Tuesday 13 August 2019

Dinner Lady Doom and the Loss of a Maverick

Dinner Lady Doom and the Loss of a Maverick

By Casey Douglass

Casey Douglass

I’ve been spending a lot of time reflecting on various things that feed into who I am, whether my mental health issues, my health in general, my personality traits and even juicy things like Jung’s notions of the shadow aspect and repressed anger. While doing some general reminiscing, I came once again to the time in my life when I was only then starting school. I remembered two events that still make me a bit angry, and one, unrelated, but also in that same time period, that made me burst out laughing in the street. (I was already out for a stroll, I didn’t rush out there to burst into laughter, that would have been weird!). I’ve decided to have some fun with it, maybe channel my inner Bill Bryson, who knows. I’ve injected my own special brand of humour too, so it should be worth the read.

The events I’m going to talk about occurred when I was in infant school, so I would have been anywhere from five to seven years old at the time. It’s that time of life when all adults are pretty godlike to a little person, if for no other reasons than their height, and that they get to drive cars! When you falsely incur the wrath of even lesser gods, such as dinner ladies, it might just make the needle of doubt prick your skin, causing you to doubt their infallibility, and to doubt yourself. That sounds a lot darker than I was aiming for. Don’t worry, these are small events that aren’t scary or distressing, they are just ones that seem interesting for me to reflect on.

We were sat around a table in the dining hall eating lunch. I think everyone had those plastic lunch-boxes, the kind that flip open to reveal the packed lunches that our gods at home had so neatly provided. It was some time during this feast of sandwiches and Monster Munch that one of the dinner ladies came to our table. I remember her as the jokey friendly one; she was always light-hearted. Before I knew it, I’d been plucked from the table. I’d been accused of saying something heinous about her by a fellow diner. I have mental images of a spinning half-eaten square of sandwich, rotating lazily in the air and hitting the tabletop moments after my baffled face was closed safely inside the nearby classroom. I can’t ever remember being that cavalier with food though, and I’d like to think I wolfed it down like a trooper before being hoisted away.

So what had I said? Apparently, I had said that this particular dinner lady was a... I can hardly say it... it’s so deviant... a... a... silly old woman! I mean, wow, what a little gobshite! The thing was, I had no memory of saying such a thing, none at all! And by all accounts (one person) I was accused instantly after the foul words had been uttered by my mouth! I honestly don’t remember having memory problems back then, but then, how would I know? It felt like the 80s equivalent of a Twitter witch-hunt, but without the all-caps and bad spelling, which is saying a lot considering we were all still learning our apples from our elbows at that age. Sorry, I digress.

I told them (‘the man’) that I didn’t say it. I told Mum that I didn’t say it, after they’d unleashed the heavily artillery and sent a letter home with me. I remember saying that I didn’t know what they were talking about as I was standing at our living room window, looking out into the garden while I ate a banana. Further proof that my memory is pretty damn good! I also don’t only remember events when a banana is present. Just saying. I think it was around this point that I must have thrown in the towel and decided to say sorry anyway. I mean, what else was I to do? You know those stupid sayings like “If you swear, a kitten dies!” or something? I’d imagine there’s an equivalent for a kid having to say he did something just because there was no other way, maybe “If you say you did something that you know you didn’t, a trainee lawyer rips up their paperwork and becomes a reality TV star!” I don’t know.

Shortly after this, there was another incident with another dinner lady. This one was not the nice one, she always seemed to be in a grump and was generally avoided by the kids. I think it was a lunchtime where we couldn’t go outside because it was raining (kids in the 80s were obviously highly soluble, so thank the heavens we were spared a messy end that day!). I think I might have been talking too loudly or being over-excitable, or something like that. Whatever it was, I remember I had been doing it. I had no problems being punished for stuff I’d actually done! I was marched across the room to sit alone, quietly in the corner, but with the embellishment that apparently, I’d kicked this particular dinner lady in the leg as she’d led me! It was Silly Old Woman Gate all over again! I had no memory of it! And it’d just happened! Why did this keep happening to me? I can’t remember if I said sorry this time or if I just stayed quiet and sulky (or even both), but I wasn’t impressed.

Now I don’t want to overstate these two events too much. All kinds of things go toward making a person who they are today. Thinking about why I’ve always struggled with self-confidence and that I’ve always tended towards being a “people pleaser”, it’s interesting to me that these two events have never left me, and I don’t have that many memories left from that time in my life. To be accused of something you know you haven’t done is horrible, but to buckle under and say sorry because you’ve no other option? That really sucks. I also wonder if it helped feed into my later OCD, particularly with regards to wanting to be understood and being afraid that people will misunderstand me. I mean, shit! If you can be punished for something you didn’t say, the sky is the limit for all the ‘people-pleasing-obsessive-word-checking’ your energy can muster!

