Boarding Up the Soul

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To those unfamiliar with the concept, sending ones children to boarding school is a shockingly weird thing to do.

Imagine you had never heard of a boarding school before, and I explained to you that parents would not only choose, but spend huge amounts of money (the equivalent of the average UK wage after tax), to remove children from their families and instead hand them over to a large, loveless institution where these youngsters would be tended by adults in a ration of ~1:20, far from home, with far less comfort. You would assume I was preaching a kind of dystopian nightmare. A ‘Brave New World’ of education.

Yet because boarding school is so familiar to us in the UK – synonymous with cricket, stiff upper lips and the class system – we are immune to its freakishness.

Unfortunately, there is no control experiment for a child who went to boarding school. Which means determining its impact is a problem. Certainly there are patterns, but the combination of nature and nurture ensures that there are almost infinite permutations. As with other aspects of growing up, no-one knows its impact on the specific individual and with that views diverge wildly.

Plus education is so important that we must make considerable sacrifices, right?

To many, boarding is highly beneficial, resulting in a world-class education and ‘preparation’ for the world (hence a ‘prep’ school). Or at least it is benign – a sacrifice worth making. To others, it is mildly or deeply harmful – the source of immensely damaging and lasting trauma.

For many years, I’d not given a huge amount of thought to the process or impacts of boarding on me or others. It seemed to me in context, as it is to most of those who participated, normal.

Yet through therapy, reading and exploring, one looks at the ingredients that make up the recipe of ourselves and try to determine the effects of significant past events and circumstances. At dinner the other night, I was reminded that I’ve been banging on about boarding school for some time. It has become ‘a theme’ and in the spirit of only really understanding something when I have written about it, I want if I can, to shift from ‘banging on’, to a more thoughtful, considered perspective.

To be objective, it is first important to eradicate any guilt: let’s forget about the perceived ‘privilege’, for a while. Complaining about boarding school can be seen as deeply ungrateful or unfair, considering the opportunity and that privilege. I don’t give a monkeys. To sweep impactful experiences away because we ‘should’ feel something drives us toward too many emotional follies. To ignore these problems because of some perceived luck only serves to perpetuate and amplify these issues.

I don’t feel guilty about going to boarding school. I would also hope that I can eradicate any guilt if I conclude that boarding school is, as I fear it was/might be, extraordinarily harmful. I don’t want to shy away from it just because it might offend or upset people – especially my parents. I fear that much isn’t talked about because of guilt, avoidance and, of course, some of the perceived positives that come from the system, such as creating those that are stiff-upper lipped, tough and unemotional. Character traits that are in fact a source of pride to some British. Boarding schools teach survival, so those who’ve been through its process tend not to complain, or rock the boat because it was instilled in us that such behaviour was weak and disappointing. In addition, there is a danger that for those who feel the effects of the human condition more keenly, especially those who had an unhappy schooling, it becomes an easy scapegoat, something to blame or use as an excuse.

Plus, my experience is of course, only that.

I first went away to school at 8 or 9. Whilst I don’t want to write an extensive memoire, it is worth exploring some of the feelings it provoked… When I think back, I remember many things – although much I had/have forgotten (deliberately?).

There was a marked transition on arrival from my happy, tactile home life into a cold, austere high-ceilinged dormitory (that looked very like the below, although we were lucky enough to be allowed to see in colour) with squeaking beds, itchy nylon blankets, fierce matrons, and twelve other children. I remember rows of sinks, a perpetual clinical smell, shorts in winter, frozen mud-caked fields, fear and missing. The opposite of a home.

In addition to becoming a boarder, I simultaneously started as a Chorister – singing seven services in a Cathedral a week and staying at school long into the holidays to ensure we were there for Easter, Christmas and Summer services. A Chorister’s life is extreme, cramming 2-3 hours of music into an already full day, most ending in a service dressed in a cassock, ruff(!) and surplice. Essentially embarking on a serious, adult and intensive job, alongside my schooling. Performing in an huge, ancient building each day with all of the strange ceremony that accompanies a religion. My childhood was murdered in that in that Cathedral.

