Sticks and stones…

This is not usually a forum for serious topics, but I want to highlight Vicki’s story. She is a friend of a friend, who is in the process of escaping from her husband and emotional abuser. They have three small children, twins aged four and a toddler boy, all born in Dubai. The children are wards of court while their future is decided. Vicki will have to return from the UK to Dubai for a hearing. She may well lose custody of them.

What follows are Vicki’s words. She describes what effect emotional abuse had on her. As a child I lived through physical abuse, and always thought that was the worst thing that could ever happen to you or someone you love. It seems that emotional abuse can be just as damaging, and even worse in some ways. Although of course the two are very often used in tandem to devastating effect.

“Emotional Abuse is as bad if not worse than physical abuse. Wanna know why? Because no one sees your bruises or scars and no one else really knows what is going on ‘behind closed doors’.imgres

Emotional Abusers are clever. No doubt about it. They prey on someone’s weakness until a small crack becomes a large crevasse. Imagine someone using the one or two or more things you have an insecurity about and building on it daily. Building is the wrong term, chipping away at you is what they do, they build nothing.

I’ll admit mine, mine was definitely confidence. Whilst I come across as a funny and bubbly person, I am actually incredibly shy and have had to learn confidence over the years. When my EA (Emotional Abuser) met me I was a sitting duck. Instead of being happy with my chirpy personality, he saw it as a threat. His insecurities rose up and in an effort to feel like the ‘big man’, he decided to make me smaller instead of grow himself. Its not done over night, its done chip by chip, day by day. A thought, a comment, a mood, a reaction, even just a facial expression, usually of disgust. The moods are bad, where you just so want them to snap out of it you almost apologise for something you haven’t done, especially when there are kids involved. You so want the norm to resume, whatever a norm is, that you are willing to turn into that door mat just to appease a situation. You start to become someone you don’t even like, but you can’t take the reactions anymore. So bit by bit you start to conform to what is expected of you and try ANYTHING not to ‘rock the boat’. It doesn’t matter if you know you are in the right and they are in the wrong, in my case with children, I was so trying to create a happy home environment like I had had that I was willing to do anything to keep the peace. They make you feel like you are going crazy with this up and down personality. One minute loving, next psychotic, next flowers as if nothing had happened that you do actual begin to think did you made it up, made something out of nothing? That’s when I decided to keep a diary. To log these episodes and see the pattern, and make sure I wasn’t going mad?!
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It’s so easy when you are living in it to feel like the issue must be with you, that you must be doing something wrong. When, if you are lucky enough to escape, you look back you are embarrassed at the treatment you put up with for so long, but at the time you know you had to do it.

My EA was/is very clever. He would write the most amazing messages during the day, so that anyone who read them would think wow, what a husband, but the man who wrote those messages in the day, was not the man who walked through the door at night. I wish it had been! The man who walked in at night would have the ability to make me walk on eggshells until I went to sleep. Scared to get onto the wrong conversation or say something that he would misconstrue. I felt emotionally exhausted every night at having to think before I spoke about anything. I can’t begin to explain what that feels like.

I’ve had a few moments in my life that could be termed the straw that broke the camels back, but somehow he always managed to talk his way out of it and make me believe that there was hope and we could be a happy family unit. Alas, it’s never the truth. The last night that I was laying in my daughters bed after he had accused me of something utterly ridiculous, I had texted a dear friend asking her to keep her phone on because I was scared. I didn’t really know what she could do at the time, but it was just nice to know that someone was there. I was lying in my daughter’s bed, willing him to come upstairs and hit me. Just hit me so I would have a physical bruise instead of all these internal ones. Just hit me so I can prove to others what you do to me mentally every day of our lives. Just hit me so I don’t have to hide it anymore. But that’s when it really hit me, that our marriage really was over if I was laying there hoping that a 6ft 5” rugby player would hit me. I thought then that I didn’t have to wait for someone to hit me to be believed. I had to leave.

When I spoke to my supportive Doctor, she also took it to another level. When it was just about me I could cope but when she said, Do you really want Izzy growing up believing it is acceptable to be treated like this? And I thought, do I really want my adorable boys growing up thinking its ‘cool to treat a woman like this. The minute its about loved ones and not you, that’s when the moment comes.

So this is a very brief synopsis of Emotional Abuse. Unfortunately very difficult to prove but I wont give up and I’m glad to be free of the marriage, even if at the moment I can’t be free of the EA himself.”

