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Why We Need to Change How We Think About ‘Bullying’


Editor's Note

If you have experienced emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

I remember being surrounded by a group of my peers, being hit and pushed so I fell into a rose bush and spent the next few hours picking thorns from my legs. One of those who attacked me wielded a metal pole as a weapon.

He wasn’t the first to threaten or use a makeshift weapon on me. He wouldn’t be the last. Skipping ropes – the wooden handled ones – make remarkably good flails when aimed at someone’s head. I’ve had rocks thrown at me. I’ve had bubblegum put in my hair. I have been attacked so regularly I became afraid to walk to the local shop or go outside.

During the rose bush/metal pole incident, my one friend ran home to get my mam, who came to rescue me. The first words I said to her were “but I didn’t cry.” I hadn’t. My abusers had hit me, pushed me into roses, threatened me with a swinging metal post, but I didn’t cry. I didn’t fight either because teachers tell you not to retaliate as that makes you guilty of wrongdoing too. I got up, they continued pushing me down, I got up, they repeated pushing me down. But I was proud of myself because I didn’t cry. Such a silly thing to be proud of, but it mattered because I’d been told to “toughen up” so often by my teachers. That was the worst lesson I’ve learned as it both led to me bottling up emotions and also led to me ignoring what was happening to me, even when it should’ve been reported. It taught me that people can and would do anything they wanted to me, which then affected interpersonal relationships and even how I reacted to sexual contact, but I’ll get to that.

First, I want to talk about emotional abuse as it feeds into the erosion of “self.” I remember being surrounded by a group of my peers, being hemmed into a bus seat so I couldn’t escape the wall of jeering faces. The called me fat, ugly, Morticia, Wednesday, Uncle Fester. They sang the Addams Family theme at me, and it caught on until the whole bus was singing at me and laughing. That happened almost daily for four years and I couldn’t escape. Even walking up the street, I’d hear the clicks or claps and know that tune was about to begin. It was so much a part of everyday life that I walked in time with it, and the people singing even commented on that.

It sounds silly. Or rather, the world tells children it’s silly, it’s part of growing up, turn the other cheek, just ignore it… Ignore being made to feel like there’s something wrong with you every day.

Now imagine, as an adult, going to work every day and having your colleagues call you fat, or ugly, or worthless, or hearing them sing a tune whenever the boss wasn’t within hearing that implied those things. Or imagine your husband or wife called you fat, or ugly, or worthless, or sung tunes that implied the same. Imagine, as an adult, being dragged behind a garage and hit and kicked, and pinned. Imagine someone bigger than you swinging a metal pole at you or aiming a makeshift flail at your head. It would be called abuse. It would be called assault.

Maybe it’s time we stopped calling peer abuse among children “bullying.” It isn’t a b-class event that is part of growing up. It’s abuse. It’s systematic torture in an environment we force children to attend so they can’t escape. It started when I was 6, in a local first school where the headmistress claimed “there was no bullying in her school.” She was right. There was no bullying in her school. There was abuse, and a lot of it. At 9, I started middle school and had to get the school bus; it was there I learned to fear being crowded and hemmed in. At 12, I moved schools and the abuse lessened, but I still faced it in my home village. Unfortunately, I moved into a school where my father taught and so every kid he told off felt obliged to take it out on me, often by throwing stones. It didn’t really stop until I went to college at 16.

Right until meeting my now-husband at 18, my low self-worth affected the intimate situations I found myself in. I’d been told to “ignore it” and “turn the other cheek” so many times that when another girl — we were about 12 at the time — wanted to touch me and have me touch her, I was too scared to say no, even though I wanted to, because I didn’t want to lose one of the few friends I had, and because I was used to my peers doing whatever they wanted to me. I ignored that it felt wrong and buried how horrible and loathsome I felt over it. I felt guilty afterward, and that guilt still haunts me. That was only the first instance though. There are several others but one that sticks in mind is the night of my 18th birthday. A stranger in a bar pushed his hand down my top without permission; I didn’t report the incident because I had been taught to just ignore what was being done to me. He then kept throwing peanuts down my top as an excuse to reach in and get them. That was my first night as an adult.

I suffered 10 years of abuse. Ten years. The majority of my childhood was lived in fear, having my sense of self eroded before it had a chance to fully develop. The result is a combination of mental illnesses. The psychosomatic migraines started aged 8, but the conditions I’ve been diagnosed with are borderline personality disorder (BPD), depression, general anxiety, social phobia and agoraphobia. Binge eating is a symptom causing weight gain, which may or may not have worsened my physical illnesses too. I will suffer as a consequence for the rest of my life.

I wasn’t bullied. I was abused. We need to be aware that what seems on the surface to be “kids being kids” actually opens the door to exploitation and ill-health. It kills.

Photo by Kat Jayne from Pexels