When I was 15, my English teacher told me that she expected to see my name in print someday. Flippantly, I muttered something about the Obituary columns, but her comment stuck. Writing has always been my outlet of choice, so here’s an offering – perhaps it might resonate with you, whoever you are, and for whatever reason you’ve landed on this webpage.
Life began in 1973 in Sorrento Maternity Home, Birmingham. I recall hippy-like images of sunshine, long hair, and flowers, and the beautiful sparkling blue sea and quartz-veined cliff rock seen from our Morris Traveller. These are my earliest, loveliest memories. A few years later, new pictures appear clouded, chilled, tarnished – a shabby community hall on Sundays that smelt of last night’s stale beer; paraffin heaters in frosty air; the heavy expectations of others; a lack of freedom, and a growing, non-specific worrying.
A little further on, and the images change to those of concealment: pretending to schoolmates that I knew what they where talking about when they discussed TV programmes and films, and explaining that my ears weren’t pierced because I once saw someone get an earring ripped out, so I couldn’t cope with the thought. There were other concealments too…perhaps things that a small child shouldn’t have seen and experienced, yet lacking understanding of adult concepts, remained sources of conflict and confusion well into adulthood.
Around 10 years old, I tried to set fire to the long grass at the bottom of the garden. I’d read that focusing sunrays through a magnifying glass would do it, so I took a heavy lens from the muddle of old tools in the garage and ran. Horrified, I spat and stamped on the resulting smoulder. As I sat afterwards in the crook of pear tree branches, I thought about God. He’d definitely be angry at this dangerous act of mine. I conjured Him up – white beard, stern face, shining robe, seated in a golden fluffy cloud…some angels? My mind’s eye produced wings and haloes, and most surprisingly, a Celtic-type Mary standing by – no, this wasn’t right at all, certainly not according to the Sunday School Auntie. Where had the wings, haloes, and the Irish Mary come from? I remember thinking that if the ‘wrong’ image had come unbidden to me, why should the ‘right’ one be any more correct? As I sat amid the pear blossoms, I realised that I could not feel the reality of God at all.
Teenaged me was terribly shy and desperately unhappy. At this time my parents were members of a hardline ecclesia that promoted rigorous study of ‘pioneer’ writings alongside the bible. Young people’s study group speakers advised on special bible-marking systems, and I dutifully defaced my calf-bound, wide-margin india-paper King James Version with the approved brand of fine-line ink pen and fluorescent marker. At this time, my formal social life was entirely based around the Christadelphian religion. Because of my shyness and anxiety, most of my peers inevitably viewed me as a figure of fun and the rightful target of group derision. However, I had also started work at 16, and was finding that I could be a very different person amongst my colleagues. This stark contrast made me more confused, especially when I found that I enjoyed illicit after-work pub visits (not the one where I narrowly missed detection by a passing Number 11 bus-travelling Sister though).
Around 17, I had a second chance to see the Truth truly. I had submitted to baptism after enduring a vivid representation of Nuclear War as the Embodiment of Armageddon by a particularly zealous exhorting Brother. I remember this man working himself into a sweat of passion, raging, spittle flying, assuring us that unbaptised young people would see their parents safe in the Kingdom whilst their own sinful flesh melted from their irradiated skeletons in a storm of consequences. I cried. Some months later, I rose soggily from the sinister blue baptismal bath concealed under the Ecclesial platform feeling nothing, not holy, not justified, not reborn or even OK. Only with a sense of having completed the only course of action open to me.
Every Sunday evening, the young people would ‘go back’ to someone’s home for further bible study and the chance to consume quantities of crisps and cake afterwards. On one occasion, it was decided to take a group photo. Everyone was milling about, and someone suggested that the most confident person should take charge. One of my peers shouted out “I know, H can do it!” The room echoed in mockery of me; the Sister of the house roared, her head back, teeth exposed; the boys laughed immoderately; the girls sniggered; even my one friend had to find it funny. My position as the occupant of the lowest rung was officially ratified. Then, in all my distress and shame, a thought seared my mind with real live clarity – I could walk out of there: open the front door, go down the stairs, cross the car park, and start to walk home…and nobody could stop me. And I would never, never, go back.
Needless to say, I didn’t do it.
And spent the next ten years in speechless, powerless, pointless, and needless torment, until I had a breakdown. Part of my recovery was my decision to train as an Occupational Therapist. Going to University inevitably allowed my mind to embrace accurate, humane concepts of life. I also became interested in alternative therapies and metaphysical ideas. The more I opened up to these things, the less psychological grip the religion exerted.
Leaving the Christadelphians actually ended up as less of a catastrophic event than a gradual tailing off, and little resistance was put up by the meeting I was a member of at the time. At the end, it felt as if I had been held hostage by a ghost; in truth, I was holding myself hostage in much the same way that I retained for years a fear of the plant bindweed after my mother, watching the young me twist a piece round my toe, told me that it would take root and grow up my leg.
In 2014, the adult me searches for internal bitterness, resentment, anger. But I can find very little of consequence; this was the way it was and now is not. For me, this is human nature: the ability to recover, to absorb pain and to reconstruct; to keep learning and to really use this existence; and to only aim to be kind and helpful, as human instincts dictate. I am therefore left as an atheist by default. This neither troubles nor liberates – I am merely listening to my pure childhood instinct that there is no God: truly no need to submit, to overcome, or to struggle at all.