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School Daze

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.

Why?

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.

Phase

May 2019. I’m in the midst of the most frightening, debilitating anxiety attack. Indeed, it could be interpreted as an existential panic attack, in that I can’t tell if everything I’m seeing and doing is real or imaginary – as if I’m watching myself from outside my body. I’m only 50% sure that this isn’t a ‘near death experience’. I’m watching this whole fucked up mess from somewhere else, yet I can feel myself in my body at the same time. I’m stuck in a perpetual loop of déjà vu. A lethal cocktail of blind terror and relentless confusion courses through my system. Nothing makes sense.

I phone my doctor’s surgery and when the GP calls me back three hours later, I can’t be at all certain that the conversation is genuinely happening or if I’m dreaming the whole thing. This is, without question, the very definition of a living nightmare. Everything is up, down, left, right and backwards and forwards all at the same time. Even a desperate attempt to seek solace from the ridiculous cliché of pinching myself does absolutely nothing to alter my lack of perception.

Am I going insane? Is this what it feels like?

I call the NHS 111 service and they’re not much help, either. After an attempt at conversation rapidly deteriorates and results in further discomfort on my part, the call handler freaks me out by asking if I’m bleeding or if the skin on my chest is warmer than usual. Bad move.

“Mate, I’m on the verge of a full-blown meltdown, so body temperature is the least of my fucking concerns. Can you help me or not?”

“Is it a life-threatening injury?”

“I can’t tell if I’m alive or dead, so what do you think?”

“Could you just hang on while I speak to my …”

I hang up, head outside, light an umpteenth cigarette and pace frantically up and down the garden patio.

This has to be real.

How can I be sure?

Catching my reflection in the patio window, I appear to be a figment of my own warped imagination, so I dart back inside the house, grab a can of Guinness left over from Christmas out the fridge and down it in about thirty seconds flat – as if my life depended on it. But instead of instant calm, I feel sick to my stomach. I daren’t drink any more alcohol because as I’ve discovered on multiple occasions (to my cost), it solves precisely nothing. Bad move number three hundred and forty-seven.

I’m trapped in my own mind with no way out. I convince myself that death is the only solution. I yank open the cutlery drawer, revealing all manner of sharp, deadly instruments. Any of these will do. But I consider the ramifications of suicide and how it would tear my family to pieces and I sink to the floor a defeated mess of ugly, wretched sobbing. I curl myself into a ball and tears flood my eyes as I surrender to the horrors of my haunted soul.

I am gone.

Please let me die.

This isn’t a life. Please take me away from this world. Just one painless heart attack or a seizure – anything. Take me away from this perpetual suffering.

Forever.

I just slip away and now I am gone.

Bizarrely, that one line from the lyrics of Blur’s ‘Beetlebum’ is all I can manage to say to myself over and over and over.

I just slip away and now I am gone.

I just slip away and now I am gone.

I just slip away and now I am gone.

Drifting into a trance-like state, I start to relive a particularly vivid and recurrent bad dream. Against a blackened sky and over scorched earth, I’m riding a rollercoaster with my hands nailed to the metal handrails. The trail of cars screeches around every corner at a hundred miles an hour and dips into the deepest, darkest oblivion. Blood streams over the handrails as the nails drill into my palms. I lurch and buckle from the jolts and weaves of every sharp curve. A cackling demon sits beside me, its stark red eyes piercing my skull.

I just slip away and now I am gone.

Everyone I’ve ever loved and lost is sat all around me on the rollercoaster, laughing and jeering in delight at my horrific misfortune. Payback time.

You knew this day would come.

You useless cunt.

Go on, kill yourself.

See if anyone cares.

ALL YOUR FRIENDS HATE YOU.

EVERYONE HATES YOU.

NO-ONE’S gonna miss a drunk LIKE YOU.

DO US ALL A FAVOUR.

Kill kill KILL.

STOP. STOP. STOP.

The voices fade away. With both hands covering my eyes, I slowly, carefully peak through my trembling fingers. A figure begins to form, and I realise my mother is standing in front of me with tears streaming down her face. I quickly get to my feet and embrace her and she leans into my chest as we hold one another. I start to cry again, partly from relief but mostly from shame. Days later, I discover she’d been in the house the whole time I was trapped in my dissociative meltdown. I hadn’t noticed Mum or anything else as I struggled and raged against the relentless tide of mental turmoil.

I quickly head upstairs, neck two Diazepam and get into bed. The valium, combined with sheer exhaustion and the alcohol from earlier, has me sliding painlessly into a soothing sleep within seconds.

I just slip away and now I am … gone.

Breathe

Christmas and New Year is always a difficult time of year for my family. In late December 2010, my Dad passed away and, sadly, I live with a number of regrets where my father is concerned.

