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Friday, August 28, 2015

Making of a Child Psychiatrist: (16) Back to School

Sadly, holidays come to an end, and I had to return to school. In retrospect, it might have made sense to continue to study the French language and culture, but the choices had been made, so I settled into my three core topics Chemistry, Biology and Physics with some ongoing Maths and English. I was back into being a librarian and singing in the choir, and school drama and being part of Searle’s House activities. It was the autumn/winter term, so we were back into rugby. The routine set in. My tan, and the smell of garlic, began to fade.
To be truthful, the next two years at school are a bit of a blur, and it is hard to recall detail and sequence. I know I struggled with Physics all the way through, much to my father’s chagrin. I know he wanted to help, and I remember one particular incident where he tried repeatedly to get across the difference between a diode and a triode. Not only could I not make sense of what he was saying, I could not retain the information over time. He became frustrated, and obviously thought I was probably being difficult. He was probably right, and old resentments had marred my ability to be open to his explanations. Unfortunately, then and now I could not get it, and really could not care what the difference was anyway. The disease spread and, unfortunately, there was rather a lot about Physics I found tedious, boring and of no value.
This was nearly my undoing as far as University was concerned. At the end of the two years of being in the sixth form (June 1961, admittedly still only just 17), my results for Advanced Level were a B for Biology, a C for Chemistry, and a lowly E for Physics (a very bare pass). Not stellar, you may think, and the world agreed. I did not gain a place in London, Cambridge or St. Andrew’s. A decision was made for me to repeat 2nd year Sixth to improve my results.
I have always had a tendency to spread myself into a diversity of exciting activities, not focussed on the main game, and this continues to the present day. I would much rather be writing this book, remembering the past, visualizing episodes, and trying to synthesize the whole thing into a coherent narrative, than be writing the other book on the go at the moment. I am writing a book called (for the moment): “The Prevention of Suicide in Young People” which will bring together the thinking behind my 1999 Doctorate and all of the research which led up to it, and subsequently stemmed from it. I think it will be an important book. Given I have dedicated 30 years of my life to the subject, it had better be. But the current book is more fun!
So what were the distractions? Some we have begun to explore. They include ballroom dancing and my associated attempts to engage my life partner to be. Birchington Junior Drama Club was to underpin a lifetime of dabbling in theatre, and the excitement that comes from early rehearsal, later culminating in nights with an audience of the public out front, one night of which was formally adjudicated. But there were other distractions.
One distraction in first year sixth form related to my old problem with an ingrowing toenail. Probably compounded by poor attention to cutting the nail and keeping it in check and the grubbiness which comes from the limited hygiene of the time and my age and stage, there was recurrent infection. This at times limited my sports performance and, several other activities. And, of course, it was painful. Eventually, I was taken to a surgeon who believed the best way to solve the problem was to complete a Zadek’s operation. This was a removal of the sides of the nail, and the sides of the root of the nail, to stop the possibility of the nail curving into the soft skin on the side of the big toes, but also to stop regrowth.
The operation was done under a general anaesthetic at Margate Hospital (which was sad because I had wanted to watch), and after an overnight stay, I was transferred to the Royal Seabathing Hospital in Garlinge. This had been developed in the early part of the century for sufferers of Tuberculosis, and the sleeping arrangements included my being in bed on a veranda with a cage over my foot and leg to keep the bedclothes from pressuring the toe. It was late autumn, and the hospital was literally on the cliffs facing the sea. So the night air was somewhat fresh, and provided good reason not to throw the covers off in the middle of the night. I convalesced for nearly a week, fascinated by the routines of the place, the process of cleansing and redressing my paltry wound, and the banter of the nursing staff. It confirmed something about my future, in a fuzzy kind of way. However, it did take me out of school, and gave me an excuse to be poorly and of course unable to study. It later curtailed some of my rugby training, and PE.
The most annoying restriction was that I could not comfortably get the boot of a hired roller skate onto my foot for several weeks. Jan and her sister and friends had begun to attend roller-skating on Saturday mornings at Dreamland Amusement Park. It was one more opportunity to gain a new skill and show off in front of the girls, but for several weeks I fretted at home after my convalescence.
In second year sixth form, I became house captain of Searle’s House and a prefect. This gave ample excuse for distraction. Prefects had a special area set aside for relaxation during recess and lunch breaks, if we were not on some school duty looking out for miscreants. Another prefect was a young man called Fred Stamp, who had come from the secondary modern system to complete his A levels, having shown considerable interest and ability in subjects not necessarily well taught at his original school. Though he lived in Ramsgate, he did not have that many friends and, perhaps both being loners, we hit it off. He was a couple of years older than I was, and had a long-term girlfriend called Rosemary. They and Jan and I were to become firm friends.
Because he was older, and over 18, he claimed to smoke a pipe outside of school hours, and this gave him an air of sophistication. In addition, he claimed to drink pints of beer – something I had not yet attempted, and again this turned my young head. But the real action was in school. Fred played Bridge. My family had always played card games at home, and I believe both my parents had played some social bridge. I had learned to play all sorts of simple games, but found myself on a rapid curve of learning at lunchtimes in the prefects’ room, with sessions sometimes lingering into the afternoon. We also played for a time after school, until we were thrown out by the cleaners, or had some other commitment elsewhere. I was hooked. We became good partners, using an Acol system, and I would have happily not bothered with lessons and just focused all my time on Bridge. I was later to play Bridge at Medical School, played for King’s College Hospital and then London University. Later in Adelaide, I played with 3 psychiatrist colleagues once a month for a total of 14 years, and also had an eminent psychiatrist colleague with whom I played (and won) for many years, in a highly competitive group deriving from his training group at University, when one of the members was not available.
In retrospect, I wonder just how much I could have attained professionally, without this (and other) distractions. All an academic discussion; you are who you are, and you do what you do. But in those early years struggling to get sufficiently good grades to get to University, bridge was one of the distractions that kept me from studying. On the other hand, it was an activity that gave me (and still has the capacity to give me) great joy.
And Fred had one other surprise in store for me during that year. Of course we discussed our respective possible careers. Another piece of the bonding was that Fred wanted to become a doctor, too. In particular, he had aspirations to become a psychiatrist, and had begun to read psychiatric texts. I was fascinated, and eventually he lent me a book that would quite literally shape the person I was to become.

More later…

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