Let me tell you a story.
Once upon a time, you were my fresh start. I arrived in Glasgow on the 9th of September, and never looked back. For the first time in my life, I had everything I’d ever wanted. With almost zero exceptions, everyone seemed to like me, and for the first few weeks I was surrounded by friends. Some of my fondest memories of fresher’s week were sitting in a kitchen two floors up from mine, playing Cards Against Humanity at 4 o’clock in the morning, or talking only in innuendos and being the life of the party. I was happy and jolly and life was a breeze, and somewhere along the way it all went wrong.
You see, I have social anxiety.
Last Tuesday, my best friend came over, and he and I and another friend watched a film, and afterwards we sat on the sofas by the TV, chatting with this other friend’s flatmates. The conversation turned to films I hadn’t seen and pop culture references I didn’t recognise. I became clingier and clingier with my best friend, burying my face in his leg and wrapping my arms tightly around his arm, like a child, to the point where I could tell I was annoying him. I’ve never quite learnt how to respect his personal space.
When he got up to leave, I walked him to the door to say goodbye, and had planned to go to my room and recharge my introvert batteries. And then he said something which surprised me. He asked if I was going to go back and say goodbye to the others. I was shocked. It somehow hadn’t occurred to me. As far as I was concerned, I just wouldn’t be missed. My logic was that I was tolerated, and that was it. Or that my best friend and I were a package deal, and people put up with me because they liked hanging out with him.
So I went to my room, stubborn as ever. But I couldn’t shake the thought from my head. Something about it had gotten to me. So I returned to the common room – except by this point the others had gone. I went to my kitchen, made soup, and pushed the incident from my mind.
A couple of days later, I was messaging a friend of mine who lives just up the hall from me, and she mentioned something about how a couple of her flatmates had said they wondered why I didn’t talk to them/why I didn’t like them. My reaction was somewhere between “Noooooo” and “Ooooooooooh”. Firstly, I was absolutely horrified that they thought I didn’t like them. Of course I like them! I like almost everyone here. And secondly, it made me see myself, and those around me, in a completely different light.
You see, I am scared of you: almost every one of you. Things which are normal and easy for everyone else are terrifying for me. I’m scared of initiating conversations. I’m scared of small talk, and I’m scared I’ll say the wrong thing, or that you won’t like my opinions. I’m scared I take up too much space in the room and in the world. I’m scared that the rules which apply to everyone else don’t apply to me. I’m scared that there’s something wrong with me and that everyone hates me.
And it seems that I’ve spent so much time worrying about people hating me, and assuming they would, just by (lack of) virtue of my personality, that I forgot to think about how I act, about the impressions I create.
I honestly thought I was friendly. I smile at everyone, don’t I? But I also avoid eye contact when I pass people in the hall, and I don’t always attempt small talk with my flatmates when we’re in the kitchen together.
The more I thought about this, the more it worried me. And then a memory resurfaced. It was back in October, and I was in a club with some of my housemates, and one of my flatmates turned up. It was the first time I’d been to a club since fresher’s week, so I was the last person she would have expected to see. And she was extremely drunk and excited, and she started telling me how she could never tell if I liked her (I reassured her that I do).
I realised that issue was not merely one isolated event. It was at least two, which suggests to me that there are more cases. It even made me wonder if that was the reason that the one person I know dislikes me here hates me. Though I quickly discounted that notion, because I’m pretty sure I made an effort with that person at first. But didn’t I think I made an effort with everyone? I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know.
And so I began to re-evaluate what I know about the relationships in my life. Who am I to people? Am I who I think I am?
I figure that to my flatmates, I’m the girl who’s always cooking, dancing around the kitchen to rather random playlists, singing Lana Del Rey songs in the shower, and occasionally leaving dishes at the side of the sink for five days in a row. (Oops. I promise I’ll clean them soon!)
And to my housemates, it’s perhaps more varied. Some might know me only from the group chat, where my nickname is “Eliza the All-knowing Sex Guru”, thanks to my prolificacy with innuendos.
And to my friends? Who knows.
And then there’s my best friend… I once asked him what his first impression of me was, from the film & TV studies group chat before we met, and he said it was “kinda kooky but cool”, which I think is code for fucking weird. Now, though, I’m the girl who is always hugging him to death. As to what he is to me, I could write an entire novel on it. He is the light of my life, and he keeps me sane even more than he drives me nuts.
But what if these assumptions aren’t the case?
What if my flatmates think I’m unfriendly, or that I don’t like them, because I don’t always talk to them? I make an effort to say hi, and then I tend to awkwardly stare into whatever I’m cooking, hastily turning my music down, because I don’t want to be annoying.
And perhaps most of my housemates don’t even know me. I haven’t written on the group chat in months, because I’m scared I don’t belong.
And my friends… It hurts my heart to think of what they must think of me. I worry that I’ve been rather hot and cold with them. These people are my world, and they make me so nervous. I’m scared they don’t like me, even when I know they do. I’m scared they have time for everyone but me. I feel like they don’t love me because they never ask me to hang out (but when do I ever ask them?). There are times when I just want to hide in my room and avoid you all, because it’s far more comfortable to be uncomfortable than to go out on a limb. And I love you and need you and I wish you would reach out to me, because I’m too terrified to reach out to you. And I know how selfish that sounds. But that’s the thing; I can be selfish at times. Because I live my whole life in fight-or-flight mode. I’m in a constant state of self preservation.
And my sweet, sweet best friend… How do you see me? You have put up with more crap from me than all my other friends combined. I vent to you about everything, I spend more time hugging you than not hugging you (no wonder all our friends wrongly think we’re together!) You are my safety blanket. I cling to you when the world is too much. And lately that’s too often, and it’s not fair of me. In many ways we’re as bad as each other, in that there have been so many times when I’ve accused you of taking me for granted, yet I do the exact same to you. Perhaps I tell you how grateful I am for you on a daily basis, or how much I love and value you… But I don’t always treat you that way. I’m cruel at times, and spiteful and passive aggressive, and I’m pretty sure that I have been the one who started every fight we’ve ever had, because I’m petty AF and can never let anything go. And whilst I completely respect you in theory, I evidently don’t respect your physical personal space, because if I did I would not rest my head on your shoulder in lectures when I know it annoys the hell out of you. Yet you are perhaps the only friend I have who I do not feel nervous around at all. And that’s why I can be mean to you, because, even though I’m terrified of losing you, I know that I would never actually lose you. I’m like this growth which has embedded itself in you, and we’ll stay stuck together unless you decide to have me amputated. Please don’t amputate me – after all, who else would follow you around DVD stores giving you caffeine-fuelled motivation speeches?
Obviously my skewed perspective on how people view me, and the anxiety that causes me to react the way I do, did not randomly spring into existence. They had a root cause. It never occurred to me that most of you guys probably don’t know it. And I figured that writing a blog about this is my best way to reach as many people as possible with this vital information about how I don’t hate them. So here is my reason, here is my why; here is how I ended up where I am now. Here is my story.
I tried really hard to think of something comical to say, but my mind’s coming up blank, so I’m afraid you’re just going to get the boring version. Hell, I don’t even know where the story starts. My issues with people go waaaaaaay back, but they’re not necessarily the ones which matter here.
My first memory of being called ugly comes from when I was about seven or eight. It was from another kid in my village, though I can’t remember which one. I was standing near the bus shelter, by the village green where there was a bench which had my/the queen’s initials on it. I think I was wearing a dress, but I can’t be sure. I just remember that there were a few other kids around, and me and my sister, and that one of these kids called me fat and ugly. This probably wasn’t the first time someone insulted me, but it was clearly the first one that stuck. The kids in my village didn’t like me. Perhaps because my family was a little ~different~ or because I was homeschooled. I don’t know. I know that they hated me a whole lot more when I was eight, and my family were in a documentary that everyone deemed completely weird.
I did a brief stint in school during my ninth year on this earthly plane, and explored the basics of Being Hated 101. I think I had three friends by the end of my time there. And these friendships didn’t last too long after I left.
Skip six years into the future. I was fifteen, and I was depressed. I was lonely; I’d never had a close, lasting friendship. Sure, I’d written seven novels, but, as much as they tried, my characters couldn’t be there for me in the way I presumed actual flesh-and-blood humans could. And so when my sister decided she needed A Levels to get into university… I decided there was no way in hell I would go to school just because she was. Why would I put myself through that?
