I can hardly remember a time in my life before I had to live with some kind of mental illness.
I have always struggled to make friends – even in nursery school, I remember standing alone looking at groups of friends playing together and wondering how to be a part of those groups. I didn’t understand how friendship worked, and whenever I tried to make friends I always seemed to get something wrong. I was always on the outside looking in.
It wasn’t just me, it was my sister too. My mum remembers walking past our primary school one day, when we were about 5, and watching all the other kids running around the playground while my sister stood alone, bouncing a ball off the wall. Mum stood on the pavement and cried.
I had one friend in primary school, and she was my best friend. I spent all my time with her, playing make-believe games that usually involved horses. Every Sunday I went along to watch her horse-riding lessons. I didn’t have much concept of money at the time, but I had a vague idea that the lessons were expensive so I didn’t think to ask if I could learn too. I assumed that it would cost too much and I wouldn’t be allowed, so I just went and watched . There must have been days when it was hot and sunny, but in my memory it’s always cold in the stables and I tuck my fingers into my armpits to keep them warm while the ponies walk in circles. My friend’s Granddad took us, and we usually stopped at Little Chef on the way back for a treat.It was a novelty to have a dessert to myself without having to consider what my twin might want.
In Year 5 (so aged 9-10), my best friend announced that she didn’t want to be my friend anymore. She’d discovered boys and magazines, and made a new friend to talk about those things with. It wasn’t just that she didn’t want to be my best friend anymore, she didn’t want to be my friend at all. I spent the last year of primary school on my own. I briefly spent some time hanging around with another group of girls, but after a week or two one of them confronted me while the rest looked on: “We don’t actually like you; please stop hanging around with us.”
I was confused and hurt. I didn’t understand what I’d done wrong or how to fix it. As an adult, I can look back on these interactions and understand that young children can be hurtful, that there probably wasn’t anything wrong with me, and that my parents’ reticence to let us play with the other kids at birthday parties and other events probably had a knock-on effect on how the other children saw us. It didn’t help that we looked like the twins from The Shining, with our long dark hair that our dad wouldn’t let us have cut, and our very 90’s party dresses with lace collars. I remember more than one occasion when the kids from the housing estate behind our house would stand at our back gate and look at us through the bars like zoo animals . They didn’t understand why we weren’t allowed out to play. Neither did we, really. On our last day of primary school, the teachers handed out permanent markers and suggested that friends sign each other’s uniform jumpers, since we’d never need them again. All the kids left school that day like walking yearbooks, covered in the signatures of their friends. No one signed mine.
Secondary school wasn’t much better. I made one close friend, but I was jealous of her friendship, getting upset when she said I wasn’t her best friend, even though she was mine. It sounds childish, but of course it was. I was a child at the time, and such things matter when you’re young. As I grew older I embraced the misfit label: first goth, then emo, trying as most pre-teens do to find somewhere I could fit in. I gained weight rapidly as I hit puberty. Every day I would come home from school and head straight to the biscuit tin. My mum liked to bake, so there was almost always cake in the house, and crisps and other treats were kept in the alcove under the stairs for post-school snacks. Mum always cooked healthy dinners for the family, but I ate big portions, and treats were always available. I remember a period where I was obsessed with sugary cereals, and I’d eat them dry by the handful like trail mix. I binged, and later, feeling nauseous and disgusted with myself, I’d throw it all up again. I didn’t realise there was anything wrong with this. It became completely normal for me to throw up after eating, to the point where I was doing it several times a day. Unlike my sister I didn’t lose weight; no bones poked through papery skin, so no one noticed there was anything wrong.
Puberty hit me hard. Along with the weight gain,hormone surges resulted in nasty acne across my face. I ended up spending years getting treatments from my doctor in an effort to control the ugly red swelling that spread across my face. I was already unpopular, and acne and weight gain didn’t help at all. I dealt with it all by pretending I didn’t care and reacting with disproportionate violence to any kind of bullying, until the bullies decided I wasn’t worth the effort and moved on to easier targets. I wasn’t physically harassed the way my sister was, but the social exclusion still hurt.
