Childhood bullying still affects people at 50? Doesn’t surprise me.

I saw a study reported in the news recently. Apparently people who are bullied as children can still be affected by what happened to them even at the age of 50. I have no trouble believing this. I’m still quite a way off from 50 myself, but I’m quite convinced that the after effects of childhood bullying continued to cast a shadow over my life for at least the first 15 years of adulthood.

I know that’s a strong claim to make, and I wouldn’t have said it if it wasn’t my honest opinion. I’ve spent a lot of time pondering all this and trying to make sense of it, both on my own and in therapy of various kinds (because I eventually realised I had no choice but to understand it if I ever wanted to get past it). I wasn’t even sure whether I should write this post or not… I know how easily things like this can be taken the wrong way. But screw it. If I’d been suffering from a physical health problem all these years I wouldn’t feel ashamed to talk about it. Mental ill health should be no different, whatever the cause and whatever other people’s misconceptions about it.

I’m not writing this in an attempt to elicit sympathy, or to “blame” anyone for all my problems. At this point I have no need of either of those things anymore. Life is good now. I have a partner who I love, friends and family who I love, a job that I love, and a lot to look forward to. I don’t hate the kids that bullied me. I don’t believe most of them intended to cause me serious harm. A lot of them were probably insecure themselves and were just glad it was someone else on the receiving end of the abuse rather than them. All I want to do is share an honest account of my experience and hopefully show how it is possible for something that many people view as a bit of harmless fun to have such a lasting negative impact.

The strange thing is, most of the bullying wasn’t that bad, taken in isolation. It was mostly just name-calling and similar. It did get physical a few times (including once when I was beaten up badly enough to need medical attention, and another time soon after I’d left school, which resulted in the bully being prosecuted for assault) but those incidents were the exception, and I don’t actually think they did me much lasting damage.

The contrast between the utter triviality of most of the other incidents and the turmoil they eventually caused inside my mind haunted me for a long time. I couldn’t believe how badly this had broken me. I was so angry, mostly with myself for still letting it affect me all these years later… but then of course the anger just became another stick to beat myself with, keeping me stuck in the cycle of negativity even longer. Ultimately it’s pretty pointless to beat yourself up over the way you react to something. No-one consciously chooses to react to something in a way that has an unnecessarily negative impact on their life, after all.

Eventually I realised the truth: it wasn’t the nature of the incidents that had got to me, it was the sheer number of them, and the fact I had no way to escape. One person shouting out a rude comment about your appearance probably wouldn’t have a lasting effect on you. You’d shrug it off, or laugh at them for being such an idiot, or at most might feel hurt for a little while and then forget about it. But what if it was happening everywhere you went? What if you were being bombarded with those same comments multiple times a day and there was no way to escape? What if even when you were on holiday you were getting the same sort of comments from random strangers you’d never seen in your life before? What if it seemed like the vast majority of people in your age group were joining in with making those comments at some time or another, and consequently no-one was willing to be friends with you? And what if all this was happening during your adolescence, before you’ve even had a chance to build up some confidence and/or a support network that might help you deal with such challenges? At that point, believe me, it does start to get to you, no matter how innocuous each one of those comments might have been in isolation. I should know: that’s the world I inhabited for several miserable years as a teenager.

I can still remember quite vividly the day when something snapped inside me and I just stopped trying to get on with the other kids. It must be about 20 years ago now which is quite scary. Up until that point I’d kept on trying to socialise and to make friends and to be a part of everything despite the fact that no-one seemed to want me there. But then one lunchtime when I’d been laughed at and forced to sit on my own yet again, a dull feeling of hopelessness descended on me, and I just thought “What’s the point?”.

So I gave up, mostly. From then on I kept to myself as much as I could instead. I started going home for lunch, even though we only got a fifty minute lunch break and home was a twenty minute walk each way, so it wasn’t very practical. I even started going out and wandering the streets during break times to get away from everyone. Technically that was against the school rules but I never got caught. I stopped trying to make conversation with people and only talked to them if they talked to me first.

