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 🙂 .

 

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.

Why some things bug me and others don’t

It’s interesting how sometimes being exposed to something for years on end can desensitise you so that you become more tolerant of it than most people. And sometimes it seems to have the exact opposite effect and leave you with an irrational aversion to whatever it is.

I was thinking about this earlier because I realised I was far more bothered than I should be by the fact that one of my car doors is stuck shut. It shouldn’t be a big deal… the car still works fine, and most days I don’t even have any need to open that door. Sure, it’ll be a pain if I go on a trip away with several people, but there’s plenty of time to get it fixed before that next happens. Yet as soon as I discovered the problem I felt agitated. I couldn’t rest until I’d tried to fix it myself (no luck; perhaps ironically, there seems to be no easy way to get the door apart to get at the lock components without opening it, which is exactly what I can’t do!), then when that failed, booked it into a garage.

But I realised I’m always like this when something breaks, even if it’s only minor breakage. Whenever it happens I just have to fix it, arrange to get it fixed, or replace it with a new one as soon as humanly possible, or else it won’t stop bugging me. I think this is because when I was growing up we often had things that weren’t working (or weren’t working properly) for weeks or months at a time. Partly due to not having enough money to get them fixed, partly due to no-one being as bothered about them as I am now. Usually it wasn’t anything all that serious – stereos with only one speaker working, cookers with a ring that you couldn’t use because it would trip all the circuit breakers, cars that basically worked but would overheat if you were stuck in traffic for any length of time, toilet seats that weren’t actually attached to the toilet, that sort of thing – but once we were without a working fridge for several weeks, and that wasn’t fun.

So now, I just can’t be doing with those things anymore, even the ones that should only be minor annoyances. It’s like all my tolerance for them has already been used up and I’ve got no patience left.

But it interests me that with certain other things, it went the opposite way entirely.

Smoking, for example. Now I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life and I’ve got no intention of letting that change, but I’m not that bothered if other people want to. A lot of non-smokers seem to recoil in horror* at the thought of being in a room where someone’s smoking or the idea of (gasp!) living with a smoker, but I just don’t really care at all, probably because I’m so used to it, my dad having smoked the whole time I was growing up. So in this case I did develop a tolerance rather than using up all my capacity for tolerance. I wonder what the difference is.

(* I’m not saying people are wrong to recoil in horror… given that passive smoking isn’t exactly good for you, I do think they’re within their rights to object to people smoking around them. It’s just that I happen not to object to it myself, and I find it sort of interesting that I don’t).