in Reception class, and for the crime of helping to fill my friend’s Fireman Sam lunchbox with water in the school toilets at lunchtime, I spent an afternoon on ‘the carpet’. Usually being on ‘the carpet’ was reserved for treats: singing time (anyone remember Caterpillars are only small? Milk bottle tops and paper bags?) and stories read by our lovely classroom assistant and first aid nurse, Miss Brooks. But that day it was the holding area for miscreants- 5 year old miscreants. At least it felt like an afternoon- it may have been 10 minutes. When you are 5, everything past 10 seconds feels like an eternity. Five minutes or 5 hours, the feeling was still the same; I was apart from my fellow classmates, and it really felt like a place of purgatory. Instead of facing towards the piano at the front of the carpet, my body slowly gravitated towards my left where I looked on longingly at the afternoon’s activities; children playing with the ironing board in the home corner, filling cylinders with water at the water tray, building constructions out of Perspex hexagonal shapes. In my memory I am there alone, my two co-conspirators seem to melt away from my recollection, and the spotlight of shame shines solely on me.
Thirty-two years later, and I still haven’t managed to shake those feelings that were thrust on me that afternoon. It sounds ridiculous, but even as a grown woman, I still feel I did something wrong that day; the shame I was told I should feel. I can still visualise the burly lunchtime assistant with the blonde bobbed hair and permanently red cheeks as she stood at the doorway of the Reception toilets that led off the low-walled playground that hemmed in the class of 4 and 5 year olds, shielding us from the games of British Bulldog, Tig and Catchy-Kisses that went on between the older kids in the ‘Big School’ yard. Mrs Whitfield, she was called. The fact that I can recall her name after all these decades perhaps highlights the impact of this incident on me. Whether it was Mrs Whitfield who handed down the sentence of being isolated on ‘the carpet’ or Miss Smyth (our class teacher, and equally as intimidating to a 5 year old), I don’t know, but it certainly left me feeling something I didn’t want to go through again. I never ended up on ‘the carpet’ again, so perhaps it worked.
Fast-forward some 10 years or so, I experienced another type of shame. A shame this time, of my own making. Back in the 90s, going out to the pub once the age of 16 was within touching distance was considered au fait. I mean, we thought so, and the bar staff who ran the collection of pubs and clubs we regularly frequented never questioned us. Incidentally, neither did ‘Ronnie’, the guy who ran Ronnie’s off-licence opposite the pub where we always started the night. Being thrifty 15 and 16 year olds, Ronnie’s was where we often bought contraband vodka/whisky/20-20 to smuggle into our drink at the pub. It’s criminal to think back now, but we were so blatantly underage: I can clearly remember discussing GCSE grades across the bar on results day, much to the nonplussed bar staffs’ disinterest.
It was on the occasion of my best friend’s 16th birthday that this incident of shame occurred; when my desire to woo someone who very soon after became a boyfriend (an inappropriate relationship in itself, but I’ll save that for another time) caused me to disregard the laws of friendship and abandon her on her big day. There really is no excuse for what I did that night, and even now I find it difficult to talk about, mainly because recognise that I let someone special down for purely selfish reasons. A desire to be desired is a strong pull when you are 16, and I must admit, I let this feeling lead me down lots of paths I probably should have avoided a good few times.
What I am getting at is, how do we decipher between shame and feeling ashamed? For me, the distinction is this: when you do something that you later regret, and recognise was wrong- feeling ashamed is what you experience. I wish I hadn’t done that; that gloom of guilt that washes over you. Feeling ashamed is how I still think about what I did on my friend’s 16th birthday; I wish I could change that night, but I can’t. Shame, on the other hand is different. Shame for me is what others try to put on you, to make you feel because it differs from their version of life. Both can be destructive, but shame I find, is corrosive. It changes how you view yourself, and can warp how you think you are viewed by others.
And so to 2018.
My case in point is this. Most of you know by now that two of my sisters died by their own making. One family member killing themselves is horrendous; two is… well, I struggle to find an apposite adjective. If one exists, please do drop me a line. These were my sisters; the ones that I bickered with, sang the theme tune to Home & Away badly with, shared bedrooms, and baths, and hand-me-downs and car journeys and wee buckets, and birthdays, and tiny nuggets of family lore with. And now they are gone; gone forever. And it f*#king hurts, very, very much. But…is there a but? Well yes, and the ‘but’ is my mum, because as much as their dying (their decision to die) is painful to me, I did not carry, and clothe, and nurture, and love, and hope, and wish, and pray, and aspire for these girls. But my mother did, and her loss cannot ever be adequately measured.
And knowing as a mother and sole parent that your children have decided to leave you in such a horrific way, can easily lead to feelings of shame. How will people look at me? What will they think I did to my children to make them take such a step? Did I make all the right decisions during their upbringing? The questions are endless, and the shame can become crushing. I have had this conversation with my own mum. What can I say that will alleviate these torturous emotions, except to reassure her that she had no hand in her daughters’ deaths, just in the same way that a parent of a child with any other illness has no influence on their eventual recovery or otherwise.
