Bullying is the epitome of social xenophobia, the fear of anything different from the norm is ostracised and victimised. Although the forms of bullying may change the core of the behaviour does not, and neither do the long lasting effects on those who have been the victims of such behaviour.
This interview features the realities of the effects of bullying. I would like to publicly thank Seb Sharp for his bravery for sharing his story.
Disclaimer: This interview recounts and describes instances of physical and verbal abuse. For more information about mental illness please visit BeyondBlue.
Hi Seb and thanks for the chance to interview you. To start off with where did you grow up?
Hi Matt, thanks for the opportunity. I was born in Wagin, a country town in Western Australia. I did most of my growing up in the wheatbelt town of Merredin. Sheep, wheat and me!
What were some of your experiences growing up in Wagin?
We only lived in Wagin for a short time, my Dad worked for Wesfarmers and was moved around a lot. My earliest memories were of being on a farm. Happy with Mum, Dad and my puppy Sam. Unfortunately my folks married a bit young and divorced soon after. My Mum and I moved to Merredin when I was three and it was there I spent my ‘formative years’ if you will.
I remember it being great when it was Mum and I, we had a real ‘us against the world’ thing going. Life was good, but then I started school. I was a bit of a quiet kid, and to tell you a very badly kept secret.. my name wasn’t Seb. I changed it later in life.
What instigated the name change?
Well I was christened Erinn, which was traditionally a girl’s name and certainly a bit radical for a boy in a country town. I was also as I mentioned a shy kid, I also didn’t like sports, loud noises or any of the traditional games male children liked to play. So you can imagine how they took to me.
You mentioned your schooling, what was that like?
I was in school one day before some of the older kids (I was 5 at the time, most of the kids I had trouble with were 11 and 12) started calling me names and chasing me. I’d gone to the toilets and when I came out one of the teachers asked me if my name was Erinn and if I was a girl. One of the other kids had complained that there was a girl in the boys toilets and the teacher thought I WAS a girl so gave me a thorough telling off. Being a rather sensitive type I burst into tears when she called me a liar because I kept telling her I was a boy but she said to stop lying. The older kids were laughing and calling out. It was the first time I’d experienced anything negative to do with other kids
Did this sort of treatment continue into your teenage years?
All the way through primary school, to high school. Every day. Walking to and from school. On the weekends. Everywhere I went kids would call me names like pansy and poofter and it often escalated to violence In high school it got particularly bad and after one incident I was home schooled for a few months.
Do you mind if I ask about the incident?
It’s okay. I was in year ten (third year high school) and some of the guys in my class were punching and kicking me in the change rooms after sport. When I was in primary school some older kids had held me down and urinated on me while kicking me in the genitals. I’d told a ‘friend’ about this in confidence and she told the guys that were bullying me.
They thought it would be a good laugh to do it again, teach me a lesson about being a (as they called it) ‘filthy faggot’. They knocked me on the ground then kicked and dragged me to the urinal in the change rooms and then kicked me as one of them urinated on me. Then just walked out to lessons. The teacher came in and found me and I was allowed to go home. I didn’t want them to tell my parents.
What happened to those who did this?
One got expelled, two got suspended and my entire year were called to a special assembly. One of the teachers, who to this day I haven’t had the opportunity to thank asked them all who knew what had been happening with the bullying. They all raised their hands and he apparently read them the riot act.
That night one of the students threw bricks through his bedroom windows. That was the level of hatred that I was dealing with
Thank you for being brave enough to talk about that. I don’t think there are any words that can express that disgusting behaviour. How has this sort of treatment manifested in your adult life?
Thanks for letting me share it. It’s something that I want as many parents as I can to read, because this was a great, high achieving school where all the kids were bright and shiny and in no way ‘at risk’ and this still happened to me.
As an adult I have agoraphobia and depression. I don’t like leaving the house and can get very anxious if I don’t have complete control over my day. Which you can imagine is kind of an impossible thing to achieve. Nobody can control everything that happens to them! I still, at age 40 am incredibly jumpy too, it’s related to something called hyper-vigilance that a lot of bullied children or adults who suffer trauma develop. I hear and see things that other people don’t notice and I notice everyone who looks at me and how far away they are if I’m out in public.
Can you explain your agoraphobia and depression for those who may not understand what it means, and what it is like to suffer from these illnesses?
Sure. Agoraphobia is often mistakenly thought of as a fear of open spaces, but it’s now defined as an anxiety disorder. An agoraphobe usually has suffered from panic attacks, which when severe can make the sufferer believe they’re having a heart attack. Not wanting to have an attack, they will avoid any situation that may trigger one or that indeed makes them feel anxious. I’m scared of making phone calls, going to stores and supermarkets, going into crowds, meeting new people and walking anywhere outside on my own. I can do all of these things, but they usually require a couple of hours of psyching myself up. And I can start stuttering, shaking visibly, start to cry or feel like I can’t breathe at any time.
