It’s been a little over ten years since I left Tonbridge and I’ve had four or five changes of career and direction in that time, covering areas as different as sailing, local politics and tech. But the pandemic was a clarifying experience and I’ve recently qualified as an addictions therapist working in private practice, and started a PhD in addiction psychology.
Precisely none of that was the plan on Skinners’ Day 2012. I had spent a highly successful, predominantly happy and rather highly strung five years at school, initially in Whitworth and later in Park House for sixth form after my family moved to the Lake District. I was leaving to read Medicine at New College, Oxford, having been Deputy Head of School and won the Paterson Sword for leadership in the CCF. I had a wealth of friends and was equal parts excited and stressed by the trajectory I had planned for myself.
I couldn’t possibly have told you at the time, but the ways I had already learned to cope with difficulty and distress made me something of a timebomb. I was, however, well aware that I enjoyed a drink.
By 2016, rather than pursuing clinical training on a naval bursary (which would have been “Plan A”), I had changed course, suspended my studies for a while, spent a month in rehab, returned to Oxford and then dropped out completely. I spent the summer at home, sober but in agony, suicidally depressed and unable to see any path that I wanted to take.
Thanks to the constant love and support of family and friends, good therapy and a healthy dollop of resilience (the three are interrelated!), things improved. But, still lacking some direction, in the first lockdown I enrolled on Master’s level training in addiction counselling at London South Bank University which specialises in that area.
Never having been shy of a challenge, I took a job in the substance misuse service at Pentonville prison as my training placement. A proper account of my time there would fill pages, but it was simultaneously immensely rewarding and draining work. The environment is worse than you are likely to be able to imagine and, leaving any politics to one side, in my view shockingly under-resourced and under-supported. The stories of most of the men I had the privilege to meet and work with were more sad than bad.
The prison population very closely reflects the various dimensions of deprivation and marginalisation in London and, while my own experience shows that the disadvantaged do not have a monopoly on addiction or suffering, these men had not had the resources I had to help them recover. Good outcomes didn’t come around all that often which could be dispiriting, and it was hard to measure impact or ‘success’. But complex problems tend to have complex solutions and sometimes ‘just’ keeping people safe week to week is enough.
I’m now working in private practice to allow for more flexible hours around my research. The role Tonbridge has played in all this is complicated and hard to unpick. On the surface, I’m sure that a determination and perseverance that was fostered there has served me well eventually. But, more significantly, it was also the first place that I learned to ask for help and lean on pastoral care beyond my immediate network. I had some panic attacks in my second year and the love and support I received planted some important seeds. It may not have seemed like much at the time – a few brief but honest conversations - but I have a huge amount to thank the Biddles in Whitworth and the school counsellor for.
I’ve always kept up an interest in academia and research, and the exceptional science teaching and critical thinking training I received at school have certainly enabled me to go on to PhD study. But more than my achievements, it’s what I learnt, or began to learn, about myself and in relationship to others that I value most about my time at Tonbridge.
Forster’s injunction to “only connect” is rightly one that school seems to emphasise now. But what’s often missed is that he is describing an internal as well as an external process of connection. It’s a very modern and a fundamentally therapeutic message about recognising and reconciling “the prose and the passion”, “the beast and the monk” in all of us - an essential part of any process of growth or development which applies far beyond the therapy room.
In the same passage he makes another appeal that captures the spirit of my type of work, which typically involves somewhat broken people: “Live in fragments no longer”, he asks.
That’s probably good advice for any of us, whatever our age or circumstances, but it’s harder than it sounds!
(WW 07-10; PH 10-12)