You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty. Mahatma Gandhi
I love my study. My second chance for a career I have always longed to do, even if it involves juggling study with family commitments. We make the sacrifice because I am fascinated by every topic in my course. I am thrilled I have found something that fulfils me, and that I can, surprisingly, do. I devour my readings and give my all to my assignments. It is challenging, but brilliantly so. I can hardly wait to progress through the system, learning more practical applications. My love for it and success at it tides me over during the years, and even through a stressful move across the world. I cling to this positive thing.
I sit, waiting for another beautifully presented lecture on one of the more fascinating aspects of my course. Behind me, a baby cries. I’ve never seen someone bring a baby to a lecture before, but I understand the relentless struggle of the juggle, the never-ending priority of children first, of who can have them if you simply can’t. I sympathise with the mother, although wonder how the lecture and lecturer will cope with the inevitable interruption of a small child. I get my answer, the lecturer stops to let the baby cry, and the mother eventually leaves. Unusual, in my experience, anyway, and I have attended lectures in three different universities. At the time I think little of it. Now, I wonder…
I sit in a different lecture, a little annoyed that the course was labelled one thing, but was quite different to the topic many of us probably expected. Nevertheless, it proves interesting, and I try and wrap my mind around a subject that forms an important branch of the department’s research. We lounge about, in lecture stupor, some tapping on laptops, some scribbling, some watching. Suddenly, the door flings open and somebody runs through the room and out the other door. Heart beating fast, I anxiously wait to see what is happening. Someone on the run? Who is chasing? What is happening? A lecturer walks in, explains it was a memory test, and wants our answers about the experience. I take a while to recover; I didn’t see much at all.
I sit in a lecture again, the same topic in which we have already been startled. I watch friends chat and laugh, feeling a little homesick for my clan of study friends I left behind in my previous university. We had been at similar stages, us mature age students, had been study mates and a support system as we tried to make a go of our next career choice. Still, you expect to be surrounded by younger people when you go back to uni, and I was full of admiration for the confidence and apparent level-headedness of the fresh students. I remember being at university at 18, I remember trembling at the thought of having to contribute in tutorials, of preparing things to say well in advance then sitting there trying to work up the nerve to state them.
Next, the lecturer announces group presentations. You can choose to go with friends, he says, or you will be randomly allocated to groups. I don’t know anyone on this course, although I have met a few students in other topics. I feel this method of forming groups rather rubs it in to those of us who are friendless, but feel fine about working with people I don’t know. I worry about co-ordinating meetings with family commitments, and think of the advantage working with friends would confer; a natural rhythm, an understanding of each other’s circumstances and abilities to contribute.
I meet my fellow presenters. There are three in our group whereas others have four. I am in a group with the mother who brought her baby to a lecture. She tells me she finds reading difficult due to illness, that she won’t be able to read many research papers. I feel a bit taken aback, but we sort it so she can present the talk rather than be too involved in preparing it. Our other group member is a foreign speaking student who struggles with English. We try and arrange things according to our abilities; I will do most of the research and preparation, he will set it up in powerpoint, she will present. As per normal, I stuff too much info into the talk; I feel there is so much to learn, to absorb. We meet at the library, he shows us the presentation, there are various mistakes with the way it is sitting in the powerpoint slides. We get to the talk, she presents in a somewhat stuttering fashion; unusual, I think, as she has already told me she is a performer. But there you go, nerves do strange things to people, I don’t blame her, but I feel at a bit of a disadvantage. Our talk is in stark contrast to the polished performance of the group before us. I know at least one of the members of the previous group gives professional presentations for the university. All of it feels a bit strange, a bit odd. We get an average mark for our performance. I write an email to the lecturer, stating how I felt the allocation process to groups was unfair, and outlining some of the disadvantages we had faced as a group. He calls me into his office, offers me a token mark extra. It is not about the marks. It is about something that felt unfair and wrong. Now I know…or I think I know… that it was. They set me up deliberately in this disadvantaged group. I had a very high grade point average – were they testing my reactions? Were they put out that an upstart from overseas should come and question their methods? Was I too overweight, too old, too bogged down in other commitments, too outspoken? Or, to quote Kasey Chambers, simply “not pretty enough?”