Whilst the change was extreme, there was also a continual reminder of privilege, of excitement. It wasn’t all bad. As an eight-year old I felt grown up, I felt ready. There was the camaraderie of being part of something, of embarking in an adventure. I wasn’t ‘sent away’ – my parents are loving, kind, caring people – they just thought it was was the best thing for me. They thought the trade was worth it. They hadn’t boarded themselves, so they did not have first hand experience – although those that do often believe it was ‘the making of them’. I wonder if those people know themselves very well?

Yet there are some things that I have begun to see, with 25 years perspective, that are just plain abnormal. The unrelenting missing of those that you love. As hurtful as it might be for any parent to hear, there is a huge pain and misunderstanding associated with, essentially, becoming an orphan 6.5 days a week, even if it was a mutual decision to go away, a child isn’t capable of anticipating the pain.

A deeply intense hatred of the singing I had to do burned within me – so much so that I used to scream into a pillow to lose my voice. Strangely, the only respite that gave me was turning pages in an organ loft at the very same service that I was hoping to avoid – but it was enough of a rebellion and a change from the routine that it somehow helped and so I screamed and screamed. I longed to and loved to get sick, to stay in bed for a few days. I broke rules wherever I could, somewhat pathologically, my youthful spirit deemed harmful and dangerous.

When I look back, I simply didn’t know that the strength of the emotions I felt – the rage, anger, apathy, boredom, annoyance, missing, desperation – were caused by something external to me, or that they were abnormal. At that age, I had no tools to deal with or understand them, nor anyone save for remote, unemotional masters to model myself on or to seek solace from. There was no soft respite from school in the evenings or even when other normal children were on holiday. I thought the feelings I felt meant I was failing, a disappointment, that I was the problem, and because everyone else was hiding theirs, it was just me. So I just swallowed those emotions and learned to ignore them, to bury them away.

As a 9-year old you don’t have a clue what emotions are coming from where or how to stem those that are most painful. I didn’t know that the outside environment might be the problem. I thought I was alone in them. So much so that it took me many years to recognise that this wasn’t normal. The weakness associated with homesickness, in turn led to ignoring emotions because they were a noose that tightened as you struggled. Instead, I simply learned to survive, as best as I could… and the easiest way was to cauterise the pain.

As is mentioned in the documentary ‘The Making of Them’, there is simply no love in a boarding school, which means that for the majority of boarders lives, there is no love. Think about that. Go to a boarding school from aged 8 until 18 and you’ve essentially had a decade of surviving without love, with stunted emotions because you don’t want to feel the various pains associated with being in a non-loving environment, all whilst going through one of the most difficult times of life – puberty. 25-years later, I’m somewhat astonished that this is considered a good thing. Yet it’s so tied into the fabric of our society that even those who were subjected to it haven’t realised the impact or they have subsumed the feelings.

It’s unsurprising that a child shuts down. In my case, those years as a Chorister at prep school where followed by going on to a different school where for 3 years (out of 5), I was both unpopular and bullied. Bullying is unpleasant at any school, but at boarding school there is quite literally no escape. You sleep, eat, work and live with your aggressors and you cannot get away. You are trapped. That’s torture – to be reminded of your worthlessness every minute of every day without respite and, of course, without love or the sanctuary of home or just somewhere else to get away to. I think I’d rather go to prison than relive the 12-person dormitory situation aged 13, living amongst people that hate you and you hate. But I never really told anyone, I just lumped it because admitting you were struggling was a sign of weakness. My parents were no longer a support structure because they couldn’t help (save for extracting me from a school that they reminded me they were paying huge sums of money to keep me in). They would have, I guess, if they’d known, but I never told them. I kept quiet, as most are conditioned to do. So quiet that I haven’t even recognised it myself.

To this day, I think I have almost nightly dreams of rejection and of being cast out of a group. I say I think, because strangely, I’ve only recently become aware of these dreams, despite how regularly they occur. You might think that is an extraordinary oversight, to literally ignore something that happens every night. Yet remember, I have been schooled – for a decade – to carefully ignore these feelings.

