By Fabia Cerra
Key Themes: depression, bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety, empowerment
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In this achingly honest memoir Fabia Cerra tells the story of her struggle with mental illness, from an abused childhood, an adolescence in which she became the World Disco Dancing Champion, and an adulthood plagued by divisions in her family life, drug abuse, schizophrenia, depression and bi-polar illness. In the course of the book, Fabia writes with great understanding – and out of her own experience – about the nature of bi-polar illness and how she has learnt to cope with it, in a way that will be helpful and encouraging to fellow sufferers and provide insight for others who may know less about how this terrible illness can blight the lives of all those affected, including family and friends.
From early childhood, Oxford-born Fabia (born 1973) and her younger sister Lorenza experience physical abuse at the hands of their alcoholic, promiscuous mother. Bullied at home and later at school, Fabia seeks refuge in late childhood and early adolescence in dancing. A beautiful slim young girl with long dark curly hair, Fabia becomes a disco dancer, winning championship after championship, but the pressure to win becomes more and more overwhelming. Her competition rankings start to fall and her mother announces that she will no longer accompany her to competitions. Paradoxically Fabia realises that the only way she can win is by fulfilling her mother’s expectations – and being treated like dirt is part of the deal. Without her mother’s support, she hangs up her dancing shoes.
Raped at a party, bullied at school ‘because I danced’ (she pulls a gun in school on her tormentors), Fabia retreats into drug-taking – cannabis, amphetamines and ecstasy, in a loveless relationship with a drug-dealing boyfriend. In Italy, with her beloved father Bruno’s family, she falls for Luigi, an older cousin, but their affair proves abortive. In the wake of this, devastated to discover he is marrying someone else, her mental state deteriorates. In 1994 she suffers the first of many schizophrenic breakdowns in which she hears voices, confuses the past with the present, and experiences hallucinations, persecutory ideas and grandiose thoughts, such as the idea that she is the daughter of Princess Margaret.
After a devastating miscarriage, she moves twice to Oxford B&Bs and on each occasion is burgled. A respite comes in 1996 when Fabia visits Lorenza in Cairo, where her sister has been living since her marriage to an Egyptian. For the first time for years she dances in public, with a belly dancer and a cobra, and experiences a new sense of hope for the future. But more periods of mental illness follow and she is again sectioned in the Ashhurst Ward of the Littlemore Hospital, Oxford. After the death of her mother in 2001 she meets Dougie who subsequently becomes her long-term partner, but their relationship is at first constantly jeopardised by her mental illness. On one occasion she suspects, for no apparent reason, that he is having an affair with Lorenza, back in England after her divorce. This culminates in Fabia setting fire to her hair and hacking it off with meat scissors to make it look more like Lorenza’s.
When, finally reunited with Dougie, she becomes pregnant again, her weight due to medication balloons to 18 stone. During the pregnancy she develops gestational diabetes and her weight again rockets to 22 stone by full term. She gives birth by Caesarean section to a delightful little boy, Leone, who is subsequently found to have development delay. In the immediate post-natal period Fabia develops an infected C-section wound which festers because it is not immediately diagnosed and treated. She has contracted a flesh-eating bug called necrotising fasciitis. After several operations and eight weeks in hospital she is finally released. Apart from the principle consolation of her beautiful son, she is also told that her blubber has kept her safe from the flesh-eating bug. Being fat has saved her life.
From this point on. Fabia feels that she has been given a second chance and throws herself into getting better. Having recovered from the mental and physical trauma she is referred by her doctor to Helen Callaghan, a therapist, and during therapy she recalls being sexually abused in a sustained and terrifying ordeal by an uncle at the age of eight. Unlocking this memory proves a revelation that helps Fabia in her recovery. In 2002 she qualifies as a beauty therapist and a year later as a teacher of beauty therapy, takes up dancing again encouraged by Keilee. She is also losing weight under the Rosemary Conley diet and exercise system. Dougie has taught her how to love people – what it is like to feel love, and how to have a life and not live in fear. With her partner and her son she is determined to break the cycle of abuse in her family that went back to her grandfather’s abusing her mother – and maybe further back than that. ‘Thank you for loving me, Dougie,’ she says. And he says the same thing to her.
About the Author
Fabia Maria Cerra was born in Oxford in 1973. During her childhood she and her younger sister Lorenza were mentally and physically abused by their alcoholic, promiscuous mother. Bullied at home and later at school, Fabia sought refuge in late childhood and early adolescence in disco dancing. She achieved great success and won many championships until the pressure to win finally made her give up dancing.
Feeling that she has been given a second chance, Fabia threw herself into getting better. Having recovered from the mental and physical trauma she was referred by her doctor to a therapist, and during therapy recalled being sexually abused by an uncle at the age of eight. Unlocking this memory proves a revelation that helped Fabia in her recovery. In 2002 she qualified as a beauty therapist and a year later as a teacher of beauty therapy. She began dancing again. She also lost weight under the Rosemary Conley diet and exercise system.
