Former victims of bullying speak out about what it felt like to go through daily abuse and torment and how it has affected them
“I used to feel absolute dread every Sunday evening at the thought of the next day,” says Harry*. “I’d just sit in my room wondering what I was going to be blamed for this week, and what the subsequent punishments for my ‘infractions’ would be. Although it might end up being a stress-free week, it was the anticipation of what may happen that just left me anxious.”
In Harry’s case, the worst-case scenarios included; constant name-calling; having his possessions broken or damaged by other students; ‘accidental’ shoves and being tripped up; being jumped by a group of boys after school; or even getting beaten before the school day even started. These incidents would happen so frequently throughout Harry’s years in secondary school that, in his words, he became “somewhat desensitised” to the routine of being assaulted by his peers.
Being of mixed-race parentage, with a Malay mother and a Chinese father, he recalls that many of the taunts he received in school tended to be racial in nature. “I was used to feeling like an outsider. I mean, when we went out for dinner as a family, people would stare at us. So, the name-calling didn’t affect me much,” says Harry who is now in his forties.
The beatings however, were worse. “I was punched in the face on my first day of school. What I did wrong was to smile back at the wrong girl. By recess time, that girl’s older boyfriend and his friends cornered me in the school canteen. I was very careful about who I smiled at after that,” says Harry bemusedly.
What followed was a pattern of being targeted by the same group of boys over and over again. “Since these were the ‘alpha’ boys at the school, some of the other guys decided that I was fair game as well/ It didn’t help that I wasn’t a very big kid, and I never fought back,” he says.
Harry explains that reporting the incidents to his teachers “only made the situation worse”. “My father went to the school to complain once. The other boys got a caning from the discipline teacher — and took it out on me the next day. I begged by parents to not get involved after that, and just tried to keep a low profile in school,” he shares.
He adds that he felt targeted by one of his former teachers as well, which lessened his confidence of going to the school authorities in the first place. “I remember being in agama (religious) class, and the teacher made a remark about whether my father was raising me to be a good Muslim since he’s Chinese. I argued with her, and of course got into trouble for talking back,” he says.
Now a restaurateur, and a father of two children, Harry says he has mostly left the past behind him. “When it was happening though, it just sapped all my energy. I couldn’t concentrate on my studies, and only managed to catch up when I went to university. I think I’m just lucky I that I escaped any lasting effects from being bullied,” he says.
Sticks and stones
Unlike Harry, Ain* had to work hard at undoing the damage caused by the verbal abuse she received in school. A bubbly advertising executive, Ain shares that the insults of her schoolmates led her to a dark place — one that almost led her to suicide.
“I was a rather chubby teenager, and I was already used to the comments about my weight from my relatives and even strangers. But school was the worst, because you’re just stuck there letting the insults pile on you; it was suffocating,” she says.
The name-calling she received was constant and vicious. “They would go on and on about how I would never find a husband, or just a worthless human because I was fat,” says Ain. “I couldn’t eat my lunch in peace, because I would be shamed for even daring to be consuming food.”
The constant stream of insults led to a great deal of self-hatred, and an eating disorder to boot.
“None of the adults who saw this happening stood up for me, so I thought I deserved it. I felt that I was sub-human, and it was my fault because of my weight, so I took to extreme measures to lose weight,” says Ain.
While Ain was controlling her food portions – sometimes surviving on just an orange for an entire day – she could not stop the self-loathing she felt. “I avoided looking at mirrors because I couldn’t stand the sight of myself. I became obsessed with the calorie content of foods, and exercising to the point of exhaustion. But the torment continued, and by that time, I just didn’t want to live anymore,” she says.
Thankfully, Ain’s parents intervened and she received the support she needed to work through her bulimia and suicidal thoughts. “But it’s still a struggle; when I’m stressed out, my immediate reaction is to binge eat, or swing to the other extreme of not eating at all. I do sometimes have bouts of depression over my appearance, I just don’t show it as much and now I know how to cope with it. That’s why now, I make it a point to give my children self-confidence; I tell them that their health and character accounts for much more than their looks.”
Ain’s experiences with being bullied reflects the generalisation that girls tend to deal verbal blows than physical ones. However, as Chong* shares, boys are not immune to the destructive power of words either.
Looking at Chong, a chartered accountant in his early 20s, it is hard to imagine him as being anything but popular in school. Charming, well-dressed, and an intelligent conversationalist whose hobbies include extreme sports and playing the drums, Chong does not seem to fit the stereotype of being a victim of bullying.
“Let’s just say that I had to grow out of my awkwardness,” he says with a smile. “I think I really came into my own in university; there I was free to pursue the things I was interested in, build my self-confidence, and work on my social skills. But my secondary school years were a living hell.”
Being a “gangly, introverted, weirdo”, Chong started getting picked on in his later years of primary school. “It felt like overnight, my friends had turned into these cool pre-teens who were interested in girls and being macho. At 12, I was still obsessively playing board games and clueless about the school’s social hierarchy. So, there was a lot of teasing about me still being a ‘baby’, and needing my inhaler on me at all times,” he says.
It was in secondary school that the light teasing turned into a full-blown mental torture. While Chong did not have to deal with physical scars or bruises, he did have to contend with passive aggressive mind games from his peers.
“There was a phase when any time I entered a common space, everyone else would vacate the area. I remember walking into the library and sitting down, and immediately all the kids around me left — while remarking that they didn’t want to ‘catch’ my ‘weirdness’. Many of my classmates wouldn’t even want to sit next to me in class,” he shares.
The worst of it came when someone in his school passed around the rumour that he was gay. “I made the mistake of telling the one ‘friend’ I had that I liked to dance,” says Chong. “The next day, I came into class to find the word ‘pondan’ (a slur for effeminate men) written all over my desk. I was almost in tears. The teacher just gave a half-hearted warning to the rest of the class, and told me to ‘man-up’”.
There were repeated incidents like this; people scribbling insults in his books, leaving nasty notes on his desk, and sometimes just cornering him in groups to lob insults at him. From the outside, Chong appears to have moved past this and done well for himself. “But it affected the way I look at the world and other people. It’s still very hard for me to trust others, so while I’m more sociable now, I find it hard to actually make friends,” he says.
He adds that the anger he felt over his treatment as a teenager has been slow to wear off. “I feel pride in knowing that the people who used to make my life miserable can see me move up the corporate ladder while they’re still struggling. But it doesn’t feel right to need to look down on others just to make myself feel better. I just wish that bullies could see the kind of pain we have to go through, they might think twice about doing what they do,” he says.