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They Fuck You Up, Your Mum and Dad

How do you stray from the path your parents set out for you?

by James Nolan
28 May 2015, 1:39pm

The author as a child

Sitting in a therapist's lately, we went over the abysmal state of my life. When the subject of my parents came up, I explained that, though I didn't feel like I'd ever truly connected with them, I didn't want to complain when, clearly, so many of my problems were my fault. My therapist said their lives sounded a lot like mine, that those with low self-esteem (me) often live lives preventing them from being happy, and what better model to follow than one I know works?

When I thought about this later, it began making sense, so I drew two lines on a piece of paper, one plotting my parents' lives since my birth and one plotting mine since I left their house, and both looked exactly the same. When I went back, I asked my therapist, "If this is actually true, how can I break out?" Surely, if the problem was low self-esteem, I just needed to love myself more.

"Well," she said, "that'd be the ideal solution."

At the time of my birth in 1987, my parents lived in a one-bedroom flat. With its threadbare carpet and pisser without bath or shower, the place was decidedly a dump. To say it felt constrictive to a growing child was an understatement, but for them, sharing a bedroom with their infant son was hardly a picnic, either – not something to come home to after working as a house painter and a shop assistant.

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Naturally, they aspired to more, and that their financial situation wasn't really malleable to this could be forgiven in the context of them needing a reason to live other than me. So when they moved out, finding a house, they at least compromised on a rough area. But my mother sensed an opportunity anyway, and they loaded themselves up to the gills with debt to furnish it. Clearly she had a hole inside her, her own lack of self-esteem, and soon she invited people around I hadn't seen in years to give her validation.

The locals didn't take too kindly to our pretensions, though, and after a while began pelting our house with stones and putting rubbish through our letterbox. They also started drinking in our back garden and bullying me, and when we finally moved out, they broke in, smashed the place up and smeared shit all over the walls. It was a sendoff fit for a clan of murderers, not a family of three who were 99 percent the same as them, only with potted plants outside our door instead of washing machines. What could we do, however, but move on, spending more money in the belief it'd further protect us from arseholes?

The author in his flat in Germany

Fifteen years later, I moved to Germany with my girlfriend, where we rented a flat over the internet. At the time, it didn't matter that it was a dump, but when summer faded, everything in it being broken became a metaphor for our lives. The shower went hot and cold depending on its mood; the toilet had a ledge, meaning when you took a dump you could see it up close; and birds nested in our air vents. So just like my parents, we aspired to more. Our only mistake was, instead of finding a better place in Germany, we moved to a Dublin getting more expensive by the day.

But at least we had a nice house – though we also had housemates, another couple who avoided paying for stuff, rarely cleaned, broke things and blanked us. We combatted this by buying shit – draining our accounts even further – like appliances, cushions, whatever. But Alcatraz would have been homelier. In anger, I wrote this and got us kicked out. Immediately it put us under pressure to rent somewhere within weeks when, if we'd have just left of our own accord, we could have found somewhere cheaper. But I thought we could handle it, assuring my girlfriend the added expense of the place we found could totally be done.

The author about to move to his parents' first house

My parents thought the same thing when they were approved for a mortgage, but after a time, things in our new house – like Sky, the phone and the internet – started being cut off, and places like the car insurance company would call, leaving angry messages with me because my mother refused to answer. Though my father was bringing in more money than ever because of Ireland's Celtic Tiger economy – the one that'd crash a decade later and send me packing to Germany – it was going out even quicker because of my mum's expensive tastes. I started resenting her for what she was doing while still taking part in it, hoovering up whatever bullshit extravagance I could get.

For my dad, that there was an alternative to this life other than winning the Lotto didn't seem possible. Because he'd come from nothing, he thought he was fucked regardless and that whatever money he did have might as well be blown or spent on bills. I didn't agree with this, imagining all the things you could do with money beyond a chest freezer and a shed to put this chest freezer in, beyond a garden to put the shed in, beyond a house, on and on working backwards until your entire existence could be traced to a lowly impulse you had in the freezer section of Currys.