My resolve didn’t even last a week!
I started at Ullswater Community College on the 17th of September 2013. It was the second week of the school term. Trust me to make an entrance!
Now due to being homeschooled, and having parents who leant more towards the arts than the sciences, I hadn’t really done maths or science since the last time I’d been in school. When I was nine. So I was put in the science class for those who had failed their year ten exam and had to resit it in year eleven. I’m not saying people who are bad at science are unintelligent (like, I was bad at science, and I personally think I’m very intelligent). What I’m saying is I was put in a class with people who did not take their education seriously, and didn’t seem particularly motivated to pass their GCSEs. I did not belong there. My first lesson in school was Physics, on a Tuesday morning. Everyone just found me so…entertaining. Especially when I told them I wrote novels (they were not bookish people).
I spent the first week of school thinking I was popular and had made lots of friends, just because everyone wanted to talk to me. It took me a little while to realise most of them were taking the piss, and that they were all laughing at me behind my back and were doing everything in their power to make me look stupid. In addition to being bullied for everything under the sun by people in my year group, people in the years below me were bullying me for that documentary. They would have been approximately four years old when it came out. Life advice: never move to Cumbria, nothing ever happens there so something from ten years ago will still be deemed worthy news.
As I started to twig that everyone wanted to watch me fail and fall, the bullying got worse. Because I wasn’t taking their shit. I was learning who I couldn’t trust (basically everyone). And people don’t like it when their personal drama tap suddenly refuses to quench their thirst. To this day, I am astounded by the number of things people managed to bully me for. Being vegetarian, writing novels, WRITING BLOGS, being previously homeschooled, being in that documentary, reading books, getting good grades, caring about my education. I had some sort-of friends, but I don’t recall them ever standing up for me. By about November, I was determined to drop out. I hated school, and I hated the people there, and worst of all, I hated myself. They had crushed my spirit. But I ain’t no quitter. So I stuck it out. I told myself I would finish year 11, but I wouldn’t go to sixth form.
Of course, I went to sixth form. Whilst a good chunk of the nasty people from my year left before sixth form, the ones who stayed seemed to become nastier. And what was worse, I’d alienated my sort-of friends. If I recall correctly, it was because I’d pointed out something to do with the Ice Bucket Challenge funding a company that tested on animals, and that somehow offended them (I never could keep my mouth shut!) So I started sixth form effectively friendless. I didn’t have high hopes. Most of the boys from my GCSE English class absolutely despised me, because I had basically been Hermione, and so they made my life hell throughout year 12. On the plus side, I had some damn amazing teachers. The one that will always stand out for me was my Media teacher, Mr Nulty, who I would still place right at the top of the list of people who have influenced my life. Because he is the reason I ended up at Glasgow University (and he was just an all-round superstar, and I completely worshipped him. Note the past tense. I saw him in Sainsbury’s when I was home at Christmas. And he was a stranger to me. A stranger with a familiar face, a stranger whose voice was once the soundtrack to my self-improvement. I don’t worship him anymore, because I know he never asked to be on that pedestal. But he made me who I am today, and he will always have a special place in my heart).
All in all, year 12 was incredibly stressful, and my anxiety worsened. I relied heavily on my teachers for emotional support, which is probably why I have such a co-dependent relationship with my best friend (who funnily enough reminds me a lot of my old Media teacher), because I’m recreating my old patterns to trigger my old coping mechanisms. Towards the end of that school year, my world was somewhat shaken up. I found out that one of my English teachers (an absolute saint of a woman, Mrs Highet, who loved me and saw my potential, and who I completely worshipped and still really miss sometimes) was retiring. And a couple of weeks later, I found out that my dear Media teacher had gotten a job at another school. To top it all off, I lost approximately 1/3 of the novel I was writing at the time, due to a faulty USB stick. I was devastated. Almost everything I relied on was gone.
I don’t know if the bullying actually got worse in year 12, or whether it just seemed to, because I was no longer deluding myself about it. But it also took on a new dimension: cyber bullying. I was used to regular bullying – name calling, occasionally having doors slammed into me, that one time someone elbowed me in the chest for taking “their” seat on the bus – but cyber bullying was a whole new playing field. Because it was anonymous.