It’s probably pretty obvious to most adults reading this that that wasn’t a healthy way to respond. I can see that now too, but at the time it wasn’t at all obvious… in fact it felt like shutting myself off was my only option if I wanted to stay sane. I’d tried pretty much everything else I could think of: tried befriending people, tried fighting back or answering back, tried ignoring the abuse, tried reporting it to the teachers, even tried changing myself in small ways so that I wouldn’t stand out as much. Nothing had worked. What else was there to try? From my point of view as the confused teenager I was at the time, people didn’t want me. It appeared that pretty much my entire peer group had rejected me. What was the point in keeping on trying to engage with them if the result was going to be constant humiliation? It was as simple as that. At the time, giving up didn’t just seem like a rational choice… it seemed like the only rational choice.

Sometimes a kindly adult who could see some of what was happening to me (though probably didn’t realise the extent of it) would take me aside and tell me things wouldn’t always be this way, that the other kids would grow out of the name-calling eventually and I’d be OK in the end. I could never take much comfort from this, sadly. It always seemed a very hollow and distant possibility compared with the grim reality I was faced with every day.

Weirdly, my darkest days weren’t actually during the time I was being bullied, but afterwards. When I left school and moved onto university, I never encountered bullying there… but the past had left its mark. It turns out that once you’ve started to feel as if your entire peer group has rejected you and wants nothing to do with you, it’s very hard to stop feeling it again, even after the abuse itself stops. I felt as if I still didn’t understand why I’d been picked on so much, and until I did understand it I would have to assume that it was going to keep happening with everyone I met. It was the only way to be safe.

University is supposed to be four years of non-stop fun and partying, so they say; for me it was four years of non-stop anxiety, too scared to talk to people, suspicious even of the ones who were nice to me in case they turned against me (as had happened a few times at school), and intimidated by how much life experience they all seemed to have compared to me. I continued to keep to myself as much as possible, only going in for lectures and always coming straight home afterwards. Occasionally I would hit such a level of despair that I was willing to try anything to get rid of it and I’d force myself to try a new social activity, but it never went well. I was simply too anxious to have any sort of meaningful interaction with people.

After a few months of this, I plunged into the clinical depression that was to plague me on and off (mostly on, especially in the early years) for the next fifteen years. The future looked very bleak and I couldn’t see anything to look forward to. I felt completely broken… I didn’t know if I was ever going to be happy again, ever going to have friends again, ever going to have the confidence for a relationship or a job or any of the things normal people did. It’s easy to look back in hindsight and say “Well, of course you were! It was only kids being kids for god’s sake, get some perspective”, but at the time those worries were very real and very disturbing.

So was it all due to the bullying? No, not entirely… depression and anxiety run in my family and I was probably always susceptible to them. But spending years feeling as if everyone of my own age was rejecting me certainly exacerbated those problems massively. There was no way it could have failed to. Maybe someone else would have bounced back from it more quickly than I did… but I defy anyone to live through what I lived through in my teens and not be affected by it in some way.

This is already way longer than I meant it to be and at least four times more depressing, so I’ll try to end on a happier note. Yay, I got better! Mostly, at least. In 2013 I had a largely depression-free year for the first time in my adult life, and 2014 has been even better so far. The anxiety is way better than it was and mostly doesn’t stop me doing what I want to do anymore. I feel as if I’ve got a hell of a lot of lost time to make up for, but I’ve made some big inroads into that and it’s been a pretty enjoyable process so far. The idea of living a normal life no longer seems like some impossible dream but actually within reach. Though these days I tend to think “I’m just going to do what I want, to hell with whether it’s normal or not!”.

To anyone who relates to anything I’ve said I would like to say: don’t give up hope. No matter how hopeless it all seems, no matter how left behind you feel, no matter how long it’s been like that, things can change… and probably faster than you think.

*looks back over the wall of text up above*. Wow. I’ll be amazed if anyone actually read right to the bottom of this. If you have, then well done 🙂 .

 

Decaffeinated Gcat

*stands up* Hello, I’m Gcat, and I haven’t had a drink in nearly two weeks.

