We meet at a gathering about the influence of suppressed emotions on physical health. She has had a lot of experience with that and would like to talk about it in more detail. The time doesn’t feel quite right for a therapeutic consultation yet, but an interview… that sounds like a good idea! Not long afterwards, Hester (pseudonym) comes to my practice and with tea and sweets and candles we have a couple of good hours together.
“I decided a while ago that I don’t want to make myself small anymore, that guilt, shame, infamy and judgment can all be put aside and that I can take up space, purely for who I am, and to share my experience of overcoming a deep crisis with very serious illness with others who may benefit from it. That is really why I’m here with you right now. I have had to deal with an intense sense of inferiority for much of my life and my illness helped me a lot to overcome that.”
We first make an inventory of the nest she comes from. She is the second in a family of four children. Her parents divorced after 39 years of marriage; she was then pregnant with the middle of three children. She recently heard in a lecture by Anna Verwaal that the influence of prenatal trauma as a result of stress on the mother can be great. “My own situation has repeated itself with my daughter. My parents lived with grandparents in the house, next to their business, and due to circumstances the house and business had to be torn down and we had to move. My mother was pregnant with me at the time and my father became unemployed. My parents were well matched intellectually, but socially they came from a different background. The conditions forced them to move to a social housing area and I had the feeling that my mother was very unhappy there – she was not used to that. I was born two weeks before that move and my mother was completely exhausted and over-stressed. It was not talked about, but I have always felt it. Due to the stressful circumstances, my father decided it would be better to take me to a befriended couple without children for a while so that my mother could have more peace. I don’t know exactly how old I was or how long it lasted, but I was really still a newborn baby and so I was separated from my mother, while my sister stayed at home.
This Aunt, as I called her, was a sweet, quiet woman and she really saw me as her child. When I went back home after a while, the attachment with my mother did not work out. I did not start talking until I was two, and with every little thing or ache that was difficult, I wanted Auntie to come. When I developed constipation, the GP ordered a six-month ban from Auntie, so that I would get attached to my mother again. I have had a good relationship with Auntie all my life and all my memories up to the age of six are with her. However, I know almost nothing about home. The whole situation has created separation anxiety in me and sometimes that still plays up.
And strangely enough… when I was pregnant with the youngest, I was also completely overwrought. We lived in a strange house with a nasty energy and moved house in the eighth month of pregnancy. When this highly sensitive daughter was pregnant herself with her second child, she also lived in an uncanny home in which a woman committed suicide and then she also moved when she was eight or nine months pregnant. I really wish my granddaughter that this doesn’t happen to her too and I sometimes wonder what it is that this happened three times. What does that mean? Fortunately, I can talk to our daughter very openly about it, but you can’t undo it.
Anyway, I still have a lot of unanswered questions. As a child I was always very absent, as if I was on my own cloud, living in my own bubble. My parents were very proud of my eldest brother; he was glorified and could do no harm in their eyes and I used to think, ‘Why am I not being seen and heard? Am I not sweet and good? There is place for me, too, no?’ I felt misunderstood by my mother at the time. I was always different; I was highly sensitive and kicked down sacred cows. Once home from school I had to get rid of my excess energy and I was very busy, but then I would lock myself in my bubble again; they did not understand me. I had and still have trouble really physically living in my body, so to speak, and I cried a lot as a child, for seemingly nothing, and I could be very dramatic… Even now, my pain threshold is very low. Still, compared to the rest of the family, I was a rebel and didn’t fit into my mother’s guilt-shame-infamy program. Everything had to be neat and well-behaved and I was not.”
She says that after the move, her father first found a new job, but then fell ill and from the age of 46, when Hester was 11 years old, was always at home and never got better. Her mother was busy with the children and taking care of her husband. Mother found it very difficult that years after the third child another child came. She was constantly on the verge of exhaustion. Both parents, according to Hester, have tried incredibly hard to make the best of it, yet the family led a very limited life, with a very small social circle. This had repercussions on the children and also on the marriage, which, after almost forty years and therapy by the mother, still failed.
Hester started the atheneum after primary school; that was tough for her and she actually preferred to go to HAVO, because music was now an official exam subject there and that would help her to go to the conservatory. However, her parents wanted to keep her at the atheneum: their daughter would do what they could not have manifested themselves. She was not allowed to go to HAVO. She completed the atheneum and felt she never wanted to touch a book again. Music it would be: the conservatory in The Hague, moving out, although it was only later that she realised that she had no idea whatsoever about what she was really interested in. She had a wish to go to Poona and become a follower of Bhagwan, but that, too, was not an option for a decent Catholic girl. Do your best, be good, study, find a job, start a family… that was the expected course of events.
“I just wasn’t equipped to stand on my own two feet at all. I was not brought up that way; I didn’t know how to make social contacts, I couldn’t find my way. Every weekend I would go home and take my laundry with me…” She shakes her head at the image of a girl who had to survive in ‘the big world’ from a small, protected family environment: “What a drama it was… I played the flute and knew from the start it wasn’t for me, but at least it was better than the secretarial course my parents suggested. I thought… if I have to do that and then stay at home, I’m going to die; I can’t handle that. Other options, such as dietetics or the library academy were also reviewed, but somehow they all didn’t fit. After the third year I stopped in The Hague and eventually I finished the conservatory in Maastricht. The requirements there were not nearly as high; there it was much more like a properly structured school and more manageable and I was able to keep up and pass my exams there.”
She tells how from an early age she felt like a square that had to be squeezed into a social circle: “Always neat, always behaving decently, adapting… but I was rebellious! I wanted to live my own life! I wanted to look different! I wholeheartedly wanted all of that, but I hadn’t been able to develop the skills and confidence to actually do it. I was a good, almost depressed, otherworldly, lonely, poem-writing adolescent girl…”
These qualities made her also stage frightened, so a career as a musician was out of the question. She taught, but because of the high unemployment especially as a substitute, and she also experienced little pleasure doing so. She now had a conservatory diploma, but was not working as a musician. Instead, she worked with children who had to take recorder lessons before they could play a ‘real’ instrument – it felt like a pastime that lacked passion. Little did she know at the time that this was the end of a phase in which she did paid work.
We’ll hear more about Hester next week.