When I was twenty-three I sent a message that I shouldn’t have. It was midday on a summer Sunday, the sort of day when nothing much gets done. I was sitting with my housemate, each of us working, and before I had time to regret the decision I had typed and tapped and it zipped off into the worldwide web.
The regret followed almost immediately.
This wasn’t an ill-worded text to an ex-partner, or an irate work email sent in the heat of the moment. This was a message sent on a carefully privatised social media account to someone whom I had not spoken to in almost ten years. It was a plea for them to account for their actions.
In the summer of my fifteenth year I stopped going to school. It wasn’t a choice I made, so much as a depletion of options that ended up making me. I have a distinct memory of lying in bed one morning, watching my alarm clock and counting the seconds, repeatedly promising myself that when I reached sixty I would rise, repeatedly failing.
Eventually my mother came through and, as she had been doing with increasing desperation since this saga started, tried to reason with me. I sat on the edge of my bed and stared fixedly at my bookcase until my chest began to feel like a balloon had blown up inside it. I forgot how to breathe. Mum abandoned reason in the face of her child turning mauve. Another day passed at home.
I still struggle with what to call it, what happened to me between ages eleven to fourteen. I know the facts, and they are that my peers hurt me, deliberately and consistently over a long period of time, until I was willing to do anything to escape the pain. In other contexts I know what this would be called. But this involved children and children are small and soft, so I suppose we’ll call it a small, soft word: bullying.
Here are three things I remember:
Sitting in a classroom, first lesson of the day, learning about monologues. Monologues, our English teacher tells us, are different from essays because they are meant to be spoken. The boy next to me nudges me, a sharp shaft of elbow into my ribs. I ignore him. My neck burns hot. He sniggers. The teacher continues.
A few lessons on, we read out our snippets of speech. The teacher calls on me. I am, at this point in my life, what my teachers call ‘quiet’ and my therapist will later call ‘selectively mute’. My schoolmates call me a lot of things. Encouraging me to speak out is intended as a kindness, a baton held out to me with the intent of passing on confidence. It doesn’t manifest as this. I stand, I tremble, I read out my words sotto voce. My monologue is about a washed up actress living in loneliness in a house too big for her. I reach the part where she reflects on her biggest regret; that she was offered love but turned it down. The boy next to me sniggers again, more loudly, and the laughter spreads like a rash through my classmates’ mouths. The connotation is obvious: who would ever love me? I sit down midsentence and refuse to continue. When the teacher gives up, I turn to my neighbour. He is watching me from under his eyelashes. People often use the word ‘feline’ to connote grace, but that’s never what I think of. Instead I think of this: playing with one’s prey. When I glare at him he mouths, ‘Oh dear.’ Sweet as a cat with unclipped claws.
Spring. I am walking home from school. I stayed late in the library and the road is empty. I am alone. Then, a male voice behind me, shouting. ‘Mary! Mary Poppins!’ I walk faster. The slap of approaching feet. Taller figures. Around me, surround me. Cage me in. Them and the school railings and me. Piggy in the middle. Braying voices saying what they want to do to me, repeating my name in a facsimile of ecstasy. The very idea, their laughter says, is laughable. Who would want to touch her? I can’t escape. I can’t speak. I can’t get past them without touching them. I fear their hands. I also fear their disgust.
Eventually they bore of me, sloping off across the field and levelling parting shots over their shoulders. I walk on, hot and cold all at once. When I reach a bin, nestled in the raspberry bushes I foraged from as a child, I retch into it until my throat aches. I’m shaking harder than the shrub leaves in the breeze. I pinch myself to reignite some sense. Get it together. No-one even touched you. They were only words.
For a long time I was unsure why these incidents stuck with me so. I’ve largely absorbed the majority of those three years into an unpleasant mass labelled That Time. That a few happenings remained with me, fervid as fire, I dismissed as coincidence. It has only been fairly recently that the benefit of retrospect has allowed me to analyse these moments more closely. To isolate a pattern.
There is a theory that trauma affects more than just the mind. When a person goes through extended periods of fear, the body becomes reset to interpret the entire world as a terrifying place. It starts to exist in a constant state of adrenaline. Geneticists are able to identify periods of starvation through analysing the bones of the ancient dead, reading the complex language of dead DNA through a microscope. What, I wonder, would they identify in me? Would they find rot and ruin, would they find tiny needles clattering around in my ribcage? Or would they just find nothing, a great hollow at the core of me, a testament to the uselessness of my body? To its powerlessness.
When I began to read my experiences through the lens of this theory, I saw a pattern emerging in the petri dish. Every moment that cut to my heart was an instance when I was taught that my body was voiceless, loveless, sexless — a producer of mirth, not birth. This flesh I inhabited was not a vessel for pleasure or purpose or progress, for dancing or running or hugging. It was a joke. The very notion that anyone might want to touch me, look at me and see anything other than a blank canvas to graffiti slurs on, was so pathetic as to be funny. I spent my formative years as a punchline; little wonder that I bruise easily.
