These days, I’m sure most people have heard about the “It Gets Better” anti-bullying campaign for LGBT youth. I applaud their efforts wholeheartedly.
But at the same time, I wonder just how honest it really is to say “it gets better“, when in some cases it just gets exponentially worse.
I’m not referring to bullying relating to sexuality specifically, but bullying in general.
Full disclosure ahead…It’s not a pretty story, so if you think reading about bullying and suicidal thoughts might be triggering, you may want to stop reading now.
I was bullied in high school for a variety of reasons. It wasn’t until the middle of high school that it became an issue. My family had just moved interstate and I had to start at a new school half-way through semester. So not only was I given crap for being the “new kid”, but also because I was in the position of being half way between a nerd and an athlete. I was smart, so I didn’t fit in with the jocks. But I was also an athlete, so I didn’t fit in with the nerds. Exiled from both ends really. I managed to convince my parents to let me change school at the end of the school year on the basis of the school that they’d enrolled me in didn’t have the subject offerings I wanted. Not an outright lie, but definitely not the whole truth either. The kids were cruel and I simply wanted out – I had never been bullied up until I moved to this new school. So at the end of that school year, I transferred. While I still got some crap for yet again being the “new kid”, it wasn’t as bad. It’s not quite as uncommon to get new students at the beginning of the new academic year. However, lo and behold, one of my main tormentors from the previous school had also transferred to my new school as well. Incredible bad luck more than anything, but the cycle continued. I tried to report the harassment and bullying to the school administrators at the time, but I was basically told to “grow up”. Back in the mid to late 90’s, attitudes towards bullying were very different. There was a kid in school who was constantly bullied for being gay – he wasn’t even out. He reported it to teachers, and their response was “what do you expect when you act like that?”. So I suffered through the remainder of high school. Thankfully my bullying and harassment was never physical, never violent. It was all psychological torment. I know lots of people put blame for bullying on the jocks, but my experience was that it came from all sides. I was too much of an athlete for the “outsiders” and too much of an academic for the jocks. And in the interests of being totally honest – there were teachers who bullied students as well. I was told by one teacher that the best I could hope for in life was to be a receptionist. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…But to hear that when you’re scoring straight A’s including for physics and chemistry? I was miserable, but university wasn’t far away…
In hindsight, I was stupid. I ended up in a psychologically abusive relationship during undergrad. I should have ended the relationship much sooner than I did. I let my partner bully me into cutting off contact with my friends, into doing things I didn’t want to do. I was emotionally manipulated for years. It took me a long time to get over that and realise that I wasn’t the one at fault. But the demise of that relationship brought about other ramifications. I had been working as a TA (teaching assistant) within my department at university helping out with first and second year labs on a casual basis. My ex (enrolled in the same department) had told the head of school of our breakup, and that the reason was because I was a lesbian and not putting out. Untrue, but when something like that is said to someone who is a devout catholic and made no secret of their dislike of homosexuality and you’re only employed on a casual basis? They can simply refuse to give you more hours without justification. Yes, I lost my job as a TA because my ex was spreading lies about me at work and some people believed them – including the boss. I had no recourse because I was only a casual employee and they didn’t have to provide just cause for terminating my employment. There were restraining orders involved due to ongoing threats and harassment from my ex after the breakup, and abusive emails from a number of his friends. That all went down about 6 months before graduation, so I just cried myself to sleep at night, kept to myself and got out of there as fast as I could.
Then hey, grad school! It got better! This was around the time the whole “it gets better” campaign started anyway. I was surrounded by people who were open minded and collegial. It was a fantastic research environment…For a while. About half way through my PhD, a new student arrived. The golden child. Most of us just found it amusing the way people fawned over him, but there was no doubting the guy’s ability. The thing was, at the time, I was single, and he decided he was interested in me. I wasn’t interested in him. I didn’t find the guy particularly attractive (sorry, but you can’t help that – if it’s not there, it’s not there), and I also had absolutely zero interest in dating someone I worked with after the absolute mess I had to deal with during undergrad when that relationship went sour. I was pushed and prodded by various senior staff members in the department to date him though – to keep the golden boy happy. I can’t even remember how many times I said no to both the guy in question, and to the people in the department pushing me to date him. Look, I don’t actually mind if someone asks me out. I’m not going to blow a gasket over it, even if it comes from someone at work. But if I say no, then that needs to be the end of it. Accept it and move on. The bullying tactics employed by certain people in the department to get me to agree to date this guy were abhorrent. In the end, I agreed to a date just to get everyone off my back and to simply shut up about it. It went about as well as you might imagine considering the absolute lack of interest on my part. I kept getting bullied to give him another chance. It went on for months before people eventually gave up. And then I was getting towards the end of my PhD and looking for a postdoc, and discovering the lengths that people will go to in order to get funding at someone else’s expense. The underhanded psychological warfare that goes on in academia to convince people they’re not worthy of funding so they shouldn’t bother applying? Madness.
