I know a young man who had it all. Tall, blond, handsome in a Brad Pitt/Robert Pattinson way and talented. He passed his 11+ with ease and went to one of the country’s finest Grammar schools where he cruised through his GCSEs and excelled at sport, playing rugby and cricket at the highest level. Being a modest almost shy boy he didn’t tell many, if any, that his favourite pastimes were badminton – he’d played for the same club since his mother, a county player in her youth, had introduced him aged 5 – and playing the piano. Of course, he did both with ease, grace and to a very high, sometimes breathtaking standard.
He was a lucky sod too. His parents loved to take holidays on small islands. Islands like Mauritius, Antigua and Barbados. His grandfather owned a sailing boat. He got invited to sail at Cowes and drive insanely fast boats well before he could drive a car. He visited Paris, Rome, Barcelona and Copenhagen. All of this he enjoyed but never took for granted and you would never know about unless it was forced out of him in conversation. You see he was above all a nice quiet, shy-ish, boy, gifted yet modest: a grandmother’s delight, his parents’ joy.
He is my eldest son. He is 17 and all this has gone.
For reasons that are complex – they always are – my son found himself the subject of persistent bullying earlier this year. A small group of boys at school, young men I suppose, found a weakness and worked at it with terrifying speed and callous disregard for the effect it was having on him. These boys’ actions somehow gave licence to others to pitch in and act as an echo that haunted my son at times when he thought he was clear of his tormentors. And so, quickly and surely, the boy who wouldn’t say boo to a goose didn’t say boo to these geese and suffered the consequences.
The result now is that the perpetrators have had their wrists slapped and my son has crumpled. His soul has been sucked from him and he has withdrawn from life. He missed so much of the last term that his ability to take his AS levels is now in serious doubt. His mind is so mangled that he hasn’t slept properly in months and is fighting a growing dependency on sleeping pills. Doctors are referring him to counsellors; counsellors are referring him to doctors. His small circle of friends is confused and inexperienced and unable to provide the mature support he needs. His exhaustion has put the rest of his life on hold as he withdraws from one club, team, sporting commitment after another which in turn creates another sort of pain: he hates to let people down.
He still plays the piano. Perhaps unsurprisingly he plays with an intensity that means his wonderful elegant style now has an emotional depth which can bring on the tears. It is music to move the heart.
The effect all this has had on his mother is dreadful. She is like a she-Wolf with a wounded cub, lashing out at the attackers and wanting to nurse her baby at the same time; confused, angry, afraid and dangerous. Her energy is waning too. “Worried sick” is a term we all use but seeing someone who is actually so worried they become ill is shocking. Of course, she knows that she can’t show any weakness in front of him so my role, among many, is to be the audience for her version of ‘night-terrors’.
She and I share stories of the days we spend at home or in offices when we can hardly concentrate, when our eyes are fully loaded with tears, when all we want to do is crawl away and scream or cry or both. Her baby, my son, our child is suffering a pain that we cannot kiss better, or cure with Calpol or get the nice nurse in A&E to bandage. We feel helpless.
Not everything is awful.
My youngest son, cheese to his brother’s chalk, has responded to our openness about his brother’s situation by being rock solid in his approach to life, the universe and everything. Helpful, cheery and every so often just plain thoughtful he is a joy, a total joy to have around. This is not callous cheeriness, this is a knowing, wise even, support. He too is special. Although his jokes are sometimes reason enough to reintroduce capital punishment.
The school has been good in responding to the situation. The Head of Year has been available, sympathetic and decisive in his actions. The master in charge of the examinations has been outstanding in the clarity of his explanations about the options available to us.
Friends and family have been generous with their time and practical in their support and advice.
No one wants to see our boy come out of this the loser.
“Wow! Talented-privileged-middle-class-kid-has-rough-time-at-school-and-feels-a-bit-sorry-for-himself. Well boo hoo.” I can hear it all now. And my thoughtful, honest, mature response? Screw you. This is a parent-child thing not a class, money or privilege thing. This is about how you nurture, love and care for your children with every fibre of your body, every day of their lives. This is about finding reserves of emotional strength that we never knew we had or would need to have. This is about realising that your baby is not a baby but a young adult and does need an approach that is different from the Calpol days. This is a deep long hard fight to make sure that this precious child still has what you have worked so long and so hard for – every opportunity to make the most of what he has. No parent should deny that. So screw you.
And underneath all my bottled up anger is the awful, terrible realisation that my own lifetime struggle with life-threatening depression is very probably a contributing, inherited, factor in my sons collapse. I feel connected, I feel responsible somehow.
And that is something I can’t bring myself to talk about with my wife. I can’t talk about it with anyone because this isn’t about me it’s about him. But it gnaws away at me, a taunting thought, teasing me, testing me, wanting me to respond with my own darkness. So far I have resisted. Not once have I shown any weakness, no sign that my own demons are dancing on my guilt. I cannot give in but, by God, the strength I have to find to control this is sometimes more than you can imagine. But I cannot talk about this. It is only, can only, must only be about him: my son. A young man who had it all.
And that is why I have written this.