They say the worst thing to be is ignored, but I wouldn't know. I have hair so large and frizzy you could see me coming from a football pitch away. I'm a bit pretentious. I make loud jokes and overshare and ask strangers who seem nice to meet for coffee, because why not. I'm yet to meet anyone as outwardly sociable as myself, which – depending on your disposition – could either be a good or bad thing.
Growing up, I wasn't ignored either. My fondness for books, debates and weird outfits meant I was relentlessly made fun of in primary school, consistently (and pretty creatively) insulted and taunted throughout secondary school and publicly ridiculed at university. I sort of had friends, but they were on-and-off and usually from outside the confines of whichever academic institution I was attending at that point in time, so really provided little respite from the bullies.
There's an accepted rhetoric and accepted roles when it comes to bullying: a victim who is helpless and introverted, who over the years becomes more and more ostracised and insecure, who will often tumble into a pit of depression or social anxiety; and a perpetrator – an evil, thuggish figure with "problems at home" who takes it out on the most vulnerable. This may be true in some cases, but in my own experience it's not quite as black and white.
A couple of years ago I went away for a weekend with a close female friend of mine, who – like me – is outgoing to the point of obnoxious. At one point I asked if she thought we would have been friends had we met ten years earlier. "There were a bunch of us at school who used to hang out. We were blonde and thin and wore a lot of make-up. No one messed with us," she told me, slurring slightly by this point because of all the wine. "To be honest, Sirena, I probably would have made your life hell."
She knows about the bullying – about the Facebook group a bunch of 19-year-olds made during university to discuss how awful they thought I was. She knows because I've told her, and others, because I'm not ashamed of being bullied. It's not my dirty little secret; it's one of the many things that helped shape the person I am today. Of course, the same can't be said for everyone; I'm lucky that I was able to process the bullying rather than internalise the pain and let it affect me in later life.
My friend, it seemed, fell under into that latter group – even though she'd been the bully, not the bullied. She was visibly ashamed as she told me of the time her and her clique had told the fat girl with the NHS glasses that the class heartthrob fancied her, just to watch in peals of laughter as she went over to ask him out. She also looked stricken as she recounted the time an unpopular bookworm had been invited to a sleepover, only to have her eyebrows shaved off.
"Yeah, you were a bitch then," was my response. "But don't worry too much; maybe they turned out like me."
Liam Hackett is one of the most successful people I've met in a long time. At just 24, he's the CEO of a digital marketing agency and the founder of anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label.
He was also bullied throughout his teenage years, and even hospitalised after a particularly brutal physical attack, but he credits these experiences with giving him the drive and ambition to excel academically and launch a career which has seen him make regular media appearances and public speeches.
"The bullying I experienced has been my driving force," he said. "If you grow up with a lot of rejection around you, as an adult you want to protect yourself, and everyone does that differently. For me, it's certainly led to my success. It's weird to say bullying can have a positive impact, but it's all about how different people deal with it. It can be a really positive thing."
It's fascinating to meet someone whose trajectory is similar to my own – who can perhaps understand that once you've been ostracised from what feels like the only social circle that'll ever matter, it's hard to give a fuck about someone at work not inviting you out for a drink, or a friend's friend finding you a bit annoying, or someone on the tube sniggering at your outfit. The worst has been and gone, so you might as well just be yourself and see what happens: it can't be that bad.
For anyone being bullied who might be reading this, I understand that this is easier said that done; that attitude shift isn't going to happen overnight. You need experiences outside of your age group and immediate contemporaries, whether that's a retail job or a book club or anything in between, to find out who you can be when you're not just The One Who's Picked On.
I spoke to Lisa*, a 21-year-old who's about to start university and is petrified of once again being singled out and bullied by classmates. She's been a target since she was nine years old, verbally harassed and ostracised both online and at school, and regularly told that she should commit suicide and break her limbs.
She told me: "I didn't apply after my A-Levels because I've been suffering from anorexia for years and only just recovered. I just wait for the abuse and judgement and tend not to talk at all. I'm scared about university because I really don't want to relive my past, and because I'm so shy, I don't know how I'm going to make friends. I panic about it every day."
I wish I could have told her that university would be different – that adults tend to not be such massive pricks – but I can't, because I don't know that for certain. All I can say is that it will most likely get better one day.
Ana Bird is in her twenties and works as a virtual assistant in Nottinghamshire. Like me, she has no shame or embarrassment about having been bullied. She's happy to be identified and speaks openly about how, as a teenager, she was hit, kicked, called names, had her hair burnt with a lighter, rumours spread about her and possessions stolen and ruined.
When it became intolerable she left school and, through independent learning, managed to ace her A Levels and get a job in her chosen field. She said: "As a result of the bullying, I've learnt coping mechanisms and I'm a more resilient person. I've had my trauma, so as an adult I know who I am and I'm comfortable with that. I like who I am, and I can almost thank the bullies in a way, because they made me who I am."
However, removing herself from the academic institutions that failed to protect her and finding a unique voice hasn't stopped Ana's experiences impacting her life. She says one of the reasons she's terrified of having children is the fear that they might go through anything remotely similar to what she endured.
"The people I want my future children to be fit into the 'bullying victim' stereotype," she said. "Well spoken, good manners, smart, school lovers, kind. This terrifies me, because I've been there. The bullying is a factor in my possible choice to have children, and that is kind of sad."
Despite how unaffected she seems, the troubles during Ana's educational career have, predictably, had a profound affect on her. Her admission makes me realise that perhaps my adamance against ever being a parent comes from subconsciously sharing her fears. Underneath my exterior, do I actually still believe that being bullied is the worst thing that could happen to a person?
Professor Chris Kyriacou teaches Educational Psychology at the University of York and has written countless theses around bullying. I asked him what leads to being a bully or a victim during school years. His response was reassuring: "In certain circumstances, almost anyone can become a bully or a victim," he said. "But often a bully may be facing problems in their personal lives for which bullying someone offers some relief and social status. Victims are often just in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Bullying can be a horrendous thing to go through, and is not something I would wish on anyone. If you're being bullied, it's important you talk to someone about it – whether that's a friend or a parent, or a charity like Ditch the Label – because if you voice your worries to someone else, they can help you process them rationally. It's also important to remember that things get better; they did for me, they did for Liam, they did for Ana, they will for Lisa, and they will for you, too.
*Name has been changed to protect anonymity.
If you or anyone you know is being affected by bullying, contact Ditch the Label here.
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