I have spent much of my adult life feeling tired and never fully feeling rested, despite getting on average 8 hours sleep per night. I wonder whether this is because each morning my psyche has to painstakingly sweep an emotional basement of cobwebs under the carpet, and continues to do so subconsciously during the day? This might seem extreme, fanciful or just a neat scapegoat for the fact that I’m just not as sprightly as I used to be. Perhaps this is normal. Again, it’s hard to separate out the root causes or contributing factors to a infinitely complex emotional state. But I wonder. Are there scars that are still trying to heal all these years on?

Certainly, I believe there are scars that still significantly effect my love life. My relationships have been few and far between and have generally imploded because I haven’t been able to let go. I tend to have my excuses and my escape plan ready from the start – a self-fulfilling prophecy. There was a single big exception, when I fell in love very deeply, but I think subconsciously I thought that the relationship might make me ‘whole again’. That this feeling of love might cure my childhood wounds of separation. She never stood a chance. I plied so much pressure on that relationship, like a drowning man clinging to another, that I sunk it, the relationship ending with a mighty crack of my broken heart.

Through this prism of analysis, I notice classic symptoms of the effects of boarding in a previous post (Burned Man). Ironically (or perhaps poignantly), I am now in a relationship with the girl/lady who scooped me up after Burning Man, someone who saw me in my raw, unarmored state. Yet it has been a struggle for us both. I am not sure where I’ve put the keys to my heart that is hidden deep beneath my armour. Strangely, whilst I felt like I survived very badly at boarding school, the armour that I needed back then finally solidified many years later in my 20s and 30s, as if wheels had been put in motion for a Frankensinian (come on spell check, that’s gotta be a word) change that in fact took significant time to crystallise and was long past its sell-by date when it materialised.

I was and am sensitive person who has learned to keep my emotional nerve-endings protected. I’ve avoided authority (I’m an entrepreneur), I’ve avoided settling (living in multiple countries/cities as a single man) and I’ve avoided being trapped, or rejected (by being defensive and avoidant). This sounds very woe is me, but I had a fantastic time at University and have many wonderful friends and a deeply loved and loving family. I’ve pulled a huge amount back, but remnants remain. They say that boarding school kids do well in the world because of this emotionlessness, confidence and ability to survive in difficult situations. But I no longer think the armour does anything but weigh me down.

I started this post feeling like it might be a balanced exploration, but instead I find myself just astonished and more exercised than ever by the extremity of such a normalised practice in our society. I never suffered extremes like sexual abuse. Surely it wasn’t that bad? Reading other people’s articles (see below) brings painful memories. Those who didn’t go just simply don’t understand – in fact many who did don’t either. Those who went at 12/13 probably had a different experience from those who went at 8. In fact, everyone had a different experience.

Who knows, my control experiment might have had me suffering more going to a day school. I recognise that suffering is universal. I am not claiming this as my own, by any stretch of the imagination. At some point you have to take responsibility for oneself (like a good boarding school kid).

But today, I’d much rather feel well than do well, be open than be tough, have a heart than a stiff upper lip…

To grow I need to recognise what boarding was for what it was. Deeply traumatic and unhealthy. Now I simply want to coax that emotional me back out again from beneath the layers of armour – to value rather than to fear vulnerability… and, by writing, perhaps I can help others prevent, or at least recognise this problem earlier. I feel like I’m only just getting started with this topic – it is so deeply complex and masked – and yet I feel like I’ve said enough, perhaps way too much. That this is just self-absorption at fever pitch. There’s my boarding school ‘strategic survivor personality’ kicking in. Don’t make a fuss. Jolly good, carry on. Chin up.

But to be clear I’m not asking for sympathy. It’s not about excuses, but about recognition and working to enliven and exercise those deadened emotions, like a physiotherapist with a wounded body.

The accident has happened and it was exactly that, an accident. It was no-one’s fault – no one is to blame. It happened. Sorry Dad, you can’t have your money back. I am a survivor and now I must try to heal as best as I can.

