One evening during lockdown number one (doesn’t that sound weird?), out of mild curiosity, I watched a BBC2 documentary asking ‘What’s the Matter with Tony Slattery?’
Despite enjoying a successful career as a stand-up comedian in the late Eighties/early Nineties, Tony suddenly vanished from our screens, never to be seen again. As the documentary unravelled we learn, during the intervening years, poor Tony has endured severe problems with both alcohol and substance abuse, coupled with mental illness, PTSD and, for the time being, his career was effectively over.
Why is that?
I don’t get it.
Talented people are so often burdened with such pernicious demons. Why? It’s the same old song.
Later in the programme, Tony attends a session with a noted psychiatrist, who delves a little deeper into his patient’s subconscious. During a previous discussion, Tony recalled several incidents when he was sexually abused by a priest while attending a 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 often something lurking in the past that may explain why they chose to self-medicate.
Once the programme had finished and for no apparent reason, I reflected on my time at prep school from the of five until I turned 13 years old. Within seconds, I was trembling and hugging my knees, rocking back and forth with tears streaming down my face as a distant, hazy memory began to emerge.
Between lessons, one afternoon, a friend and I were play-fighting with another, smaller child and things soon got out of hand. As is often the case, the smaller one took the brunt of our jabs and slaps and so, later that day, he grassed us up to the headteacher. Well, he grassed me up. Quite why he didn’t mention my friend remains a mystery. An hour later, I’m frogmarched into the staff room by another teacher and told I would be beaten by the headteacher with the dreaded ‘slipper’ first thing the next morning.
On my birthday.
This was Great Britain in the late Seventies, so corporeal punishment was still in practice. When I got home that night I was in fits of anxiety: mainly 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 to transpire.
Shortly after arriving at school the next day, I’m called into the staff room again, only this time, the art deco lamps are dimly lit and I’m met by the headteacher and two others. Mrs S and another teacher remain seated, apparently in anticipation of my punishment whilst Mrs P (the headteacher) read me the riot act, condemning me for picking on weaker children, even though that’s not how it was. We were only play fighting and got into it a little too much. Anyway, my fate was sealed. No going back.
Best get it over with.
At this particular private school, whenever the pupils were caught seriously misbehaving, we were either caned or given ‘the slipper’. In each instance, the beating was administered on the buttocks through our trousers or shorts (where the younger children were concerned).
Mrs P ordered me to turn around, face the door, and drop my shorts. Next, she furthered my humiliation by instructing me to remove my underpants. I did as I was told. At this moment, I was trembling with fear and trying to hold back my tears, but I managed to peer over my shoulder and notice the other two teachers leaning forward with what appeared to be fevered interest.
Was this a shared, sordid perversion? A carefully and meticulously prearranged ritual amongst this particular triumvirate of teachers?
Why the fuck were they watching me?
Thinking about it today, I can’t recall what happened next. I used to think I took five harsh smacks on my bare arse, was sent on my way, and nothing more was said about it.
But I was wrong.
I don’t remember.
I’ve blacked out whatever it was. Buried it. Perhaps we have an in-built 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 consider ‘the incident’, the cause of my anxiety and depression is flagrantly obvious. From time to time, I get this horrible feeling that something else happened in the staff room that day. But I can’t ‘see’ it. It could’ve involved the third teacher, whether they be male or female.
I don’t know.
I’d never told anyone about any of this before. Not a single soul. That is, until the documentary. The next day, I had a heart to heart with my mother and ever since then, I feel as if I’ve shamed and humiliated myself for not saying something sooner. Also, I blame myself for it happening in the first place. It’s incredibly difficult to explain to people the exact nature of mental health issues. I told Mum so that perhaps she’d have a better understanding of why I can’t help being the way I am.
But not who I am. I won’t let it define me.
Oh, but that’s not the end of it. Not by a damn sight.
It was with the best of intentions that my parents paid for me to attend this particular prep school. At the age of 10 and every single day for the entirety of two academic years, I was verbally and emotionally abused 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 and screamed at me.
Even now, if I close my eyes, I can picture him shaking his fists at me; pure, frenzied rage soaring from beneath the skin of his warm knuckles, only millimetres from my face. This was just one of the numerous methods of intimidation utilised by Mr Beech in his bitter, determined campaign of harassment and derogation.
It went something like this:
For 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 in front of the rest of the class. Mr Beech was the arithmetical equivalent of a ticking time bomb with an extremely short fuse. For some unknown and illogical reason, Mr Beech had taken an instant dislike to me from day one.
I was 10 years old.
WHAT THE FUCK had I done wrong?
Every day, this malevolent cunt of a teacher was using me as his 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 ritual humiliation. I’d begin to cry. He would mutter something about my ineptitude before exploding in a terrifying display of animalistic fury and vituperative ridicule. Within seconds, he’d be ranting and raving, often threatening me with genuine physical violence such as breaking my neck or punching my “thick skull”. Eventually, sobbing with tears, I would be ordered to return to my desk and the next pupil would be called up. I was singled out by Mr Beech’s; an inoffensive outlet for all his anger and frustrations. The rest of the class got off relatively lightly compared to my daily torment.
