July 6, 2020

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Terri White: ‘On good nights, I lost my phone. On bad nights, I lost my sanity’

My life began in the village of Inkersall, just north of the Dershire town of Chesterfield. Mum and Dad collided when she was just 15 and living in a house teetering on a faultline. Their love crackled bright and quick after meeting in the pub, and a wedding was arranged for the day after her 16th birthday. My grandad, horrified and furious, made Mum an offer: a horse in exchange for her calling off the wedding. She loved riding more than anything; anything, it would seem, except my dad. The offer was rejected.

In another act of easy-seeming rebellion, my brother was in her belly almost immediately, entering the world a month before her 17th birthday. I joined them one year and 364 days later. The marriage was a disaster, their fights turning physical after Grandad died. There was a story she shared of the Christmas she couldn’t see the turkey across the table; both eyes swollen shut, and my newly widowed Nana closed-mouthed beside her, warned not to make it worse, because worse it could be. There was another, of the time he outlined what would happen if she left him, how he’d set fire to the house with us all inside.

Mum wasn’t his only target. He picked my brother off the ground both ears and threw him against the wall. He punched me into the fireplace and sat on Mum as she screamed on the settee and I screamed for her in the ashes. That was the time, she says, that prompted her, finally, to take us and leave.

Into this father-shaped hole in my life walked other men, almost immediately. I never had the chance to hope they would be better men, better fathers than mine had been – it was clear from the start that some were, in fact, much worse.


Terri White, on the green outside her house in the village of Inkersall, just north of Chesterfield. She is approx 8-9, which would make it 1987/88



In Inkersall, Dershire, in 1987/88. Photograph: courtesy of Terri White

Then the man arrived who would set us off running for a second time. At first, his hands were warm and soft, waiting, welcoming. But he turned out to be the strongest and meanest of men. The first fist is nowhere in my memory, no matter how much I dig and turn and sift and sort. But the 10th, the 20th are there. Sometimes it was a full, closed fist and sometimes an open hand or a tightly clenched back of the hand, knuckles bared and braced. I heard the wind rush through the gap between his thumb and first finger as he brought it down from on high; the whoosh snuffed out the crack of hand on skin and bone.

An autumn evening. It was Friday. Mum was working in the pub, he was basitting. I was woken him calling my name. I was in my nightie and barefoot as I walked the few steps down the landing. “Come in,” he said. I opened the door, peered around and he was naked from head to toe. I knew instantly that it was wrong, that I needed to get away, fast and far, but I also knew not to run. What would happen if I did. One fear overtook the other and I stood perfectly still. “Come and sit down,” he said. “Hold this.” I sat cross-legged on the carpet and held the magazine he’d given me. There were pictures of big-breasted women, also wearing no clothes, brown hair shooting out in big curly mounds from between their thighs. “Hold it the right way up,” he snapped. I froze, confused, until he took it and turned it so it faced him. Relieved, I held it against my chest. I didn’t have to look at the pictures, look into the eyes of the women he was hurting. I held the magazine in front of my face so I couldn’t see him. “Hold it lower,” he shouted, gasping for breath. “Lower, now.” It occurred to me too late that he wanted me to see. I looked at the ceiling; the Artex charmed me like a snake into another reality. I escaped into it, climbed into the other dimension, my arms open wide.

I can’t remember if he instructed me not to tell, but he didn’t need to. I felt ashamed, complicit, smeared with him. One day I cried at school. I’d been abused years before another man and now it felt like my fault. Why would both of them do this unless I’d welcomed it? Why couldn’t I see what I must be putting out into the world of men?

The school called Mum and we were referred to family therapy, to deal with the earlier abuse. We sat in a room separated from another room with glass that I couldn’t see through. I looked at the glass, the mirror, and wondered: what did they see when they looked at me? The woman asked who and what I was afraid of. He sat two seats away. “You’re safe now,” she said. “You know that he wouldn’t ever do anything like that.” I nodded, resisting the urge to shake my head and scream until my voice bounced off the ceiling and down into his throat, cutting off his air. Instead, I sat mute.

