Relative Strangers

I have mentioned that we have our Christmas with relatives – aunts, my Mum, Dad, sister, some other halves, cousins, and then there are The Others.  The ones who are there by virtue of some relationship to our aunt – not our side of the family.

The Others this year were slightly different in that one old guy wasn’t there, but some new raven haired woman turned up, invited, mid way through the meal.

I don’t talk to the Others because I only see them once a year and the general consensus is they are weird.  Harsh?

Well, yeah, in a way, but in another way, I’d say there’s some unspoken pact: we’ve decided not to pretend to be interested in each other, when we will be eating a meal, getting drunk and then not seeing each other until the next year.

The Others talk to the kids and generally the men of both sides blend together by the force of  football and man-speech.  It’s a useful device this man-speech, as it appears to require little effort, be genuinely interesting to the participants, yet never dip below the surface.  Perfect for Parties.

The women are harder.  Hit and miss.   There would be an opportunity to be surprised by a mutually satisfying conversation, the click-click, wow, we’re so similar moment, but then we’d move on, talk to the uncle who joins us with a fresh drink in his hand, ready for conversation in a small space.

Raven-haired woman, it transpires, is a sister to weird guy, who is the cousin of a non-bloodline aunt.  We are weird to them too, no doubt, but for this purpose you’ll just have to go along with me that they’re weird.

Weird bloke – let’s call him Harry – is a regular.  He’s about forty I think, and has a mental illness.

When I say that I wonder what your reaction is?  When my Mum told me he suffered from bipolar, it was because she’d talked my uncle who, as a straddler-by-marriage, is Gatekeeper for knowledge snippets for both sides.  At first I thought,

oh, well maybe he’s not weird then, because if he’s weird I’m weird and if I’m weird I’m fucked.  And ‘maybe I should make more of an effort next time

But this was a few years ago and I have yet to find an inroad into satisfying conversation.  I wonder if my Mum, in gleaning this knowledge, thought ‘ooh, well that’s a point of mutual common ground then’.  I thought it too, momentarily.  It doesn’t work that way.

Mental illness is commonplace, many suffer a bout, some just once, some chronically.  It doesn’t mean you will click with a person just because you’ve both had attacks.  It, also, isn’t a conversation topic for parties.  I can’t walk up to him with the opener:

“Hi, so I hear you’re mental?  Me too.  We’ve got lot’s to cover tonight.  You first?”

I thought it was worth mentioning – you are just as likely to click with people who tick the normal boxes as you are with other OCD’ers, depressives, Phobics, whomever.

In that light, then, you’ll understand that I can say the guy isn’t on my wavelength – at least not what I’ve heard from him during these short ‘family’ gatherings.


What I wanted to tell you was an anecdote that I found funny.  My cousin and uncle are more outspoken in their declarations of Weird Guy being weird.  I never really thought he was weird, just didn’t have any common ground, didn’t think about it.  My cousin came round a few days after the meal and said

“Oh-mi-god, did you know that Harry has a homeless person in his shed?”

“What do you mean?”  I said, overhearing the conversation.

My cousin beamed “Yup.  He has a homeless person he lets stay in his shed.”


After some giggling and further questioning I find out that the ‘homeless guy’ was  sleeping in Harry’s shed, and he must have said oi! get out of my shed, or similar, I imagine.

“So, what’s he going to do about it, then?”  I ask.

“No, no, he’s letting him stay there now,” she says.

It turns out this isn’t a new arrangement.  Some guy has been staying in Harry’s shed for the past year or so, but my cousin thinks he pays a bit of rent now.

“So, he’s not really homeless then, is he?”  I had to say it.  I found her initial dramatization humorous but let’s cut to the chase.

“Well, he was, but I think Harry let’s him stay there now, and he sometimes comes up to the house for a cup of tea.”

Again we all laughed.  What a scenario.  Weird Guy, living alone, middle aged and unemployed, keeps homeless man in shed for small fee.  Hardly the story to break down the barriers of assumed weirdness.

I think there’s a big part of me that wanted to get on with Harry because if he’s weird, I’m weird, so I wanted to rescue him, and therefore myself, from weirdness.  I am irked to admit that I don’t want to be thought of as weird.  Well, not tragic-weird.  I don’t at all mind being cool-weird, like Johnny Depp it’s cool to be weird weird.

Alas, on paper, Harry and I are both weird, we both get attacks of needing to be away from people, neither of us are in regular employment with our problems – I’m not great at the moment in terms of mood, but other times I am more physically ill with immune/fatigue stuff, which then keeps me in a mental place that isn’t so conducive to feeling good.

The family I have accept me and I am mostly not bothered about the opinion of strangers.  Sometimes people say ‘well, you’d never know from looking at you’, either about my recurrent depression bouts or my CFS/M.E.  Well, that’s because when I come out and talk to you, I am having a good day, or a less than dreadful day.  If I pass the time of day with you in the local shop, you won’t know I’m having suicidal thoughts every week,.  You won’t know that I talk to you for ten minutes, drive home with some shopping and then have to rest in bed for an hour before I get up to do the next thing.

I am not proud of my mental illness, but I’m not ashamed to be alive, the way I was when I first got ill.  I’ve had to educate myself about it.  I’m not happy I have CFS/M.E. and am frustrated that I have these unseen physical ailments, but I realise that the attempts to push through it as if it were a matter of will power, are futile.

Some days I’m like the equivalent of Gay Pride and I don’t give a shit who knows I don’t work: if someone asks me what I do, I will, if I can be bothered, say ‘Nothing!  I’m ill – depression, CFS -let’s talk about something interesting now that’s out of the way’.  Other days I don’t feel too happy and don’t want to wear the badge on my sleeve.

My point, in this post, though we got here by a winding road, is to articulate this:  Being mentally ill doesn’t mean you are weird, though it often makes you feel an outsider, and that feeling is crap.  Most people have something they think would make them look weird to other people, it’s just that not everyone has it in the open.  How many bulimics maintain well-kept personal and professional lives?  A lot I imagine.  How many people have a secret they wouldn’t share with their neighbours?  Is your hand up?  If not – LIAR!

The other point is, putting two people who’ve struggled with mental illness in the same room doesn’t work like you’ve put two golf enthusiasts together.

Finally, very important, I get to have mental illness and I still get to call you weird.  I get to call you weird and you get to call me weird before we know anything about any mental disturbance present.  That’s a perk of being human.  That’s a benefit that mental illness can’t strip from you.  That’s human nature for you 😉


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