Storying Sheffield

My name is Paul Allender

My name is Paul Allender. I was born in Sheffield in 1955. I grew up in Neepsend, an area of old terraced houses with communal backyards. They had outside toilets, across the yard, and one cold water tap for the whole house. Bath time was once a week with my two younger sisters! It was a great community where ‘tough love’ prevailed – at least it was a kind of love. The houses were demolished in 1967 as part of a wider slum clearance programme across Sheffield. We were rehoused in 1966 on Parson Cross council estate and my mum and dad are still living there over fifty years later.

I went to secondary school on the estate and did lots of things that adolescents do from white, working-class backgrounds, although most of them were legal! My mum and dad were very respectable and still are. They believed in the virtue of hard work: the Protestant Work ethic. I was a ‘good boy’.

But by the time I was in the sixth form in 1971, I had discovered art. I have told this story in a short film ‘Art on Parson Cross’:

I had also found out something about the mysteries of art college. A number of my friends were there and they sounded like really great places to be. Very different to what my future looked like at the time. After flunking my A levels, I went back to school to get an ‘O’ level in Art and applied for a foundation course in Art and Design at Sheffield Polytechnic as it then was. Art college really looked like a much better option than a 9 – 5 job. I did well on the foundation course at Sheffield and subsequently got accepted at Hull Art College for a degree in Fine Art. With hindsight, these years, 1976-1979, were the best three of my life. Art college was ‘something else’. Again I did well and got accepted on to an MA in Sculpture at St Martin’s College in London, a very prestigious institution. Without the benefit of hindsight then, I rejected the art college path, didn’t go to St Martin’s and, a few years later, began to study Politics & Sociology. Around this time, I had my very first experience of mental ill-health.

I had moved to London after Hull and had a string of different jobs. In 1987, after a two-year relationship, my girlfriend at the time left me. I didn’t love her and, again with hindsight, I didn’t even like her that much. The relationship, for both of us I think, was really all about sex. However, her leaving me had a devastating effect. After a short while, I ceased to be able to function. I literally couldn’t do anything other than the basics to keep myself alive. I was hopeless. Something had snapped and it had little to do with my ex-girlfriend.

The ‘tough love’ that I spoke about earlier meant something now. Life was very hard in Neepsend, despite the strong community. My mum was 19 when she had me (and my dad 20). He worked 12 hour shifts a lot, so was not at home that much. My mum had had a very tough upbringing herself. She had no ‘parenting’ models and did her best in very difficult circumstances. But the instances of ‘tough love’ really mostly came from neighbours. My mum and dad’s priorities were to make sure that we were fed, clothed and had an annual holiday and lots of trips out of Neepsend: Scarborough for the former and Weston Park and Rivelin Valley for the latter were the main destinations. My parent’s really cared but there was something missing. I guess it was ‘unqualified love’ and physical affection. This loss, if that is what it was, came to the fore in 1987, when I was 32 years old. I had to seek psychological support. Eventually, I met with a therapist who turned out to be great for me. I met with her regularly for about 5 years. Her practice happened to be within walking distance of where I worked. At the most intense period, I would go there 3 times a week. This particular therapist played a hugely important role in my life. She helped me to be able to function again. (Whilst writing this, I have just googled her name and location and up came a site with a photo. It was wonderful to see her face again after all these years! In fact, I then e-mailed her and she, to my delight, replied with a wonderfully affirmative mail.)

Of course, merely being able to function is not enough.

I guess that the main way in which the things I have been writing about have affected me were not just a lack of confidence but more a lack of a sense of self. For many years later I used the analogy of a ‘big black hole’ at the centre of me.

I have had very difficult times since that first one in the 1980’s but none as severe. I have never stopped functioning although I have come quite close. My relationship with my current partner (of 26 years) has brought up lots of stuff for me. She really loves me. For a long time in the early years, I couldn’t really handle this. How could she love someone with a big black hole at his centre? There were lots of ‘freak-outs’ in those very early years including, what seem now like bizarre, incidents of me attempting to squeeze myself into impossibly small physical spaces and my only ever incident of self-harm.

When I was living in Oxford, in the early 2000’s, I dabbled with psychodrama for a couple of years. It was an interesting experiment which led to me exploring performance later on: I am a huge fan of the Sheffield based company Forced Entertainment. I performed with them in 2003 and ran my own performance group in Sheffield Other Things between 2010 and 2013. But the psychodrama group I attended in Oxford didn’t do very much for my lack of sense of self.

