Memoirs of an introverted PDA child in a dysfunctional PDA family
[Care warning: this text contains a description of unpleasant child-blaming]
This is an excerpt from my autobiography-in-progress. I’m sharing it here as a blogpost because I’ve been asked a few times about what introverted PDA can look like in a child. My experience will not be same as other experiences of introverted PDA, but I hope my account provides a little bit of illumination onto how PDA can manifest in different ways.
While none of my family members in this account have sought PDA diagnoses, I believe they fit the neurotype too. My mother, Robin, has a different introverted PDA expression. While I have been more likely to fawn, she is more likely to blame others for life situations she can’t control and the roller-coastering emotions that come part and parcel with the PDA neurotype.
In retrospect, I can see that my older brother Grant fawned to our mother in order to feel safe.
It was only our step-father, Nathan, whose
expression was extrovert.
While it may be unpleasant for readers, I think my account of her scape-goating me is important to share because I have –alas– spoken with many fellow, introverted PDA adults whose mothers treated them this same way. In many cases, they have moved forward by cutting their mothers out entirely of their lives in order to escape their toxic conditioning. Some of us have succeeded in resuming acquaintance with our mothers with healthy boundaries established.
I’m on the second or third step of the stairs. Scant daylight reaches us here. We’ve started to play cautiously. Light catches the top of Grant’s cheek and the smooth, round, brown wood of the bannister knob. The ajar door to the backroom is behind him in my view. We are mindful of our every noise. I feel guilty to feel light-hearted. I sense Grant feels the same. The top of his dark brown hair looks black in the gloom. The play-bug takes over. We push each other and dart away. We giggle and shriek. Our sense of fun is irrepressible. It’s glorious to let go. We hear the breakfast room door open, and flinch. Letting go was wrong. Robin is hurrying to shush us.
Now aged six, the pattern of Nathan's bad moods has forged an ugly rut in my reality. I don’t recall when the pattern started. It’s gone on for years. But this particular scene has lodged in my memory like a black sticker pinned in an album.
We’ve spent long days tiptoeing. Not daring to raise our voices, because Robin kept reminding us in urgent hissed whispers that Nathan’s in bed in a bad mood. And we know he must not be disturbed when he’s in a bad mood because it detonates him into something much worse. So we’ve endured painfully silent meals with Robin fraught, and Nathan’s chair ominously empty. His red cushion with white dots plump and un-sat upon. We’ve ventured around the house scarce daring to breath lest we set him off like a landmine. We’d found solace playing with lego on the front room floor, but been unable to really enjoy it because of the overshadowing tension.
A nerve-jolting crash from upstairs tells me the next stage of Nathan’s bad mood has unleashed. Robin flees back to the breakfast room. Did we run to hide in the front room on this occasion, or brave the stairs (and closer to him) to flee to our rooms? We often ride out his terror-bursts in our beds. Hearts hammering. Hands clamping pillows over our heads to try to block the decibels of his fury. And to make ourselves invisible.
I’ve never seen Nathan during his bad moods. He hides before his explosions, then I from him afterwards. But I know intuitively that his every crash, clash, smash and bellowed swears are designed for maximum impact. Like a silverback gorilla thumping the ground, he wants us to quail at his power. And, to give him credit, he has succeeded excellently at this.
Monster unleashed, Nathan kicks and hurls all in his path. Stomping thunderously like the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk, but lacking the slow-paced finesse of fee fi fo fum! He thwacks the tall chest of drawers outside my bedroom door. But doesn't pause. Fury takes him directly to Robin in the breakfast room. I can hear him bellow, “You’re neurotic, woman!” and “You stupid, fucking whore!” his spat words are punctuated by the sharp sound of smashed crockery. And Robin’s futile begging. “Oh, Nathan, Nathan, please!” Her helplessness is strangely exhilarating. His accusations oddly delicious. A glimpse of power greater than hers. Mostly though, I feel terror. He’s never attacked me (so far) but I’ve heard and seen plenty of evidence of his violence. Robin’s helpless cowering is, perhaps, the most terrifying thing of all.
Now I hear the activation of stage three of his bad mood patten: the reverberating crash of the front door marking his furious exit. Silence returns. My heart rate begins to slow, though I still scarce dare breathe.
At length I find the courage to creep tentatively down the stairs. but crave company and reassurance, but I don’t know if I’ll be welcome in the breakfast room. I feel excluded for some reason. I tiptoe quickly along the dark passageway. The breakfast room door is open a crack. The ceiling light isn’t on, but the room is brighter than the passage where I stand. Light from the backyard window picks out the warm hues in the cork tiled floor so that they glow. I can hear Robin and Grant talking quietly. They sound very cosy. This is the companionship I crave. I take a breath and step into the room. They are huddled together at the far end of the big table. Although the breakfast room is brighter than the passageway, it’s still gloomy so their figures are hard to make out. I sense them as a single mass. “Hello,” I say.
