There is more than one way to die – more than one way to erase yourself from the picture. A physical body operates on an animal level and, whoever you are, it must be fed and watered, rested, kept warm and housed. These are the very basics – as Maslow identified. But the mental side of a human being is a more complex country and although psychologists have made strides in understanding why people behave in the ways they do, not everything is explainable.
We should have seen the signs because they were certainly there, but in truth it was beyond our experience of the world.
Four women and three children lived together in a fine old Victorian House in Manchester. A family: a rag bag and complex family, but a family nonetheless. One woman, Jane, who was the birth mother of the children had – just about – held it together before Miriam moved in. For Miriam it was an instinct thing – she saw the children and knew that she would need to be part of their lives. She was also Jane’s best friend, and by her own admission, Jane was struggling to manage: manage the children, their personalities, their needs, her needs and the interpersonal mash-up of all their lives together.
Even early on Miriam noticed a peculiar habit Jane had – whatever Miriam said, when she shared her thoughts about the world, or love, or conflict, or whatever, Jane had a tendency to agree. It was an odd thing but nothing to worry about. Jane would always say, “I think that too.”
They made it work – sharing the load of the children’s lives – women came and went but Miriam and Jane stayed as the tight-knit core. I moved in when the youngest child was 11 and the other two 14 and 16. The house ticked over like any family home with domestic duties and work, TV and late night jaunts to the airport for fancy puddings in a restaurant, the children playing games in their own unique style: canasta, Scrabble, Monopoly, Pictionary. In its detail, and in spite of its unusual make-up, it was much like any other family. A daily round of up for school, breakfast, home, supper, TV, bath and bed. Weekends of long dog walks and swimming and excursions and down time. The women, determined to make it work held house meetings to establish guidelines that took the pressure off, that helped the whole tick along. Like any family, it didn’t always run smoothly: but it was well-meaning and there was a lot of love. That got everyone through – just about – unscathed. And Jane was a very good breadwinner: she was a woman who could make things happen. She could convince a funder to back her, she could generate work wherever she went. Jane had the capacity to give people what they needed, say all the right things – she was very, very clever.
At 11, each child was given the opportunity to go away to school – although the world has changed now, at that time as ‘birth-right’ Quakers they were able to go to a Quaker boarding schools on assisted places. All three children, for very different reasons leapt at the chance… the boy because it would give him a place to be himself away from the unresolved challenges he faced with his sister and a house full of women. The second, a girl, because it met every single expectation that she’d imagined by reading The Chalet School books. When the third child went – she was happy to follow in the footsteps of her sister.
Something happened to Jane when the last of her children went to boarding school. Freed from their immediate daily needs, she began to focus in on herself. She began to try to understand herself, peeling away layer after layer in the hope of gaining insight into why she struggled – she expressed the view that she could not be herself because she did not know who she was. Jane was relentless in her pursuit of this self. She went to endless therapeutic sessions, digging ever deeper into a bottomless place. But still she remained a kind of psychic chameleon – able to be whatever anyone needed from her. It wasn’t until we compared notes that we realised that the Jane we got personally was not exactly the same Jane as the others – that the Jane we each got was our own version. But we also knew that this was true for everyone: I knew we played a certain role with different people, sometimes nuanced, but often a version of our inner truth. But with Jane it was different. She was a woman who had a honing device on what you needed as person and she gave you that, focused on you and not herself. Only much later did we ask the questions, “Who is Jane then? Which is the real one?”
Some days Jane was in a bad way. She told of walking around with a razor blade in her shoe, ‘just in case’? Just in case of what we asked? “Just in case I need to escape,” she’d say, “slice out the real me through my veins.” Other times, Jane stayed in her room for hours, sneaking out in the dark to put up signs. One day, on the wall she’d drawn a picture of a woman with an umbrella announcing that her skin was thin and we’d need protection from her.
We held crisis meetings – asking Jane to come along. Sometimes she did, sometimes she didn’t. We spoke to doctors, and professionals where we could – particularly Miriam who drove hard towards resolving the situation because she loved her friend, we all did. We didn’t know what to do for Jane, and we didn’t know what to do for us. Miriam tried to bring it to a head – none of us could go on like this, least of all Jane. I remember a difficult incident where Miriam asked Jane to disagree with her, just once. It got louder and more strained. Jane could not. She couldn’t.
Finally after weeks of seeking help a doctor came to the house. He sat with the four of us (Miriam, myself, Jane and the fourth woman, N.) He was very sympathetic to the situation we were in. He said that Jane was in permanent flashback and we were all players in her drama. That we were not who we were, we were who she needed us to be. Jane sat in the room and nodded all the way through agreeing. As she would. We would all need to be patient, to hold it all together for Jane and perhaps, he said, and in return she might think about not doing any more therapy for a while?
The house was as quiet as a tomb once he’d gone. We felt listened to – heard. We felt like someone outside of the house had seen the strange slightly surreal world we were living in. There was no point scoring, and we were not congratulatory. We all wanted the best for Jane. And we wanted the best for us, and the children. The way things stood, this was not a house they could return to in the summer.
The next day, the doctor rang. In a full about turn, he said we were not supporting Jane enough. That she was struggling, and we were not there for her.
We were always there for her.
Her therapist had rung the doctor. Who knew what the therapist and the patient shared? But both had lost sight of the bigger picture. Jane had become unhinged.
The day after that, early in the morning – Jane was outside packing her belongings into the car.
Miriam threw open the window, “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” she yelled, furious. It was clear what Jane was doing. She was leaving. She was leaving and she wasn’t coming back. As she reversed from the drive, I cried. Not for the loss of Jane but for the anger, the disappointment, the ruined friendship, the breaking up of our home, the frustration at the time we’d put in, the disloyalty and the irrationality. We loved her. We’d loved her for years and years and years but she did not see us or feel it. Jane’s only route for survival was to run from us and to the self she had become that did not include us.
Some time later – and I am missing out many months of to-ing and fro-ing and negotiations about visiting children and looking after the house, many months of painful meetings and exchanges, many months of trauma, and pain for us all, many months of challenge – we received a letter. It told us how Jane was gone, that she had splintered, and that what remained was a tribe of other personalities one of whom, a dominant one, was able to speak for them all. Jane explained the purpose of each of the tribe, their roles. She told us what she would like now to be called.
The Jane we’d known was gone. She was gone physically but also she had erased that self from the earth. We saw the physical person occasionally after that, but hardly at all. Then she disappeared.
We were not to be part of Jane’s future nor she of ours.
We are still a family – the girls and us, 20 years on.