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Why ‘Moving On’ After My Father’s Death Turned Out to be a Lifetime Effort

Each week we explore the complex truths of grief and trauma. Here actor, writer and podcast host Angharad George-Carey shares her experience of learning to face deep childhood trauma

By Angharad George-Carey

4 April 2021
I

was 27 when I did my first session of psychotherapy. Eight months after that, I had started a podcast called Daddy Issues. A year and a half later, I’m here writing this piece. I’ve been offered a book deal with one of the UK’s top publishing houses, and am about to start making my first documentary. But how I got from that first session to where I am now is the story of a 22-year-long lifetime’s worth of grief and denial.

It all started in Sri Lanka when I was seven years old. It was around 4 am and we’d flown in from Hong Kong – where we lived at the time – to celebrate the new year. Our taxi driver had parked on the side of the road to ask a security guard where our guesthouse was. Within seconds, a bus came careering down the straight, dusty road and crashed into us. The impact flung our 15-seater van into the air and ten metres backwards. My father – who was sitting in the front – died pretty much instantly. My mother, four siblings and I were left with varying degrees of injuries, from a fractured skull to a broken ankle.

Image by Angharad George-Carey

Although the former sounds worse than the latter, they actually even out in trauma. For instance, my big brother, who was ten, fractured his skull (in the words of a doctor) “into a puzzle”, fell into a long coma, died at some point during the process, and then eventually woke up having lost all hearing in his left ear, and, somehow, with the knowledge his father had died. My little sister, meanwhile, came out virtually untouched – albeit with a broken ankle – but holds vivid memories of seeing her family lifeless and bloodied around her, my mother receiving cardiac shock-treatment, and my father’s body being wheeled past her in the overcrowded emergency room.

She was five at the time, and for years following the accident, she behaved like a dog. Every day she would dress in a red cardigan with a dalmatian collar, dalmatian bell-bottoms (very chic, actually) a dalmatian hat, socks and gloves, and crawl around barking at people, panting and licking their hands. I kid you not. Being only seven myself at the time, I, of course, didn’t understand the significance of this, and just thought my little sister had become particularly eccentric and developed an impressive devotion towards dalmatians. However, in hindsight, this couldn’t scream “child coping mechanism” louder if it tried. She’d found a way to disassociate from her memories and her own self.

For me, it started small. First, a sense of total and utter confusion and disbelief, where I would walk around my grandparents’ garden in north Wales (where my mum, four siblings and I moved for a year after the accident) pinching my hand so hard it would bleed, convinced that if I just pinched hard enough, I would wake up.

‘In my 20s the trauma manifested as a particularly toxic brand of people-pleasing’

When I realised that there was no “waking up”, life went back to something approximating normal. Aged ten, I was sent to boarding school in England and was, to any onlooker, a happy, well-adjusted child.

At 14, though, the past came careering back at me. The trial to seek justice for my father’s death had finally come through, and so we had to go back to Sri Lanka, seven years after the accident. This coincided with the Easter holidays, and when I returned to school I was half the size I had been when I left; I’d found it impossible to eat for the weeks we were there, so by the time I came back, I was a skinny, anxious shell of my former light and happy self.

I have a particularly vivid memory from this time. A house tutor, a woman I’d always trusted and felt close to, took me aside and told me that she’d always questioned if the old me – the smile and rather elaborate day-to-day enthusiasm – had, I quote, “been real”.

“No, Miss,” I answered, hurt and frustrated. “I really was that happy”.

At this point, of course, I wasn’t aware of the double life I was living. Childhood trauma only tends to become apparent later in life, often in your 20s, when you’re finally forced to face who you are and what your role is in the world.

