I first wrote this five years ago, and I share it every year during Anti-Bullying Week. I could write something else, but it took some emotional energy to write the first time and I’m not really up for putting myself through it again.
Let’s not put up with anyone being treated like this, whether at school, in the workplace or within politics. It’s important that anyone in any sort of leadership role in any organisation has the skills to recognise and intervene to stop bullying and support those affected by it. It casts a very long shadow and destroys lives. Its costs are massive in terms of wellbeing. Also, if you are bothered about the money and the economy, happier people are more productive. It’s entirely preventable and we should do all we can to eradicate it.
I’ve been procrastinating like anything to avoid writing this post because although I know the events I’m going to describe took place a long time ago, they cast a long shadow. Their stranglehold on my life is long gone, but the memories are not. I might have teased my sister for posting something inane on my Facebook wall a while ago when she has important work she needs to do, but how would I know if I hadn’t similarly been wasting time.
Anyway, I’ve been thinking about writing this post for a very long time, but now is probably the right time. When Stephen wrote so movingly about how his experiences of homophobic bullying had almost led him to the brink of suicide, I thought about telling my story too. His account of standing on the breakwater as a 17 year old brought vividly to my mind those dark occasions I’d stood far above the sea and contemplated jumping as a young teenager myself.I wasn’t bullied for homophobic reasons. In fact, it was made very clear to me that no man, woman or even beast would ever find me attractive.
The bullying started in earnest when I went to secondary school. I was in a very dark place as a 12 year old. This isn’t the right place to explain why but when I experienced those feelings again in later life, the doctor called it Depression. To add to that, we’d moved so I was far away from the emotional bedrocks my wonderful grannies provided. I was vulnerable, alone and, let’s be honest, not very likeable. I certainly didn’t like myself much anyway.
During the first three years of high school, I was primarily known by two names, neither of which had been given to me by my parents. In English one day in first year, we were taking it in turns to read out a scene from a play. I couldn’t for the life of me tell you what it was but as fate would have it, the line I had to read was “I want a yak.” Quick as a flash, the boy in front of me yelled out “I always thought you were one……” Cue the entire class, including the teacher, to collapse in laughter. That spread like wildfire, and before long it became my name to the entire pupil body.
If we’d had Google images then, I might have discovered pretty quickly that yaks are really kind of cute, but I never really saw it that way at the time and I really don’t think that the name was an affectionate one.
The other name came from the fact that, yes, I do have weird eyes. For that reason, people would hiss like a cat when they saw me coming, and spit out “Cat’s Eyes” as I passed.
I’m sure that doesn’t sound like much, but when you hear one or other of those things round every corner every day, you do feel less than human.
I became adept at varying my route to and from school to try to avoid the bullies who were there to pull my hair, or steal my stuff or point, or laugh, or kick or trip me up. They liked to mix it up a bit so I never really knew what I was walking into. I know it’s all quite low level, but it wore me down. I lived in perpetual fear and carrying that around everywhere was exhausting
And then there was the damage or loss to property. One day I’d hung a blue jacket on the back of my seat. By the end of the lesson, it was covered in dark ink splodges. Despite the girl behind’s fingers being covered in ink, the school could do nothing because nobody had seen her do it.
It seemed at times like most of the teachers turned a blind eye to what was going on. Sometimes, it even felt like they were joining in. I remember lining up at the end of a class one day and one person called me a name. The teacher then repeated that name at me, legitimising what the bully had said, giving them a real boost and making me feel like there really was nobody who thought I was any good whatsoever.
I dealt with it by escaping into a bit of a dream world, from which some of my friends today would say I am yet to fully emerge, given my potential for being utterly scatty and unobservant. I had to wake up every morning though – and the first sensation was always fear induced nausea, before I even opened my eyes, as I wondered what new blow this day would bring. It was like a battle was going on inside me – most of me felt that I was completely worthless and deserved all I got, while there was a tiny seed of entirely irrational optimism which kept me going and ultimately held me back from a messy end on the rocks.
Things changed a bit in third year. I made some really good friends. If it hadn’t been for Karen, Diana, Angie and two Morags, I probably would have sunk into an irretrievable despair. Sure, people still did the Yak and Cat’s Eyes things round a fair few corners, but it became more bearable when I had people who affectionately thought I was a bit mad but put up with me anyway.
The long term effects, though , stayed with me for a good 15 years. I wonder if things would have been different if I’d had better support at school. If there had been intervention to both deal with the bullies and give me the therapy I needed to develop healthier coping strategies. As it is, I do feel that my confidence was affected to the extent that my future career prospects were adversely affected. I’m 43 years old, and, to be honest, although I’ve worked for a long time, I’ve not had a proper career.
As it turned out, it wasn’t until a severe bout of Depression in my late 20s that I was given the help and therapy I needed to come to terms with the effects of the bullying.
To anyone going through this today, I’d say that first of all, have hope. I couldn’t have predicted when I was 13 that 30 years later, I’d have a happy life, with the best son ever and a long marriage to a good and loving man and a lot of longstanding, truly fabulous friends. Seek out the help that’s available, that I never had. There’s a whole list available here on the Anti-Bullying Alliance website if you can’t get support from teachers or family.
I really want the Coalition to get to grips with this issue, to come up with a strategy which ensures that children don’t suffer from violence and harassment which robs them not just of their school days but their future wellbeing and potential too. That’s why things like Anti-Bullying Week are so important.