My poor health and frail physique, the result of a bad bout of whooping cough when I was two and a half, presented me with two life choices at a very young age: I could retreat into my sickly health, and watch life from the sidelines as a spectator, or I could plunge into the current of life and fight for strength and good health. I chose the latter.
The inner life is so connected to the outer life that whether we like it or not, the one always influences the other. In my case, physical strength and psychological strength progressed hand in hand over many, many years.
As a small child attending a black-bricked Victorian schoolhouse in Staffordshire, England, I was always picked on because of my poor health and puny body. My mother insisted on dressing me in woolen stockings and a garment called a liberty bodice, to protect my wheezing chest and keep me warm in central England’s perennially damp climate. None of the other children had to dress like this and they all jeered at me. One particularly nasty bully was Peter, about the same age as me, who delighted in chasing me up the hill on the walk home after school, while flicking his knotted tie at my legs to make me cry. He succeeded every time and I usually arrived home on the brink of an asthma attack.
Fortunately, we left that part of the country and on my doctor’s recommendation moved to the south coast. The weather in Brighton was bracing, and even when it rained, the sea breezes came up and blew the clouds away. We loved it, and my mother and I used to go for long walks along the sea-front. But once again, here too I endured the bullying of a girl called Maria at my private school, who together with her cronies, cornered me in a bathroom one day, and pinning me against a wall, they aimed their well-sharpened pencils at my body like daggers, relishing my terror. I was about eleven by this time, and still had not developed an ounce of courage or a strong body.
Because of my father’s work, we moved from Brighton to Southampton, also on the south coast, and even then, though I was in my mid-teens, I was still the chosen victim for the bullies in my new private school, enduring taunting and cruel practical jokes that provoked tears and difficulty breathing. How long was it going to take me to stand up for myself?
I spent two wonderful years subsequently in the Southampton Grammar School, taking my A-level exams without anyone picking on me. It was the biggest school by far that I had ever attended, the other, private schools being considerably smaller and very restricted. The grammar school, with its vast playing fields, large classes, and really well-qualified teachers, was like a breath of fresh air for my mind and helped me strengthen my body too, thanks to gymnastics and sports like tennis and rounders. Life definitely started looking up for me.
After I finished grammar school I was sent to a secretarial college farther along the south coast, and for the first time, slept away from home. It was also a finishing school, and we learned the useful art of how to get in and out of a car elegantly (I still do it that way), and how to curtsy to the Queen, useful for some, I’m sure, though something I myself have never had to put into practice. I did very well, and excelled at shorthand, reaching 200 w.p.m. and typing 50 w.p.m. This was all well and good, but I was sharing a bedroom with five other girls, and one of them was Margaret, the bully of my year, always competing with me for top marks in all our tests.
Our bedroom was on the second story, and on the last day of the first term we were all supposed to troop downstairs into the garden and shake and fold the blankets from our beds. But I could not go. My bra was missing. I was a prisoner. I knew Margaret had taken it, and when I opened the bedroom window and looked down at her, happily shaking out her blankets, she pointed at me and started laughing, and her cronies joined in.
Well, today I would have gone and shaken the blankets in the nude if she’d taken all my clothes, but when I was seventeen, and shy, there was no way I’d go anywhere without a bra. All was not lost, however, for on the mantelpiece in our shared bedroom was a photograph of a boy that Margaret had a really big crush on. I picked it up and held it out over Margaret’s head below, saying, “If you don’t give me back my bra immediately, I am going to tear up this beloved photograph of yours.”
“You wouldn’t dare,” she replied. Without saying another word I tore the photo up into little pieces and watched as they scattered like ashes over her head.
She screamed and bellowed and before I knew it she was up the stairs to the bedroom, two at a time, launching herself at me, kicking and screaming, sobbing as she pulled my hair. I managed to hold her at arm’s length until the assembly bell rang and we had to troop down for final prayers and goodbye hymns. I stood with the other girls, chunks of my hair slowly cascading to the floor, heart hammering against my ribs. I didn’t care. I had my bra on, and I had finally won a round in my battle with the bullies. This was only a first step, but I felt empowered for the first time in my life.
After that episode, Margaret left me alone, and I moved into another bedroom with a very nice girl for the remainder of my time at college.
