Belonging: 150 Stories from Mindfully Bertie.
150 stories from Mindfully Bertie!
Yes dear, loyal friends, this is our 150th story. (Bobby prefers “story” to “blog”). Who could have thought that when we wrote the first one that we called a “preview”, we would still be going strong at 150? I should read that preview now… and see if we have kept our promises. Since it is 150, and Bobby has something special to get off his chest, the blog “belongs” to him this week and is all about:
I wrote this in my head while seeking serenity at Ferring by Sea. As you know, I am a fervent believer in Al-Anon. I believe it has “saved my life”, in a fulfilment sense, following the damage that one can suffer from the alcoholism of others. Like its sister fellowship AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), it exists to help people by providing meetings at which members share their problems, hopes, successes, failures and so on with like minded people. Anyone can be a member. There are no forms or dues. All you need to join in AA is have a problem with alcohol. For Al-Anon, it’s problems created by the drinking of others.
There is literature as well, but a typical Al Anon meeting will see people sharing their stories without interruption. There is no crosstalk. What you share stays at the meeting. Members do not discuss, criticise or gossip, but just share or listen. For many, it’s the listening that brings the most benefit. Some meetings have “main shares”, where one member agrees in advance to tell the group their take on a given topic. I agreed to share on “belonging“. In thinking about it, I realised that some aspects of my life happened for a reason. I decided to record this for a story. Not the share itself, as that is for the meeting. These are just thoughts and are, of course, mine alone.
For much of my life I have not felt I belonged at all. To anything. I didn’t want to.
Born to ageing parents, both 45, it was clear they could not cope with a hyperactive youngster. My brother Tony was eighteen years older than me and more like an uncle figure when he left home when I was eight. My sister Wendy was eight years older than me and on a different planet as I was growing up.
At a guess, 1947. Isle of Wight maybe. This picture is priceless. Look at the clothes. The expressions. My mum. Me! And all those people huddled on the breakwater determined to enjoy a day on the beach. Crikey!
Must have been a shock for Tony, coming home at the end of the war in the navy and finding me there! His war was a trip round the world as the war ended, on an aircraft carrier picking up servicemen to bring home. HMS Indomitable. He stopped off at Hong Kong and had a silk waistcoat made for his baby brother. I gave that to Elizabeth, his daughter, in recent times, to look after in memory of her father.
The bike is a Triumph Tourer. Dynohub. Enclosed chain guard. Heavy. My feet didn’t touch the ground. Yet Wendy and I rode to Brighton and back from Brocks Drive one unforgettable day. Down the A23 in 1955. Outside 138. Check out the gauntlets.
In essence, I was an only child. One whose parents gave up trying to discipline or instil any kind of responsibility in. An only child, with immense freedom that did not endear him to the parents of other children who didn’t approve of his waywardness. It led to being, and revelling in being, a loner. Train spotting, bus spotting, plane spotting. Youth Hosteling at just 12 years old. Always on my own from my immediate surroundings. Never really naughty, but a little “adventurous”. If I belonged to anything, it could be something like LAP. (London Air Port). A group of boys hanging around Heathrow collecting plane numbers with their telescopes. Racing off on their bikes to other aerodromes where their grapevine told them unusual planes had turned up.
Youth Hosteling was similar, in that I was very good at forming instant friendships in far away places on my bike that required nothing more than a wave goodbye the next day. I took my Mum and Dad for granted and had no conception of how life had treated them. More than once in my old age I have said “sorry” to them in spirit for never really understanding what it must have been like for them when I was young so soon after the war had ended. Many of the interests I have today originate with them. My mother loving history and my father instilling engineering into both his sons. Neither became engineers, but both had their lives enhanced by trains, planes (me) boats (brother) and bridges. Anything, particularly if “Made in England”. They were so proud that all three children had gone to Grammar School. For me, an all boy one, where we regarded girls with deep suspicion. Only one grandparent survived the war and I saw her a few times when very young. My parents were so old and knackered that people thought to my embarrassment that they were my grandparents.
Music of the late fifties finally drove me into the Apex youth club North Cheam. Music. Bring your own records.
Many have borne the title of “The greatest”. Roy Orbison was one. And, when he sang “Only the Lonely” in 1960 at the Apex Youth Club North Cheam, he was the greatest.
(Check out the backing singers).
One girl fought another over me. The thought that two girls would want to fight over my mysterious charms was very flattering. When the winner showed a real interest in walking the Surrey Hills, my fate was decided. Not long after, on the top of a 410 bus at Biggin Hill Aerodrome, she changed my world. Her job was to write the aircraft registrations down that I was collecting with my telescope. She declared: “It’s me or plane spotting”. I made the wrong choice that day, and entered a period when everything I had belonged to another. Marriage, fatherhood, soul. All belonged to a force greater than my own. Work was my escape and, thirty years at the Legal and General (L & G) followed by eighteen at the Highways Agency (HA), provided me with friendships that endure to this day. Still at arms length, but I truly did belong. At work.
But two hugely significant things happened along the way. I thought I was impregnable. Became a Scout leader. Completely overdid it over a year in 1976 and one night a false accusation and row pushed me right over the edge. Mental collapse, undoubtedly going right back to my childhood, started a period of insecurity that I was vulnerable to and that continues to this day. Officially now known as GAD. General Anxiety Disorder. Serious attacks over the next few years were so debilitating and, I found, the loneliest place on Earth. Trapped in my own mind. So fearful in the good times that just one night’s poor sleep could start the panic again.
