The worst year of my life
2004 was the worst year of my life. The two that followed it were likely just as bad, but 2004 stands out to me because it was the only year I kept a diary. If I hadn't kept this record, I might have managed to convince myself that what happened hadn't been as bad as I'd remembered it.
At the end of the previous year, a couple of friends in my form had fallen out with me. I can't remember why. I started getting nasty messages on MSN over the Christmas holidays. Within a few days it turned into texts and phone calls, usually in the middle of the night from a witheld number that I couldn't trace or block. If I didn't answer, they'd leave voicemail messages. They would say the most horrible things, knowing exactly what words would upset me most. I begged them to stop, but it carried on. Sometimes I handed the phone to my older sister who would tell them to leave me alone. That didn't work either.
When term started again, she took me to see the head of year to talk about what was happening. We couldn't find her, but the headmistress was in her office and my sister convinced me to talk to her instead. We told her about the phone calls. I showed her my call history, the texts, and played her back the answerphone messages. She said it was really serious and that she'd have a chat with my head of year.
In the afternoon, I found out the two girls had been suspended for 3 days. After those 3 days, the head of year brought us all in a room and asked them to apologise. One of them had written me a letter promising it wouldn't happen again.
I thought it was over, but really it was just beginning. Some of their friends got wind of what was happening and took their place.
I got more horrible IMs. They set up a number of MSN accounts, each pretending to be a friend, and would ask me how I was doing. I'd explain what was happening, and then the next day, find out it wasn't them at all, that I'd been tricked. What I'd said, what I'd confided in them about, was passed around. I felt so stupid. I wanted to talk to someone about it but I no longer knew who to trust.
I spoke to my head of year a number of times. She'd write to their parents, suspend them, but every punishment seemed to make it worse. Most of the time she couldn't do anything because it mainly happened outside of school gates. Unless they sent me an email through the school's system or through a site on a networked terminal, there was nothing they could do. The bullying spread like cancer.
One day, they hacked into my Hotmail account because they knew the answer to one of my secret questions. I was locked out while they sent offensive emails to everyone in my address book. They did the same to any other account they could get into.
You may not truly understand this unless you've grown up with the internet, but it felt like my home had been invaded. Nowhere was safe. So I deleted my Hotmail account. I removed my name from every social network. As far as the internet was concerned, I didn't exist.
Every time the phone rang, I panicked. I called my network to ask them to block the calls, but was told that wasn't possible, so I changed my number. Eventually they found that out too. They bragged about scrawling it on pub toilet walls.
I got more phone calls, but from men. The girls had decided that rather than run the risk of using their own numbers, they'd pass my number onto their friends at other schools. I couldn't sleep.
At the peak of it all, about 15 girls were involved. I would spend every break in the school library because it was the only place where there was CCTV and a member of staff there all the time. One day, they all stormed in and started yelling abuse at me from the other side of the room. The librarian tried to usher them out, but they wouldn't leave. They weren't afraid of anyone. I was trapped.
In classes, they spat at me. At the end of a hockey lesson, I was changing out of my boots and found my shoes had been filled with mud. They kicked my locker in so I couldn't open it and had to carry all my books round. I got death threats. I was followed home. One time their friends tried to knock me off my bike with their car while I was cycling home from school.
It was around this time I started getting into web design and set up my first website with a few friends. We added a guestbook. Then, one IT lesson I saw my friend frantically deleting messages. "Don't read them, Anna. Don't look." There was giggling behind me. They were being added faster than we could delete them. I took the guestbook down.
One of the people I babysat for was a policeman. He'd always ring me on a witheld number, and I told him why I never picked up the phone. He, and my school, managed to convince me to make a statement. I couldn't make one to him because he wasn't in my constituency, so he took me to my local station and we sat in the waiting room. I waited to be seen. I was shaking the whole time.
After about 2 hours of waiting, I lost my nerve. I told him I couldn't go through with it. Eventually, with my permission, he sent a couple of officers to my house. They arrived in a riot van. My sister was with me while I told them what had happened. They listened to the voicemails (I left the room), read the texts, and told me it fell under the Malicious Communications Act. But there was one problem. They told me they weren't allowed trace the numbers unless it was during a really serious event such as a kidnapping. I had to tell them who I thought it was and give them an address.
Even though all the calls and messages had been anonymous and from different people, I had a pretty good idea who the ringleader was. A few days earlier, I'd put the guestbook on the website back up, but this time it tracked IP addresses. Sure enough, it got filled with abuse again. But if there was any doubt who had done it, the police could match up the IP addresses.
Despite everything they'd done, I didn't want them to be arrested. I didn't even want them to be punished, I just wanted it to stop. I knew that if they got a criminal record, they might not be able to go to university. I didn't want that burden.
The police drove straight to the address I'd given them and gave a verbal warning.
When I got back to school, it was horrible. Everyone in my year had found out what had happened. The really nasty bullying died down a lot, but it didn't really stop until I left school. It hurt to think about so I stopped thinking about it.
Years later, I was woken up in the middle of the night by a phonecall from a witheld number. I dismissed it. It rang again. I picked up the phone and asked who was there but I got no response. I could hear breathing. And suddenly it all came flooding back.
I found the diary I'd written all those years ago and read it back. It was an harrowing experience. There were whole sections that I'd crossed out, too ashamed to let future-me read them.
The diary doesn't exist any more. I shredded it along with everything else from that time. The memories take up far more mental space than I'd like, but at least they can't take up any physical space.
This all happened before cyberbullying was a thing. Legislation wasn't brought in until 2 years later. Schools are better prepared for it now, but I still don't think many people really understand the scope of it. For a young person growing up today, when the internet, social networks and mobile phones are such a big part of life, having to switch off is a form of isolation.
I feel lucky because I knew who was behind it, but if I hadn't, there would have been very little anyone could have done.
Technology has improved. It's now possible, on my iPhone at least, to block numbers. I've changed the settings so it doesn't ring at all, unless it's someone I know. I never answer a witheld number. If it's important enough, they'll leave a message. The answers to my secret questions on my accounts are all fake, so not even a friend could know them.
The experience has determined a lot of things for me, some bad, some good. I might have gone to uni if I wasn't afraid it'd happen again. I know I'd be more confident and be more outgoing and trusting of other people. But I know it's an experience I can overcome. It will take time, but I know so many good, caring people now, and unexpectedly, I found them in online, the same place I was once scared to go, in the web community that I call home.