Oh, did I say “drink”? I meant “drink of coffee”, of course. And believe me, this is much more of a challenge than merely giving up alcohol for a few weeks.

Those of you who know me or who’ve gleaned enough from my previous blog entries will know that I’m prone to stress and anxiety, insomnia and sudden bouts of exhaustion (among other things). When you read about those sorts of thing, giving up caffeine is quite often a prominent piece of advice. But I never really tried it before, apart from a sort of half-hearted and not very successful attempt to cut down from 4 or 5 coffees per day to 2 or 3. I sort of doubted that it would make much difference, plus there was the small matter of how impossible it seemed. Me, get up in the morning without the aid of coffee? I’m a computer programmer ferchrissake. There’ll be multiple homicides before lunchtime if I don’t get my caffeine fix. The advice might as well have said “all you have to do is sprout wings and learn to fly” (something which, whatever the Red Bull marketing department would have you believe, is difficult for most people).

A couple of weeks ago something happened. Namely, I got hit by a horrible stomach bug one night, and by the morning I definitely wasn’t feeling able to stomach a cup of coffee, so I went without. I wasn’t doing anything much except lie in bed and groan anyway so it wasn’t like I needed the energy boost. But then something strange happened. Through the haze of illness that was still clouding my mind, I felt different. Like my mind had slowed down a bit and was stopping to enjoy the view (even though said view currently consisted of my darkened bedroom ceiling) instead of just racing on to the next goal. It’s hard to describe… it felt very weird, in that I wasn’t accustomed to feeling like that anymore, but also comfortingly familiar, like it was taking me back to how I used to feel a long time ago. It was hard to tell how much of it was due to the lack of caffeine and how much because of the semi-delirium from the bug… but it felt nice enough to make me want to try having a break from coffee. Anyway, I reasoned, now was as good a chance as I was ever going to get to try it… I’d already survived the first day without it so that was probably the worst bit over.

(I didn’t quit caffeine altogether. I just switched to tea, which I intend using as a sort of reverse-gateway drug if there’s such a thing).

That was nearly two weeks ago now… and since then I have noticed a change. The first day back at work started off, as I’d expected, pretty miserably without the coffee-kick to get me going. But the tiredness went away more quickly than I’d expected. Then in the middle of the evening I suddenly realised that (a) I hadn’t come home from work feeling completely wired and like I needed a beer to calm myself down, and (b) I hadn’t had a horrendous crash in my energy levels late in the day and was actually still feeling quite awake by about 8pm. Both of which are pretty unusual occurrences. After a few days of this I also noticed I was sleeping better and coping better even if I didn’t quite get my eight hours.

So yeah… I guess those suggestions about cutting down on caffeine ain’t just there to bump up the word count after all. I’d recommend at least giving it a try if you suffer from any similar problems to mine.

(I was hoping to write more about the projects I mentioned a few posts ago before now, but due to (1) the aforementioned stomach bug, (2) work going absolutely crazy in the last couple of weeks, and (3) having an unexpected new toy to play with, I haven’t really got far with any of them yet. I expect I will at some point soon 🙂 ).

Sleep…

This week I’m determined to seriously start trying to sort out my sleep.

It’s been messed up for a while. I never seem to get quite enough and don’t feel refreshed even if I do… or I wake up in the early hours and can’t get back to sleep for ages. Either way, not good. I spend a lot of time feeling like I’m existing in this sort of not-fully-conscious state with a haze of tiredness that I can’t shake off clumped around my head. (I have my suspicions about how this started. A few months of receiving abusive texts and phonecalls that you can’t get away from at all hours can do a lot to make you view sleep the way a starving African child probably views food. I think it left me anxious that I’d never get a decent night’s sleep again in my life. But that’s in the past now and it’s about time I stopped feeling that way).

