Categories
memories

Gill Downs: A Tribute

Gill Downs. 1st February 1953 – 18th November 2020

The six days that have passed since I heard the sad news of Gill’s passing haven’t made this any easier to grasp. The suddenness has made it difficult for everyone, especially for her family. No one expected this.

I first met Gillian at school. She was in my year, but never in my class, and I remember her mostly from the coach that took us to kosher dinners and back. Probably most of the girls who went didn’t eat kosher at home, but their parents saw it as a way for them to meet other Jews.

Gill was much more sophisticated than me, more knowledgeable about things outside school. I was younger than most of them and young for my age and, like all the girls I hung around with, she bullied me. I never called it bullying then. Bullying, I thought then but don’t think now, had to be physical. I called it teasing. It wasn’t pleasant. And yet, despite the way they treated me, I continued to hang around with them, every day, there and back and while we ate our kosher meals. Why? Because the alternative would have been to be on my own, and I knew that would be worse.

No one in that group of girls was the highest in the bullying ranking. There were a couple of others – one in particular – who won that title. And Gill, I remember, even agreed to sit next to me when I found myself in the same Maths class as her.

Eventually, school fizzled out. I left with pleasure and a vow never to be in contact with any of the girls from school again. Fortunately, university was much better. But my experiences of school, and childhood in general, continued to have an effect on me as a person. I often kept quiet and when I did talk, I found self-expression difficult and sounded hesitant.

I moved countries, got married, had three children. I worked as a computer programmer and then as a technical writer. My life was good but the problems didn’t go away.

In 2002, I added myself to the list for my school on Friends Reunited (a forerunner to Facebook). Never did I expect anyone would contact me, but they did – first Jane and then Gill. For a long time, Gill and I emailed each other practically every day. It was the perfect medium for me. It gave me time to consider my words, yet provided an immediacy that letters never could. I poured out my problems and thoughts, and she listened and reacted, showing that she understood. She gave advice and eventually told me about social anxiety. It was hard for me to believe that anyone else in the world could have similar problems, so it was most surprising to discover the name, support groups and therapy.

Gill and Miriam, May 2009

One thing that bothered me was that Gill continued to feel guilty for what she did to me as a child. (She had a different word for it: victimisation.) I tried to make her see that she was too young and immature to know what she was doing to me then. I said any blame should be laid on the adults in our lives – mostly the teachers, and perhaps even that isn’t fair because they didn’t know, either.

Without Gill, I’d have remained the same person, quiet and closed to the world. Probably, many people I meet still see me that way. But, through Gill, I’ve learned to write down my thoughts. Without her, I would never have become an author.

It’s hard to believe that I can no longer reach Gill by any means, technological or otherwise. For her, I’m glad, at least, that decades of enduring pain and disability ended so suddenly. For her family, the suddenness has added to their grief and for that I’m very sorry.

I’ll never forget Gill and all she did for me these past eighteen years. Yehi zichra baruch – may her memory be a blessing.

Categories
Social anxiety

I’m probably over-reacting, but…

As far as I know, there was only one time in my adult life that someone decided not to talk to me. The situation lasted for two weeks, during which I was devastated. Why? Probably because in my childhood it was a regular occurrence for me to be sent to Coventry. Because even when this was not the case, I was mostly ignored. When I wasn’t ignored I was mostly made fun of, and yet this was preferable. For me, loneliness was harder than being bullied, and not being spoken to has remained the worst thing anyone can do to me.

When, a few days ago, someone unfriended me on Facebook, it felt just the same. Even though I’ve never met this person. Even though, as I’ve been told, this is a common occurrence on Facebook. This was someone I had “talked” to quite a lot, someone who had always been friendly up to then.

At first, I could only guess at the reason. Later, through a mutual friend, my suspicions were confirmed, although I still don’t understand it completely. I’m hoping that this rift won’t last long either.

Friends, on- or offline, don’t always agree with each other. They can discuss their differences or agree to differ. Breaking off the friendship seems very drastic, even on Facebook. To me, anyway.

Categories
Bullying

Angela’s Ashes

I have just finished reading this heartbreaking memoir of Frank McCourt’s childhood. It’s an incredibly sad tale of growing up in dire poverty. I felt sorrow for the child who, through no fault of his own, was born into that family, anger at the people who could have helped but didn’t, and… envy, but only twice. The memoir recalls two instances when Frank was bullied – one for having an American accent and one for coming to school in shoes held together with bits of rubber tyres. In both instances, the teacher intervened and stopped the bullying.

I don’t remember a teacher ever intervening on my behalf.

Categories
Books Social anxiety

That’s Me!

This post was inspired by Lauren Becker.That's me

You know how you read a description of someone and you think, “This could be me!” It hasn’t happened to me often. Generally, characters in novels aren’t like me and people like me don’t get much attention. Three sources stand out for me.

The first is the first description I found of social anxiety, back in 2002. It’s still there on the site, where they still use the term social phobia:

WHAT IS SOCIAL PHOBIA?
Social phobia is a persistent fear of doing something embarrassing or humiliating which interferes with both personal and professional lives. People with social phobia think that other people judge them negatively. This fear may reflect a sense of being inferior, different, or unacceptable, and it goes with assumptions such as thinking that “if people knew what you were really like, then they would reject you”.

There’s more on the site. When I first read it, I was amazed that even one more person could have similar thoughts and behave in a similar way, let alone “between 3 and 13% of the population”.

I’m not a fan of Jodi Picoult. In fact I’ve only read one of her books, but that one book, Nineteen Minutes, kept me riveted because of the central character, here described by an expert trying to claim he was suffering from PTSD:

A child who suffers from PTSD has made unsuccessful attempts to get help, and as the victimization continues, he stops asking for it. He withdraws socially, because he’s never quite sure when interaction is going to lead to another incident of bullying….

Different people have different responses to stress. In Peter’s case, I saw an extreme emotional vulnerability, which, in fact, was the reason he was teased. Peter didn’t play by the codes of boys. He wasn’t a big athlete. He wasn’t tough. He was sensitive. And difference is not always respected – particularly when you’re a teenager. Adolescence is about fitting in, not standing out.

The last quote is by Etgar Keret in his story: The Son of the Head of the Mossad. I admire Keret for his simple language and complicated ideas:

Ehud was tall and strong and was always quiet. Lots of people thought that Ehud was quiet because he was stupid. That wasn’t true. He may not have been the smartest kid on the block, but he was no moron either.

Have you been described by chance?

Signature