Five Years Of Hell

I wrote about my childhood and my time at university. Now I turn to the next five years or so. I hope that you find it in some way helpful – perhaps you can identify with my experiences or perhaps you are just interested in other people’s lives. Perhaps you want to share your story here. Let me know!
Whatever your reason for reading I’m glad that I can share a little more about myself with you.
I do hope that your journey hasn’t been anything like mine.

University spat me out into a great chasm. Where does a student of poetry look for a job? I imagined turning up at interviews and being asked if I had been trained to use the latest software. I imagined myself replying “No, but I know what iambic pentameter is”.

I trawled through pages and pages of jobs seeing nothing that I believed I had a chance of getting. I was at a loss and very depressed about it all. Then, motivated by that moment when I would have to ask for my future wife’s hand in marriage, and out of utter desperation, I decided that the only option open to me was teaching. What do you do with poetry? The only useful thing is to teach it to someone else. At least there was a guaranteed job at the end of it with a reasonable salary.

The problem was: I knew that I was completely unsuited for the job. It was never going to work.

I was accepted by Homerton College, Cambridge University, and enrolled on a teacher training course. The subject was ‘English with Drama’ (and believe me there was plenty of drama) and the qualification was to teach in secondary schools. What a mistake.
The course was a total nightmare and I’m not sure to this day how I stuck it out until the end. I’ll give myself credit where it’s due: I’m a determined and tough so and so when I have to be. I don’t think, given what I was going through with depression and anxiety, that most other people could have done the same.

Some of the training was done on the job, (I think I taught at three schools as part of the course) and I was used as maternity cover for one particular teacher. It turned out that she was a friend of J.K. Rowling (I had never heard of her) and she mentioned that Rowling was coming to the school and would be in the library during the lunch-break. I was not in a good place at the time and was feeling less than enthusiastic about anything to do with children, schools, teachers, books, authors and anything that I didn’t really need to be involved with. I feigned interest and didn’t bother turning up.

When I finished my time there the teacher gave me a present: a first edition signed Harry Potter book. My disillusionment was so great that I decided to see if I could sell it. I had no idea if it was worth anything but presumed that there was always someone who wanted a first edition signed copy of something. It sold for a small amount. It would be worth a fortune now.

A career in teaching beckoned. Unfortunately the jobs on offer were not in my area and I had to become a supply teacher. With my boyish face and chronic lack of confidence becoming a stand-in for absent teachers (mostly covering subjects I knew nothing about) was a recipe for disaster.

The kids hated me (they hated all teachers and were particularly cruel to stand-ins) and I wasn’t thick-skinned enough to take it. I once had a laser sight from a gun aimed at me as I was sitting in a staff-room: one of the kids was actually pointing a gun at me. The red spot sat on my tie for a while as I tried to figure out what it was.

They demolished me by totally under-mining my authority. They threw things at me and each other, and if I playfully threw something back they threatened to sue me; they stood on the tables rioting; they threatened to throw each other out of the windows; they made comments about me that nearly reduced me to tears and they gave me a good send-off when at last I could bare it no longer: walking across the car-park to leave for the last time their cries of derision rung in my ears.

However, quitting my career and wasting my training wasn’t good for my mental health either. My wife and her family (we lived on her father’s farm) were sympathetic but I was deeply ashamed. I have tried to lose that sense of shame but shame and guilt are difficult opponents and they refuse to go away. Sometimes they disappear only to return twice as large.

Now depression really sensed its opportunity. I felt I had let everyone down and that I had no future. I felt a failure and an embarrassment. I also started to get the idea that I was cursed somehow and that the world was deliberately designed in order to exclude me and to prevent me from earning a living wage.

I was able to work some hours and earn a small amount of money on the farm (an occupation for which I was equally as unsuited) but I still felt only shame, guilt, fear, depression, isolation, hopelessness and just about every other negative emotion I can think of. There I was, a highly qualified student of poetry, shovelling shit in someone’s stable. There I was, the least practical person imaginable, with no common sense whatsoever, fiddling about with things technical and mechanical, understanding not the faintest thing about whatever job it was that I was being asked to do or trying to help with. That in itself was depressing and humiliating.

I can look back rather sentimentally now and picture myself driving tractors in the warm summer sun, watching an owl quartering the field in front of me on a late summer evening as I was turning the hay; driving the old grey Fergie’ (Massey Ferguson) from the fifties that I liked to chuff along on; lying on top of a trailer full of hay as we set off down the road, watching the white clouds in the blue skies above me with my hands underneath my head; drinking wine on summer evenings under the apple tree we had strung white lights in; walking in the fields with my dogs and looking after my goats and sheep.

However, the fact is that I was seriously ill and wanting to die.

I was seriously depressed and suffering with crippling social anxiety. When I walked through the sheds I saw thick ropes, meant for tying hay and straw securely onto trailers, and I couldn’t help but think of hanging. When we went up to see the majestic cathedral that dominated our landscape I only thought of jumping from it.

Just imagine wanting to harm yourself to that extent. We are hard-wired to survive and yet there I was contemplating ending it all by throwing myself off a tall building. That is how severe mental illness can be. My daily struggle was so awful that I was prepared to smash myself to bits or choke myself to death. I used to wake up in the morning (if I had actually managed to sleep that is) and my first thought would be to despair that another day was upon me. There was virtually no respite and nothing that anybody could do for me.

I didn’t help myself by denying that I had a problem and pretending to be a ‘normal’ person wherever I went. I expected a lot of myself and that only increased my burden. At that time I was learning about myself and my illness. I was learning what my capabilities were, what I could and could not cope with and how to look after myself. I got it very wrong for a long time by expecting too much and not being kind to myself. Knowing what I know now would have made my life much easier.