So I bought Paul McKenna’s sleep book. Having grown up watching him on the telly using his hypnosis skills to make people act like chickens and forget that the number seven exists hasn’t actually put me off him too badly as a serious self help author. Some of his suggestions are a bit out there and possibly not backed up by much science. But on the plus side he writes in a very positive and engaging tone that I find more helpful and easy to read than most authors. Usually when I read a self help type book I find myself feeling alienated and thinking “This doesn’t really apply to me, I’m different from the people they’re talking about”. I never get that with Paul McKenna’s books. They have a way of making me feel that yes, this was written for me, so I’m more likely to actually take notice and persevere with the advice.

There are lots of very useful little practical suggestions, some of which I already knew I should be doing (cutting down caffeine, not napping during the day), but some new to me (like keeping a notebook beside the bed so you can write down ideas that come to you rather than have them go round and round in your head keeping you awake). I’m going to attempt to do as many of them as possible for the next few weeks. Multi-pronged attacks are good in my experience. They’re more effort up front, but there’s also much more chance of things changing enough that it feels worthwhile carrying on. There is also a hypnosis CD to help you fall asleep; I’ve tried it three times so far and twice I fell asleep before the end. So far, so good.

One “prong” is giving up alcohol (again) for a while. It may be that it’s fine to go back to drinking in moderation, but for the moment it’s another thing that could be interfering with my sleep, so worthwhile eliminating it and seeing what happens.

I’ll let you know what happens…

(Actually, maybe I won’t. I have a feeling I’ve said that about things before and then probably never did. Sorry).

 

End of January update

Well, we’re already into the second month of 2012, and once again I can’t believe how fast it’s going :O

I’m going to try and regularly track my progress on my vague-sort-of-resolutions that I made earlier.

Goal setting: has been going ok. I’ve been setting myself weekly and monthly ones and mostly been keeping to them. I am generally much more organised and on top of things than I used to be even a few months ago. Maybe I’ll write about the things that helped me get here sometime. (I’m still a bit worried that my goals are a bit aimless and not really leading up to anything coherent, but I have some longer term ideas forming in my mind. Maybe I need to give them a bit more time to form).

Meditation: good, have been doing it a few times a week, will hopefully gradually increase it over time. Some days it really does seem to help.

Weight loss: not good… still slowly gaining 🙁 but I feel it’s low-ish on my priorities right now. I guess January is the best time of year for getting exercise if you prefer outdoor activities (which I do).

Concentrate on the people who are worth it: check 🙂

Piano playing: very pleased with this. It’s going better than it has in ages and I’m enjoying it a lot. I can play the Fugue in A Minor from Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier book 1 reasonably well now, which I always thought would be beyond me. Also started on something else, but it maybe deserves its own post in a bit. And I have an interesting idea for a piano-computer hybrid project which I might get onto soon.

Dancing: another positive thing. Been back to dance class not once, not twice, but three times so far in 2012. Have also booked myself on two weekends away with the dance society, both in the next few weeks. So that’s something to look forward to.

Walking and photography: it’s not really the best time of year for it at the moment. But we did have our Stirling weekend, and planning a Glasgow museum visit tomorrow.

Creativity: paid work projects are going pretty well (though very busy – I now have 3 separate things to work on, where I previously had only one. It’s lucky the two new ones are both things I can get really excited about). Spare time programming projects are going ok, though I’ve possibly bitten off more than I can chew with the latest one. On the minus side I haven’t written as much (or as interesting) stuff as I wanted on here. I do have a list of ideas though, so maybe I’ll get round to putting up something more substantial soon.

Gigs: got two gigs booked so far (Fascinating Aida and Derren Brown) and about to book another one (Ross Noble, without a doubt my favourite stand-up comedian of all time). Still want to do a festival this year as well.

Other stuff: I’ve been cooking a lot more food from scratch, partly thanks to being in a relationship with someone who does it all the time, partly thanks to the lovely recipe books I got for my last birthday and Christmas from several people, and partly just because I’ve been meaning to for ages. I’m not sure it’s actually any cheaper or healthier than my previous diet, but it’s certainly more fun and tastes a lot nicer.

(On the subject of new year and resolutions and all that, I found this post on one of the blogs I like to read very inspiring. Plus I can always get behind anything that encourages me to act like a big kid 😉 ).

