House of Pain

I’m a bit conflicted as I write this post. I’m torn, as I so often am, between warm nostalgia and remembered sadness. It’s late here, and I’m just about to pitch into bed, but I couldn’t go to sleep without writing some thoughts on a TV programme I’ve just watched. It’s called ‘My Mad Fat Diary’, and watching it felt like being given a return ticket to my own adolescence.

All right, so the main character in the show has just spent four months in a psychiatric hospital, and that never happened to me. She also attends a pool party (in 1996, in the UK? I’d say it’s unlikely, but perhaps I just wasn’t in a group cool – or rich – enough to have a pool party in 1996, in Ireland); that, obviously, never happened to me either. But in every other respect, I felt like the show could have been written about my life. I was that girl who didn’t fit in (in every respect); I was that girl who knew her music, and used that knowledge as a means to talk to boys and other alien species; I was that girl who hated being the ugly duckling among the flock of swans. I was the girl who felt so agonisingly self-conscious that she found it hard to look in mirrors, and who was always wondering, at the back of her mind, if people were laughing at her. I thought the show was brilliant, but it was almost impossible to watch, on some levels.

At the end of the show, the character asks her psychiatrist what his first impressions of her were. He says something like: ‘I felt you thought you were a fragile thing… but I think you’re a tough cookie.’ I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anything so true, in a programme of its type, before – it really struck a chord with me. At that age, I felt fragile, despite seeming like a large and capable girl on the outside. I used to feel invisible, despite being anything but. I felt like if you looked like an oversized, cumbersome girl physically, you didn’t have the right to feel delicate or vulnerable. It seemed as though such ladylike feelings were kept for girls whose bodies kept themselves within ladylike bounds. It’s tough to keep your head straight when it seems like the world you live in doesn’t allow you to feel what you need to feel. Thankfully, as the years of my life have ticked on, I’ve learned to accommodate all my emotions – if I feel fragile, I go with it until my strength comes back. It always does.

The most memorable scene in the show, for me, was one in which Rae (the lead character) is contemplating wearing a swimming costume for the first time in years. She remembers how, as a small child, she used to wear nothing but a swimming costume, and how she didn’t care at all about how she looked, or what people thought of her. The teenage Rae has a touching conversation with her memory of herself as a little girl, during which she tells the child that if she gets fat, people won’t like her any more. The little girl says ‘Of course they will! I’m brilliant!’ I loved that bit, probably more than was seemly for a woman of my age and station. I think I may have clapped at the TV. (There may also have been some cheering, but I’m not willing to confirm or deny anything.)

I had friends as a large, out of place teenager. I still have most of those friends now, and there are deep, unbreakable bonds between us. I’ve always had friends, and I’ve always loved people, and I’m very grateful for that. But watching this programme really brought me back to the difficulties I encountered growing up. Sometimes, despite the love of friends and family, adolescence can be the loneliest place in the universe, especially when you’re struggling with yourself and the only ‘person’ you feel you can be honest with is the person in the pages of your diary. I think the show seems true to life because it is, actually, based on a true-life story – the ‘diary’ of the title is a real diary, kept by a real girl (now, of course, a successful grown-up). I kept a diary very much like the one the girl in the show keeps, and I’m pretty sure the contents of my diaries were much like the contents of hers. Often, writing in it was the only thing that kept me going.

One thing I’ve learned, as I’ve grown, is that everyone feels pressures growing up, and nobody has a perfect adolescence. Of course, this is of little comfort when you’re going through it. But I’m not special or unique, and my long-ago torments are the same as everyone else’s. But I’ve loved growing older, and growing up. With every year I’ve clocked up, I’ve felt happier in myself and in my life, and I wish that more kids would give themselves that chance – the chance to grow up, and realise it won’t always be that bad. You won’t always be the fat girl stuck on the waterslide. You won’t always be the teenage boy with acne on his back. You won’t always be the kid with braces, or whatever it is.

