... in my brain actually. My very own brain tumour

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Life story: Origins of my unhealthy beliefs

This is a very heavy, serious and long diary note. It is also very personal. If nobody wants to read it, I will understand, but if you do it will make me happy. It is at the very centre of the big mistake in my life, and I confront it here.

In my last diary entry, I talked about constructing a routine that would help me stay focused on reality. I have done so and will share it with you later. While putting the plan together, I was aware that this is not the first time I have tried to do so. All previous attempts failed. Why will my present attempt succeed? I will come to that in a moment, but it is essentially because I have now made a decision to be open and share my plans publicly.

Why is it that I have been trying to fix myself for my whole life? Well, it is because something went wrong very early in my childhood that laid down beliefs that have sabotaged all my behaviour ever since. Unfortunately, I have only understood and changed those beliefs now after 62 years, as a result of being jolted into action by my brain tumour, that strange gift. Here is a brief summary of my life. I have filtered the information to keep it short, and relevant only to those aspects that laid down my unhealthy beliefs. Many positive, good things have happened in my life, but my purpose now is to identify, as best I can, only the things that created my long-held, dysfunctional beliefs.

My childhood was an unhappy time. I remember my father, Dick, as a most wonderful playmate and source of fun and happiness. He could tell stories like nobody else in the world - stories that were filled with irony and humour. They were stories that laughed at people with a deep, visceral belly-laugh. They were stories that were filled with earthy reality that made a child's eyes open wide with anticipation and glee. My father was also naturally and passionately musical although he did not play any musical instrument. But he could whistle. And whistle he did - wherever he went - sometimes to the chagrin of us children. He would walk down the road, through the shops, catch a bus, loudly whistling Beethoven's 6th Symphony. That was one of his favourites - the "Pastoral". It is one of my favourites to this day. When I say he whistled the 6th Symphony, that is exactly what I mean; all four movements, including exposition, development, repeats, everything. When he came to the end, he would go on to the 9th Symphony, or just start the 6th again. If interrupted he would swear a good, irreverent oath, laugh out loud, deal with the interruption, then carry on where he had stopped. He would spend hours playing games of immense imagination with us children, always spicing them with a pungent sense of the ridiculous. He understood Monty Python, before Monty Python was created. Oh how I loved my father.

There was one boring, practical problem. He was so utterly unconventional and intolerant of authority that he was unable to hold down a job. He sneered at his bosses and could not conceal his contempt if they were stupid. All his life he spent without a career and only contributed minimally to the family income. The responsibility of attending to the practical needs of the family (with 4 children, of whom I was the eldest) fell on the unwilling shoulders of my mother.

My mother was a beautiful and highly intelligent woman with a Masters degree in Science and various other post graduate qualifications. She was the rock on which the family was built. She had to wrench herself away from her tiny children every morning to catch the bus to the Government Matallurgical Laboratory in Johannesburg where she reluctently worked. We children were left at home where my father whistled and played his fantastic games with us.
As I grew older, I realised that he was not like other fathers, all of whom went dutifully and respectably off to work. So I started developing a feeling of shame for him that I kept to myself. When he occasionally found a job, he would often be away for months at a time. We were then left in the care of a nanny , or with Ouma, who didn't like children. I remember being locked in the coal cellar for what seemed like hours by that old woman, for some childish indiscretion. I was terrified of her.

To this day, I cry when I read letters written by my mother at this time. She was filled with despair and anger at my father for his inability to provide for the family. She describes her feelings of failure and guilt at having to leave the care of the children to other people. She had a hard, hard time. She was admirable and strong. She was practical, and resolute, and made sure things did not disintegrate. She also became bitter and critical and exhusted as time went on. Oh how I missed her and longed for her as a child.

These terrible circumstances set the stage for the daily dramas that acted themselves out in our poverty stricken, empty, echoing house. Daily there would be the fights. Not physical fights. Worse. They were fights between my beloved father and beloved mother, in which they would tear each others' characters apart loudly and viciously, all in front of the children. It was like a verbal bloodbath, where no aspect of their characters was safe or sacred. There was loud shouting and screaming, there were stony terrifying silences, sighings, crying, wailing. No aspect of either of their characters was safe from ridicule, sarcastic side-swipes and aggressive disrespect. It all happened openly and loudly in front of the children.

I still remember as a child lying curled up in a ball in the corner of my room listening to the daily noise of my parents fighting. I remember feeling small, insecure, impotent and guilty. They were always fighting about the children and whose responsibility the children were. My guilt grew as it can only do in the uncomprehending mind of a child. It became unbearable for me to know that everything was my fault. That is genuinely what I believed. The whole ghastly, aggressive mess that surrounded my beloved parents was cause by me. What could I do to fix it? How could I improve myself? What was wrong with me? Why were all other children good, and I was bad? I would wrestle with these things every minute of the day and night, but I was only a child. I didn't have the resources to deal with adult problems because I was only a child. But I tried. I learned that if a job needed to be done, I just had to do it, no matter how unpleasant. I learned how to force myself to do things that I often hated. My efforts must have been pathetic, but I did my best. I regarded myself as the man of the house as far back as I can remember.

