I remember loving school. I was a complete geek. I loved the feeling when the penny dropped, and I was so eager to learn. I would be so excited when I discovered something I didn’t know.
Then I passed my 11+, perfect right? I was in a position to learn while being surrounded by others who were similarly academic.
Unfortunately things didn’t go to plan.
The labels I had given myself were no longer relevant. I wasn’t the bright one, the smart one, or the one classmates could ask for help. I was average at best, and I didn’t know how to handle this fact. I had no idea who I was, and the me I thought had been special was actually a bit joke. How could I have thought I was intelligent? In fact I was so silly.
I was an 11 year old girl who was embarrassed, and had no idea how to exist in this new surrounding. I didn’t know how to be defeated by my peers on an intellectual level, but I was defeated. This left me in a quandary. What should I do?
I had no idea what I was doing, who I was, or how I could be enough anymore. I started to carve out new labels. Initially I thought I could opt for the less academic subjects . While at junior school I had gone to a drama club after school, I took clarinet lessons, and was in orchestra, plus I was in two school choirs. This was perfect as in my new school I had the opportunity to audition to speak at the upcoming prospective parents evening, and I was chosen (with two other girls). I was SO proud!
Shortly after this I auditioned for a part in the school play, and I didn’t get it. The only thing I thought I might be acceptable at was no longer an option.
In stepped the “Liz” that then haunted me for decades to come.
I started to goof about, terrified of trying again and failing. I’d do homework at the last minute, do the bare minimum and I became completely disengaged.
I started to feel the inklings of shame directed at this “new me”, and I started to loathe “Liz” for mucking up. I felt I was failing at “being at a grammer school student” and the more I felt this the further I pulled away. This started my cycle of destructive behavior. I started to arrive late, to smoke, to only care about hanging out with boys, and to carve out only person I felt I was worthy of being. Deep within me I knew I was continuing to muck up, but by now it was too late. The more I rebelled, the more I felt I was wasting opportunities and failing. The more I felt I was failing, the more I rebelled. This started to get more dangerous; as I got further away from who I thought I was meant to be, the more I hated who I had become.
As each term passed I would think “next term I’m going to get it right” but I would return to school and realise it was too late for me. I was too far behind, and I had carved out a persona for myself that I couldn’t change. Suddenly I was choosing GCSE choices and I went for the choices my friends were going for. As time passed I realised that I was never going to get the elusive 11A*s that others were aiming for, and I couldn’t stand the impending moment when I was going to be found out. You were all going to know once and for all that I didn’t belong there.
Amazingly I scraped through my exams (note: in hindsight I did better than “scrape through” however I had two issues. 1. Compared to everyone else I had done terribly, and so that was all I thought you could see. 2. I’d done okay without revising, and therefore I had failed myself and messed up yet again.) and I had a couple of grades that were acceptable enough for me to take subjects at A-Level.
At this stage I had become a real cliche. I felt like when I was in school people would be amused that I had bothered to show up, and when I wasn’t there I knew no one would really be surprised.
Dangerously, I was at an age where I could get my hands of alcohol, and was focused on growing up and not having to continue to fail at school. I was so desperately unhappy, but also so trapped. Perhaps more dangerously I knew I deserved it, I had carved this way for me, and I needed to man up and deal with what I had done.
I remember sitting in a history A-Level class one day, and the teacher asking why I was there. I was confused by this, then I was informed that the school was not happy with my attendance or ability and if I wanted to take the exam I would have to pay for it myself. To this day I still remember joking with my friends that I’d have more spare time, while inside I just didn’t want to “be” anymore. I had been so scared of being found out as a no one, that I had become someone I didn’t want to be.
As time passed I started to realise how many chances I had screwed up. I had been so scared at failing “things” that I had failed at life. I’d like to take a moment to say that there is no blame on anyone for this going undetected. In fact, the only thing that I knew I was successful at was making sure no one knew the turmoil I had inside me. I was so ashamed and was so full of shame, and the worst thing imaginable would be for someone to see that.
Yes, by the age of 17/18 I was an age where I was fully accountable for my actions, however what I was doing at those ages was still playing out the cycle that I had entered 7 years prior. I’d love to say that things improved, but I actually spent the next 15 years obsessed with “making up for screwing up” . Nothing was good enough, as I had mucked up that chance that I had when I first stepped through the school gates. This “I should have” and “I should be” contributed to my breakdown in 2014, and I have been exploring what had happened within me ever since.
My mind had become such a tangled mess. When I was asked my reason for not fully contemplating suicide, the reason I gave was “that’s not an option - I’d probably screw it up, and then a) I’d end up in hospital – I hate hospitals and b) I couldn’t hide anymore. Everyone would know how screwed up I am. I can’t have that happen”
As I research and learn about the impact of mindset, I am bowled over by just how at risk we all are. We HAVE to learn how to fail and we HAVE to teach people shame resilience. And this is something I implore all schools to properly explore.
Children now have so many things to contend with that generations have not had before. There is now a record of what children are doing, and it is often on the internet on sites such as Facebook for the whole world to see.
Not only is the lack of privacy a problem, but social media also means that we see others “winning” at life constantly. We have to acknowledge that social media sites are new, and that we have therefore not yet seen the impact on a whole generation growing up with them.
If we want to educate, we need to take care of the equipment we working with – the mind. If we want to address the fact that people are more medicated, depressed, and disengaged with life and society, we need to teach people how.
Talking about doing something about mental health is one thing, but we have to do more to introduce it as a part of education and development. Schools have a minimum amount of time they spend on physical education each week, and the same emphasis needs to be given to keeping minds healthy.
I sometimes see children and I have to catch my breath. I now know that what happens to them while they are so young can have such a huge impact on their mental health, and that it can develop into something so sinister. I am no longer ashamed of who I am, and I am no longer scared that people may know the truth – in fact if sharing my story helps just one person in some way, then it is fully worth it.
You have read this far, and I am thankful for that. I do have 2 favours to ask of you though, and I hope that’s ok.
1. Everyone can make a difference, so please be a part of this. It may be sharing information, or even just being open to conversations about mental health. It is crucial that we educate and inform, and that we battle the stigma that is still associated.
2. This is a message that needs to be imparted to every young mind, (but from a very personal point I’d like to directly appeal now to those who may be teaching a new intake in a grammar school) Please make sure that the students know they are amazing, and should celebrate their success in getting there.
Please let them know from me:
“There will be work, challenges and lessons to overcome. You need to face these to give you opportunities in life, but please know that as a person you are already enough. Right now. As you are.”
PS - apologies for only getting the one A* in my GCSEs – I know I didn’t help the league tables that year!
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