Well, do you know what. Even if I were all those things; I should still have received fair and ethical teaching. I paid my money, and I was a good student. I worked in a different career for a decade, got along with most people well, enjoyed my work, was good at my work. Who decided to sit on high and impose judgement about me by putting me in contrived situations at university? Who decided it was their place to start pulling me down, start making me subconsciously anxious, start implying that this was no place for me, that I was deficient? WHO, who, who? Who decided to start an insidious process of harm that eventually pulled me down into depression, anxiety, and joblessness? Who decided they were the superior breed, that they could judge me and find me lacking, and start edging me out of their super-cool club? The things that were to come, the underlying lack of tolerance and plain simple humanity has me astounded even now. My naïve beliefs about universities have been shattered. How could these open, welcoming places that shout their respect for diversity from the rooftops harbour people who turned out to be so blinkered, judgmental and cruel? The reactions and events of the years to come make me sure that the mobbing process started early on, and that the mobbers thought they could get away with it. So far, they have. But I will keep on writing, keep on fighting.
I am excited to be in the Honours year, an opportunity to do our own research. We decide I will do the course full-time; it will be a hard stint for nine months, combining course work and a research project. It is a notoriously hard year, but it will be worth it at the time and at the end, I think, when hopefully I can get stuck into the postgraduate work I am so looking forward to. It will involve months of sacrifice and lost weekends. But it will be a labour of love and then the previous four years of part-time study will pay off and I can progress. Oh, now, the crying shame of it. The unbearable waste of lost time with important people, of the absolute waste of opportunity and progress.
I have no idea what direction to head in with my research project, I find so many of the topics interesting. We are told that all supervisors offer the same sorts of opportunities to progress into our future, that it doesn’t matter who or what we pick. Never were less true words spoken. I feel full of enthusiasm, I haven’t yet realised what is going on around me. I shortlist the topics I am interested in; I know very little about potential supervisors. I know I would love to work with one particular lecturer, but no doubt she is in demand as her teaching is such high quality. Still, I give it a go. I feel nervous about meeting supervisors, I am afraid I will not match the potential of my GPA in person. And I am right.
I meet a couple of supervisors, and babble as I usually do when I am nervous. No doubt my reputation as being – whatever the hell it was I was secretly accused of: arrogance, trouble making, narcissism, loud mouthness, badness, hopelessness as a person, someone who deserved no future prospects – clouds their interpretation of me. I know none of this at the time, but retrospectively I think I sensed an undercurrent of unease.
I meet another supervisor. I have read my handbook, and know that an independent project is expected of us. He explains that one study has already been established, that the role of the student would be data collection. I have no idea what this even means; I hadn’t been through the same processes as many of the other students who already have research experience. I certainly don’t know what these terms mean. I ask him how doing that would constitute an independent project, a genuine question, but I get no answer. Instead, I think now, the interpretation bias played on… ‘Ms Arrogant, thinking she should be setting up her own project, she’s too good to do data collection, etc.’ ‘We will,’ I suspect they said, ‘show her.’
I meet with the lecturer I admire. I mutter my ideas, she is instantly dismissive. I say my ideas must be ridiculous, but now I wonder. While they were no doubt too ambitious or impractical for someone who had no idea even how to formulate a research question, why didn’t she point me in the direction of a supervisor who at least worked in that area, for there was one? I leave in tears, go to my friend’s house and sob. Things are not as I had expected, and my favourite lecturer had given me short shrift. What was going on? I think the headaches, literally and figuratively, started even then.
I struggle to choose, but decide to try a supervisor who advertised experience in an area I was interested in. I should have listened to my body, to fate; something was trying to warn me. The day he held his meeting for potential supervisees, I had a massively high temperature, was home in bed with a fever unlike any I had had in years. Still, I persevere and arrange a different meeting with him and ultimately choose him. What regrets I have now. And yet I wonder, maybe the fate that befell me might have happened with other supervisors too. Maybe it was all about me, not them. Maybe it was all about the mobbing.
I keep smiling, keep striving, I am ignorant of the malevolent forces at work. I present two ideas to my supervisor, we discuss them superficially and he tells me simply to choose. I choose the one I think might have some sort of practical application in areas I am interested in, but it proves problematic from the start. I sit in meetings with his other students, they are steaming ahead with their theories and ideas, while my project hasn’t even got off the ground. I make a joke in my usual trying-to-be-ironic but obviously coming across as an eejit style: the supervisor says we can expect to do a few versions of our study while we improve it, I joke ‘unless we get it right the first time’. I know this isn’t feasible, I worked for years in publishing, writing and rewriting things endlessly. Yet now, I suspect… ‘oooh, here goes Ms Big Boots again, thinks she will hit it right off. We will show her,’ I imagine they said… and boy, did they ever.
