Val’s letter four weeks ago (May 6) about her cruel mother and loveless childhood touched me very deeply indeed. Being an only child, I remember from a very early age wondering why my mother did not like me.
Like Val, I’ve been told she had a hard time birthing me. As a young teenager, I asked my father if he could do something about her but as a quiet man and Christian, his priority was only ever to help her.
The result left me as a painfully shy young man who thought there was something wrong with me. I shunned social events and crowds of people as I was afraid.
I remember being in the Scouts going for a camping holiday. A new leader was attending. When I was told he was a psychiatrist I avoided him like the plague, worried he would find me out as a bad, or insane, person.
Bearing in mind I was a young man, physically sturdy from a working-class village, I had to compete and be strong or be bullied.
I developed a policy of attack if anyone messed with me and fortunately that did help keep the bullies at bay. But it led to other problems. Alcoholism followed with a terrible ten years of pain and trouble. Not just for me, but for everyone around me, too.
Through Alcoholics Anonymous I went into recovery a couple of decades ago, learned much, remained sober and found the joy of living.
I have now forgiven my mother and father and prayed to them to forgive me, too. However, I still live with that petrified little boy inside me, but now I nurture and take care of him.
Most of my childhood friends still do not want to know me, which hurts, but I understand it is because I hurt them long ago — and so I apologise when I can.
The point of this letter may be hard to understand, but because of all the above I seem to see damaged people everywhere — and think about them such a lot. I find myself wondering what can be done.
Are there any answers?
This week, Bel advises a man who believes his difficult childhood led to him developing alcohol abuse issues
Years ago I realised that a large part of me is drawn to, and sometimes overawed by, what I describe as the battered majesty of human beings.
Naturally this is connected with events in my own youth — and is perhaps why I find your letter moving and full of grace.
Thought of the day
‘May we raise children
who love the unloved
things — the dandelion, the
worms & spiderlings.
Children who sense
the rose needs the thorn . . .’
Nicolette Sowder (American poet and educationalist)
Without self-pity, in a matter-of-fact tone, you describe an unhappy childhood which left you bewildered by your mother’s coldness and your father’s emotional neglect. But the point is —you were motivated to write because of your compassion for another reader, Val, whose story touched your heart.
Now that very same compassion causes you pain as you observe a world full of suffering and wonder how this can be. You wish you could do something to make damaged souls better —as you managed, in the end, against the odds, to make yourself ‘better’.
In spite of your painful — and guilty — memories, you are thinking about others, not yourself.
You ask if there are any answers to ‘the problem of pain’ — as the great theologian and novelist C. S. Lewis dubbed our human dilemma. Religious people will point to faith as one solution, but instead (or as well) I will point to you. Yes, you. Because in the words of a profound French thinker, Christian Bobin (1951-2022): ‘These people wounded in soul and body possess a grandeur, which those who carry all before them will never attain to.’
I dislike the glibness of saying good comes out of suffering, and tell you honestly I possess no magic wand, no ‘answers’, yet I’ll suggest your own life, for all its pain and the destruction you endured and inflicted, can offer just one of the answers you are seeking.
You are honest about the past. When possible, you apologise to people you hurt along the way. You have forgiven your parents but also admit you need their forgiveness, too. In that, you offer all our readers an important lesson.
Then, you acknowledge the damaged child still inside you, yet do not pity that ‘petrified little boy’ — for that would be to lock him within a cycle of pain and blame. Instead you hold out your hand to that bewildered soul and walk forward, acknowledging and accepting, and taking full responsibility for past, present and future. I find, within your email, great kindness towards yourself and others.
This is vital, because to move forward with our lives, we have to swap resentment and self-pity for quiet acceptance of what we’ve done and justifiable pride in how far we’ve been willing to change.
I admire how you have rebuilt your own life in spite of everything that happened, and the resilience within your words. Your head is high and you look forward.
In that, George, even though you can’t change the world, you have presented me with one of those essential, elusive ‘answers’ we all long for. Thank you.
We’re both 85, is a move sensible?
My husband was diagnosed with Parkinson’s 12 years ago and we managed it well. However, just recently he has slipped into Parkinson’s dementia and his short-term memory is significantly affected. He has also lost weight.
His consultant last week told us the decline is inevitable and will only get worse. I now do everything, taking care of pills, making decisions. I started driving again after years of being a passenger; it’s hard, but has to be done.