With her partner and son Fabia is determined to break the cycle of abuse. Dougie has taught her how to love people – what it is like to feel love, and to have a life free from fear.
I have had a mental illness that crept up on me through my childhood and teenage years, but which was not diagnosed until I reached the age of thirty. It is my strong belief that it was largely because of the difficulties I experienced in childhood that I have suffered this mind-crippling disease.
I was born on 20 December 1973 in Blackbird Leys, Oxford. My father Bruno Cerra came to England from Calabria, Italy, in the late 1960s with his family, apart from his sister Livia who decided to stay as she was the eldest of the siblings. They moved to Evesham in Worcestershire. My mother, Carol Ellen Cerra née Taylor was born in Edgbaston, Birmingham on 18 November 1946. She too, like my father, moved to Evesham and was introduced to him by a mutual friend. Mum spent a lot of time in Tewksbury working in a factory that made aircraft parts before she decided to move to Evesham permanently. My parents began seeing each other and eventually married in 1970.
My mother was very attractive and always wore make-up, especially black liquid eyeliner which she applied just like Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra. She would look immaculate whenever she went out, even if she were just going to the supermarket. But the main thing I remember about my mother throughout my childhood was how she treated me from a very early age.
Lorenza was born nearly 18 months after me on 1 May 1975 and my earliest memories of Mum were of her drinking and abusing me and Lorenza.
Although there was no way of me knowing at the age of four or five that Mum was an alcoholic, what I did know was that there was something very wrong with the way she treated us mentally and physically from as early age. I knew this because we spent a lot of time with our neighbours and they treated us very differently, as did our Dad.
I always felt as though Mum hated me, or at least was physically jealous of me.
‘Don’t kiss me, stop cuddling me – your hair is getting right in my face!’ she’d say and push my hair away from her.
She was jealous of my hair because it was thick and curly – she used to call me Medusa, whose long curly hair was actually made up of poisonous snakes. Now I know Medusa, is linked to music, and power.
‘You’re a stupid girl,’ she’s say. ‘You’re just a bimbo.
I was only four years old when the abuse began and it went on throughout my childhood.
I always remember our neighbours looking after Lorenza and me, so that Mum could go to the local pub and get drunk. We lived in a row of houses in Field Avenue, Blackbird Leys, and our neighbours took care of us until her return.
. Sheila and Joe were almost like a mum and dad to us, and their daughter Kelly was my best friend for many years. We always wanted to stay the night with them to escape having to cope with Mum when she got back home drunk, but it never happened., Mum would have men round at our house on Friday and Saturday evenings.
They were mainly one-night stands, men she saw over the years who were often punters at the Blackbird pub in Blackbird Leys Road. She even slept with a football player from Oxford United who she met while waiting his table at the Oxford Greyhound Stadium one evening.
‘Don’t tell your dad,’ she would always say after these one-night stands.
One night I went into my parents’ bedroom after one of her noisy nights.
‘Mummy, I can’t sleep,’ I said.
‘Get out!’ she shouted. But just before running from the room I noticed the black man staring back at me from the bed looking stunned.
That was when I realised something wasn’t normal between my parents, although my father has only really known about this since my mother died when Sharron became his long-term partner.
If we were at home when Mum got back at around 11.30 pm, I would get palpitations in my heart and my breathing would become very rapid. It was the worst feeling in the world and I had no control over it.
By the age of four I was having panic attacks, but I didn’t know this at such a young age. I only discovered it much later. Mum scared us so much. Often on her return from the pub, or when my sister and I came home from the neighbours, she would scream at us, ‘Get to bed now!’
We would jump out of our skin, knowing that if we didn’t do what she said, she would beat us up. I was always beaten before my sister: I guess that was because I could take it more than she could. When Mum told us to go to sleep in our own beds, she would get very angry if Lorenza and I talked to each other – we had to be absolutely silent. I loved Lorenza so much, and because she was nearly eighteen months younger than me, I always wanted to protect her.
I learned to disconnect myself from the verbal and physical abuse going on. My body would take the beating because my mind and soul would somehow absent themselves for a while. But this had the effect of splitting me into two people – and of dividing my mind in two – and I believe that this was what sewed the seeds of my bi-polar disorder. I later discovered that this disconnection from what was going on was called disassociation and it’s something I still do, but nowadays I use it as a positive technique.
Mum had a wooden stick she used to beat us with. I still don’t know where she got it from. It was about a metre long, three inches thick in depth and width, although it never produced any splinters. It really stung when she hit us with it. We would either be told to hold out both our hands palms upwards, or she would use it across the back of our legs.
On one occasion, when I climbed up Mum’s special cheese plant in the living room and broke it in half, she went nuts. Her face turned red with fury, and she began punching me on my back.
If you’ve ever been winded then you’ll understand the pain and fear I would feel from her constantly beating my back. She would also grab my right arm and twisted it round behind my back.
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