A family legacy of chronic pain

I really loved my Grandad. I’ll use that word here for clarity, but we always called him Pap. When my sister and I were young, we often stayed with Nan and Pap during the week. Pap would get us up in the morning, brush our hair and walked us to school. He got up early, so we got up early. In fact, we got to school so early that the teachers complained because there was no one available to look after us. 

Pap had a large garden, but he treated it like an allotment [1]. Three greenhouses overflowed with tomatoes, cucumbers and other vegetables. When my sister or I got hungry we’d simply pluck a tomato from the vine and eat it, juicy and warm from the sun in the greenhouse. Pap would pour a little salt on them, straight onto the red flesh. I never did learn to like cold tomatoes. In the summer he grew strawberries, and he always let us dip them in the sugar bowl. The sugar would soak up the juice and make a mess, every time. Mum worried that we would ruin our teeth, but grandparents delight in spoiling their grandkids.

There were apple trees in the garden too. Years ago, Dad and Pap had built a treehouse for my older brothers in the largest apple tree and they tidied it up for us girls. It had a little table that folded down on hinges from the wall, and tiny chairs, and a real window with clear plastic in the frame. Pap would peel the apples with a pocket knife, taking the skin off in one long, magical ribbon. Then he’d cut the flesh into slices and hand them to me and my sister. My dad would do the same. Apples taste the best this way. And every Sunday, Nan would cook a roast dinner, followed by rice pudding or apple pie.

It was the kind of childhood that you read about in storybooks, if you gloss over the inevitable family dramas. Like the time I locked my sister in a tiny cabinet in the caravan at the bottom of the garden. Or that time we got chased out of the park by loose dogs, and I shut her on the other side of the gate because I didn’t want the dogs to get in. I was a bit of a shit sister for a few years, but that’s a story for another day.

In summary, I thought my Pap was the best and sweetest man in the world.

Now that I’m older I know that the truth is more complicated than that. I know that Pap was a soldier in the Second World War. I know that part of his job was driving a truck for the army, that he learned to speak some German and play the harmonica. I know that when he got back from the war he didn’t talk about it. When I grew up, I learned that he could be violent, to his kids and to his wife. He spent 7 years living separately from them, eating dinner with them after work then choosing to sleep at his dad’s house. I learned that he only went home when my nan threatened to divorce him because she couldn’t cope on her own. I know that one time, when my dad was very small, he hid under the kitchen table while Nan and Pap argued. And my grandad got so angry, and frightened my dad so badly, that my dad wet himself. Dad was in his 60s when he told me that story, with a quiet voice and a faraway look in his eye. I’m sure there are a lot of stories left that I haven’t head.

I’m not sharing these things to demonize my Pap, but simply to cast a light on the generational trauma that has followed my family, as I’m certain it has in other families. The person that I knew as my grandad was not the same person that my dad had for a father. And in a similar fashion, my older brothers had a very different dad than my sister and I. I think most people mellow as they get older, but especially the men in my family. 

My dad never hit me or my sister, despite his upbringing. He would get angry and aggressive, shout and even throw things, but he didn’t continue that cycle of violence. When I was young, I judged my dad for his anger and his difficulty managing his emotions, but now that I am older I have more empathy because I know more of the context. Times were different when my dad was young, life was harder, and his parents didn’t have time for emotional literacy. It’s hard to learn what you’ve never been taught.

Another factor that I didn’t understand when I was young was that my dad was dealing with multiple injuries that caused him chronic pain. When I was small, he managed his pain and his depression with alcohol. As I got a bit older he switched from alcohol to prescription painkillers. This didn’t help with his moods. I didn’t understand why he was angry all the time or why his mood could turn so quickly. It had a significant impact on our relationship, and for years things were turbulent between us. In honesty, it affected the whole family. 

