Like many, I watched the ‘What’s The Matter With Tony Slattery?’ documentary on BBC2 a few weeks ago. As you may be aware, after a formidable career as a comedian in the late Eighties/early Nineties, Mr Slattery disappeared from our screens, never to be seen again. As the documentary unfolded, it seems over the intervening years, poor Tony has endured severe problems with alcohol and substance abuse, coupled with mental illness, trauma and, if all that wasn’t enough, currently teetering on the edge of the bi-polar spectrum. His career is essentially over and the man has his monumental share of demons to overcome.
Later in the programme, Tony attends a session with a noted psychiatrist, who begins to delve a little deeper into his patient’s problems. Tony begins to recall an incident when he was sexually abused – on several occasions – by a priest whilst at Catholic school. Inevitably, I found this shocking and terribly moving but not all that surprising as, from my limited knowledge of people with substance abuse issues, there’s usually something lurking in the past which may explain why one chooses to ‘self medicate’.
Once the programme had finished, I began to consider my time at prep school (effectively from age 5 up to 13 years old). Bizarrely, I started trembling for no apparent reason and tears streamed down my face as a hazy, distant memory began to form.
When I was around eight or nine years old, I suffered abuse at the hands of my teachers. It may or may not be deemed sexual but either way it was child abuse. This particular incident was nowhere near as degrading or psychologically damaging as so many others’ experiences are but nevertheless – and I didn’t realise this until the other evening – it fucked me up for life. This was in addition to daily bullying by another teacher and several of my peers for the entirety of a school year.
Between lessons one lazy afternoon, a friend and I had been play fighting with another kid and things got a bit of hand. Our ‘victim’ grassed us up to the head teacher. Well, he grassed me up. Quite why he didn’t give the both of us up is beyond me. Anyway, I was called into the staff room and told I would beaten on my arse with ‘the slipper’ first thing the next morning. This was Britain in the late Seventies so corporeal punishment was still The morning of my birthday. When I got home from school that night I was in fits of anxiety and burdened with an overwhelming sense of dread. My Mum knew something was up, so I told her. She did her best to console me. However, neither of us had any idea of what was coming.
The following morning, I’m called into a dimly lit staff room to be met by three female teachers. Two – Mrs S and Mrs K – are sitting down, apparently observing whilst the third – Mrs P – is standing before me. Mrs P gives me a standard telling off regarding bullying and picking on weaker children but that’s not how it was. We were only play fighting and got into it a little too enthusiastically. Anyway, my fate was sealed. Best get it over with.
At that time, when most of us were caned or ‘given the slipper’, it was through our trousers or, for the younger children such as myself, through our shorts. Prior to the beating, Mrs P ordered me to pull down my shorts and then furthered my humiliation by instructing me to remove my underpants. In floods of tears – due to shame and humiliation more than anything else – I noticed the other two teachers’ fixed gaze upon me as I removed my shorts and underwear.
Was this a sordid perversion amongst this particular triumvirate of teachers? Why the fuck were they watching me? I ended up with ten harsh smacks on my bare arse and then was told to dress myself and leave the staffroom. I think at that precise moment, I immediately buried my humiliation and tried not to think about it ever again. Perhaps we all have an in-built protective neurological firewall of some kind.
I feel stupid because for all these years, I’ve known something wasn’t quite right with me psychologically and that somewhere, there was a reason behind it. The more I think about ‘the incident’, the reasons for both my anxiety and depression become all too obvious.
I’d never told anyone about this until I told my mother the other day (after the Slattery documentary). Not a single soul. Since telling her, I feel shame and humiliation most days. Sometimes, it’s difficult to explain to people what anxiety, depression or mental health issues are, so I believe I told my Mum so perhaps she’d have a better understanding of why I am prone to such turmoi IB the best of intentions, my parents paid for me to attend this particular prep school from an early age and for the entirety of an academic year, I was verbally abused on a daily basis by a sadistic mathematics teacher named Mr Beech. To this day, I can recall standing next to him at the front of the class and the sheer terror I felt inside as he shouted, screamed and shook his fists only millimetres from my face; just one of several methods employed by Mr Beech to bully and intimidate me.
Each lesson, Mr Beech would set the class a maths exercise and allow us twenty minutes or so to complete it. Then (one after the other and in no particular order) he’d call each of us to stand next to him at his desk as he marked the results of the exercise in front of the class. It was the arithmetical equivalent of facing a firing squad. For some unknown and illogical reason, Mr Beech had taken an instant dislike to me from day one.
I was nine years old.
WHAT THE FUCK had I done wrong?