Some further reading:

31 thoughts on “Boarding Up the Soul

  1. Very moving piece. Totally agree and find it worrying that majority of people who ‘run’ our world have been through such trauma and don’t have the reflective emotional intelligence as you to stay ‘in touch’ with themselves. I felt the same horror at the pressure I was under to put my 6month old in nursery, but was lucky to have cultivated a business that could support us without being away much…..IT IS NOT NATURAL!! Children should be with their family! Thank you.

  2. Amazing, honest, open, brave, perfect writing. I wish you incredibly well on your journey back to the real you. I love this sentence – “I’d much rather feel well than do well, be open than be tough, have a heart than a stiff upper lip”. I completely agree – it feels so risky to do so, but much more is at risk by not being true to how we really feel/who we really are. Much love x

  3. Very interesting reading – my experience matches this closely. I’m delving into all my memories and learnt behaviour adopted from this time with a therapist and the more I work on it the angrier I become at the thought that all this suffering and trauma is deemed normal and continues to this day. It’s especially worrying to think that most of our establishment has been emotionally harmed in this way and have no idea that they’re reflecting learned lovelessness back at us…..what a mess…

    1. A mess indeed. Alas, there’s not much we can do to the past so, like the accident analogy, I feel it’s important to work on healing and preventing future accidents. Thanks for your comments, very much appreciated.

  4. Hello darling. I thought I posted a comment but it seems to have been lost in the ether. Don’t want to say much but big big hug. This has moved and saddened me. Happy that you are able to go deep and find some answers to your questions, they do provide relief. Much love! Lis xx

  5. Thank you for this moving and eloquent account, which has much in common with my own ten-year boarding school experience. I very much related to what you said about feeling constantly tired and sleeping a lot. I have wondered for quite a long time whether this is about the energy expended on constant unconscious emotional management, and particularly given that boarding school dormitories were hardly safe places. I note that I’m often able to go to sleep at night pretty relaxed, and yet wake up in the morning on high alert with muscles rigid.

    1. John, thanks for this kind comment – I also wake up with less peace than I go to sleep. I wonder if that’s connected to our experiences or just normal? Time to do some exploration and discovery. I wish you the best, (simple)Tom

  6. Tom,
    I am so struck by the intensity of your feelings. You are right, sending small people to boarding school is an extraordinary and mystifying practice. No other country does this in this way and the aftermath is so destructive. It’s great you have the insight you have now about all this. In admiration and bon courage. Em xx

  7. I go to boarding school, in Switzerland and it is different, I am not sure if the end is the way you describe it, I mean my siblings went to boarding school it just really depends where and how of ten you see your parents.

  8. Sometimes home life can be a worse experience. Boarding school for me was a refuge from home. Sad but true. Of the friends I made, some loved it, some thrived, a few hated it (and left), many more muddled along fairly contentedly and then went on to lead happy lives. Everyone’s experience is different.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I would definitely sit in the category of muddling along fairly contentedly and then have gone on to lead happy lives… at least on the surface. What I am trying to understand is the real impact. You wouldn’t have known I was unhappy then, or now, unless, I really delved and revealed. That’s where things get interesting. Certainly for those who need a refuge from home, boarding school can be very positive. Anyhow, thanks again for sharing, appreciate your thoughts. Tom

      1. Thanks Tom.The thing is, most people are pretty complex when you start to dig below the surface. We are all affected by our childhood, it goes without saying; if it is an unhappy one it will leave lasting scars. Our parents are the primary persons through whom we make sense of, and filter life and later relationships. If they have wounded psyches, of if they have personality disorders, they will pass emotional problems on to their offspring. I am one of seven; we all went off to boarding school at different stages – but what we all have struggled with in our later lives has been the influence of our parents, their personalities and their hugely unhappy marriage. That is why I tend to think the influence of parents is much more important than the influence of school. The petty restrictions and regulations of school, the regimented games, the boredom, the cliques (I am a girl, despite my name, and was at a convent school) and so on, were a walk in the park compared to home life. My siblings would say the same.

