Panic boy

The hands of a man playing the piano
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Piano boy

When I was eleven years old, I became obsessed with the piano. At the time, my best friend was taking lessons and I was captivated by his ability to play. Eager to learn myself, I asked my mother to enroll me with my friend’s tutor. To my surprise and delight, she agreed! However, there was one complication. I was living with my friend’s family, that year. Whilst he was allowed to practice on his grandmother’s beautiful old upright, I wasn’t. So, it was arranged that I would practice at a neighbour’s, which I did with enthusiasm! That poor household. Twice a week, I played the same little repertoire over and over: the mundane beginner pieces, the endless repetitive scales… How relieved they must have been when I finally got my own piano!

Progress boy

When the time came for the Royal Schools of Music examination, my tutor was confident that I would do well. Being a perfectionist, I was determined not to disappoint her. Thinking back on this, I never told my parents about my progress, chiefly because they never asked—and yet my tutor at the time was one of my mother’s oldest friends! Perhaps she didn’t ask because she learnt from my tutor, but I always assumed she wasn’t all that interested. As far as I was aware, her only involvement was buying my piano and paying for lessons. As for my alcoholic stepfather, he saw my talent as a source of entertainment for him and his drinking friends. Be that as it may, concerning my first examination, I had every reason to be confident in my ability to do well and it makes what follows all the more puzzling!

Panic boy

On the morning of the examination, I was overcome with misgivings. I experienced what I now think was a panic attack. It was without a doubt the most nervous I have ever been in my entire life. I was shaking, pacing about the house, dreading what was to come. When my mother told me to calm down, I burst into tears! In an effort to bring me to my senses, she instructed my stepfather to take me around the house and “surprise” me with an unexpected slap in the face! Unbeknownst to them, I overheard this exchange. My young mind was horrified! I was too immature to realise what was happening inside me, but subconsciously I must have wondered why my parents didn’t take the time to find out why I was stressed, why they were so dismissive of my feelings, why they made me feel like there was something wrong with me. By the time my stepfather walked me to the back of the house, I had collected myself, firm in my resolution never to lose it again. There was no need for a “surprise”.

Powerless boy

I passed the examination. But, that morning stayed with me. At my most defenseless, my mother had neither the instinct nor the capacity to reassure or comfort me. Her cruel and unsympathetic response left me feeling helpless, unprotected and worthless. Incidents like that litter the landscape of my childhood. My stepfather, an alcoholic for most of my life (now recovered), used to make me play the piano when he brought his drunk friends home. I cannot express how humiliating that was to me. My regard for him already hanging by a thread, these situations compounded my anger and resentment towards him. I came to despise him. Had he slapped me in the face that morning, he would not have violated me more than he did by all the insidious ways in which he (and my mother) damaged me psychologically.

Pearl boy

There has always been a distance between my parents and I. So much bitterness has built up in me towards them. It’s taken a long time to come to a place of forgiveness. Now that I am older, I am able to talk to them about how I experienced my childhood. I can allow myself to feel the anger and pain I suppressed, back then. It’s not easy to realise that there’s nothing wrong with you when you’re that young and in the thick of a dysfunctional family. But understanding and coming to grips with what happened to you, goes a long way towards healing the pain of a broken upbringing. It requires a lot of introspection and it’s exhausting, but at some point, it dawns on you: the people who treated you badly were the unworthy ones, not you. You were the pearl, they were the swine.


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