It started with obnoxious comments on my blog. My personal favourite was “I want to buy 40,000 copies of your novels so I can burn them”. How thick can a person be? If they bought 40,000 copies of my novel, they would make me so rich that I almost wouldn’t care if they burnt them. The comments got nastier, and so I decided to tell my head of sixth form. However, I couldn’t find him on that particular day. So I told this woman – I’m not sure what her actual job title was, but she was basically in charge of supporting sixth formers with wellbeing/study/any other issues. So I, through my extreme sobbing and panic attacks, told her what had happened. I remember exactly what she said to me, because I am still so bitter about it. “Just delete your blog,” she said, “that’s all you can do. Delete your blog and eat some chocolate.”
Naturally, I was furious. Not only did it completely trivialise my feelings (did I mention I was having panic attacks?), but it also trivialised the time, and bravery, and work, that goes into writing blogs and putting oneself out there online. Yes, it is second nature to me, but that does not mean that it’s easy. And it is certainly not something I can quit, let alone delete. It would be like deleting a part of my soul. It was possibly the worst advice anyone has ever given me. Obviously I ignored it. I told my old form tutor, from year 11, about it, and he showed me how to edit the settings on my blog (note: this was my old blog, not this current website) so that comments had to be moderated before being uploaded. And that was supposedly that.
Until the next instance of cyber bullying… This one was grander in scale, in that it was not directed at just me, but seemingly the entire year group. There was some website where people can write “information” about towns/cities, etc. And on the one for Penrith, people had written vile things about almost everyone in my school year. They wrote graphic and gross things about me (mostly to do with that documentary), and so I went and told the head of sixth form. He already knew. Everyone knew. Now I was still bitter from my last encounter with cyber bullying, and I was not prepared to let this one slide. So I asked my head of sixth form if I could do something about it. I asked him if I could do an assembly, to all of the sixth form (200+ people) about cyber bullying.
And I did. It, like my blogs and my poetry, was intensely personal. And lots of people were moved by it. It was one of the scariest things I’d ever done, and I still think of it as an act of complete badassery. Naturally, people used it as an excuse to tease me. But for a little while I was walking on air. Because if you can do public speaking, you can do anything. In spite of it all (or because of it all), year 12 was when I finally grew a backbone.
In year 13, my final year of school, I was just numb. I was there because I had to be. My A Levels were my ticket out of there, and so I lived life as a zombie, going through the motions to get where I wanted to go, without actually feeling alive. I missed my old Media teacher terribly. Though I got on very well with my new Media teachers, and they were very supportive of me. I had new English teachers too, and that was somewhat of a challenge for me. Because I was used to being adored by my old English teachers. I was the golden child of their department. And suddenly I had one teacher who I clashed with on everything (tbf I think I was still his favourite, because I was smart and motivated), and one who I don’t think really got to know me or how I learn. My only constant throughout sixth form were my philosophy and ethics teachers. I loved them dearly, and they are perhaps the only thing that kept me sane during my final year. And I do still miss the way they taught me. Especially as I’m studying Philosophy at university, and this semester we’ve started on ethics. It makes me miss my sixth form ethics teacher so much. Of all my teachers, I think he was the one who most looked at me as an equal. And he didn’t just see Eliza The Zombie, he saw me as who I wanted to be, and he saw me as intelligent and vibrant. I can’t believe I haven’t seen him since June!
The bullying actually died down in year 13. Not because people stopped hating me, but because they grew bored of me, became indifferent, perhaps forgot I existed. Which, in a way, was even worse. Little attention seeker that I am… I cruised through the year in my zombielike state of misery/numbness. I worked several days a week as well as school, to save up for my trip to Estonia, and I was too busy to feel anything. I almost got through the year without major drama. Almost. It was the most ridiculous thing. We had to put our names down on a list for the tables at prom, and I (anxious person that I am) thought I should ask my sort-of friends before putting my name next to theirs. But way back before the year 11 prom, they’d said of course I didn’t have to ask. Clearly a lot changes in two years. Someone who I thought was my friend (tbf I didn’t know what real friendship was when I was in school) asked me if she could remove my name from their table. What was I supposed to say? I asked her if they all felt the same way. She told me yes. I agreed. I got the hell out of the room before I started crying. Not over a stupid table, but because all my so-called sort-of friends had unanimously decided they didn’t want me.
