When I was 15, I was bullied by a group of about ten boys in my year. I was the new girl. They were a gang that (ridiculously), called themselves The Swarm. Their MO was to slowly approach and surround their target in the school playground, whilst slowly saying the word ‘swarm’. Once they’d done this they’d spit at, or kick, or just stare at their victim (whilst repeating the world ‘swarm’ over and over). I couldn’t quite believe it was happening to me, but, when they did it, despite the fact it hurt, humiliated and frightened me, I stood in the centre of their circle, middle fingers aloft, yelling at them to “Fuck Off.” It went on for months. That winter, when it snowed, they all jumped me on the way home and rolled me in the snow. Again, I told them to Fuck Off and stamped home angrily (whilst they taunted me about the ‘posh’ road I lived in). The next day, in assembly, they saw me, and all said in a loud whisper “it’s the Snow Queen”. Whilst I never once let them see that what they were doing was bothering me, when I got home, I would cry my heart out. Nobody knew what was happening. I got home at least half an hour before the rest of my family, so I had time to dry my tears and plaster on a normal (moody teenager), face before everyone else got home and I wouldn’t have dreamed of telling anyone at school (besides which – my Head of Year was regularly in the playground when the boys approached me, I think he knew what was happening but didn’t want to confront it/deal with it himself). I honestly felt that there was nothing anyone could do to stop it, I was ‘strong’ – I faced down my bullies, but it changed nothing.
In a way, E’s most recent actions, have made me feel like I’m 15 again. It’s so ridiculously unfair and yet there’s not really anything anyone can do about it. I have approached the Child Maintenance Service, but they will only make a claim for Oldest Son and Youngest Son (even though they are utterly financially dependent upon me, Oldest Daughter is too old, and Youngest Daughter is no longer in full-time education) and they can’t make him pay towards his half of the mortgage. I certainly can’t really afford the copious legal fees needed to make him do the right thing either (and even if I could, the fact that we weren’t married means that there is always the chance a court would simply rule that his only legal obligation is the boys). Obviously, his legal obligations are very different from his moral ones, but I don’t think he has any sense at all of his moral obligations – if he did, he wouldn’t have punished the kids and I by withholding money from us. Just like when I was 15, the bullies do what they want, whilst the rest of us stand on the side-lines agreeing how wrong they are, but powerless to do anything to change their behaviour.
Those boys that bullied me turned into ok blokes. Years later, they came into the pub I worked in and were friendly and pleased to see me – a couple of them even apologised. I don’t think they ever realised how much they’d hurt me. I don’t think they ever intended to hurt me, they were stupid kids, getting a kick out of being in a gang and asserting some power in the playground. They grew up, they saw the world and the people in it differently and, in their twenties, they behaved very differently.
It’s complex, but changing someone’s behaviour involves changing how they think about the world and the people in it (or incentivising them to act differently), and I don’t think E is capable of that change or has the incentive to behave better. He’s spent the last dozen years or so demonstrating his total lack of love or respect for me, so there’s absolutely no chance of that changing. For most of those dozen years I even took the blame for the fact that he’d had affairs. I felt that if I’d been ‘better’ or more loving or understanding that he wouldn’t have needed to go elsewhere for affection. I caught myself repeating this behaviour when I realised E wasn’t paying any money this month. I actually felt it was my fault because I didn’t reply to his emails, and I didn’t talk about selling the house when he wanted to.
As a result of his withholding the money, this November has been a month where in some ways, my whole sense of unreality about everything E has done has been further compounded. Like when I discovered his affairs, I initially had a sense of disbelief, a feeling of unreality – it was happening, but I felt kind of outside of it, like it was happening to someone else. I’ve spoken about it completely unemotionally, stating the facts, but not really feeling like it was happening to me. But, gradually, the reality of my situation has started to cut through the blur of disbelief, and I’m starting to see what an utterly shitty thing it is that he’s done and, vitally, that it’s not my fault.
Just like when I was the new girl at school, I was an easy target. One thing that E has a clear understanding of is that fact that, because I gave up work for so long to bring up our children, I am utterly financially dependent upon him, and his withholding the money to force me to agree to sell the house is a vicious act of bullying.
However, unlike when I was 15, this time I can do something about it. I can’t force him to pay anything more that the Child Maintenance Service insists upon, but I can get another job, I can earn more, I can make sure that I’m not so financially dependent upon him. Obviously, we’ll have to sell the house one day, but he’s not going to force me into selling it by bullying me.
One of the words that has been used to encourage and describe me over the last couple of years has been ‘strong’. It’s a fabulous compliment – I wish I was as strong as everyone thinks I am – but it also makes me feel like a bit of a fraud. I’ve kept going, not because I’m strong, but because I had to. I have got four children, a small zoo of pets, a house and a million other things to look after and do every day – just like millions of other people all over the world. I’m not exceptional, I’m not strong, I’m normal. But this most recent thing has made me realise that I’m maybe stronger than I thought. I’ve increased my hours at work and I’ve got an interview for evening/weekend work at a local bar. I’d rather work myself into the ground than let E hold me to ransom.
It might not do me any good, but, just like 15-year-old Me, 49-year-old Me is going to stand, middle fingers aloft, defiantly shouting ‘Fuck Off’ at E until he realises that bullying will never get him anywhere.