When we did eventually leave him, there had been far worse times. Through the wall, I heard the drawers of the dressing table being pulled out. They bounced off the carpet, their contents danced in the air. Angry, muffled words flew with them, the quieter responses belonging to Mum. The front door slammed and he drove away, tyres screaming.

Immediately, something was different. Mum, wide-eyed, whirled around the living room. The one-sided fight had been about the absence of socks in his underwear drawer. And at the front door, a balled hand and a promise: “If there aren’t any socks in that drawer the time I get home, you’ll be getting some fist.” We knew that there was nothing my mum could do in the next eight hours to avoid getting some fist, to save the bones in her face, but what she said next took me off guard. “Put some stuff in a bag, we’re going,” she said. We didn’t move. “I said get a bag, put some stuff in, we’re leaving!” I dug out my favourite bag – a tote bag from the Brownies featuring a smiling girl outside a country cottage, roses around the door.


Terri White outside the Flatiron Building in Manhattan, June 2012


Outside the Flatiron Building in Manhattan, June 2012. Photograph: courtesy of Terri White

At the Citizens Advice bureau, they found us a refuge, the last one in the country with room. We were given money for the train we couldn’t afford and warned to go straight to the station without telling anyone. The refuge was full of women and children who looked just like us: small, brittle and terrified. Women who needed to be invisible but were alert for the fight they weren’t yet sure they no longer needed. They clutched mugs of tea and spoke in small, sore sentences.

I heard that he was looking for us, that he turned up at Nana’s house. He cried. Cried. I tried to imagine him crying – sitting on her green two-seater sofa. On his face were cut-out tears on white paper, coloured in blue felt-tip, stuck on with Sellotape.

Then one day, several weeks later, just like that, we were going home. He’d gone, apparently. We’d be “safe”. I didn’t feel safe. The first day we got back, the nextdoor neighbour shouted up: “We would hear you all screaming. We thought about calling the police, but we didn’t want to interfere.”

One unremarkable day, years later, Mum finds it: my diary. I wrote every day, sharing all the things that would no longer fit in my head. I’d described the nights, the magazine, the slap, slap and the white specks. She calls me downstairs and asks me, is it true? I tell her yes, it’s true.

The next day, I came home from school and she was Hoovering the front room. When I walked in, she turned it off with her foot. She asked if I wanted to go to the police about what we’d talked about the night before, or just forget about it. I said I wanted to forget about it. She nodded, kicked the Hoover and it roared into life once more. We never spoke of it again.

***

The first time alcohol touched my lips, I wasn’t as tall as the mantelpiece: a can of cheap lager, handed to me my mum. But it was so much more than how it tasted. Boy, did it make me feel. The warm, beautiful, bouncing buzz flowed down into my thighs, floated to my chest and curled up inside my head. There it sat, settled for a moment, cotton wool around my brain, filling in the scars.

One night when I was in my teens, Mum fought with another man in her life. His particular torment, for all of us, was control. Can I use the car? Can I turn the TV on? Can I have a bath? Can I go out? Can I speak? Can I have some money? Can I love my own children?

She stormed out, grabbing her purse and me – “Terri, come on.” I jumped up without a second’s thought, buoyed the slightest chance that this time she was busting us out for good. Once we were over the green, we looked at each other wild-eyed, high on disobedience and the prospect of freedom, however brief. We reached the corner shop, where she bought the cheapest cider and lager, litre bottles of each; she’d loosened the cap before we’d even left the shop. She marched, furiously swigging from the bottle while she told me how much she hated him. How he wanted to crush who she was.

After each swig and swallow, she passed me the plastic bottle. The liquid fizzed and burned in my too-small throat as I trotted alongside, struggling to keep up. We walked and talked until we’d walked and talked in circles. There was nowhere to go, just around the estate, round and round, where our world began and ended.

Home was inevitable; he was inevitable. Orange street lights guided our weaving way. He was watching the snooker with the volume down low, not speaking, sucking hard on the cigarette butts clasped tightly between his fingers. I sat on the carpet, seeing two of every wild, bright swirl that curled under my crossed legs. The shouts, slams and bangs of Mum and the man flew overhead, settled on my shoulders and caused me to sink until I was underwater and trying to wave at them back on land. A hand reached out. My mum was in the dining room, throwing open the door to the cabinet where we stored the booze for Christmas. This time the liquid was brown. Then red. I kept swallowing, taking what was good for me. That was the night of my first blackout.

