I spent much of yesterday evening crying my eyes out. The kind of wracking sobs that leave you weak and shaky for hours afterwards.
This is not normal.
I was packed off to boarding school at the age of eight. Unlike most other boarders, I did not get to go home every three weeks. Because we lived in Botswana, and school was in England, I got to go home 13 weeks later. This went on for the next ten years: three terms at school, three holidays at home.
It was not okay. It is not okay. I am not okay.
There, I said it.
One of the difficulties I have found in dealing with this over the years is that people in the English-speaking world treat boarding school either as some kind of naughty club (in the decade I was incarcerated (that is not too strong a word) I was never once beaten or buggered. Are we entitled to a refund?) or as a bastion of privilege (which it is), which I should be grateful to have attended. Those from the rest of the world get this look of pity and horror when they hear about it.
Before I go on, a couple of points.
- my parents honestly believed that boarding school was the best thing for me (and my siblings). Except in this one thing, they have been excellent parents all round, and I love them very much.
- the schools I went to were in general staffed by some excellent, kind, and decent people. It’s not the people that were the problem; it’s the system they were working in. The savage sadists and pederasts of boarding school legend were mercifully absent.
- the education I got was first-class, and has been very useful. It’s not the school I have a problem with. It’s the boarding.
The main reason that this is coming up now is that my eldest daughter is about the age I was when I was sent away. I look at her, a small child, charmingly innocent and childish as she should be, and it breaks my heart. I could no more abandon her to the mercy of strangers than I could chop off my own leg.
Other things have triggered this too. I have started to come across studies and stories about “boarding school syndrome”, and recognised myself in the list of symptoms. I was on the phone the other day to the mother of my goddaughter, who will shortly turn 12. Away at camp, after two days she was very homesick. So she called her mum, who came and got her. Of course she did! For fuck’s sake, children need their parents! But when said mother casually mentioned this like it was nothing, as indeed it should be, it took all of my self-discipline not to both break down in tears, and howl at her: nobody came to get me!
Clearly, this has all the hallmarks of unprocessed trauma. My attitude to trauma is neatly summed up in this article. Yes, fuck your trauma. And fuck mine too. Get over it. I will.
So the question is, how?
And that’s where swordsmanship comes into it. I am a swordsman, which means that the primary toolkit I have for solving problems is swordsmanship. So many bullied kids end up doing martial arts. So many victims of assault of all kinds look to martial arts to make them feel safe. So did I. And I have trained for long enough, and deeply enough, that I have a range of strategies for dealing with injury, and dealing with the sort of psychological issues that prevent a person from living up to their best self.
In brief, this is what I am going to do:
- own the problem. This blog post is part of that. This is my problem. I will fix it. The problem is in two parts: the trauma itself, which is relatively simple, though not easy, to address. And the coping mechanisms that I developed to get through boarding school. These saved my sanity at the time, but have been causing problems ever since. Looking back I can see dozens of instances in which the persona I created to survive abandonment has hurt good people, and betrayed my core self. Time to dismantle it. But that is way more difficult, as it was built 33 years ago and has rusted in place. This is like breaking down scar tissue to restore range of motion; something I have done hundreds of times to joints and muscles. Less so with minds.
- recruit allies. The first step in any campaign. To this end, I have already recruited my wife (obviously, to normal people. But oh my god, that was really hard. Because the first thing you learn in boarding school is show no weakness. But howling your eyes out is much more effective when you are in the arms of someone who loves you) and two of my closest friends. I will be reaching out further afield in due course, and there is a list of organisations and survivor groups at the bottom of this post.
- gather intelligence. I am reading up on the effects of boarding school, working out the exact shape of the problem, and studying what other people have done to solve it.
- make a plan. I am formulating it now, but it will certainly include talking to professional therapists, crying a lot, and finding ways to dismantle the defences. This is, right now, training priority #1. Way more important than my fencing skills.
- ruthlessly execute the plan. This will hurt, like pulling out a splinter. But it’s necessary.
I am also a writer. Those of you that have read Swordfighting for Writers, Game Designers, and Martial Artists will probably recall that I wrote about being bullied at boarding school in the section on handling fear. That was my first real attempt to crack the seal on this great big pot of shit. I felt when I was writing it that it was probably the thin end of a big and horrible wedge. I feel a book coming on; possibly a memoir. But there are so many facets of this that I need to break it up into pieces. And this blog feels like the right place to handle those, one at a time.
I am a writer in the same way that I am a swordsman. The process of writing is a method for solving all sorts of problems. One major problem is the culture of silence around boarding school issues. You are taught at the time that you are lucky to be there. You are taught to not cry. To suppress feelings. To not talk about it. So talking about it is of course simply essential. And it strikes me that talking about it in public through writing might serve some useful purpose. It is much easier for me to do what needs to be done if it serves a higher goal, something more than my own benefit. There are literally thousands and thousands of adults now who went through a similar experience; some came out just fine; many more came out deeply fucked up. My writing about this might encourage even one of them to open up a bit, to somebody. Physical injuries require physical treatment. Psychological injuries require psychological treatment; which is mostly done with words, gestures, and physical closeness. Writing might help someone else.
And if it changes the mind of just one parent about dumping their child in a fucking institution, however gilded the cage, then I truly do not care how much it hurts or what it costs. Because just fucking no, don't do it. It's wrong.
One final note. I do not intend to allow this to interfere with my work, nor to I wish to be perceived as a victim. I don’t need your pity. I certainly don’t want to whine about it. So I would prefer it if, when we meet, you not mention it or bring it up, unless it has helped you in some way to read about it.
For those readers who have no idea what boarding school was like: Monty Python nail the incredibly arcane and arbitrary rules here:
And this documentary is, frankly, chilling.
Update: I've written more on this:
Abstract of another article on the effects of boarding