A few weeks ago I shared with you a link to the story “Mark” by Tony Rutt. Tony shared his experience of his childhood bully in the story. I contacted Tony and he was nice enough to share an interview he did that further talks about his experiences. I thought I would share that interview here as well with you. Here’s the interview with Tony:
What made you decide it was the right time to write about your experiences?
It was suggested that I write about my own personal story, rather than other writing I was then doing. I was not initially enthused at the prospect of writing about my traumatic childhood. I felt that I knew what had happened only too well and that it wasn’t a story worth telling. Fortunately I was persuaded otherwise as I now see the value of literally and metaphorically ‘capturing’ that traumatic period, and that in writing about it I am, in a way, encasing the experience and to some extent ‘closing the book ‘ on that period of my life finally. And by speaking up now and telling my story, I am doing something I was unable to do back then.
What was your worst personal experience during your time in school?
It was the sustained and persistent bullying, threats and demands that occurred virtually every week, term after term. With nearly two years to go until I could leave what was then Westwick School and go to the comprehensive, I was already counting, or rather I was trying not to count, the days I had to go, the time I had to survive. So that overall period was the worst. Either I was being bullied or was worried about the next time it would inevitably begin again. It was a terrorizing time that the term ‘bullying’ doesn’t capture.
Probably the lowest point was when I couldn’t satisfy the demands being made upon me, and face him at school, and instead of walking to school I walked about twenty miles towards my Grandmother who lived outside Aylesbury. That was a desperate act, and a defiant one from an obedient child that I knew would have consequences.
Do you feel you received the right support at the time for what you were going through?
No. On one hand it could be argued that because I didn’t speak up and no one knew what was going on, then what support could I have expected? On the other hand, it wasn’t up to me to manage a classroom or address disciplinary issues. I wasn’t the adult in the room. If any adult had been paying attention then some support might have been forthcoming. I certainly communicated my deep unhappiness about the school in verbal and non-verbal ways, but unfortunately no-one delved into it with me. An Educator who read the story noted that he had no idea that such a sub-culture of fear and intimidation could happen under the veneer of a ‘normal’ classroom.
What do you feel could have been better?
Well I think it was clear for all to see what my persecutor was up to, and not just towards me, and that was never addressed by the school at the time. That would have been a good place to start. I think that one thing I have learned from this is that a child’s emotions are valid and should be paid attention to, not ignored, even if they appear irrational.
What was the most positive experience you had during your school time?
Leaving Westwick to move up to Longdean!
I can, to this day, remember the enormous sense of relief on my way home from school on the last day. I knew that if I reached the corner of Hartsbourne Way and Burleigh Road, I could outrun him to home from there. I knew I’d make it. When I reached that spot and knew that I was safe, I felt as though the weight of the world had been lifted from my not quite yet 11 year old shoulders.
Would you say that the experience affected your own personality and outlook on life (for better or worse)?
It most definitively was the most influential event in my life. And it undoubtedly impacted me extremely negatively. It has been useful for me to understand what I went through from a conceptual standpoint, to understand how my mental processes have been affected and then to have learned what interventions I can take to alleviate the consequences.
Children who suffer sustained childhood trauma it is now understood, often experience what is called “Developmental Trauma Disorder”. That is, during the period of the trauma the child focuses on survival at the expense of progressing through the normal childhood development stages. Once the trauma has passed the child’s development resumes, but often having missed critical stages.
For me, those stages were ones during which I would otherwise have developed a sense of my own industry and aptitudes. In other words, developing my own sense of self-worth, discovering what I was naturally good at and interested in, and learning how to apply myself.
During a trauma, the natural human reaction is the ‘fight or flight’ response, but in fact in some cases neither is an option so a third reaction kicks in, “freeze”. This is seen often in nature, where an animal on the verge of being killed by another will, in effect, freeze. In humans, we don’t have the capacity to shake ourselves out of our post traumatic frozen states in the same way.
For me, the situation didn’t allow for fight or flight, there were no options available to me that I could see at that time. It was helpless, hopeless, despairing. I was frozen. So today, that ‘freeze’ can set in very quickly, resulting in me seeing no options, thinking that all is hopeless, what’s the point, who am I to even try, preventing me from stretching my boundaries, seeing possibilities, trying new things, and fully engaging with the world as I would ideally like to be able to do. The patterns ingrained at an early age kick in to this day, there are times when my life is still driven by a bullied ten year old, which is something I have to be aware of.
One way to think of bullying is an act of dis-empowerment. The bullied individual is dis-empowered; they are made to feel powerless, insignificant, worthless, and unlovable; that there is something fundamentally wrong with them for them to have brought this situation upon themselves. Those are some seriously damaging self-beliefs to carry around. They are caustic messages that send the wrong signal that a bullied individual is at his or her core not valued or worth valuing, which can spiral into a life time of malignant shame if one does not intervene.
I suffered from malignant shame for a long-time, which lead to anxiety and depression for which I am now treated, and will probably be for the rest of my life. It is vital if one has been bullied at a young age and never looked at it in the years since to do so. It can be extremely painful, and shouldn’t be undertaken alone, but ‘the wound is the cure’. One needs to go back to the source of the crime and work through the issues that it brings up, that may well be driving ones behavior to this day.
What advice would you give anyone going through a similar experience today?
I think that the conventional wisdom today is first and foremost to tell someone what is going on. I think that is key and something that I was unable to do in my situation, but I don’t think that is particularly unusual.
I guess what I would say to anyone going through a similar experience today would be as follows:
- It’s not your fault if you are being bullied
- This is not about you, the bully is the one with the issues
- You will get through this, life will get better
- And if you cannot tell anyone now, as soon as it is over tell someone and get help.
Have you revisited Hemel Hempstead recently? Are you considering returning?
I was actually born in Hemel (in 1963), which was a rarity back then, as most people had moved to the town. So it is and always will be where I was born and grew up, and a part of who I am. Over the last 25 years I have probably visited or at least driven through Hemel twenty or so times. I am always amazed at how it continues to grow and change. I do however feel like a stranger in a strange land when in England and have no plans to return to Hemel Hempstead.
Would you say schools’ bullying systems and treatment of children affected by bullying has improved?
Obviously I am not a specialist in the field but I do think that our awareness and understanding in this area had increased dramatically as it has done in education, child development, psychology and other fields over the last twenty five years.
I do think bullying is still quite pervasive, and not just in schools. It’s in the workplace, in relationships, and in many of us – how often have you said “You idiot,” or worse to yourself when you made a simple mistake? I attended a meeting about bullying a few months ago at which the facilitator asked us to raise our hands if we had been bullied, had been a bully, or had been a quiet bystander while bullying occurred. Every person at that meeting fell into at least one of those categories.
I think in many circumstances it can be difficult if not impossible to see how to extricate oneself from a bullying situation. By telling on the bully is that really going to resolve anything? What is his or her reaction then likely to be on you? What will other people think of you? These types of limited or ill-informed thinking can ultimately lead to tragic outcomes. I noted the story recently of a Manchester City
(English soccer/football team) player discovering that a young autograph hunter who was at the training ground when he should have been in school, was being bullied. The player, Mario Balotelli, took the boy back to the school and the issue was addressed. My first reaction to that story was that presumably the school had anti-bullying programs in place, but that they a) hadn’t prevented the bullying, and b) hadn’t been used by the victim to report it. So, I certainly believe that awareness and understanding around bullying have improved greatly as they should have, but clearly it goes on to this day.
Bullying should not be tolerated.
It is a terrible cruel act with lasting consequences.