When I was just a little tot, my family moved into a church building. It wasn’t a typical church – no steeple, or anything like that. It was in fact the old offices of the local electricity board and it looked like a building that wouldn’t seem out of place in soviet Russia.
It was the late eighties – the rooms were big, the floors covered in carpet tiles. Large, corporate, geometric patterns were on the wallpaper and red handrails adorned the main central staircase. Our flat was at the far end of the building, upstairs. I must have been the only child at school that at times wished for a smaller bedroom. But it was our home and my parents made it feel just like that.
Throughout infant and junior school, I don’t recall an awful lot of bullying. I was quiet, but I wasn’t all that different to the other kids. I had a close friend who I had gone to playgroup with and we remained friends throughout those years. I remember not being overly confident when it came to school plays and wanting to be at home rather than at school – but I think that is just the mark of the sensitive, introverted child that I was.
When I moved to senior school though, something shifted. The school was much closer to our home in the church and it wasn’t a nice area. The church itself was well-placed, my parents helped so many people in the local community with food banks, Christmas dinners and just having a ‘safe’ place to go to, at any time. The church building also housed a toddler group, playgroup and café. Local groups met there for woodwork, music, keep fit… it was the community hub that the community needed.
Suddenly though, to my new peers, I was different. Not only was I quiet and sensitive, I also lived in a church and this made me stand out. My friend from junior school moved up to senior school with me, and I though all would be well – we’d stick together, wouldn’t we?
We stayed within the same friendship group, but it wasn’t a healthy one. There was a definite shift in dynamics once we had paired up with two other girls and within a short space of time this caused a definite split between the four of us. It has only been in the last six months in therapy that I have been able to look at this group of the four of us – which did merge into six – objectively. Now I can see the split, 3 girls who had the power and 3 that didn’t.
I don’t know how it happened, not really. There weren’t vast differences between us in the areas that you would think would cause such a drastic change, but once it had happened it was very hard to get back on an even keel. I tried making other friends, but I was quiet and shy and over time my self-esteem took a hefty whack. Who would want to be friends with me? Besides, the moods of these three girls (one in particular) would change from day to day. On Monday I may be left out of everything, called a witch in front of the rest of the class whilst the teacher was out of the room, forced to hand over parts of my lunch, or be told that I wasn’t good enough, pretty enough or clever enough to be part of the group… but then, on Tuesday they could be the best friends that one could wish for.
In adulthood, this is seen as coercive and controlling behaviour, it is recognised very clearly as abuse.
In childhood, its playground banter.
For 5 years, I had this. Day in, day out. It carried on even when our family moved from the church and into a normal house. I didn’t know if I was going into school to see my friends or my tormentors. I got even quieter, I literally and metaphorically, shrunk. I told my parents, after much deliberation and the main bully was brought in from PE to sit in the deputy heads office and apologise… she told me, my parents and the school staff that it was only a joke, that none of it was serious and she couldn’t understand why I was hurt by it. Nothing was done and afterwards she quietly ramped it all up; she was the victim now, someone had told tales on her and I was the tormentor.
I stopped eating normal sized meals for a girl my age and size, how could I eat when my stomach was in knots? I didn’t want to do anything on the weekends or with my family because I knew that if I thought about it whilst at school it would make me want to cry. I was terrified of not only going to school but also going out in my local area, I started to have panic attacks and my chest hurt constantly from the anxiety. I was admitted to hospital for tests to find out what was wrong with me – it was deemed by the school and by doctors that I had the problem. I saw a child psychologist who would sit and talk to my parents afterwards whilst I tried to read a book in the waiting room. But what could I tell them? I had seen and experienced what happened when she was pulled up on her behaviour and I couldn’t go through that, not again…
Why am I telling you this? Its not for pity, hundreds of thousands of children get bullied at school every year and although specific in its details, my experience is not vastly different from any other. I’m telling you this because I am now 34, I still have blackouts in my memory of school – whole years that I cannot piece together. Since leaving school, I have suffered with anxiety, depression, agoraphobia, nightmares and body dysmorphic disorder which has in turn led to bouts of bulimia and anorexia. I have had various therapies, I have engaged in promiscuous behaviour in order to validate my self-worth, I have found it hard to trust people and I have abandonment issues. I also have Fibromyalgia – which, the causes of which are generally pretty much unknown, but it is thought that the symptoms occur when we have spent vast amounts of time in a ‘fight or flight’ situation.
