Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Who are you really? Is your childhood label past its sell-by date?

This is the *extended Wellbeing Column, first published in the York Press on Tuesday, February 27th, 2018


I have been reading and thoroughly enjoying, an autobiography by the actor, Stephen McGann. At present, he can been seen playing the doctor of ‘Call the Midwife’, a BBC TV series written by his wife, Heidi Thomas. The book is titled ‘Flesh and Blood: A history of my family in seven sicknesses.’ *Personally I think it's one of the best non-fiction books I've read (listened to).

Stephen’s life story has been beautifully written and in an unusual style. With a degree in medical science, Stephen has written his life story and that of his family, through the eyes of seven medical diagnosis that affected his family through one hundred and fifty years.  Seven chapters full of medical, family, social and cultural history. As I ‘listen’ to books, I also have the bonus of hearing Stephen McGann voice.

*Fascinating, when through his wife's discovery, he finds a great uncle and ship's fireman, mentioned as a survivor on the Titanic in 1912.
Horrifying, as it becomes clear that he and one of his brothers were part of the crowd at the Hillsborough disaster in 1989.
Movingly poignant, when reading about his wife's illness in 1998, which touched on my own personal experience with my husband.

Why do I think the book is worth mentioning in this column?

Stephen is the youngest of four brothers with a younger sister. The McGann brothers are all well known actors. As he was growing up, Stephen was ‘the sick one’, or ‘the weak one’. A quieter child with respiratory problems which gave him his family identity. Certainly not a child destined for a career on the the stage. But he refused to give in to his medical problems and fought against living up to his place in the family as the sickly one.

As I listened, I was reminded of adult man with anxiety problems, who through childhood, was used to his mother introducing him as. “This is Peter, our anxious one.” Now grown-up, he was reinventing himself and due a suggestion made by Dr Robert Winston on a TV programme, had made a list of all the positive characteristics he knew he truly was and kept it as a reminder in his wallet. 

Oliver, the youngest boy of four children, was experiencing an apparent school phobia and wouldn’t leave his mother at home alone. There was no phobia, but a fear of leaving his mother, who said on a daily basis, “I won’t be able to manage without him.” One reassuring conversation between his mother and the boy changed everything in a day. * I was making home visits to Oliver's mother, when I realised what was happening. I suggested that she spoke to Oliver about how she was looking forward to him going to school and reassuring him that she would be okay. Later that day, he went out in the car with his siblings and father to the shops. Something he wouldn't do before the conversation with his mother.

*I was 'the naughty one', with it's own consequences.  In the majority of cases, I don't agree in blaming our own troublesome actions on other people and thus negating adult personal responsibility. It is used as an excuse when losing control over a situation.  I do think there are reasons behind our problematic actions. Recognise a reason, do not use it as an excuse and then take control. Too many adults with mental health problems are having internal dialogues as the children they were labelled.

Are you still believing an unhelpful identity given to you in childhood? It’s time to stop. If we think like the children we once were, we may well behave as we once did. Is your family label past it's sell-by date?

‘Careful the things you say
Children will listen’
From Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim