I was a fat 13-year-old girl with a high-pitched voice and an as-yet-undiagnosed condition (they knew something was wrong with me; they just didn’t know what) that would later place me firmly on the autistic spectrum.
These factors, alongside my desperate desire to make friends, made me a perfect target for bullies. Often they imitated my voice. Sometimes they commented on my weight. Most cruelly, they pretended to make friends with me. “Come and sit with us, Hope. Would you like us to teach you to flirt? OK – well, if you make your eyes very big, like this and pout …” Then they’d fall about laughing.
At these times my one friend, Kirsty who was also bullied, but savvier than I, tried to save me. “Don’t go to them,” she’d say. “They don’t want to be your friend, they want to make you look ridiculous.” To the bullies I was their toy, free entertainment for when they got bored – which was often.
It was brutal and unremitting – a toxic combination of my social naivety and their cruelty. The girls may not have realised it, but their treatment almost killed me.
I was not surprised to read of a study published in the journal Lancet Psychiatry that suggests that bullied children are at risk of mental health problems that will remain with them throughout their lives. Unlike children who are maltreated at home, the report argues, children bullied at school do not have advocacy groups and lobbyists on side. They are right: bullying is all too insidious, and too readily accepted.
As I was never maltreated at home, I cannot comment on whether the impact of bullying is, as the report argues, five times worse than that of cruelty in the home. I know that for me, having a safe place to return to, where I knew I was loved, was what kept me from killing myself.
However, unlike maltreatment from adults, bullying by peers is often normalised even while in plain sight. It is seen as “part of a normal childhood” – that old cliche “character-building”, even – rather than as something that will tear you down, bit by bit.
There can be a degree of victim-blaming in bullying. A male friend of mine told me how he was physically bullied by older boys and felt it was pointless to tell a teacher, as the attitude was usually that he should grow a backbone. Surely, in this day and age, such antediluvian attitudes have no place in our schools.
My teachers were kind but overstretched, and there was a weariness to their reactions to bullying, a masked but nevertheless apparent attitude that to some degree I was culpable – that if I wasn’t so bloody weird it wouldn’t happen. All I had to do was fit in; but that was all I couldn’t do.
At 15 I developed anorexia. It was, I suppose, inevitable. As I shrank, the bullying became less, and the concern of teachers became acute – my physical deterioration far more terrifying to them than the psychological torment I had previously tried to articulate. I was glad that I’d finally got them worried – that at last there was an acknowledgement of the hell I was going through daily at school. It felt good, except I couldn’t stop.
I was lucky I lived. I was even luckier that I recovered fully (aside from some weird rituals with food). But even now, I go through stretches of deep depression and an overwhelming feeling of being utterly crap. I think much of this reaches back to those formative years, when I was told every day by my peers that I was rubbish.
I hope this report forces authority figures to be less dismissive of peer bullying and its long-term ill effects. I know it must be difficult when you have a lot of kids to deal with, and it’s tempting to turn a blind eye to what appears to be a silly spat between teenagers. But the trauma and isolation felt by bullied children is real, and it is time that it was properly acknowledged as a political issue.
It is also important, however, that this is done without detriment to the children who are maltreated at home. Crucially, this report should not divide children who are maltreated at home and children who are bullied by peers. Both suffer terrible trauma and deserve to be taken seriously. Comparing two terrible situations with one another will achieve nothing.