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Dealing with it.

Orwell Park School: doesn't look too bad, does it? Image credit: James Appleton, 2010.


Oh my, what a week it has been.

I was scared of hitting “publish” on my last post, for obvious reasons. I am a big bad scary martial arty swordsman, or at least that’s how a lot of people seem to see me. And now anyone who reads my blog can see me as a great big cry-baby if they so choose.

I had to be ok with that before I published. The risk was entirely about how people regard me. Who wants a swordfighting lesson from a wimp?

But here’s the oddest thing: the single most common response I’ve got has been “you’re brave”. Because, and this is the heart of it, everybody who has lived at all has taken some kind of damage in the process. Some has healed completely, some has left scars, and some is still a big gaping wound. And everybody knows that it can be very frightening to face it, and even more so to expose it to others, because it feels like they could use it to hurt you more.

Because everybody has some experience of trauma, and of being scared of it, so long as the person you’re talking to is actually a decent human being, you get no criticism or contempt at all for opening up about something like this. It’s really not that risky.

Think about that for a second.

Of course, this would be a million times more difficult if I had any shame about it; if I felt that it was my fault, or if I had behaved appallingly. (Which I have at times, but it wasn’t my fault I got sent away.) Likewise, I have no crimes to confess in this process; nothing that might get me sent to jail, anyway. The only thing I risk is my ego. So there’s no real risk, because my ego is not in the hands of the general public; it’s in the hands of my wife and kids, family and close friends.

This is still a very new situation for me, but I thought I’d update you all on what seems to be working for me, and what I see the pitfalls as being. I am moving very fast on this, because that’s how I approach problems: I attack them with a vigorous blow to the head. To give you an idea of how fast: this all came up in such a way that I realised it was a real problem on Tuesday last week. I wrote and posted “The Price of Privilege” on Wednesday. Since then I’ve had three counselling sessions. None with conventional psychotherapists (yet), but the sessions have been incredibly helpful. Perhaps because it means setting aside specific times in which the only thing on my to-do list is deal with this shit. And these lovely people have made me feel safe enough to really go back there and dig. I think that finding the right person to talk to is probably much more important than what therapeutic discipline they practise.

[‘“Therapeutic discipline”, eh?’ I can hear the back row snickering. Fine, laugh it up! Nothing like a good dose of the swishy cane to bring up childhood memories, what? See what I mean about the “naughty club” references in my last post? If you want to know what happens to beaten children, I recommend both Roald Dahl’s Boy and Tall Tales by Ian Kendall. And if you think beating children is funny, it’s not me that needs help.]

Amongst the general outpouring of affection and support that I have received this week, for which I will never cease to be grateful, there were also quite a few contacts from people who also went to boarding school, and some who went to mine. It is very clear that I am not at all alone in this.

Now, things to watch out for. This is an aide-memoire for me; I absolutely am not speaking for or about anybody else. But these things might bite me on the arse, so I’m sharing them here.

1) Trauma explains much, but excuses nothing.  Sure, I can point to several occasions in my life where I am 99% sure that my boarding school experience lead me to treat somebody badly. But it’s still my responsibility; I’ll go further: it’s still my fault. I am not responsible for my feelings, but I am 100% responsible for my actions. Unless or until I am certified insane, that remains the case.

2) It’s not a competition. One of the things that held me back from posting about this is knowing so many people who have gone through so much worse experiences. Boarders who made no friends; combat veterans; rape survivors; domestic abuse survivors; the list goes on. What happened to me is utterly trivial next to what has happened to them. It felt like whining, until I realised that even relatively minor wounds can turn septic. In fact, the most dangerous injury I’ve sustained in 15 years of professional swordsmanship was a splinter I got while woodworking. I took it out, but it went septic anyway; without modern antibiotics I would probably have lost my hand. Ignoring it because there are people out there dying of worse infections never occurred to me. Likewise, my experience was empirically worse than some other peoples’s. So what? There is no prize at all for being the most injured. Exactly the reverse.

3) Attention is addictive. It’s really lovely to get such overwhelming messages of support. I can quite see how Munchausen Syndrome develops. This could lead me (especially given the attachment issues that are part of “boarding school syndrome”) to hold on to the damage to keep getting the attention. That would not be good. But I’m aware of it, as are all competent therapists, so it shouldn’t be such a problem. I intend to purge this, heal it, and move on. I have no interest in defining myself as “that kid who was fucked up by boarding school”. I'd rather be a master swordsman, excellent writer, great dad, adored husband, and much-loved friend, thank you very much.

I hope my experiences are useful to you. This is what I’m for, after all. At root, I am by nature a teacher. I can’t quite see the point of mastering a skill if  I’m not going to pass it on; and it’s much easier to allocate the necessary time and energy to this problem if I think that my example might help somebody else. If that's the case, please do let me know. It makes such a difference.

You might be wondering what effects this problem has had on me. Well, there are dozens, some of which I don’t intend to share just yet, and some I may never share outside of counselling, but here’s a big and obvious one.

I have no sense of home being a place. Home is people. Originally my parents, of course; now my wife and kids. The only exception to that is a negative: in my head, England ≠ Home. England is the place I was sent to that by definition was not home. Anywhere else on the planet could be home, but not fucking England.

But rationally, England ≠ boarding school. There is a whole ton of great stuff there that I have shut myself off from. This would have been different if my family had lived in England at the time, of course, and perhaps if I had got into Cambridge University (Edinburgh was my second choice, more fool me). We lived in England until I was five years old, then we moved to Argentina (’79-’80),  then Botswana (’81-’86), and then Peru (’86-’92). They were home. My family then moved to Scotland, which as anyone who has ever been there knows is very much NOT England. And since then, I’ve only lived in Edinburgh and Helsinki (if we don’t count 3 months in lovely Lucca).

Why does this matter? Because to my wife, only England will ever = Home. And I have twisted and turned in a totally irrational way to avoid giving her the chance to live there. Not fair. I realised this when after we got back from Italy, and saw that the School thrived without me (as it should), we decided to go to England for a significant period, from the middle of next year. This is a perfectly rational move to make. And it was my suggestion. But it made me absolutely miserable, and I didn’t know why, until all this boarding school crap bubbled to the surface. So when I have cleared it, the aversion to living in England for any period, or more precisely, calling England “Home”, should clear with it. This should give my wife a fair crack at living in England, as she has wanted to do for the last decade.

I’d say that was worth a few tears, wouldn’t you?

I intend to keep posting about this; to keep it separate from the usual sword-specific stuff I've created a new category, “boarding school”. I think my next post on this topic will be about the people who made being in boarding school much easier than it might have been. [Update: that next post is here.]

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

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