French emergency

As I dropped Leo off this morning at the hallowed Chelsea training ground in Cobham I was more than usually relived. It is always a joy dropping him off at any sporting venue, but this was particularly poignant because only a few days ago he was lying in hospital with a gas mask on having a false toe-nail sewn on to his middle toe. And for two days after that he was hobbling about on crutches.
On our last evening in France he was racing around a beach-front restaurant when he caught his foot between some floorboards and his toenail came off. I immediately decided to take him home but a wise man at the dinner suggested I go to hospital with him. IMG_0135Turns out it was much the right thing to do. A toe-nail that has been ripped from its home will apparently not grow normally again unless treated. And actually seeing the damage in the hospital lights made me realise how serious it was. As always the French hospital experience (apart from my little boy suffering of course) was incredible. Say what you like about the French, the horrendous taxes and so on but I know where I’d rather lose a toenail. As Leo lay with a gas mask on telling me he loved me and giggling in between brief stabs of pain as the needle went in with the anaesthetic into his toe, one of the nurses asked me what I do. I told her I am a journalist and a writer.
“Oh we had a lovely lady in here on my first day,” she said. “She came in with her daughter and wrote a whole article about us in the Sunday Times.”
I asked her when it was. She told me it was in 2005.
“That was me!” I said. I had been in with Bea who had a very nasty splinter that looked like taking over her entire foot. At least I think  that was incident. I have been there so many times with poor Bea it could have been that or the torch on the head incident or the dehydration episode etc etc.
As we left she said goodbye. “This is my last day,” she told us. “So you were here for my first day and my last.” She said she was going off to do “something else”.
I was of not happy to be there on either occasion but as far as hospital visits go, they were both as good as they get.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2013

I vow to thee my country…

It is a truth universally acknowledged that only a foreigner (like me) can have such a ridiculously romantic view of England. I am at my happiest when in England, especially now with Wimbledon in full swing, the sun shining and Pimm’s flowing. When I am away I yearn for her green fields, M and S and the Daily Telegraph. In Abu Dhabi I shop at a pale imitation of the real Waitrose even though it is at least twice as expensive as anywhere else because it makes me feel “at home”. IMG-20130608-00333
Despite being half Italian and half Swedish, home for me is England. The minute I land here I feel at ease. I remember when I first came here as a seven year old telling my mother how friendly everyone was. Amazingly I don’t think that has changed, even if a few other things have. The food for example, has got so much better. And pubs! I just LOVE pubs now. When I was growing up they were dark, dingy places full of people drinking lager and eating salt & vinegar crisps. Now they’re like wine bars only with Sky Sports.
When we decamped to France in the year 2000 my aunt told me I should be wary about leaving my culture behind. At the time I was more focused on moving from a small house opposite a car park to a glorious villa in the middle of nowhere with a swimming pool. But her words stayed at the back of my mind and although I don’t regret moving for a moment, we gave the children the very best start in life there, I knew there would come a time when we had to get back to our “culture”. You see unlike a lot of British expats, I really didn’t want my children growing up to be French and thinking Napoleon was a good bloke. I love hearing them speak French, they sound gorgeous, but actually before we left for Abu Dhabi (which of course has more in common with England than France) they were turning into little French people I was worried I would not be able to relate to.
Living in Abu Dhabi where English is spoken everywhere and most of our friends are English meant they got back in touch with their roots a little more. And then we took the monumental decision to send them back to England to school. Looking back on it, it was possibly slightly nutty. What would we have done if they had loathed it, called us up crying every five minutes and refused to learn anything at all?IMG-20130503-00252
Happily it could not have gone better. They are blissfully happy. Of course in my view they jolly well should be. I want to be at an English boarding school with its beautiful green acres, tennis courts and surrounding woods. They have already made really good friends, their reports vary from truly excellent to rather middling, but nothing disastrous.
The other day Rupert said jokingly to Leo; “Well, we may be able to afford the school fees next term, looks like your mother is going to do some work for once.” Leo did not find this amusing. His eyes filled with tears. “Can’t you pay the fees next term?”
They seem to have embraced the English way of life as only a foreigner can.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2013

The French role model (again)

