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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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
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
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
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! 🐶