I didn’t tell anyone what had happened. I left the school premises (#sixthformerperk) and ended up having a panic attack in the leisure centre car park next door. Someone from school must have seen me, because when I got back everyone knew, and it was drama drama drama. Literally the only drama at school that I one hundred percent did not cause, and everyone presumed I had, and blamed me for it. And the plot had thickened, and everyone claimed it was a misunderstanding. And I still don’t know what went down. I know I ended up sitting at their table, and I know I’ve only had contact with one of them since, and I know that I was never going to find my tribe amongst immature schoolgirls. And I know that I, for all intents and purposes, do not give a single fuck, because they simply are not in my life anymore. I am so over school. The problem is, you can take Eliza out of school, but you can’t take the school out of Eliza. You see, what was a stupid fight about who sat where at a stupid prom, was representative of so much more. It was just another example of people choosing everyone else over me. It was me coming in last, yet again. And whilst the specifics of it mean literally nothing to me, the actual message of it deepened the wound in my self-esteem. School fucked me up, basically. I have a deep-rooted belief that I am not worthy, that I am not wanted, that everyone either resents me, hates me, or is indifferent to me. That was my reality every day for three years.
Parallel to these events, I had found a new lease on life. Whilst the internet had shown me my enemies so many months previously, it had now shown me my friends. I joined a Facebook group for future Glasgow university freshers. And through that I met a lovely Italian girl who was on the same course as me. We started talking in May, and we seemed to have so much in common. And in my dear, dear Elena, I found the first real friend I ever had. And that was the beginning of a new life. Because before her, I couldn’t even imagine that friendship could exist for me.
I finished my final exam on the twenty-first of June. Prom was on the twenty-fifth. And on the twenty-sixth, I began a journey which changed my life. I travelled alone to Estonia, on a pilgrimage to the setting of my novels. It was the bravest and most radical thing I have ever done, and I am so proud of myself. It was yet another example of my badass streak. I learnt to be the best version of myself. (I blogged the entire thing, so there’s no point me going into detail here). During my time in Estonia, I managed to shake myself free of the damage caused to me by school.
Or so I thought…
As I said, school fucked me up, big time. And it turns out that even spending two weeks finding yourself, half way across the continent, cannot undo that damage easily. In Estonia I learnt how to laugh again, and how to be free, and even how to love myself. But I could not unlearn the negative messages I had been bombarded with for years of my life. I know what I’m worth, I just don’t believe it.
Because somewhere deep inside of me, I have come to believe that I’m ugly, that nobody likes me, that I have no friends (even though I have so many!!!), that everybody hates me, that I take up too much space, that I don’t belong , that I don’t fit in, that I’m weird in a bad way, that I’m a freak.
I remember a couple of months ago, my mum found a newspaper clipping she had from an article in the local paper when my first novel was published, and she took a photo of it and tagged me in it on Facebook. And suddenly I started to panic, because whoops, I kind of hadn’t really told anybody about the whole writing/publishing novels thing. My novels are the thing I am most passionate about in the entire universe, and I didn’t tell most of my friends about them. Because, after my experiences at school, I believed that people were either completely indifferent to the fact I wrote novels, or that they would passionately hate me for it. So I kept it to myself, until (thanks mum) I suddenly had all these people commenting on this picture asking me why I hadn’t told them about my novels. And their comments were positive!
School hugely damaged my self-worth, and it impacts the relationships I have with people now. I know my friends love me; I know they must find me interesting on some level. But deep in my heart I believe that nobody wants me, and I can’t just magic that belief away. It’s something I have to work through, and heal over time. But in the meantime, all I can do is my best.
So if I avoid eye contact when we pass in the hall, or don’t always make small talk in the kitchen, or don’t ask you to hang out even though you’re my friend and I miss you, you are not the problem. I do not hate you. I probably think that you hate me. And I will try my hardest to change. But be patient with me, and be gentle. I’m a lot more fragile than I seem.