When Bullied Children Grow Up

It’s been about 4 years since my diagnosis of Complex PTSD following severe psychological childhood bullying, and subsequent domestic violence relationships.

I was diagnosed a full year before I accepted that diagnosis. I left that therapist the moment she suggested the PTSD, and that it began with the bullying, because I had never associated the way that “friend” treated us as bullying. I’d merely seen it as one girl being a real bitch.

My counsellor came to her conclusion by asking me to detail my early childhood experiences. She had suspicions that the symptoms I was displaying were related to early childhood trauma, but I think that initially she suspected some sort of family abuse, until she heard about the loving and accepting and nurturing environment that my family had given me.

That’s when she began asking me about my experiences with friends, with school, and then with men.

That bullying label she applied to that girl.. it came as a shock. Through our sessions, I began to detail specific incidents; and in doing so, remembered more of them.

In order to explain the specific type of bullying I experienced, it’s probably easiest to liken it to a domestic violence relationship.

That girl started out sweet, and friendly. Within a very short period of time, she changed direction and would cast one of us out every couple of days, forcing the rest of us to go along with it under threat of being the outcast; the girl who nobody was allowed to speak to, the girl the group would whisper about behind their hands, the girl who would be laughed at and humiliated and occasionally pushed around the playground.

At 8 years of age, it’s a very scary and confusing experience, to have people that you love treating you in such a manner, with absolutely no explanation as to why.

What was more damaging was what happened when she decided your time as an outcast was over – she asked you why YOU had ignored THEM.

I now know that there’s a term for that behaviour, and it’s designed to make you question your own perception, to take the power away from you, the power that allows you to stand up for yourself. It’s called Gaslighting.

She began to control every aspect of our lives, both in school and out of school.

She decided which boys we should have a crush on. The boy she picked for me was a boy I actually had a crush on. She told me to ask him out, I did, she then became jealous when he bought me a gift, and she told me I had to break up with him. I did that, too.

None of us were allowed to have sleepovers without her being present. If we did, we had to keep it secret, so we couldn’t go back to school the following Monday and laugh and giggle about the silly little things we’d done. We had to tiptoe around each other and pretend nothing had happened.

It was rare for us to dare her wrath because inevitably, the girl you’d invited over, when she felt she was next in line for being outcast, would dob you in to protect herself. We all did it. It taught us that we couldn’t trust anyone, especially each other. We learned to keep happiness a secret, in case it was used against us.

We all discovered quickly that none of us were allowed to excel in anything. Some of us deliberately failed exams, others held back their sporting potential, and each of us tried desperately to become her Best Friend; the one afforded protection over all others.

She constantly accused us of having a secret.

Have you ever tried to prove you don’t have a secret? You can’t. You simply get accused of lying, regardless of what you say, and the conversation goes round in so many circles, with them suddenly changing direction, or throwing in another accusation, until your brain is so confused, and exhausted, and too full of anxiety over the consequences of this conversation that in the end, you just admit to something to make it stop – the punishment is preferable to the interrogation.

My first romantic relationship was practically identical to my relationship with this bully. He employed all of the same tactics, and threw in a whole bunch of cheating to go with it. The gaslighting, though. He was a master, and the end result of all of that relationship was a girl who didn’t believe in herself, her memories, or her own feelings. Everything I thought, felt, or saw was incorrect, so I lived a secret life on the internet, with friends he was unable to touch. It was the only place I had ever been allowed to learn who I was.

A year after that initial diagnosis, I went back to my therapist. I finally believed her.

From then, my mind was a place I didn’t recognise. All of the barriers I’d created over the years had been broken down, but life itself hadn’t stopped to allow me to process it. I didn’t know how to cope. It was touch and go for awhile there, with so much rage exploding onto the people I came into contact with, and the destruction of some dear relationships.

But I learned how to cope. I learned how to process it, and I learned how to put the pieces of my past together with the reactions of my present. I healed, I became a more productive member of society, I lost all that rage, the self-hatred, and a fair chunk of the shame I’d been carrying for the majority of my life. I don’t have panic attacks, I don’t react to current situations in a manner affected by all of my past. I can quite confidently say that my C-PTSD, while it will always exist within me, no longer affects my daily life.

It’s been a good four years.

I had a beautiful baby girl, who had some physical challenges in the form of Developmental Hip Dysplasia, but my therapy and diagnosis gave me all the tools I needed to get her and ourselves through it unscathed.

She’s recently started a couple of days a week at Day Care. It’s an exciting opportunity for her to socialise with other children.

While it’s a wonderful opportunity for her, I’ve found that it’s been quite triggering for me – I wasn’t expecting that.

My daughter is pure sunshine. She’s friendly, and happy, and loves to share. She adores other children, and gets so excited to spend time with them. What’s triggering me is the fact that at the moment, it’s her chasing after them.