Nowadays, I look back with horror what I went through. I did get psychiatric help, but the loneliness came from the misunderstanding and disapproval of those closest. I don’t blame them. How could they understand if I didn’t understand myself? I wasn’t weak. I was incredibly brave. But never realised it at the time. Just two people were so helpful then. Both at the L & G. A friend, Peter, who had been through the same experience. And Barbara, the company nurse. She wore a nurses uniform and had her own medical suite. How times have changed. She never flinched at my daily visits for the reassurance I so badly needed. Nowadays the term “talking therapies” are acknowledged to be the way forward. Back then, I had found my own and am eternally grateful to Barbara for her patience. In essence, she kept me at work earning my living while the world was turmoil around me. And now, decades later, no-one in my family has ever spoken to me about my mental health. Forty-three years since that first episode and nobody can approach that taboo subject. Did I belong? Not when I was mentally ill.
And then, some years later, I was made redundant by the L & G and my “owner” transferred her affections elsewhere. I was alone again. Still belonging at arms length to friendships, but on my own. Apart, of course, from Bertie, who had become my best loyal friend. That one day, in 1992, when I left the L & G after thirty years was the start, in retrospect, of the best period in my life.
One day Andrew and Julia, son and girlfriend said “You have freedom now. You can volunteer on Skomer Island”. I had forged a love affair with Pembrokeshire. Going many times by boat to this wonderful island for the day. Feeling envious of those volunteers who stayed on the island, but never contemplating it could be me. For this was way out of my comfort zone. Back then, in 1995, there was no electricity, no mobile signal. Boil the water. Wash al fresco. Take all your own food for a week. Just an emergency warden’s phone to the RAF at nearby Brawdy. In extremis, they could send a Sea King over. Just a mile off mainland Pembrokeshire, it might just as well have been in the middle of the Atlantic. I went and went again. In all, I volunteered for nineteen consecutive years. For one, sometimes two weeks, I owned an island. I made friends with kindred spirits. Met world famous naturalists. I belonged to Skomer and Skomer belonged to me.
In recent times, I have taken to staying on the sister island of Skokholm. A little more remote and exclusive. No day visitors. Paying guests. Instead of helping people on and off boats, being helped off myself. I knew the warden, Richard, from Skomer. One day, Bertie and I were sitting on the cliffs of Skokholm facing Skomer. I felt a tear in my eye just as Richard walked by. “Your heart will always belong over there Bob”. My reply remembered all the people I had encouraged to be volunteers over there. Experiences they would never forget. Including Diddley. I even ended up contributing to a book on the island.
This really was the first time in my entire life that I had truly felt the advantages of belonging. I will be back on Skokholm in August.
As this blog has recalled many times, I then found true love for the first time. A dysfunctional family and a crazy new wife. Diddley. Belonging now was more than a distant island but a whole family.
At 55 I knew nothing about alcoholism. Nothing about possible outcomes. All I knew was that this was the best time of my life. Yes, she drank too much, but I could cope. It was wonderful, but gradually the balance between fun, romance and drinking shifted. Gradually, the accidents became more frequent. Gradually, I knew I was losing control of the situation. My serious problem with anxiety raised its ugly head again. Just one catastrophic accident pushed me and the family over the edge. Amber, my stepdaughter, said “We must do something, Bob. This is terrible. My friend Chiv mentioned Al-Anon. Would you come with me? Islington. Near where I live.” “Yes.”. She went once. I still go seven years later. Once or twice a week to other Al-Anon meetings too.
Neither Diddley or Amber are with us any more, but in Al-Anon I really do belong. More than I have ever done before. There are no barriers. My favourite Al-Anon saying is “Take what you like and leave the rest”. I have been to hundreds of meetings and always come away feeling better than when I went in. I have learned life skills I didn’t know existed. And at times I can honestly say I have found that elusive serenity. When things go wrong, as they are bound to do, I belong to something through which I can find my way back into the sunshine. Thank you Al-Anon. At the same time, after living on my own for over three years, I have realised that I never was a loner. Always wanted to belong but didn’t know how to. Diddley once told me she understood how I loved to go off on my own. Places she wouldn’t enjoy. Walking in the Austrian mountains and so on. “It wouldn’t be the same for you if you didn’t know you were coming back to me”. And it isn’t.
Retirement came and one safety blanket disappeared to be replaced by volunteering. I can’t recommend this aspect of life enough. The country needs volunteers for every kind of activity imaginable. At first, I volunteered for Sustrans, the cycling charity. That was great but, eventually, I settled on my first love. The National Trust. Volunteering each Thursday at Denbies hillside. Outdoor “work” in the hills involving anything from cleaning cow troughs to hedge laying. Hardly a week goes by when I don’t consider how lucky I was to join and belong to this group of kindred spirits. Sunny days, when I look along the Downs and countryside below and think “This is my favourite place” in the world. Including, of course, Diddley’s View from her bench on Abinger Roughs.
Both within Bobby’s volunteering area.
And finally, all these experiences pushed me into doing what I have always aspired to but never done. Writing. It took a teddy bear to provide the inspiration. A few weeks ago, this blog described the benefits to mental health of writing. None of this could have happened if I had not found Al-Anon.
How times have changed from those far off days when people with “mental problems” were isolated through ignorance, fear and misunderstanding. This is the latest campaign I noticed travelling on a train to London. Also in cinema adverts before the film starts.
Lighting a Candle to Diddley. To Mum and to Dad.
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