I took on adult responsibilities very early, especially when my father was away in Lichtenberg or Mafeking for months at a time. I remember two incidents with particular horror. One was very simple. The cat had kittens. We had no money to feed them. So, being the man of the house, although only 7 years old at the time, my mother asked me to drown them. Men sometimes need to do things even if it upsets them. I filled a bucket with water and drowned the kittens one by one. I was surprised at how strong they were as they struggled until they died. I hated it and will never forget it. But, sometimes men just have do carry out orders whether they like it or not. Men are responsible and strong. Despite my role as man of the house I remember crying for days and being consumed with horror and grief at what I had done. I secretly performed a solitary religious ceremony and buried the tiny wet bundles of dead fur at the back of the garden under a bush. The other incident, also when I was about 7, involved being woken one night by my mother who told me there was a burglar on the roof. "John, you must go out and shoot him", she said in a loud whisper. With that, she put a heavy, cold pistol into my hand. I can still feel the size and coldness of the handgrip and being amazaed at how heavy it was. I knew what I had to do. As my mother, younger brother and little twin sisters cowered in a group on the stoep, I went out into the freezing, moonlit highveld night with my firearm to protect the family. Surveying the roof carefully for the burglar I was about to kill, all I saw was a cat. Thank goodness. I had been let off the hook and would not have to kill that night. If it had been a burglar and not a cat, there is no shadow of doubt in my mind that I would have carried out my instructions. These are some of the childish traumas that haunt me to this very day.

Is it any wonder that I developed a system of beliefs during these years that were not healthy? Let me try to list some of those beliefs, remembering that they were formulated by the mind of an immature child:

  • I am a supremely responsible person who will protect and provide, no matter what. I force myself to be responsible, even though I don’t know how. I hate it.
  • I am not important. It is my actions that are important. I must provide, no matter what. Whatever happens to me in the process is unimportant.
  • I must stay in control, no matter what. I cannot trust other people. They always let me down.
  • I fail all the time. Despite my need to be responsible and strong, I do not have the personal strength of character to succeed. I am therefore a shameful failure. But I will keep trying, knowing that I will continue to fail.
  • My father is a bad person, irresponsible and weak. I must therefore take a vow (I remember using that word as a young child) to live my life being unlike him. I reject everything about him, his playfulness, fun, story telling. I must show loyalty towards my poor mother who I will always protect. That loyalty will be shown by rejecting my father and despising him.
  • Everything is my fault. I will take responsibility for everything that happens in the world. I will deal with it myself, because I can't trust other people.
  • I will not share my problems with other people. My problems are my responsibility, not theirs. I am alone. No one else cares, so I must make things work.
  • Avoid confrontation at all costs. Just don’t go there, ever.
  • I have a very strong commitment to time. Things need to be done immediately to avoid them piling up and overwhelming my personal resources. I am terrified of having so much to do that I can’t cope. I must use every available second of time efficiently and effectively in order to stay in control. I am massively afraid of failing to get everything done on time and must avoid such a situation at all costs.

All these beliefs have been reconstructed in the Beliefs Page of this website in such a way that they now conform to reality and are healthy and adaptive and helpful. Click here to go to the beliefs page to see the reconstruction.

These are very distorted and extreme beliefs. They are typical of the thinking of a small child, especially one who was, essentially, abused and missed out on the carefree experience of being a child. My beliefs were pathetic and unrealistic. They were certainly not designed to help me effectively through adult life. The net result of trying to live life according to these childish guidelines has been the ever-present fear of failure. It is not a rational, adult fear. It is the uncontrolled, quaking fear of a frightened child with lions that live under the bed at night. That's where my fear comes from. These beliefs have never been properly examined and reformulated by me till now. What a pity. I forgave my parents a long time ago. Who knows what drove them to behave the way they did? Who knows what their belief systems looked like?

As my life progressed, my determination and strong beliefs seemed to be working, even if they caused pain and fear, so they became more deeply ingrained. After passing matric as Head Boy of my school, I decided to study medicine and embarked on the 6 year course with an uncompromising and inflexible determination to succeed. I found it very stressful, especially when, in my 4th an 5th clinical years I learned to examine patients intimately, deliverd 40 babies, worked in the casualty department, and was introduced to psychiatry as one of my subjects. I started to get a glimmering of what was going on inside my mind, but I resisted changing any of my plans or beliefs. Why change things if they are apparently working, even at a superficial level? Then the depressions started - deep, black, hopeless depressions that overwhelmed me with despair. I tried, with cleched fists, to snap out of them, but couldn't. I had lost control.What a failure! What a disaster! I couldn't study effectively during my 5th year. I remember going off to Medical School and spending days just walking the corridors of the hospital to look busy. How could I, such a failure, go and examine patients? So I walked and walked until my feet were saw.