I feel myself already slipping behind on my project, but I resolve to work harder, to crack it, to keep trying. I sit on my bed, surrounded by books and an ever-growing despair, no idea which way to turn or even of any slight direction to head in. I am trying to swallow big ideas and theories all by myself, I am struggling, I have headaches, my time is swallowed up by this extra work. Each time I go to see my supervisor I stand outside his door, thinking this time we will have something we can work with, this time. But no, it takes nearly 12 different versions, several months, and a lot of energy. I know my coursework is suffering, and so is my family. I know my anxiety is rising. But I remain committed to trying to get this done. He, meanwhile, makes odd comments and tells me stories that now I am certain were designed to test my responses. My anxiety escalates… yet still I remain in the dark, just aware that things aren’t quite right, and that I am becoming an outsider, that I have to work harder to prove myself and get the acceptance I crave to allow me to continue along my chosen pathway. We go on holiday, I stay behind on days out trying desperately to rethink and rewrite this mess of a project.
I am left to come up with methods to test the project’s hypotheses myself. The secretary who grants access to the department library seems hostile every time I go into her office, and that is a few times as I strain to work out what to do. I am months behind. I come up with materials alone out of desperation, then the study is changed again so that these materials become redundant. My supervisor hasn’t yet said the words I have been yearning to hear for months, ‘we are ready to take it to the committee’. I watch all the students around me commencing the next stages of their projects, progressing and coping. I feel control slipping away from me.
Meanwhile, I enjoy the coursework, the lectures, the fascinating insights into others’ research and methods. Yet, even then, odd things happen. A lecturer who forgets to come, then an almost incomprehensible lecture from a lecturer I had always found informative. The lecturer I like telling me she hasn’t had a chance to answer my email yet, when in the past she has always been relatively prompt. She makes me feel pushy and unreasonable, but I am not. In another lecture, two girls sit talking at the back, yet the lecturer doesn’t seem to care. Another lecturer asks whether anyone reads the specific newspaper that I read, good students ask oddly inane questions about a topic I had previously studied. I email a lecturer a question related to the exam, but I get no reply. How many of these events were genuine, how many were designed to test me, or planned because of the pre-existing judgements about my personality? I still don’t know, but I suspect. And my stress goes up, and my marks go down… and my research project is a mess.
I usually quite like exams, seem to do relatively well in this sort of testing environment. But I sit in an open-book exam halfway through the year, and I feel like I am moving through mud. I can’t turn the pages fast enough to find what I need, the lights are too bright, I can’t think. I actually, truly, cannot think, cannot make connections, cannot answer the questions. It is the worst exam experience I have ever had. I leave the exam, and utter one swear word that pretty much still sums it all up. The guy next to me tells me I am too negative. Negative? Me? My friends used to call me Pollyanna, and people always told I was such a smiley person. I am being dragged down, away from me, and into the morass of seething manipulation and deviousness designed to destroy every aspect of my wellbeing and identity. And it is working, but it is a slow process, and one I don’t recognise until it is far too late. Meanwhile, my supervisor looks at me accusingly after the exam marks come out, and asked me what happened. You happened, and the mob happened. I will never know now what I am capable of doing academically, because I don’t know how I would have performed if all was as it should be.
Finally, months after most other students, my supervisor concedes to let us have the committee meeting, where two other staff members decide whether the project is viable. I persist with the lecturer I respect, invite her and another lecturer to the meeting. It goes badly, although she at least provides some constructive ideas. I leave the meeting shaken, unsure whether my project is workable or not. I have already started signing people up for testing sessions, I am so far behind that I feel I just have to keep moving. My supervisor doesn’t seem to acknowledge that the meeting went badly, doesn’t seem to care about the project much at all. In despair, I contact another lecturer, asking for help about how to move forwards. He, and at last the lecturer I admire, start talking to me about the project, about its viability and format. I feel that I am being disloyal to my supervisor, but I have no idea what to do. I sit in meetings with these two people, almost mute with misery, and feel pressured to do extra work on their new ideas to prove that I am capable, that it was not through lack of motivation or effort that this had occurred. I work through the nights, trying desperately to salvage something. I email another lecturer, to get help with a new test, but I don’t hear back for a while. Finally, someone tells me in the corridor that she is away at a conference, and I eventually get a reply. I decide not to go to my friends’ wedding overseas, so I can try and finish my thesis.
