On Thursday, whilst half-watching a Ricki Lake TV programme about bullying, I tweeted some of my observations about bullies and abusive people. I was amazed by the openness of people who responded to me, some publicly, some privately, and am thus moved to write about things I would never normally discuss in public, but if this can help one person gain the strength to break free, then it has to be worth forgoing this small piece of privacy. I write not as a trained professional, or self-styled expert, but as an empathetic observer of people, a friend of some victims of abuse, and a former victim myself.
The first incident I remember was when I was four years old and at nursery school. The food they served was awful, and I couldn’t swallow it. I also needed the toilet, but because I still had that mouthful of food, they made me go with the door open, in case I spat it into the toilet. I was also not allowed to pull my pants back up, presumably in case I spat the food into them. So there I stood, a frightened four-year-old, knickers around my ankles (humiliation is a common method of abusive women) while a nursery nurse – yes, a professional child carer – poured a glass of water down my throat to make me swallow food that wasn’t fit for a human being to eat.
Throughout primary school I was bullied by other children; firstly because I had a squint in one eye, later because I could sing, was brighter than them, and had a gift for sarcasm even at that young age, though that was soon knocked out of me.
Perhaps the worst incidents though, were those I experienced in hospital whilst having an eye operation. In those days, there was no quick in and out in one day, and it felt as if I was there for months, but it was probably only a week or two.
I was aged around five or six, and many of the children on my ward were regularly verbally abused by two female ward assistants in particular. I remember being told they were going to tie us down and kick us, though I can’t remember what we were supposed to have done to warrant that. There were a couple of far worse incidents, which at the time my child’s mind could make no sense of; and now I can, I feel too sickened to write about them.
By then, I guess I had acquired the ‘victim taint’, as any further bullying that came my way was just accepted as being my lot. Including being thrown against a brick wall by a couple of older children and having my nose broken.
When I went to Secondary School, I decided to become a different person and not tolerate any more abuse. So when flushing-heads-down-the-toilet day came, I made such a screaming fuss that they stepped back in shock and left me alone for the rest of my school life.
There seems to be a current trend to view the experience of abuse as empowering, as something that makes you stronger and therefore better in some way. It is not. It is diminishing, weakening, and destructive in every sense of the word. If you become a stronger person after having been abused, then you have done so in spite of the abuse, not because of it.
The people interviewed on the TV programme I mentioned earlier fell into two distinct camps: victim and bully, and each group displayed a particular set of characteristics.
The victims – I know that’s an unfashionable word, but to use any other reduces the impact of bullying, and puts the ball back into the abuser’s court – were all gentle, conflict avoiders, peacemakers, and all had a ‘what’s the use?’ look in their eyes. The bullies all displayed belligerent speech patterns, defensiveness and a sense of entitlement to express their thoughts no matter how hurtful or inappropriate.
The bottom line is this: if someone repeatedly hurts you, emotionally or physically, they do not love you. If someone puts you down, belittles or humiliates you it is about ego and control. There is no love there. Likewise, if someone blames you for their bad behaviour.
If someone’s unjustified anger subsides because you’ve done what they told you to, bought them a present or otherwise appeased them, they have cast themselves as the jealous god for whom you must make sacrifices in order to win a small piece of affection. Once again, this is about ego and control, not love.
One of the ways in which bullying and abuse is allowed to continue is, I believe, due to a flawed understanding, and possibly flawed concept, of forgiveness. Forgiveness is often touted as being most helpful to the victim in helping them to move on. This is wrong. The only way out of an abusive relationship is to learn to move on without forgiving.
Forgiveness should only come after remorse and atonement, perhaps in the form of the abuser seeking professional help. To forgive truly appalling behaviour without that short-circuits the learning process and activates the ‘reward centre’ of the brain, thus encouraging repeated wrong-doing.
I have friends, men and women, who are or have been in abusive relationships, and it is very hard to help them as they have often become so co-dependent they would rather shoot the messenger than accept help and risk having to be alone, or with someone who genuinely cares for them but doesn’t provide the small highs and dreadful lows they have been conditioned to accept as being part and parcel of a relationship.
If you ever catch yourself explaining why you stay with an abuser with the words, ‘But I love her/him,’ Trust me, you don’t. You have become addicted to the high afforded by the calm after the storm, the kiss after the slap, the kind word after the insult. That is not love.
This is love: being there for someone; supporting their dreams; feeling joy in their presence and they in yours; accepting that you are both individuals who have chosen to spend time together, but are ultimately free souls who stay together for as long as you both choose to, not because you are afraid to leave in case they hurt you or themselves.
I could say so much more about this, and perhaps I will in a later blog, but until then, I hope I have put across the message that no one should go through life in fear of the very people who are supposed to care. If this is happening to any of you, please take steps to remove yourself from the situation, how ever hard that may appear to be.