Tuesday, 3 August 2010


This is a very different subject from the ones I usually write about - and a longer entry too. My sense of belonging and not belonging has shifted many times throughout my life, and so it feels easiest to tell it chronologically, like a story. I dunno, maybe it's the therapy! Either way, you can take it or leave it, but it helps me sometimes to get these things down.

My earliest clear memory is of my first day at school. I felt abandoned and unsafe, and cried the whole day. All the other little kids seemed to be taking the day much better, so I guess I could say that my earliest memory is of not belonging in the social group I found myself in.

My sense of the rest of my early childhood, however, is of feeling fairly happy and secure. I was always a bit shy, and tended to play sometimes by myself in a little fantasy world. But I still had friends, and birthday parties, and don’t remember feeling very different from the other kids. And I think I felt fairly secure within my family as well. How much of that may be due to remembering the past in a rose-coloured way I’m not sure.

My last really happy memory of childhood is when I was about nine years of age. The days were hot and sunny, and I’d be playing in the street with my sister and a girl who lived down the road, who I really liked. I’d like to think that if my childhood had continued like that, then eventually she might have become my first girlfriend. But in fact my childhood got sort of hijacked.

When I was nine we moved to a different county, as my dad got a new job. We moved to a smaller house in a less pleasant street, and of course my sister and I had to start a new school. I was very nervous, but it was okay and I ended up with a few friends there. Starting secondary school two years later was more scary, but although I was shy I still had some friends. I still sort of belonged. But soon after that my parents got divorced, which of course shook us all up somewhat. And a year after that my mum got remarried, so we moved again, back to where we lived originally! This posed new problems for me, as I found the ‘new’ family difficult to settle into and there were various strifes and frictions at home. I didn’t have the same sense of belonging and security that I remember from just a few years earlier. To make matters worse, I was very shy on entering yet another new school, and for the next two years was bullied quite a bit. I went to school every day in fear. This was, I think, my first really deep experience of not belonging.

To protect myself I spent as much time on my own as I could. I retreated into a kind of fantasy world where I imagined being a very different person. Later I found a retreat in books, especially science fiction books, whose stories were so very different from my own reality. I was nervous of boys because they might be a threat, and kind of idealised girls who came to my rescue when I was given a hard time. By the time I was sixteen things eased off quite a bit, but I think the previous few years had traumatised me and I was still pretty shy. I had one or two close friends though.

In the sixth form I suddenly found myself beginning to fit in more. The classes were smaller, and my fellow pupils more accepting of me. In my last year at school I actually enjoyed myself! I became very fond of some of my peers, and they seemed fond of me too. I no longer felt judged as a wimp, was no longer laughed at and certainly not punched or kicked. The bullying was well and truly over, I enjoyed being with people, got invited to parties and socialised outside of school. I felt I really did almost belong, and this happy feeling of being more accepted into the human race continued into the following years at college.

This change, however, was too late for the romantic feelings I had at the time. I still tended to idealise women, but I couldn’t convince myself that anyone would be interested in a relationship with me. I fell in love with a girl at school – we were both seventeen – but despite my passion I could never bring myself either to ask her out or tell her how I felt. The irony is that she definitely knew, because friends told me she did. I don’t know if she would have gone out with me, had I asked. If she had, then my sense of belonging in adult life might have been very different.

I remained ‘in love’ with this girl for years, long after I last saw her. My relations with work colleagues, housemates, etc were okay in some ways, but I remained shy and in my late twenties, I felt I ‘belonged’ less than in my final year at school. Although I shared a house with others, I tended to be isolated, keeping to myself in my room. I was very unhappy at work. But health problems forced me into redundancy, and I needed a change of career from the office job I’d been in for so long. So I took up studying counselling, and also did voluntary work on a crisis helpline. The preparation course for this was a joy, and was I think the first time I really, really felt part of a group. The voluntary work gave me a sense of purpose and also opportunities to socialise when, due to unemployment, it might otherwise have been difficult. The counselling course was great too, but here I felt I didn’t fit into the group as well. I also lost confidence in my counselling abilities, and didn’t pursue it to diploma level. Instead I started working in mental health, in residential homes. Here, as in every work situation I’ve been in, there was internal strife and politics, which spoiled the experience a lot. But I was pretty happy there on the whole, and I did make friends. The work was fulfilling and varied, and in my own slightly insecure way I felt I did belong there. In fact, especially as I did regular sleep-ins at the residential home, I often felt more at home at work than I did at home!