The effects of bullying do not stop once a child leaves school. The effects of sustained bullying can impact whole lives. I do not have a career because of my mental health, and I do not have children either, even though I have dreamed of being a mother for as long as I can remember.
It is only this year – 20 years after I went through these experiences that I recognised, through therapy, that what I had endured constituted trauma. I did not feel safe for years. I wanted to hide and make myself invisible in order the stop the attacks for years. I did not know what to expect every single day for years. I hid my pain from my parents because I couldn’t see the answers or the point in telling them the details for years. I wanted to do anything to make it stop, including making myself disappear for years.
And then, once I was out of there and away from them, I tried to forget it and move on with my life like any normal person would, for decades.
But it doesn’t work like that. Things have to be dealt with, we cannot just put a lid on it all and expect it to go away. I had been led to believe that my thoughts, feelings and emotions weren’t valid. The norm, for me, was not telling anyone when I was experiencing mental anguish and so therefore when I did get upset, or angry, or depressed, I automatically did not tell anyone and I deemed that normal. I lost my voice and my expression – the only way I had of expressing myself was through writing, and even then I didn’t – and still don’t – want to upset anyone that read it.
I had learnt that if I made myself small, I was ‘safe’. This was founded on nothing, but the wish to disappear but it is still something I aspire to now. It has led to dangerous relationships and damaging friendships with people within the BDSM community where ‘little’ is very often seen as something to aspire to, but not something that will always keep you safe. It has affected my body image, and made me lose even more of my voice and the confidence to express it.
I’ll say it again: The effects of bullying do not stop when a child leaves school.
The voice of the main bully has been replaced with my own; there will be days when the not good enough, pretty enough or clever enough mantra will repeat in my head, in my own voice and I can find all the evidence needed to back those claims up. It becomes very hard to argue against yourself when you have a lifetime of negative associations tied into those claims.
We would be naïve here if we thought that bullying was contained to classrooms and playing fields. It doesn’t just happen to children. It happens to adults too, in workplaces and friendship groups. By colleagues, managers, family members and so-called friends. I have recently left a role where my new manager was a textbook bully – and gaslighter at that. On Friday night, I consoled my colleague who has also just resigned from his management and over the weekend I have felt lost, unheard, sad, angry (I think), unmotivated and very, very low – but I could not put my finger on why.
It was only last night whilst washing up that it came to me – this man, this manager had triggered emotions within me that were felt 20 years ago. Over the last few weeks I have been in fight mode – I quit, I filled out my exit interview form (myself, he didn’t even want my voice to be heard on that), I spoke to friends about it, I felt relieved when my unemployment commenced because I wasn’t in that situation anymore and for a couple of weeks I saw friends, did yoga, made jam, applied for jobs…. all fine and dandy. Until, until I heard about a conversation on Friday where he invalidated my colleague and in invalidating my colleague, he also invalidated the effects of the bullying that led me to quit my job.
He had done exactly what my school bully had done in the deputy heads office all those years ago.
One more time, for those that haven’t quite understood: The effects of bullying do not stop when a child leaves school.
There is a light though, a chink of positivity within all of this – I know how important compassion, inclusivity and validation are. I will never, ever, knowingly exclude someone. I believe firmly in equality and acceptance I will strive to treat everyone the same – regardless of background, gender, wealth, disability or appearance. We all have unique gifts to offer, whether we are quiet or loud or somewhere in between, our voices matter – each and every one of them. I am trying, really trying, with the help of wonderful friends, my husband and my family to realise that I can include myself in that, but at times it is hard. Unpicking decades of ingrained beliefs doesn’t come easy…
If you suspect your child is being bullied, or is the bully then Bulling UK have some wonderful resources that may help.
If you are being bullied, then Relate has some great advice on their website and also offer a confidential chat service.
If you are living with the effects of trauma and its really hard today, then some grounding techniques may help or even some yoga designed with trauma in mind. I did this routine earlier today and it centred around breathing exercises and feeling safe within your body. I can highly recommend it – also, the dog is super cute! 🐶
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