Lost at the Start
People have natural talents; I was a therapist for 20 years and this fact becomes very obvious when you listen to the stories of enough people. It’s also true that those who fulfil their talent are happier and more successful than those who do not. Mine is art. I was the child at school who other children asked for a drawing. At home, I spent most of my time making something or another; little sculptures from dough or candle wax, paintings, drawings and arrangements of found-objects.
At the end of secondary school, I had an art exam requiring a challenging life-drawing. I clearly recall a fellow student lounging on a chaise (fully clothed - we were only 16!) and the drawing I made of her from an angle requiring quite skilful foreshortening in the image. When complete, I went to leave the exam when my teacher asked for my portfolio…”What portfolio..?”. The one I was supposed to have compiled all that year. Kindly, she allowed me to spend the rest of the day painting, drawing and writing to make a year’s worth of submission. Not only did I pass, I was awarded the highest mark in the country that year. It was obvious I should pursue art but…I didn’t. I was lost from the start.
Both my parents were from really dysfunctional homes. I’m sure they married young as an escape but, of course, they made their own version of a familial mess. All of my family never missed a chance to criticise, ridicule and crush aspiration. From infancy, my experience of my mother extended from neglect to physical abuse. My father constantly ‘corrected’ and, for his daughter in particular, emphasised appearances rather than character: he said “it’s hard for others not to love you if you’re good looking”.
As a small child, I'd become very attached to my home - a more secure, reliable thing than my parents - which made is very painful when my mother abruptly took me from it to return to her own home city. There I met my grandparents who added to the retinue of hostile adults relentlessly using threats and put-downs to extinguish all happiness and spontaneity.
By the time I entered school I felt profoundly alone, certainly lacking the confidence and skills required to thrive. English schools still operated on a control-based culture and more frightening experiences awaited me. Ridicule from teachers and fellow students was common (though some kindly ones stand out in my mind), I witnessed students abusing each other in ways I cannot describe, and teachers too. I recall a chair being thrown by a child at one poor teacher. By the time I left school, I'd survived an assault that left me with a black eye and coped with the daily threat of harm well enough not to fail all my exams.
At this point I was bereft - no one seemed to protect or care for me, especially the people who might be expected to. Because the emphasis was always on the wrongness of one's actions rather than communicating values or emotions my inner life was a closed world to me and my communication skills were severely stunted. I recall deciding, one day, to go to London. After making my way to the local train station and into London, I wandered for a few hours before managing to return home. I was 14 years old and told no-one what I was doing because no one was listening.
Although I gained entry to an art college with the help of my art teacher, my drive to fulfil any artistic potential was completely drowned by the desperate need to feel loved. So, I left for Australia where my Father then lived.
Quickly I discovered that my ever-critical and invasive father was unbearable to live with. Having developed the capacity to act alone, I ran away with nowhere to go - arriving at a local town with a suitcase and broken ankle from a car accident. Eventually, I found a youth shelter where I stayed for a couple of nights before one of the staff took me home. Despite his a wife and child, he was inappropriately ‘touchy’…I wasn’t getting a break from life yet.
Eventually, I found work and flatmates and a handsome boyfriend. Because I had no ability for a functional and sustained relationship this ended eventually but, my first glimpse of hope occurred when he thoughtfully gave me a book about personal growth and psychology - how pitifully lost I must have seemed to him. No one had explained to me that life had patterns, reasons, causes and effects. It seemed like an endless sea buffeting me with assault after assault and the best you could do was hold on.
Psychology pointed-out how unhappy I was - so closed was my inner world that I hadn’t even realised this. It also explained why and provided hope for escape. I immediately decided to become a therapist like the author - he seemed to have found the wisdom required for relief from the buffeting. Two years later I gained entry to the prestigious University of Queensland. Four years later, after living in the sort of poverty that meant eating cereal for dinner, I graduated with an honours degree in psychology and a little more insight.
Soon, I married, established work and a house. I enjoyed being a psychotherapist because I understood how much my clients had suffered and how much they needed help. They were loyal because they felt the commitment and care I had for them. Though I worked with them, I had not persisted in improving myself - I remained convinced I was alone and uncared-for - this childhood leftover poisoned my marriage triggering divorce and the loss of my home which I needed so much.
This was the next big turning point. This massive loss exposed that, although I understood what harm my childhood had done, I had not recovered. I re-focussed on my own wellbeing. For the next few years, I developed even more insight into myself and others, more discipline in correcting my inherited errors and higher expectations of myself and others. Decades after I left England, where I grew up, I had enough education, experience and time to reflect to see more of the patterns in life.
By now I'd reached ground level; instead of being in a massive psychological deficit, I was now at least as good as someone who’d not been abused as a child. I could afford to shift from reparation to self-actualisation…prompting the question...what I could I have done if childhood had been good. Where would I have gone with great parents who understood and encouraged me? Now I could either remain in the life I’d made to compensate for being harmed or find the life I believed I should have had. I was a good therapist but only a therapist because of being lost in the dark. If I'd started in the light it’s not the career I would've had.
I knew that attentive parents would have cultivated my artistic talent…they'd have shepherded me into a fine art degree, encouraged me to extend myself to be both dedicated and adventurous. Trying for a new life in art would never be the same as starting decades earlier, with the freshness of youth, having lifelong friendships with people on the same pathway, with the confidence people have who feel cherished from the start but…it was better than continuing to live the consequences of being hurt and had the chance of the fulfilment that comes from being ‘on purpose’.
I picture what it would have been like to leave school and attend one of the great art schools in London. What it feels like to climb old stone steps with portfolio in hand surrounded by fellow art students. I can imagine sitting in lecture theatres learning about art rather than psychology. How wonderful it would have been to 'be' an artist...noticed by a gallery upon graduating.
Ultimately, what I do have is perspective - a cultivated inner life and the ability to see meaning and motivation. I have grit - to persist and to expect continuous development in myself. And great compassion and motivation to do something meaningful as well as beautiful. All this comes with me in the new direction.
Art life started with teaching myself oil painting and developing the skills to make realistic portraits and figurative paintings. More recently I've explored abstraction, brushwork, scale and composition. Now I want to combine abstraction and figuration in art with symbolism and meaning in subject matter.
(Article image is "Things Could Get Better" from the 2020 abstracts collection.)
This is beautiful, Valerie. Your ability to articulate so clearly the suffering you experienced as a child, and the long process of growth that eventually culminated in you coming ‘full circle’, is inspirational. I struggle similarly to what you have described, and also ironically became a psychologist, for similar reasons. Now, at mid-life, I’m finally STARTING in a real sense, the process of healing, and am looking forward to who I may be in the future. Thanks for sharing your story. :)