Real life runaway bride
BESTSELLING dublin author Fiona O'Brien has been engaged six times, married once (briefly) and is currently single.
by her own admission she's an incurable romantic. but after years of therapy she admits it was probably her parents' unhappy marriage that left her wary of saying 'I do'I'm an incurable romantic -- six engagements and one starter marriage will testify to that. You might say I was the original runaway bride, though I didn't bolt in a wedding dress, or even on horseback, but I was an escape artist all the same. That was when I was young and (reasonably) innocent. I'm older, wiser and battle-scarred now, and I look back and wonder what in the name of God was I thinking?But we don't think, do we? Not when we're in the throes of love, in fact our brains are hardwired to do precisely the opposite -- contemplating the beloved in a lovely, hazy, soft-focus fantasy manner, deftly batting away any clues that might hint at a less-than-perfect outcome.
So what was going on? Why couldn't I commit? I wanted to, certainly. The answer took quite a bit of therapeutic digging in the intervening years. And as always, we had to go back to the very beginning. Quite simply, love didn't live at our house when I was growing up. Not that I ever saw anyway. It wasn't that we were an undemonstrative lot, although certainly affection wasn't practised, let alone encouraged. It was more that there was a battle for emotional survival going on.
My parents' marriage was not a happy one. In fact, I would say it was excessively unhappy. But none of that could be glimpsed by the outside world. On the exterior, things looked pretty good -- sad, but good. But behind the closed hall door, there was a different story playing out.
The trouble started when my parents married, obviously. My father was a sophisticated, 32-year-old Dublin surgeon -- my mother an impressionable 19-year-old Donegal girl, a noted beauty. The marriage was a disaster. She couldn't cope, and became an acute alcoholic. There were three children in quick succession, then after an almost 12-year gap, I came along.
So far, so not terribly unusual. But then disaster struck. When my father was away at a medical conference, my mum became very sick with alcohol and was rushed to St Patrick's. My sister, then 14, told my father when he rang that evening. He cut short his trip, came back, and along with a friend, another doctor, they decided to move her to a certain 'private clinic', lest word would get out.
She suffered a brain haemorrhage and almost died. She recovered, eventually, but was left totally paralysed on her right side. The whole business was hushed up, and word was sent out that my mother had simply suffered a stroke. At the age of 38, she went from being a beautiful -- if troubled -- society hostess, to a cripple, as she used to call herself.
I don't remember any of that episode. I was only three years old. But if the marriage was bad before, it became infinitely worse after. Now she had a psychological stick to beat her husband with, the rows were never ending. If she wasn't having a go at him, it was at us, the children. Whether out of guilt or weakness, he never stopped her. They detested each other, but it was unthinkable for him, a prominent surgeon, to leave an invalid wife -- though if she had been healthy I suspect she would have left him, who knows. But appearances were paramount. No one must know. To the outside world we portrayed the model of an upright, stoic, Catholic, family, dignified in the face of tragedy. But behind closed doors, a drama of anguish, misery and rage played out.
That's just the broad strokes. I could write a book about it and perhaps one day I will. But back to my own serial engagements -- suffice to say that I was searching for love and affection -- that was fairly obvious, even to me. But what I hadn't reckoned on was the terrible panic that would surface as the engagements would progress, and there would be pressure on me to set a wedding date. I would always find something, some reason to back out, to call it off, even though confusion and loneliness would follow the initial relief. I went on to repeat the pattern all over again.
Of course now it seems ridiculously easy to see that my sub-conscious was shouting NO! No way was I going to put myself in a situation (marriage) where I might become trapped in a cycle of misery such as the one I had witnessed. When you're young, you don't acknowledge these kinds of things to yourself.
All I knew was that when my father dropped dead suddenly when I was 18, and I was left alone, as my elder siblings had long since flown the nest, with an angry, unhinged, invalid, alcoholic mother, I just wanted to escape.
Marriage seemed the only acceptable way to go about it. Because like my father, I felt leaving home for any other reason would have been wrong of me. But he had been married to her -- I wasn't. They are both long gone now. And I hope they have at last found peace. I know I have -- after half a dozen engagements and a starter marriage. These days I save the romantic adventures and family drama for the characters in my books. And don't you know, I always get to write a happy ending.
Fiona's new book, The Love Book, published by Hachette Ireland, is now available, priced €14.99. For more information log onto www.fionaobrien.com.