They freeze. Brittle silence replaces their companionable whispering. I sense that they resent my intrusion. My heart skips like a foot slipped on a loose stone. I must have done wrong again. I instinctively hide my dismay. I never want people to spy my vulnerability. I try to look calm.
Robin gives me her special look of fretful, veiled disappointment. I hate that look. She wields it as a knife that cuts me down to nothing, whilst simultaneously conveying loving, maternal concern that I should be spared the knowledge of how bad I am: of how much my clumsy thoughtlessness has hurt her. Again.
Her eyes tell me she wants to welcome me into her and Grant’s sanctuary, but it is hard for her to do so because I have wounded her so much.
Grant, for his part, raises his brow to signify disgust at my presence.
I honestly don’t know what I did wrong. Wasn’t it Nathan who caused all the trouble? What did I do? I surely had no power. But this is the thing. That ugly, uncomfortable, unwanted ongoing thing that keeps slamming me in my face: I cause huge trouble and hurt without knowing. Even strangers single me out for blanket rejection. There is something intrinsically bad about me. Not knowing what it is, and my not meaning to do it makes no difference. There’s a dreadfulness to me that I have no awareness of. And no control over. And it makes everyone reject me.
Relentlessly, the ugly-familiar stages of Nathan’s bad mood march on. We have now entered stage four. This stage is about having no money for food. Robin wrings her hands and laments her poverty. She can’t afford to buy anything because Nathan took all the money with him, including her family allowance that was meant to provide money for us children. Her mood is sad and splintered like a savagely kicked china doll. She tries to be bright about the meals she provides. To make out that they are just what anyone would want: omelettes flavoured with chopped herbs from the garden, and fried eggs with home-made chips and frozen peas. The concept of chips always excites me because I connect them with the glamour of fish and chip shops, but Robin’s chips are disappointing. Where proper fish and chip shop chips are light and fluffy, hers are dense and chewy. She makes them in a lidded stainless steel pan with a fitted, grease-stained basket that’s like a straight-bottomed sieve.
The fifth, final stage of Nathan’s bad moods is his homecoming. It takes place between three days to a week after his explosive exit. It begins with his wide-smiling, whiskey-scented return during which his focus is mainly on Robin, who needs much gentle comforting and reassurance. Me and Grant are left to our own devices, expected to keep ourselves respectfully quiet while they do their making up thing. After this, Nathan is genial and manic. His attention feels squirmily bright as if the last ten days of his bad mood and our poverty had not happened at all. He makes loud, clownish jokes across the dinner table. I sense that Grant too has difficulty relaxing into the good vibe Nathan dictates.
Robin has a new game (or, at least, I sense it’s a game, but I’d never dare say so for fear of being told I’d got it all wrong). Her new game is about pretending she eats only charred cinders because she’s selflessly given the edible food to me and Grant, and –on the occasions that he’s home– Nathan. We sometimes eat tea (our evening meal) in the front room on our laps while we watch telly. This feels both modern and excitingly liberating. Me and Grant often eat here unsupervised during Nathan’s absences. Robin makes us aware of her cinder-diet by coming into the front room on some errand or other errand while we’re eating our dinners, and just happening to be carrying an unwashed baking tray. She pauses dramatically in her task, with the baking tray angled so we can see charred food burnt onto it, and takes a furtive nibble. Then another. And another. Gobbling up the cinders as if she’s starving. I don’t know what to make of it, but Grant leaps to his feet distraught, and anxiously asks if this is all she has for her own dinner. Robin acts like she’s embarrassed, “Oh, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean you to see. You mustn’t worry. It’s OK.”
“But is that all you’re eating?” Grant persists. His eyes are wide with anxiety. “You must tell me!”
She makes a show of deciding whether or not to confide in us, “Oh, I shouldn’t say anything to you. I don’t want you to worry.”
Her falseness screams at me like a stone in my shoe, but Grant is hooked, “You must tell us!” he pleads. I think I see tears in his eyes.
I spot a smile flicker on Robin’s lips, and a satisfied gleam in her eyes, but she hides both quickly behind a mask of helpless despair, “Oh, oh, oh, I really didn’t want you to see. And I’m really OK. You mustn’t worry.”
“But you’re eating burnt food!” Grant is unshakable in his concern, “you didn’t have a meal with us. Is that all you’re eating?”
