Sophia's Story
If anything goes wrong I blame myself, even if I had no control over it

But there is also failure in needing to do everything well, because if I think I can’t do something really well I don’t try to do it. I often avoid things when I think I am going to fail. I recently started a Maori language course. I went to two sessions, then I missed a couple. After that I withdrew because I could see myself failing. You could say that was self protection, but it is also self-defeating. I chose to do the course, and it’s not even as if I had to pass it, but I stopped doing it.

It is exhausting trying to be perfect, and not being perfect is exhausting as well because I feel I’ve failed. So I don’t have much fun! I can’t just relax and enjoy things.

I still find that I expect there will be a payoff if I have a good time – that something bad will happen as a result. Last year I did a flax weaving course while my partner played in a darts tournament. Because I had a lovely day, I expected she would have had a bad one. I couldn’t feel happy and relaxed about having had a good time. Something had to have gone wrong as a result.

I think that’s how my father’s explosiveness and violence has affected me – that I am always waiting for the bad thing to happen. I remember a vivid example of this from my childhood. I was in hospital with osteomylitis and my parents visited me every day. One day I wasn’t there because I had gone to a birthday party. They were really upset with the hospital for having let me go. But I had said Mum and Dad weren’t coming that day so that I could go. My parents told me they’d sat there all afternoon waiting for me to come back, and I felt really guilty that I’d let them down. I still feel guilty about that!

As a teenager I couldn’t go out and have a good time without the anticipation that it would go wrong because I’d always have to deal with Dad when I got home. He’d be raging up and down. He’d always find some reason to be angry – that he didn’t like the boy I was out with or because I was late – and my night would always be ruined.

I chose my husband because he was totally different from my father. He seemed to be a very caring person, and I was attracted to that. But later he became fanatically religious in a very old-fashioned Catholic way, and he became controlling because he wouldn’t acknowledge what was going on. It was the same as with Dad who wouldn’t let you have an instant reaction to anything. You’d never answer back because life wouldn’t be worth living. And then because nothing was ever discussed, nothing ever got resolved.

After those violent incidents it was as if nothing had happened. It’s like an Alfred Hitchcock movie where the body disappears. Someone has come in and found a dead body and all the mess and gone off to get the police, but when they come back there’s no body and everything is perfect. My mother didn’t talk about it. It was as if those incidents just hadn’t happened. It was a silence; no acknowledgement.

It was like that too with my ex-husband once he got all religious. I would get angry with him and throw something – a statue of the Virgin Mary or a cross – and storm out. When I came back four or five hours later the bits were out of sight.

My fear of failure was sparked when my husband became fanatically religious. I couldn’t live by his standards. I couldn’t be “a good person” in his terms. He insisted that we go to a psychiatrist – who told me that he didn’t work with religious fanatics, but he didn’t tell my husband that. The parish priest also told me he thought my husband was wrong in his extreme approach, but he wouldn’t tell my husband either. So although these men agreed with me, they wouldn’t make it clear to him.

In the end we got divorced, but he also had our marriage annulled – in spite of the fact that we had four children. I felt as if someone had knocked the basement out from under my house.

As a result of this background of not being able to discuss things, both in my childhood and in my marriage, I still find I am unable to confront people in order to sort out issues. I am not good at discussing hurts from a partner with that partner.

My mother never talked about Dad and his drinking and his violence. Just after my father died, she and I were standing there in the hospital looking at his body and she said “he was a lovely husband and lover”. I said, “Mum, he was also really awful because he was an alcoholic and he used to be violent”. And she said “yes, but he was lovely”. We’ve never talked about it again. It was all shut off.

My public persona is of a confident capable person. I’ve always put myself forward in leadership roles. I was on the student executive in my first year at teachers college. Even in Weight Watchers I became a lecturer! But under that successful public persona I am pulling myself to pieces – telling myself I am fat, that I muck things up, that I could have done better. I know that I am really hard on myself. If anything goes wrong I blame myself, even if I had no control over it. And I think all this goes back to my relationship with my father – because I felt then that it was up to me to keep him calm and if I couldn’t I had failed.

I often feel I am in the wrong. I’m always apologising, especially when I’ve stood up for myself. My brother-in-law used to ping jokes off me – until finally I’d turn round and say something cutting. Then I’d have to apologise because he’d only been joking with me. I’ve got a quick tongue and I’m inclined to let loose when pushed. I have the kind of volatility my father had.