“Hearing voices. Sometimes it feels like I have someone tagging along beside me all the time, whispering in my ear, telling me that all the worst thoughts I’ve ever had about myself are true. Inventing new horrors to believe about myself. Bringing me down when I’m at my peak. Following me around, terrorising me, making me believe I’m worthless. That I’m nothing.
They didn’t come out of nowhere. And in the light of Anti-Bullying Week last week, I’d like to talk about my original voices: the ones who followed me around, taunting me, telling me I’d never amount to anything.
Except these weren’t voices in my head. They were real people, and they did more than attack my sense of self-worth. From a very early age at school, I was bullied mercilessly, both physically and mentally, and it was a prolonged trauma that has rewired the way my brain works and shaped the way I view myself today.
I spent the majority of my childhood trying to make myself as small as possible, as if the world might leave me alone if I could just find a way to disappear. It seemed to be what my bullies wanted – they shoved me on top of the lockers, or put me in the bins, or locked me in the cupboard. They hid me in places out of sight, and ironically that was just where I wanted to be – out of sight. Unnoticed. Left alone.
They never left me there for long. If I was hiding, they would look for me. And when they found me, I’d wish I was invisible. Or just gone. School halls were battlegrounds, lunchtimes were a game of going nowhere fast.
There was nowhere to go, and nobody I could turn to. Being bullied is one of the loneliest places to be; it doesn’t just destroy you. It isolates you. Too ashamed to tell my parents what was happening, I was forced to lie, time and time again. I was the problem child, the child who couldn’t take anything into school for fear of losing it, who was always getting into fights, the one who came home in their PE kit because they’d lost their school uniform again. Easier to be that child than to admit that my things had been stolen, that my clothes were cut into pieces, that the reason I had a bloody nose was because I’d been beaten up.
My teachers didn’t notice. I had no friends to ask questions. Even when I did manage to cultivate a friendship, I always felt guilty for it, as though I were dragging them down to my despicable level. After all, if these bullies – popular, confident, surrounded by friends – were sure, so sure, that I was nothing, that I didn’t matter, that all I was good for was being kicked and abused and hurt – how could they be wrong? What other possible reason could they have for doing it?
It’s a question I still struggle with. A question my voices still ask.
As much as the physical bullying hurt, the psychological damage was far worse. I knew that what I was going through wasn’t normal, exactly; I knew that not everyone experienced it, that my brother, who went to a different school, appeared to have friends and to enjoy his classroom experiences. But I learned, from a very early age, that my worth was determined by my ability to hide. I was only valuable as a punching bag.
I reinvented myself at college, as many people do. I was away from the boys who had tormented me all through my childhood. I was able to make friends, to walk through the halls without being terrified at every corner. It should have felt liberating, and it did.
But the feeling of being an imposter never really faded. I always felt like a fraud, like any minute now, they’d realise who I really was and what I really deserved. I remember making plans to go to the cinema with a group of friends and arriving early; no one else had got there yet. I stood on the pavement, hands in my pockets, and in that moment I knew. They had set me up. It was all just a big joke they were playing, pretending to be my friends, and they weren’t coming. They were probably somewhere else, laughing together at my stupidity, standing alone in the cold and waiting.
I was wrong, of course. They came, completely oblivious to the torture I had been through while I waited. It was like that for a long time; I never felt like I fitted in. For years, I believed what my teenaged tormentors had drummed into me: that I was worthless. That no one would ever see any value in my existence. That I could never be good enough.
They left those words with me. Every day I have to ignore the voices that repeat them, that try to get me to buy into their sickening message. Receiving praise makes me feel supremely uncomfortable, because I’m so sure that it can’t be right, that some mistake has been made.
It’s a terrible legacy to leave a child with. I spent years trying to hide, but now I wish that I hadn’t done it so well. I wish someone had found me. Had seen what was happening to me, had pierced through the shroud of profound loneliness I spent my childhood living beneath.
Anti-Bullying Week is a start. This year, it has asked us all to ‘choose respect’. I don’t know – I’ll probably never understand – why I was bullied; I wasn’t necessarily an obvious target. I wasn’t noticeably different. I used to believe that there was something inherently worthless in me, something the bullies could somehow see, and that that was why they chose me. It’s only now, years later, that I can say definitively: no.
No, I am not inherently worthless. I am worthy of respect. I have value as an individual. Many years ago, bullies tried to make me believe the opposite. For years after that, my voices have kept up the campaign of hatred, doing their best to tell me that I’m not good enough. That the world would be better off without me, that ending my life would be a service to everyone around me. I have to ignore their hateful whispers every day.
I’m choosing respect: self-respect. I don’t believe them. They haven’t convinced me in twenty years, and that’s not going to change now. If I could go back to give my childhood self one message, that would be it: don’t believe in the person they want to convince you you are.
I hope no one ever has to go through what I went through. I hope we can all start looking a little harder for the people that hide. After all, I never succeeded in making myself disappear completely.
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