Safety in Isolation: The Consequences of Being Bullied

Safety in Isolation: The Consequences of Being Bullied

Kintsugi is the ancient Japanese art of fixing broken pottery with the use of gold, silver or platinum in order to highlight the fractures that are now part of the object’s history. Rather than hide the flaws, the point is to celebrate them. It’s taken me 35 years to realize that it’s okay to be broken.

I’ve always been sensitive. One of my earliest memories was being taught to ride a bike by my dad, on the street near our house. My bike had ‘stabilisers’ fixed to the rear wheel. Two neighbouring boys watched my attempts at balancing and laughed. My dad told me to ignore them dad but I couldn’t get their reactions out of my mind. It didn’t take long before I was labelled ‘soft’, ‘a jessie’, and ‘a stupid gay boy.’

At secondary school, I was an easy target for bullies. I was shy and blushed easily – particularly if sex was mentioned. I can’t recall how it happened but one bully noticed this. ‘Do you know what a penis is?’ I won’t use names here but I will use initials; it was PL, a boy who seemed keen to make my life a misery. I was embarrassed, and said no. It quickly became a blood sport, with people lining up to humiliate me. The questions became more sexually explicit. ‘Do you know what a fanny is?’ ‘Do you know what shagging is?’ ‘Anal sex?’ Fear froze in my bones. What does shame feel like? Like a toxic mixture of fear and self-consciousness.

The incidents became more frequent; I became conditioned into believing I deserved it. I would walk into a classroom, someone would make a joke at my expense, and everyone would stare. I wanted to disappear. On it went, day after day of casually administered hurt. Some days I was so scared, I would have breakfast and immediately throw up what I’d just eaten.

On a school trip to Chester Zoo, PL stood up in a carriage and announced that he was in love with me. People laughed and another piece of me died. On another occasion, he stole my watch, or rather he ‘borrowed’ it, and then claimed to have lost it. The school did nothing to challenge his claim and he carried on laughing.

There’s a continuum of bullying behaviour which starts with teasing, and progresses to verbal abuse and physical attacks. MJ grabbed my hand in the school dark room, and made me put in on a hot plate; I pretended to find it funny because I was desperate to be liked. DR once pushed me down a flight of stairs; another time, he stood next to me in the toilets, and urinated down my trousers, chuckling at his own brilliance. I recently discovered he’s in prison for murder.

One damp afternoon in November 1980, MB punched me in the head. He said I was boring – though he at least had the courtesy to tell me it was going to happen. I watched the hours tick by with an increasing dread and at 4pm he stuck to his promise. The event was witnessed by JS, someone I once considered a friend; he cackled like a drunken Hobgoblin, and then scurried off to spread the gossip.

The next day, people whispered in corridors when I walked past, and I decided to become invisible. The only way to survive was to isolate. I was afraid of everyone. People hurt me, I reasoned, and the belief became pathological. I used to eat my lunch in a toilet cubicle in the school science block for the simple reason that nobody ever went in there. On a trip to the Natural History Museum, I walked round alone; when I crossed paths with someone from school, I hid behind the exhibits, ashamed of my loneliness. I built a fence and a moat around myself, and in front of that a barbed wire fence; a form of perverse ostracism.

This pattern continued for years, long past the point where it continued to serve my higher good. In my twenties and thirties, I would spend entire weekends alone: binge watching television, aimlessly wandering around record shops, and engaging in various addictive practices which only deepened my self-hatred. I kept everything to myself. Deep down, I was dying of loneliness. I needed someone to put their arms around me and tell me everything was going to be okay.

I’ve had thousands of shame attacks. If someone looked at me with anger or indifference, the old feelings of worthlessness would rise to the surface. I still find confrontation difficult. If my line manager says ‘Can I have a word?’, my body fills with anxiety. Intimate relationships are difficult because it takes a long time for me to trust people.

According to John Bradshaw, shame is the master emotion, and the motivator behind all toxic behaviours, such as compulsion, co-dependency, addiction, hypervigilance and people-pleasing. I’ve suffered from all of these conditions, along with several others like anxiety and depression. For a long time, I experienced paranoia, convinced everyone was talking about me. I used to have recurring dreams in which ants, snakes and spiders crawled over my body; if that’s not a metaphor for feeling uncomfortable in your own skin, I don’t know what is.

It’s taken me 35 years of therapy to work through my hurt. In my darkest moments, I’ve got on my knees and asked God to end my life. The pain has been overwhelming. People say ‘forgive and forget’, without really considering the amount of work it takes to do so. It would easy to become angry and bitter but that’s not my style.

I’m still broken. Only now I chose to wear my brokenness like a crown. Turning pain into gold takes the shame out of it. If I could travel back in time, what would I say to my 15 year old self? ‘You’re a good person. You’ve done nothing wrong. It’s not you – it’s them.’


Steve Timms


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