Bullying and Mental Illness

What are your first memories of childhood? Some may fondly remember learning to ride a bike, a birthday party, or a special person from that time.

My first memories are of something that should never have power over anyone.

I remember the scale.

I can still hear the metal clang, see the slider glide beneath the nurse’s fingertips, across the ruler, balancing out at the number. I can feel the cold of the room against my skin, and the hot flashes of embarrassment and anxiety pulsing through me as everyone watched. I can smell the lingering scent of rubbing alcohol.

And, I remember their words. They have persevered with the passing of time, stuck in an infinite loop inside my mind.

Each year, at my old elementary school, we lined up to have our vitals and weight checked. We filed in, class by class, and stood in line in the hallway, waiting for our turn.

It was a public affair. The door to the office was wide open, and the nurse said the numbers out loud, which meant everyone could hear them. There was always an eerie silence each time someone stepped on the scale, a waiting. Perhaps those that orchestrated this event didn’t consider a child might feel embarrassment or humiliation over the situation, or think that it might lead to certain kids getting picked on for their weight. But I was already vulnerable.

Three years prior to this scale incident, I stood in front of the full length mirror in my room and examined myself. Though I was thin, I felt, in that moment, that the fabric of my matching top and bottoms stretched across my flesh. In reality, they hung loosely from my body, but my distorted body image had me see otherwise. I called myself “fat”, and told myself I needed to lose weight. These thoughts, though they may seem extreme for a child, did not come from external sources, but from my own mind.

As I stood in a line with my peers, beneath the fluorescent lights, my chest tightened. Because to me, here, in front of the whole school, you become that number in that moment in time. For some of the kids that day, the number may have faded from their thoughts as soon as they stepped off of the scale, but not for me.

We were children. Most of us had no real concept of weight or what the number “should” be. Yet when it was my turn, when my weight was said aloud, I felt it echo through the halls. I could hear the whispering. Beads of sweat formed, and my legs felt like lead as I walked away. Regardless of how thin I really was, I found myself judged. That day at recess my world changed. “I thought you were lighter.” “I guess you’re not skinny after all…I weigh less than you…I’m smaller than you are…”

That day was just the beginning. It resulted in years of bullying that fueled a relentless pursuit of perfection and a desire to gain the approval of others.

Over time, a few select individuals began to pick me apart, and zeroed in on not just my body, but everything about me. I would go on to live with the taunts of these people all the way through high school. And I remained silent. I felt shame and embarrassment and low self esteem.

By the time I moved on from elementary school, I had developed full blown anorexia nervosa. This eating disorder would eventually lead to countless ER visits, doctor’s appointments, and inpatient and residential treatment facilities. I became tortured by anorexia, just as I was tortured by the words of my peers. I kept it all in, and it fueled my struggle with mental illness, isolating me from everyone.

Eating disorders are complex. Bullying alone didn’t get me there. There are genetic components, as well as social and environmental factors. I feel my story reinforces that, considering the thoughts came before anything was ever said to me, and it was before I understood photoshop and Hollywood. What bullying did was load the genetic gun with bullets and pull the trigger. It set off that which was waiting for a reason to surface.

I’ve reached a point, more than once in my life, when my life was in danger due to extreme malnutrition and a low body weight. And I found myself thinking, maybe I’ll be good enough. Maybe everyone will accept me now, maybe they’ll like me. That is what bullying did to my thoughts, my self-esteem.

In addition to my eating disorder, bullying also influenced the early onset of my bipolar disorder. With the stress and anxiety, and my inability to open up about my experiences, I found myself experiencing bouts of psychosis before my teen years, and then later struggling with suicidal ideations. It took receiving a diagnosis in adulthood to realize the extent of what was happening during that time. The symptoms only drove me more inward, which resulted in more bullying.

Bullying can cause trauma on a number of levels – physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual. The effects can carry on long after the incident occurs. I still find myself wrestling with what others think of me. I still find myself trying to please others even if it hurts me. Though I’ve shed some of their words and healed from some of the experiences, there are days when it stings as much as the day I stepped on that scale.

Words can cut deep. They can echo in the dark recesses of your mind long after they’ve been spoken. They can carve out a place in your life and take up residence, then spread like an infection. They can grasp every part of you and hold you captive. They can make difficult situations even harder. There are many ways to bully someone and it can happen at any age. But when it happens in childhood, when we are still developing and growing, it can have a profound impact on the person we grow to become. Even more so, the trauma and stress surrounding such behavior can be triggering, perhaps setting off or worsening a mental health issue, like in my experience. It is important to raise awareness regarding the effects of bullying, not just to put a stop to it, but to give those that struggle under the weight of it a voice and a chance at freedom.

If you are living with the effects of bullying, whether the experience is fresh or time has passed, know that you are not alone. Don’t struggle silently. Reach out for help.

If we continue to educate and raise awareness, we can break the cycle of bullying, and release those living with it from its confines.

05102012Charlie is a graduate student pursuing a degree in English and Creative Writing. When she is not doing coursework or writing, she enjoys hanging out with her husband and dog. She writes both fiction and nonfiction, in particular essays and novel-length works. She blogs daily on her site Decoding Bipolar, with a focus on education and incorporating positive changes in order to live fully while coping with mental illness.

You can follow Charlie on FacebookTwitter and her personal blog.


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