      2. Thanks again for the kind thoughts. I totally agree that parents have a lasting impact. However, I do believe that boarding school does too have a big impact. Lots of people from my school and beyond who had happy families have shared these feelings with me both before now and after this post. We are each unique and complex and boarding school folks range from David Cameron to those who have done nothing with their lives, with many colours between. I do believe that in the case of an unhappy family, or a family in a country where the education system isn’t appropriate, that boarding school is the better option. But I also believe that if there is a happy family, boarding school is very rarely the right option. Additionally I believe that boarding school can do significant damage – not to everyone, but to a surprising number of people – particularly to those who went away at ~8 years old. So much so that it should not be viewed/treated the way that it is in our society.

      3. I do agree that if you come from a happy family it is strange and unnecessary to go away to school – unless you are part of the British class system. Class and snobbery play a huge part in this. David Cameron came from a happy family, but going away to school was unquestioned for him and his three siblings. I think if you have a robust personality you will not be damaged – but if you are sensitive, don’t fit in and so on, it can be disastrous. Our public schools of the 19th century were a response to Empire-building: preparing young men for the colonial administration Today, they usually offer a much better education than the state system, which is why poor middle-class parents scrimp to send their children to private schools. They have also changed: boarding schools are now weekly boarding in many cases, you are much nicer sleeping quarters and food. The old harsh austere regimes are a thing of the past.

    2. Home was worse than school for me. But far from being a refuge, boarding added to the rejection I already felt from my family. A lot of the other problems I was struggling with were exacerbated by school so it just made it all worse for me.

      You are right that everyone’s different, and I’m glad you managed to have a positive experience.

  9. Hi! I’m a lot older than you, but i went to boarding school in the 1970s. I absolutely loved it. I’m in the beginning stages of writing a book about my memories, and just researching other people who went to boarding schools, and any blogs I can find. I’m also just setting up a new blog about my boarding school which will go live soon. I look forward to reading more of your posts, and the best of luck for the future.

    1. I went to a convent boarding school in the 1950s so I am older than you both! Let me know if you would like my own reminiscences.

  10. Tom
    I’ve finally got around to reading your post – so glad I did. Thank you for your heart, for including it in your words, for doing your healing work and giving us permission to do the same. How hard that can be after any formative experience that has taught us the inflexibility of “strength”! And how treacherous that simple. single conditioned response comes to be when the task of loving, rather than surviving/achieving, comes into the frame.
    I’ve recently met with a senior “Beake” (teacher to the rest of us!) at my old school to discuss my giving a talk there. He is somewhat concerned to keep me “on script!” But I hope to speak to some of what you have raised and to explore how competitive, emotionally repressive, achievement-oriented schooling may (unconsciously) impact our society’s drive towards faster, stronger, better, more, with devastating disregard for other humans and, of course, the “more-than-human” world. I so want to speak about that to the young men who are there, some of whom, if they are anything like I was, may be horrified by the implications of how we live. But I don;t know if I’ll have the courage.
    As you’ve highlighted it is vulnerability, not strength, that brings us together. I’ve learned that from my battles with addiction. I’m trying to learn it and take beyond the personal realm into how I live, work, interact with the tools of civilisation that we have built. I is not easy. How my little self loves to feel the insulating power of wealth, prestige, affirmation even at the expense of authenticity.
    Thanks for reminding me. May the freedom and discomfort be sweet!
    PS for some great writing on vulnerability in the spirit of “The times are urgent – let us slow down” – I recommend Bayo Akomolefe and Richard Rohr.

    1. Hello Freddy,

      Your words remind me of St Paul: “When I am weak, then I am strong.” Thinking of your addiction, I know AA talks about a “Higher Power” and accepting one’s weakness. Speaking as a Christian, this “Higher Power” is Christ. It is He who gives us authenticity – not as the world gives, obviously. All the things you mention, such as wealth and prestige, are meaningless if they disconnect you from who you are. Pray to the “Unknown God” (if you are not a Christian) that St Paul spoke of among the pagans of Athens, and ask Him for the courage to communicate from the heart with the young men who will be your audience. As Hamlet said, “Words words words words words…” ; they are not the same as communicating heart to heart; that can only come from the Spirit. God bless you in your struggles.

