Short disclaimer: This is a reflection on the effects of bullying, not a witch hunt for blood. It is written about an event that happened at the tail end of 2013.

While at university I was the subject of a misplaced joke. Some might call it bullying, whilst others would just say it was a misplaced joke. I’m not sure what I call it. I want to let you in to how this ‘joke’ made me feel – immediately afterwards, and over the following weeks.

#fugly #slut

These were the words left for me on a board when I came into a study room to do exactly that: study. I had booked the room for 3 hours, with some friends, so we could work together on a presentation. As I walked into that room, I was breathless. I felt winded. And as I turned to look at my friend who was with me, I cried. This was followed by a brief lull in the emotions as we waited for the rest of our group… but when they walked in, I cried again. In fact, the afternoon was not a productive study session. It was interspersed with crying, paranoia, anxiety and great sadness from within me.

That night, at home, I sobbed down the phone to my mum. She was horrified that not only had it happened, but that it could have been written by someone who is training to be a teacher. To her it wasn’t solely about the nature of the words and how hurtful they were, but also about professional conduct. I went to sleep, feeling soothed, thinking ‘tomorrow is a new day!’ And it was. It was a Friday. I wasn’t in university, my housemate was away, I was alone. Or, at least, I felt like I was alone. I spent the entire day watching Geordie Shore (which is atrocious, but highly addictive) and eating rubbish. I just sat and let the waves of sadness, waves of anxiety and waves of inferiority wash over me. I didn’t believe the words they had used to describe me, but I felt insecure. I knew then as I know now, I am not a slut… but I felt dirty and weak.

For me, you see, the story actually began 10 years years ago. 10 years ago, I was a different person. I was insecure and weak. I was paranoid and anxious. I was depressed. Not as a result of bullying, but as a result of having the wrong priorities in my life. I had absolutely hit rock bottom, which included a brief encounter with suicidal thoughts, and an attempt on my own life. Thankfully, because of my ever-loving parents, I was able to move home and begin to fix myself. It was a very long process but, with their love and support, and the love and support of wiser friends, I was able to get back on my feet once more. Recently, I’ve been able to take the final step I need to heal: counselling. I am able to, with a supportive professional, come to terms with my angers and anxieties; my insecurities and paranoias; and start leaving it in the past, where it belongs.

If we now jump back again, into the present, you may now begin to understand why I spent a week feeling sick and crying. It wasn’t all the time. It was, like I said before, waves. I was fine, until I wasn’t. The misplaced ‘joke’ broke me in the immediate aftermath. It brought me back to my teenage years. I was insecure. I definitely didn’t think I was pretty. Those insecurities were never things that I was bullied for at school. But they were insecurities which were never dealt with. And they did control my first few years as a young adult, from 18-21 years old.

I’m done, now, with this incident at university. Obviously, I hoped there would be certain outcomes (there weren’t), but the best outcome for me would have been if the perpetrator realised that it was never about offence. If you take me out of it, it is about what is ok to say, and what isn’t. If you leave me in it, it is about this misguided thought process of the 21st Century. It is about people thinking they can say and/or write what they want, without thinking more deeply about the person they’re talking/writing about.

For me, this is the challenge. Boris Johnson, Priti Patel, Michael Gove, Gavin Williamson, I know you won’t read this… but I wish you would. It isn’t about the facts which we fill children’s heads with. And it isn’t about how well people will contribute to society, economically. It is about working out what each child’s insecurities are, and tackling them. It is about teaching children to have respect and empathy. It is about guiding children and teenagers and young adults away from those feelings of anxiety and paranoia. Finally, it is about how well children today will contribute to society, emotionally and socially.

We all need to work out how we can develop children’s emotional and social intelligence; how we can nurture each child’s health and wellbeing. I used to think that began in the classroom. Many are calling for a change in the media, a change in how social media is policed. But none of that matters if we aren’t raising up children who know better and do better. None of that matters if we aren’t raising up children who know what resilience and empathy look like in equal measure. None of that matters if we aren’t raising up children who know their true worth does not lie in economics or physical attraction, but in something greater. I now know that it starts with me: mum.

A Lifetime of Shame

The first time stress took control I was a teenager. I didn’t even know I was floundering. It wasn’t a case of on the outside I was smiling and putting on a front, hiding the inside sadness. I was happy. I had good friends. But I was anxious. And I was stressed.

I developed alopecia, and tufts of my hair along my centre parting began to fall out. It’s not known exactly what causes your immune system to attack your hair follicles, but it is thought that stress is one of the factors that plays a role. Obviously, having some of my hair fall out as a teenage girl didn’t help my self esteem or amounts of stress.

Ultimately, even though I was generally happy and well liked, I didn’t feel good enough in any part of life. I wasn’t enough for teachers, always handing in my homework late, or just not doing it; I wasn’t enough for any of the boys, always having jokes made about my big nose; I wasn’t enough for anyone. I began to believe, despite many people championing me, that I was not enough. The problem was me. I needed to be different.

When I went to university, I reinvented myself. I was affectionately known as ‘Party Olivia’ and was well known for being the life and soul of the party. In time though, my self esteem plummeted and my anxiety sky rocketed. I patched myself up with nights out and alcopops, seeking affirmation from all the worst places. I remember staring at myself in the mirror and dreaming of being thinner, more toned, prettier.

September 2009 was around the corner, and I should have been heading back to university for my 3rd year. I can’t remember why, but my mum asked me if I actually wanted to go back. Then she said the words which changed the trajectory of my life: “We will be proud of you no matter what.” Within days, I’d dropped out of university, and moved into the house where she was living for her curacy. Life’s problems weren’t solved, but it gave me breathing space and I moved up to Lancaster 2 years later to begin my teacher training.

I arrived and instantly felt at home. Finally, I was in a space where I could begin to deal with my anxiety and accessed counselling via my local NHS trust. I had great housemates and a wonderful church family. I excelled academically for the first time in my life, and enjoyed the challenges of the teacher life. I had a kind and loving boyfriend, who quickly became my chief cheerleader. And then my husband.

But my mental health issues didn’t end there. I longed for a child, and we fell pregnant in the late spring of 2015. I spent 9 months dreaming about motherhood, with people telling me what a natural mother I’d be. I was just, apparently, so maternal. And so, it utterly floored me when this tiny human was born and I felt so utterly helpless. Anxiety and stress crept back in, dark thoughts controlled my brain, and the silence and loneliness were painful. Suddenly, I knew I wasn’t enough once again.

Feelings of unworthiness, anxiety, stress can be crippling. I say ‘can be’ because they no longer control my mind or my life. With the support, love and prayers of those close to me, I exercise conviction and battle those thoughts when they do come. I have a wonderful counsellor who I see regularly, and I can not recommend talking to a professional enough.

I am 31 and I’ve hidden in the shame of mental ill-health for most of my life. But there is no shame. It’s ok to not be ok. It’s ok to be hurting. And it’s ok to talk about it.

But remember, one day you will smile again. And that will be ok too.