(Photograph copyright Fiona Shaw, for The Guardian)
Philippa Perry, Psychologist and author
b. 1 November, 1957
Age inside: 4 and 65
I am more or less two people, one of whom is four years old, and the other one, a wise woman, is probably around sixty-five.
There is some integration, but I really love it when I switch into the four year old, with her sense of assertiveness. The wise woman can be observant, but she doesn’t throw herself in, she sort of stands apart and watches. Whereas the child just is in the now, unselfconscious, throws herself in, loves being with people, loves bouncing off them, feels entitled to be there and demands whatever she wants. She only comes out when she’s with people she knows really, really well, because otherwise it’s peculiar.
It is delightful being four. The other thing about being a four-year-old is that everyone indulges her and she’s sort of the centre of attention. No one asks why she’s not being a grown up, because she wouldn’t come out if that sort of person was there.
She is out with Flo, my daughter, a lot. She’s fine with it. She comes out with close family members, and long, long term friends, the kind of friends who are family, really. Though all the time I was in analysis, as much as I loved my analyst, she never appeared, and I wouldn’t even talk about her.
She comes out unbidden. She doesn’t seem to pop out inappropriately, which is useful.
What we’re talking about is dissociative identity disorder. My dissociated part is a toddler and then I’ve got the wise, removed part. I’ve got something around about my current age in there, as well. Different parts of my personality do seem to have different ages, so I wouldn’t like to call myself just one age. So sometimes four, sometimes adult, but it’s always an older adult. I’m never thirty or thirty-five.
As an actual child, I was very aware of not having my own way and not having freedom of choice. It seemed to take forever being a child, and I was very impatient not to be one anymore. What I found so odd in my daughter, Flo, was that every birthday she’d groan: ‘Oh I’m three, and I so liked being two!’ And so on.
When I was little I used to sit by the window, arranging my toys on the window sill, looking out over them. My mantra was: ‘What’s going to happen to me? What’s going to happen to me?’ With a sense of urgency, with a feeling of this isn’t going to happen to me; what’s happening now isn’t going to continue happening to me, something’s going to change, something’s going to be different.
I had no idea what I was going to be like, who I was going to be. I didn’t have very much sense of self at all. Now, I like myself more than I ever have before, so I’m getting there. I feel like it’s taken me so bloody long to grow up that I wish I had another life to enjoy it. I see my daughter, and if I’d had half the maturity that she has now, when I was thirty, I think of the fun I would have had.
When I was young I didn’t see the responsibilities a grown-up had, and I don’t really see them now, I just do it. When I fail in my responsibilities I feel dreadful, but on the whole, I pay my debts and don’t overspend and do my work.
The wise woman inside me has always been that age. I reckon it’s because of all the old women who were around me when I was growing up – aunts and things. They always seemed to be sixty forever. When I was born they were sixty. When I grew up they were sixty. When I was forty they suddenly leapt to about a hundred, and I thought, ‘Jesus, how did that happen?’
There’s something about middle age, about fifty-eight to sixty-nine or seventy, where people’s faces are a little bit more lined but they more or less stay the same. It’s post menopause, so you’ve got that sort of crepe paper, powdery skin. And it’s post going grey, post going bald if you’re a man, so people don’t seem to change as drastically. I think you don’t change very much between the ages of twenty and thirty-five, either, not physically. And I think you change enormously from the ages of forty-eight to fifty-five. I’ll be quite relieved when I haven’t got that many more of these sudden bursts of speed to go through.
I don’t know what it is about the mirror, but I could kiss myself when I look in the mirror. Unless I see it by accident, I sort of go, ‘I’m not bad,’ it’s, ‘Oh, hello, Susan George! Good morning.’ If you’re going to have a fantasy, have a good one. If you’re going to have body dysmorphic disorder, go into the beautiful rather than the hideous.
I think beauty or ugliness is in the eyes of the beholder, so it’s really up to you to have whatever fantasy you like. It just so happens that it comes naturally to me that if I can pull my face into a particular shape when I’m looking in the mirror, then I think I’m fairly gorgeous. I see myself as fairly ageless in the mirror, which is odd. Of course, when I look in the mirror, it’s one eyelash at a time, because I’m so short-sighted. The rest of the time I have my fabulous glasses, darling.
Another thing I really recommend is get all the mirrors in your house made by really bad glass merchants. All of mine are slightly curved, and it takes a dress size off. It’s fabulous, actually. Mirrors I’m fine with, photographs I’m not, especially if they’re taken when I’m not aware they’re happening.
My mother was a dreadful model of ageing. Oh, god, what a woman! She would look at herself for hours, going, ‘Oh, oh, oh,’ and then, ‘It’s all right for you, you’re young, but look at me!’ and I’d say, ‘Mum, it’s going to happen to me as well, you’re not unique in this.’ She couldn’t take that. She was overly concerned with what she looked like. I think age was muddled up with beauty for her. She didn’t exercise or look after herself, so she was a bit old before her time; she did less and less, until she could hardly move. It was kind of like depression plus victim mentality — really unpleasant actually.
Having my own child, when I was thirty-five, allowed my four-year-old part to develop. It flowered more fully playing with Flo. That’s why she doesn’t mind it. It’s somebody that’s always been there, in a good way, for her. When I had Flo I’d done so much work on what it would be like to have a kid, and had thought so hard about what sort of mother I didn’t want to be, and what sort of mother I wanted to be, and read so many books about child development.
This was even before I trained as a psychologist. I put a lot of thought into being a parent. The first thing I said to Flo, when she slithered out, was ‘Please God, don’t let me fuck up.’ Even though I’m an atheist. ‘I don’t want to fuck up. I’m not going to fuck up. Don’t let me fuck up.’ It’s an odd prayer really. It does concentrate the mind.
I think when she was born I was in a sort of zone, the ‘I’m young, I’m gorgeous, I menstruate’, zone. It’s a life stage, isn’t it? I had a child because I realised I was at the wrong end of that stage.
The way we don’t earn our age, how we have our lips plumped up and our wrinkles smoothed out is a bit of a shame. How come it’s not acceptable to be one’s self? I’m hoping that we’ll look back on this time, just like we looked back on Chinese feet binding, with amazed horror that people were injecting botulism poison into their faces.
So far I have not even started with the moisturiser. I see lines and sometimes fantasise about filling them up, then think, ‘Let it go, let it go.’ And then I think, ‘Oh, there’s a possibility that I might be on telly, should I freeze my forehead for that?’ No, I’m not. I do ask myself those questions, but the side that is stronger says ‘No, suck it up girl, we’re not doing that.’ And I feel that I’m not going to. Injections I’m not that keen on. I’m certainly not going to have any knives. A facelift has never made anyone look more intelligent.