  11. Tom,
    You summed up the experience pretty well. Welcome to the recovery zone! Mine started when I was about 32. After some therapy after yet another failed relationship, I had to learn to love myself as there is the inner rejected controlling child within yourself which is out sabotaging relationships to protect you from the pain of having lost your connection on a regular basis to your parents. This was caused by the constant breaking of attachments when you went back to school for extended periods (no weekly boarding!). I started at age 9 and went to the end of school.

    The one comment that stuck out from “The making of them” is “You cant love your parents because it hurts too much, you cant love your fellow pupils because that’s a bit of a problem, so you just basically get out of the habit of loving”. And yes, loving is a habit and I’ve pretty much spent the last 20 odd years trying to fix that. This is the core of the problem for me. After spending a lot of time reading about this subject, I’ve definitely got rid of that old notion that “it did not affect me”. That would be complete denial, and I’m tired of lying to myself. In subtle ways, it has been ruling me since the day I left school. In the last year, I’ve spent time discussing my boarding life with friends, co workers and wife and children when I get a chance. Slowly opening up. All people who grew up at home think the system is screwed up and go WTF?

    In case you’re wondering, these are people in highly paid positions and very successful. One happens to be my boss, who also happens to be the sales manager for a division of a massive global corporation. I’m outwardly successful as well, being the product manager for the same company. I’ve always been employed since leaving school, mainly in outside positions (site engineer in my youth & outside sales the last 16 years) where I’m basically free to do what I want as long as I meet certain performance goals – an arrangement I’ve always liked. I have to watch myself continuously from overworking (hello timetabling) and have a hard time relaxing at work or at home. I need to always have something on the go. My colleagues don’t suffer this “disease”. And the rest of my family have no problem relaxing. I have a feeling that it only took 8 years to get the kid out of the boarding school, but its going to take the rest of my life to get those boarding school houses (there were 4 of them) out of me! Well, considering what I went through in those eight years, I’m used to dealing with challenges.

    I live on the other side of the world compared to where my parents live. I’m not particularly close to them. I remain in contact via phone, which was pretty much what my relationship with them was throughout much of my life. I’m still trying to figure out how to reconnect with them – they’re getting older – and my father is currently having a bit of a health scare, which is making things a bit more to the front of mind. He is also an ex boarder, and we’ve always had a bit of a strained relationship.

    Even though my brother and myself went to the same school (he went at age 7, same time as me), we aren’t particularly close either. We’ve had brief discussions about the subject, but we don’t really get into it. Interestingly, one of his sons (who lived at home) dated an ex boarder and he was having a really hard time dealing with her. Quite a few emotional problems, even though she had endured “modern” boarding. Same old shit. Another guy I know at my local squash club is married to an ex boarder. His comment to me was that we ex boarders are screw ball. I had a good laugh! I want to sit down with him and have discussion about his experiences and see if there is anything I can learn. I have to agree with him, people who stay married to us ex boarders need a medal. My wife is no exception.

    I still have major trouble getting close to my wife, even though we’ve been married for 15 years now and have two sons, one aged 13 and the other aged 9. They are the same age I was when i went boarding school, or passing through the “zone”. This has really triggered my search for fixing myself. You see how vulnerable these kids are and wonder what the $#%$ did you kill off to survive. Now I’m trying to recover that loving habit. Its a daily reminder. Right now my eldest is having a crying fit over his math homework, and all I’m thinking while I’m comforting him, is how the hell did I survive? I get daily reminders of what I missed, which has been tough. This has been going on since he turned 9. Subtle things like when we have fun together, I think about what I missed with my own Dad. When he is cuddling with his Mom, I think about what I lost with mine. I’m determined to make sure that both my boys grow up as loving individuals so they can love their future spouses and families as well as myself and my wife.

