Thursday, 13 April 2017

There's Always Hope: On Bullying and 13 Reasons Why

Trigger Warning: This post talks about bullying and suicide.

Please note: This was a difficult post to write. This isn't something I like talking about much, or that I like remembering. So please forgive me if this isn't up to scratch with my usual writing.

13 Reasons Why TV Show Poster

Yesterday, I finished watching the Netflix original show 13 Reasons Why, an adaptation of a YA novel of the same name I read several years ago. Hannah Baker has committed suicide, and she has left casette tapes behind, detailing the 13 reasons - the 13 people - who led to her taking her own life. I don't think I could ever articulate how much this show has affected me. It deeply upset me. But for the right reasons. Hannah Baker committed suicide, because of how people treated her and the bullying she experienced, and no-one saw the warning signs. No-one.

This series is so incredibly important. The only way to know just how powerful this show is is to watch it. It shows you how small actions that might seem like nothing to you can have such an impact on others. This show could help so many people. So many. Not only those who are depressed and/or feeling suicidal, but also open the eyes of those who don't realise the impact their actions can have. This is a fictional story, but it's true that teenagers have taken their own lives due to bullying.

I felt I needed to highlight just how important this show is, but to contribute, in a small way, to the work this show is doing. By telling a real life story - but one that has a different ending to Hannah's - in the hopes that it may show people who are feeling similarly to Hannah that there is hope, that these feelings don't last forever, and that there's light at the end of the tunnel.

A girl sitting on a bench, her hands either side of her as she looks down sadly.

When I was 16, I cried myself to sleep almost every night. I was bullied - mildly bullied, as I always qualify to myself; I didn't experience anything like what some people do. Nothing like what we're seeing Bex experience in Eastenders today, and nowhere near as bad, in some cases, as Hannah experiences. But if 13 Reasons Why shows us anything, it doesn't really matter the level of bullying you experience. I was bullied, and my life felt like hell.

Most of the time, I was invisble. I always preferred that; going under the radar, not drawing attention of the mean, popular crowd. (I would like to point out that being popular doesn't automatically make someone a bully. Not all of the popular people in my year bullied me, but all of the people who bullied me were popular). When they didn't notice me, my school life was more bearable. But being invisible is a form of bullying in itself; I wasn't worthy of notice. I was happier at school when I was invisible, but I was always aware of how people saw me. Not cool enough, not attractive enough, too smart, too well behaved, too quiet, too shy. But not being thought of, as I said, also has it's affect. Not good enough, not worth enough - not worth anything.

But then there were the times when I wasn't invisible. When I was noticed, but not for the right reasons. There was a guy who thought I fancied him. I didn't. At first, he would tell me stupid jokes. So stupid, they just weren't funny. And I would be criticised for not laughing. "I know it uses all the muscles in your face, Joanne, but just smile!" He would continue to try and tell me jokes, each one worse than the one before. It got ridiculous. The jokes were ridiculous. I laughed, because it was just so stupid that he thought I would find these jokes funny. That was funny. And I laughed. That was my mistake. It led to more attention from him, him bringing me to the attention of others. He would tell people he was the only person who could make me laugh.

There was another guy, not a friend, exactly, but someone I was friendly with. He never, to my knowledge, said a bad word about me. He was playful and silly, and he liked to try and wind me up. After lunch, my year would have to line up in our classes before being allowed back into the school. He would tap me on the shoulder, and then look elsewhere, pretending it wasn't him. At first, I was never sure who it was, but after a while, I realised he was always near when it happened. It was him. It was annoying, but in an amusing way. In class, whenever he walked behind me to get to his own table, he would mess up my hair. Not badly or anything, just a quick rub on top of my head as he walked by. Again, annoying, frsutrating, but still kind of funny. There was nothing malicious in what he was doing. It was just who he was.

But the other guy saw what he would do, and started copying. He would mess up my hair. He would tap me on the shoulder. It's the same actions, right? It shouldn't make any difference. But it did. He wasn't trying to make me laugh and annoy me at the same time, he was laughing at me. Other people would see, and laugh, too. What was innocent and amusing became torment. But wouldn't stop there. When he thought the teacher wouldn't hear, he would whisper my name to get my attention. When I automatically looked up on hearing my name, he would wink at me, or kiss the air. As he did, everyone around him was already looking at me, waiting to see my reaction, grins on their faces, lapping up how uncomfortable it made me feel.

And it got worse. This guy made plans. At the end of one lunch time, when my year was lined up, waiting for the teachers to arrive to send us in, he put his plan into action. Loudly, so that a lot of people could hear, he began to humiliate me. He made a big joke about how he fancied me. talking about how hot I was, how I got him going. He had prepared clever little rhymes, things he would sing-song, commenting on how I looked. While he laughed. While my class laughed. While those on eaither side of my class laughed. Because he was loud. This was his performance, and I was the butt of the joke. It was all just so funny, him making it clear how ugly he thought I was, by saying the opposite, how he would never, could never, want me, by saying how much he did. A girl in the line a few people behind me asked her friend, "Surely he can't be serious?!" To which her friend replied, "Of course not, it's Joanne. She'll never have a boyfriend."

