Back to school – bullying at university

With freshers-to-be across the country scouring Tesco for cheap plates and saucepans, I want to share with you something I went through at uni. In my third year, I was bullied. It’s an important issue, and something I think people should talk about more. You may have moved on from school, but in some cases, it’s just a bigger playground.

I have never been bullied before, or since. It’s taken me quite a while to come to terms with the fact that bulling is what it was. I’m quite a nice person, I have great friends, and I loved uni. And the five or six months that I’m going to tell you about now didn’t ruin any of that. But they still affect me, even if I tried to shrug it off at the time.

I think what makes it hardest  is that the two people in question, who I won’t be naming here, were our friends. A girl, who my boyfriend had known from school, and her boyfriend. Both lived with my boyfriend all the way through uni, and we even went on holiday with them at the end of our second year. The girl wasn’t very outgoing outside of lectures, and I’d make sure I invited her on nights out and things, or go round for a film or for dinner.

It happened very slowly, and it’s hard to explain. Because we don’t know what I did. I obviously did something, or upset them in some way, because slowly but surely I was frozen out. If I was in their house, I would be completely ignored. My comments would be interrupted or quickly shot down. They would look through me and scowl, and if I said something to them, even just hello, they wouldn’t reply. The two of them were quite… controlling of the rest of their housemates, and so the others quickly learned it was much easier for them not to make an effort with me either. I tried to brazen it out and pretend I didn’t care but of course, I did. It’s not nice to be so uncomfortable in your boyfriend’s home that you’re scared to go round, because of how they’re going to treat you, what they’re going to say. Or not say – what they’re going to just leaving hanging in the air, an icy cloud of irritation all aimed at me.

I think it would have been easier to cope with had I done something specific. But like I said – the girl was my friend. We sat together in lectures, she came out dancing, sometimes; I bought her a birthday present. I have racked my brains about this, combing over every interaction to try and find a flippant remark, a missed invitation but…. Nothing. It came to a head around my boyfriend’s 21st birthday. Obviously, a special occasion, and one he would want to share with all of his friends. But by this point I hadn’t been to his house in months. We’d both just got use to the fact that I didn’t go to his. But for his birthday he wanted to go out for a meal – all of us. And I remember very clearly being sat in the living room (mine, obviously) with him and him explaining that I couldn’t come. Because of how things were. We’d do something together, just us, the next day. Okay?

No, not really.

We’re adults, I thought, and this is silly. Fair enough if they have a problem with me, but it’s his birthday – let’s put this aside for his sake. I found myself next to the guy in the library (not the best place for a confrontation, in hindsight) and thought, Right. I’m going to do this. I’m going to Say Something. So I went over and calmly, politely, explained that whatever problem they have with me, that’s fine, but it’s not fair that my boyfriend had to work his birthday around it all.

Like I said – libraries, not good for a showdown. Five minutes later I’m on the street outside, heading to the SU, and Trying Very Hard Not To Cry In Public. The guy had bluntly outlined, to my face, that any awkwardness was of course my fault, seeing as I was such a nasty person, and had treated his girlfriend so badly… And his own behaviour was justified too because he was going to side with her, even if I ‘wasn’t such a b*tch’.

So yeah. Outside, doing my best Don’t Cry Face. Wondering if I really am the nasty person that they were punishing me for being. So nasty, in fact, that I hadn’t even realised? The months of horrible, underhand, backbiting treatment I had endured – did I actually deserve them? I’ve never experienced that stomach-churning self doubt before. People playing mind games with you quickly gets your own mind doing it. I thought they were nice people, I was their friend, and they’re telling me I’m really quite nasty. Am I?

Friends quickly put me straight, both now and at the time. But that doubt made an impact. A few days after that meeting in the library, the boys called a truce. The guy was very different when his girlfriend wasn’t around – and my boyfriend is a very loyal guy. They agreed to stay mates, but keep girlfriends completely out of it. They also agreed that the girlfriend and I should have a similar olive branch moment. So, exhausted and frankly, fed up of it all, I met her for a coffee. Thinking we would talk it out, as adults, and part on civil terms, if not chummy ones.

Instead? It was as if it had never happened. I was there for an hour, and she was warm and chatty, asking me questions… I think she even paid for my coffee. But an explanation? Nothing. I kept thinking I should just man up and ask her, look, what was all that about? But after about half an hour of her random, rambling, fake friendship, I remember very clearly thinking, “I am so over this.”

So to this day I don’t know what I did. And to this day I worry about it. I worry, if I catch a glimpse of someone side on that looks a bit like her, even though I know she doesn’t live here any more, or that I’ll get on a train and she’ll randomly be sat there, face carefully composed but eyes sharp and, I know, judging me. Thinking things about me that just aren’t true. Things to tell her boyfriend about me, stories that they would stir and balloon, about me. I guess I’m lucky that they only kept their bullying between themselves, it was almost like a game to them. Maybe I’m too laid back, and they were seeing how far they could push me. See? I’m still questioning myself because of it now.

We talk about them sometimes, and I think my boyfriend feels the loss of his other housemates. He doesn’t meet up with them any more, because the guy is always there. And like I said, he is loyal – just these days, he’s more loyal to me. Bless him. I think he more keenly feels the loss of his friendship with the girl – I know I did, and he had known her since they were 14. It’s hard to suddenly find out you don’t know someone at all. That someone you thought was a friend could turn on you so completely, and so randomly.

It wasn’t physical, it wasn’t name-calling – which is why it’s taken me such a while to acknowledge it as bullying. But it was mean, manipulative, private behaviour, that left me deeply upset, and questioning my very nature. That has to be bullying too.

I’m not meaning this to be a warning at all. Those of you off to uni soon – you are going to love it. You most probably won’t go through anything like this, won’t meet people anything like these. You’re going to meet some of your best friends, some of you might even meet the love of your life – both of which I was lucky enough to do. And if you do end up on the wrong end of people like these – it’s your friends that will stick by you. And remind you that no, Sally, of course you’re not a b*tch.  As my gorgeous housemate, who I am currently helping plan the wedding of (love her), said, “Would I be here with this cup of tea if you were a b*tch? Don’t be such an idiot.”

Me (far right) in my uni days – with slightly better friends.

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