I was confused.
I had gone to the toilet during a group card game and had come back to to the table to discover that my hand had been transformed, suddenly full of the suit we were all trying to discard. Bewildered and embarrassed, the look on my face told the story. Everyone was laughing - except me.
I was part of a group of young people away on a sports camp which my mother had insisted I attend - and I was the odd-person out.
It was a tight knit group and I had somehow fallen foul of the social zeitgeist. I didn't want to be there, and I seemed to be an easy target. It didn't help that I was the least talented sportsperson there. I felt fat and clumsy, too readily self-effacing in an environment where everyone was committed, talented - and fit.
The confusing card-game seems like a trivial event, something to laugh about later in life, but at the time it felt like another blow, a rejection where everyone other than me was in on the joke. It occurred in a social context that was heightened, full of tensions and competitive manoeuvring. The group card game was part of an unhealthy dynamic that wasn't acknowledged, let alone dealt with by the adults at the camp. I felt stigmatised, left on the outer - excluded from the comfortable socialisation and camaraderie of the camp.
Its something many young people face every day at school or work. Often they can't escape. Bullying is not just sticks and stones, and in the age of facebook and snapchat it has become both more sophisticated and more insidious. It is now harder than ever to escape the social dynamics that can poison our experience of school and work, making us feel isolated and alone.
Often parents aren't even aware of what is going on. Victims of bullying are usually too ashamed to tell people about the nightmare they are living through.
When we are young, spending everyday in a close-knit social environment, fitting into the group can feel like the most important thing in the world . For young people who might be struggling with self, being ostracised, singled out, criticised and humiliated can be devastating.
Bullies always seem to understand our weakest points, perhaps because they are drawn to, and fear in others what they find most contemptible in themselves - vulnerability. When we are victimised by bullies, our worst fears and insecurities become public gossip, fresh material for jokes and group entertainment - at our expense. We end up feeling alone and friendless, on the outer of a social structure that excludes us.
For 14-year-old Dolly Everett, bullying became overwhelming. Perhaps she felt like she could never escape, that the terrible things people were saying about her were true. Perhaps she felt hated, despised and rejected and with the internalisation of hurtful and hateful comments she began to feel worthless. The impending start of a new school year, and with it the prospect of spending endless days (and nights) with her bullies became too much to bear. In the face of insurmountable pain, she ended her life.
And yet she had friends who cared deeply about her, a family who loved her and a much bigger world to explore and find herself in, away from the hothouse of a prestigious boarding school.
I am not sure what might have made the difference for Dolly. Whether it would have been a new school or perhaps a school-wide intervention, a cleansing confrontation and an open discussion about what was really going on and who was responsible within the safety of a well-supervised forum - its hard to know. Changing the culture of an institution is not simple, but if we can make it a little bit easier for someone like Dolly to open up, if we can just take time out from our busy lives to check in with a young person, it can help. I know that if Dolly had felt able to talk to someone, to trust an adult or a friend with her feelings, to feel supported and understood, maybe she would still be here.
If you or someone you know is experiencing bullying, or if you are thinking about ending your life, please let someone know how you are feeling and what is going on for you.
- Suicide Call Back Service www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au
- Suicide Line www.suicideline.org.au
- beyondblue: 1300 22 4636 www.beyondblue.org.au
- Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800 (24/7 crisis support) www.kidshelpline.com.au
- headspace: 1800 650 890 www.headspace.org.au (direct clinical services)