In last week’s Tip you learned about the emotionally devastating effects of cyberbullying. Today, I will share with you the story of one such victim.
“Claire” was fifteen when she first came to see me after being discharged from a psychiatric hospital following an overdose attempt. She walked into my office, sat down, and immediately pulled her knees up to her chest, sitting as if she was trying to make herself disappear into the cushions on my couch. I spent some time just talking with her about non-threatening subjects such as her hobbies and musical interests. For about ten minutes she continuously shrugged her shoulders in response to various questions. Finally, she glared at me and said, “Are you ever going to ask me why I’m here?” Suppressing a smile (one of the things I love about treating adolescents is how direct and blunt they can be, forcing the therapist to be as authentic as possible in return), I replied, “Claire, I understand that you have been through a lot of distressing experiences lately, so I didn’t want to pressure you with that question and potentially add to your emotional pain. Feel free to share that information with me when you feel ready.”
Claire appeared surprised by my response and began to ponder what she would say next. She put her chin on her knees and said, “I just didn’t want to deal with it anymore.” “What is ‘It?’” I asked. Claire continued, “Well my parents are going through a nasty divorce right now, but that’s not what triggered my overdose. I have been bullied a lot but not just at school. There was one girl who kept going at me on Facebook. Every time I would block her profile she would create another one and keep going. She was determined, that’s for sure”. Claire went on, “At first it was just name calling. You know, ‘ugly pig,’ ‘stupid,’ ‘worthless.’ Then it changed when I stopped paying attention to her. She would use my name and post nasty things and spread rumors about me on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. Because she was using multiple profiles, it made it difficult for anyone to identify her as the bully. I was feeling really scared and desperate so I tried to delete some of the posts, but I couldn’t figure out how”.
I responded, “Claire, I really appreciate your sharing these sad and disturbing events with me. That bullying girl was incredibly cruel to you. All of it is so unfair. I am sorry that it happened to you, and that you couldn’t put a stop to it. Would you mind telling me how you began to feel about it all?”
Claire reported that her depressive symptoms began long before the bullying started, related to an unhappy family life characterized by her parents’ frequent bickering and fighting. She went on to share, “Honestly I think I have been really depressed, or at least had some of the symptoms since I was about seven. Of course these worsened recently when my parents announced their plans to divorce; and at school, because I have a habit of isolating myself from others when I am depressed, I kind of make myself a target of kids ridiculing me. They would taunt me in the hallways and lunchroom by saying, ‘Hey Claire, what’s the matter with you? You’re even more weird than usual!’ I felt so bad inside that I started believing what they were saying, and I wasn’t even standing up for myself. I didn’t want to ask for help from my teachers because I knew it would just make things worse. I could only think of one other way to end what I was going through; it was to take myself out of the equation completely.” She began to sob at that moment, and my heart went out to her. She looked so sad and alone that I wanted to go over and put my arms around her and comfort her. Of course that’s just not possible. That’s not how therapy works.
As our sessions unfolded and I provided her more compassion and empathy as she poured her heart out, Claire and I developed a deeper level of trust. She began to open up even more about how bullying had affected her. “Along the way I began cutting myself, and I still don’t know how to stop. It gives me a sense of relief when my anxiety is high and helps distract me from the emotional pain I feel. I also started smoking weed to help with my anxiety. The weed and the cutting somehow make me feel like I have some control over my situation. It’s weird that way. The physical pain of the cutting also helps make the emotional pain feel real to me. It’s like I’m making my body feel what my mind and heart are already experiencing. I can handle the physical pain just fine, but have a really hard time with all of that other emotional stuff”.
On many occasions, in one form or another, I would reply, “Claire, you have been so brave throughout all of the pain and loss that you have been going through, between your parents splitting up, and all of the humiliation you have been feeling from those vicious cyberbullies. It also took great courage to report the bullying to the appropriate authorities.” She responded, “I was super scared at first, but taking action made me feel a lot better. I reported those b’s to Facebook and Twitter, and to the authorities at my school. In going to them, and learning that so many other teens have been through the same ordeal, I felt like someone finally understood my pain. When you have been neglected or given negative attention for so long, it’s kind of nice to finally hear positive things.”
Over the course of the next few months in therapy, Claire began to heal her fractured heart. She came to learn about how troubled the bullies were in their own lives – that they came from broken homes where at times they were physically beaten – that they were marginal students, and were deeply unhappy – and that the bullying was part of their attempts to feel good about themselves at others’ expense. Claire gradually became able to give up her cutting behavior, and cut back her use of marijuana to less than once a month. Ultimately she was able to move past this traumatic period in her life, began hanging out with a nice boy, and wrote poetry that she published online to assist other victims to not feel so alone.
*This is the second installment of a three-part series on Cyberbullying. Next week we will look at warning signs to look for that may help you detect if someone you love is the victim of cyberbullies. If your child turns out to be one of those victims, we will also provide steps for you to take that can begin to untangle your child’s emotional pain.
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