It took 16 years before Roxie Nafousi could say she had recovered from being bullied at school, aged 11. “The bullying was racially motivated. I’m Iraqi and the war had just broken out. The pinnacle was being locked in a phone box and being called Saddam. My mum couldn’t find me for two hours.”
The definition of bullying is sustained, repetitive aggression, plus a power imbalance between the bully and the victim. And the kind of stigma-based bullying – that is, bullying that is based on race, gender, sexual orientation or other characteristic – that happened to Nafousi is on the rise, according to a paper from a US expert.
Nafousi still doesn’t know why she was targeted. “Maybe because I was different?” She also had a bullying friendship with two girls in particular, who would “lure me with kindness”, but then be “quite savage”. “They’d encourage me to self-harm, tell me to cut my wrists. I didn’t understand. I was only 11.” After switching schools she was no longer bullied. “There was the usual bitchiness, but nothing targeted.”
Research repeatedly shows that bullying stays with anyone who has experienced it, often into adulthood. A 2017 study revealed that those bullied in childhood are more likely to use mental-health services in both childhood, adolescence and as adults, too. “What happens is you develop really low self-esteem issues. You don’t think you’re worthy enough, or likeable enough. It stayed with me, but showed itself in different ways as I grew up.”
"I began to lie and say I was from Jordan, and I changed my name from Rawan to Roxie. Then it became a body-image thing. I had severe self-hate; would do intense dieting and extreme bingeing.” From the age of 21, Nafousi suffered from depression, lasting until relatively recently. “Up until last year, I didn’t want to live any more. I would only have tiny gaps of happiness that lasted a few weeks, maybe a month.”
'It’s been an intensely challenging but beautiful journey. I’m so happy and content now'
There is a lovely upside to Nafousi’s story. Now, aged 28, she calls herself happy and content, and has taken the last year for what she calls “a year of self searching”. “I have worked on myself every day for this whole year. It’s been an intensely challenging but beautiful journey. I’m so happy and content now. I never thought you could cure yourself of the pains of bullying, but I would go so far as to say that I have.”
Working on yourself, says Nafousi, should be your number-one priority. For some people, she says, therapy is the key, but it wasn’t for her. She had to do the work herself. “Find out who your authentic self was before the conditioning of life, before your limiting beliefs. Go back to who you were as a child – fearless, grateful, confident and happy.”
Books played a big part in her last year. She cites Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers and The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari by Robin Sharma as life-changing texts. “Everything I believe in is in that book, from gratitude to how you slow down and simplify your life.” She also does yoga and meditates daily – though she stresses it’s important to find the style that works for you and to start slowly. And she advises talking to your friends. “Everyone has been through a similar thing.”
Being purposeful about how she spends her time and mental energy is part of her mental-health strategy, too. “Make a list of things that make you happy. Then just do one every day.” Each Monday morning, she sets an intention for the week. “Think about how you’ll feel on Friday afternoon. What is it you’ve done and achieved? How do you feel about it?"
Nafousi now sees her purpose as to help other people find happiness, too. That’s why she’s now an ambassador for the Mental Health Foundation. She’s encouraging people to buy and wear the green ribbon, the international symbol of mental-health awareness. "You wear it as a sign you support and want people to have better mental health."
How does she feel about her bullies now? “I don’t feel anger. I feel zero regret and zero sadness for my past. Bullying is the making of you, without you even knowing it. Rather than allowing experiences to control us, we need to control them. As cliché as it sounds, everything that happens to us is a lesson. Everybody we meet is our teacher. What are we if we’re not evolving?”
For more information about depression from the Mental Health Foundation, click here.
Join the movement by ordering your green ribbon to raise awareness and support good mental health for all.