Just after Christmas we went to a party at the home of a French family we are quite friendly with. Like us, they have three children aged between nine and 13. Unlike us, these children look and behave like they have leapt straight from the pages of a ‘how to bring up perfect children’ manual.
When we arrived, instead of cowering in the corner in their hoodies like any self-respecting English teenager the three of them stood in line to kiss us bonjour. They were dressed immaculately, in the kind of clothes that my girls would refuse to even try on if bribed, their hair was washed and nicely combed. They spent half the party handing food around to the guests and the other half performing a perfect recital. The little girl is already a Grade 4 pianist and she is only 11. My 13 year old is still struggling with Grade 1. Their son, aged nice, plays the flute perfectly and the oldest girl is a cellist.
I left the party deeply depressed. As if dealing with perfect French women isn’t enough, we now have to compete with their impeccable offspring too.
I remember when we lived in France being endlessly furious with our children who would run around restaurants like they were football pitches, while their French contemporaries sat at the table calmly eating their snails and probably discussing the benefits or otherwise of existentialism. There was one particularly bad occasion when Olivia was only about four and we were told by the neighbouring table that our daughter was clearly too young to be taken out to lunch. I think they felt the same way about her parents.
There is now a book out called something like ‘French children don’t throw food’ that purports to teach us all how to bring up perfect little people who will instinctively know how to tie a scarf and shrug in that Gallic manner. I do have it, but have not yet dared read it for fear that it is all too late. Maybe I was supposed to tie them to a chair with my scarf at an early age to get them used to sitting still?
Anyway they are all off to boarding school in a few weeks’ time, that marvellous British institution that will teach them, if nothing else, how to wield a lacrosse stick and not be a sneak.
Admirable qualities some other nations could do with a bit more of. Even if they can sit still at lunch.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2013

In search of a school……

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a middle-class mother in possession of daughters must be in want of a school. Or at least an expat middle-class mother who is utterly horrified at the level of education on offer where she lives. Next week the girls and I set off from Abu Dhabi to England for interviews and exams at various public schools.
Having been turned down out of hand by the school their half sister went to on the basis of an exam they took (I even told said school they would fail it), I figured the only way to get them in is for them to actually meet the people who make the decisions and hope they spot the potential in them.
I also need to show them the benefits of an English school, because they are less than convinced that it is the right move for them. Let’s face it, why would they want to go anywhere. Here they start school early (7.30) but by 2.30 they are finished for the day, and they rarely have homework. So instead of doing prep or careering across a frozen lacrosse pitch they are in their rooms, on their laptops. Which might seem like a nice thing to do, but will of course eventually turn their brains to mush and they will be no use to anyone.
I am also aware that being a teenager in a place where drinking and relations with the opposite sex are illegal may not be ideal. I was brought up in Sweden where both are practically obligatory.
When I was about 15 I had a male friend to stay. In the morning, my mother came into my bedroom to ask if I’d like a cup of tea. The boy had by then left.
“No thanks,” I said.
She was about to shut the door, then poked her head around again. “Did you lose your virginity?” she asked, as casually as if she were asking what time I was going to get up.
“NO!” I yelled, utterly horrified. I was an extremely conservative teenager, and my virginity was not even up for discussion, least of all with my mother.
“Oh,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “Why not?”
But the main reason I would like the girls to go to an English school is that I really don’t feel here they’re getting as much out of life here as they could be doing. They’re just not INTERESTED in anything. Nothing seems to have captured their imagination. Not art, nor drama, nor sport. OK so Bea is a fanatical Chelsea fan, which is commendable, but I would like it if they actually did something and excelled at it.
Of course some of that is down to them, but I also believe children need inspiring, and they need exciting role models to show them the way. I can tell them to read a book a thousand times, but coming from me, their natural instinct is to ignore it. The other day Rupert asked Bea what book she was reading. “Facebook,” she replied in all seriousness.
Time to move on girls…..