Meanwhile, I get a talk ready to present, and work up the little amount of nerve I have left to attempt to present it, despite me having already started shaking when talking to lecturers. I prepare myself as best I can mentally, and am relieved that the lecturer I like will be one of the assessors. I watch her smile at all the other students before me, who in retrospect I see were among the top students of the class. Was this once again to show me up via comparison? Then, my turn, and she frowns at me and it throws me. I stumble and speed through my talk, distressed at this reaction by someone I thought was helping me.
Finally, they tell me the project won’t work, and that they will do me a favour and go against the normal practise so that I can repeat the thesis the following year. I stumble in tears to cancel my testing sessions, I walk across campus and feel I am looking down at myself from way up high. I am crashing, plummeting, I cannot believe this has happened. I cannot cope, and she suggests asking for an extension on our final assignment. I email the topic co-ordinator, and get a reply saying that I could, but it might not be fair to other students. I have never asked for an extension before, not because I am too proud, but because I haven’t needed to. Yet I need one now, I need help and support and recognition of what has happened. The email I get from him reflects, I suspect, the email I sent to the previous lecturer regarding the unfair allocation process for group presentations. I tell him that I don’t want to be treated unfairly to other students (oh, the irony), and say I will do the assignment as expected. I do, and relieved of the burden of my thesis, I do reasonably well. Yet another big assignment, which counted for so much of my mark, was based on my thesis. I ask whether I can redo the assignment, I am told no. And my mark is not great, no surprises there.
I know something is wrong with me, I don’t know what. I lie in bed crying all day, and cancel going to my friend’s hens night. I go and see the university counsellor, who tells me there have been problems with that department before. Then, strangely, he suggests burning all my thesis work ‘to help me deal with it’. I question this now: was this an attempt to destroy evidence of bad supervision? He also suggests I am depressed. I tell my friend who had the same supervisor as me. I think maybe he told the staff of the department. I asked him, and he said no. Yet somehow, the staff knew.
I sit my final exam, deliberately finishing 10 minutes early so I can leave before everyone starts whooping and celebrating finishing Honours. For I have to come back next year and start again: the waste of it burns inside me, the time, energy and self-confidence lost. But I resolve that I will come back and try again, make a really good go of it next year with a new supervisor and without the burden of course work.
Meanwhile, my mental health is getting worse, I can feel my anxiety levels rising, I am obsessed with anything to do with my course, and spend hours on the internet looking at the university pages. I am trying to make sense of what happened, and to plan my way forward. I try and go to a lecture, and I am in such a state of anxiety about seeing any of the department staff that I can barely go in the room. I walk around the shops beforehand, not seeing anything, not able to stop and focus on anything, unable to eat, trembling, I force myself into the lecture, and no one from the department is there.
I go to my friend’s wedding, even though I know my supervisor will be there. I am sick with anxiety before this, unable to stop the whirl of thoughts and stress in my brain. I get to the wedding, two other students are there and act as a buffer between my supervisor and me. I feel sick, I get up to go to the toilet in the middle of the ceremony. Afterwards, I force myself to talk to my supervisor, think it might help me. He says what happened was hard for everyone (oooh, now I am so cross) and asks what I will be doing the following year. Silly me, I think he is genuinely remorseful and concerned, when he is simply snooping. And what does he think or hope I will be doing? Something far away from the university, I imagine. But at the time, I think I have made the right decision not to complain about him as a supervisor, I think that maybe he was as surprised as I was when it all fell apart. I regret that decision now.
I go to the GP, ask for help, admit depression although I had been fighting that thought for a while. She recommends seeing a psychologist, getting cognitive behavioural therapy. I want to weep all the time, and my jaw aches. I go for walks and drink too much to lift my mood. Before the New Year, I get an email from the co-ordinator, asking whether I am coming back to do a new research project, because if not they will give my place to another student. He makes me feel like it is my fault, that I am depriving another student of an opportunity because of my own negligence. But I am committed to going back, although I feel sick at the thought. I have used all the money I had saved from my previous job to get me through university, so I will have to use my family’s income now to repay for another semester of teaching. Yet I look forward to a fresh start. I put what happened down to my own ignorance about the research process, to having a rotten idea, to not getting it right. I think that this time, I will probably choose a project that is already formed, so at least that bit will be right from the start. Later I notice that the lecturer who finally helped me when everything collapsed takes on an extra student for the following year, probably to compensate for me. I feel guilty, but grateful.
