Take a second to close your eyes and visualize your life, from childhood right up until this morning. Try to focus on your most principle experiences, associating these specific events with particular feelings and emotions. Now, what did they mean to you? What feelings do you cling onto the most? It is sadness? Happiness? What about regret? Upon reflection, it is often easy for us to linger on the negative. During our childhood, this is especially true if we were plagued by bullying. The innate ability of our peers to manipulate the direction of our social development and emotional stability is really quite impressive, many times cultivating a negative mentality not dissimilar to an overgrown weed. A pest, often too difficult to remove.
Overall, my childhood was pretty good. Until around the age of eight, I lived in a small street called Church Leys in Harlow, Essex. I was pretty lucky in that many other families in the neighbourhood had kids around my age. This was before the development and widespread accretion of the internet, cell phones or social media. Thus, the other kids and I would usually spend the majority of our spare time together, trading Pokémon cards, playing football, or glued to the Nintendo 64. A distant time, void of any pertinent obstacles.
Unfortunately, negative emotions often cloud positive thoughts. My experience with secondary school and sixth form was the parasitic catalyst for this prolonged negative outlook. Many days were unpleasant, and the emotions associated with those moments often mean I forget to appreciate the enjoyable experiences in my past and present. Retrospectively, I often forget how enjoyable both my childhood and my peers could actually be. Instead, I attached myself to the disapproval I was relentlessly fed by others. This was a direct outcome of persistent peer-associated bullying.
I was an incredibly introverted and pretty weird kid. As such, I was probably an easy target. Slightly overweight, I was fat-shamed practically every day. I also had long curly hair similar to Slash, the guitarist from Guns N’ Roses. As cool as I thought it was, I was often coined the ‘yeti’ or ‘sasquatch’. Otherwise, ‘tramp’ would resonate in the days someone wanted to shake up the name-calling schedule. Eventually, these insults metamorphosized into commonplace nicknames. Understanding that resistance would likely result in further ridicule, I attempted to wear them like a badge of honour, despite being necrotic in nature.
Eventually, I was gifted a reprieve. I managed to make some of my bullies snigger during an English class, while my teacher glared at me with absolute distain. It was a lightbulb moment. While quite depressing in reality, I realized my way out of constant victimization and shame presented itself before me; position myself as the class clown. My agenda? Disruption, disobedience and disorder. My goal was to ruin every fucking class for the teacher so the popular kids would hopefully view me as three-dimensional and interesting. While it didn’t stop the bullying entirely, it put a muzzle on it for a while. As you might expect, this shift in behaviour resulted in educational penalties. I was switched into lower class sets because my teachers thought I was apathetic about my tutelage. To their credit, that did appear true. In actuality, because my mental health and self-esteem were so devastatingly damaged, my interests aligned with being in favour of my bullies rather than developing my academic abilities.
I almost ruined my education because of this manipulated mentality, all because a few insignificant bullies were flinging their own mental health and insecurity problems towards me. I adapted to fit into their crowd of callous clowns, attempting to avoid further harassment. Not dissimilar to a chameleon, I blended into my new social surroundings, but the ramifications were severe. Peer-pressure got the better of me. At the age of fourteen, I ended up being rushed to hospital due to alcohol poisoning. To impress my bully-perpetrating peers, I decided drinking a bottle of vodka would make me look dangerous, daring and most of all, sufficient. The worst thing about the entire experience? It wasn’t even these ‘peers’ that dialled for an ambulance. Instead, it was a stranger in the street who witnessed me repeatedly collapsing at a local park. I will never forget that feeling of utter loneliness and isolation upon understanding a stranger cared more about my health and safety than the people I associated myself with. I was rushed to hospital, wherein I woke up the next morning. Informed that I spent the majority of the night before throwing up on the nurse, the doctor explained how lucky I was to be alive. The hammer hit home for my mum when he turned to her and explained the situation would have been considerably worse if I was smaller in size. After this declaration, it should have been a turning point. Instead, the notion of being a smaller kid reverberated around my head. Irrationally, I extrapolated his conclusion to mean that I was obscenely overweight. The socially developing brain, huh? What a fun fucking ride. Hey, what did it matter? Nearly killing myself got me in their good books! As an insecure, vulnerable and lonely kid, I managed to turn this into a twisted positive.
Obviously, this ‘respect’ didn’t last long. In fact, the harassment expanded. In my later years at secondary school (I’d say between the ages of fourteen and sixteen), I was bullied in my morning and afternoon registration group, and the prospect of a reprieve appeared bleak. After about twelve weeks, I identified a way out. For the majority of my childhood, I lived alone with my mum. I used this to my advantage and started bunking off school. My mum would often leave for work after I left for school, so I began hiding in the nearby woods until I witnessed her drive off into the distance. My truanting lasted for approximately two weeks before my brother dropped by to collect something. Because I lacked any real ability to provide a show stealing performance in lying aptitude, he quickly put two-and-two together.
I became so mentally disenfranchised that I gave up on the entire education process. As a result, I coasted through my penultimate year, often attempting to nullify my chronic negativity through self-harm and emotional withdrawal. I began to disrupt practically every class wherein a potential bully was also present. Talking, throwing stuff and swearing at the teacher were all commonalities in my troublesome approach. The result? About 180 detentions in a single academic year. I think I received five or six a week on average, surmounting to an hour each day after school. I intentionally skipped out on the majority of these, resulting in extended ninety-minute detentions instead, as was the rule if you missed any. Clearly, I wasn’t making the wisest of decisions at the time. Looking back, I find that entire detention process infuriating. Teachers could have allocated detention time to force students to carry out class activities focused on the core fundamentals: English, Maths and Science. If standard protocol, perhaps I would have identified my passion for the latter far earlier.
