It took me a long time to get rid of the shame that plagued me after my experience at school, and the reason for that lies in a portion of society’s refusal to recognise being bullied as a serious and traumatic experience.
[This article contains themes of abuse and accounts of personal trauma]
Conversations around trauma and mental health in all their complicated forms have become less taboo in the last couple of decades, and you’d have to be a hermit not to notice.
One of the most commonly experienced catalysts for trauma and mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression, is bullying, with an estimated prevalence rate of 32% in schools and 30% in workplaces.
It’s hard to know whether this estimation is at all accurate because so many children and adults don’t report their experiences of bullying. Despite it being described as an ‘epidemic’ and on the rise worldwide, bullying is still often dismissed as just being a difficult but normal part of life.
When I was at secondary school I was bullied and physically attacked by a group of girls. After years of name-calling and general taunting, they physically attacked me after a PE lesson. The following week one of them waited outside my geography lesson with a group of older boys and did it again.
My school did little to make me feel supported when I was bullied. My teachers were more interested in reminding me that while I came from a ‘good home’, my attackers had chaotic lives. How dare I complain about something so trivial as bullying when I should just be grateful I have a good home life?
This, I believe, greatly contributed to my PTSD, because it added to the shame of it all. I was deeply ashamed of myself for existing and being who I was because clearly, I deserved to be treated this way.
I did everything I could to disappear. This became harder to do when, as a consequence of the bullying, I moved to another, much posher secondary school that was known for excelling in Drama, so there were loads of incredibly confident children from wealthy backgrounds – a stark difference to my previous school. I didn’t adjust to it well and quickly started to feel like an outsider.
I skipped classes on my own, drank alcohol in school, did some controversial things at parties, and started going clubbing even though I was well below the legal age.
While a lot of this was fairly normal amongst my friends, I was partly doing this to self-medicate my overwhelming feelings of self-hatred and anxiety.
Just after I was attacked, a lot of people were understanding and shocked by it. As time went on, however, people had less patience. I ended up being ridiculed by a friend at my new school for never speaking, as they had grown tired of it and my silence was making things awkward for them.
A few years later I was talking to my then-boyfriend about how I was still feeling upset about what had happened to me. He was confused and told me that I didn’t even get “beat up that bad” so why was I still so affected by it?
This all happened in the noughties, just before the world woke up to the importance of mental health. Attitudes were better than say in the 70s, but, apart from professionals, nobody really understood how anxiety or PTSD worked, nor did they care much.
When I eventually went to university in 2010, I had another huge bout of anxiety and started taking medication for the frequent and terrifying panic attacks I was having. I also began going to counselling sessions that the university was offering its students for free.
It is quite spectacular just how unhelpful these sessions were. The two therapists I saw there seemed frustrated that I hadn’t come to them with a juicy story they could get their teeth into, it was just a boring school bullying story.
The first therapist would try and compete with me in regards to how depressed I was, and say things like “Well, when I was depressed I couldn’t even get out of bed, and I couldn’t even make myself a cup of tea.”
She seemed to sneer at my problems of panic attacks and feeling like everyone hated me. I eventually stopped seeing her and tried somebody else at the university.
This one was even worse – she would say things like “We deal with people who have been raped, who have had awful things happen to them” and tell me I should feel happy this wasn’t me.
When we had our last session I cried and told her I don’t know if I can cope, and I remember her looking at me with this irritated look on her face and telling me I would be fine.
When it comes to the long-term effects of PTSD, you often feel like you’re on your own, and that can be debilitating. You desperately want to be understood by others and you want to understand yourself, but it isn’t straightforward.
People expect the longest forms of PTSD to be from the most horrific unthinkable things, how could anyone be so affected by something that happened to them at school? I felt guilty about my feelings for so long, I just wanted to delete them and be normal, but I couldn’t.
I asked London-based therapist Gail Rhodes why some people are affected by trauma for longer periods than others.
“A person with a less sensitive nature and more secure internal base which developed from receiving solid dependable care as a small child is better able to cope with difficult life events than someone whose early experiences and attachments were less secure. It’s the extent to which trauma can be digested and metabolised in the mind and body which dictates how long the trauma impacts.”
I had a very stable and loving childhood when I was a lot younger, but since starting secondary school, life had become less stable, and that was simply because my secondary school was very chaotic.
Children would roam the halls during lesson time, entering classrooms they knew had supply teachers, or less assertive teachers, and cause havoc. My friend had her hair set on fire while on one of the school buses, and our lessons were regularly interrupted by fire alarms due to arson attacks on school toilets.
School time became less about learning and more about ensuring you weren’t a target for humiliation or worse. This brings me to another theory of why some are more resilient to trauma than others.
“Sometimes when we talk about trauma, we talk about a ‘dose-response relationship,’ which simply means that a person’s response to trauma is directly related to the amount of exposure he or she has,” explains Dr Sunda Friedman TeBockhorst in her blog post ‘What Makes Some People More Resilient to Trauma Than Others?’.
“Because of the differing ‘doses,’ a person who experiences a single-incident trauma of brief duration (a car accident, for example) is at less risk of lasting problems than a person who experiences chronic exposure to ongoing traumatising events for a lengthy period (such as child abuse or neglect).”