‘My Mad Fat Diary’ was a welcome trip into my past, complete with the music, ‘technology’, posters and bands I would have been so familiar with back then. It made me realise how far I’ve come, and made me see that, despite what I thought of myself at the time, I was a good kid. I didn’t give myself enough credit for facing my struggles head on and coming through them.

It’s never too late to start.

7 thoughts on “House of Pain

  1. aanderand

    “Takes a deep breath”… Why does adolescence have to be so painful? I went thru it and my children went thru it, which was worst because there so little you can do as a parent to ease the pain. Like you said, the only one the adolescent thinks is being honest is the one on the page of diary, the drawing, the dance, or whatever means of expression they find for themselves. Thankfully, their mother and I gave our kids the inner strength to make it thru those years. And, they are the wonderful adults we knew they would be, even when they were raging beasts at the time.
    I may be looking at living those years again. Mariah, my oldest grand-daughter, will be 14 next month and may be living with me later this year. Her folks are moving to another city and Mariah does not want to move, because of the school she wants to go to and, you guessed it, a boy. Frankly, I am kind of worried. Mariah is a head strong young lady and super smart, she has always been forward thinker and it takes a lot to keep up with her. But, she has a lot of growing up to do to match that super intellect.
    I guess I should not be too worried because she does take after her mother. Jessica, arranged a trip to Italy when she was 15 and at the end of high school was off on her own. She turned out just fine.
    Thank you, for sharing your experiences, however painful that may have been, and the reminder that it takes growing thru those years that makes us what we are, so there must be some sort of method in the madness.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Thanks for sharing your story too, Rand. It sounds like you made a wonderful job of raising your family, and that your daughter has passed on the skills you taught her to her own child! My mother says I was a vile monster as a teenager, but I turned into a pretty good adult. 🙂 I had the same sort of supportive upbringing that you gave your family, I’d say.

      I hope things work out well with Mariah. Doing things because of a boy doesn’t always work out the way you’d want it to, but nobody can tell you that at 14. I think you have to learn it yourself. I know, if I’d ended up with the guy I was obsessing over at 14, I think my life would be a disaster! But, I have a feeling she’ll be just fine. She’s got a good grandfather. 🙂

  2. anna3101

    I wish you would write a book about that girl someday. The girl who was a teenager once and was lonely and did not feel she belonged. I can see myself as this girl and I would love to read something bitter-sweet like that. I was not fat, quite on the contrary – everyone envied my figure, but what did it matter? I was a real bookworm, out of touch with the world, without many friends, afraid of even smiling to a boy and feeling like a total outcast most of the time. It seemed to me everyone belonged somewhere but I did not. I still have this feeling at times. However, I would never ever want to go back to being 14 or 20. The older I get, the better I feel – not just about myself, but about so many things. I was in therapy several times and that has helped me so much, now I only wish I could have done it earlier – and I wish I would have started reading psychological books earlier. My life could have been less painful and much, much happier.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts – I’m glad you enjoyed my memories! I think that feeling of being an outcast is, ironically enough, quite common among teenagers. Funnily enough, I was thinking of writing a story based on my own teenage years. Even though I was a very boring and law-abiding teenager, there’s enough material there for at least one book. 🙂

      I’m glad you feel good about your life and you’ve found the same thing I did – the older you get, the better things seem.

      1. anna3101

        Please do write the book about your teenage years 🙂 This is something I would LOVE to read, even if it has zero love story in it 🙂

      2. SJ O'Hart Post author

        😀 It would absolutely have zero love story in it! Well, unless you count unrequited love. I had plenty of that! Thanks. I hope I’ll get to that story one day soon.

      3. anna3101

        Unrequited love is very, very welcome. Show me someony who didn’t deal with it at some point of their life! And as most of us love talking (and reading) about ourselves but not always have the ability to do so, reading a book about teenage years is something very special and I think very gratifying for any reader.

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