It’s been a while since I did a post, a busy year one way or another, out of routine since Covid started or rather struggling to form a new one. Now it’s calmer and late Autumn which I arrive at with some relief. I’ve always liked the dying down time of year, the turn of the school year (always something of a school-loving swot) still echoing down through the decades. This ties in with the next episode I have excavated for The Diary Project – not diaries exactly but a bundle of notebooks dated 1981-1985, aged 13-17, charting a somewhat excruciating but significant born-again Christian phase I went through during adolescence. Oh dear.
These are prayer and Bible study notebooks I kept during that time. (I am pretty sure I also kept a more conventional journal/diary at this time, still to dig out.) And it is quite excruciating to read, to the extent that I can hardly bear to, to begin with. What an awful prig I was, judgemental, evangelical, holier than thou… How awful I must have been to be around. At the same time looking at these little lists it is nice to be reminded of people and things I had almost forgotten – people I was at school with, went to youth theatre and church with. For all the misguidedness I can see a kindness in myself – care for all these people, the good intention behind a prayer. In my prayers I have also listed things like ‘mocks’, ‘Mum’s drinking’ (an on-going issue), ‘my art’ – what was that back then? Can’t remember.
Reading these I am reminded how obsessive I was with it though. I spent a lot of time praying, Bible reading and attending church groups, all documented here. I did have doubts but on the surface had the answers to everything, banging on and probably annoying the hell out of people. ‘Gave to tracts X, Y & Z today’. I alienated myself from perfectly lovely friends and peers with my strangeness. I can see too though that having friends and being happy were not on the top of my list at the time. I struggled with the (obvious to me now) perversity of this, fighting feelings of ‘I don’t feel good’ with a more extreme hardline of ‘It’s not about feeling good, unbeliever!’ ‘I’VE GOT TO STOP THINKING THINGS AND START THINKING, BREATHING, OBEYING AND LIVING, LOVING THE WORD OF GOD’ I write in large capitals sideways across one page. On another I have scrawled ‘I don’t know how to TALK TO GOD like he’s real and living and listening, and who is he anyway? What is he like?’ I tied myself in terrible knots. What a harsh way for a creative young girl to live.
It was quite worrying, looking back and at the time. Christianity did not bring me peace unfortunately, my attraction to it more to do with the struggle I was having with adolescence. Ordinary adolescent rites of passage now open to me – parties, drinking and sexuality – scared me – and Christianity gave me a way to dodge the lot. Relationships outside marriage? Drinking and cavorting at parties? These were sins! Therefore it was right to avoid them – phew, that’s that sorted! Christianity gave me cut and dried rules to live by and simple right and wrong answers. It also gave me a way of managing or at least understanding my Mum’s drinking in similarly simplistic terms. This too was a wrong way of dealing with things and the solution to my Mum’s problems – and indeed everybody’s – was to be saved! Christianity enabled me to impose simplicity and a sense of control – even if only in my mind – over my life, myself and the world, all of which were becoming more complex and difficult as I left childhood.
Going through a religious phase is a typical rite of passage for many young people and one I am familiar with in my own understanding of my life story, and don’t judge myself too harshly for now. However as I re-read these little notebooks – notice my simple childish handwriting – the Garfield and Snoopy notebooks I chose – I can’t help feeling sad for my young self. I was so earnest and serious. I can see too how rules would appeal to me then – the so-appealing certainty they seem to offer. I have done this at other times in my life, joined tribes that seemed to give a clear framework of codes, rights and wrongs and regulations for belonging, adapting and denying myself to try to find my place, no matter how uncomfortable or imperfect a fit.
My Christian phase lasted about 5 years according to the dates on these notebooks, ages 13-18, disturbingly longer than I remembered. I got in deep and despite having doubts, found it hard to backtrack. I had been so sure of myself and public about it. My parents were worried and would have been delighted for me to quit. But it was also an act of separation from them – what does the young person with liberal lefty parents do? Join a mainstream patriarchal religion of course. Plus they had given me cause to doubt them as mentors. I couldn’t admit to them of all people I felt confused or unsure now. But I see now how that made me even more lonely. Who was there to help me develop a healthy, more honest relationship with myself? It feels awful to look back and see I had no one to turn to support me through my multiple adolescent confusions. I hope things are different now.
