[Please note: content warning for suicide mention in the piece below]
I was born with a condition called Amniotic Band Syndrome resulting in a cleft lip and palate, missing fingers, clubbed feet and limited vision in one eye.
Although the many surgeries and treatment in my childhood were exceptionally difficult, I was naturally outgoing and confident in primary school so enjoyed many social activities. Most of us know very well the significant transition from primary to secondary school, so at age 11, I thought I’d done pretty well as I felt settled in a friendship group which mostly consisted of people I knew from my previous school.
However, positive, confident beginnings gave way to gradual ostracization by the very people I thought were my friends. They were never nasty to my face, they never physically hurt me, but I knew that my very presence was something they were unable to accept.
They simply stepped (leapt) back from me, actively avoided me and this behaviour made it abundantly clear that I was no longer welcome to be with them. This left me without a friend to sit with in class, without a friend to travel to and from school with, and without anyone to have lunch with nor anyone to hang out with outside school.
At age 12, I was absolutely devastated and had no idea how to handle it. My grades took an inevitable downward turn and I started faking illness to avoid school. I remember saving up pocket money and buying presents for the very people who were causing me such pain. I guess I was trying to buy back their affection. Unsurprisingly, my gifts were barely acknowledged, and I just sank further.
A vivid memory of this time is locking myself in a toilet cubicle every lunchtime and trying to eat tuna sandwiches (part of my packed lunch) which I had to force down as I constantly had a lump in my throat from wanting to cry. The dinner ladies would then shoo me out of the cubicle for the world to see that, again, I had no-one to spend my lunchtimes with. I’ve not been able to eat tuna sandwiches since.
It was during this period that I tried to commit suicide, twice. Multiple issues at home had become very difficult as well and, consequently, there wasn’t anywhere in my life that felt happy or safe. Suicide seemed the only way out; the only way to be at peace. Obviously neither attempt worked although I was very ill. Still, I told no one what I had done for some years.
My demeanour at school, however, did result in some counselling which was partly helpful although I didn’t feel able to be honest with them. I was scared and unsure who to trust. In time, I did find a new set of friends who accepted me for who I was, without judgement. This, alongside making friends from other schools via clubs and activities acted as a lifeline, but it took me until the age of 16/17 for my confidence to return.
Looking back, if the ostracization was recognised as bullying (in the way that physical or verbal attacks are), and if my school had been much more proactive and clear about anti-bullying messages and policies (I don’t remember bullying ever being discussed at school) then that may have been useful.
I wish I’d had a safe space at school so I didn’t have to retreat to a toilet cubicle – would the bullies’ behaviour have changed if they realised the true impact it had on me? I don’t know, but I would encourage anyone who is experiencing bullying of any kind, to speak up and reach out for help, for safety. Bullying is much more widely acknowledged today than it was when I was young and it is only by calling it out that we can begin to stamp it out.
If you’ve been affected by the mention of suicide in this blog, you can contact The Samaritans at www.samaritans.org or freephone them on 116 123 to receive immediate emotional support or contact shout (www.giveusashout.org) for 24-hour support by text.