It doesn’t take a lifetime of counselling and psychotherapy to help you realise that being bullied at school isn’t good for your mental health. It falls in the category of bears, woods, popes and catholics. But the process of reflection that comes from a period(s) of counselling/therapy can bring clarity and certainty to you even though afterwards it feels like it was so obvious.
My experience of counselling/therapy – like many, many other people – was that it provided me with not just a safe space to talk and be heard without being judged or feeling guilty for my feelings – but also a place to pause and time to think. A time to truly work out what was going on upstairs. Time away from the noise of work and family life. Time just for you and your thoughts, feelings and fears.
The process of writing this blog, (and my book – which is still a slow work in progress!) and talking to individuals and groups about my mental health journey, leaves me wondering how it took me so long to realise what seems so obvious now; why it took a breakdown for me to spot the tell-tale signs of depression and anxiety and the patterns in my thoughts and behaviours that started me on this path years and years ago.
The reality for me – and so many others – is that until we are forced to confront it – forced to question what has happened to us, usually as a result of a crisis, sadly often involving hospitals and breakdowns – we do not see what is staring us in the face. Taking time to talk through stuff; think through stuff; understand stuff; can provide the time and space for the light bulb to go on. It did for me. It gave me the opportunity to quietly and calmly piece together the jigsaw of experiences and influences that have shaped my life.
A parental divorce here; more than one or two bullies there; the failure to maintain a relationship with my father despite trying very hard over many years; the loss of a very close relative – someone who just got me; the years of feeling like I don’t fit in even though I was good at moulding myself to make it seem like I did to those around me; the learnt behaviour of being busy to avoid sitting still and having to face realities; the loneliness and fear of being abandoned; the pressure of not wanting to let anyone down; the suffocating desire to succeed at work; the need to feel safe and loved.
So many of us encounter these and other childhood and early adulthood traumas and experiences that shape our lives. Many can ride them out; but many cannot. For me, the pattern of fears, worries and insecurities that were set very early in life – at school and before – left their mark on me as life got busier and I stretched my emotional elastic band.
I was bullied at primary school; I was bullied at secondary school (from day one); I was bullied at sixth form. I look at my little girl now and think back to that little boy (and I was little); the boy who was different (reading broadsheet newspapers before I was 10; wanting to be an MP, in fact the PM; doing drama at school and outside school; listening to the news on the radio, never the music) but not so different that it would have raised a flag at home and/or at school so that people might have thought there was something wrong. Playing and loving sport helped to hide the misfitting.
I learnt to be good at fitting in; to getting on with people (even though I didn’t really have any great, close friends at school – none that lasted more than a little while at that time). I was hiding in plain sight. I created my own protective bubble to keep me safe. I avoided the bullies when possible – although that was hard. I got to school at 8am to avoid the rush in the corridor and locker rooms – when pushing, shoving and name calling was rife. I befriended teachers – good people whose company I enjoyed and whose interests better matched with mine. I ate lunch alone and on a table with others but alone. When I think back now, I spent almost every lunchtime in my last two years at secondary school in the office of four or five teachers who, like me, were happy to talk politics, current affairs, football and cricket. It was just as well, as there weren’t many other options for me.
My parents knew I was bullied and were understanding and supportive but they didn’t know the half of it – or even the quarter of it. What was the point in worrying them? I was just ploughing on; battling on; handling it. I realise now that my coping strategies that would unravel in my mid-thirties were already well set in my early teens. The head down; stay busy; keep going approach was already well engrained. As was the worrying; the fears; the planning for every possible scenario. I remember now the young boy who hated going on holiday for fear the plane would crash; who checked and doubled-checked the doors and windows before he went to bed for fear of burglars or the bogeyman; who spent the first few minutes of any holiday or night away walking around the hotel or apartment working out where everything was; who didn’t swallow meat for around four years after a choking in a scary moment with a piece of bacon, for fear of dying.
These are common fears and all children have moments of worry about these things and others, but mine were not passing thoughts but constant, overbearing fears and worries. If I heard my parents arguing I assumed one of them would leave; if someone called my name at school I assumed I was about to be called names, kicked or pushed; if I saw a police car, I believed it was heading for my house as a result of some accident or disaster.
My fear of being let down or abandoned meant I never really made deep, lasting friendships at school and did it only once I had left and I had friends – mostly older than me – who I felt I could trust – or with people of my age who reached a point in their lives when bullying was off their agenda. My trust in people was – is – very low. My need for constant reassurance from those I do let close to me is very, very high. Sorry, Dr J!
I was a hyper-vigilant child – always taking in every scene before me – how many people, what are they wearing, what are they all up to – and took this into adulthood. I had every place sussed out the moment I arrived. Every cafe. Pub. Shop. Bus. Street. This helped me to feel safe and secure and to anticipate where the danger might come but it was also exhausting and led to me being very jumpy. It was a running joke amongst my friends in my twenties that I was always on edge and jumped out of my skin at the merest unexpected noise. It is one of the reasons I hate fireworks – one of my least favourites things on this planet.
I took this vigilance into parenthood; watching for any minuscule sign that something was wrong; fretting over every cough, heavy breath or noise. Again, almost all new parents – especially first-time parents – have these moments but for me they became my whole life. I was a boy who was still regularly wetting the bed well into my primary school days – a textbook sign of childhood anxiety – and count as some of my strongest memories from childhood those moments when I felt I was being left or forgotten, including a bizarre attachment I made to a family on holiday in Spain when I was only around six and I sobbed the day they left on the bus.
I have been thinking about all of this over the last few days as I have been reading Frankie Bridge’s excellent book, ‘Open’, about her own mental health struggles, including from childhood. It is so reassuring to hear about others who have been on similar journeys and have found understanding through talking. I hear these stories and it reinforces my view that some stuff just happens to us; some stuff we are just born with; and some stuff could have been different if we have made better choices. But the most important thing I have learnt is that we can only truly understand what makes us tick and how we can be the best versions of ourselves by talking about it; being listened to; being loved.
I am lucky to have all three of these in my life; but I still need to work hard, every day, all the time, to stay on top of things. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t but talking is the key; it’s the only option for me.