In the end, I got offered a postdoc, packed up my life and moved. It was fantastic. I was finally in a good place with great research opportunities and a welcoming group of colleagues. I was happy for a few years, finally I thought that this is what things are meant to be like. None of this bullying and harassment. I thought it was over. I was wrong. I had naively thought that people with PhD’s would be more mature. Not be so prone to childish behaviour.
First it just started out with snide little comments about other people in the department. But that got me thinking, if this person was saying such cruel things about others behind their backs, what were they saying about me when I wasn’t around? Not wanting to rock the boat in my first full-time job, I kept my mouth shut and just tried to ignore it.
Then I ran into some health problems – nothing that affected my ability to do my job, but it had visible symptoms. I lost a lot of weight. Instead of asking me if anything was wrong, I just got a lot of “eat another sandwich, you’re anorexic” comments and things along those lines.
Here’s the thing, if I ever went around at university calling people fat and telling them to lay off on the KFC and Pizza Hut? I’d be read the riot act. I don’t comment on people’s weight because it’s offensive and inappropriate. If someone’s put on weight, it could be medical, it could be a pregnancy, or yes, it could just be lifestyle choices. How is it any different if you lose weight? It might be medical, it might be an eating disorder, it might just be an improvement in fitness and eating habits.
This bullying went on for months before I had the guts to say anything about it. I made repeated requests for this person to stop commenting on my weight, and ultimately for them to not speak to me about anything that wasn’t work related. It didn’t stop. I still didn’t want to rock the boat (I was only on a fixed term contract, and I wanted it renewed), but it had gone too far, and I reported it to our department manager, who told me that I should be flattered about the comments because I was so thin. So much for the reporting mechanisms, right? Unfortunately my tormentor had found out that I’d said something to admin, because the next six months were a nightmare.
I won’t lie, it got to the point that between my health issues and this person’s constant bullying, that I considered suicide. More than once. We had a change of administration during that time and the new person took my complaint a little more seriously. It went on record and the bullying let up for a while – or so I thought. I had applied internally for a new position, and found out after the fact that my tormentor was on the hiring panel. They should have recused themselves due to a conflict of interest – having a complaint from me about them on official record. Instead, I found out that they were the sole negative voice on the hiring panel, and it cost me the job.
It still continued, but became less about my weight and my health. I was verbally abused a number of times, both in this person’s office, and in the corridor of the building – in front of witnesses. People were stunned at the vitriol being spewed. I don’t think people really appreciated just how bad things were until that point. But by this time, I’d applied for a new position elsewhere, and had unofficially been told the job was mine. I knew it wouldn’t be long before I’d be away from it all. I resigned my position giving a few months notice, and then I was gone.
I then discovered in the new position that I’d taken up that my new boss is sexist. I don’t necessarily think it’s malicious. I suspect it is purely a cultural issue (he’s not Australian), and in his homeland, such treatment of women is acceptable. While I may understand where the issue comes from, that doesn’t make his behaviour any more acceptable. I am treated like the guy’s secretary, rather than a senior research fellow with over 10 years research experience, on the receiving end of comments like “be a good little girl and go do my paperwork for me“. Literally, comments like that occur on a weekly basis. It’s like I was hired as the token female in the department so that they can say “Hey! Look how progressive we are!“…
Life goes on I suppose. But back to my original point about “it gets better“…When, exactly, is it meant to get better?
Honestly, through all the crap I suffered through in high school, I never go to the point of contemplating suicide. I hated a lot of people then, but death was never in the equation. I hated myself during undergrad for staying in a situation that I knew was unhealthy and for not standing up for myself when things blew up with my ex at work. I just saw it as “you live, you learn, don’t do it again” rather than as something to consider ending my life over. Seeing people’s behaviour towards the end of my PhD regarding competition for funding was an eye opener, but it wasn’t something I had to deal with for very long, because I was offered a postdoc elsewhere and was out the door not long after. Yet here I am, almost in my mid-30’s, and less than a year ago I considered ending it all due to one person’s insidious comments.
I’ve seen psychologists at various points in time over it all. While they agree I’ve had a pretty unfortunate life, I don’t actually suffer from depression or any other mental illness. There’s no medication for “yeah, your life kind of sucks…sorry?”.
People say that kids can be cruel. You know what? So can adults. Even adults who should know better because they have school aged kids of their own and work as teachers.
While I certainly appreciate the campaign to help kids get through a tough time in life and efforts to introduce anti-bullying policies into schools, I think it’s a bit dishonest to say “it gets better“. I’m sure that sometimes it does. But not always, and I think we need to be more honest about that. I thought things would get better after high school because the immaturity levels would improve and I’d be surrounded by more common sense. What a joke.
The reasons behind the bullying might change as you get older, but it still exists. And yet again, everyone seems to think you should just suck it up because you’re an adult and they’re only words.