    Back to my wife, we just had mothers day. So the tradition is to make breakfast in bed and open small mothers day gifts and cards. Gifts no problem. When it came to the cards, that’s when the fun started. My eldest filled his card with how much he loved his mother and thank you for what she does for him. My youngest, aged 9 had about 5 sentences. And then there is me: I barely scraped together two sentences. The second one wasn’t even a sentence. It was “Love you”, not “I Love you”! Why is this so hard? And then I start to think about this and think about adding the “I” on the Monday after the Sunday!! Trying to stay out of trouble. Instead I discussed these inner thoughts with my wife, and we had a good laugh. I think she understands me. A minor recovery victory!

    I’m rambling on a bit here. I’m hoping to illustrate that its the small (yet big things) I’ve been working on to try and fix myself. The most helpful things for me have been studying (yes studying) “the making of them” and “boarding school syndrome”. Not everything in these books applies to me, but there have certainly been some sections where they are spot on. In a way it has been very relieving to find out that the way I am is a response to how I grew up. There is nothing really “wrong” with me. It was very liberating to find out that I have a lot in common with other boarders (including yourself) as to how we endured. Unfortunately, there is no magic pill to fix the emotional protection systems one developed to survive.

    Another helpful book has been Judith Herman’s “Trauma and Recovery”. The section on captivity was enlightening, as well as how to recover through group therapy and talking to others. One of the interesting points in her book is that she deals extensively with child abuse, both emotional and physical. Ours was primarily emotional neglect, physical abuse (certainly in the “old days” – you would get caned if looked the wrong way) and unfortunately for some sexual abuse from both staff and/or fellow pupils. Those who suffered serious sexual abuse definitely need to get professional help. And if you’re battling, go and get help as well. You only have one life, so time to start working on yourself so you can enjoy what remains.

    Another avenue to explore is a point she brought up. Its called complex PTSD which I found interesting reading. This is found in children who have had continuous abuse heaped on them by inadequate parenting over long periods of time. In certain respects, we were lucky in sense we could generally hide within the system, either from the masters (negligently outnumbered by pupils) or bullies. Not so kids who had to deal with abusive parents on a daily basis when they got home from school. A search for complex PTSD led me to a website by a California therapist by the name of Pete Walker. He had some helpful tools for dealing with ones emotions when they run away from you. He is also a great believer in bibliotherapy rather than the what’s the next table to ingest.

    Also extremely helpful has been gradually opening myself up to friends and family about the experience. Often just talking about it removes a lot of stress. I urge all ex boarders, where/when they feel safe, to start opening up with small steps to trusted friends/family. Everyone of us has problems and sharing brings us closer together.

    I wish you the best (and all others) in recovery. And all those who say “it did not affect me”, please make sure you are 100% correct with that statement. I understand where you are coming from, as I continuously question the path I’m taking. But after three years of this, I think I’m on the right not-so-straight track. You may need to start doubting. I doubt, therefore I think. I think, therefore I am.

    In closing I would also like to say to those Aboriginal communities around the world who suffered indignities such as the residential schools system (in North America, where I live), I understand you, and I feel for you, I have a good idea where you are coming from….I suggest to anyone who has been through the boarding system also take a look at the residential schools system. The stories are heart breaking – and they are fellow brothers and sisters of ours in this journey.

    1. Thank you for your very thoughtful reply, it means a lot to me that people are willing to take the time to leave comments and share their experiences. Thanks again, may the harder pieces of your recovery/recuperation be over. Here’s to growing our ability to love without holding back.

