As I have written here before, I like routine. I am a creature of habit. I like to have a plan. I like – when possible – to know what the day ahead has in store for me. I put my clothes out each night in preparation for work. Before I go to bed, I put out the breakfast dishes – and my medication – for the next morning. I never leave the house with dishes in the sink or a full, clean load in dishwasher left unemptied.
It doesn’t stress me out doing these things because the act of doing them prevents stress, worry and anxiety. I have long known that I am – to use the over-used and mis-used phrase “a control freak”. That is a label that is attached to people as a criticism or insult – very rarely a compliment. It reflects a prejudice we have for free wheelers; free spirits; chilled out folk who just roll with it. They are cool. Easy going. Good craic. Control freaks are uptight, saddoes, who need to get a life.
For as long as I can remember I’ve had the need to be super-organised; in control of my time; on top of things. It has rarely been a source of anxiety because I don’t allow it to be; I have built my life and daily routines around the sort of activities and processes that help me to stay in control. This works most of the time. In fact, it has served me very well.
My various bouts of therapy and my increasing awareness, knowledge and understanding of my mental health and what makes me tick has helped me to see beyond the routines to what is really going on.
My parents separated and then divorced before my first memory was lodged. My earliest memories are of me being alone with my Mum; in our little, cosy, safe house in Rainhill. My auntie Elsie (not my real auntie) next door: knitting; picking horses (always involving Lester Piggot – I remember the funny name); a strong smell of baking (which I am experiencing now simply typing this); brown bread, folded over with Flora margarine; a tin box tuned upside down as a drum, played by the end of her knitting needles. I grew up deeply loved by my Mum and my Dad (who arrived on the scene around the age Miss J is now) and adored by my Nan. We moved to a lovely house. Big garden. Nice school. Some friends. Two dogs. Holidays. Meals out. A comfortable life.
But I always longed for safety; a feeling of security. My bedtime routine as a child always revolved around checking under the beds (not just mine); and then graduated to testing all the windows to see if they were locked; the back door; the garage; the chain on the front door. This built up over the years until it was a full 10 minute nightly security sweep of the premises. It doesn’t take a genius to work out why from an early age – until today (now with my wife) – that I ask over and over again “are you ok?” to my nearest and dearest. I need that reassurance they are not about to leave me; abandon me; dessert me.
I am not the first child whose parents divorced when they were young – and who had one of them (my father in my case) in and out of their lives; at times unreliable (which by definition means they were unreliable); overpromising and under-delivering. One of my strongest childhood memories is waiting to be collected from my Nan’s house for his Sundays with me, standing in her bay window; pacing from side to side looking up and down Finch Lane to try to spot his car; my heart racing; my suggested excuses for his lateness getting more and more elaborate.
My need for “control” now; for certainty and reliability; is not a desire to be in charge of people and things or because I want to be in charge or the boss, but a real, raw, desperate need to protect myself from my worse fears and darkest thoughts; from previous experiences and memories; from being the little boy in the window or the teenager checking for locked windows and doors to the forty-one-and-a-half-year- old who still needs to check in several times a day with his wife to reassure him that she won’t leave.
I understand all of this now and can rationalise it and embrace it. There are times when it threatens to suffocate me; overwhelm me; but I keep it in check. Just. This week, we had carpets fitted in the house and I had two very poor night’s sleep worrying about this activity that was out of my comfort zone and out of my control; lots of weird house-related dreams; have I moved enough furniture; will they be finished on time; will I get my organised, tidy, clean, quiet, peaceful, safe house back to normal quickly? Will it go according to plan?
There are times when I see myself as a young man – 18/19 – waiting to be collected for a night out by friends. I would be standing in the window of our dining room, at the front of the house. Stood in the dark, looking left and right for signs of car headlights arriving on the street. I see that young man now; see the boy ten years before him; and the man today, still wanting everything to happen on time, as planned, without stress.
In my work I can deal with uncertainty and these sorts of challenges with ease. In my home life – the part of my life that matters the most to me – not so much. I know that I have built a suit of armour that I wear now to protect me and insulate me; that I am trying to avoid reliving the traumas of the past; to protect my little girl from some of the things I felt.
I couldn’t give two hoots about the Royal Family or the institution of the monarchy – except I would like a head of state I choose rather then one chosen because of the family they were born into – but I see Harry and see something that is also real and raw.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of what he and his family are now doing in the eyes of his father, brother and grandmother, the country, the media and the world, we can surely all agree on one thing. That he is trying to exercise some control over his life; to protect himself and his family from the traumas of the past; from his son being that little boy walking behind his mother’s coffin; reliving his father’s worst experience; history repeating itself.
That is my aim; to build routines and habits that support my mental health; that help to keep me feeling calm; safe and secure; that keep me right. I keep that little boy (who was still wetting the bed until he was well into school) in my mind every day; the anxious teenager, jumping at every noise from the central heating or rattle of a window; the twenty year old hiding in the dark obsessively looking at his watch and counting to ten over and over again. I know now that although I had my breakdown aged 37, my anxiety and depressive tendencies were with me many years before the elastic band eventually snapped.
The rituals and routines were in place from an early age and are with me today. I now know that’s ok. In fact, it’s more than ok, it’s a great thing. It helps me and it indirectly helps my family. It may well help Harry and his.
It also means that whenever you stay at ours you’re never on dishwasher or breakfast dishes duty!