At the end of our final school year, some of the popular girls volunteered to do a yearbook. They didn’t bother to include the poi club that was the only social club I was involved in, so I wasn’t actually in it. No one would have signed mine anyway, so I didn’t bother to buy one.
Although I had a small group of friends, we were all equally socially awkward and didn’t really know how to be kind to each other. Our friendship took the form of teasing most of the time, especially with my best friend. I loved her like a sister and, like siblings, we tormented each other. I got my first boyfriend at 16, just as I was starting my A-levels; I threw myself into that relationship to the detriment of my friendships. It was the start of a pattern for me. I regret that now, but at the time it was such an anomaly to feel wanted that I became addicted to it.
Despite the reassurance from my boyfriend, my self esteem was still practically non-existent. I got a paper round to earn pocket money, then a saturday job at the pharmacy. I used the money to buy myself goth clothes: tall PVC boots and velvet bustiers. I obsessed over images of goth girls on the internet; I thought that if I just bought the right outfit I could look like them and love myself. I started to understand that I was also attracted to women, but I struggled with my feelings and didn’t know how to talk about it with my friends. While working at the pharmacy, I stole packs of old fashioned razor blade refills and used them to cut myself. I developed a ritual around it, as many do, and found the act of it soothing when I was at my most distressed. I only hurt myself in places that were easy to hide. The cuts were all shallow but there were hundreds of them. Only a few left scars. I also developed a habit of scratching compulsively at the skin of my wrist. I’d wear through the outer layers of skin to leave a wound that looked like a burn. It became so compulsive that eventually I didn’t even know I was doing it.
My relationship with my sister was openly antagonistic at this point; I wasn’t close with my brothers, and my parents spent most of their time arguing, so the new relationship was a welcome respite. Sunday afternoons in his bedroom were the only time I felt genuinely calm and safe. My boyfriend was quiet and shy and thought I was great; I wonder now how deeply I may have fallen into self-destruction without him quietly lifting me up. We stayed together for two years until the prospect of moving away to university caused me to end the relationship.
The lowest point that I can recall came at the end of 6th form (college for those outside the UK). I did my A-levels at the same school where I’d done my GCSE’s with most of the same people, so it wasn’t an opportunity to make new friends. By this point, I was already self-harming in the form of cutting, and I’d developed bulimia, but since I covered the cuts and hadn’t lost weight you wouldn’t have known anything was wrong by looking at me. The popular girls in our year got the teachers to agree to end-of-year ‘awards’ that were read out in final assembly. Think along the lines of ‘most likely to’, but it was just in-jokes for their social group that the rest of us had to listen to. I got mentioned twice in ‘Most Unlikely Couple’, where I’d been matched with the two most popular boys to publicly embarrass them. It was the equivalent of being voted the least attractive girl in my year group, twice. I pretended that I didn’t care, but I went home and hurt myself.
It was against this backdrop of fractured friendships and tension at home that I started spending a lot of time online. It began with MySpace (yes, I’m that old) and then Facebook when it came out. I spent a lot of time on forums and playing stupid casual games, and it was in the forum for a particular casual game that I made a new friend who very quickly became very important to me. It started innocuously enough, talking about the music we liked. He told me that he was a musician and that he’d played on tour with one of my favourite bands . He was older than me , but he said he was lonely too.
We’d chat for hours. I talked about my troubles at school and at home; he talked about work and his relationship with his wife. The conversations were platonic, then flirty, then outright sexual. He pressured me to buy a webcam so that he could see what I looked like since the pictures I sent him were carefully selected. He told me that I was beautiful and clever and interesting; all the things that I wanted to believe were true. I poured my heart out to him, and the more he listened the more I told him. I’d been without a close friend for such a long time that being guarded was second nature – I genuinely believed that no one cared about my unhappiness, so when he said that he did it blew me away.
In the meantime, my real-life relationships continued to deteriorate. My best friend had a boyfriend of her own; I hated him. He made her paranoid about food, and she’d lost a lot of weight. I blamed him, but being antagonistic towards him simply put a wall between her and me that never really came down. We fell out, and even after they broke up things never got back to how they were between us. It was like losing a sister. She fell out with most of the friendship group at the same time, but a year or so later when she started reaching out to others, such as my sister, she didn’t reach out to me. It felt like being excluded all over again. Maybe, because we’d been so close and fell out so hard, it had been awkward to reach out to me and the other relationships felt safer. Maybe we’d never been that close to begin with . My own sister told me in no uncertain terms that she had “[her] own things to deal with” and couldn’t help me with my problems, so there was no comfort there. And things with my boyfriend had started to sour. We’d been uncertainly starting to explore kink and BDSM, but our initial forays revealed that he was definitely more submissive, and I found it an utter turn-off. I craved the security of someone else being in control.