We’re both 85 and go everywhere together. But for the past three weeks I’ve had an ear infection which caused awful dizziness, so I’ve been unable to keep going. My dear husband had no comprehension I was ill. He could not cope if I got really ill.
We live in a lovely village which has everything we need plus lovely people. As a Cumbrian born and bred I’m in my right place and know I could manage on my own.
But most of my friends are now old, with their own problems. We have two lovely daughters — one in Kent unmarried, and one in Lincolnshire, with three lovely, kind children. They are very keen we move closer to them.
I am beginning to feel that for my husband’s sake it would be a good move and he wants to go. Also, selfishly, I think it would give me some respite. But we have got such support around us I’m scared to make such a big leap, to start all over again.
Then I think better to jump than be pushed. I just don’t know whether to start a new life for my husband’s sake. Please advise.
How hard it is to weigh your alternatives in the scales: the known versus the unknown, settled habit versus upheaval.
But we must also throw into the mix another vital choice, surely more important than the others. That alternative is loneliness versus love.
More from Bel Mooney for the Daily Mail…
Your village sounds so pleasant and convenient. You have built a life there, in a part of the country where you feel you belong. That sense of belonging in a locality means more to some people than to others; for you it is clearly precious.
But even if that were not the case, the awful stress and strain of moving is bad enough when you are in your early 60s (the last time I moved) let alone two decades older. Change becomes more frightening as we age.
So I want you to know I understand why you have written, but nevertheless urge you to be brave and reach out to accept the loving hand held out to you by your Lincolnshire daughter and her family. There are inconsistencies in your letter which need addressing.
Most important is your assertion that you ‘could manage on your own’ if your husband died first. Yet you admit that your friends are now ‘old, with their own problems’ — and that you are lonely.
Even the most perfect village cannot combat that. Also, you idealise the present as ‘all that is comfortable’, yet the reality is a ‘struggle’ for a woman exhausted by physical and mental demands which will surely get worse.
There is absolutely no need to criticise as ‘selfish’ your own longing for help, for respite. I believe that in the ideal world children and grandchildren should help the older generation. It used to be so much easier, when it was normal for families to stay in the same neighbourhood.
But I realise family care doesn’t always work out, and the situation can be very painful and emotionally draining.
Unfortunately many adult sons and daughters don’t want to know. But you have a daughter who is (with your three grandchildren) urging you to move closer, so that she can help. Isn’t that more precious than anything else?
It seems that, even though your poor husband is keen on this move, to ‘jump’ would be as much for your own wellbeing.
So, yes, the move will make you very sad and you’ll need maximum support from both daughters to organise it. But after that, I suspect you’ll discover that being taken care of at this time in your life will be a well-deserved blessing.
And finally… Unmissable portraits of marriage
A new art exhibition in Bath has set me musing on marriage. The 17th-century poet John Milton formulated an ideal: ‘. . . the apt and cheerful conversation of man with woman, to comfort and refresh him against the evil of solitary life . . .’ Hmm, let’s hope some women found ‘comfort’ too . . .
Bel answers readers’ questions on emotional and relationship problems each week.
Write to Bel Mooney, Daily Mail, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5TT, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Names are changed to protect identities.
Bel reads all letters but regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence.
Writing this column brings up me against the universal highs and lows of matrimony. Times and laws do change, and now divorce is easy (if still mostly miserable, especially for children), such that nearly half of all marriages end in a split, an estimated rate in the UK of 42 per cent. When I was at school I’d heard of nobody at all who was divorced; now every classroom will contain kids with divorced parents.
Painted Love — Renaissance Marriage Portraits is a rich new exhibition in Bath, at my favourite museum The Holburne. The wonderful, glowing works of art (one even from the Royal collection) show that, in an age when marriages could be a matter of political and economic expediency, it was still possible for couples to remain devotedly in love.
Fifty items, including jewellery and exquisite miniatures tell a complex story of marriage in 15th and 16th-century Europe. A wealthy middle-aged tycoon posing with his 18-year-old bride reminds me of similar couples today: he’s confident and complacent; his arm candy looks pretty glum.
A wall caption says: ‘The institution of marriage was regarded as important for the stability of society and, for much of this period, as a sacred union . . .’ It so happens that many of us still believe in its commitment as a bedrock of society and the best state in which to bring up children. Do visit The Marriage Foundation’s website for more on this vital issue.
And do visit beautiful Bath for the human stories (happy and sad) behind the rich clothes and jewels of men, women and children who might have felt just like you.