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Monday, July 27, 2015

Making of a Child Psychiatrist: (12) Healing Continued

Many of you still following this journey, and who know something of me, will have already seen through the narrative so far. However, I am sure some of you will be wondering how my stories from childhood and adolescence have any relevance at all to my becoming a Child Psychiatrist.
Let me begin to explore some themes to which we may well return in later chapters of this book. I suppose the first is a curiosity about people, which I began to notice from about age 12. This has remained with me to the present day, and has never been accompanied by that judgment of what is right or wrong. I was curious that people seemed to interact in ways different from my experience, but they were they, and I was me.
There were people at both my primary and secondary school who seemed to flare into anger very swiftly, and retaliate to an accidental nudge with force that seemed out of proportion to the situation. I have hinted at this before, but my relationship with Marlene Wright seemed to provoke resentment, which at times led to verbal abuse, and on a couple of occasions near violence. I guess the boys involved were envious, or just thought I was soft in some way, because I preferred the company of a girl. The latter was probably true. I probably was a bit soft.
I had not seen violence at home. In fact, I cannot remember much in the way of anger between my parents, although sometimes my mother had what I would now recognise as a ‘tight-lipped’ expression as if she resented something and was working it through. But I am certain it never reached the level of a verbal fight, and although my father’s voice was fairly frequently raised if I spurned my cabbage at dinnertime (sometimes even accompanied by threats of an early night, or the possibility of having to eat it for breakfast), there was never physical force involved. His angry expression and stern voice were quite enough to cower me.
So I could not make sense of physical violence. Even when we had achieved the status of a television, the programs rarely showed overt violence of the kind that is included today in the nightly News, Current Affairs, or almost every serialized program. Our neighbourhood was quiet to the point of being boring. Walking home at various times of the day, I don’t remember hearing raised voices or the sounds of broken furniture or glass. Newspapers were rare in the house, and I would have thought the content all rather boring or irrelevant. I have to admit to rather avidly reading ‘Beano’, and ‘Dan Dare’ comics (with that nasty vicious green Mekon person) but, in those times, the violence was implied with words like ‘Bam’ or ‘Whack’, and the broken limbs and pools of blood were never shown. So I was not immersed in a culture of violence and, in the absence of threat, I was not schooled in responding to threats or attacks.
So it came as a big surprise in first year grammar school to find that there were groups of boys (usually from the year above) who took delight in using wet towels to lash out at naked bodies in the changing rooms after physical education or sports lessons. I had no skills to combat it, or even think through useful strategies, and must admit to ending up in tears on several occasions. This, of course, simply led to greater efforts on the part of abusers, who could now add a variety of words to their vocabulary of verbal abuse while enjoying the physical attacks.
I know that I never related the episodes to either parent. As I have said elsewhere, school was school and home was home. Equally, I cannot remember ever making an attempt to tell a teacher, and I am not sure what would have happened if I had.
My memory suggests these events became quite common towards the end of first year, and then began again at some stage in second year. By this time I was a bit bigger, but still had no skills of any note. Perhaps I had developed some courage, in that I began to be verbally abusive back, and at least made some attempt to protect the softer parts of my anatomy. I believe it came to head with me saying that I would tell our form master. Having got dressed and gone out onto the grounds to join some friends, one of the main perpetrators approached me threateningly with a group of about 5 toadies from third form. He, himself, was about my height, even if several of his supporters were somewhat bigger. He warned me that if I told anyone, I would be ‘for it’, and the group were all jeering and agreeing with their leader. I must have stood up to him verbally, because the next I knew, he had me by the shirtfront and tie and was frothing at the mouth with abuse. I don’t know where it came from, but I threatened to hit him if he did not let me go. I was quaking inside, but determined. “Go on then, you baby…” So I did. I have no idea where it came from, or how I knew how to make a fist, but it was an almost perfect right cross (I now know), and hit him squarely on the left side of his jaw. I still have a memory of the imprint of his teeth on my fist. He almost fell but was held up by a crony. He began to bleed from the lip and, through the pink froth, threatened he would get me if it was the last thing he ever did.
I was stunned by what I had done, almost in sight of the headmaster’s bay window onto the grounds. I remember shaking with reaction, but being capable of saying I would “look forward to that”, in response to the threats to report me. There was much muttering as the group retreated. “And that” said Pooh, “was that!” I was never attacked again at school, in the showers or on the grounds. I was never accosted by a teacher to tell me what I bad person I was. My parents were never told. I must admit I spent the next few weeks nervously checking out my surroundings, and was waiting for the hammer to fall, but it never did.
So I was, and am, curious. Why did this person need to physically abuse others when they were vulnerable and unclothed? Why did he lead a group of hangers on? What drove his approaching me in the grounds? What stopped him reporting me? What stopped him, or members of his group, from attacking me at some other time? I never did find out. I knew nothing about his background, or his family. I knew nothing about his performance at Chatham House. I can only surmise that he felt small inside, and desperately needed to make himself feel big. Much later we were to research bullying in schools as a precursor to suicidal behaviour, and we found out that such young people are almost always bullied at home long before, and use the school environment and vulnerable others to make themselves feel better. Both bullies, and those who are bullied are at heightened risk for suicide attempts, but that knowledge was to be 50 years into the future. I am curious now though, that when the opportunity arose to investigate the problem, I was keen to join several colleagues and publish the study.
After some weeks, I began to feel confident nothing more would happen. I don’t believe I behaved differently, but perhaps I did. Some other boys had congratulated me on what I had done, but I don’t remember ever gloating, or thinking I was special in any way. It happened, and that was an end to it.

I remain curious about my about my physical reaction, and my apparent skill. I have never used that punch in anger since, and don’t know whether I would if threatened. As far as I remember there has only been one other time when I reacted with focused violence, and that was in my first job after qualification, when I was working as a casualty officer at King’s College Hospital in London. One night, a young angry drunk grabbed my white coat by the lapel and threatened to hit me if I did not immediately stop what I was doing and attend to his best mate whom we later found out had a broken jaw. I am afraid, my right knee rose rather sharply into his groin, almost as a reflex. I can remember the slightly squishy feeling, the subsequent threats to my person, and the anxiety I felt waking down the road to our hospital flat later that night. But I remain curious as to how I had learned such a technique. Is there a well of such knowledge in each of us? Are we as humans all capable of such violence, and if the situation were to be worse, just how far would such violence go? Curious…

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