Meditation

I’ve been taking a meditation course recently, at the Edinburgh Buddhist centre.

It’s been interesting, and hopefully useful.

I find it a bit hard to describe what it’s about without very quickly getting into talking about what meditation isn’t. So maybe that’s what I’ll do. A lot of this is my own misconceptions I’d picked up over the years, but I think other people may have similar ones.

First of all and most fundamentally, meditation isn’t really about drifting off into a nice relaxing place. It’s not about becoming less conscious and escaping, but about becoming more conscious, more aware of what’s happening in your body and mind and the world around you. It isn’t about avoiding difficult feelings or making them somehow magically disappear, in fact it’s more about confronting them (though “confronting” doesn’t feel quite like the right word either. Maybe just “being aware of them” is better).

Secondly, there’s not really anything religious or supernatural about it either. At least not the kind I’ve been doing. (This is just as well as I have fairly little patience these days both for most kinds of religion and for unproven “alternative”-style remedies). Although the class is at the Buddhist Centre, they’ve hardly talked about anything Buddhism-specific. It’s all been pretty similar to the meditation I’ve read about in a book which was written by some pretty mainstream and down-to-earth seeming psychologists. Mindfulness, which encompasses meditation as one of its key components, seems to be gaining ground as a practise that’s considered helpful for lots of conditions (depression, anxiety, etc.).

So, what were we actually doing? There were three main meditations taught: the body scan, meditation on the breath, and the Metta Bhavana (which means cultivation of loving kindness, though “love” in this context is more what you might think of as deep acceptance rather than romantic or affectionate love). The teacher would guide us through each one, sometimes interspersed with relevant (and beautiful) poetry… I really need to ask him the name of one of the poems before the class finishes. The first two are basically what they sound like… in the body scan, you focus attention on each part of the body in turn, feeling the sensations as you go. It’s amazing how much you can find that you normally aren’t conscious of at all, and it’s also amazing how sometimes all you need to do is become aware of a feeling of tension and immediately you can feel it releasing and the muscles relaxing without having to deliberately do anything. (Relaxation may not be the main aim of meditating, but it is sometimes a nice side effect).

The breath meditation was similar to one I’d tried from a CD, but I somehow found it much easier in a room full of other people meditating. There was nothing to get distracted by, no suddenly remembering something I meant to do and interrupting my meditation to go and do it. Also the advice on the posture was extremely helpful… it makes a huge difference getting into a position where you can comfortably sit still for fifteen-plus minutes, and I found it surprisingly hard to do that on my own.

For me the biggest thing I took from it was the idea that there’s another way to deal with your feelings. For a long time I thought you either had to bottle them up completely (which risks them coming out in unwanted ways that you then don’t even understand), or let them out and basically be forced to do whatever they want you to do. But there is another way… you can become aware of them, explore and understand them, and then consciously decide “I am choosing not to act on this feeling”. I don’t think I fully saw how different that is from bottling things up before. Meditation can be immensely helpful for this. Highly recommended.

Giving up alcohol

Think I’m going to give up alcohol for a while.

My sleeping pattern has been terrible lately, my mood has been up and down as well. Apparently alcohol can affect those things so maybe I should see if it’s the cause in my case. I’ve tried having a few days off from it and that didn’t seem to make a lot of difference, but maybe that wasn’t enough time to see the full effects. I should give it a while longer, a few weeks at least. It’s a LONG time since I went a few weeks without a drink (2007, I think).

Another thing that’s supposedly bad for the sleep and the nerves is caffeine, which I know already I’m pretty much addicted to. I should probably try a break from that as well, but maybe not at the same time or I’ll end up like that guy from Airplane.

Maybe I have picked a bad week to quit drinking… there is a huge crate of Becks in my fridge that I was going to take to someone’s house before she cancelled. There’s also Gavin’s party tomorrow. But then I guess there’s never an easy time to do something like this. On the plus side it means I’ll be able to drive everywhere, if I so choose. And I should save some money as well.

Wish me luck :).