It’s a silly thing to be hurt by.

I only see her at drop off and pickup; an emotional time for all of the children. It shouldn’t affect me that those children stick to the kids they already know, but it upsets me to see my daughter on her own so much. If she engages with another child, it’s because she initiated it, or she sits on the periphery, smiling or laughing at what they’re doing, just waiting to be invited to play.

This is most definitely a situation where only time will help. She needs to settle in to the environment and the concept of being away from her family for hours on end. They all need time to get to know each other. I know that once they’re comfortable, they’re going to adore her and she won’t even need an invitation to play.

I know that this is a situation where I need to remember that my experience is not her experience. I’m desperate for her to know something that I never did – the pure, guileless love of a friend you can trust. A friend who cares for you enough to stand up for you. A friend that you can spend time with, without worrying that the fun moments you’re sharing are going to be erased the very moment they dob you in for inviting them over.

I’m not worried that I will taint her experience with my own. I know that I can keep my hurt from clouding her life, because I was given the tools to do so.

I am just surprised by the extent of the damage done to me by one little girl, over a period of five tiny little years. Experiences that ended 20 years ago but are still resonating within my subconscious, despite therapy and all the work I’ve done to heal from them.

I’m not angry about it, I’m not hurt by it (anymore). I am aware that her behaviour had to have been due to her own experiences in her own life. I can’t blame an 8 year old girl for not having the tools she needed to deal with whatever traumatic situation she was experiencing. Her behaviour ended up putting me in that same position, years later.

I am just… surprised. I am in awe of the power of the brain, and of the consequences of traumatic childhood experiences.

I am also now more prepared for the future; for the days my daughter comes home crying because someone was mean to her. They’re going to trigger me. They’re going to make me angry, and they’re going to *hurt*. I am determined, however, to encourage my daughter’s natural empathy for the suffering of others, whilst helping her to cultivate a healthy self-esteem.

That’s far easier said than done. My own parents did exactly the same things for me, and I still fell into this trap. I refused their help when they tried to intervene. I forbade them from contacting the school or her parents because by that time, the damage had already been done. Just like with that high school boyfriend, I needed that bully to love me. I believed both of them when they told me that nobody else would want me, so I did all I could to become what they wanted me to be. Of course, what they wanted me to be was broken and in their control, so nothing I changed about myself ever made a difference, except in the damage it did to me.

For now, I’m going to work on putting my own feelings aside, and focus only on the positives that this new day care experience is providing for my daughter.

Hopefully, by the time bullying starts, I’ll have developed a strategy for helping my daughter through it.

You know, that… or schools will have actually done something to address the epidemic.

The building blocks you wish to crumble

Little girl. Big teeth. Eyes magnified by purple-rimmed glasses, one lens of which her mother has wrapped in kitchen paper to correct her newly diagnosed astigmatism… and yet the playground doesn’t taunt her. Nobody laughs at her. Or calls her four-eyes.

She plays with girls, with boys, her shy, chunky legs awkwardly trying to escape in a game of catch and kiss. Butterflies. A game of Witches (or hide and seek with a pointed hat).

Two years pass. Two years swinging from monkey bars, or bringing barbie dolls to school in a Grace Bros bag that had once carried those denim shorts she wore every weekend.

Sleepovers and secrets, giggles hidden behind hands as the divide began to emerge between boys and girls.

Filled up – that’s how she felt, all full of sun and smiling and the love of friends. Confidence, you’d probably call it, if you weren’t 8 years old with no real concept of what that meant.

Then a new face appeared – one with more confidence than everyone else combined. You didn’t need to know the word for it, you just knew she had it.

By association, so did we.

Until that day that the little girl with the big teeth and magnified eyes showed up to play with all her friends, and was met with silence, and a wall of shoulders covered in winter.

Her eyes locked with the girls she’d known since that first day she stepped into that giant kindergarten room. They couldn’t hold it. They stared at their feet, but she saw their own confusion, and .. something else she didn’t recognise.

Her heart beat faster.

“What have I done?” she asked them, confused.

Then angry.

Then sad.

Then scared.

“What have I done? Why won’t you talk to me?”

That silence, that cold fucking silence that stole the power from within her and lay doubt and self-blame at her own tiny feet. Her little brain tried to understand – logically, there was no explanation – the only reason someone would suddenly stop speaking to you was if you had done something bad.

So what had she done? Why wouldn’t they tell her?

The bell rang. Class started.

She couldn’t concentrate. She had to know. Nothing came to mind. She hadn’t said anything mean, or left anyone out. She’d brought dolls for everyone the day before. Her Grace Bros bag sat next to her chair, little plastic faces peering up at her.

Recess. She tried to speak to them. They walked away, no answers. Eyes began to watch, to whisper. The playground buzzed with the news. An empty metal seat beneath a tree held her nervous, confused, body as she cried for the first time. Alone. She had never been alone, before.

