I recently found myself trying to persuade a close family member of the benefits of therapy. He’d experienced several serious life and health events within a few months of each other – some exciting, some scary – and understandably, he was struggling to fully process everything that was going on. I tried to make my case as gently as possible. “I just want you to think about this. You’ve been through a lot, and I believe that it would help to talk to a professional. I see my therapist once a fortnight, and it benefits me enormously.” His eyes widened. “You see a therapist? Why?” He was incredulous, but curious. It has taken me a long time to work out an answer to this question, and believe that I’m genuinely worthy of a therapist’s time and attention.
A couple of years ago, I decided to seek help for my anxiety order, which is caused by my extremely low self esteem. I grew up believing that I’m worthless, pointless, hideous and hopeless. My family are large and loving, and I’m still nervous about describing exactly what happened to me, because I know the fact that they couldn’t protect me fills them with sadness and anger. The horrible things started happening when I was five. We moved from Bournemouth to Buckinghamshire, and I started at a brand new school. I think the bullying began on my first day. It was mental and physical. I remember older, wirier boys cornering me in a quiet part of the playground, chanting “Fat, fat, fat”. They’d kick me in the knees and stomach. I tried to run away and they pinned me down.
At the time, I had no sense that this wasn’t normal. I assumed there must be something wrong with me, and I was being punished for it. I constantly felt very frightened
Now, I can’t remember why a teacher didn’t rush over, or why no-one came to help. I have a vague memory of trying to talk to a dinner lady, and being told that she “didn’t like tattle tales”. Mostly, I think I was so young and frightened that I assumed this was what happened at Big School. I didn’t make friends. Everyone called me “fatty”. Sometimes a group of boys and girls would surround me, lift up my school skirt and yank down my underwear, shouting “Show us your fat bum”. At the time, I had no sense that this wasn’t normal. I assumed there must be something wrong with me, and I was being punished for it. I constantly felt very frightened. When one of the bigger boys punched me on the bus, a kind classmate came to help me, and told my Mum what had happened. That night, she told my Dad.
His rage was volcanic. He’d just come back from work, and my sisters and I were ready for bed. We were in the sitting room, in our slippers and nighties, sobbing silently as he shouted. Looking back, I understand exactly what he was feeling. Someone had punched his tiny daughter, and he wasn’t there to punch them back. The driver didn’t even stop the bus. But I remember looking at my scared sisters and thinking “I must never make Dad this angry again. I can’t tell anyone when the bad things happen.”
Around this time, a new neighbour moved in, and offered Mum some help with babysitting. He was an older man who told Mum how much he missed his grandchildren, who lived abroad. He offered to watch me when she was busy with my sisters, and Mum accepted the offer. I think she felt sorry for him. After a few visits, he’d ask me to undress. “Take your clothes, off, you can sit in front of the fire. Go on, it’s fine.” He touched me, he told me to touch myself at night and think of him, and he told me not to tell anyone. “Other people wouldn’t understand. This can be our secret.” I knew there was something wrong, but I didn’t have the words to talk to anyone about it. I felt ashamed of myself, that it was somehow connected with the bullying and my inherent badness.
When I was a child, I don’t remember feeling carefree, or relaxed, or unselfconscious
I can’t remember how long the abuse went on for, but I have a very clear memory of the day that Mum took me aside and told me I wasn’t going to see him again. My cheeks burned bright red. I felt as though I might vomit. I thought she knew I’d done something very bad with this man, and I waited anxiously for weeks and months for my telling off. (Later, Mum told me that she’d heard rumours about him, and hoped she’d taken me away from the situation in the nick of time. Again, as a parent, how can you ever deal with something so awful? When it happened, she was slightly younger than I am now.)
This is why I sometimes struggle with simply being alive. When I was a child, I don’t remember feeling carefree, or relaxed, or unselfconscious. My fat, disgusting body attracted the worst kind of attention, and I constantly felt ashamed of myself. As I got slightly older, life got slightly better, and when we moved back to Bournemouth when I was ten, I could leave the bullying behind me. But I have never been able to fully shake the sense of fear, anxiety and self loathing that remained.
