How Boarding School Messes With Your Ability to Love as an Adult

Deep within me was an intimate understanding that absence meant love.
24 February 2020, 4:47am

This article originally appeared on VICE AU.

I was nine. I still think about that. Nine. Not even double figures. It seems very strange now. But what’s even stranger is that _it—_the prospect of spending the next nine years of my life away from my mother, father and brother—made sense at the time. When you're that small, you don't think to question your parents' decisions. You don't even know that you can.

The night before I left for boarding school, mum gave me something she’d made as a farewell gift. She’d cut out photos of the four of us, created a collage, and framed it. "You can have it on your bedside table," she said. "In your—" she hesitated over the new word: "dormitory". That framed collage made me feel both worse and better, every time I looked at it. I kept it for years, before eventually throwing it out when the people in the frame no longer meant anything to me.

When I tell people I went to boarding school, which isn’t something I offer up lightly—although occasionally something will come over me and I’ll blurt it out in the same way you tell people you had a drinking problem, or shoplifted; like, this is the worst thing about me and you might as well know now—_something ripples across their faces, and I know what they’re thinking: _you must come from a really rich, really weird family.

And that’s sort of true, because we did end up weird, but it’s also wrong_._ We weren’t aristocracy-rich, or even rich-rich. But my father did work in riches, in private banking, which posted him to a different country every few years. I spent the first seven years of my life in South America, where the education wasn’t brilliant and there were high levels of crime. I saw the aftermath of a stabbing when I was six.

My parents prized education above everything, especially my mother, a bright but frustrated woman who grew up in post-war Poland and had no formal education beyond the age of 17. She and my father began to discuss, increasingly, the possibility of taking up one of the perks offered by my father’s job. The private bank offered to pay for private school education—and the boarding fees that came with it—for some of its employees' children. Mum thought the best education money could buy, not to mention avoiding the disruption of changing school every few years, was a perfect solution. She wanted me to have the schooling she never had. Plus my father had already been through the British boarding school system himself. Between the two of them, sending children away was either normal, or an amazing opportunity.

So the die was cast, and I was sent to a private school in a leafy home county in England where, and this was the killer, some of the pupils did not board at all, and went home to their parents every day.

Shortly after I started at boarding school, my parents moved to Italy on yet another posting. My brother went to a completely different boarding school in England, two hours away from me, which might as well have been another country too. I saw them at half-term and school holidays. Months would go by without seeing them.

For the first four or five years, I pined for my parents constantly. During the day, when I was at school and occupied, things weren’t so bad. But the moment the bell rang, and I went back to my boarding house, a horrible ache would open up in my stomach like a dark flower and stay there until I went to bed. Homesickness is an actual sickness, and hard to describe unless you also experienced it as a young child. It's as if someone has scooped your insides out, like gutting a pumpkin. That's the best I can do. You’re empty inside, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Luckily, I wasn’t alone. Lots of other girls in my boarding house felt the same way. We’d comfort each other with a hug, a joke, a stupid game. We got used to it. We watched television together on the weekends. The other thing I’d do was write letters to them. A lot of letters. Chatty, upbeat things mostly: I got an A for my essay. We had jelly for pudding.

Clever girl, they would write back. We went skiing at the weekend. Be good.

But all the letters in the world can't match having an actual parent around. By the time I was 15, a massive sinkhole had opened up between all four of us, and traversing it was impossible. My brother, unbeknownst to me, was badly bullied at his boarding school. He retreated from us completely, stopped speaking to me when I was 14, and never really started again. We are now estranged. I was suspended twice and expelled once. I tried to commit suicide when I was sixteen; an overdose, on the final night of the summer holidays.

Nothing changed. I had a few sessions of therapy and was sent straight back to school, while my parents continued to live their lives as largely childless expats in their small, exquisitely furnished rental apartment. To paraphrase The Smiths; it wasn’t my home, it was their home, and I was welcome no more.

And so it was that my understanding of love was shaped. Deep within me was an intimate understanding that lack of presence meant love; I knew lack’s contours better than I knew people. When the ones you love the most, and who profess to love you the most, are not actually in your life, how does that shape the way you love? That’s easy: you look for people who aren't there. Well done. Clever girl.

In my twenties and early thirties, if there was an emotionally unavailable, remote and aloof male within a ten-mile radius, I was all over him like a rash. The less they were there for me, the more I desired them. Love for me was about yearning from afar, not actual physical presence. And because you always end up embracing what's painful, I became a loner, working 12-hour days in a busy sales job. Which I hated, incidentally, because prioritising my happiness didn’t occur to me. I drank, I went to the gym, I shopped.

And that was all fine, until I met my husband. A totally normal man, from a totally normal background. State school, small town, happy family.

We have an eight-year-old daughter now. In many ways, we’re happy. But within me, stitched deep into my bones and muscles, is that near-decade of having love sliced away when I needed it most. And so my biggest challenge is living with everyday love. Learning to accept it, and give it, when that doesn’t always come naturally. I check out mentally. A lot. Long conversations around the dinner table make me uncomfortable, and I shut down if I’m unhappy. I bottle things up. If my daughter’s having a difficult time at school, I can become overwhelmed with anxiety, triggered by my own memories. It makes modelling a positive, reassuring approach for her difficult.

I sometimes find the impromptu, constant, urgent demands of family life hard to manage, because my time with my family was so meanly rationed. I retreat: to my work, to my phone, to my friends, to the undemanding banter of social media. My husband is so much better at spending vast swathes of time with my daughter than I am; it's not instinctive for me, not at all. I had to learn to survive on my own, and so being on my own is my comfort zone.

But all of this can be overcome. Not only is every day spent as a family a two-fingered salute to the past, there’s something about my daughter that always pulls me out of whatever black hole I try to crawl into. She gets me. She understands. She’s used to the fact that I sometimes go quiet, or just want to read, or need to be alone. She knows that when I come back, I’m recharged. Equally, "just do what you need to do," is the loveliest phrase my husband can ever say to me, and he says it a lot. When I feel that urge to escape the house, the family dynamic, to be alone, he doesn’t force me to stay. He lets me circle around that habit of isolation, and as soon as he does, I find I don’t need it as much.

My entire family was damaged by boarding school, but my daughter’s life will never be. If, as a grown-up, she looks back on her childhood and reflects that her mother was occasionally moody, sometimes a bit preoccupied, I have made my peace with that. In two days she will be nine, the age I was sent away. We’ll celebrate her birthday at home, together, with cake and a terrible film that makes us laugh, and cuddles on the sofa. And I will recognise that as the miracle it is.