The bell rang for class. Nobody tried to speak to her. Nobody volunteered to sit with her. Nobody seemed to understand what had happened, but instincts kicked in – the Alpha had chosen an Omega.

The rest of the day was spent in a fog. She doesn’t remember walking to the bus stop, waiting silently in the bus line, or even the trip home. There was too much incomprehension to process.

She didn’t want to go to school the next day. Her body had never known depression or fear like this. It didn’t know what to do with it. She didn’t say a word to her parents, to any teachers. She climbed off the bus and walked into the playground.

To her friends, smiling at her. And to the Alpha, who put her arm around her and asked her why she didn’t sit with them yesterday. Had they done something wrong?

She remembers her heart filling with relief. Gratitude. Safety. And she remembers how easy it was to put aside the questions she had in case those questions saw her put out in the cold again.

She remembers how quickly the role of victim became hers. How quickly self-preservation crept into her makeup. How alert she became to warning signs that she was going to be picked again and how normal it felt for your stomach to boil, your heart to pound and for a part of your brain to start being told to be quiet when it whispered that this wasn’t normal.

“What is your biggest fear?”, asked a stupid Buzzfeed quiz.

I couldn’t answer.

“The silence of a person you love” wasn’t one of their multiple choices.

I Eat Breakfast Now – A woman’s struggle with the pressures of society in a world she doesn’t understand. A world that may never understand her.

I used to think breakfast was a jerk

I used to think breakfast was a jerk

When I was a teenager, I decided that I wanted to be one of those people who enjoyed yoghurt. I wanted to like it, because in my mind, yoghurt-eating-people were just better people. The same as tea-drinkers and people who eat cereal without sugar.

I had formed this theory at a very young age, following time spent in the home of a childhood friend, named ThatGirl*.

ThatGirl’s family were farm people. Her mum wore thick, heavy skirts with patchwork houses sewn onto them. Her dad was extremely tall, with a soft voice and a kind smile.

Their house was just around the corner from mine, and where my house was new, and modern, hers was old and sweet and cottage-like. It was always cold inside, but not in a bad way. It was cold in a quiet, well-behaved kind of way.

At ThatGirl’s house, shoes were taken off before you went inside. In my house, we were yelling and screaming at each other far too often to hear mum sigh “Girls, please. Take your shoes off”, as she struggled through the door beneath bags of groceries that we didn’t bother to help her carry.

At ThatGirl’s house, school uniforms came off the moment you got home. I would crumple mine from hitching it up to sit cross-legged on the floor, playing Mortal Kombat. I would spill dinner on it from concentrating on The Simpsons instead of what I was eating, and then I’d throw it on the floor, with the rest of my clothes, for mum to collect, clean and iron.

Such contrasts in family life could not go unnoticed, and I began to form completely unfounded opinions based around these differences.

For instance, I began to view anyone who drank tea rather than coffee as a person to emulate. People who drink tea probably also write letters to relatives and say “gosh” instead of “god”.

People who needed to ask their parents’ permission to drink a glass of coke probably also never got sent to the car at every family barbecue, like I did. To be fair, they probably didn’t pretend to be a dog like I did, either.

Most of all, I believed that the key to being The Perfect Person, was by eating breakfast. It had nothing to do with forcing myself to be more responsible or anything.

Nope. All about the breakfast.

Every day, breakfast, I mean. Not just “Bacon and Eggs on Sundays because Mum’s Not at Work” breakfast, but a real, proper, healthy breakfast.

ThatGirl had wholegrain toast with marmalade or a bowl of muesli with fresh fruit. She had a glass of orange juice, or a glass of milk.

I had chocolate bavarian and coke, because Nan refused to send me to school on an empty stomach.

In high school, I recalled that old theory of mine, and decided to aim for perfection once more – maybe as a teenager I would be able to handle breakfast, yoghurt, or tea?

Guess what?! I totally handled the shit out of yoghurt.

I handled it so well that I went through a 2 Litre tub every day for almost a month. I didn’t become a better person, I just became a much larger person who now had extra chins to spare.

I am now 31, and I am also a month and a half into being a non-smoker. It is the first time in 18 years that nicotine hasn’t flooded my body, and once again, I find myself trying to be a “good person”.

This time, I’m aiming higher than “yoghurt-enjoying” good person status, though. This time, it’s all or nothing.

The first day I tried eating a healthy breakfast, it took 2 hours for me to struggle through 100g yoghurt, 1/4 cup muesli and a handful of berries. Today, a week and a bit later, I’m down to just 1 hour.

If I keep practising, who knows where I could be in six months, a year?

Perseverance: If I can use it to make myself enjoy cold, wet cereal first thing in the morning, anyone can! *tooth sparkle*

(PS. Yay, No smoking!)

*not her real name.

Image credit: -Marcus-