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2013

Lawyers, orphans and the pathetic Mr Putin

Several years ago,when I was still editing the magazine Central European (a must-read) I used to travel to Russia every few weeks to write a supplement we ran called Russiamoney. This was back in the early 1990s when Russia was just opening up, and there were fortunes to be made overnight. I remember meeting one future oligarch in a Moscow bar. After our chat, he was going off to buy a flat with three suitcases of cash. And today, as I read about the pathetic Mr Putin’s reaction to the law passed in the US banning visas for officials implicated in the hideous death of the whistle-blowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky (pictured here), I am reminded of another encounter I had, this time on a plane from St Petersburg to London.
I had spotted the family at the airport. The attractive blond parents with their two daughters, kitted out entirely in Osh-Kosh. The kids running rings around them, the parents trying to remain calm.
“How spoilt,” was my silent reaction as I buried my nose in my book. These were the days before I had children, and I assumed that as a parent you would be able to control your offspring.
I was horrified to see when I sat down on the plane that they were behind me. I cursed my stupidity in forgetting my walkman (yes, it really was that long ago) and settled down grimly in preparation for a long flight.
The first thing the children did was repeatedly take the plane phone out of its cradle and shove it back in, bashing my seat every time they did it. And they argued, and fought and shouted and screamed and didn’t sit still for more than 30 seconds at a time.
After an hour I could take no more. I turned around and snapped at the ineffectual mother:
“Can you please control your children?”
“They’re pretty good…” she began
“No they’re not,” I interrupted.
“They’re pretty good,” she continued,” considering they left an orphanage this morning.”
Needless to say, this shut me up. “I’m so sorry,” I said. “I had no idea.” She told me their story. They were daughters of a drug addict, prostitute mother. The reason they had been allowed to leave Russia to move to the US with their adoptive parents was due to medical reasons. The older girl sister had suffered 80 per cent burns on her body protecting the little ones from the flames that engulfed their home and killed their mother, who had fallen asleep holding a lit cigarette. The item they had been fighting over was a small wooden box filled with sweet wrappers.
“It’s their favourite toy,” their new mother told me. “In fact, it’s their only toy.”
She showed me some of the older girls’ scars, she must have been only seven or eight years old, they were horrific and covered her whole back, her neck and her arms. Her little sister was around four years old.
The couple already had two teenage children of their own; healthy, happy girls, and they felt very strongly they should do something to help those less fortunate. The mother was well aware of the potential problems that lay ahead, not least that the girls spoke no English, and they spoke no Russian. But they were willing to risk their stable, secure lives to bring in two girls who would otherwise have spent their lives in a dank orphanage and then possibly gone the same way as their mother. And these are the kinds of children Putin is punishing because he is angry that someone has pointed out that murdering innocent lawyers in jail is not the done thing if you want to be part of the civilised world? What a coward.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012

Angst, what angst?

I hated being a teenager. I was utterly angst-ridden. Not so much in the existentialist ‘why am I here?’ department, but just about everything else. I was too skinny, too foreign (at the time practically the only brown-haired, brown-eyed girl in the whole of Sweden) and too different (mad Italian father, divorced parents, strange surname).
Bea asked me yesterday if I always thought I would get married and have children (she is 12 now, so probably just about to embark on various angst-ridden phases). I had to think about her question, and couldn’t say with all honesty that I did. All I really know is that I decided very early on that if I ever did get married and have children, I would give them the kind of upbringing I wished I had; so two parents, no divorces, stability and routine. And definitely no psychos.
I remember my stepfather yelling at me when I was about 19 years old. “You’re so bloody middle class,” he shouted. “I can just see you in years to come, married to some bloke called Rupert, loving in Wiltshire waving off your kids to boarding school.”
“What’s wrong with that?” was my reaction (which of course I didn’t dare to voice). “Sounds ideal.”
I did marry someone called Rupert, and although we don’t live in Wiltshire (and yes I do wish we did sometimes), the children may soon be going to boarding school. Of course that is now a source of angst for me, because I can’t imagine what it will be like without them, but more on that another time.
I hope we have succeeded in providing the kind of stable background that at least reduces the horror of teenage angst. So far the girls seem balanced, happy and able to talk to me if anything is worrying them.
As for Leo, there really isn’t much existentialist angst there I’m happy to say. As Rupert put it the other day: “Why am I here? I am here to score goals for Chelsea.”
There can be no greater aim….

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012

Big children, big problems

When Olivia was about five, she came rushing into my office one evening.
“Mummy,” she said, gesticulating wildly. “There’s a big, big problem. I dropped the torch and Bea’s got blood.”
This was no normal torch. It was one of those massive American fire-fighter torches, and she had dropped it from the top bunk, on to Bea’s forehead. She was lying in the bottom bunk.
We rushed to the local hospital, where Bea was stitched up. She still bears the scar. I remember telling someone about it at the time about the accident. “Little children, little problems,” they told me. “Big children, big problems.” Great I thought, there’s something to look forward to.
I am beginning to see what they mean. Bea (with Harry Potter-style scar, pictured below) and her sister are now 11 and 13 respectively. Tomorrow they are going on a school trip to Singapore. Yes, I know, on my school trips we got to go to a mustard factory in rural Sweden (I am not joking). But these days, they get to go on a football tour of Singapore.
I know while they are away I will sleep uneasily. I always sleep uneasily when they are not in the house. And I dread that call from a teacher/hospital/policeman. I suppose this worrying never goes away. And with good reason.
We have just got back from Oman. Bea broke the news to me as I was lying on a sun-lounger at The Chedi ( a most heavenly place) that she had been in a car accident.
“I’m fine,” she told me. “The driver had a stroke and stopped and so the car behind went into us.” She also helpfully sent me a picture of the smashed-up car.
I knew the answer before I asked the question. “Were you wearing your seat-belt?”
Silence. “I was about to put it on.”
At least when she was little, I would have been there to put it on for her.
She is fine, a bit of whiplash, but fine. And I hope this has taught her that however boring I am about the seat-belt, I am right.
Maybe it will make her listen to me a bit more, and avoid other big problems in the future. Probably not, but as a perpetually worried parent, you live in hope….

