Dear Thelma

I am a college student. Lately, S, who was once a close friend of mine, has been bullying me and ostracised me from all our mutual friends. He has openly bad-mouthed me to everyone and turned my closest female friend, H, against me for no apparent reason.

S is not well-liked because he is loud-mouthed and offensive. However, he was always nice and helpful to me, as well as considerate. We enjoyed banter and he always apologised when I was offended. We were pretty close and enjoyed each other’s company because we were very much alike. I was always the leader in group assignments and brought him into my group of friends but he often called me “controlling” whenever I took charge of assignments.

Our relationship turned when I introduced him to H. The three of us quickly became close, going out together often and hanging out every day. I began to feel a little left out when I realised S and H were becoming extremely close and they were affectionate.

Then S started calling me names, cracking jokes at my expense and insulting me at every opportunity. He would brush my protests aside, claiming he was just joking and I was taking things too seriously or overreacting. Things escalated and he quickly stopped hiding his maliciousness. He would tell me, “You say it like I care” when I threatened to stop talking to him or leave. I never took his insults quietly, often insulting him back and stopped speaking to him. I asked several times what his issue was with me, but he ignored me.

H often defended him, blaming his behaviour on his messy breakup with his girlfriend and promised to talk to him. She has interrupted him when he was being mean to me. I confided in her a lot, sometimes crying about his bullying and she was always supportive and kind to me. I joked that she had become my therapist.

To H, he was always sweet, funny and charming. I told H I thought S liked her, but she brushed it off as she wasn’t interested and was seeing a girl she really liked. She assured me there was no possibility – she didn’t like guys.

After telling H I was done being his punching bag, I vowed to leave. The same week, the bullying stopped. He began trying to get our mutual friends on his side, stating bluntly that he refused to be in the same circle as me. He seemed to be ignoring me just as much as I was ignoring him, but both of us were still very close to H. I noticed he had unfriended me, as well as blocking me on every social media platform.

H and I had a standing vow to be groupmates in all our classes, so I was pretty surprised when H texted me out of the blue saying she was going to be in S’s groups. When I asked her why, she evaded the question and avoided my call. I got angry, scolding her for taking his side and abandoning me. She stopped replying, ignoring my multiple texts. When I saw her at college, she ignored me like the plague with S at her side.

I was so hurt, yet angry and when I vented to our mutual friends, they seemed indifferent – S always disliked me, they said. It was no big deal. I found out they’ve been meeting to discuss group work – essentially, S had poached all my friends.

I felt lost and hurt. That’s when I decided to cut H and my mutual friends from my life and started looking for new groupmates. S is still actively badmouthing me, in real life and online, and it has been months since I stopped speaking to anyone in that circle.

What do I do about S’s continuous hate campaign?

Since the bullying began, I have been withdrawn and anxious – which is odd, because usually I am friendly and outgoing. I have been crying a lot and don’t have anyone to talk to. It makes me feel helpless, alone and sad. I researched symptoms of depression and anxiety online and I think I am depressed but don’t know how to get help because I know my parents will just get angry. – Hurt & Alone

Dear Hurt & Alone

Your story is a bit confused, so let me try and pull out the threads that need to be addressed.

You had a tempestuous relationship with S. This situation has deteriorated rapidly, with S bullying you online and in person. Your close friend H has chosen to join the bully. It’s not clear to me if she’s actively participating in the bullying or merely supporting S as he fuels this hate campaign.

You asked your classmates for help, and they have backed away. As a result, you have become isolated, anxious and depressed.

I’m very happy to hear you are looking for new friends. That is sensible and practical. However, the bullying must be shut down now.

Bullying in colleges is on the rise and it’s getting more vicious. What you describe is a clear and classic case of bullying. As you are very young, this is not something you can deal with on your own.

You say your parents will be angry with you, and that this is why you can’t seek help. I therefore suggest you go to the college counsellor.

She should have a Master’s degree in Psychology or Counselling and if you’re over 18, she has a duty to keep your information confidential. She should also be in a position to make the correct reports and to effect change.

I’m afraid you have to do this because you need to alert the college. Bullying is contagious. It won’t just be you; there will be others, too. As self harm and suicide is on the rise, my fear is that someone is going to get hurt. So stand up, be brave and report this before some other young person decides they can’t take it. The counsellor, and administrators, can warn S his behaviour has to stop.

Next, you’re young, you’re at university and the two generally mean lots of upheaval and readjustment. Because of that, I’m going to suggest you have a chat with the counsellor about yourself, too. It’s free so you should take advantage while you can.

First, assess and address the anxiety and the depression you’re suffering. You’re young and if you learn techniques now that help you manage these common issues, you’ll do yourself a lifelong favour. Common techniques that many people find helpful include progressive relaxation, visualisation, CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) and other simple therapeutic approaches. Learn what works for you.

Second, review your ideas of friendship. Your vow with H to take all your classes together may be an innocent one. It’s sweet and works for kids but it’s not so good for adult relationships.

Young people tend to have “besties” and hang out in cliques. That’s because their interests and social horizons tend to be rather narrow. As we mature, we have many different interests and that change is reflected in our friendships. As adults we typically have a handful of people we talk to about personal matters, and lots more casual friends we like to socialise and work with.

With the counsellor, you can learn how to manage this transition better, so you can branch out and widen your friendship circle.

Next, I’m a little concerned about your evaluation of your relationship with S. Even when you thought of him as a friend, he was unkind. At the beginning he was calling you controlling and you had frequent arguments about hurtful remarks. That’s not good.

As you describe it, your relationship sounds like a struggle for control. I strongly advise you to look into this more closely.

Building and maintaining healthy relationships is a vital life skill. If you don’t get this right, you’re going to be miserable. Discuss your friendship making in detail with the counsellor, okay?

Finally, you are troubled and I think parents can be a great help. While I respect your assertion that they will be angry that you’re being bullied, I think you should discuss talking to them honestly with the counsellor. Check out the pros and cons, but don’t dismiss asking them to pitch in out of hand, okay?

I do hope this helps, and hope the rest of your school time is rich with wonderful friendships.

Is something bothering you? Do you need a listening ear or a shoulder to lean on? Thelma is here to help.

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