My home computer dies at the start of the year, I lose all the emails and correspondence from the previous year. Luckily, I have most of the copies of my thesis on memory stick, so that evidence is not lost. We get a new computer.
I am ill with anxiety about returning to uni, I am constantly nauseous, and shake uncontrollably at times. I go to the initial project meeting at uni, and hide at the back of the room. Afterwards, an acquaintance encourages me to go upstairs into the department with her to sign up for a meeting. I go up the stairs with her, scribble my name, and have to flee. My anxiety is unbearable. I gear myself up for meeting potential supervisors, I read self help books on managing anxiety, and manage to get myself to the first meeting, with the lecturer who had helped me last year. I sink into her office, and have an anxiety attack. She helps me, and talks me through it and into the options for projects. I am grateful again, I feel that here is someone who at least knows my story, and may be willing to help me. Someone I can trust amongst all the strangeness.
I choose a supervisor, but not her. I want a clean start. I feel optimistic, if shy, and am happy that the project we will be working on is already formulated in some aspects. The other two students I will be working with are young, enthusiastic and friendly. I think things are looking up at last. Every time I go to uni it costs me enormously in terms of anxiety, I have to talk myself into going, and shake a lot and feel sick when I am there. And when I am not there. I lose weight, 20 kilograms overall over the course of the year.
Things start well. I find the work interesting, and I like my new supervisor’s style. However, strange things start happening again. During an individual meeting with her, I ask how much longer the group meetings will continue. I am finding it hard to sort out family commitments with both individual and group meetings each week, and I thought we had agreed we would do just one meeting each week. I get a strange look from her. Then, a student knocks and comes in, and after she leaves my supervisor apologises for the interruption. I say that it was fine, and it really is fine by me, but that I would never do that. I say this because my self-confidence is so low by this point that I cannot imagine anyone being pleased to see me should I interrupt one of their meetings. I see her looking at me, then later I start panicking at home. How might she have interpreted my comments? I send a panicked email to her, explaining why I had asked about the meetings, not because I didn’t want to participate in group sessions, not because I wasn’t a team player, but because I needed to work in with other demands. Phew, I think, a potential crisis averted. But I am wrong.
I believe now that staff members were continuously monitoring my behaviour, leading me into traps to seek evidence for their libellous claims, whatever they may have been. What a pity that no one had the strength to sit me down and say, look, this is how you have been perceived, some of those qualities might not work in this environment, could you perhaps work on this or that. I would have preferred five minutes discomfort and a world of honesty to the years of malicious tests and traps. I think the real problem is that my perceived ‘deficiencies’ were used to try and get rid of me. They didn’t want me around. And now I see why. Because there is some dodgy business going on in that department, and the last thing they want is someone with a mouth and a naïve belief in integrity and truth telling to spoil their dealings.
I meet with some friends from the previous year for coffee, they imply I should probably look to study at different universities. I am disconcerted, but need to work myself up into my usual state of nerve before I head to university for a scheduled meeting with my supervisor. My two fellow students meet me at the bottom of the stairs, and tell me our supervisor is sick and that she emailed us to tell us. I never received that email. I suspect she had used information from our previous meeting to confirm to my detractors that I thought my time was more important than anyone else’s, and this was a punishment or a test. Indeed, someone close to me says the same thing to me on the weekend. You value your time over everyone else’s. I do not. I do not. I want to scream. I am managing anxiety, family, depression and spiteful behaviour that I do not understand. I have always respected other peoples’ time. I do not understand. Why are my friends and family talking and listening to these people, why do they believe their vicious statements? Years later, friends and family tell me that they think I am actually a nice person, and that lifts a huge burden from my shoulders. Something that upsets me so much about all this is how ready people are to join a witch hunt, even people I love and respect. Am I really so irredeemably awful? What about all the good and wonderful things and times I have shared with friends and family? Don’t I have any good qualities worth mentioning or valuing?
