Where The Swings Used To Be

I jotted this down as a note a few weeks ago on my phone. My husband and I had gone up to Gloucestershire to visit my parents for a few days, and on the first evening we took our dog out for a short walk before bed.

If you have read my previous post, you’ll know that my teenage years were a little difficult with school and the bullying that I encountered there. This feels like a good time to share this writing… not only as a follow on from that, but also because I’ve realised that going back to a place can stir up so many different memories, emotions and even behaviours. However, I have also realised that a ‘safe space’ doesn’t always have to be co-ordinates on a map, it can also be a person.

I am very lucky, that my safe person is my husband. I realised when I spent time in Gloucestershire a couple of days ago without him, that I felt very different to how I feel when I am at home in Somerset. He helps to ground me, here in the present. He reminds me – often without words – that I am safe, I am loved and that I am not a scared fourteen year old girl any more.

I still have a lot of healing to do – but I have been with him now for sixteen years. Sixteen years of visiting my parents and not once did I attempt to bring him to this place described below – it was too painful. However, as an adult, with him by my side, with the healing that I have started to do I felt brave enough. However, as you’ll read, it did also stir up a lot of emotion.

This is unedited.

I was going to take him there, to show him the spot where a smaller version of me would sit, and wait

I never knew what for, but I knew where I didn’t want to be, where I couldn’t be, who I couldn’t face, again

Two swings and a slide, bark upon the ground. It was like a little secret area but it wasn’t a secret at all.

My mum once told the woman from the school that I could be anywhere, that I knew those alleyways like the back of my hand… I didn’t know them tonight as a woman. I lost my way, doubled back.

It was gone, all of it. I looked at the house that now stood in its place, it was established.

Nearly 20 years on and I am not established.

Bricks and mortar don’t erase a place. They don’t erase the sadness that a place can hold.

I wonder if when they tuck their children up in bed, they know that a girl once sat in this place because she didn’t know where else to go.

That she was so lost, just 5 minutes from home.

That in 20 years she would hold her husbands hand as she looked for that place, the place that is so vivid in her mind and find that it was long gone.

Just another house, in another cul de sac.

But one full of memories.


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The Impact of Bullying

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?

No…

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.

Image credit: The Mighty

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! 🐶

Original image credit: Paola Chaaya on Unsplash

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The Anger Vortex

adrien-converse-505736-unsplash

I have a lot of thoughts buzzing around my head today after yesterdays therapy session and subsequent conversations with friends.

The therapy session was a really hard one – we talked a lot about anger, and my reactions to experiencing and observing it. It’s an emotion I struggle with, especially towards certain people and when I do feel anger it doesn’t really go anywhere, I kind of numb it down or find myself excusing other people’s behaviour. It’s something that I really need to try and work hard on because those feelings must go somewhere, and my therapist even suggested that it could result in feelings of depression and anxiety, so, yay! I bought myself a copy of Bessel van der Kolk’s ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ on my way home, so hopefully this will help me to see what happens to those emotions and encourage me to express myself more freely.

We also spoke about my issues surrounding smallness and safety – this is one for a much bigger writing and one that I don’t feel emotionally ready to broach just yet. But it was a very difficult conversation because it’s again something that there is no real, clear cut, answer to. These are behaviours and ways of thinking that have been ingrained over the last 34 years, they are impossible to resolve within 16 hours of therapy. They run deeper; I just need to arm myself with the tools within these sessions to be brave enough to face them head on…

There was also talk of the bullying I experienced at school – this is where things become really difficult for me because I don’t remember a lot of it, I remember certain incidents, certain insults, certain days, but I don’t remember anything tangible. My mind has done that thing of blacking out a lot of things in order to protect itself but my body, my reactions, my deeply ingrained thought processes – remember. I remember feeling scared for years on end, of feeling small and worthless and like every day was a struggle. I remember feelings of humiliation, of ‘not being good enough’, of wanting to hide and to shut everything off. I remember very vividly the first time I thought killing myself was the only way out, I was 14.

