Natalie has a kind and ready smile; she adores her family; she’s friendly, and always happy to chat. She has the most loving, bright and confident little boy, and her heart beats for him. She’s also dedicated to her job, which is more of a vocation – looking after animals in need. She’s beautiful, she laughs a lot, and she is a kind and caring friend.
But there were months of her school life when she existed in misery. Natalie was subject to a long and deliberate campaign of bullying during her GCSE year, and she couldn’t imagine how life could ever change for the better.
But it did, and Natalie she wants to share her story; she wants to give hope to anyone who is suffering at the hands of bullies, to tell them that even though it feels like it will never end, you can be free from the torment, and carve a niche of happiness for yourself in the world. She asked me to write her story down for her.
“It started with a girl I thought was a close friend. Looking back, she wasn’t a friend at all. Every so often she would come out with a little comment or remark to put me down, or make me look stupid in front of other people: ‘your hair looks a mess’ or ‘that looks dreadful on you’. I thought it was her valid opinion, but now I can see that she was doing it deliberately to make herself feel better, or to make me feel bad – I’m not sure which. Perhaps it was both.
“I had a boyfriend, and male friends as well as female ones, and I think maybe she was jealous. I wasn’t in the popular crowd at school, and neither was she, but I was happy with the circle of friends I had. But those occasional comments started to get more regular – and that’s when the problems on MSN began.”
With social media still in its infancy, MSN was a popular way to communicate directly and in groups. Natalie’s so-called friend started sending her little digs and nasty comments out of school hours about her appearance, and this soon escalated into rumours about Natalie and her boyfriend, and her other male friends, and soon into outright lies, which she started spreading among their friends. They started joining in with the nasty comments, and spreading the rumours around – and soon it wasn’t just her friends – it was everyone. Natalie realised that the whole year group was talking about her, and that almost overnight she’d become a target for mockery and verbal abuse from the whole year group.
“Everywhere I went, there was whispering. I’d walk into a classroom and everyone would look at me, giggle and start talking about the latest thing they’d heard about me. They would throw paper at my head. They would write nasty notes and pass them to me in class, and write other notes about me to each other that would be shared around. They’d make lewd comments, and taunt me about things that were completely untrue. It was everywhere, and it was relentless.
“I was so afraid, and I had no-one to talk to. I didn’t want my mum to worry, so I didn’t tell her anything. I would sit in my room and scratch my skin to pieces, and pull chunks of my hair out – I just didn’t know what to do with myself. I had nowhere to turn, and no way of solving it for myself. It just seemed like there would never be any end to it.
“But I did tell it all to my beautiful black Labrador-cross, Flash – he was the best listener in the world. He was someone to talk to who would listen without judging, he loved me unconditionally, he was my best friend, and I really believe he saved me. I don’t know what I would have done without him to talk to. I also took strength from listening to a song – Fight Song, by Rachel Platten.
“I simply couldn’t face going to school. I invented all of the reasons I could think of to stay at home, and some days I would just refuse to go. And eventually, Mum knew there was something serious the matter.”
The school were prepared to take action to help with the bullying – but that action was to put Natalie into isolation. She was removed from class, and was given learning materials to study. If her attendance in the classroom was essential, they provided Learning Assistant to accompany her into the class, and back to isolation again. The bullying slowly fizzled out, because they couldn’t reach her any more, but Natalie was the one being punished; she was the one whose learning suffered. She didn’t get close the GCSE results that she felt capable of.
“After a lot of thought, I decided to go to college in a different town and study Animal Management – mainly because I wanted to help animals as much as Flash had helped me. I was happy with that decision right up to the moment I got to the bus. As soon as I saw it, I felt absolutely certain that it would be school all over again – the cliques, the whispering, the ‘right’ places to sit – and that I would be the one they’d single out again. But once I got on, I realised that I couldn’t have been more wrong.”
Natalie was stunned by the difference between school and college. A boy came up to her on the bus, introduced himself, and sat down to chat. She found that the students had respect, maturity and commitment to their courses. This was an environment that everyone had chosen to be in. “The staff treated us like young adults, which helped to foster a professional, friendly atmosphere that you could feel throughout the student population as well – down to something as simple as being able to sit wherever you wanted on the bus, being welcome there, and being a valued part of the community.”
Free from the toxic atmosphere she’d tried to live and learn in before, Natalie’s wounds began to heal. She got brilliant qualifications, and went on to university. This led to volunteering at animal sanctuaries in South Africa and Jamaica, and now her dream job – caring for animals that are slightly less exotic, but just as needy, closer to home with the RSPCA. “I struggled with workload at times at college and uni, and sometimes I still felt I couldn’t do it because of my past – but I pushed on because I finally had the strength, and I was determined to get where I wanted to be. I had the support of real friends, and I wanted to prove that what I had been through wouldn’t break me, and ruin my future – and it didn’t.”
Natalie has all the appearance of a confident and happy woman, but she still bears the scars of what happened to her. “My anxiety used to be crippling. It’s much better now, but I still doubt my ability, my worth and my value. I still automatically smile with my mouth closed to cover my teeth, even though they don’t need to be covered any more. There’s a mean little voice inside me, put there by all of those people who had no idea of the power of their words.
“I would love parents and teachers to impress upon all children the enormous power of their words. The old saying that ‘names can never hurt me’ couldn’t be further from the truth. They hurt, and they last, and you remember them, sometimes for years and years, and they can do such lasting damage.
“I want anyone who is being bullied to know two things.
“One – please, please tell someone, as soon as it starts. It all got out of hand so fast, and so badly. If I’d told my Mum sooner, she could have helped before so much damage was done.”
“Two – it may seem hopeless at the time, but please know that your life will get better. School is temporary, and you will find a way through. Your life can change completely for the better – and it will.”