Do I gain anything new from revisiting all this? I already knew it was about dodging adolescence. But I can see something more in it now – how I was trying to bypass or navigate some deeper feelings from home. My Mum’s drinking disturbed me hugely as I grew up. When she was drunk she would complain without restraint about her discontents with life. I tried to help her and minimise her problems by having none of my own. Christianity enabled me to extend a role of ‘being a grown-up’ taken on in childhood – adopting this (apparently) very grown-up position on how wayward everyone else was, having the answers to everything, saving everyone. It was a way of continuing to survive in this pseudo-adult way and not admit my (quite normal I see now) needs and confusions as a young person, for which there was no space at home. It also blocked out the awful possibility that me and my feelings were simply not important (not important enough for my mother to give space to or stop drinking for anyway). A child’s adaptive survival logic. Now however I am a grown-up – a real one – and see my younger self and the whole situation with softer eyes. This feels a lot better – and is something new.
My doubts did lead me to leave the Christian faith towards the end of the sixth form (aged 18). I remember praying about it – I took my crisis of faith to God on my knees. And for the first time I felt something concrete coming back – a message from God – ‘Be yourself’. It was the permission I needed and exactly what I needed to hear. By that time though I had kind of marooned myself away from so many friends and school was nearly over. I couldn’t go back, adolescence was nearly done, everyone was going their separate ways. My childhood sense of humour, playfulness, friendship – all had been eroded during those years. I had become so serious and sad. So though it was liberating to feel able to move on, I didn’t do so with a real spring in my step or much of a clue as to what next. I still had to find out how to ‘be myself’. So I entered adult life with an on-going sense of having to be my own grown-up – a useful survival skill that has served me well – but not necessarily entirely healthy on its own. However since then ‘being myself’ has been a key driver throughout my life – perhaps been my life’s work – trying to uncover who I am, seeking recovery from the past, finding self-expression, exploring my work in the world. And writing has been a key part of that.
I look back at my earliest writings with mixed feelings. It has been very hard to do this blog post, taken months on and off, not merely because of the busyness of life (the preferred excuse), but also the emotional and psychological task of it. I have begun, touched base with it and wandered away – noticed a reluctance to return – felt burdened by it. So why do it? I am beginning to ask this myself. I was recently with a group of friends my age (50s+) talking about diaries – it seems a midlife rite of passage to get rid of this stuff. There was a consensus not to re-read but simply chuck or destroy. Why revisit the excruciating and painful and get churned up? Those writings had done their purpose in the writing of them. And I get that, having experienced the therapeutic benefits of writing through my life countless times.
However there have been benefits to re-reading these notebooks and writing my way through again. For the first time I have been able to give my younger self – not the pseudo-grown-up ‘pull yerself together’ attitude I did at the time – but the kindness and understanding of a real grown-up – me – the gentle, insightful, rounded adult I am now. My younger self – I – have never received that before. This has been healing, and perhaps contributes to why I feel more excited now, not so much with the past, but with the present and the future. Isn’t life to be lived now? (Who cares about all this old stuff?!)
Through these last few months, in the spaces in between, I have felt myself already letting go of it – the 5+ banana boxes of diaries and other paper mementoes weighing heavily on my attic rafters. On a purely practical level it has taken over three years to start this project, nearly one to begin to look at the material, 6 months to do this latest post, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. At this rate I’ll be doing it till I die. I looked through these notebooks quite quickly, and though it was the original plan to look at all of this material in some depth, actually faced with that, I feel a shift – do I really want or need to do that? The amount of material and intensity of the task feels overwhelming. Have I not got plenty from this alone? With these notebooks my instinct now is to skip over – for example the pages and pages of bible quotes – maybe I could use them creatively, cut them up and make found poetry out of them? Why not? Meaning can be made through the random creative process as much as the preconceived plan. And I don’t want to be doing this forever.
So I carry on, happy to have received a healing through this episode, and that I have allowed myself to feel all the things I do about this project – curiosity and resistance – which gives me permission to play – to change what I originally envisaged as I go, to let it find its own way.
Some of this material is going to be the subject of a MSc dissertation in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes. I will revisit fragments of it using reflective and creative writing (a little as I have here) and create some small performative piece, including potentially – a bonfire! Watch this space. Perhaps a few fragments will be all I ever need to do of this project – or at least this study will help me find the way forward with the rest.