At this time I was married to my amazingly wonderful, loyal wife, who has stuck with me all my life through some of the steepest hills and deepest valleys anyone can imagine. What an amazing, loving and admirable person she is. She supported us during the study years. The similarity of our situation to that of my parents was not lost on me, and made me very anxious and ashamed. But we always loved and respected each other, and never fought as my parents did. I failed my 5th year because of my ongoing depressions. What a failure. It devastated and filled me with a gnawing shame. After repeating the 5th year, a further major depression developed which I was unable to control, and had to be hospitalised after a suicide attempt. I then made the momentous decision, after 6 hard years of study, to give up medicine and I joined the bank as a junior clerk. The time had come to provide. I had to do it, and do it hard. Still depressed and filled with failure and shame, I applied myself to my banking career and became a manager very quickly. Everything seemed to have sorted itself out, but of course it hadn't because I still clung to those childish beliefs that were motivating my behaviour from fear. The awful reality of recurring depression has always been with me from those days until the present. It has now disappeared like a miracle.

All my younger siblings have died. My brother hanged himself in a police holding cell after trying to hold up a bank with a toy gun. One sister was struck by lightening, dying in Lesotho instantly, My last sister died in London of a widely disseminated cancer many years ago. Is my turn coming up soon? It seems cruel in the extreme that, just at the brink of my decision to retire and enjoy life, this damned tumour has presented me with a serious challenge. Am I angry? You bet I am. But I have already defined and accepted the belief that life is not intrinsically fair. So I will forgive my personal outburst and let it go. I will fight the damned thing with everything I've got, but whatever happens will be fine. I will accept it calmly and without fear. I really mean that. I am not trying to be brave or inspired. I feel the acceptance and it feels good.

As our children grew up, they experienced a father who was inflexible, controlling and full of extreme opinions about resposibility. Oh, my boys, please forgive me. I know that there was also fun, and love and there were good times. But I ask your forgiveness for some of the hardness, coldness and distance that you experiened from your old dad. You have both turned out to be spectacularly wonderful people. I admire you both beyond belief. There is nothing in the world that I am more proud of than you. You are a joy and source of happiness to me. I now realise that I am a good person. I have made some dreadful mistakes, that's all. The biggest one of all is that it has taken me so long to examine my beliefs properly. I tried again and again but never had success. I didn't know how to examine beliefs, but I now do. Having made a start at the age of 62, I have made really good progress in a matter of weeks. A miracle has happened. I am essentially the same person I have always been but I have changed in a miraculous and fundamental way. I am joyful, relaxed, coping well with my tumour, positive, renewed and excited.

I have admitted that many previous attempts to fix my problems have failed. What is different this time? This time I am sharing my problems. I am not trying to fiddle around with them secretly. I am putting everything out on the table for everyone to see. The risk - and the risk is very great - is paying off beyond my wildest dreams. My wonderful wife is helping me with my task and she is astonished to see how quickly I have changed. How can I ever ask forgiveness from her for the pain she has suffered as a result of my past mistakes? I will ask her forgiveness anyway. I suppose that having a serious malignant tumour has made it easier to take the chance. What do I have to lose! Family and friends are all accepting me as I am. They refuse to confirm that I am a failure. They tell me the opposite. I feel the love, prayers, warmth and care from all of you. I accept your gifts of love and support. In the process, I am changing so rapidly and easily into a person that I like, that it is ridiculous. I didn't know that it would be so easy. What a pity I didn't take the risk of sharing long ago. Maybe someone reading this note will be inspired to examine their beliefs properly and avoid the problems I have had to face. It is my fervent hope that I can help someone in this regard. If just one person gets the message, I will be glad I wrote this note and put it out into the world.


Anonymous said...

John, this is absolutely amazing. I am not even known to you. One of your friends asked me to read your wesite. It is the most inspiring thing I have done in years. I will br STUDYING what you say. Well done. You are brave and wise and wonderful

David said...

I had no idea you had these problems in your past. I must admit I cried while reading this note. John you are loved by and appreciated by lots of people. Go on writing. You must write a book wheen its all over

JohnW - Sydney said...

My dear John,

You have laid bare your soul in the most extraordinary way. There is stuff here that I am familiar with but you also have given me insights that have simultaneously taken my breath away and explained.

I want to endorse your comments about Joan. After you I have always been her #1 fan - he is truly amazing, loving, supportive, stoic and has retained her delightful sense of humour throughout.

Your determination to see this evil thing off together with the marvels of modern medicine must position you well for a successful outcome. As you know, there is a continuous stream of positive thoughts coming your way daily.

To read that you have so successfully come to terms with yourself and recognise that you are a good and worthwhile person is the best news I have had for a long time. As you say, pity it took 62 years and a bloody nasty tumour!

I look forward to your next blog entry with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. You have carried some serious burdens throughout your life but somehow have still been a wonderful friend who has always had my admiration and deep respect.

John said...

Thank you John. Yes, I am going through a remarkable process. I am being carried along by my generous, caring friends and family. The whole thing is rolling along easily and miracles are happening daily. I am a lucky, lucky person to have this chance of finally finding myself. Let's laugh about life a lot more. It isn't the serious thing I once thought it was! Thanks again for your support John.

robert said...

nice post. wishing you the best. we all have our demons to confront. happy for you for having the courage to drag them out into the light.