When I was twenty I left England, telling my mother it was just for a year, but I never returned there to live. I left the constrictions of England behind me forever and embraced the warmer, more sensual customs and climes of Italy, where I lived for the next twenty-six years.
After various short-term jobs in Rome, I ended up working at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, or FAO, as it is known locally. I hated secretarial work, but I naively imagined that I would be helping to feed the world by working at FAO. That feeling lasted about three months. It was just another big organization like any other, with concerns over parking permits, commissary privileges, and of course, who was sleeping with whom.
I moved around a bit and then ended up in a very civilized division, with a boss who played classical music in his office all day. I was always very happy to go into his office and take dictation from him. But I also worked for his assistant, a woman who was a dictator and a bully. She treated everyone like they had no right to breathe.
One day she was particularly nasty to me, and I snapped. Finally, I was learning to stand up for myself. I strode into her office from the outer office, marched up to her desk, where she was sitting, and ripped into her with all the anger never expressed to all the previous bullies in my life.
“How dare you treat me this way. I am a human being just like you, and as such, I am worthy of respect.” I stormed out in triumphant silence.
She remained seated in amazement and never said a word. My heart was pounding when I came out of her office, but I was victorious. After my outburst, she treated me like royalty. She could not have been nicer to me. I was beginning to learn that bullies are all cowards underneath, and once you call them on it they retreat. I had made another step on my path to freedom.
Several years passed without any further bullying, and in my mid-thirties I went into Jungian psychotherapy to help me with the existential angst I was feeling. Nothing made sense, I was deeply unhappy, had even contemplated suicide, but I had no clue as to what was provoking this inner pain. My analyst was very good and very demanding. She put up with no delusional nonsense, even telling me on one occasion that if I couldn’t obey my unconscious I should stop wasting her time and my money. With her guidance and my own total commitment to the inner process, I turned my life around and found peace and joy, and above all, my own identity, which had been smothered and suffocated for so many years, by what society judges to be right and wrong, good and bad. I was well on the path to becoming a free spirit, individuated from the herd, and I am eternally grateful to her.
I went to her for a few years, and then left Italy and moved to New Mexico. Carl Jung had been to Taos, many years earlier, and my analyst, Manuela, with whom I had stayed in contact, wanted to visit, so I invited her to come and stay with me on one of her annual trips to see her sister in New York. I took her to the various sights that she was interested in around Taos, but after several years of distance from her, I viewed her in a different light.
She was behaving abominably. Demanding. Complaining. A spoiled princess. Not the awesome analyst I had known and respected. She treated me badly, criticizing me for everything I did, complaining about the food, my hospitality, even the climate. She personified the Negative Mother, an archetype I had struggled so hard to overcome in my work with her.
So I told her it was not working, and that she had to leave. Immediately. She packed her bag and I took her to a hotel in town. I could not believe that I was doing this, but after I had said goodbye to her and driven back home, I knew that I had passed the final test that the universe was going to throw my way. Telling my analyst to leave! That was the biggest inner victory of my life, and I knew with certainty that although it had taken me fifty years, I had finally graduated. I hoped Manuela would be big enough to admit that too and to respect me for the progress I had made.
I’m seventy now, and the last twenty years have been peaceful. I can handle bullies quite easily. I just refuse to be intimidated, and I open my heart to them and win them over with kindness. It works (nearly) every time. Life is too short for confrontations, negativity, resentments and arguing. If there is no other recourse, I walk away.
Hand in hand with my psychological progress through the years, my body has also grown stronger and healthier, thanks to regular exercise and healthy food, so that now people are amazed at my positive, enthusiastic outlook and high physical energy. They think I have always been strong and self-confident because that is how they perceive me today. Little do they know the hard work I have put in, and the growing pains I have endured to reach this point, and I wouldn’t change any of it!
Without life’s challenges, I would not be who I am today. I have earned every wrinkle on my face, many from uncontrolled laughter, and I look forward to more adventures, more excitement, more learning and more miracles before I die, so that when my time does indeed come, this body will be worn out like a suit of old clothes, used up and squeezed dry of the juices of this beautiful life we all share.
Previously published in When Women Waken, November 2015