Hang on, I hear you cry, where is the event that made you giggle with glee in the street? It’s coming, I haven’t forgotten. I do just want to say before I move on though, that I’m not angry at the dinner ladies, I know they were probably doing the best they could and that these almost ‘nothing’ incidents would only likely matter to the person at the heart of them, which was me. I’m also glad that I knew nothing about the unconscious mind or the shadow aspect to our personalities back then, as if the right chain of thoughts had struck me, I might have pondered: “What if I did mutter nasty things about elderly ladies and kick the grumpy people who tell me off? Why wouldn’t I know? Maybe there is an evil Casey that comes out when my mind is elsewhere!?” etc. That would have been a real cluster-fuck to deal with at five years old.

Now, onto the humour. I think I was seven, so in my final year of infant school. It was lunch-break, apparently my witching hour time of the day, that time of the day when life’s strange stuff seemed to happen for me. Well I was seven, midnight didn’t exist for me back then. I was walking down the corridor and I remember thinking that, in all the time I’d been at school, I’d never wet myself. When you start school, there are always kids who have ‘accidents’, misjudgments of timing and whatnot. They get whisked away from the seat next to you, the only hint of their having been there a little yellow puddle with the odd bubble popping on the surface. Maybe this is why we weren’t allowed out at lunchtime? It was too close to looking like we’d dissolved! Anyway, for some reason, I wondered if I was even capable of wetting myself. I think I kind of prided myself on my bladder controlling abilities, I didn’t think I could purposefully override them. Dubious, I walked into the toilet to have a go.

Now I know what you are thinking, I’m just not sure if you are stuck on the “Why on earth did you want to try to pee yourself!” or if you have moved on to “Why go into the toilet if you are going to try and piss yourself?” Answer to the first, I was curious, and maybe I felt that the window of opportunity to do such a thing, and not get told off, was closing for me. As for the second question, to be honest, I think it was a concentration thing. No-one was in there so I could just stand and think. Focus. Go with the flow. I’m very happy to report that I surprised myself and succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.

It was as I stood there, alone in a toilet, with a warm, wet leg, that I realised that I hadn’t fully thought this through. It was more than the amount of urine where you could just think “That’ll dry. That’ll be fine!” I went to find a dinner lady and might have said something along the lines of “I’m afraid I’ve had an accident.” I’m certain I didn’t admit to the experiment. There was no drama. No real embarrassment either, on my side at least. I think I was given a towel to dry myself off and then I got on with the rest of the afternoon. This is the thing I’ve been chuckling about all day today, from having the original thoughts about all of this, to writing the thing just now. And hey, a tale of a dinner lady where I wasn’t told off for something I hadn’t done! How quaint!

Thinking about it now, what I want to know is, where has that maverick kid gone, the one who wanted to find out if he could piss himself, so he just tried it? I admire my younger self. He wondered if he could do something, he tried and he succeeded. Sure, he might have benefited from taking a moment longer to think about the after-effects, but it was a decent experiment. In the present day, I tend to wonder if I can do something, and then often decide that I can’t, without even trying. Or worse, in a way, I wonder if I can do something, I do it, and then still think that I can’t, that it wasn’t good enough or worth doing.

Three years after this, when I was ten, my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) began, triggered by a few stray thoughts and a massive mental overreaction, by a personality that was likely already struggling in ways I have no idea about now. And possibly because of a bump on the head that happened on the same day. Before that day, I might have had my issues, but after that day, I was like a different person, nervous, timid and racked with anxiety.

Thinking back to the moment that I passed The Golden Test (as I’m now inclined to call it), I can only wonder at that seven year old chap who took a risk, just because he could. Post-OCD beginning, even post-treatment, I find myself living with a mental life containing so many rules, so much ‘do-goodism’ and ‘people pleasing’ that I wonder if this little piss-soaked maverick is still inside me somewhere, shaking his head and urging me to ‘Go with the flow!’ more often. I’d like to think so, and I’d like to get in touch and let him know that I need his help.

(The picture at the top of the article is me on a trip to some kind of safari park. I think I may have been slightly older than seven, but it was still at a time when my OCD hadn't emerged, so basically, happier times. I don't have any beard stubble, so it's not that recent at least.)