So one day I could go to buy milk and come home feeling bit sweaty and sick. The next day I could do it and burst into tears at the checkout, or start shaking so much that I can’t get my card out of my wallet. If that happens I usually have to get out of there pretty quickly.
I know you work for a telecommunications company, how has this affected your working life?
They’ve been amazing. When I started there I had a handle on most of my problems but after three years there I was promoted to a fairly stressful position and I had a breakdown of sorts. Since then they let me spend most of the day answering emails and if I am answering phones and have something that triggers me I have an arrangement with my manager that I can give him a signal… put the client on hold and go outside to calm down without having to explain anything. It doesn’t happen often because my work is very structured and there isn’t a lot of stress in the role I do now.
But it’s amazing to have that support if and when I need it.
That sounds like a great place to work, it would prove be a great support to help battle your agoraphobia and help to regain trust?
It is a great place, I’m so thankful to them. And you’re right, it’s allowed me to do the best job I can without having to worry too much about my mental illness. They treat it as they would someone who was physically sick, you know? “If you need to go outside and be sick, then just go” becomes “If you’re having a panic moment and can’t control it, do what is best for YOU”
And what about your social life, how have your illnesses impacted you socially?
I worked out a few years ago that if I stick to a routine I’m much better overall. So – I see the same friends at the same time on the same nights every week, at the same places and we do the same things. And it works! You can probably guess, I’m not one for surprises or spur of the moment outings.
Have you experienced any intolerance or stereotypes towards your illnesses?
If I can be completely honest, only my own thoughts about myself. I’ve experienced nothing but support and love from friends, family and co-workers. I got to a point a few years ago where I really wanted to explain why it was that sometimes I was withdrawing because it seemed to be getting worse and I felt I was really letting my friends down.
So I bit the bullet and sent out a group email “Hi guys, THIS is what’s going on with me and I need your help and I love you and I’m scared and I’m okay and I’m not and… ask anything you like”. And individually they did, and got a better understanding of how depression works and what it means when someone with mental illness pulls away and we developed open communication to the point where I can tell someone exactly where I’m at without it being weird.
With your incredible openness have you managed to help friends who may have experienced the same sorts of illnesses?
I have friends who have similar problems and it certainly brought us closer. With mental illness, if you don’t have a communication channel then you’re in real danger so if anything I hope that being able to talk openly and know that they’re supported and understood had helped these friends. We call ourselves ‘mentally interesting types’
How do you view yourself? Do you see yourself as the same person in high school, or do you see yourself as an inspiration?
Definitely not an inspiration. More a cautionary tale! Um… seriously though I do think my emotional growth was definitely arrested by what I experienced but there are both positive and negative things that come with that. I don’t have a high level of self esteem and I do harbour a lot of anger and self hatred which I battle with a lot. But having to learn to get people ‘on my side’ as it were, at such a young age… I developed a pretty quirky sense of humour and I’m good at reading people and I’d like to think I’m open minded and show people a lot of empathy. All of those things came from my experiences, so there are the good and there are the bad. I’m not happy with my life but I’d like to hope that I will be.
If you could say anything to the people that bullied you now, what would you say?
Matt, this is where I have to reveal something I’m not proud of. I still harbour so much anger towards those people. It’s something I’ve worked on for years with psychologists. It’s so incredibly difficult to let go of, because I …. and I’m ashamed of this…. wish nothing but bad things for some of them. I’ve written letters to the worst perpetrators in therapy and I’ve not been able to ever say I forgive them. The only progress we made was me writing letters (none of the letters written were ever sent) to the children of these (by now) men wishing them the best in life, and a path of happiness and love. And that was freeing in a way and definitely a step forward. I’m also incredibly protective of children.
Besides therapy, what else is involved with the treatment to help with your illnesses?
You follow the rules of life, I guess. Eat as well as you can (I am constantly working on this). Walk a few times a week, get lots of sleep and try to get outside in the sun a bit each day. I avoid stimulants such as caffeine and to let yourself feel. A lot of dealing with mental illness is knowing when to fight and when to save your energy. f you’re having suicidal thoughts then you force yourself to call someone, or talk to your doctor, to get out of bed, be around people, all the things your brain is screaming at you not to do because you’re worthless and should just end it all. But if you wake up one day and you feel like not showering, and want to lay in bed until three pm and have a bit of a cry then you need to let that happen. You can’t feel like that AND spend the whole day being mad at yourself for not being able to clean the house from top to bottom and make the world’s best dinner.
There are hundreds of tiny battles and you need to save your energy for the important ones
A final question, what are your aspirations for the future?
I want to have the ability to think ‘I need milk. I’m going to walk to the shop and get it’ then be able to do it without another thought entering my head. Then I’ll know I’ve got to where I need to be.
Because if I can do that, Mr Matty, I’ll be able to do anything else.
Thank you for your bravery and sharing your story. As much as you don’t believe it I think many people will share my view and think of you as an inspirational person
Thank you, Matt. With the way that’s made me feel, maybe I won’t need the milk.
Seb Sharp can be found at:
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