The mysteries that paralyze us until we lose their shackles

As a 19-year-old, I was in bed with my wife for five days when she broke a secret. I wasn’t the father of the child she carried.

lay in this bed shocked by an out of body experience. I’m still not sure when or if that shock ever wore off. We got married because my girlfriend was pregnant. It just seemed like the right thing to do at the time. The parents had been abandoned. We didn’t want to make it worse.

I had thought it impossible that she was pregnant as I had been in the US for 10 weeks on a J1 visa. But it was technically possible, with a lot of effort, for me to become a father. A visit to the GP a few days after I got home confirmed that she was pregnant.

I was soon her husband, but she knew I wasn’t the father. Her conscience would not let her maintain the deception. If she hadn’t told me I might never have known, but after five days she knew this wasn’t a secret she could hold on to.

She was a beautiful, vivacious young woman, a talented singer and guitarist who suffered social disgrace in the Irish countryside, and she did what many young women would have done. She got married. It was the time and not the person.

Over the years, people who knew me well told me that I had never faced this delusion, that I lived half my life, always put the brakes on, that I never allowed myself to feel vulnerable and therefore didn’t love could – I had never had children and would have made a good father. I denied it all and moved on.

I went to boarding school, which I hated, but you learn to stand on your own two feet. Shit happens and you move on. Whether that’s a good recipe for life remains to be seen, but it was my path. It wasn’t like coming back from a world war. And between academic life as a psychologist at Trinity, many satisfying years as a TV producer at RTÉ, and more than 1,000 columns for that newspaper, it wasn’t like I was a total failure. She had a much worse hand. We broke up, lost touch, and she died far too young.

A few years ago my demons made themselves felt again. I heard a chorus of, “If it was someone else, you would tell them to go to therapy.”

That was an idea I was never comfortable with. It would have been good to talk to a psychologist friend, but I just couldn’t say what needed to be said without irreparably changing this relationship.

I would have given everything a positive glow. Self-sufficiency would have set in and for me it would have been a game. But she convinced me to start writing. It’s a lot harder not to be honest when the words are there, looking back at you. You could call it self-therapy. She was right in my case.

So many things make up a personality, and it was a shock to me to discover that many of the things I focused on when trying to understand my psychological state were happening well before this teenage bedroom shock. They might not have had the Exocet punch of back then, but many formative events were already there.

The more I wrote during lockdown, the greater my night terrors grew. I don’t know what was going on inside me, but something was there and it was very uncomfortable for a while. I lay awake many nights afraid to close my eyes for fear of what awaited me.

I have no negative feelings towards the young woman who shared this part of my life with me. I have wonderful positive feelings about being with her. Teenage love is wonderful, but the first cut is the deepest. I still can’t hear Neil Young sing birds — “Beloved, there will be another hovering under the sun above you” — without being catapulted back into summer teenage love and betrayal. When he played Nowlan Park a few years ago I was scared he would play that song and I didn’t know how I would react.

But I have many negative feelings about 1970’s Ireland and the piety and hypocrisy, gossip and backbiting that led a pretty young Irish woman to feel that the decision she had made to marry me the only way was to stop ruining her life. It’s clear to her that she couldn’t quite pull it off in continuing the deception. I have little memory of her young daughter, but I got to know her a little bit from her teenage years. Neither she nor I knew who her father was and I became a bit of a distant uncle. She was very much like her mother, with the same magical smile. Life is cruel and she is no longer with us.

People have told me that reading my “therapy” gives them a new perspective on their own lives. This was a completely unintended consequence. We all have our private lives and secrets. We must not allow them to overwhelm us.

People say that time is a great healer. That, I’m guessing, is poppies. You can leave the pebble in your shoe so long that you don’t realize you’re limping. But others do. Some are brave enough to say it. Like many people, it took me a long time to listen. Then one day I felt a jump in my steps and the beginning of a feeling we call looking forward to. It was long gone.

I’ve read that Barry Gibb, who’s no slouch in the songwriting world, said there are things he just can’t talk about. But he can put those emotions into a song.

I have often thought of these words as I wrote outdoors early in the morning, thankful for the good weather with the Covid restrictions. This book was written for my dead parents who asked for absolution. This book is my song.

The Column I Never Wrote by John Masterson is published by The Harvest Press and is available in bookstores and on The mysteries that paralyze us until we lose their shackles

Fry Electronics Team

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