The two sick ladies and me

Recently I read two blog posts ([1], [2]) about dealing with old “friends” that pop up on Facebook, and it wasn’t the first time I’d heard of it being a problem. There seems to be this tendency that people turn up on Facebook (or Friends Reunited) and ask to be your friend, even though you know that, when you actually knew them, they were nothing of the sort. In Ginny’s case it was an old house parent at boarding school whom she’d discovered had a Facebook account, and feared receiving a friend request from. I’ve personally been on the Facebook and Friends Reunited forums for my old school, and a persistent problem I’ve run into is people who forgot that they were bullies and think I’m the sad case for remembering and talking about it.

Many of them have seen my blog. I’ve had a few comments and personal messages agreeing with what I wrote, and a few disagreeing. For those of you who didn’t read the entries at the time (posted between 2005 and 2007), I said that there was a lot of bullying (and a bit of sexual harassment), not much accountability, a “blame the victim” mentality, lousy care staff who were often thuggish and supported the bullies, racism, a wretched atmosphere in which most people didn’t care for anyone else and looked for faults and things to mock and bully people for and would act friendly one minute and hostile the next, for no reason other than that it was fun, and a whole lot of other problems. I actually didn’t name names in any of my posts, with one exception (one of the bottom-gropers, subsequently jailed for molesting young girls), although I did include some people’s nicknames such that old boys would know who I meant. That was because I realised that what happened was 20 years ago when I, and they, were kids. The school closed in 1993 and everyone who was ever there is now in their very late 20s at least, and mostly their 30s or 40s.

Of course, not everybody — boys or staff — was nasty and one of the nicer members of staff was Miss Strutt, the chemistry teacher. (I think her first name was Julia, in case anyone out there knows anything about her.) Sadly, the nice chemistry teacher got a nasty disease and we saw less and less of her in the 1989-90 academic year until she finally left altogether. We asked the maths teacher what was wrong with her, and she described Miss Strutt’s illness to us. I relayed that to my mother, who said, “oh, she must have that ME”, describing it as an illness where you have no energy (I later learned that it was much more complicated than that).

A few weeks after leaving Kesgrave in the summer of 1993, there was a programme on Channel 4 which demonstrated how nasty ME could be: the presenter, Dr Anne Macintyre, who suffered from it herself, described how it “blasted her brain” and left her with a greatly reduced memory, muscle pain and spasms, unable to walk properly and liable to weep for no reason, while sitting in front of a 15-year-old girl who was bedridden, racked with pain, and unable to recognise her parents or to speak or swallow. The presenter also met a nurse who had been affected for forty years since an outbreak in a London hospital in the 1950s, and a boy who had been forcibly taken into a psychiatric unit, thrown into a swimming pool, catapulted out of a wheelchair and forced to ride on a ghost train by doctors who believed that his paralysis was not real, and that he was just school phobic. Of course, none of the tricks worked. This section of the programme upset me greatly, partly because I identified with some of his experiences, having been thrown around a few rooms by grown men as a young boy at Kesgrave (and seen it happen to others too) and here, doctors and nurses were doing that and worse to sick children, because they had their heads so far up their own backsides and were so attached to their pet theories that they could think a child who was obviously paralysed was just faking it.

I never forgot this programme, either the image of the young girl which suggested how ill someone like Miss Strutt could have got, or the young boy’s appalling treatment (there was another programme which exposed similar goings-on involving children with ME in London in 1999; you can read the transcript here; incidentally, inquiries about Miss Strutt through other channels revealed that two of the young ME sufferers mentioned in that transcript, Morven McDade and the unnamed boy, are now doing OK). I forgot the names of all the people involved, and assumed that, like the boy, and those featured in the second programme, the girl featured in the 1993 documentary had recovered some years ago. Then, earlier this year, I read in the news about a mother being found not guilty of attempted murder after helping her daughter commit suicide after suffering from ME for many, many years. I saw the agonised face of the young woman, read about her journal (and an extract from it in which she told her friends she desperatedly wanted to die) and Googled her name, finding various interviews with her and her mother. I then found a YouTube video entitled “Dr Macintyre & the Gilderdale family discuss ME”, consisting of the first few minutes of that documentary I’d watched in 1993. I was greatly upset to discover that the 15-year-old girl in the documentary and the 31-year-old woman who had committed suicide were one and the same person. She hadn’t recovered after all; far from it — Lynn Gilderdale had lived all that time bedridden, in pain, continually sick, paralysed and mostly alone (as I discovered from talking to one of her friends) as being in company, even her much-loved mother’s, made her illness worse.

Given that I wouldn’t have watched the Macintyre documentary if it hadn’t been for Miss Strutt, this awful news rekindled my interest in what had happened to her. Most people never get as ill as that, but working in a stressful environment like my school cannot have done her condition any good (although it should be made clear that stress doesn’t actually cause ME — a virus does — but can certainly worsen it). I posted a politely-worded enquiry on the old boys’ Facebook forum (run by someone who was actually one of my friends while at the school) and got an entirely unexpected volley of totally irrelevant abuse. The first response I got read “why do you think she would be interested in seeing a f***ed up little islamist like you who is intent on pissing off the world”, and then suggested that I wanted to know about her condition only so that I could “make a blog that is 90 % shit”. Another person (a friend of the M Risbrook who comments here) said that my blog only consisted of “liberal left drivel that has nothing to do with Islam and looks like it’s been lifted out of the Grauniad” while another called me a “waste of space”. Another recalled my screaming fits while at school (as if I wasn’t the only 12-year-old who would have done that while surrounded by a bunch of malevolent two-legged pack animals) and accused me of kicking in his face his attempts to help and befriend me (again, when I was 12) and of thinking I was too good to talk to him.

By this time, I had signed off the group, shocked by the abusive response I’d got to my query. I rejoined to answer some of the accusations about my blog, and told the people that their response had convinced me that it wasn’t worth looking for friends among them. One of them (who was three forms above me and my first table-head) told me that I should take my own advice and f*** off as nobody was interested in me. Perhaps he thought he was still at school, where such orders had to be obeyed or else he could beat them up there and then or later and get away with it? I was never interested in him (or any of the others) either, but had to tolerate his sulking, miserable presence at the dinner table every day for several months. Still, after another round of bickering on that thread unrelated to my question about Miss Strutt, I left anyway.

What was surprising about this incident is that many of those involved are not those who were always particularly unpleasant to me back then; they included jokes about suicide bombers, and suggestions that criticising things I write might lead to a suicide bomber coming to their flat. (Note: suicide bombers hit political targets, not overgrown petty juvenile delinquents.) Did my blogs unearth memories that certain people wanted to stay buried? Or are people just annoyed that I had attacked staff members that favoured them, or the school itself for favouring them? Does the fact that I can point out home truths without fear annoy them? Given that they’ve proven to be such unpleasant people, I don’t think I care anymore.

Anyway, I would advise people not to waste any time over old “friends” who weren’t really friends then and you don’t want to meet again. If they were staff and you were hurt by them, and they seem to have forgotten, then perhaps it might not hurt to simply tell them that, but don’t be afraid to refuse friendship requests — they don’t have a right to be let back into your life, after all. If you have new friends that accept you, that don’t belittle you or make you feel threatened just to be around them, that will remain your friend from one minute to the next and won’t take every small thing you say as a means to mock you or put you down, but listen and are supportive and gracious and decent, then cultivate and celebrate those friendships and don’t bother with people you left behind for a good reason, peering over the fence just to see how well (or otherwise) they’re doing. Time spent in this way is just wasted time.

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