Eventually, a lifeline presented itself in the form of my drama and performing arts teacher. Patrick Walker was always cool, calm and collected. His approach commanded authority, but in an unthreatening and empathetic way. Dedicated to helping his students’ development, he understood that belittling someone would only result in revolt and rebellion. My mum and I were called in for a meeting with him once, as he also had a crucial role in the senior leadership team. He emphasized that I was at an inflection point. The choices? Continue on my current path, ruining my life as a result, or actively apply my academic ability towards bettering myself and my future. As a direct consequence, I began to focus on my classes, rather than my bullies. While the victimization continued, I learned to ignore it for the most part. My newly found focus towards education helped me realize I attained genuine enjoyment from science, performing arts and computing. This alone was the spark responsible for a miraculous turnaround; I developed a hard-working mindset. But despite this newly discovered surge of motivation, I was unable to reach the goal I desperately set myself; an A grade in science. In fact, I mostly received C grades across the board. As such, that prospect of a better tomorrow rapidly mutated into uncertainty, depression and inescapable self-doubt.
I scraped into sixth form. By this point, the feeling of negativity and worthlessness felt permanently engraved into my brain. Instead of thankfulness and pride due to acceptance, I assumed the school took pity on me. I felt inadequate and expected to fail. While my hardworking mindset remained, my insecurity was rife. Life became study-centric. I did have friends during my time at sixth form (many of which remain my friends today), but I didn’t actively see them all that often outside of class. Because my mentality was infected with so much rotten self-doubt and paranoia, I never allowed myself to enjoy some of the better moments during those years.
Many of the bullies at my secondary school performed poorly in their exams, decided to take a different career path, or both. I didn’t see them again. Instead, I exposed myself to new bullies: the cool-intelligent crowd. Do you remember that kid that always got straight A’s despite never paying attention in class? All while taking the piss out of how hard you worked or how weird you were? Yeah, that came to ahead here. Around the same time, emotional withdrawal became second nature, but I considered it a positive thing. Facilitating me to work non-stop, it helped me to shrug off the snide comments from others. The work ethic I developed helped me attain the grades I needed for acceptance into a top-tier university. However, the social sacrifice was severe, and feelings of insufficiency aggregated once again.
My experience with university was better. Upon arrival at my dorm, feelings of acceptance and belonging really took over. On the most part, I met a range of different individuals from all walks of life who shifted my world view significantly. Regrettably, a small number of privileged students would often make snide comments, but fortunately they were located in a separate building. I recall that prior to moving in, there was a Facebook group set up by the university for the different accommodations located around London, so all incoming students had the opportunity to engage with others prior to arrival. For someone as timid and shy as I was at the time, this was a social security net. Though, I remember some individuals mocking me for my apparent eagerness on the group. While university is often distinguished as a potent primer for maturation towards adulthood, this association was clearly lost on some. Instead, they ridiculed me for being lonely and wanting a fresh start.
My first year as an undergraduate student made me realize that anyone has the ability to become a bully, regardless of their previous circumstances. I also began to understand that chronic bullying often results in long-lasting consequences, with depressive experiences in both childhood and adolescence resulting in life-long effects. For example, I still feel overweight to this day despite exercising four times a week and eating healthily. The consequences of fat-shaming during my adolescence really came to a head during my first year at university. I decided that my body was unbearable, so I employed a crash diet. I think my daily food regime was two slices of brown bread, a tin of baked beans and a roasted chicken breast, which is far from ideal for an active university student. The result? I dropped around 5 stone (70 pounds) in as many months. I was underweight and unhealthy.
After that initial year, things changed. I was selected to participate in an exchange program for my second year, wherein I decided to study at the National University of Singapore. The experience was the catalyst for priming the development of who I am today. It flipped my preconceptions and assumptions about myself, fuelling endless ideas of what I could potentially be. I still suffer with body confidence issues, but now I understand where it stems from. I take the time to rationalise my insecurities, target their original source, and remind myself that those feelings often manifested due to negative situations. While it remains to be completely effective, this approach to acknowledgement and acceptance helps me to rationalise my issues, allowing escape from an otherwise inescapable chokehold.
For this topic, I wanted to highlight my own personal experiences with victimization and bullying to really drive home that it can have immense implications. To this day, I still find it difficult to accept a compliment, and this had negative implications for previous relationships. For me, it was primarily due to bullying. Today, the only compliments I can really recognise are based on my previous successes. For example, I can accept the notion of someone referring to me as articulate, based on the fact I managed to navigate the PhD process and emerge with a doctorate. However, I still find it difficult to accept compliments associated with my appearance, my cultural taste or my social skills. Thus, I just hope that people become more aware about the consequences of long-term bullying, whether in childhood, adolescence or adulthood. There is a fine line between good-hearted ‘banter’ and just being degrading and hurtful. Locate the line, be mindful of it, and it will have long-lasting benefits for the mental health of yourself and your peers.
Please, always remember that random acts of kindness are far more rewarding.