“Oh, oh, I didn’t want you to know, but Nathan ran away with all the money and I can’t afford food for us all. But don’t worry,” she says with affected pluckiness, “I don’t need much to eat.”
I know it’s all a game in which me and Grant are her pawns, but dare not say so because they’d scorn me for being stupidly wrong and uncaring of Robin’s misfortune. And I hate being scorned. And being told that I’m wrong. And, besides, I’ve learned not to trust my intuition. I’ve been laughed at and scowled at too often, without once having been told I’ve been right. So I bite my tongue and embrace Grant’s anguish that poor, poor Robin is subsisting on cinders because she, being so saintly good, is sacrificing what little resources bad Nathan has left her for us.
“Robin is a wonderful mother!” Grant hisses when its just the two of us alone. His dark eyes are urgent, boring into mine. He’s said this before. I’m confused as to why he feels I must believe it. I haven’t questioned Robin’s value as a mother. I don’t, in fact, even think of her of her as a mother. Her telling us that saying Mummy is “yuck, yuck, yuck” when I was two or three taught me early on to cut myself off from thinking of her in that way. I know she’s technically my mother. Just like, technically we’re a family, but we refer to it as “the family” (not “ours”). So why is Grant so desperate for me to know Robin is a wonderful mother? I don’t even know what a mother should be like. I have, though, learnt that my judgement is unreliable, and that Grant knows much more than I do. So I believe him, of course. I just don’t know why he keeps feeling a need to remind me.
I get sharp pains around the sides of my tummy frequently enough for me to have named it. I call it the crab claw because it feels like my insides are being pinched by enormous claws. It hurts tremendously, but I can’t communicate this to Robin. If I tell her it’s the crab claw again, I sense she doesn’t understand what I mean. Worse, if I pick the wrong moment to tell her I’m ill, she makes me go to be early, and this is disastrous because it causes me to be stuck alone in my room wide awake for even longer than usual, so I feel extra isolated, alone and bored.
I feel bored a lot. Boredom that's like a physical pain bearing down and making the essence of everything around me feel grey and worthless. I play in my room hating the rough green carpet and the mess Robin is disappointed that I never tidy up. I am ashamed of the mess. I don’t know why I’m so useless that if I even think of tidying it I’m filled with blind panic and can’t bring myself to lift a finger to move just the smallest of things. I am just a failure.
The sound of cooing wood pigeons outside is mildly hypnotic, but not interesting enough to entertain me for long. A story I read claims they’re saying “take two, Taffy, take two,” but, try as I might, the pigeons’ coos don’t sound to be saying this. Anyway, I prefer to make my own connections; to invent my own comparisons. But I can’t think of anything that the pigeons’ coos sound like. In the end, their repetitive noise just reminds me of my bored solitude.
I wander the nearby streets alone for something to do. The Blockhouse playground feels desolate and unwelcoming when I’m in it by myself. The rides, disappointingly, are not fun. And often there’s big children hanging around, and I’m scared of them, so I slink away. There’s a swarm of gnats that dance in the air above the pavement on a tree-shaded road leading up to the Blockhouse. Gnats are halfway in size between mosquitos and daddy longlegs. I know they don’t bite like mosquitos, and their legs don’t fall off like daddy longlegs, so they’re kind of OK. Their flying dance is compelling to watch. Their darting bodies glow gold-beige where caught in slanting sunbeams. There must be hundreds of them hovering in a ball of ceaseless movement, never colliding. Their darting dance endlessly combines to take up the same globe of space. I can walk through it and feel them tickle my face, but I prefer not to have them touch me.
I play with Britain’s model animals on the floor of my room, standing them up in sorted ranks. I feel compelled to single one out for punishment. I select an animal with spindly legs, and hold it before the others announcing its crime, and that it must be punished by having a leg cut off. I use the grotty old paraffin chimney stove Robin gave me to heat my room to execute its punishment. The stove has a metal swivel vent on its flat, round top. The guilty Britain’s model animal has its leg inserted into a gap beside swivel mechanism. It begs me for mercy, but my heart is hard. I close the vent and its severed limb tumbles into the paraffin fire below. Bad animal. Now you’ve learnt your lesson. An increasing number of my Britain’s model animals are now three, or even two-legged. I’ve become adept at propping them next to other animals so they can stand upright. Their mutilations depress me. Everything I have is broken and imperfect. It’s the story of my sorry life. I long to be like the other children at school, or the ones I see in TV adverts for toys, but I’ve come, sadly, to realise that I’ll always fall short of measuring up. The state of grace that enables the possession good things passes me over like water sliding off oil.