***

In my 20s, I spent long periods unable to be in contact with my mum. Her life was still chaotic and, truthfully, I blamed her for not protecting me. I went first to London, but it wasn’t far enough. So in 2012 I travelled another 3,459 miles for a job on a magazine in New York. My dream city, my dream life – and yet I quickly began to unravel.

Within weeks, I have a list of bars I’d rather not visit, some that I simply can’t. There’s too much chance of recognition. On the good nights, I lose things: my favourite faux fur coat, my red leather gloves, my bank card, my phone. On the bad nights, I lose more: chunks of memory, all the feeling in my hands and toes, my loosening hold on sanity.


Terri White on the roof of the Empire hotel in Manhattan, July 2015.



On the roof of the Empire hotel in Manhattan, July 2015. Photograph: courtesy of Terri White

I like drinking. Very much. Or rather, I like what drinking does to me. I like feeling altered. The anxiety that balls my fists, locks my shoulders, fixes my grin disappears. But the mornings are impossible; the ritual cripples me. Wake up, panic, feel guilty and/or ashamed, vomit, shower, vomit (sometimes in the shower), dress, paint my face, apply eyedrops to dissolve away the red.

I’m obsessed with booze: when can I start drinking, what will happen when that half-full bottle is emptied, why has no one ordered another yet? The more I drink, the more these people could be my people. This could be my home. But some days, I dissociate completely: I drift so far away from myself, I feel my mind is lost for ever, that I’ll never make it back.

My friend Dave is coming to town for the release of his book. We’ve known each other since we worked together a decade before. I’ve offered to let him stay, a promise that looms large. I’ve done a pretty good job of keeping the reality of my New York life from everyone at home so far, but Dave is due to step slap bang into the middle of it. I can tell when he arrives that this isn’t what he expects, and make a joke about the lack of windows, the burnt orange walls that make it look as if it’s being frozen in time while being burned down from the inside out.

Night one: I join him in the bar where he’s reading from his book. I make myself a promise: two drinks, no more. I’ll stay sober, stay sane. Dave steps up to read – charming, funny, already so much more at home in my town. I stay long enough to be polite, then abandon my second drink. In the cab, I cry. Partly from joy and pride for him. Partly because the thick loneliness has doubled in size.

The second night: his launch party. Drinks at an apartment in Chelsea, owned another author. I know that this will be harder. The opportunities to stand alone, fade into the shadows, fewer. I’m buzzed in and stand in the stairwell before heading up to the front door, paralysed with anxiety. I take two Xanax and then a third. The fellow author opens the door and I recognise him: a local in the bar downstairs, the bar I go to a lot, alone. What has he seen? A brief flash of something – recognition, horror, confusion – flashes across his face, before he straightens it out, the impeccable host, and welcomes me inside.

The room is about a third full of people dressed in black and brown, a statistically impossible number in glasses. They’re talking in three tight pockets, cradling small drinks on white paper napkins. I spot Dave with relief. “Terri’s come as a cartoon character,” he says. The group pauses. One laughs, one swallows drily, one looks away, another coughs. I laugh.

I see how I look. Brittle hair, pinned high and tight. Scarlet slash of a mouth. Tight reproduction 1950s wiggle dress, blue and white. Cherry red stilettos that are cutting my feet. I walk to the kitchen and help myself to a drink, then another. A mutual friend and his wife arrive, and I take solace in them and a bottle of tequila. I remember a shot, two shots, and then black.


Portrait of Terri White of Empire magazine



‘As I stare out of the window, I want to jump through it.’ Photograph: Kate Peters/The Guardian

I wake, fully dressed, on top of my sheets. I roll my tongue over my teeth, which are sticky. Dave isn’t there. I look over at the sofa to be sure and it’s empty, blanket folded on top of the single pillow.

