Why Lockdown Might Be Difficult for Ex-Boarders
Boarding school survivors may find that the experience of lockdown reminds them of a difficult time in their childhood: being isolated from loved ones, coping with limited privacy and dealing with uncertainty
Therapist Alison Dale, who is also an ex-boarder, explores further why lockdown may be reminiscent of boarding school
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Right now we are all in lockdown and having to come to terms with social distancing and isolation. In March, government regulations were suddenly imposed on us all in order to control the spread of infection from Covid-19. For me, the shock I felt at lockdown was reminiscent of feelings I had had on my first day at boarding school as a shy 11 year old.
I am both a boarding school “survivor” (1) and a psychodynamic psychotherapist. Some of my clients went to boarding school or spent time in a care home. I began to wonder, would an individual's experiences of boarding school make lockdown harder or easier to cope with?
The boarding school experience
Some young people enjoy their time at boarding school, make lasting friendships and relishing the independence. Indeed, for some, being a boarder can be a welcome escape from a difficult home life. However, a lot find it traumatic. Research shows psychological health can be impaired by the untimely separation from parents/carers at a time when the young person needs secure attachments to help them develop a confident and stable sense of self. Later in life, having missed out on this “secure base” (3), ex-boarders often have difficulty in trusting others and in enjoying intimacy.
Many boarders, in their first days at boarding school, may not understand what is happening to them. The new boarder is faced with a strange environment. The familiar has disappeared (family pets; siblings) to be replaced at school by strict routines and compulsory group activities which now dominate the young person's life from early morning to 'lights out' at night
Some routines are useful, helping the young person feel safe: you always know what is coming next. But too strict an adherence to rigid schedules can stifle spontaneity and creativity. The young person may subsequently find it more difficult to experiment and find his/her own individual sense of self as he/she matures
Ironically, and maybe out of habit, a lot of boarders continue to like routines in their adult life. On the plus side, when faced with life's uncertainties, establishing a routine helps us all to feel more in control. Perhaps for a young person feeling scared and away from home for the first time, having to stick to a routine at school was a boon. A strategy of 'don’t think too much, just obey the rules' was the best thing to do in order to get by.
However, on the negative side, such a strategy conveniently teaches us how to avoid living with uncertainty. We don’t allow ourselves to even think about it. But if we are to live life to the full we must be open to new experiences and be able to think about these, regardless of whether they are happy or sad. 'Doing' not 'thinking' is perhaps not the definer of resilience we were led to believe when we were at school.
In this time of lockdown, we are all living with huge amounts of uncertainty and unknowns. Despite the overload of data/information available to us about the virus, we are still very much in the dark about what the future holds.
In the early days of lockdown, my normal routines were upended. Instead, government diktats about my behaviour were imposed on me, suddenly, and without consultation. I was told I couldn’t go to work; could only go outside my house under certain conditions….I had to ask myself, is this how I felt when I arrived at my boarding school for the very first time? Yes, it did feel strangely familiar, the lack of choice; the requirement to give up a lot that was uniquely important to me.
Interestingly, I flailed around for a few days and then found myself creating my own substitute routines for my 'new' life in lockdown. Much as I had felt at boarding school, I was glad of a routine. Perhaps it pushed me back into old ways of protecting myself. The routine made me feel more in control of a situation which deep down, I knew, was not at all in my control
Resilience and self-sufficiency in boarding school survivors
Often ex-boarders can be loners, good in their own company. Being unable to see or hug friends or family at this time might not then be experienced as too much of a hardship. But for others the experience of isolating in lockdown might reignite feelings of sadness and loss.
As already noted, for many ex-boarders, having the confidence to start and develop trusting relationships may be impaired because of experiences associated with going away to school. So, for some, becoming a loner might be easier than relating to others and having to deal with all the messy and confusing feelings associated with that.
The young person at boarding school needs to quickly adapt to a strange and often frightening environment. He/she falls back on their own resources as that is all they have. There is no calming presence of the parent/carer or sibling to help soothe anxieties
Schaverien (2) says boarders often take on the guise of extreme self-sufficiency as a way to deal with this assault on the developing self. This is an outward appearance of strength, often devoid of feelings, which helps the young person get through in times of adversity but hides a more vulnerable part beneath. Both thinking and feeling become dangerous. Feelings might lead to an overwhelming sense of sadness or loss, (or even guilt – some children wonder what was so wrong with them they had to be banished from the family home?). Such feelings cannot be processed and so instead, are shut down. So a split is formed, much like the 'false' and 'true' self Winnicott (4) talked about. This can lead to difficulties in later life when the individual finds it hard to show their own inner “true” selves, confide in others and display vulnerability.
Ironically, this self-sufficiency might make it easier for ex boarders to deal with lockdown. Those who are used to 'getting on with it' might identify more with the 'just carry on, you'll get through it' mentality evoked in recent government slogans. However, this can often be a false sense of security: there is still anxiety underneath.
This type of hyper self-sufficiency can be seen in the consulting room. The client might present with little affect, or perhaps with an exaggerated stoicism as they describe their life under lockdown. But might this be a defence, a cover for anxieties? If sensitively explored with the therapist, this could lead the client to an examination of previously unconscious fears linked to past painful experiences.
Coping with a lack of privacy
My clients and I have adjusted reasonably to virtual therapy sessions. However, many of my clients have noted how hard it has been to find a private space to talk, uninterrupted by family members. Others fear our sessions might be overheard by flatmates. Memories of waiting in line to phone home might come up. How embarrassing to break down in tears when talking to your mum, only to be witnessed by other pupils and possibly made fun of.
When I was away at my boarding school visits from parents/carers took place for one day every three weeks. There were no telephone calls in those days so the feeling of loss of contact with my family was palpable to me.
It seems to me that continuing to offer therapy somehow during lockdown, by phone or virtually, when face-to-face is not possible, is crucial. For all clients, the need to maintain the relationship and continuity with the therapist, a reliable and constant figure, is important. Perhaps this is even more the case for those ex boarders who are not used to having private, reflective space or indeed, knowing they can take it when it is offered
In these uncertain times, viewing each other through the computer screen hardly substitutes for both of us simultaneously inhabiting the physical space of my consulting room. However, I believe it can still be experienced as a powerful symbol in which the space can continue to be offered by the therapist and the client can continue to take this space and thus feel contained and held.
- Duffell, N (2000) The Making of Them: The British Attitude to Children and the Boarding School System, Lone Arrow Press
- Schaverien, J. (2011). Boarding School Syndrome: Broken Attachments A Hidden Trauma. Brit. J. Psychother., 27(2):138-155
- Holmes, J (2001) The Search for the secure base: Attachment theory and psychotherapy. Routledge
- Winnicott, D.W. (1960). The Theory of the Parent-Infant Relationship. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 41:585-595.