Because I was taking part, though, what right did I have to complain? I knew it was wrong accepting stuff, but being a teenager with my own friends to impress, I could hardly resist. Still, I promised when older that I wouldn't repeat their mistakes. I'd live within my means.

After a year living in our palatial apartment, my girlfriend and I had almost no money. Every month left us with an increasingly low amount on which to live – having a full life became impossible. Like my parents, we'd spent a lot of money protecting ourselves from arseholes, but when we couldn't take it any more and the girl who, at that moment, became my ex walked out the door, who we were really protecting ourselves from became clear.

It hit me like a bolt of lightning. Since the weather had changed in Germany three years previous, being together was no longer enough for us, and we'd begun spending not just on deposits and furniture, but on entertainment: time half-spent with other people, often drinking, to protect us from each other. So when our accounts became perilously low, we couldn't engage with friends, nor rage against housemates, thus we directed our attention – and dissatisfaction – towards our relationship.

I wondered if this had happened to my parents, too; if, at some point, being together had stopped being enough for them and if that was when their materialist cancer had set in – or if, before that, that was when they'd decided to have me.

The author after his mother's death

When the hole inside my mother was filled with real cancer, our house was about to be foreclosed on, but because the cancer was deemed terminal, the life-insurance clause in our mortgage cleared it. Once we'd sold the house and moved in with my grandmother, my parents lived like the Lotto winners they always wanted to be for the final two years of her life.

For this, it's hard to blame them. Mum didn't even have the mercy of death coming softly in the night, rather it stalked her, always near but sometimes far enough away it appeared she might outrun it. For dad, it didn't matter when she died that she left him broke and alone. He loved her, and having been unable to give her what she needed (life), at least he'd been able to give her what she wanted.

Similarly, when my ex and I broke up, unable to give each other money, at least we could give each other freedom. Getting together at 20, we didn't want to be alone, but after six years, what we wanted was the recognition that – in all but name – that's exactly what we'd once again become.

So is my therapist right? Did I follow some subconscious roadmap made by my parents to destroy my relationship? Did I bring down my entire life because I have low self-esteem and, incapable of making mindful decisions, would rather make mindless ones out of some unintelligible need to self-destruct? I'd say there's evidence there, yes. At the same time, maybe it's just easier to point the finger at these things than take responsibility for being a fuck-up. My ex tried harder to love me than anyone could, but still, because my decisions were so bad, even she had to run away eventually.

I'm broke right now and living with my grandmother. This has been my life for the past six months. The bedroom I'm sleeping in is the one I spent years in when my mum was ill, the one across the hall from where she died. It's also the first place my ex and I had sex, as well as where we stayed during many Christmases, birthdays and trips home. Once a grown man with a full life, I now feel like a 28-year-old teenager.

Some nights lately I talk to my mum more openly than I did when she was alive, asking for help. Not about money – money will return, I'll move back out – rather about how the fuck I should live. The thought of continuing to self-destruct is unbearable, so if it's about loving myself more, do I first need to forgive myself? And what about the people who made me? Clearly I resent my parents, not only for what they denied me but also for what they denied themselves: the satisfaction of just being alive without adornment. However, they did love me, and because they believed things could always get better, instilled in me a bitter sort of endurance, some insane unwillingness to quit, which is particularly vital right now.

But I don't think I can forgive myself yet. Any control I have over my self-esteem feels fleeting, and though therapy and writing help, in the face of long-term feelings, freedom seems a long way away. However, one thing I know is that mistakes, if they don't destroy us, ultimately make us stronger and inspire us and others to reach heights we otherwise wouldn't be able to. I'm not saying I would have felt better seeing my parents piss their lives away if I knew I was going to write about it someday, but it's also doubtful whether I would have become a writer – the thing I love the most now that my girlfriend's gone – without the childhood they gave me.

So maybe I'll be capable of loving myself as much as words someday. Until then, writing them is probably the least self-destructive thing I can do.

@0jnolan

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