I was 12 and stood at the gate with my cousin waiting to go into school. You walked across the yard toward me and handed me a letter. I was crushed to find that it spelled out 20 things that were wrong with me.
Whilst sitting in infant’s school, you sat behind me and pushed my chair into the desk in front so hard I was unable to breathe. I was hitting my hand on the desk for over a minute before the teacher told you to stop. I struggled to see why you wanted to hurt me so much.
It is Anti-bullying Week and the other day I came across a report which revealed that 40% of children in the UK have reported being bullied. This rose to 58% of children with a physical disability, which I found extremely upsetting. The bullying hurt, but it hurt even more when you directed it towards my disability.
I was eager to learn from a young age and always answering questions in class, which many of you took a dislike to. In secondary school you grew bolder, calling me things like ‘ugly’ and picking on my appearance. After a while, I couldn’t see myself clearly anymore, only through your eyes, which were cold and cruel.
Just after my 14th birthday, I suddenly fell ill, yet the doctors struggled to find anything wrong. I was initially diagnosed with M.E. and within three months, I needed a wheelchair. After that, the bullying stopped, but the relief was short. It soon escalated again when Ricky Gervais made the joke in his show that people who have M.E. are just lazy.
You called me ‘lazy’ and shouted things like ‘you don’t even need a wheelchair’. Without any education on rare and chronic illnesses, you thought that it was all in my head. Even the teachers did. You had turned your backs on me once again. Not only was I so isolated, but I also had to come to terms with now having to use a wheelchair. It felt like my body was failing me and now my mind was struggling to cope.
Now your sharpened words focused less on me and more on my disability. Each was like a knife and the little self-esteem I had left was now shattered. I remember coming down the corridor and hearing, ‘here’s the cripple coming’, or ‘druggie’ under your breath when I needed to take my pain medication in class.
In the years since then, a few of you have tried to apologise, telling me that you hadn’t meant to cause any harm and you were just trying to fit in. In an odd way, I understand. Haven’t we all just tried to fit in at some point for fear of rejection and isolation, but we must ask, have we done so at the expense of someone else’s collapse?
To my teachers, although you tried to help, you had little power to stop it and little idea of how to handle a student with chronic pain. Many of you believed that this was all in my head. Demonstrated when you pushed me into class one day, as I had tears rolling down my face in pain. You thought being in class was the best thing for me and anyway, I wasn’t really ill was I?
I was later told that one of you continued to call my name out when I was off school in the register, knowing that I wouldn’t answer, only to announce that I was just lazy when someone told you I wasn’t there. Those that I was relying to help were now joining ranks with my tormentors. I returned after nine months off and nothing had changed. You asked me things like, ‘where’s your baby?’, and, ‘if you’re in a wheelchair can you have sex?’
Because I was only in school for limited hours, I had to sit alone in the isolation unit to do my work. I had little contact with anyone and the friends that I did have just didn’t know how to handle my illness or seeing me in pain so they walked away. I often found myself thinking about taking my own life just to find some relief.
I began to see a therapist, who became a lifeline for me. She helped me to not only understand my illness and that the bullying wasn’t my fault. Gradually, I could see that you may be facing your own pain and taking it out on someone who was powerless to fight back.
Not only was I facing this battle, but also another with my doctors. After misdiagnosing M.E., they diagnosed POTS Syndrome, but I knew it was something else. Almost three years after falling ill, I was finally diagnosed with the connective tissue disorder Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. It was a relief to finally have an answer but still extremely hard. I have good days and bad days and I am often fatigued and in pain but I won’t let it hold me back.
Coming out of the other side, has instilled a strength and determination in me to reach for my dreams of one day becoming a sports journalist and I am currently studying English Literature and Creative Writing at the Open University. I now plan to use words, which caused me so much pain all that time ago, as a tool for good.
Today, I work closely with the disabled children and young people’s charity Whizz-Kidz, who gave me my wheelchair. Their vital support, which is funded by the players of the People’s Postcode Lottery, helped me to believe in myself again and now I am keen to raise awareness of the damaging and insidious effects of bullying, especially towards those with disabilities.
I am unsure whether you knew at the time how much damage you were causing with your words and actions and I wonder now, whether with age, you have come to feel any remorse. I can only say for my part, that I forgive you.
Whizz-Kidz has been supported by players of the People’s Postcode Lottery since 2013. To date, they have generously awarded almost one million pounds to support the charity’s work providing vital equipment, training and support to disabled children and young people to help them reach their full potential and look forward to a brighter future.