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012

What I did in my holidays

I remember when I was at school we used to have to write an essay at the beginning of term about our summer holidays. I could never really think about much to write, except of course for the summer when my mother and I escaped from her third husband in her purple Ford Cortina and drove from England to Italy to meet my real father.

This summer we did so much I don’t really know where to begin. We started in London and ended in London, but in between went to Paris, Sainte Cecile, (our house in the south of France) Yorkshire and Scotland. Miraculously I was able to work from everywhere and I can’t see a situation where I will be forced to spend the summer here again.

We played the ‘what was the best bit’ game on the way back to Abu Dhabi, and all of us found it impossible to pick one thing. But among the highlights were:

The Chelsea football school and winning player of the week (Leo)

Being at Sainte Cecile (Bea)

Eating duck in Chinatown (Olivia)

Playing golf at his club and lunch at le train bleu (Rupert, see below pic)

My highlights included; food shopping at Waitrose (yes, I am a boring middle- class woman whose idea of a good time is spotting a box of Bendick’s bittermints or full-fat Organic Devon milk), realising how much I love Sainte Cecile as a holiday home, seeing friends (best thing of all actually, even better than the Bendick’s), travelling on London buses just gazing out of the window at the shops and life on the street, playing tennis on the most beautiful grass court ever in the English summer sun in Yorkshire, two visits to Stamford Bridge to watch us win (as well as Frank Lampard warming up just in front of me).

I was in a total panic about coming back here, desperate for something to happen to make it possible for me to stay there. But now I’m here, I’m pleased to be home. The kids are pleased to be back too, although Bea was apparently the only child in her class who said so.

The children loved England, and they seemed totally at home roaming around London on the buses and tubes, going shopping and meeting friends. Next year the plan is to send them all to school there, which I’m really happy about. I want them to have strong links to Europe, not just because our friends and family are there, but because eventually they will live there.

But for the moment it is a place we go for our holidays, and I can’t wait for the next one.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012

Chelsea-Paris-Sainte Cecile-Bramham-Eaton Square

On Monday the children and I head off on our travels until August 31st. This will be the first time in four years that I will have been away for the summer. We arrived in August 2008 and since then, even if the girls have been able to escape for much of July and August thanks to my mother, we have been here. Poor Leo has had a very lonely birthday every year on July 20th with just us to celebrate with, along with maybe one other unfortunate friend who is not away.
Today is Friday, our weekend, and the children have only been outside to go to lunch or the mall. It is so hot you can’t walk anywhere, even once the sun goes down. Leo is going stir crazy, one day after school has ended. Yesterday afternoon he has his final football session, it was a bit like sauna soccer.
Hence the reason for escaping. We begin in London where we stay for a couple of weeks, then we go to Paris for two days followed by Sainte Cecile for a three-week stint. I always used to think Sainte Cecile in August was boiling hot, but it will probably seem quite temperate after here. After France the kids and I head up to my friends at Bramham while Rupert comes back to work, and then we all meet again at a lovely place we’ve rented in Eaton Square before flying back to Abu Dhabi and the start of school.
For those of you who remember the belle maison, the sad news is that we didn’t get it, so we won’t be heading there. I was heartbroken at the time, but have got over it, and it will be interesting to see how we all feel about our old home, which we were going to sell in order to buy it.
When we left Leo was only four, a tiny boy dressed in a Spiderman suit, and the girls were still very much children. They are coming back as different people. Olivia is thirteen, Bea almost twelve, young ladies really.
Bea is most excited about going to Sainte Cecile, while Olivia is desperate to go to London. Rupert is also looking forward to going home to France, and Leo is really excited about the Chelsea soccer school he is going to for the second week of July. I’m just looking forward to getting away from the heat, any of the above suits me. But it will be lovely to celebrate Leo’s birthday at home, surrounded by friends, fine wine, good food and maybe even a football match on the lawn.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012