Another of Robin’s new games involves her saying sorry all the time. Her apologies follow just about everything she says. For example, if she says “I’m cooking toad-in-the-hole for tea” she says sorry, and I sense she wants us to respond a particular way, but it’s confusing because she doesn’t like being argued with. I follow Grant’s lead. He always knows what to say to make her happy. I listen and learn when he tells her she doesn’t have to say sorry. It’s actually kind of fun because he leads me to laugh at all the sorries she says for having said sorry when we’ve already told her she doesn’t need to (“you don’t have to say sorry.” Oh, “sorry!” ha ha ha). But it’s also kind of not fun at all, because she’s sucking all the attention and support into herself and away from me and Grant, and making it into a thing about how she’s weak and traumatised and needs us to comfort her. There’s a gap there where it would be lovely if she instead comforted me for how insecure I feel. But I can’t put any of this into words, even in my own mind.
Fearful as I am of Robin’s disapproval, I’m not always passive and mute with her. Like some kind of mad want-machine, I’m driven by a force greater than my fear to press her relentlessly for objects of my obsessive desire. One of these is having a baby brother or sister. I love babies, and long for a family member who won’t dominate me so we could bond. I yearn for the comfort of close relationship. But Robin has repeatedly told me no. I’ve even hassled Sharon’s mum Margaret next door, “Why don’t you have another baby? Babies are so cute!” But Margaret has said no too. She says the ordeal of giving birth to Sharon, which took three agonising days, has put her off having another baby for life. I think this very sad. Babies bring joy into the world. I crave joyous things to fill the oppressive, grey-feeling boredom. I long for shop-bought food and the things people have in adverts on telly and in magazines. Every time Robin tells me I can’t have something, I want it even more. When her fierceness cows me into no longer daring to plead, I carry on secretly yearning. The force of my wants gnaws at me from the inside.
In school the other children reject me. They stand around me in the playground telling me I’m bad. Things like “You smell” and “You speak proper, you do” (meaning my pronunciation and vocabulary is too fancy). Their combined gibes log in my heart as “You’re not normal.” I long to be normal, but feel powerless to be so. “Joey Deacon!” is another of their taunts, accompanied by savage mimicry of spastic arm movements and facial expressions. Joey Deacon was featured on the children’s TV show Blue Peter to increase empathy for people with a condition now termed cerebral palsy, but instead of empathising, the children in my school have turned “Joey Deacon” into an insult for uncoordinated weaklings, such as me. They pick me last for teams in PE (my least favourite lesson).
Queuing in the school playground one day waiting for the order to march neatly back into class holding hands with a child I don’t want to hold hands with, and who I sense dislikes me, I feel so overwhelmed with depression and despair that I contemplate stepping into my fantasy world and staying in it forever, never to face reality again. I am comfortable in my fantasy world. No one calls me Joey Deacon, or gives me cold looks at home for crimes I hadn’t known I’d committed. The idea of staying in my fantasy for ever feels tantalisingly doable. I could just step in now. It is there ready for me. There’d be no more rejection. No more stress at home. No more being made to lie alone for hours in the dark, then wrenched out of bed and forced back to school to go through all that same hell every day. No more being denied the wonderful things I want so much, which Robin says I can’t have ever. I’d be free and able to skip through the magical woodlands of my personal, secret idyll with tame fawns and other cute, friendly animals, loved by all and the centre of attention without any pain. I nearly walk in, ready to lock the door behind me, but then I remember Christmas, my birthday and Easter: the days on which Robin gave me things and everyone is nice to me. I love those days so much. The ritualised, dependable gift-giving is something I am attached to enough for me to decide, with a sad shake of my head, to stay in reality for (even though the rest of it is shit).
There is one other rare, good thing that I hold on for: chocolate cloud. Chocolate cloud is a dessert which Robin sometimes crafts from a lone hardback recipe book she keeps in the kitchen. She’s let us know that it’s horribly demanding to make. She has to go to the effort of melting dark chocolate in a bowl resting in a pan of boiling water to make chocolate mousse; whip cream to into a light, fluffy foam; toast flaked almonds so they’re golden brown (not burnt); and finally, having layered the components together in her mismatched sundae glasses, sprinkle grated Bournville dark chocolate on top. Oh my! Me and Grant nearly swoon for our love of chocolate cloud on the two or three times a year Robin creates it for us. Grant teaches me to eat it one third of a teaspoon at a time in tiny, sucked pecks. Savouring every delectable miniature mouthful so they melt on my tongue in bursts of creamy chocolate heaven. We love chocolate cloud with an almost religious fervour. There is nothing more desirable for us than it.