Every day, this malevolent cunt of a teacher was using me as his own verbal punchbag. When he’d found a mistake in my sums, Mr Beech would slowly and deliberately place his red pen at the top of his desk, which signalled the beginning of my humiliation. He would quietly mutter something about my ineptitude at this particular subject before exploding in a spectacular display of animal fury and seething contempt. Within seconds, I would be reduced to tears as he ranted and raved at me. He often threatened genuine violence i.e. breaking my neck or punching my “thick skull”. This frightening, degrading ritual lasted (on average) ten to fifteen minutes, five days a week and for a whole nine months. Eventually, I would be ordered to return to my desk and the next pupil would be called up. I was the only one to be on the receiving end of Mr Beech’s frustrations – the rest of the class got off relatively lightly compared to my daily torment. Suffice to say, I never did grasp algebra or anything even remotely mathematical for several years.
Despite showing a natural flair for English and Art at school, mathematics remained a frustrating enigma for me. I believe children take to certain subjects genetically – there’s some mechanism buried deep in our DNA from past generations that switches itself on when a familiar topic presents itself – whether that be mathematics, nuclear physics or changing a plug.
Mr Beech went at me every day for what seemed like an eternity before I eventually broke down and told my parents, who immediately telephoned the headmaster and arranged a meeting. I believe I was simply too embarrassed or ashamed to say anything and I felt like I’d let them down in some way. My Mum completely lost it with the headmaster and threatened to take me out of school unless Mr Beech was suitably admonished. Thankfully, within a few weeks, he handed in his notice and landed a job at another school down south, or so I recall. His replacement, Mr Ashton, was the total opposite to his predecessor: kind, patient and even-tempered. I managed to make further progress with maths and a few years later, eventually earned myself an ‘O’ Level (grade C).
I believe Mr Beech was the reason when, aged 13, and transferring from a fee-paying private school to a comprehensive, I completely lost all interest in academia. I was tired of school. Being the ‘posh kid’ at a comprehensive – an ideal target for further bullying by some of the older children – wasn’t much fun either so, eventually, I tuned out. I maintained a routinely small circle of friends but within a few months, I was skipping lessons on a daily basis so I rarely spent much time in their company. I’d nip up town, wasting hour after hour window shopping or sit in the park smoking cigarettes and watching the world go by. It was only upon leaving school with just one ‘O’ Level to my name (English Language) that I realised just how limited my options were. My dear father came to my rescue and paid for me to attend a crammer college near the centre of Birmingham and 18 months later, I emerged with four more ‘O’ Levels. Within a few months and just before turning 18, I started my first job and it was all downhill from then on. Actually no, that’s not strictly true. I enjoyed having a few quid in my pocket and throughout my ‘career’ (I use that term loosely), I made some exceptional lifelong friends. But I knew all too well I wasting my potential, stuck in a series of (effectively) dead-end jobs with few prospects plus I hated having a boss.
“Bosses are something, aren’t they? Like gnats on a camping trip” as the late, great Bill Hicks once remarked.
Anyway, back to anxiety and depression. I can remember my very first attack of the former to this day. I was 17, travelling by train to Birmingham town centre with my best chum from school and headed for a pre-arranged ‘date’ with a female acquaintance of a friend from crammer college. Roughly halfway through our journey, I became aware of this strange knotting sensation in my stomach immediately followed by the most dreadful nausea and sweat pouring down my back. My breathing quickened as I had absolutely no clue as to what was happening to me. This came from nowhere. I paced up and down the train carriage in an effort to remain calm but the feeling of nausea quickly became overwhelming. I soon realised this was ‘first date nerves’ times one hundred. Somehow, I managed to keep it together and by the time I’d met up with the girl, my nerves had mostly settled down. This was my first encounter with a mental illness that – along with depression – would continue to blight my existence to this day, some thirty years later.
Only the other day, in the midst of a yet another horrendous anxiety attack, it felt as if I’d be ‘cursed’ by some unseen entity. Perhaps that’s the true nature of anxiety – an ancient curse updated for the Facebook generation. An indiscriminate app as penance for the luxuries of modern life.
However unpleasant the recall of that particular childhood experience was, there is a silver lining to this black cloud. The ‘unearthing’ of this long since buried trauma seems to have had an unexpectedly positive effect in that I’ve been diagnosed as suffering from PTSD. How is that positive? To begin with, it’s helped me understand my mental health difficulties a lot better. Unlocking the memory explains much of my behaviour over the last thirty odd years. I recognise the motivations behind some of my less than admirable conduct since my teenage years onwards. It explains my ‘angry young man’ attitude (which still emerges from time to time) and how badly I behaved toward my late father. I’m more comfortable with who I am and, more importantly, how I am.