Still, seeing a psychotherapist has helped me enormously when it comes to managing these feelings. I’ve been carrying so much pain and shame around with me, and she’s lightening the load by listening. Gently and calmly, she tells me that it shouldn’t have happened, I didn’t “deserve” to have those experiences, and most importantly, it’s perfectly reasonable for me to still be distressed over something that happened more than 25 years ago. During an early session, she asked me what I’d say to my five-year-old self. I couldn’t think of anything. I just cried for an hour. And that was fine. She’s also helping me to make sense of the misguided actions that I’ve taken later in life, as a result of my difficult childhood. It’s painful, and it’s frustrating, but I’m learning to look back and forgive myself for my mistakes, and make sense of them.
During my teens and twenties, I tried to develop coping strategies to lessen the impact of the trauma as I tried to navigate my way through the world. Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of these were helpful. When I started at a new, fiercely competitive secondary school, some of my classmates started to make fun of my size again. It was whispers and giggles rather than kicking and punching, but it triggered an eating disorder. I became obsessive about my academic performance, reasoning that it could be the one area of my life that no-one would be able to criticise – and I quickly became intensely anxious when I wasn’t at the very top of the class. I couldn’t stop punishing myself for what had gone wrong. I also became adept at making fun of myself, putting myself down and laughing off any unkindness. No-one could hurt me badly again as long as I made sure that I hurt myself first.
It’s only now that I realise that all of this was all a response to early trauma. As I grew up, I did my very best to distance myself from it, and to convince everyone around me that I was “normal”. Then, shortly after my thirtieth birthday, I started a brand new job and met a brand new bully. I didn’t have anything in my emotional toolbox to help me deal with what was happening. Every time she put me down in a meeting, dismissed my ideas or spun her chair away from me when I walked past and said hello, I was five again, and frightened. If I hadn’t been bullied so badly before, I think I might have challenged her. Instead, I broke down, quit the job, and spent a week in bed weeping.
Because of what happened to me when I was growing up, I sometimes feel knocked out by the strength of my emotions
I’m not sure that I would have been able to ask for help if it wasn’t for the kind friend who told me how much therapy was helping her, and offered to put me in touch with her therapist. I remember feeling ashamed – not because I needed to talk to someone, but because I knew the friend had a series of painful, traumatic family issues, and I thought my problems weren’t big enough or bad enough. I didn’t “deserve” help as much as she did. When I sat in my therapist’s office for the very first time, I was scared that she was going to tell me off for wasting her time. Instead she listened carefully and kindly, asked gentle questions and made it very clear that she’d be delighted to do what she could to help me, but that I was under no obligation to see her if I didn’t feel that the dynamic was right.
Because of what happened to me when I was growing up, I sometimes feel knocked out by the strength of my emotions. It doesn’t take much to make me feel sad, scared, anxious or ashamed, and those feelings can hit me like waves, pushing me to the bottom of the sea. Therapy is a sturdy raft. It doesn’t send the waves away, but it gives me a sturdy platform to negotiate the ocean. It gives me perspective, and when I feel strange and sad, it’s deeply comforting to know that in a few days I’ll be able to talk those feelings through with someone who won’t judge me, but will ask me the questions that will allow me to discover a helpful answer for myself.
Therapy is the greatest adult gift I have given to myself. When I’m in that room, I feel as though I’m important, I’m safe and I deserve to be listened to. I wish I’d known what that felt like when I was five, but I’m so thankful that I can experience it in my thirties. I’m slowly starting to realise that I don’t need to be defined by my past, and that I can take control of the script.
As I entered adulthood, I believed it was up to me to shake off my problems and succeed in spite of any setbacks. There have been many points when this attitude made me feel frightened, and desperately lonely. As I learn to feel at home in myself and open in my vulnerability, therapy is helping me to create emotional scaffolding. I’m restoring the building, bit by bit, with a support structure that is preventing total collapse. We’re surrounded by messages that claim to inspire us by telling us we need to be better at everything. However, I think therapy makes better by prompting us to look inward instead of worrying about the signals we’re sending to the outside world. It simply gives us the room to accept ourselves for who we are.
Daisy Buchanan's How to Be a Grown-Up is out this week and available on Amazon or at your local bookshop