  12. Hi Tom,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, appreciate it. its very insightful, I had been sent away to boarding 500 miles away when I was 5 to until 18. The only time i could visit home was once a year during summer for 6 to 8 weeks, and you would know what its like to be heaven. I dont blame my mother, after every visit it became clear to me of circumstances at home and why she had chose to send me away. I agree am lost at the moment facing various challenges, including personal relationship and professional life. I was once smitten by a girl and it ended in fashion you described above. I have been hopping jobs, one city to other, i had even once hopped to England and came back. I feel restless, i have no clue what i am searching, despite learning and behaving to societal and professional expectations i have been only able to gather nothing. I observe people and their life and imitate, but i have never been able to get a real sense of me, at times i go into depression and chronic pain, and the anger looms around and keep myself indoor. At office they dont buy my excuses cause professionally I have been thoughtful, smart, making right decisions and energetic. They see me mature guy, reliable and independent, and very profitable to them. they simply dont believe and I never tried to go detailed. I have within past few years developed major insecurity issues. Anyways, i am glad i came across this, it helps to relate and also helps to understand. it makes sense to go deep and propel the missing or hiding and suppressed element of hearts. I am not certain how deep I could dig but as much as it is possible. Thanks so much for your help.

    1. Wow, thanks for this wonderful post. I am sorry you suffered… At the moment I’m feeling that although I was wounded early, it has also given me tool to help with life. I am currently pushing hard to work at the parts that have felt broken. Meditating, working each day at it a little bit. Occasionally slipping back but making slow and steady progress. What’s done is, sadly, done, and I believe that we can heal if we put in the work. Good luck my friend.

  13. Dear Tom,

    This is a great post, and I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you say you didn’t realise the enormity of the emotional response to being sent away from the family home (by your parents). One doesn’t until the manifestations of it become too obvious to ignore. The ruthless void of the lonely life.

    I am 46 now, and all my life have been in agonising relationships where I have both loved and rejected my partners simultaneously. It is like pulling someone close to you but holding a dagger to their belly as you do so. Every one of them were filed with suffering for both parties.

    I was terribly ‘in love’ with my mum when I was sent away at 12. She was everything to me and the most beautiful woman that ever breathed. I can’t bear to spend time with her now, it hurts emotionally even to talk to her, even though I know she meant well.

    Now, I just don’t know how to be real and intimate with my primary partner. Formerly mum, now the partner.

    Now, 34 years later I realise that actually what happened was that my heart was broken. And ever since then I have been trying at relationships with that cracked heart. Usually this means falling head over heels with the ‘perfect girl’ in an instant, followed by the tortuous descent into criticism and not-good-enoughness of her, with the associated hurt and cruelty. And wasted years.

    My energy levels are low, concentration minimal, joy dim and generosity to others minimal. I am easily angered.

    But I have to say, realising just this week that actually my heart is broken, gives me some hope, although it hurts. Which I take as a good sign.

    1. Hi Dave. Thank you SO much for your comment which has taken me AN AGE to get back to you. Sorry. I’ll be posting in a couple of days with what’s been keeping me busy…

      Anyhow, I’m sorry that you still feel this pain today. This first step of realisation is very powerful so congrats on this realiseation and… I do believe with time, work, help and some more time you will be able to heal. With therapy, talking about it, meditation and openness I do believe I’ve been making progress. There is hope. It is definitely a good sign. There is quite a lot of literature out there to help you – both on the boarding school ‘problem’ as well as others. Recently I’ve read two books that have made a fairly profound impact – Siddharta (which I re-read) and Man’s Search for Meaning. I’ve also been meditating – not just for this problem, but because it is the thing I’ve found most people talking about regularly as a way to improve one’s life. It’s hard, and requires discipline but it’s only with discipline that we make progress and change.

      Anyhow, good luck on your journey. If you ever need to talk, just let me know.

  14. Hi,

    Siddartha is such a treasured book to me I named my spaniel Hermann after Hermann Hesse!

    I have noticed that beyond the realisation is an awareness of the shape and size and also the site of the wound. I was already 12 when I was sent away, but it still hurts.

    I find the best thing is to look my girlfriend in the eye when I can. The next step is to do so with my ageing mother – who I blame, but is now hurting from my resentment. She meant so well, and knew nothing better.

    I look forward to your next post.


    1. Lucky Spaniel. I’m also reading ‘The Art of Happiness’ with the Dalai Lama at the moment. Within, a reminder that there is a plasticity of mind which might not result in complete transformation but I do believe that through discipline and dedication – such as your being vulnerable and exposing yourself to these moment you describe – that we can slowly change. Good luck!

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