Joanne Thomson still carries both the physical and mental scars of being bullied while at high school.
Now 21, she clearly remembers the miserable days of classmates talking about her behind her back, sharing mean stories about her and scratching her arms.
Her anxiety became so bad she dropped out of her extra curricular activities – like performing arts group Music 4 U – and withdrew into herself.
She also began self-harming and no longer wanted to live, but determined not to let the bullies win she managed to finally tell her mum what was happening.
Eventually Miss Thomson moved schools, and has moved on to a happier time in her life – focusing on the things she loves, like animals, doing her nails and her garden.
She has also been able to make a return to Music 4 U, and is now channeling her own experiences with bullies into a show she hopes will help other young people.
‘I’m still left with the scars’
The organisation’s new musical, Joe’s Blog, has been funded through a grant of £87,890 through the National Lottery Community Fund’s Young Start scheme.
The show is part of Music4U’s You Got a Friend in Me project, and incorporates a cast of 18 young people, with and without additional support needs, who encourage their peers be more inclusive and understanding of difference.
Miss Thomson, from Aberdeenshire, plays a character called Sassy Natalie – who she described as a bit of a diva – and says it has helped to build her confidence back up.
Miss Thomson, who has learning disabilities, was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) when she was eight and struggled to mingle like others did at school.
She said: “I was always that one left out because I’ve got disabilities, they always thought I was weird and didn’t include me.
“I didn’t really come to anyone to say what was happening because I didn’t know what to do myself. So I basically kept all that in.”
It got worse, with the bullies becoming physical and scratching Miss Thomson.
“I’m still left with the scars,” she said. “It got so bad that I wanted to run away.
“I was hiding it and it got to the point that I was harming myself and didn’t want to be alive anymore.
“But I knew that if I did that, it would mean they have won. And I’m not one to give up.”
When mum Karen finally found out what was going on, she spoke to the school to try and get a resolution – even temporarily removing her daughter. However, with little change, Miss Thomson moved schools and was given support with her mental health.
Her mum said: “It’s really been a long, ongoing process, mentally and anxiety wise, it’s just affected her completely.”
Music 4 U’s impact
Music 4 U has helped build up Miss Thomson’s confidence again, and she now sees that everyone has got “their own story to tell”.
Reflecting on her involvement with Joe’s Blog, she said: “I feel that bullying and the effects it has on people should be spoken out about more – and more should be done to prevent bullies. It’s not OK to be bullied and anyone going through that needs to know they’re not alone. There are people who can help you.”
Debra Kirkness, founder and creative director of Music 4 U, is delighted at the success of Joe’s Blog so far – especially as the group had to overcome the obstacles of lockdown to pull it together.
Music 4 U organised zoom sessions to rehearse over lockdown and managed to make the musical into a video production after the first year. The video was sent then sent into schools to raise awareness and to help create discussion cyber bullying.
As Covid rules ease, Mrs Kirkness hopes the musical – which she wrote – will be taken into schools and performed live to allow the cast to share their own personal stories with pupils. Already eight schools have expressed an interest.
Mrs Kirkness, from Newburgh, admitted she had not been sure if Miss Thomson would ever come back to Music 4 U when she first quit but said she was delighted to now see her flourish.
“She had more to give than we had ever really realised or that she’d been given the opportunity to express,” she said. “And that combined with her personality, she just seemed to come out of a sort of place where she wasn’t very confident and didn’t really think too much of herself.
“She suddenly became this character and through the character this Joanne emerged. And we saw it, we saw it unfolding before our eyes.”
What is the Young Start programme?
Delivered by The National Lottery Community Fund, the Young Start Programme is aimed at those ages between eight and 24 in Scotland.
It works to make them more confident by creating opportunities in which they can “realise their own potential”.
Funded from the proceeds of dormant bank and building society accounts, it has been running since March 2012. Young Start has awarded £48million to groups since its launch.
A spokeswoman from The National Lottery Community Fund said: “Music 4 U is a fantastic example of a group who have used Young Start funding to pave the way to brighter futures for young people in Scotland.
“Joanne’s story is so inspiring, and highlights the importance of projects like ‘You’ve Got a Friend In Me’, and the positive impact taking part can have on those involved.”