A month into my therapy sessions with my current therapist, we touched briefly on this period of my life and very gently he told me that what I experienced day, after day, after day was traumatic, he had brought the word ‘trauma’ into the room and no-one; no therapist, no doctor, no teacher and no parent had ever used that word before. But it was like suddenly, he opened up this door… I have written sentences before like ‘I was bullied, but most kids are bullied at some point’, that dismisses pain, and I was doing that to myself – repeatedly. I was bullied, yeah, big deal, shrug it off. But no, that type of dismissal needs to end in order to allow recovery to begin. What my therapist did by bringing that word into our sessions was to validate my pain, to put a reason behind why I struggle with the things I do – trauma is massive, and the impact it has on a person’s life is immeasurable.

As my session was wrapping up yesterday, he asked me for the name of the worst of the bullies, and then he asked me “Are you angry at her?”

And I replied honestly, “No.”

Because I’m not, I explained that as an adult I can understand that when children bully other children it is because they need to feel superior – and this can come from a place of deep inferiority and pain.

He smiled. “But you weren’t an adult when she bullied you; you were a child, experiencing your own pain…”

And I realised he was right, even in my worst moments of pain – in child and adulthood, I have never had the desire to make someone else feel bad. In fact, I swing rather too far the other way if anything. But still, the anger isn’t there, not really, it’s more sadness for the things she took from me – the confidence, the carefree childhood, the good grades that I still have to make explanations and allowances for in every job application I make. I suppose the one thing that does cause me the most distress is knowing she is a mother now. Not because of the person she is – I’m sure she’s a completely different person as an adult. But because that feels like the cruellest theft of all; if I didn’t have to deal with all of this trauma, if I hadn’t been fighting depression and anxiety since I left school, if I didn’t need medication to get me through the day for years on end then maybe I would be a mother now too.

Maybe.

But then maybe I wouldn’t be me, as I am now. Maybe if I hadn’t wanted to leave my home town and those memories so badly, I wouldn’t have met my husband. I wouldn’t have met my closest friends or been a version of a mother to our rag-tag collection of adopted dogs. Maybe I wouldn’t have developed the compassion I have; maybe I wouldn’t have found comfort in writing or found a sanctuary in nature, maybe I would be a completely different person.

Two days ago I replied to a girl on Twitter, someone I don’t know. She had posted that she was in her mid-twenties and she felt like depression had stolen her life. She wasn’t married, she had no kids, she was just trying to survive – and I told her that honestly, it doesn’t matter. Those things will come, and when they do she will have a much better understanding of herself and that will serve her and her future family well in the long run. I meant it; I meant every word because that is what I tell myself.

But yesterday… before therapy, I was angry. Not at a person, but at depression itself. At what it takes from us, at how it affects things you wouldn’t even consider. I was frustrated at my part-time hours, my low income and my levels of exhaustion. I was angry at myself because I was feeling agitated by the sound of my husband eating his lunch, I was annoyed that on my day off I had to spend four and a half hours of that getting the bus and going to therapy – a) because my anxiety prevents me from even driving and b) because as much as I like my therapist I would rather spend my days off doing something else – but mostly, I was so pissed off that the people this illness affects are some of the kindest, gentlest, most creative, sensitive and wonderful people I have ever met. Suddenly, all of it seemed so very, very unfair.

But that anger didn’t go anywhere.

So, things are linked, behaviours are repeated and ingrained, feelings feed off of each other and thoughts are constantly expanding and becoming deeper.  When I got home last night I was tearful, and exhausted, but I think I was also one step further on in my recovery. I am learning all the time, I feel like I am picking up chapters of a book but sometimes they are out of sequence and make no sense, but one day they just might – and one day, the comfort that I offered to that girl on Twitter will ring true for me too. Until then I suppose it is a matter of keeping on with the reading, the talking and learning how to be kind to myself, which is sometimes the hardest thing of all to do.

Until next time my loves Xx

Image credit: Adrien Converse on Unsplash

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