It’s a strange world and I don’t know how “ordinary” people learn to cope with it. I’m 62 years old and I haven’t figured it out yet. Some days – days like yesterday and today – I don’t think I ever will. Since I was 11 years old, I have suffered with a variety of mental health issues. Back in the 1960s they called it “nerves” and it wasn’t until I slashed my wrists for the umpteenth time when I was 52 years old that I received the counselling and support I needed, having been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, Anxiety and Depression and a mild form of Bi-Polar Syndrome. For anyone out there who has struggled or is struggling with mental health issues, I thought I’d muse on what led to me being where I am today. Who knows, it may help, even if only to show how not to go about this business called living!
Of necessity, it will have to be a somewhat abridged version of events – I don’t think either you or I have enough time for the unexpurgated version – so I intend to focus on the events which contributed to my mental state, most of which I didn’t recognise myself until I underwent some pretty intensive therapy from 2005 until 2008. So here it is – the “Readers’ Digest” edition of the life of Wendy MacKenzie, presented in bite-sized chunks through the medium of this blog.
I was born to two young people fresh from National Service in the RAF (where they met) and from backgrounds about as dissimilar as you could imagine. Dad was born and bred in London in a part-Jewish family. His parents were both in domestic service – a chauffeur and a nursery maid – with wealthy Jewish families but Dad had a good education at Hendon Grammar School before joining the RAF as soon as he was old enough for National Service. He also had inculcated in him what I would describe as a very Jewish outlook on life. It’s ironic that, whilst Jewishness is passed down through the female line, (so that Dad wasn’t actually a Jew himself, since our Jewish heritage was from Grandpa Rickett’s family) sons are the be-all and end-all of family life, particularly first-born sons.
Grandpa Rickett was a charming, easy-going man who unfortunately had rather an eye for the ladies and led Grandma Rickett a merry dance! Grandma Rickett was beautiful when she was young and a good cook but a bit of a feckless house-keeper who always had too much week left at the end of her money. She was also a mother who most certainly had “favourites” among her four children. Grandpa Rickett waited nearly twenty years for the birth of his only daughter, My Auntie Kathy, and a mere six years later was equally pleased at the birth of his first grandchild – me. Grandma Rickett had no time for girls, although she was always very good to me, and lavished most of her attention on her eldest son, David, and her youngest son, Peter, leaving my Dad and Kathy rather out in the cold.
Mum was born and grew up in West Yorkshire with the kind of non-religious rectitude that was prevalent among the mining and heavy woollen weaving communities. Her father had fought in WW1 and came home a broken man whose hands shook uncontrollably, having been buried up to his neck in a collapsed trench and developed rheumatic fever as a result. Jobs were scarce in the area – as they still are today – and before he went out to France, Grandpa Parkinson worked as a drover, bringing cattle down from Scotland to the local markets. After the Great War his health was very poor and so he tried his hand as a cobbler before settling to a job with the local Municipal Laundry, as General Manager. Grandma Parkinson was a tough little woman with a ferocious will and a determination that her adult life would be better than her childhood with an alcoholic, wife-beating father, who regularly sold everything they owned in order to buy his tipple. She too suffered from very poor health: she had appalling migraines which laid her up in bed for days at a time and a back which functioned only when encased in steel corsets. She ruled their household with a rod of iron and was capable of not speaking for months on end to anyone who transgressed her rules, including her children.
Mum had two elder sisters, Ida and Lorna. Auntie Ida was a quiet, shy and very self -effacing woman, which may have stemmed from the fact that when she was 6 years old, she and Lorna both contracted diphtheria and were sent to the local isolation hospital for many months. When Ida finally returned home, Lorna had died, my mother had been born and the solid foundations of the world Ida had known were changed forever, leaving her nervous and timid for the rest of her life. She was, however, extremely funny and could be great company within the family circle.
So there they were, this odd-couple, my Mum and Dad, 22 years old and fresh out of the services with Dad joining the Metropolitan Police Force and Mum working as a Dental Nurse, for which she had trained while in the RAF. They had a little flat above a Green-Grocer’s shop in Muswell Hill, North London, which they decorated and furnished together. There was access to a scrubby sort of back garden but beyond the fence there were Highgate Woods, which made the whole place feel much more attractive. In due course, along came their first (and, as it turned out, their only) child – me.
This was where I made my first mistake, in that I wilfully decided to be a girl, rather than the all-important son! Mum was thrilled to have a daughter and very happy until Dad’s family started saying things like “Never mind, Dear, better luck next time”! Now, Mum was ‘rent asunder’ when I arrived. I was a strapping great “Monmouth child” – as one of my Great Aunts, who was a student of Mrs Malaprop, remarked. She meant mammoth, of course, but “that Monmouth child” I became and remained! My delivery was traumatic for Mum, to say the least, and she was by no means sure that there was going to be a “next time” in the child-bearing stakes! Of course, no-one says these things to you – or even in front of you – while you are a child but by some strange form of familial osmosis, you know. Well, I knew, anyway. I was a disappointment to half my family purely by virtue of my gender.
At this point, I want to warn you, gentle reader, that I am going to be doing a lot of what may seem to the casual observer like moaning and whinging. I apologise in advance for that and I won’t be doing it in a spirit of “Oh, poor me! What a dreadful life I’ve had!“. Oh no – but – I have to tell the tale this way in order to explain how I came to be such a “flake”, because as I have recently discovered, everything is relevant!
So my youthful parents (Mum was 24 when I was born and Dad was 23) set about bringing up this child of theirs to the best of their ability. Babies don’t come with an instruction manual and no-one teaches new parents how to be good parents: at least, they certainly didn’t in the 1950s and 60s. Mum threw herself into the job heart and soul, carrying me about with her everywhere, talking to me and reading to me all the time. Dad, being a uniformed PC, worked shifts and gave me what attention he could when he was at home, also talking to me and reading to me as much as possible. Neither of them ever used “baby-talk” when speaking to me and discouraged other people from doing so as much as possible. As a result I was a precocious talker and could put together sentences by the time I was a year old. When Mum reluctantly decided that she needed to return to work, Grandma Rickett looked after me during the day. I remember being out with her one day when I was about 2½ and a friend of Grandma’s pointing out to me a huge, fire-belching asphalt spreader with the words “Look at the fiery dragon, Dear.” I gave her a very old-fashioned look and replied, “It’s not a fiery dragon, it’s a road resurfacer.” Grandma was mortified and her friend looked as if she would have liked the ground to open up and swallow her!
So far so good, you might think, and you’d be right for the most part. The only fly in the ointment was that I was an intelligent and inquisitive child and I could not understand my Dad’s authoritarian approach to child rearing. He thought I ought to do as he said without question. Even at such an early age, I frequently wanted to know why I had to do something – or not do something – and was inclined to throw a major wobbly if answers were not forthcoming! In Dad’s absence, Mum would have explained things to me, but when he was there she believed she had to present a united front and fell in with his wishes. By the time I was approaching 4 years old, Grandma Rickett needed to go back to work and Mum couldn’t afford to stop working and stay at home with me. Nursery or day-care was not as readily available then as it is now and in any case, both Mum and Dad felt that I needed to be “stimulated”. So I was enrolled at the Whittingham Infants School in Highgate.