I stopped chewing my nails years ago. My mum used to slap my hand away from my face whenever she caught me doing it.
When I couldn’t do that anymore, I started pulling the sleeves of all my jumpers down, so they hung over my long thin arms like the grim reaper’s sleeves. So my mother threw out all my jumpers and purposely bought me clothes that wouldn’t even reach my wrists. I remember once I had to give a presentation, and I was so nervous about standing in front of a room full of people without my sleeves, that my hands shook violently and I dropped all my papers and everyone laughed.
So without my sleeves, I had to find something else. I started chewing my lips. Lips that throughout my life I had considered an eyesore because they were so thick and cartoonish, now really were an eyesore because they were always red and punctured. But my mum wasn’t around to stop me, so I sat in the GP waiting room, chewing my lip and trying to arrange my thoughts into a cohesive narrative.
I’d only really noticed it since moving back home. To my family home, where I lived with my sister and my grandmother. I’d been back and forth for the past three years, never around long enough to get worked up but noticing little niggling issues that were now about to get blown right out of proportion.
I’m a bottler, I bottle things up. My mum always told me that it was not proper to spread your personal business. If there was problem, you had to fix it yourself. But that was the problem. Thinking I could fix everything myself.
Like the bedroom situation. I was crammed back into the room I shared with my little sister. While I had been gone she had rearranged my things, put pictures on the walls and even written on the bedroom door: EMMA’S ROOM. I no longer felt welcome.
My grandmother would say things to me when I pensively walked around the house.
That’s not right. You’re the oldest. You set the rules.
I’d sit in my favourite chair and think and think because that’s really all I knew how to do. Three years of ideas and essays and stories, I didn’t know how to deal with conflict situations save bottling things up. So I thought and thought about what to do, and when I couldn’t find a solution, something began to course through me, a white hot rage. I had to campaign against this injustice the only way I knew how- I started imposing my will on little sister.
I painted over the door.
I rearranged the furniture.
I told her what to do.
You’re not my mum!
That was my sister’s favourite line. And she was right, of course. My mum was not around, so someone else had to bring us back to normality. I had to bring us back to normality.
‘Normality.’ The doctor repeated as I recited the above passage to him, ‘Normality is an interesting word. What is normality, would you say?’
I glanced at the diabetes poster on the wall. I did not like to bother myself with abstract idea. Too broad and too far out of my control. I preferred routine and during my three years at Leeds, I had developed a sensible routine. I had my own space, chose my own friends, worked on projects I cared about, maintained my good grades. I went out for a greasy brunch on a Sunday, took the scenic route home from afternoon lectures and enjoyed a cigarette as I watched episodes of Mad Men. That was my routine. That was my normal. But I couldn’t have that normal any more. Because that normal and my family’s ‘normal’ were two very different things.
Before I left home, I always thought everyone lived with their grandma, and had their mum visit twice a week and their dad exist in a telephone. I thought that everyone had to look after their cousins on their own at 5 years old and remember not to answer the door if anyone came knocking. I thought everyone could play outside on the weekends, but never have friends visit their house. I thought everyone’s family enforced the ‘oldest is most important’ rule. I thought everyone had their parents tell them they ought to do better, be the best. I thought everyone had to wipe their sick grandma down with a flannel while she cried. I thought everyone had to tell their sister there was no such thing as monsters while being afraid of the dark themselves. I thought everyone woke up in the morning to a panic attack, at the thought of going back home. And it wasn’t until I punched my sister in an all out living room brawl that I thought that something might be wrong. Something wrong with me.
‘So your mother is dead. And your father is absent.’ The doctor said quietly, thoughtfully, ‘Your grandma is sick and your sister has grown up without you. That’s an awful lot for a 22 year old to worry about.’
I shrugged. Standard family shit.
‘I’m not complaining.’ I clarified, ‘I’m here about the panic attacks. The family stuff is whatever.’
‘But your anxiety, Miss Milton, obviously stems from the sudden death of your mother, your distant father, your sick grandma and your independent sister. You clearly take a great deal of blame for this situation too.’
‘I always take the blame for my actions.’ I said, defensively.
‘Yes, but you seem to be taking the blame for everyone’s actions.’
He scribbled something down on his pad.
‘That’s family, isn’t it?’ I surmised, trying to see what he was writing.
‘No Miss Milton,’ he said, finally looking up at me, ‘that’s a psychological disorder and I’m referring you to therapist right away.’
My eyes glazed over. Somewhere in the distance I heard my mother say I shouldn’t have started spreading my business.