IT COULD STILL BE DAMAGING
It’s hard to look dignified when a jug full of school custard has just been emptied into your lap. But life had been full of indignities since we’d moved up North. With an unfortunate London accent, from the age of nine, I was bullied by the group of girls I called my new friends.
The unwritten rules of this clique were a mystery to me. I put up with the whisperings behind my back, the exclusions from their in-jokes and the humiliations; all I wanted was to belong.
When I got punched in the face by the ringleader for speaking when it “wasn’t my turn” I made no attempt to throw a punch back — I just cried.
All that changed with Custardgate. Whether one of the clique ‘jestingly’ knocked it in my direction or I elbowed the jug off the table myself, I can’t be sure.
But none of these girls I called friends lifted a finger to help when I ended up covered in Bird’s Instant. And when they abandoned me publicly and ran off laughing I had a sudden moment of clarity.
Sitting there sobbing, as sticky yellow goop dribbled into my socks, another girl from my tutor group proffered a wad of paper towels and said ‘They’re not your friends.” I had to agree. So I became friends with her and life immediately got better. When the clique talked to me subsequently I barely gave them the time of day.
But of course, bullying leaves its scars and history has a tendency to repeat itself — a message at the forefront of the #StandUpToBullying campaign, which has its national awareness day today — seeking to shape attitudes to bullying early on and avoid people suffering long-lasting effects.
Like many others who have been victimised in childhood, self-esteem issues plagued me for a long time, making it hard to trust others. So when I worked in an office where a gobby, popular colleague would stage-whisper “Shhh everybody, she’s coming” when I walked into the room and then chortle at her own “joke”, I genuinely didn’t know how to take it.
Cliqueyness, whether in friendship groups or at work, made me a self-doubting wreck. I’d defer to the pushy types, unable to truly be myself or stand my ground.
Of course, sometimes what I perceived as bullying was actually perfectly innocent behaviour that happened to trigger my sense of victimhood. Your alpha colleagues being standoffish or sniggering in a huddle when you’re trying to deliver a presentation may remind you of being tormented by the Mean Girls at school, but that doesn’t mean it’s anything of the sort. Over-sensitivity to the slightest glimmer of cliquey behaviour can make office life a minefield.
So perhaps, with hindsight, a career in the dog-eat-dog world of journalism was an unwise choice. Turning up on the first day for freelance shifts at the offices of a magazine was like being the new girl at school all over again. I remember one job where the anxiety was so bad that I didn’t stop eating all day — bullying victims often have issues with compulsive behaviour.
Sometimes I clammed up, hardly able to squeak a word, even when I had plenty to say. On other occasions, it was more a case of self-deprecation and over-sharing — classic peoplepleasing behaviour of the bullied.
Tales of my goofiness, like that time I introduced myself to someone famous and mixed them up with someone else, would be produced like an exhibit as if to say to new colleagues, “Look how unthreatening I
“If someone’s trying to get a rise out of you it’s important to keep a sense of perspective and not revert to playing small.” The trauma can stay with you ... in adulthood. ... It’s an emotional hangover you can’t quite get rid of.” Rhona Clews, psychotherapist
At a glance: how to deal with bullying