On Being A Black Sheep!

“Regrets? I’ve had a few! But then again…too few to mention! I did what I had to do, and saw it through without exemption…but more, much more than this – I did it my way!”

“In the English language, black sheep is an idiom used to describe an odd or disreputable member of a group, especially within a family.”

I never planned to be the black sheep of my family. Perhaps genes had something to do with it; perhaps environment; or we can poke a finger at the times we grow up in – all are likely causes! But sure as hell, life experience, that need to survive (stronger in some of us than others, I’ve noticed) is a very definite cause.
I’m not the first in my family. My Great Grand Uncle, George Rickinson Swan Pickhills, was another. For the times he grew up in (the mid-1800s up), he was not a conformist. Outspoken, openly critical of others including governing bodies,  had no tolerance for idiots, and went about things with an actions-speak-louder-than-words attitude that gained him respect amongst his peers, and set him firmly against the establishment. A true role model if ever there was one! My cousin Dianne was also one who bucked the fitting-in trend, and did things her own way. I think she saw aspects of me that no one else in the family noticed. 

Even for someone growing up through the 50s& 60s, I don’t think I ever really conformed. It wasn’t an obvious choice to not fit in, but more like a realisation that if I didn’t stand up for myself, I would always be doing that which I didn’t want to do. Surprisingly, I always seemed to be accepted as an individual, even in a world where individuality was not an accepred norm. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of it, and certainly would have caused the most frustration in my family – oblivious to me, of course – was that I had a definite leaning towards the more creative side of life, rather than a sporting or physically active side. This showed up in various ways in my pre-teen years – I avoided sports for starters, much to my fathers frustration. He tried initially to get me to play soccer – I loathed it, and did everything possible to avoid contact with the ball. After that…tennis – but no, not interested. I managed to avoid sports for the entirety of my school life – no mean feat – by hiding, wagging it with other boys who felt the same, or volunteering for other duties. Truth be told, I didn’t hate sports altogether. My experiences with softball were very positive – but it’s not an Aussie sport, is it! And I loved athletics. I was a fery good runner, triple jumper and high jumper, but no one ever offered athletics as a viable alternative within sports, nor offered any encouragement to be trained in or follow such a path, so it went by the boards. Over the years, I’ve had cause to reflect on that!

I had a furtive imagination, which showed itself in my essay writing, my love of reading science fiction, and my ability to invent games to play at home. I loved nothing more than to be tucked out of sight, in a quiet corner with my hound, devouring a book. In high school, I was active in the choirs, theatrical productions, and writing – successfully, and often  with hilarious results – my own twisted interpretations of Shakespearean classics, performed during parent & teacher occasions at the schools. 

But of all the driving forces that create black sherp, the three singular and most significent events were the ones that had the potential to destroy me, but instead hardened me, radicalised me, and instilled the survival instinct in me. The acquired abilities to see through all the bullshit of others around me; to cut those out of my life who either let me down, or disappointed me; to realise early in my life that I was different to most around me, to embrace the difference, and despite making some very bad decisions along the way, always remaing true to myself; going against the grain, which created its own sets of problems; defying authority – ditto for creating problems; and the ability to live alone, to be able to be a solitary individual yet never let it drown me, has served me well all my life, has given me a tough exterior (and often interior) that has helped ne survive even bigger issues as life has trundled along. 

The first toughening came when, in early 1965, with me at the grand age of eleven, my mother left home. I can’t say I didn’t understand why she left. I was an intuitive child, and had, on occasion, seen and heard things I oerhaps shouldn’t have, and drew my own conclusions on things happening around me. This created, at home, a first taste of independence. Years of watching my mother do things around the house paid off, and with the help of neighbours we scraped by. I learnt not to iron nylon socks. The second thing that happened – bringing Nancy Thompson in as a housekeeper – was a catalyst for the third – the death of my 7 year-old brother, Kevin. Nancy taught me real survival skills, however not enough to prevent my brothers fate. Enough has been written about his death – there is a long article on my blog here “Kevin Pickhills – The Unspoken Name” – for me not to go into it here, however the effects on my life from this catastrophic event were to have repercussions for decades to come. To stand up to Nancy, you had to be tough – she was a bitch of the first degree – and she unintentionally taught me mental toughness – something one really shouldn’t have to learn at 11 going on 12 – and to alienate myself from all that was going on around me. She was the first to publicly acknowledge – in a newspaper –  that there was an “effeminate” side to my nature. I don’t know how I would have reacted if I’d known of it at the time. Perhaps I would have breathed a deep sigh of relief! She taught me survival against all odds!