This degrading ritual humiliation lasted anywhere from ten to thirty minutes, five days a week and for 18 months. Suffice to say, I never grasped anything to do with Mathematics for several years.
Despite showing a natural flair for English and Art at school, Maths remained a frustrating enigma. I believe children take to certain subjects genetically; there’s a secret mechanism hidden deep within our DNA from past generations that automatically switches itself on whenever a familiar topic appears – whether that be mathematics, chemical warfare or changing a plug.
Mr Beech went at me for what seemed like an eternity before I eventually broke down and told my parents, who immediately phoned the headmaster to arrange a meeting. I wish I’d told them sooner but I’ll put it down to shame. I was too embarrassed to say anything to my parents because I felt like I’d let them down in some way.
Mum completely lost it with the headmaster and threatened to take me out of school unless Mr Beech was suitably admonished. Coincidentally (and mercifully), within a few weeks, he’d handed in his notice and landed a job at another school down south, or so I was told. His replacement, Mr Ashton, was the complete opposite to his predecessor: kind, patient and even-tempered.
I believe my experiences at the hands of the three teachers in the staff room and Mr Beech’s bullying and intimidation explain why, aged 13 and after transferred from a fee-paying private school to a comprehensive, I completely lost all interest in academia. I was tired of the school dynamic. Being the ‘posh kid’ at a mixed high school made me a target for further bullying by some of the older children. That wasn’t much fun either so, eventually, I simply tuned out. I maintained a routinely small circle of friends but within a few months, I was skipping practically every lesson, so I rarely spent much time in their company. I’d nip uptown, wasting hour after hour window shopping or sitting in the park eating chips, smoking cigarettes and watching the world go by. It was only when I left high school with just one ‘O’ Level to my name (English Language) that I realised just how limited my options were. Dad came to the 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 (including Maths). Within a few months and just before turning 18, I started my first job at Rackhams in Birmingham. Yep, that’s right. House of Fraser.
It was all downhill from then on.
OK, that’s not strictly true. I enjoyed having a few quid in my pocket. I’ve had some of the best and worse days of my life at work. I’ve made some truly exceptional friends – several of whom I remain in contact with to this day. But I knew all too well I was wasting my potential; stuck in a series of dead-end jobs with few prospects and – with a couple of notable exceptions – I hated bosses with a passion.
Anxiety and depression started in my late teens.
I can recall my first anxiety attack as if it happened ten minutes ago. I was 17, travelling by train to Birmingham town centre with my best chum from school. I’m headed for a pre-arranged date with a female friend of a friend. Roughly halfway through the journey, I became aware of this strange knotting sensation in my stomach, immediately followed by intense nausea and sweat pouring down my back. My breathing quickened as I thought I was having a heart attack. This came from nowhere. I paced up and down the train carriage to remain calm. 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 my date, the anxiety had all but disappeared. This was my first encounter with a mental illness that – along with depression – would continue to blight my existence for the next thirty years, right up to (and including) the present day.
It’s often difficult to explain how anxiety feels. There’s the physical symptoms e.g. sweating, palpitations, hands trembling etc. but your mind is firing in about eight different directions, all at the same time. I liken it to drowning. Drowning in a sea of fear and confusion. Just the other day, I genuinely believed I was cursed or possessed by an unseen entity.
Perhaps that’s the true nature of modern day anxiety? A malignant curse updated for the Facebook generation. A mandatory app downloaded as penance for the luxuries of modern life.
However, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Recalling the incidents of historic abuse 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 – but doesn’t excuse – much of my unacceptable behaviour over the last thirty-odd years. I recognise the motivations behind numerous instances of unsavoury conduct on my part. It explains the ‘angry young man’ attitude I knowingly cultivated (which still emerges from time to time) and why I maintained a largely hostile attitude toward my late father. How I’m not suited to relationships. Why I fear I’m not going to make it much past the age of 60.
But, I’m fine. No, really. Nothing to worry about. After all, I’m not terminally ill. I try to remember there’s always someone much worse off than myself. I count my blessings.
But having said that, I’m losing hope. Hope matters. It matters so, so much.
Why? Because of ‘the system’. The system which, so far, has let me down at each and every turn. I’m not going into that any further because it’s early days, but up until a couple of hours ago, I didn’t feel safe or supported in any way whatsoever by the authorities. So, yeah, maybe there’s some hope left.
I don’t want money, sympathy or any of that stuff. I want justice and a bit of peace and quiet. I’m doing everything I can to achieve those goals. Some days are much easier than others.
Because … life.
Life hurts and it feels like mine was effectively over on the morning of my ninth birthday. They messed me up.
Do I forgive them? Do I fuck. Never.
But I’m not giving up. I have to at least try.
Until the next time …