This would explain why bullying can leave such a lasting effect on its victims because the traumatic events are often sustained for a long time rather than experienced as one isolated event.
One thing I have is a sensitive nature, which is something I tried to shake off throughout my teens and twenties – probably as a response to the trauma that the bullying had caused me. I eventually realised it can’t be done, and nor should a person’s sensitivity be diminished. It’s growing on me now – I’ve accepted it and I accept the positives and negatives that come with it.
To think that around 32% of children are bullied at school these days, I worry for children who are enduring similar things to what I went through, especially those who don’t have the support system in their family as I had. We now have the added risk of cyberbullying, which is an ever-growing concern for parents and teachers.
Since I left secondary school, not only has awareness of mental health issues changed rapidly, but technology and the internet have grown exponentially. There is an abundance of platforms built for sharing things about ourselves, and many people have taken to sharing traumatic experiences for the world to see.
I wonder what are the lines we should work within when it comes to sharing details about our trauma online? Take a look at ‘Trauma Tok’, reported on by Vice last year, where individuals film themselves speaking about personal traumatic things that have happened to them – using hashtags #traumadump and #trauma.
After diving into those hashtags I challenge anyone not to feel at least a little overwhelmed. Some of the first-hand accounts of trauma from TikTokers are horrific to hear, with many detailing experiences of rape, incest, violence, and severe abuse.
I can see how it could consume vulnerable young people, and worryingly TikTok might be the only outlet some people have to feel validated and listened to. Validation, after all, is a huge part of why social media in general exists, is it not?
But, ultimately, this is about choices, and we all have a choice whether to share or not to share. 32-year-old Natalie was also bullied at school and still suffers PTSD effects from it now, and she has found comfort in TikTok posts from strangers.
“You have to be careful with what you’re letting yourself listen to. It can be a bit too much sometimes. When you get people talking about being molested and raped and all sorts of things, it’s very hard to listen to, but I understand that people have to speak their truth and for some people, it’s very healing for them too. It’s healing for them to be able to say it out loud” she explains.
“You’re able to see lots of different people, and it’s not just celebrities and it’s not all just filtered things. You get to see the average person talk about their experiences – good or bad, and I think that’s quite interesting.
“I’ve learned more about my mental health and my traumatic experiences, and I’ve learned more about that through people sharing their experiences. And you know, as much as we like to think we’re very individual, and we are obviously, but we have lots of shared experiences.”
“I’ve managed to get through some really dark times, like break-ups, and all sorts of things, by the empowerment of strangers on the Internet – it gives me different perspectives on how to think about things, and different points of views, and different ways to move forward.”
Does she think it would have helped her when she was younger, and going through issues at school?
“I feel like for me it probably would have. I almost wish I was able to understand all these things a hell of a long time ago because I feel like I wouldn’t have stuck around for a lot of things that I did stick around for.”
I am sceptical of whether or not TraumaTok is for me, but I can empathise with why Natalie finds it helpful. I decided to search for clips specifically talking about bullying and trauma, to see what that brings up.
After scrolling through for about 20 minutes, I start to realise that things might not have changed as much as I thought they had since I was at school. Not only is this still something many children and teenagers are tackling, but there are videos implying that victims feel let down by their schools and this one coincides with my theory that many still don’t take bullying seriously.
TikTok is clearly a goldmine of useful information for young people, but I see a lot of pitfalls in problematic ways of thinking there as well.
One of the things I struggled with a lot whilst coming to terms with what happened to me and how it affected me, is the shame of it all. I ask therapist Gail Rhodes what her advice is to those struggling with feelings of shame and guilt around their response to trauma.
“When a person is struggling with shame due to experiences that were inflicted on them – i.e not their own actions – I sometimes ask them to imagine a dear friend or family member, someone they care for deeply, and imagine that person describing having experienced what the person in question has experienced,” Gail explains.
“I ask them to imagine this person describing being bullied in the same way, how frightening it was, how it affects them deeply to this day and then to imagine them saying they feel ashamed of this having happened, guilty, embarrassed etc.
“I then ask what they would say to that person, and if they think that this person should be feeling embarrassed because they’re struggling with these matters,” Gail said.
Invariably the answer comes back as “No, of course not, they have nothing to feel embarrassed about”, so Gail asks them what they imagine their friend might need from them, and usually receives answers such as love, a hug, kindness, and being listened to.
“I then ask that they consider the idea that that is what they need to try to direct towards themselves, the same compassionate, loving kindness that they would offer a loved one – instead of blaming themselves for what happened, for how it is affecting them now, and therefore perpetuating the cycle of shame,” Gail continues.
I eventually found solace in a good therapist and the right medication, and while I will probably always grapple with issues that were born out of a difficult time in my life, those issues get smaller each time I successfully ignore them.
My guilt and shame around what happened to me are rooted in how others responded to my pain in the past, but ultimately I should never have relied on the validation of others when it came to my personal experience.
This is perhaps a process everyone has to go through when they experience something that causes them initial feelings of shame, but the day that you truly realise you don’t have to live by others’ judgements of you, is the day you start to feel a lot lighter.
Whichever way each individual chooses to get to that point, it should be celebrated.
Featured image by Hannah Broughton.