My sense of never quite fitting in remained however. I always felt a bit ‘different’ from other people. Looking back, I know that this was due to my inexperience of sexual relationships. The couple of relationships I’d had were brief and very unsatisfying, both emotionally and physically. As the 1990s wore on I felt increasingly lonely. Everyone else seemed to be having fun, having sex, sometimes getting married and having kids. I still believed no one could really want me in the way I needed them to, and its effect on my self confidence and self esteem was quite severe. At the beginning of 2000, when a close friend embarked on a blissful relationship, I became very depressed. I was so desperate, and yet happiness seemed further away than ever.

After about three weeks of feeling like this, fate kind of stepped in! I met a beautiful American woman at a party, who came up to me and simply stated that she wanted to kiss me! I wasn't going to turn that offer down, and although she was in a relationship and her life was pretty complicated, we agreed to have one night together. After how I’d been feeling only hours before, this was pretty overwhelming for me.

The trouble was, that night was too good! I don’t quite understand even now why this woman who was already in a relationship and only intended one night with me, behaved so passionately and lovingly. We talked about it a few times afterwards, but I never completely got me head round it. But for me, that night was the deepest experience of belonging, of being accepted, that I’d ever had. It was as if I’d been shut in a cell since childhood, while everyone outside was having fun, and then suddenly being let out and realising what I’d been missing. All my dreams coming true all at once. But only for one night. The following day, despite the experience’s beneficial effect on my self-confidence, I felt I had to crawl back into the cell, and that was hard too.

I did have a bit more confidence now, though. I felt I’d begun to join the human race. I had a couple of brief relationships that year, and though neither of them were really what I wanted, they helped my confidence too. Things were definitely getting better.

A year after I met the American woman, I said an emotional goodbye to her as she left for a new life in California. I actually met her only four times. A month later, however, I met my present partner, who I’ve been with now for nearly ten years. My feelings for Angie didn't bloom so suddenly, but now I love her deeply and she loves me too, very much. I moved in with her after six months, and although it was a struggle compromising for a long time, with both of us inexperienced at living with someone, I was happier now than I’d ever been before.

In terms of belonging, what I had now was a sense of being part of a ‘normal’ couple – a family, almost. We had our life at home together, had sex regularly, went out socially as a couple, mixed with other couples, and went on holiday together. I hadn’t been on holiday properly for decades, as I felt I had no one to go with. Twenty four hours in Cornwall in 1999 to see the total solar eclipse had been a lonely experience, as I was surrounded on the campsite by tents with couples and families – a reminder of the sense of belonging I’d had on family holidays as a child, compared with my solitary life now. In my new life with my partner, we went abroad and saw many wonderful places. It was fantastic!

I also had a new job at a day centre – just as fulfilling as the last one, but less stressful and more fun. It was the best job I’d ever had, and I felt I belonged and was accepted there too. I was very happy most of the time.

Then fate stepped in again – or it would have done if I believed in those things!


Out of the blue, in 2004, I developed a chronic nerve pain condition which meant that I had to give up work. I became anxious and depressed, and started on anti-depressants and sundry prescribed pain killers. The pain was disabling: it limited how far I could walk, how long I could sit for – really almost all aspects of my life. It was difficult for my partner too, who since then has had the responsibility for bread winning and for doing all the other things I struggle with. I found a sense of purpose for a while through getting involved in the peace movement and setting up a local group with my partner. But this became an emotional strain and I had a nervous breakdown in 2008, spending much of that year recovering from severe anxiety. I did get better, with support from helplines and a lot of self help, but my life remains very limited compared to what it used to be, and all sorts of basic activities that I used to take for granted are now much harder for me and sometimes, when the pain is very bad, almost impossible.

Looked at in one way, the depression and anxiety I’ve had since the pain started six years ago are a kind of response to not belonging. I spend much of my time at home, and quite a bit of that time resting. My partner lives and works away from home three days a week, so I’m quite isolated. Often I feel that the world is going by without me. The worst feelings were when my anxiety was at its worst, in 2008. Besides being frightened I felt as if I was trapped in a kind of bubble, breathing my own stale air and kind of watching everyone outside without being able to feel a part of it. It’s very hard to describe, but certainly it was the worst experience of not belonging I’ve ever had. I really felt as if I was trapped in my own tiny, frightened world and no longer a part of the real one.

Things have got a lot better since then, if gradually so. My life still feels very limited, but I am less disturbed by it now and am gradually taking charge of my situation, learning how to manage my pain and my mood. I’m beginning to find things I can do that I get satisfaction from: writing, art and photography, enjoying the countryside even though I can’t walk very far… I’ve recently started writing a book! So I feel as though I’m gradually rebuilding my life, reinventing it almost. And as a result, slowly increasing my sense of belonging in the world once more.

This entry may seem a bit maudlin to some readers, but I'm glad I wrote it. Sometimes putting these things into written words can help to clarify or crystallise things in my mind. I’m grateful that the opportunity sort of fell out of my mind and into my laptop!

I hope something of all this is interesting or helpful to other people, too.