Image by Angharad George-Carey

It was then that the trauma manifested as a particularly toxic brand of people-pleasing. I said yes to everything, just to stay occupied. Yes to every social plan, yes to terrible, unpaid short films (by this point I’d become an actor, though my career sputtered and stalled), yes to every single bloody exercise class on ClassPass (I’ve never been so fit), yes to posing as a fake Instagram star called Mitzi Van Papperndorf as a social experiment for a magazine, yes to a scriptwriting competition which I won but which never delivered the promised funding, yes to partying too hard, yes to helping grow other people's plans and dreams but never my own, and yes to every weekend catering job that was going to help me pay my rent. I’d turn up at the venue having not slept after yet another night out, wearing the wrong uniform, and virtually incapable of stringing a sentence together. It was mortifying, and I knew it.

I was scattered, purposeless, directionless and unfathomably frustrated. Since that last trip to Sri Lanka, I’d known that a dark cloud existed within me, begging to be felt and acknowledged. And by 27, my sense of worth had hit an almighty rock bottom. The final straw came in a Thai restaurant in Notting Hill. My then boyfriend and I sat opposite one another, sharing prawn crackers and steaming bowls of pad thai as he blissfully told me about his day. I watched his mouth move, smiling when he smiled, laughing when he laughed, but having no real idea of what he was saying. A silence fell – it was clearly my turn to say something back. Perhaps he’d just asked me a question? I took a deep breath, looked away from his gaze, and uttered the words “I love you”. I suppose I’d always expected that he might not say it back but it still hurt when he didn’t.

Despite the fact that he’d never seemed as committed to me as I was to him, I’d stayed because this relationship was the only thing in my life that I felt I could rely on – something solid that I could grasp on to.

Image by Angharad George-Carey

The next day, while I was out running, I had an epiphany. Perhaps this was the wake-up call I had needed for years. My boyfriend's inability to make me feel secure and loved was purely a reflection of how I felt about myself. It exposed the fear within me that, I realised, couldn’t be quietened by a job, or by a million friends, or by a boyfriend.

I ended the relationship, typed “grief” in the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy website, clicked on a therapist I liked the look of, and enrolled in my first ever session of psychotherapy. What’s interesting is, once I started my sessions, I didn’t speak about this recent, painful breakup at all. Not once. Instinctively, I knew why I was there. This wasn’t about him. It was about me.

For the first few sessions I didn’t draw breath. The poor woman. But my manic monologues weren’t about the accident, or my grief, or my dad, or anything of particular significance (or so I thought). They were about all the anxious little coping mechanisms I’d developed over the years. Having stayed silent for 20 years, I soon came to realise the huge impact that this virtually undiscussed childhood trauma had had on me. At the same time, I also found myself beginning to come to terms with the wider effects that the physical and emotional absence of a father can have. I realised that so many of the behaviours, or “issues” (as my draconian Welsh mother likes to refer to them), I’d had growing up were all related to this part of my past, the part I had never faced. I thought I’d made sense of it, but I’d only done so as much as I could on my own – restricting myself to what I, in that moment, was capable of understanding.

Image by Angharad George-Carey

I am well aware someone could argue that I haven’t really “moved forward”, given that each one of the amazing projects I’m working on has a direct link to the accident. For instance, my literary agent came from the success of Daddy Issues podcast. which explores fatherlessness, this article here is about trauma and grief, and the documentary I am making will be centred around the car accident and the ongoing court case in Sri Lanka. But then, when has someone’s drive or purpose not stemmed from their own life experiences or childhood trauma? Angela Duckworth’s bestselling book Grit explains this very concept in precise and fascinating detail.

The difference (in my opinion) is that I now own my grief, rather than it owning me. Yes, I am still channelling, on some level, my trauma, but it is through a lens where I am fully awake, active and aware, rather than confused, frozen and overwhelmed. And it is leading to positive changes in my life, not negative ones.

If I had opened up sooner, I sometimes wonder what I’d be doing now.

The Short Stack

Childhood trauma can conceal itself and later surface in surprising ways. Don’t assume you need to ‘deal with it’ and ‘move on’ too soon.

By Angharad George-Carey

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