I can’t remember, but know I did something bad. I call Dave. “Where are you?” I ask. “Do you not remember?” “No.” He tells me, matter-of-factly, that I ruined his party. That I got drunk, shouted, I might have cried. That I’d fled and told him he couldn’t stay at mine. As he talks, I notice dust, the air carrying bits of my skin past as I stare out of the window. I want to jump through it. He meets me after work in an Indian restaurant in the village. I barely taste my food as I apologise over and over, and though he says the right words with considerable grace, he can’t meet my eyes. I’ve never hated myself more.

***

I land an even bigger job, the biggest, as editor-in-chief of Time Out New York. Within months, the magazine is winning award after award, at ceremonies held at hotels with chandeliers. I get promoted, a pay rise, there are trips to new cities, more responsibility, more hours, more dinners in restaurants I would never normally be able to afford.

One evening, my boss summons me to dinner with a restaurant guy making waves in Manhattan. We are shown to the best table: close enough to the kitchen to see the action but not feel or hear it. Strong vodka and whiskey cocktails are ordered, wine is poured. The business guy joins our table. He reeks of money – several hundred dollars’ worth of cotton pulled tight across his chest.

We tell him: your food is great, the restaurant is fabulous, the crowd are wonderful, the drinks divine. With each new round of drinks, one of our table bows out. There’s four of us. Then three and then two. His wedding ring flashes when it catches the light.

He mentions a hotel near, getting another drink, but then he’s getting a room and I’m walking down a corridor that gets thinner and longer the more I walk. I’m in the bathroom, orange and kitsch, and like nowhere I’d ever want to be.

“Stay,” he asks, afterwards. I feel dirty and rotten, and excuse myself with one sorry and a second sorry, until I’m in the hall and clutching my body, horrified at how it’s betrayed me. When I get home, I take a long, scalding shower, tears of disgust and self-pity running into the water.

There isn’t one specific, extraordinarily dark moment that compels me to leave New York. Nor is there a third-act epiphany, though there are moments over the months that follow that are both better and worse. I delete the dating apps, retreat from human touch, from male touch. I descend back into isolation, sitting in the darkness. I continue to drink alone. When I’m offered a job back in London, the choice is clear: to try to live, or to stay here in my sadness.

It isn’t easy to decide to leave the city that everyone tells you will make your dreams manifest. Who leaves New York? A friend poses the question that cuts through the noise: “Why do you want to stay?”


Terri White, Hailing a cab outside of the office of Time Out New York, Midtown, January 2015



Outside the offices of Time Out New York, January 2015. Photograph: courtesy of Terri White

“Well, what would people say if I didn’t?” I shoot back. “They’d think I was mad.”

I know even before the words have travelled through the air that this shouldn’t be enough to keep me here. I want more than an envied life; I want somewhere to live, something to love, and I want it to be real. I want to feel sorry for the person I left behind.

And one September day I finally do. As the cab speeds towards JFK airport, she stays stuck in the shadows of the city. It was either her or me.

My life back in London is calmer and kinder. I leave the prescription pills in New York and cut back my drinking. My days don’t begin with vomit and spit, don’t end with blackouts. I no longer feel afraid when I’m alone. The ship steadies enough for me to consider a relationship – my first in several years. Then, quite unexpectedly, just after my 40th birthday, I discover I am pregnant.

Three months ago, I became a mother, the one thing I was convinced I would never be. I remembered my own mum being suffocated motherhood – how every time she looked at us, she was reminded of what she’d sacrificed, lost, at just 16 years old. Worse still, I was haunted thoughts of my own parents’ irresponsibility. It had given me a bone-deep fear: that I’d be a terrible mum. Not just a bumbling, fumbling, doing-their-best new mum – but that the moment I had the seed of a ba in my belly, evil would flood my veins.

Yet the day I found out that I was pregnant, I felt something much more surprising: hope. The beginnings of joy, even. I spoke to him as he grew inside me; told him with certainty that I would love and protect him. Instead of beginning to understand my own mother, I felt more alienated from the life she chose.

Sometimes, in the early hours, I watch my son sleep. I think of what lies ahead for him, and for us. I know that it will be different, that his story won’t be like mine. And in those moments, I think that I can, for the first time, live with the pain, because it brought me here. To him, but most importantly, to me.

Terri White is editor-in-chief of Empire magazine. Coming Undone is published Canongate on 2 July at £14.99. To order a copy for £13.04, go to guardianbookshop.com.

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