Today is Bullying Awareness Day in New Zealand. It’s no secret that most children are bullied at some point. Children (and teenagers) often lack the maturity and emotional intelligence of adults; they act on instinct and say and do things they don’t fully understand. This is normal. But some bullying goes so far beyond the realm of normal it’s soul destroying. And no bullying is okay.
When I was 10 my uncle was killed in a car accident. I had shown symptoms of alopecia (a rare form of stress-related hair loss) before but the accident set it off properly. I lost all my hair except for a ponytail at the back of my head. To cover my bald head I wore a baseball cap with Goofy on the front. I was the only child allowed to wear a hat inside so naturally the others were curious. They resorted to increasingly blunt methods of discerning why when the teachers wouldn’t tell them. One day, after the final bell had gone, I decided to stay late. I don’t remember why now but by the time I left there weren’t a lot of people around. As I walked out the door of my classroom one of the boys in my class ripped my hat off my head. As I turned to grab it he threw it to a friend. They tossed it back and forth between them while I jumped around in the middle, tears pouring down my face. I can still feel the pain of that day in a place deep inside of me; somewhere the light never touches.
By the time I started intermediate my hair had grown in and I was able to wear it cut short. 2 to 3 times a week children asked me if I was a boy or a girl. They also used to tell me I wasn’t allowed to stand in line at the tuck shop because they didn’t want to catch cancer from me. Cancer.
That year was particularly hard. My English teacher was awful to me and would tell me off and criticise me in front of the class. She enjoyed shaming people publicly. My parents complained to the school. One day my form teacher pulled me aside and told me I was imagining it and to stop causing trouble. In hindsight, I think she had a crush on my English teacher. Anyway, the misery was too much and all my hair fell out again.
The following year I wore my first wig. I was teased a lot for having unrealistic looking hair (children are remarkably perceptive) but life was quieter. Until my best friend became the first person to join the I Hate Stephanie club. That one cut deep.
High school went well. My hair grew back then fell out again when my first boyfriend broke up with me but I had good friends so I coped. Something changed in seventh form, though, and my friends started being unkind to me. At lunch, when I was talking to one of them, they would turn mid-story, ignore me, and starting talking loudly to someone else. They told me I was imagining it. It was insidious but it stuck.
My first year of university my flatmate started emotionally manipulating me while my boyfriend was overseas. No one believed me. When my boyfriend got home we moved out but the damage was done. I become co-dependent and needy; I didn’t have a shred of self worth that wasn’t tied to my relationship. We broke up 2 months later.
At the age of 22 I started working full time. My team leader didn’t like me and would set me up to look stupid in front of my team. I complained to HR and my manager, her best friend, got involved. She told me I was imagining it. I left that place with depression and anxiety and no one in my team even said goodbye.
People always say bullying is more about the bully than the victim. But when you look at a list like this, when this is your own personal history, the line becomes blurred. How do you lay the blame at other peoples’ feet when the only common denominator is you?
You never forget your bullying. The worst bits stay as stories but it all stays as scars; your brain, your heart – nothing escapes. Becoming an adult doesn’t change anything. The fear, the anxiety, the emotions: It all sticks around to haunt you. It sabotages your best efforts and intentions and undermines your confidence when you least expect it.
I haven’t escaped my demons. They comes as little voices in my head telling me no one loves me. They tell me the whole world is in on some sick joke where they all pretend to like me but secretly all laugh behind my back. They clap their hands with glee when friends cancel plans and convince me that the best thing I can do is stay home instead of going out. They cancelled my birthday last year when three people couldn’t attend; they told me it was because no one wanted to spend any time with me. They told me I wasn’t important enough; that everyone had better things to do.
It’s only in the last couple of years, with the help of friends and family (and strangers on the internet; thank you, Twitter) that I have begun to heal. I fight back when I can, tell the voices to shut up. But they’re still there, lurking in the corners of my mind. Some days all that keeps them at bay is the knowledge of how far I have come.
We all know how important it is to teach children courtesy and respect but I worry we don’t model the behaviour we try so hard to enforce. We come home from work and moan over dinner about our work colleagues. We insult people who cut us off on the road. We criticise people in the public spotlight whom we’ve never met. Then we remind our children to always be kind.
For this Bullying Awareness Day I decided to tell my story. It isn’t much, but it’s mine and it’s at the heart of so much I do. If it can help one person then it was worth the pain and the tears.