Additionally, after dropping out in his first year of A-levels, he’d spent a year sitting in his room playing World of Warcraft. He hadn’t even found a part-time job and had absolutely no ambition. Compared to me, with my dreams of university and a career beyond that, his contentment to sit around doing nothing was jarring. At the end of my A-levels, facing the prospect of going off to university, and thrilled by the idea of meeting Mystery Man in real life, I broke things off with my boyfriend.
I didn’t want to be the kind of person who cheated on their boyfriend, and I equally didn’t want to limit my opportunities to experience new things at University. I was frustrated by his lack of ambition, and would catch myself being cruel to him or putting him down when he didn’t deserve it. I didn’t like being that person, and it was easier to end the relationship than examine my behaviour.
I met Mystery Man in person during the summer holidays between finishing College and going to University. I would be moving into halls of residence with other students in September, and I knew that it would be easier to see him once I was living on my own instead of sharing a room with my sister in my parents’ home. Our initial plan had been to wait until I’d moved before meeting up, but we couldn’t wait that long. I told my parents I was meeting friends and got the train to go and meet him. When he called to say that his car had broken down on the way I felt sure that I’d been tricked somehow, that it was a setup. It turned out to be genuine, and when he arrived, a couple hours late, I was so relieved and hyped up that I threw my arms around him and kissed him. It felt unbelievably romantic, and the minute he put his arms around me I felt safe.
No one could have told me at the time that my white knight was a predator. I simply wouldn’t have believed it. He was mature and intelligent and sexual and so was I. I imagine that a thousand girls have felt the same way when wooed by an older man. It was almost a decade before the way we met began to make me even a little bit uncomfortable, and only when I reached the same age that he was when I met him did I really realise how utterly inappropriate (and, frankly, gross) it would be for me to target a teenager.
I don’t know what the answer is to help keep teenage girls safe from the predations of older men. I know that I’m not the only girl it happened to; I know that I’m not ‘special’. But that doesn’t make it better; it actually makes it worse. All I do know is that it was only when I saw a friend speaking out about predatory older men and her own experiences that I began to understand what had happened to me. So maybe, by telling my own story, I can be a part of a cultural change that calls out predatory men for what they are and provides more support for vulnerable young women who feel alone and unlovable.
I’m in a better place now. I’ve spent my entire adult life on antidepressants of one kind or another, and maybe I’ll always need them. And that’s okay. I’m still learning how to relate to people, still growing to overcome the ingrained distrust that resulted from the failure of all of my formative friendships. I’m learning to ask when I need help, and to trust my friends to come through for me. And I’m learning to be enough all on my own, without needing to subsume myself in a relationship. It’s ok to put my own wellbeing first, and it doesn’t make me selfish. I might spend the rest of my life learning that lesson, and that’s ok too.
 I recounted this story in front of my mum as an adult, and she was very surprised. “I didn’t know you wanted lessons; why didn’t you ask?” I just laughed and replied, “Why do you think I used to go and stand in the cold just to watch?”
 That gate was locked, and we weren’t allowed to use it after I’d run away for the first time aged six or seven.
 A flat out lie, although he didn’t admit it for years.
 11 years older. It’s the same age difference between my parents, which is how I excused it.
 Years later, my then-boyfriend (Mystery Man) reached out to her on Facebook. We ended up taking the kids and the girlfriend and going to visit her, all five of us. She was friendly with my partners and the kids, and it felt great to catch up. It wasn’t the same as the old days though; I felt a distance between us. I wanted to ask her why she didn’t get in touch with me during those early university years, when she did start speaking to my sister and others. But I wasn’t brave enough. It was a long time ago, and I didn’t want to make things weird or ruin the visit. It still niggles at me though, all these years later.