As the atypical moody teenager, I treated my father with contempt. Dad loved me, but had his own way of showing it – something I’ve only come to realise recently. He was not the easiest person to be around (much like yours truly). He was often irritable (a family trait my eldest brother has persisted with to this day), irrational (my own particular speciality when under duress) and often hilariously and disproportionately quick to anger over the smallest, most insignificant matter (no comment). Dad was very loving and affectionate toward me when I was a child, yet I slowly destroyed his kindness throughout my adolescence and beyond.

Upon turning 13 and forever falling under the spell of James Dean, I behaved as if it was mandatory to hate my father. Years later, I tried to make it up to him in my own small way, but the damage had been done and I got the impression that Dad held a grudge against me for all the heartache I’d caused him. I can’t say I blame him for feeling hurt. He deserved better than that as he only ever wanted the best for me. The real tragedy is that Dad only started to show degrees of affection toward me again when dementia began to consume him.

Out of all the memories of my father, the one that endures the most is the day I held his hand as he lay dying in hospital. Dad had succumbed to pneumonia for the second time in his life, which was bad news, as only one of his lungs was fully functional following the first instance several years before. Due to the onset of vascular dementia, regrettably, we’d sent Dad to live in a care home as the family simply couldn’t cope any longer. He’d started going walkabout – for miles and miles with no particular purpose or destination – and on each occasion, we’d had to call the police to help track him down. My Mum was completely devastated that her childhood sweetheart was now reduced to a confused, rambling shell of his former self.

When Dad caught a nasty cold in the care home, we’d insisted that the staff sent for a doctor immediately, due to the earlier and nearly fatal episode of pneumonia (combined with septicaemia) that had led to his ongoing lung issues. Predictably, the carers ignored our advice and within a few hours, Dad was rushed to hospital suffering from chronic chest pains. The family arrived soon after.

I vividly recall sitting by Dad’s hospital bed and, for the first time in decades, holding his hand. His beautiful, piercing blue eyes were heavily bloodshot and, unable to speak (due to the pain in his chest), desperately thirsty and just plain scared, Dad gripped my hand so tightly that I can still recollect the feeling to this day. It didn’t hurt – or if it did, then I didn’t care – and I believe he wanted me to fix him somehow, telling me in the only way that he could. He’d done everything he ever could for me all my life and yet, in those final, crucial hours, I couldn’t do anything to save him. That’s what hurts the most – that I let my father down in his most desperate moment of need. Though, just perhaps, as he lay on (effectively) his deathbed, he was trying to tell me that I shouldn’t feel so guilty? That he realised there was no hope? I wish I knew the answer. That day on the ward, the rest of the immediate family were there, too. But in those precious moments between Dad and myself, it was as if we were the only two people in the world. Everything else was just static.

The only other thing I remember about that day is when, just as the family were leaving, a senior consultant approached to discuss the best course of treatment for my father. Sat in a family room, we listened as the consultant gently emphasised the difficultly with my father’s lungs and how any further intake of antibiotics could only be 15-20% effective and that, in the long run, may do more harm than good. We had to decide whether or not to continue with another course of treatment or, simply and more humanely, to let Dad go. Despite the practicality, I’m sure you can imagine the difficulty with making such a near-impossible decision. However, and I don’t know where this came from, as soon as the consultant finished talking, I spoke up:

“No, let him go. He should be at rest and I don’t want him to suffer any more than he already has.”

To my relief, the rest of the family agreed, but that doesn’t stop me wondering what would have happened if I’d made a different choice. Perhaps, in those moments on the ward and in his own way, that was what Dad was trying to tell me as he squeezed my hand? With the decision made, all the consultant could do now was to make Dad more comfortable as we waited for the inevitable. Returning home, no-one said a word for the hour-long journey.

A couple of days later, I awoke at exactly 4am and made my way downstairs to make a cup of tea. My mother soon followed and the moment she walked into the kitchen, I knew from the tears in her eyes that Dad had gone. She told me that the hospital had phoned and informed her that my father had passed away peacefully at 4am. These days, I just tell myself it’s a coincidence.

Dad’s funeral was every bit as difficult as I’d anticipated. I lost count of how many well-meaning relatives asked me if I was OK when I plainly wasn’t and I’d had to bite my tongue to stop myself from telling them exactly where to go. Both Mum and I sobbed uncontrollably throughout the service and to this day, I cannot bring myself to attend another funeral. As I’ve mentioned in another post, I couldn’t face going to Steve’s and, at the time, I hoped somehow he’d understand.

Over the years, I’ve often reflected on the relationship between my father and myself. I honestly wish I’d done things differently. But at least I tried to offer Dad some comfort in those desperate moments at the hospital. My Mum says he wouldn’t want me to keep torturing myself. I tell other people that regret is a useless emotion and it solves nothing but, looking back, there’s only one thing I’d change.

Everything.