This, to me, is how we should view mental illnesses, and how we should think about suicide. It should not be a vehicle for shame. Certainly in the days after my sister’s suicide last year I felt feelings of shame when I thought about what colleagues at work would say. I still remembered when another colleague told me he thought my sister, Mary, was selfish when she took her life in 2004. It embedded for me at the time that suicide was something that brought shame for both the people who make that choice, and those left behind. So within a short period after Monica’s death last year, I consciously made a decision to break off those shackles of shame and let that emotion float away. Give the decision she made any other description: shocking, tragic, but please don’t tag it with feelings of shame.
Below is the speech I made at Monica’s funeral last June. I hope it sums up for you why shame is what others try to make you feel, and it is not something we should ever equate with illness:
I know what you’re thinking.
I know that face. I’ve seen that girl before. In fact, now I come to think of it, I’m sure it was right there at that lectern. And most of you would be right. Here I stood 13 years ago, talking to many of you about the loss of our beloved sister and daughter, Mary.
And then you roll your eyes, or catch the eye of the person sat near you and think uncomfortably, How tragic. What a tragedy. Would you credit it?. And you’d be right. The loss of Monica from our lives in such a sudden and untimely manner seems against the natural order of things, particularly after the cruel loss of Meg.
It’s not right. It doesn’t make sense. I don’t understand are some the phrases that have been ringing in our heads over the last 3 weeks. And those phrases and associated emotions are ones that will continue to ail us all in different ways and in different moments over the coming weeks, months and years.
But you’d also be wrong. The reason we are here, gathered in vast numbers today, is not because of that heavy and suffocating noun, tragedy.
If you let your eyes wander across the people gathered here today, you will undoubtedly recognise faces. People, perhaps, that you have not seen for some time. Old colleagues, friends, neighbours, extended family. Think for a moment. When did you last see them? Why are you both here today? Was it at that family gathering? A wedding? The 40th celebration? That recent christening? Who is the unifying person in all those celebrations; our sister, Monica. And what were those occasions if they weren’t celebrations of love?
I spoke recently to someone about the very generous support they were receiving, and they told me people wouldn’t be providing that support unless they wanted to give it. ‘No,’ I said, ‘we don’t always do things for others because we want to; we do them because we love them’. And that is what I want you all to cherish and hold on to today. We are here out of love, not out of morbid tragedy, just as Monica’s life was a demonstration of love.
No person is perfect. Nobody makes all the right decisions. But my sister lived her life as a people pleaser. She wanted to be all things to all people, but sadly left little time to just be herself.
She could work a room of strangers like a breeze, where I stood back and preferred to talk to a small group. Who were they? What business were they in? Where did they qualify? And by the end of the night, she would most probably have come away with some new contacts.
Her generosity knew no bounds. As Mads recalled last year at Monica and Freddie’s 40th celebration, it was Monica who made sure Madeleine had a ticket back to Cambridge earlier than scheduled when she was going through a tough time. Years later, she seized the chance to buy tickets to see Adele at the O2 for herself, Mads and Amy. When I commented on how generous that was, she said she hadn’t even looked at the cost of the tickets before buying them. I thought, girl, you be cray!
She was kind, frequently thinking about others before herself. When I made an off-hand comment to her about my son’s teething problems, she sent me not one, but 4, 5,6 links to remedies for teething.
She was a twin, and loved her twin brother, Freddie, very much.
She was spontaneous. If there was a glimmer of a sunny day in prospect, it had to be a trip to the seaside to get fish and chips- an hour and half away! I remember Monica telling myself and Gez how on a recent escapade to Whitby, she had caused much ire and frustration searching in vain for somewhere to procure said fish and chips, whilst Chris sat and watched the clock tick nearer to kick off time to watch his beloved Liverpool FC on TV. I believe they made it back to catch the second half…!
Guy Garvey was her ideal man. Enough said.
She adored her family, namely Amy and Chris’s children, Tom, Josh and Jemima. She and Mark have always had high hopes for their daughter, Amy, who at the age of 3 could tell you about marsupials and dodecahedrons. And most recently, we had many conversations about Monica’s consternation that her daughter seemed to show more interest in Snapchat than in science revision! But she had confidence deep down that this wonderful girl was going to succeed in whatever field she chose, and with the love and support of Mark and the family, I know that Monica’s deepest desire will be fulfilled.
I could stand here and talk to you all day with endless illustrations of who my sister was. But I will leave you with this thought:
It is my belief that, ultimately, who we are can be pared down to what legacy we leave behind. And once again, I ask you to look around you and remember that what we see are people who are here to give back what Monica so generously gave to others, and that is love.
As Larkin said, today’s requiem mass serves ‘to prove /Our almost-instinct almost true: /What will survive of us is love.’