I remember it clearly — a little too clearly.
I’m in Grade 3, standing beside the chain-link fence of my elementary school, staring at a small keychain in my hand. It’s pink with sparkles and has the word “PRINCESS” splashed across the front of its rectangular surface.
This cheap piece of plastic was only $3.33 plus tax. Claire’s — the crowded tween jewelry store — had one of its classic 3 for $10 deals, which was the only way I could afford to purchase Christmas gifts for my best friends.
But my very best friend — the girl I strived to please more than anyone — didn’t like my $3 keychain, so she threw it into our classroom’s recycling bin.
Despite this clear act of betrayal, I stood by the fence, begging her to stay friends with me. She had just said, “Julia, I don’t think we can be friends anymore.”
This treatment wasn’t new. It might have only been Grade 3, but I was used to being the odd friend out in a group of three girls. I was the one who was invited, then uninvited last minute. I was the one who would be on both sides when they would fight, and left behind when they would make up.
I was the one who had her presents thrown into the recycling.
Bullying isn’t a new phenomenon, a staggering number of Canadian youth experience it. A 2013-2014 study reported by the World Health Organization found 38 per cent of boys and 39 per cent of girls said they had been bullied at least once just in the month prior to the survey. And more than 10 per cent of youth ages 15 to 17 reported being victims of cyberbullying.
But recent research, including the work of psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, shows bullying has long-lasting ramifications for victims.
“Bullying does last long into adulthood, especially if kids or teens don’t get the help that they need,” said Sherri Gordon, author and bullying prevention advocate. “If bullying is ignored or ongoing and is never really resolved, then they will just carry those things the bullies have done to them forward.”
Gordon said it’s normal for adults to be triggered by subtle things in their environment that remind them of their days as a victim. “It could just be as simple as a smell,” she said.
As a child, Gordon was bullied on the school bus. “I still sometimes get a pit of anxiety of when I hear [it],” she said.
Gordon said the biggest problem among adults who have been victims of bullying is they don’t realize symptoms they experience now are actually results of childhood trauma.
“The most common effects of bullying long term are depression, anxiety, low self-esteem. Sometimes if the bullying was really severe, they might suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD],” Gordon said.
Gordon was told her ears were too big as a child, and now she only wears her hair down. I was repeatedly told I wasn’t good enough from girls (in some form or another) and I now struggle to trust female friends.
But these are anecdotal examples that do little to reflect the extensive suffering some children endure.
According to a 2012 Statistics Canada study, 38 per cent of adult males reported being bullied during their days in school, slightly higher than the 30 per cent of females who reported this occasional or frequent bullying during their youth. In fact, Canada was ranked ninth out of 35 countries for the highest rates of bullying among 13-year-olds.
The work of van der Kolk and other researchers suggests that bullying, which impacts over a third of the nation’s men and women, can actually affect the brain’s neurological responses.
Ellen deLara, author of Bullying Scars, references the research of van der Kolk, who specializes in the effects of traumatic experiences on adults and children.
“When a child experiences trauma that leads to PTSD, neurobiological development is impacted in several ways. Certain brain structures may be delayed in development, neuroendocrine responses are affected, and we can see issues with the ability to think, process emotions, and control behaviours,” deLara wrote in her book.
There are two parts of the brain that allow us to perceive danger: the amygdala and the hippocampus. “Prolonged alarm reactions” are one effect on the brain from bullying, which means stress-reduction measures are often needed for adults who are victims. Verbal abuse from peers is also linked to damage of to the cerebral cortex, which can lead to both psychological and behavioural issues.
But these are just studies and statistics — an issue like bullying can’t always be quantified or dissected.
I decided to track down students who could speak to me about their own experiences of bullying, now years after the incidents. Carol Ferrie, a Ryerson social work student, agreed to talk to me about her childhood.
Now 30 years old, she still remembers how it felt to be bullied.
She was victim to exclusion in elementary school that carried into high school. Like me, Ferrie had a big group of “friends,” but was purposely left out, rejected, teased and put down.
“There almost something worse about being in the middle of everything and still not being a part of it,” she said.
Ferrie’s parents split up when she was very young — like my own. Although they got back together when she was 14, she never spoke to her parents about her troubles at school.”
She learned to depend on her two grandmothers for emotional support. But, when one of them died the same year her parents reconciled, the structure she had built around their combined support began to break. At 16 years old Ferrie was diagnosed with manic depression with suicidal tendencies.
“You don’t realize how that impacts you until something bad happens and no one’s there.”
As a way to protect herself, Ferrie said she created a facade — a new illusion of herself that she portrayed to the world. She started mapping out her interactions and allowing those around to only see her as the loud class clown.
“I figured out really quickly if made fun of myself, I controlled how people made fun of me,” she said. “I also discovered when you’re the loudest person in the room, no one actually pays attention to you.”
She also said until recently she had the habit of replaying the worst-case scenario of various situations in her mind. She blamed bullying for this tendency: “It used to be my coping mechanism, because if I knew the worst possible scenario, and I was ready for it, then I wouldn’t get blindsided,” she said.
At this point in our conversation, I told her “a light bulb just went off in my head.” She had just identified a coping mechanism I have used since my days in elementary school; I replay the most uncomfortable, worst-case scenarios of any situation where I feel vulnerable.
Sometimes this anxiety can be mentally debilitating, other times it’s just an annoying presence I can ignore. Ferrie said she still deals with her depression and anxiety — some days are better and some days are worse.
She said she often wonders why she assumes the worst when her boyfriend is quiet, or why she concludes, at times, that some of her relationships are a joke at her expense.
So how do we discern these anxieties with other, normal, “my-life-is-a-mess” worries?
“The best way to determine where your anxiety is coming from is to talk to a professional counsellor or a licensed therapist,” Gordon said.
So I did.
Ryerson clinical psychologist Maria Chaparro said the counselling centre is starting to use the relatively new umbrella term “complex trauma.” Although she said this is not a proclaimed diagnosis, and is different from the traditional PTSD, there seem to be a variety of symptoms associated with a child’s exposure to traumatic experiences.
“Depending on the extent, the severity, frequency and duration of bullying, as well as on the specific temperamental characteristics of the victim, I strongly believe and have seen how being bullied can have a significant impact in adults’ mental health,” Chaparro said.
She said some of these symptoms can include fear of trust, difficulty connecting with others, the ability to regulate emotions or a profound feeling of loneliness.
But there seem to be positive outcomes from bullying as well. For example, I strive to empathize with everyone. Ferrie said her experiences helped her when she was rejected from five different master’s programs; she pushed until one school, Ryerson, accepted her. She said being a victim of bullying will help her as she pursues a career in social work.
“This is not about me. This has nothing to do with me…I don’t have to take it, but I also don’t have to cut you down to not take it,” Ferrie used to tell herself in high school.
“I know so many people want to hear, ‘I overcame it,’ and, ‘it didn’t affect me.’ No, it does, and it always will and that’s OK,” Ferrie said. “It doesn’t make you damaged; it doesn’t make you any less valid.”
I still think about that day in the park in Grade 3 when my best friend told me she didn’t want to be my friend anymore. I still remember how it felt in Grade 6, when I was told about a party everyone was invited to except for me. When I remember these things, I still experience a pit of anxiety deep in my stomach, and maybe that’s OK.