I had always assumed it was an oddity inbuilt in me, that I shy from unexpected touch, that I contort myself to absurd degrees to avoid brushing against strangers, that I fear intimacy to an extent that has damaged my relationships. Now I suspect otherwise. My body is scar-tissue and livewires. My body is not my own. I am in my twenties, I have a job and a flat and a cat, I have a strong friendship group, I am financially stable — yet I am still a victim. Trauma prevents the brain from processing events and consigning them to the past, obstructs the procedure by which the mind builds a coherent narrative. I am a storyteller without a story. I am years away from that school, miles away from those people, but my brain and body never received that memo. My strings are still being pulled by teenagers.
It was around the time of this realisation that I went into freefall. The earth opened. I fell, head first, into the unprocessed past.
I was well into my undignified tumble down memory lane when I sent an old tormenter an unfettered, rambling demand for answers. There was still a part of me — bigger than I usually care to admit — that believed I was the cause of the whole ugly affair. If I wasn’t wrong, it wouldn’t have happened. I think this came across in my message, possibly because I ended it with ‘You’ll probably find this hilarious, at best, or pathetic, at worse. I guess it’s all in the past now.’ I’m sure, for them, it was.
I still don’t know what I expected to happen; I wasn’t thinking that far ahead. I was at the time plagued by nightmares and having regular panic attacks, all triggered by memories of school, and my actions took place in a confused frenzy of self-defence. I was being hurt by things that I couldn’t help remembering, by people whom I had never invited into my head, and how dare they?
I was terrified in the aftermath, aware that I had just re-opened doors that I had spent a decade holding shut. But I was also, in a perverse sort of way, spoiling for a fight. It had taken me nine years to psych myself up to it, after all. This punchline had developed a spine.
I didn’t get my fight. Instead, I got the one thing I hadn’t anticipated: an apology. I won’t reproduce the content of it here, but enough to say that it was honest and thoughtfully worded and, I believe, sincere. It didn’t erase the years I’d rather forget, and it didn’t undo the damage done. But I didn’t expect that. Instead it gave me something equally, if not more, valuable: a fresh perspective.
As a teenager I had the relative luxury of a polar outlook. The world in high school was split neatly into black and white: heroes and villains, popular and outcast, victors and victims. At the time I believed that the people who targeted me had perfect lives and were rubbing my face in it. As an adult my views are slightly more nuanced, but I was still binary-minded enough (at least when it came to my bullies) to be genuinely thrown by the reply I received and the revelations that it contained. For some reason, it had never seriously occurred to me that hurting others is just as much a symptom of deep unhappiness as my manifestations of misery were. But as the saying goes, hurt people hurt people. Reading and re-reading this message, both along and between the lines, I came to an understanding. It would signal the beginning of my climb out of the dark.
It is strange that the words ‘victim’ and ‘victor’ originate from the same Latin root word — victus, meaning ‘conquer’ — but have opposing meanings. It strikes me as a paradox of equal measure that one can simultaneously be a product of pain and a perpetrator of it. They are not mutually exclusive states.
Perhaps every dealer in hurt was once a recipient. Maybe not of the particular wrong they committed, but a victim nonetheless of any number of things; hurt rooted in abuse of power, insecurity, illness, poverty, parental mistakes, loneliness, unhappiness at school, unhappiness in self, the lack of a space in which to exist as themselves in their vital, their formative, years. The possibilities are near endless. The consequences are not: either one becomes a slave to one’s past, perpetuating the damage caused to you by forcing it on others — or you learn from it. You break the cycle. You conquer.
Ultimately, I think it comes down to a choice. Either you make it, or it will end up making you.
I write this at a time when powerful men are just beginning to be held accountable for their actions. Coupled with my own experiences, it has prompted me to ask questions anew about victimhood. When we think of the word ‘victim’, the image that comes to mind is of weakness, of a creature beaten down. However, watching the news and listening to the testimonies of accused and accusing alike, I have found myself asking who the weaker party really is. Those so in thrall to their own mismanaged issues that they are unable to control themselves? Or those claiming ownership of their bodies and their vulnerabilities and, in doing so, taking steps to re-establish their places in a narrative that tried to silence them?
I know what I believe.
It would be neat to claim that I’m fully recovered, cured by an impulsive decision and some kind words, but that would be dishonest. The darkness still looms. Occasionally my mind drifts unexpectedly, when I’m brushing my teeth or making my tea, and suddenly I’m down the rabbit hole, ten years weaker. The difference is that I’ve gained insight. I may have seen the worst of the people who did this to me, but that isn’t all they are, just as my past experiences are not all that I am. Nobody can be their whole self all the time, and certainly not at fourteen.
I’ve come to think that there is more power in forgiveness than anger — which is not to say I am completely there yet. But I have confidence more than ever that I will be, one day. After all, ‘victim’ and ‘victor’ are not mutually exclusive states.