How Bullying Shaped Me
June 20, 2018
From coke cans to the head, and soldering irons in Electronics, how Max Wallis faced the Mordor of High School…
I am fourteen and a red-faced teenager in Electronics Class takes out a knife while the teacher is in his storeroom.
Another holds a soldering iron and I can feel the heat singe the hairs on my arm. He doesn’t touch the skin. Somehow fourteen-year-old-me doesn’t flinch. My immediate memories of my high school are dominated by Pokemon, sleepovers and Redwall. Yet beneath it all, there’s something dark-edged. The memory of what happens next is unclear. I remember shouting, dropping something, and calling the red-faced teenager an alcoholic despite being fourteen. Lately, I’ve been remembering things more. The identity I struggled to build in my adolescence, then-bolstered in my twenties has wobbled a little. I am twenty-eight, it’s December, I’m sitting on a bench drunk in London Fields and memories rush like a tidal wave. My insides turn to sour milk. Part of me wants to pluck out the memories like a sandpiper on the shore.
But we can’t, can we?
According to Stonewall, more than 55% of young LGB people experience homophobic bullying in British schools. I experienced it before I even knew I was gay. Repression is a defence mechanism to protect the psyche. I’d always known I’d been bullied – hell, I was there after all – but I was startled by what I’d locked away in the ginnels of my memory. Slowly memories started to seep through, vivid, too-real, all of them while pissed: the fear of the toilets and lunchtime being pushed into the urinal; the hallway where my hair was pulled, kids kicking me and calling me a girl, then there’s walking to and from school – Google tells me it’s five minutes, 0.2 miles – never really knowing which kids might chuck a can of coke at my head or push me into the road. I’m still wary of traffic. All of these things kids shouldn’t have to deal with. It leads to a loss of confidence, anxiety, depression, anger and social withdrawal. And in some extreme cases – suicide. I experienced all of these.
Over two in five gay pupils who experience homophobic bullying will attempt or think about taking their own life as a result of that same bullying. On that bench in December, drunk as anything in the middle of winter I remembered what it was like to be lying in a bed holding a packet of pills not wanting to wake up. Luckily, despite what I took, I did. Life carried on. My parents were oblivious, and I carried the secret like a stone. And slowly my brain did a trick. It fragmented. It slotted those little bits of bad data away, so that I might not look too closely.
We build up resiliencies after a while. School was my Slytherin common room, and so I had to find my Gryffindor. I retreated. I read books in the library, learned to make websites on the school computers, dissolved my fragile grip on reality so that I could live partially in another world altogether. Fantasy books, computer games, all of these became a coping mechanism, to find order in a world that might be disrupted at any moment. I see now how much of my identity as I know it was formed then. Someone who seeks escapism all of the time. Someone who hates confrontation. And someone who still looks out for kind faces in every room.
The identity we craft is a made-up construct. A coddled-together persona of a hundred different masks that day after day we replace, and learn to wear. Who we are at twenty-eight is not the same as fourteen. But there are echoes.
Likewise, the person we are isn’t static. Psychology Today points out that a major task of self-development during adolescence is the differentiation of these multiple selves. We are one way with our parents, one way with close friends, and then later, when we sniff our lover’s armpit in an act of reassuring love we are wholly different again. As we age these identities begin to cohere, and we feel a truer sense of ‘self’.
But if that identity is shorn from experience and hewn from lessons learnt, what about the LGBT communities whose identities have been ruptured in their formative years?
At a time when I was getting to grips with my sexuality and my balls were just beginning to drop, I was being bombarded by attacks. It meant that “Gay” became synonymous with “shit” no matter what my Mum might have said otherwise. I locked myself in a sort of closet because I thought to say the words “I’m gay, Mum” would mean I was suddenly Graham Norton. When you’re juggling masturbation, skinny jeans and GCSEs the last thing you really want to be doing is having to actually come out and say you’re gay. And the last thing anyone should be dealing with is an artillery fire of abuse. “[I feel the same]” says James, from Bristol. “Bullied for being gay at eleven years old? I mean, really? There was no real education, no real support to help you.”
And that’s one of the problems I found. There’s a systemic nature to this kind of abuse. When a teacher doesn’t stick up for the kid being attacked by other kids with compasses you know something’s wrong. And yet so many kids don’t even report this because they’re made to feel like being gay is their problem.
It took me a long time to realise that it was abuse. People like to shrug off bullying and say it’s a rite of passage. But constant belittlement be that physical or verbal strips away those layers of identity we oh-so-carefully build like white spirit to paint. And that can last a long time.
The Association for Psychological Science found that people who are bullied are more than six times more likely to be diagnosed with a serious illness in adulthood, more likely to smoke regularly, and more likely to develop a psychiatric disorder compared to those who aren’t. In December last year, bladdered and kaleidoscopic, I was back on that bed, with those pills, and heartbroken. Heartbroken, in a sense, because I wasn’t there for fourteen-year-old me. And also all too aware that I was still seeking escapism at every opportunity.
December 23rd I stopped drinking. I say all of this because if Pride is about visibility it should also be about hope and it should also be about saying that others have been there too. I spent a large part of my life not wanting to be anywhere, years being sad, and always trying desperately to find a kind face in a room to cling to.
But after that time in that bed things did get better. I found a resilience in that moment and made a promise that I wouldn’t let them be better than me, or let something like my identity hold me back. Through poetry I found that more than anywhere else. Modelling gave me a different kind of self-esteem. Academia – sciences, literature, bolstered them all. I’ve never had a set-in-stone persona. And what I’ve learned is that that’s okay, too.
Too much of life goes unsaid. When kids say they’re “fine” don’t take it for granted. I believe the most important thing is to ask the questions you’re scared of asking – are you being bullied, are you gay, are you ok? – because most kids secretly want to be asked. The struggle, in childhood as in adulthood, is in asking for help. And all of us are a bundle of faces, a waveform of echoes, trying our best to get through a day.
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