My relationship with my father – not the best at any time, as I and Kevin had both been bullied by his hair-trigger temper, and the leather strap he weilded in the name of discipline – was fraught with tension, distance and disassociation after Kevin’s death. My final toughening had been invoked, and from that time on, whatever was thrown at me rolled off…at least on the exterior. From that time on, I was at war with my father, his family, and the world. He hated rock music…so I played heavy rock. He told me not to drink…so I drank…to excess. He told me not to smoke…I smoked. He forbade me growing my hair…I grew my hair. He told me to finish school…I left at 4th form. He told me to get a trade…I ended up in retail. Whatever he wanted, I did the opposite. At one stage, he threatened to “knock my block off”…I left home, and never went back. When he committed suicide in 1978 (carbon monoxide poisoning, in his car, in the bushland around Vincentia) I went through the motions of grief, but inside I was glad. Not only had Kevin’s horrendous death been avenged, but I no longer had to fear whatever retribution would have happened by finally fully living my own life. I could publicly acknowledge my sexuality as a gay man, and get on with it! It was exhilerating! 

I don’t know that contracting HIV in 1982 really impacted my life as much as it should have. I have always thought that I had fought tougher battles, and indeed when asked about it in an interview in the late 90s, I stated that despite everything I had been through with HIV and AIDS, the death of my brother had impacted my life more. By this time, I had found ways to be a black sherp in the community. My years of managing a sex shop in Darlinghurst, my forays into “gutter” drag, my taking charge of many aspects of my health care, my defiance at taking drug regimes the way I want to take them, instead of how they should supposedly be taken, my refusal to allow HIV to be a “secret” part of my life, my refusal to see the negatives of a very negative disease, by empowering jyself by not becoming a victim, all pointed me in different directions to what most others were taking. I made one atrempt to return to jy old trade of retail, hut it felt like a step back, a return to a world that I had now left behind. I went to university, I went to TAFE. I started my own husinesses, took my life off into directions that I wanted…and fuck the world, and fuck anyone who thought they could tell me what to do! Even my vision-impairment has pushed me into black sheep territory. I learnt to use a white cane, then refused to use it because it can be as much of a hindrance as a help. I still do things my own way, and despite sometimes being my own worst enemy, at least I feel like an individual. There is not a single thing I do that my father – or mother – would approve of…but then, I’m happy. I don’t know that they ever were!

Back in the late 70s I reconnected with my mother. It was as much a curiosity thing as anything else. She had remarried, and I had a half-sister, with 18 years between us. I didn’t particularly like my step-father, but I didn’t have to live with him, so didn’t much care. With so much water under the bridge, my mother and I had little in common. By the time I reconnected, I was on the verge of coming out (after my fathers death), and by the time I returned from Melbourne in 1982, not only had some friends accidently outed me to her anyway, but I was well and truly an out gay man. She tried the “Oh, it’s all my fault” victimised mother line, but I told her to get over it. In many respects I hever clicked into her family (or her into mine, I have to say). She was hospitalised to have her bladder remived – due to cancer – in late 1997. No one rang to tell me she was in hospital. Being a bit peeved at not being notifued, I rang to enquire why. I was told that there just wasn’t time to ring everyone – though mind you, the rest of the family knew. Made me realise just how far down the pecking order I was in her new family. I rang her in Westmead Hospital on Christmas eve, wished her a happy Christmas – and that was the last time we spoke. She made no attempt to contact me, nor I her. The last I heard she was still alive, and in her 80s. When asked recently if I shouldn’t contact her, being as she possibly won’t be around much longer, and I might have regrets if I didn’t – I replied…no, and I won’t! We all make our own beds!

I’ve lived most of my life on the outer edges of things. I have no regrets about that. If being a black sheep makes me an individual; if it gives me unrestrained freedom to express myself; if it means I don’t quite fit in; that I can just be me – then I luxuriate in it. Life took the 11 year-old child, and bashed (figuratively) and moulded him into the adult I became, and the senior (who still refuses to be what society expects me to be) that I am developing into. Its led me down some dark allies, crossed some roads against the lights, and balanced on the edges of many cliffs – but at all times there was light, safety and balance at the end of it. I have walked in the illustrious company of others who also follow the outer paths of life. It us never the easy road, though perhaps the more satisfying. 

I don’t know that a black sheep can ever be white, or even a shade of grey – but then…perhaps we don’t want to be! 

Tim Alderman (C) 2016

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