I’ve written about bullying before. I’ve spent thousands of hours thinking about bullying and, in particular, my experience with bullying. Last night, I watched Jesy Nelson’s documentary Odd One Out. I was struck by how profoundly emotional and moving it was; how many home truths it hits.
Because it’s true: once someone has been bullied, they will never, ever be the same again. It is taking a part of them that just can’t be given back. It can’t be rebuilt. It can’t be made better.
It’s the silly things. I will never cut my hair short. Everything I say is filtered. I don’t trust people in the same way. I find it hard to accept that people are my friends because they like me. For a long time, I struggled to understand that Kate isn’t an inherently bad, weird person. Sometimes I felt that I wasn’t a complete person at all.
I have had two lives. The first life stopped in September 2003. The first life was about being outgoing and gregarious; about feeling loved and safe. I got a purple jumper with a star on it for my tenth birthday and wore it until it fell apart; I didn’t care about my horrendously crooked teeth, or that I had to have braces when I was eight. I didn’t really care that I had tousled, short hair because – even if people mistook me for a boy occasionally – I knew myself. I knew who I was.
The second life began when the first one shattered. My overriding memory of the first chunk of that time is of feeling dirty, of an uncleanliness that wouldn’t go away. Looking back, that feeling was the germination of self-disgust. I stopped going out; stopped loving life; couldn’t stand at a bus stop by myself; couldn’t make myself eat because I felt constantly sick (long before the eating disorder took hold).
My life changed overnight. There was nothing wrong with me – although as I type that, I’m wondering whether I am confident enough to say that, whether there’s something I’ve missed about myself – but other people came together over their shared hatred of me. People underestimate the power of children, the power of words, but it’s all too true that within the space of a month, the memories that stick out most change from feeling the warmth on the back of my legs on a bench in the Isle of Wight to trying to hold back tears because the only advice anybody could give me was to ignore it when the others put glue on my seat or ran away from me as I tied my shoelace.
This, by the way, is the worst piece of advice you can ever give anyone about bullying. You can’t ignore things people say about you in the same way that you can’t ignore being scratched by a cat: it stings, whether you’re looking at it or not. Why should bullies get to carry on being vile people whilst everyone else tiptoes around them, allowing them to carry on with their sadistic games? Why do we not take action? What makes any of it acceptable?
The change was profound. In September, 2003, I first felt the lump in the back of my throat like I wanted to cry.
It never left.
In September 2003 I became an introvert. People often mistake introverts for being more interested in reading a book that going out; for preferring their pyjamas to their normal clothes. Being introverted is actually being so painfully self-containing that you can’t tell people you love that you’re hurting; it’s believing you’re so bad that you deserve the hatred you’re having heaped upon you; not wanting to speak for fear of being noticed. It’s crying for days and days on end because your voice is so lost you have to revert back to infant-like ways of communicating distress.
It’s forgetting that you’re being bullied in the first place, and only remembering ten years later.
My therapist told me that I’ll never get an answer to why. She says that I have to stop letting it eat up my insides and free myself from the torture of wondering. She says that waiting for an apology is a waste of my life.
But I can’t stop. I can’t stop wondering, hoping that one day, someone will be as brave as I was forced to be – as an eleven year old with tousled hair and snaggle teeth and a lump in her throat, trying to bat off the suggestions that I was disgusting and dirty and that it was OK for people to hurt me over and over again – and tell me why they chose me; what made them so relentless in their campaign against my existence. I can’t stop remembering that feeling that somehow I had to change; that this was all my fault. I can’t stop remembering being an eleven year old who used to shut her eyes tight and hope against hope that she might get a serious illness so that she could miss school.
No eleven year old – or five year old, fifteen year old, twenty eight year old, seventy year old – should be driven to the point of wanting to be dead because other people feel that they have the permission to wield that power.
I have been beyond lucky that – since that time – I have been able to start looking for a new me (because the old one won’t ever come back) with my extraordinary family and friends.
I guess that this is the part where I should say I’ve come to terms with the five years of hell that I was put through at the hands of some of the students and staff of the Minster school (not the ones who let me eat lunch in their classroom, or talked to me at break times or made me feel safe). I’m not going to and I never will.
Ignoring bullying is unforgivable.
Ignoring someone begging for your help is unforgivable.
Bullying is unforgivable.