Before I started school, my mum would stay home to look after my sister and me. And even then, small as I was, I would dread my dad coming home from work. He’d come through the door in a flurry of stress and aggravation; mum’s attitude instantly changed to one of anxiety, and the whole energy in the house changed. It was like walking on eggshells the whole time he was home. I remember saying as much to my mum when I was little, and she replied exasperatedly, “You make out like he’s an ogre!”. Their relationship was strained as well. They fought often, which usually ended in my dad storming out of the house to go to his dad’s or his sisters, and my mum crying at the kitchen table. Sometimes he would simply go upstairs to vent to ‘his boys’. During those arguments they were always ‘his boys’ and we were mum’s girls. “Take your girls and fuck off to your mother’s then!”. We were a house divided.

After dinner, after our bedtime, mum and dad would sit in the living room to watch TV. The fire was in the living room, so it was the warmest room in the house [2]. When we couldn’t sleep, as small children often can’t, we would sneak downstairs. If the living room door was open we were allowed in for a cuddle. Sometimes, dad would bounce us on his knee and tell us stories he invented, of Jack the Rabbit, Maggie Magpie and Cyril the Squirrel. Other times, the door was closed and it was a gamble. On a good day, cuddles and stories; on a bad day, shouting and swearing and another parental fight, which was our fault. On those days, my sister and I would sit on the stairs in the dark, holding hands, and wait for my mum to walk past on her way to the kitchen to make tea, so she could tell us if it was safe to go in or if we should sneak back to bed.

I loved my dad, and sometimes I hated him. It depended entirely on the day and circumstance, and his mood on that day. I could never find a pattern to it, and that unpredictability caused my sister and I to develop significant anxiety. I must have been about 10 years old the first time I told my mum to divorce my dad. I genuinely thought they’d be happier apart. 

Then I spent almost 10 years living with chronic pain, and suddenly I understood.

If you’ve never had to live with chronic pain, it’s almost impossible to explain. It doesn’t even have to be very bad pain, it just has to be there. Constantly. Eating away at you. You see, the difference in chronic pain and acute or short-term pain is that it wears you down. We can deal with really quite bad pain when we know it’s going to go away. You just have to grin and bear it. But chronic pain grinds you down and reduces your ability to deal with any other kind of stress. You just don’t have the resources left over. So you get angry over little things, lose your temper very easily and have no patience at all for anything.

I didn’t encounter ‘Spoon Theory’ [3] until I was much older, but it works well to explain the reality of living with chronic pain. The premise is that you start every day with a certain number of spoons, and every action you take during the day costs you spoons. You can only perform as many actions as you have spoons. That’s it, but it’s surprisingly useful for describing life with chronic illness. The effort of dealing with the pain saps away your spoons, so you have less to spend on getting through your day. On good days you wake up with more spoons, on bad days you wake up with fewer, and on very bad days you not only wake up with fewer, but every single action costs more spoons to complete. It’s a recipe for disaster and unpredictability. 

Now that I’m an adult, and I’ve experienced the unique challenge of trying to parent while dealing with chronic pain, I have forgiven my dad for all of it. Everything that I blamed him for when I was a child – when I was selfish as all children are and I couldn’t see the full picture – I forgive him for. And I hope that he forgives me, for all the ways that I was selfish and impatient and unempathetic. I am grateful that this shared experience has brought us closer together, and I have a better relationship with him now than I have ever had before. 

Ultimately, it’s through our challenges and our failures that we grow the most. So for that, if for nothing else, I am grateful for my pain.

[1] An allotment garden, often called simply an allotment, or a community garden, is a plot of land made available for individual, non-commercial gardening or growing food plants. 

[2] We didn’t get central heating in the house until we were 8 or so. The house we grew up in was cold, built in the 1930’s to house factory workers, it was cotswold stone on the outside and brick on the inside, with single pane windows where the condensation froze on the inside of the glass during winter. 

[3] Spoon Theory by Christine Miserandino https://butyoudontlooksick.com/articles/written-by-christine/the-spoon-theory/ 

Published by QuirkyCnt

I've spent 10 years living with chronic pelvic pain. Vulvodynia, vestibulodynia, vaginismus - I've got the set. I've even got lichen planus, which is an autoimmune disorder, and adenomyosis. This blog documents my experience with chronic pain, sexual dysfunction and all the ways I've tried to manage it. Expect fetish clubs, polygamy and explicit conversations about sex and sexuality.

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