It was a secret illness. Nobody could see inside my brain. I often wished I had cancer or some other physical ailment that was visible to everybody else. Many other sufferers out there must know the feeling. We all end up being our own doctors, recognising symptoms, monitoring ourselves and trying to get the right treatment.

I began to spend as much time as possible on my own and I only left the house when I absolutely had no other choice. This only made my social anxiety worse. I found some solace in song-writing and losing myself in music but it was a seriously bleak period.

Those five years were really tough. They were hell.

 

Still Alive: The First Eighteen Years

All schools ever said about me came in the form of whatever was written in my yearly report. I did well. My reports were good. Teachers liked me because I was bright and polite. They called me ‘quiet’ and ‘conscientious’.

However, my ‘brightness’ and ‘conscientiousness’ didn’t endear me to the rest of the children and being the teacher’s ‘pet’ singled me out as a target. I was different to most of the other kids I neither condoned nor condemned their behaviour in their hearing but by not joining in I earned their wrath. I was scared every day of my school life, at primary school and secondary school, in term time or out: scared of abuse, either physical or verbal, and scared of being mocked and humiliated. I was ostracized at times and tormented at others. This was always going to impact on me both then and in the future.

I was rarely involved in fights because I could run fast and I could make myself scarce at the right moments. I slipped in and out of school through a hedge and managed to avoid being kicked and punched on most days. There were exceptions but nothing was ever done about them. In a way it was for the best because those kids would have hated and persecuted me even more if they had been punished for attacking me. My trials slipped under the radar.

And so, I was just ‘quiet’.

As I excelled in sports (I was virtually always captain of both cricket and football teams in primary and secondary school) along with the academic side of school life teachers must have thought that I was coping with school life better than anyone. Unfortunately, the more they praised me and promoted me the more I was hated, and the more I achieved the more scared I became.

I lost my grandfather (I idolised and loved him more than my own father) when I was ten: he committed suicide on Christmas day. Now I can sympathise with what he must have been going through but I’ll never be able talk to him about it, I’ll never be able to try and help. It gave me a deep wound that has hurt for over thirty years.

My problems only seemed to get worse at secondary school. It was an achingly sad time. In fact it would be fair to say that I spent most of my days in desperate anxiety, dreading every school day and getting more and more nervous from the moment the Friday home time bell went to the moment Monday morning came and my next week of distress began.

The school bus was hell. Sometimes I was persecuted; spat upon; mercilessly and ceaselessly mocked for thirty minutes twice every day. It hurt to take it without fighting back. I kept my anger inside because of cowardice and a hatred of confrontation. My main battle was to keep from blubbering every day.

My mother asked me for permission to divorce my father. When I said yes I felt terrible. I’ll never forget watching him packing up his things in the back of a van and leaving, or the time I saw him crying and said nothing. I sided with my mother but it was still heart-breaking.

I came to live with my father because one of us children had to go with him rather than leaving him totally alone. It meant that I avoided the bus as he had moved into town. Unfortunately we had never got along, I had always lived in fear of his moods and hurt by his lack of praise for me and the atmosphere in the house quickly became poisonous.

During my A-levels my doctor first used the word ‘depression’. Nothing, however, was done about this and I didn’t bother mentioning it to my parents. I was scared of it and didn’t want to be stigmatised.

I left school with good enough qualifications to go to university but also with a lifetime’s worth of issues.

Conclusions

Was it really a surprise that I began to develop stress-related problems, depression and social anxiety? It is not a cliché to look back at these formative years and see problems in later life. There is a reason for psychiatrist’s being interested in our childhoods.

Child and young adult psychology should be made more available than it is now. If it’s not, parents and teachers at last need to be talking about mental health.

I was lonely and isolated and I was being picked on. That’s not just ‘kids being kids’. Teachers should pick up on this and have a conversation.

School time is an intense social experience for children exploring relationships for the first time: relationships with each other, with their teachers, their parents and the wider world. Those children who seem to have trouble with these relationships need to be looked after and monitored.

Is there training and funding for specialist staff in the field of child mental health? Do teachers know enough about what is happening to their pupils at home? What should they know and how should they find out? Do parents know enough about what is happening to their children at school? Does the government care about any of this?

The signs that I was having difficulties were that I had few friends; I was unusually quiet and I was moody; I wanted to run away from home and I was extremely sensitive; I never felt rested after sleep and so I felt tired and weary at school; I was always sad. If they had talked to me they would have picked up on a lack of self-esteem and problems at home.

There are no ‘loners’ in the school system that should be ignored. They need to be dealt with sensitively. If I had the opportunity to talk to someone during my time at school, someone I felt that I could trust, I would have admitted that I faced serious challenges. The long and short of it is that parents and teachers need to understand how important mental health is for kids. They need to see the signs and know where to go to get help.

Every class or year group should have access to someone they can talk to. It’s so important.

I suppose, as with most things, it comes down to money. If the government is serious about targeting mental health it needs to give schools sufficient funding. If we get it right early on we may see the benefit later. The state has had to fund care for me: maybe it could have saved itself from this burden if I had help earlier on in my life.

Every school day I make sure that I talk to my son about how he felt during the day. I give him the vocabulary to be able to answer that question; when he was younger it used to be: was your day ‘good’, ‘ok’, ‘bad’ or ‘really bad’? Sometimes we would say was it a ‘normal’ day or an ‘abnormal’ one (he liked this because he was learning about similar structures in grammar)? I always ask him if he played with the other children and if there were any tears. How is he getting on with his teacher? Is there anything worrying him? Does he want to talk to me about anything?

I try to get him to open up and tell me everything. I would thoroughly recommend this approach to all parents. One thing we know for sure about mental health is that talking works.