“I’m ill,” I tell Robin every school day morning when she comes to summon me out of bed. Grant, who shares my wish to avoid school as much as possible, has confided tips to me about how best to fool Robin. “If you tell her you’ve got a headache or tummy bug, so can’t tell because there’s nothing to see on the outside.” One of his more advanced strategies is to listen out for her approach along the passage, and rub his forehead rapidly before she comes into his room so when she feels his forehead it feels hot and she thinks he’s got a fever. He said he tried leaning his forehead against the lit bulb of his green desk lamp, but it was a bit too hot for comfort.
I’ve been refusing to wear clothes around the house for some time. Robin tells me to put clothes on, but I refuse. I just don’t want to wear clothes. Being naked is fun and makes me feel free. I like that Robin can’t control me. Even if she persuades me to dress, I can take my clothes off again as soon as sh looks away. I love running around the house naked.
In school one hot days, the boys take their shirts off so they’re just wearing their vests. This strikes me as an excellent idea, so I take my shirt off too. The other children stare at me wide eyed. “You’re not allowed to,” they tell me. I always hate it when I’m told I’m not allowed to do something. It feels kind of heavy and mean: a dark thing. And right now feels stupid. I point to the boys around me, “You’re not wearing shirts.”
“But you’re a girl,” they say, “girls have to keep their shirts on.”
“Why? That’s stupid.”
“You’re not allowed!” they persist, “Miss will tell you when she sees.” By ‘Miss’ they mean our teacher, Mrs Tregurtha, who is old with long grey hair that she wears loose.
I refuse to believe Mrs Tregurtha would say I have to wear a shirt just because I’m a girl. I ignore my classmates and go back to my work. It’s a writing exercise. It’s not long before I get stuck. I can’t remember how to spell the word ‘it’. I’ve always struggled to learn spellings. I have a longstanding habit of adding ‘e’s to the ads of words, just in case, because I can’t remember which words require them end, and which don’t. Mrs Tregurtha’s classroom has tall windows looking onto the lane leading to the school gate. Her teacher’s table is tucked against the wall opposite the windows, just up from the classroom’s door, which leads directly onto the varnished wooden floor of he assembly hall. Right now, there are about eight children queuing for her attention with sheets of paper clutched in their hands. I join the queue with my own worksheet dutifully held. I know the system. I must have my work with me and wait quietly in turn. I am also shirtless, and still receiving hissed reprimands from shocked children. I continue to ignore them, confident that no sane adult would allow boys to take their shirts off, but not girls. At last it’s my turn to see Mrs. Tregurtha. Her long, saggy-skinned face is framed by hair like creamy cobwebs hanging in thin, smooth, yellow-grey folds. She scarce looks up when she asks what my question is, but then double-takes, “Why are you not wearing a shirt?” Her disbelief punctuated by raised, downy brows.
My confidence gives way, “All the boys have taken their shirts off,” I explain, worried now that, for some arcane reason, my classmates had been right that girls aren’t permitted the same basic freedom as boys, and that Mrs Tregurtha will tell me off. Why do I always do wrong without realising?
“Put your shirt on immediately!” she snaps. No compromise.
I am defeated and put my shirt back on, but I still think it’s a stupid and unfair rule. Seeing the shirtless boys sitting and standing around me makes me feel humiliated and annoyed. But I don’t say anything.
I’ve long been annoyed that the children’s TV magazine program Blue Peter always has two male presenters but one woman. I think this unfair. Women shouldn’t appear less than men because half of humans are female. I’m even more angry at an ITV show called Rainbow which has no female main characters at all. They have a female-looking puppet, but they’ve made it into a male character called George. I refuse to watch it. Even Robin, who’s repeatedly made it clear that she knows everything and it’s everyone else who gets things wrong, assumes all toy animals are male. I feel driven to fight to make females equal. I focus on the unfairness that boys and men are allowed different positions for pooing and weeing, while females are expected to sit on the toilet for both functions. After consideration, I accept that it would be impractical and messy for females to stand up to wee, and pooing is best done as close to the toilet seat as possible. With pride, I innovate a revolutionary new way for females to wee into the toilet so that, like males, we have two toilet positions. Excited, I herd Robin into the bathroom and teach her my new girls-only weeing posture. “Sit on the toilet, now put your feet up on the laundry box,” I manoeuvre the white plastic box in front of her, “yes, put your feet up on it like that. Now we have a special toilet position just for girls and women!” Looking at her, it dawns on me that she isn’t actually that sold on my idea. Undaunted, I persist in weeing with my feet propped on the box for at last a week afterwards.