Bullying: Resurrecting Buried Trauma

When I was about 13-14 I was bullied at school. Not physical attacks; it was nothing so obvious. Name calling, “teasing”. I was the quiet one, the one who didn’t get involved in playground games but would rather spend time around books. I didn’t have anyone I’d call a friend, not because I didn’t want friends but because I had no idea how to form friendships.

I became more and more fearful of being at school. I used to fantasize on the journey there in the mornings about opening the car door and jumping out, although I was too afraid of injuring myself to attempt it. At the time I couldn’t articulate how I felt: I wasn’t able to put a name to my emotional state. My grades declined and I often didn’t complete homework, leading to punishments. I felt completely alone, insecure and vulnerable.

Things reached a climax one morning. I’d dressed in my uniform as usual but I guess my fear and anxiety had risen to some critical threshold and when my father called for me to get in the car I stayed in my room. He got impatient, started shouting and came into my room to fetch me. I was afraid of the shouting and when I saw a clear path past him, out of the room, I bolted.

I ran across the hallway and into the room opposite, slamming the door shut and leaning up against it. He banged on the door, demanding that I open it and come out: I didn’t move or respond. He broke through the door, breaking it from its hinges. I think at that point I had broken down in tears: my memory is not clear. I think my mother must have intervened because he left and I was able to return to my bedroom, wedging the door closed with a screwdriver driven into the door frame.

I stayed in my room for weeks, even months, only venturing out occasionally during the day when I knew it was only me and my mother at home. I don’t know what went on outside my own little world during that time but eventually, because I’d not been attending school, social services became involved. I was taken, rather unwillingly, to see a couple of child psychologists.

They spoke to me as to a young child, completely failing to make any kind of connection with me. I think when I did respond to them I was monosyllabic. There was never any indication that they had any insight into how I was feeling and I wouldn’t have been able to enlighten them given my alexithymia. I knew I couldn’t go back to that school, but I couldn’t even explain the reasons inside my own head. Not for years, until I eventually learned to identify and put names to my emotional experiences.

You’ll notice I haven’t described, except in the broadest terms, what bullying I suffered. If I do retain any detail about it in my memory I am unable to access those portions of my life. Approaching where they are locked away triggers warning pangs of fear even now, nearly 30 years later, and I back away.

I know I still have issues that stem from being bullied. Any teasing is immensely hurtful to me. I’m often afraid to be as expressive as I’d like to because I expect to be ridiculed. Even though I often don’t show much feeling, particularly negative emotions, I make an effort to give nothing at all away about how I feel unless I’m somewhere I feel comfortable. I’ve suppressed some aspects of myself for so long I wonder if they’ve withered away.

Most days I don’t think about that period of my life, and I’m happy about that. However the recent activity centering around an awful article on ADN that casts bullying in a beneficial light has brought old feelings back up towards the surface, unsettling me. I hope I’ve explained here why I fail to see anything positive about bullying.

UPDATE: Starting to wish I’d not written about this: it’s triggered stuff I’d rather not have to deal with. It’s too late now: the damage is done and I’ve got to let the tears and residual anxiety pass. Get on with my life. But we can never completely leave our past behind us.


Reading a play in Spanish earlier–a language in which I am far from fluent–it struck me that as I read I don’t think about the English equivalent of the words and sentences. They have meaning without any conscious translation to my native written (and spoken) language.

I’ve found I have a certain facility for learning to read some languages: basically those that share some common roots with English. This includes Latin, Middle English, French, Dutch, German and Spanish. (I’m keen to add Celtic languages such as Welsh and Irish to my list as well, but my available time is finite.) There’s no trick to it: it appears to be a consequence of how my mind works.

My lifelong immersion in English had hidden from me the non-verbal nature of my thoughts, because whenever I come to communicate them I use that language. But, as I have described before, inside my mind there are no words, only impressions: feelings and visions. Meanings in elemental form.

When I read a text the parts I recognize cause these impressions of meaning directly. The parts I don’t recognize I must consciously, mechanically translate to English first. I quickly become familiar with new words, at which point this intermediate English stage no longer happens. At that point I’m reading fairly fluently. I generally find it takes several hours, maybe a few days, to reach that stage.

There’s a curious effect of understanding the meaning directly (i.e. without translating via English): if I express that meaning in English I use my own phrasing and structure. I often find it more difficult to render a literal translation than simply to convey the essence of the original. This is something I have also noticed when I’m reporting information (text or conversation–it doesn’t make a difference) that I encountered in English.

If somebody asks me what another person said to me in conversation I am usually unable to recall their words, instead simply retaining the underlying meaning. The implication is that I do not require English (or any equivalent language) for thought. I describe my thinking as visual but the reality is much richer and involves more senses than just sight: touch, smell, taste, hearing and emotions are also involved. Perhaps it would be more accurate to describe it as sensory rather than visual?

Most of the time it is effortless to translate my thoughts into English, expressing myself through writing or speech. But sometimes I will hit a block: I know what I want to express but can’t immediately find the words to convey that meaning. My choice of words is also very important to me. I like to find le mot juste, the exact word or phrase that matches what I mean. Failing to do so causes much frustration.

Exactly the same mechanism applies to programming. I “see” the structure of the code, how it operates, how the parts interact. The actual computer language used to express this is mostly irrelevant: I’m fluent in several and have no difficulty expressing equivalent meaning in any of them. To me there is no essential difference between writing in English and writing in C++ or Perl. It is only that computer languages operate in a restricted domain, defining sequences of operations. Natural languages are much more extensive in scope.

The common link is that they are all forms of communication, ways to express or record what is inside one’s mind so that it may be transferred to another mind. This also applies to computer languages: sure, programs are converted into machine instructions, but the reason that programming languages exist–as opposed to using those low-level instructions directly–is that they provide a means for programmers to express what is in their minds in a more natural way, one that is closer to the mental model than the binary codes that are the end result.