A few months ago, I ran into someone who hadn’t been particularly kind to me in school. You fantasise about those moments, don’t you? You usually hope that you’ll have just stepped out of the hair salon, dripping in Chanel and diamonds, with a Hemsworth brother on your arm.
Of course, in real life you meet them in the supermarket when you’re still in your gym gear and the only thing you’re dripping in is sweat.
We said hi, had a chat about the ripeness of the avocadoes, and we both moved on.
I told myself that it didn’t matter what I was wearing or how red my face was — my life is in good shape these days, I have nothing to feel ashamed of. I’m healthy, I’m in recovery, I love my job, I have friends and family who care about me, and a boyfriend who is kind and supportive.
But as I walked away from her, I could feel something turning over in the pit of stomach, a queasy mixture of shame and fear. I felt erased in that moment, like I was disappearing.
I felt like, again, this woman had all the power and I had none; I felt like nothing.
There were many things that I liked about my school. It was highly academic, which suited me, I loved reading and learning.
I had excellent teachers, and one in particular, an English teacher, challenged and pushed me but it was clear that she believed in me too, that she thought I had some talent. That was immeasurably important to me, and it stayed with me throughout difficult years at university where I felt dull and stupid, barely able to raise my voice to speak in tutorials lest I embarrass myself.
Creativity was valued at my school, there was the annual school play, a beautiful art room, classes in music appreciation.
I loved the old building, walking through the cloisters, the light dappling against the glass panes, and I met incredible people there, many of whom I still consider to be friends today.
I still cannot decide how I feel about single sex education, if all girls’ schools are a breeding ground for eating disorders and neuroses or if they are a haven of sorts, a place where you can speak up and voice your opinion without fear of being shouted down. Even as an adult, I am more comfortable in groups of women, I feel more at home in their company, and I have to presume that’s as a result of 14 years of attending convent schools.
But still, when I wrote my first novel, which takes place in a dystopian world where young women compete to be the most beautiful, it seemed appropriate to me that I set it in an all-girls’ boarding school. Because while I liked school, I hated it at times too.
I remember the growing sense that I was different to other people and that wasn’t a good thing, it was dangerous, and I would have to do my very best to pretend to be normal.
I remember the talk about food, bodies, and diets being almost relentless, all-consuming. And while I was one of the lucky ones — I wasn’t bullied, I had people to sit with at lunch, I was generally well liked — I still remember my Leaving Cert year as one of the loneliest in my life. I was desperate to ace my exams so I could just get out of there, that I could leave my small town and go to Dublin and be able to become my true self.
The bulimia intensified and I would often lie on my bed, feeling my muscles spasm because of a lack of potassium, and wonder if it wouldn’t be easier if I just fell asleep and didn’t wake up again. Who, besides my parents and my sister, would even miss me?
I still dream about school. And in those dreams, I am on the outside, invisible and all I want is for someone to turn around and look at me. To acknowledge I exist. Sometimes I feel like I’m still running, still trying to prove that I’m worthy of having someone look me in the eyes and say my name.
The work as an adult is to realise that I didn’t need that approval, that all I ever needed to do was to love and accept myself. But to this day, I still deeply distrust anyone who tells me that secondary school was the best time of their life, as if they’re proud of having peaked as a teenager.
At this time of year, when the leaves are starting to turn and while I sit in my writing room, I can hear the sound of that same school bell ringing again, I think of all the students going back to their classes, some of whom will be happy to do so, others who will feel as if they’re facing a dystopian nightmare of their own.
I want to tell them that it will get better. The best years of your life are still to come. You will find your tribe, people who love and accept you just as you are.
You will understand that those who were cruel to you in school were probably going through their own shit, and perhaps there were people you could have been kinder to in turn. That, in the end, everyone is just trying to do their best to survive.
READ: Mrs Everything by Jennifer Weiner. This book tracks the lives of two very different sisters, from the 1950s to the present day, and it is nothing short of brilliant.
This is Weiner’s best book yet.
BUY: Tickets for the stage adaptation of Asking For It. It’s back in The Everyman Theatre, Cork, from the September 26 to October 5 (it goes to The Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, from October 9 to October 26).
I know I’m biased, but I promise you this is the best piece of theatre you’ll see all year.