Between 2003 and 2008 I lived in Coventry in the West Midlands. There I met a man who introduced me to co-counselling or to give it its formal title Re-evaluation Counselling. I have been doing this ever since. It involves a reciprocal relationship between two (occasionally more) people. Time is shared and one person is counsellor while the other is client and then vice versa. This process has been enormously valuable to me – the last eleven years of counselling have revealed things otherwise hidden and have given me opportunities that I could only have dreamt of. I’m not writing this piece to advocate Re-evaluation Counselling but it is, as regards my mental ill-health, the best thing that could have happened to me. It is less a form of therapy and more of a liberation movement. I will continue with it for the rest of my life and don’t anticipate every having to consult mental health ‘professionals’ again. I have met very interesting people in co-counselling and have developed lifelong relationships.

All of the issues that arise in my counselling sessions (when I am a client) stem back to the relationship with my mother (and to a much lesser extent father) in the first decade of my life. And the environment – Neepsend in Sheffield – provides a suitable location and backdrop for all the events and non-events of that period.

My mum was 19 years old when I was born. I was an ‘accident’ and she had no preparation at all for what was about to happen to her. Her own upbringing was characterized by a total lack of love, absence of physical affection and maybe even an element of abuse. Her father treated her appallingly. It is also impossible not to notice that almost all of my mum’s siblings ‘went off the rails’. Her oldest brother died of alcoholism. Another brother spent almost all of his adult life in Middlewood psychiatric Hospital after being certified insane because he physically attacked his brother’s girlfriend. That brother soon after ‘took to the road’ and was homeless for more than forty of the last years of his life. Mum’s sister became a recluse for the last years of her life. The only sibling that escaped was my Uncle Fred who was evacuated to Nottingham in the war and never came back to live with his family! Again, it was difficult not to notice that he was the most mentally ‘sound’ of all of the family. Coincidence? I think not.

So, my mum had no preparation for bringing up a child. She had to make it up as she went along – with help from the neighbours. As already stated, my dad was working 12 hour shifts at that time so was absent from home a lot. My mum did her best. But for me as a child it was not enough. At some point as a very small child I began to realize that my demands were causing her a lot of anxiety and so started to look after her rather than the other way round. This early period has had profoundly detrimental effects on my life as an adult. Self-confidence, self-esteem, self-belief – all of these things seemed to be ‘naturally’ absent. I had my first girlfriend aged 21 and my first sexual experience at the same time. That particular relationship lasted 8 years. When it ended, I was aged 30. I then embarked upon a very long period of abandoned sexual promiscuity that lasted a couple of decades! Whilst I don’t regret this period at all, I think that my desire to be promiscuous was directly related to the absence of physical affection when I was young. Putting it very crudely, sex = affection = a kind of love. Of course, this situation led to all kinds of complicated problems.

Mental ill-health, for me, is often quite a subtle thing. It can ‘creep up’ on me. Sometimes, in contrast, it feels like the norm: how can we be happy with Trump in the White House, Theresa May in Downing Street and ecological disaster looming? Isn’t feeling miserable and ‘down’ a normal response to such things? In the counselling community I belong to, we don’t often speak in terms of mental health. The focus there is upon the ‘distress patterns’ we have that are the result of incidents, events and absences of things, as in my case, that happen to us throughout our lives. There is an emphasis, not surprisingly, on what happened and didn’t happen when we were young. It is through this co-counselling process, after many hours of intense counselling, that I have come to realize that all of the major ‘psychological’ problems and issues that I have encountered as an adult are all caused by the absence of love and physical affection as a youngster. Now I know this, it is easier to do something about it.

Eight years ago, my partner and I moved back to Sheffield. Between 2010 and 2013 I ran a performance group Other Things. Despite some small successes, I gave the group up because, as leader, I was doing all of the work. But it was a serious and concentrated return to creative activity. Around that time, 2011-12, I began doing some engaged art projects on Parson Cross, commissioned by Yorkshire Artspace, working with local people on whatever they wanted to do: painting; photography; visits to art galleries; discussion groups etc. This led to me getting a studio in the SOAR building in 2102 and I have been there ever since. Since the beginning of 2014, I have focussed exclusively upon my own painting. This is going well. Much of the content of the paintings connects to mental ill-health in lots of different, often unconscious ways. So, for example, this is a work currently in progress:

Earlier in this piece, I wrote about the feeling of having a big black hole at my centre. I don’t feel and think like this anymore and haven’t for a number of years. But it seems possible that it might be continuing to influence my painting. This painting is 6′ x 6′.

I haven’t got a ‘magic bullet answer’ to mental ill-health. I wish I had. For the past 11 years, Re-evaluation Counselling has ‘kept me steady’ and more and I hope will continue to do so. However, the very strong feeling of something being missing, an absence of something very important, a ‘missing out’ on something often pervades my waking and sleeping hours. This is despite me having had and continuing to have a very full life. I don’t know why…but of course I do really.

Paul Allender, September 2017

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