I stood there, facing forwards, as the seconds dragged by, hearing these people laugh at my expense, him saying these cruel things, trying so hard not to cry. All I wanted to do was run out of the line, into the school from the playground, and then out the doors. I wanted to leave. I wanted to escape. But I didn't want to give them what they wanted. I didn't cry. I stood still. I put a neutral expression on my face, as if I couldn't hear. I didn't react.

That came later that night, when I was in bed. Because it wasn't just the humilation, though that was bad enough. It's what they were all telling me. I was ugly. I was nothing. I wasn't worth the dirt under their shoes. I was nothing. And this is just one guy over several weeks, but he wasn't the only one. There were several people who would go out of their way to make it clear to me that I wasn't good enough, I wasn't liked, I wasn't wanted. And, individually, these small little things might seem like nothing, but collectively, it hurt. It hurt me. Remembering it still does. How worthless I felt. Because they're all saying the same things, and they can't all be wrong, surely? So I must be worthless. I must be nothing. I must not be good enough. I must be ugly.

The pain, the emptiness, the loneliness Hannah feels in the second half of the series, I related to. When she talks about how she was just a problem for everyone, I got that. I got it into my head that no-one actually cared. Despite evidence to the contrary, I believed my friends didn't actually like me, they just felt sorry for me, pitied me, but they didn't care. I believed my family didn't love me, but they were stuck with me, they had no choice. Neither my friends nor my family did absolutely anything to back up what I was thinking. My family only ever showed me love. And yes, I would get into fights with my friends occassionaly, but they did care about me. But these people got into my head, and twisted things. I would lie in bed crying, viciously telling myself how I was nothing, I was worthless, I wasn't worth the ground beneath anyone's feet, that nobody cared, and everyone would be better off if I never existed. I know how that sounds. But for all those months, I was never suicidal. I was extremely unhappy, I was unhappy being me, but it didn't occur to me to kill myself. My thoughts didn't go from "They would be better off if you never existed," to "So you should just end it."

Not until one day. I was using some scissors for homework. They were a particularly sharp pair of scissors that my brother and I were only allowed to use very rarely, because we might accidentally hurt myself. As I finished what I was doing, and was putting everything away, I picked up those scissors, and the thought entered my head. It wasn't a thought in words, but just a feeling that everyone would be happier if I wasn't here. Then my sleeves are rolled up, my wrist is facing upwards, and I've got those scissors open, and I'm seconds away, seconds... and instead I launch the scissors across the room, shout at them, "I won't let you beat me!" And then I pick up a pen and pad paper and write a letter to my best friend at the time, pouring absolutely everything out on to the page, tears pouring down my face. I told her everything. I held nothing back. And she was there for me, she supported me. She listened. She listened.

She lived in Somerset, nowhere near me. She couldn't physically be there for me, but she was my outlet, and she listened to me without judgement. To be perfectly honest with you, I don't know where I would be now if I didn't have her to talk to. It took a huge amount of courage to talk to her, to tell her everything, but it was exactly what I needed. It didn't make things better, but I felt heard. And she challenged every negative thought I had. She couldn't wave a magic wand and fix everything in my life, she couldn't fix me and how I felt, but the fact that she listened, that I was able to talk to her, was a massive help. A huge help. Nobody else knew what I was going through, not until years later. She was the only person. She pretty much saved my life.

And things did get better. School ended, and I never had to see those people again. The bullying stopped. People talked to me. My group of friends expanded as we became a bigger group with some of the other guys in sixth form - including that guy who used to mess up my hair. I don't know, maybe they were victims of the mean, popular people, too. Or maybe they just didn't want to get the backlash that might come with being seen being friends with me. But there were people who were friendly who had never taken the time to know me before. Sixth form was so much easier. We all felt a little more able to be ourselves. There were more people who liked me. And slowly, those thoughts I had, they started to get quieter. It took me a hugely long time to get my self-esteem up to a healthy level. Years. But things did get better, I became happier. Now? I'm happy with who I am, with how I look, with my life, and don't give much of a damn to what anyone else thinks. And you can get here, too.

And the road to healing started with talking. I cannot emphasise enough just how important it was that I had someone to talk to. That emptiness, that pain, is too much to bear on your own. It's a heavy weight, and will only get heavier. If you're feeling at all anything like I did, like Hannah did, talk to someone. Anyone. A friend, a family member, a teacher, a co-worker, or an organisation like The Samaritans. I promise you, someone will help. This doesn't last forever. There is another way out. There's nothing wrong with asking for help.

You are worth so much more than you can ever possibly imagine. There are so many people who love you, even if you think there aren't. There are people who care, and there are people who would desperately try to help you if they knew. It doesn't have to end here. Talk to someone. There is happiness in your future, I promise you there is. But you have to fight each day to get there. I know that seems hard and scary, but there are those who will fight with you. Don't give up. There's so much more you have to give. Keep going, keep fighting, and talk to someone. There's always hope.

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1 comment:

  1. I'm so sorry to hear that you've been through this, Jo. I know how utterly dreadful people like that can make others feel and it's just horrid that you were victim of it. It's so heartening to hear that you had the support of your family and friends and that, ultimately, they helped you through. I always wonder if those people, those bullies, ever spare a thought for the mark they leave on people's lives? It saddens me but I doubt they do.

    It's great that you've spoken out about your difficult experience because it's so important to raise awareness and make people stop and think about their own actions. And to let other people who are being bullied know that there is a way to be happy and free. Lots of love xxx