I am overwhelmed with anxiety before our project committee meeting. Given what happened the previous year, I have a disproportionate amount of worry, but it is more than that. I start shaking sporadically. The psychologist gives me hypnotherapy and I feel dizzy and sick as my minds slows down its constant whirl to focus on her. I talk myself into going to this meeting, even though I would give anything to avoid it. A week beforehand, when my anxiety is at one of its highest peaks, my fellow student emails me another question. I respond carelessly, I don’t make connections, don’t look up the answer as I normally would, just give my poorly-informed opinion about something I know little about. It is not a good answer, and I think the mobbers jumped on this, claiming I was jealous and trying to sabotage her work. I am not. I would never do that. I am anxious, I am not thinking clearly, I do not understand the program she asked me about, but I usually make it clear in my answers to her that it is simply what I think, and she would do well to check it out herself. I don’t even know why she is emailing me these things, and then implying that I led her astray, as her next email did. The mobbers are behind this. I continue getting emails and requests for help from this student all year, I think in an effort to catch me out. I am starting to be aware of these patterns, of these tests.
I force myself to go to the meeting, and my fellow student is also there. Finally, I think, a rare act of support, perhaps they realised how anxious I am and diffused the limelight by having two students in one meeting. But even here I am tested, although I am so shaky I have to sit on my hands and can barely scribble comments on my work. My supervisor makes a comment designed to test my reaction, although I don’t realise this until months later. They point out holes in my fellow students work, while praising me for having covered it. Now I ask, was this yet another test to see whether I would act superior? People ask me afterwards how I went: probably to see if I would gloat. After the meeting, I am so relieved to have got through it, I feel exhilarated. It has been arranged so that my fellow student and I need to go and collect something together from a different part of the university. She tells me a juicy piece of gossip about our supervisor. I am surprised, it seems out of character for her. Now I see it for what it was: another test to see if I would tell her some gossip I knew about my supervisor from the previous year, especially in my state of relief. This reflects another of the mobbers’ pattern: they plan deliberately to take advantage of my emotional state to test me and catch me out.
I am starting to realise that something is really wrong, that I am being observed and judged. My fellow student emails me regularly, asking for advice. I do my best to respond, but it is adding to my anxiety. Why does she keep emailing me, she appears to be a very bright student, I don’t believe she really needs my help on all these issues. Are these more tests, to see if I will help her? Of course I will, I have always enjoyed learning with others, and the mutual benefits of studying together. Yet I sense there is more to these emails than that, and they make me anxious that I am not covering everything properly. So for our next meeting I prepare an exhaustive list of things to cover. It’s another trap, I think now. I go to our group meeting, and no one says anything, they just sit there looking at me. I start blathering on, going through my list of things I want to discuss. I am tired, I make a couple of other dodgy jokes, one about my age, and one about first year students having it easy. I see the looks, I realise this meeting will contribute to my downfall. All my comments are going to be taken, twisted, and made to fit the mobbers’ portrayal of me. ‘Oh, she thinks she is superior to the first years because she is doing Honours. Oh, she thinks she is too old,’ or something. I don’t know what evidence they need to fit their story, but I am certain they found some in this meeting.
We work hard on pilot testing materials for our experiment; I wonder now how much of this burden was given to us as extra, rather than necessary, work. I am not sure. All I know is we spend ages getting the test materials together, then at the end of the year my supervisor’s masters student emails me asking for the ready-made materials that we produced during the year. Was this another test to see if I would be jealous of someone who had started doing Honours with me but was now doing post-graduate work? To see if I would begrudge handing her over materials that we had prepared? There was no reason for her to email me rather than my fellow student or our supervisor. I help her, as I usually would. These people are implying that I am jealous and resentful. I am the latter now, but certainly not of these students who are mere puppets in the whole devious plot. Indeed, despite everything, my fellow students and I do help each other out during the year, get on well, and support each other. But I am always left questioning, how much of their behaviour is directed by the mobbers, how much is genuine?
Meanwhile, I am working one day a week at a research unit within the university. Even here, I sense I am being judged and tested. People make comments designed to provoke a response from me about topics I have studied, or to test whether my responses imply a sense of superiority. People give me menial tasks, and watch my reactions. People listen to my comments then sneak downstairs to make mobile phone calls. I am being tested, observed, and judged. Someone mentions narcissistic personality disorder. Aha, I think. This is what they are accusing me of. How completely identity-destroying. I eventually leave the job, the pressure of being constantly tested and manipulated is too much on top of everything else. I have anxiety attacks at work, I sit in misery in front of my computer performing at a slow and confused rate. My thinking is slow, and my work is slow. I am constantly distracted and vigilant about what test is coming next, and trying to avoid giving anyone any sort of reason to twist what I do and say to confirm the mobbers’ story. All of this watching and testing is made worse by the fact that generally, the people I work with seem friendly and supportive. My boss is patient with my slow pace, offers me flexibility, a good opportunity, and a great reference. I think they are influenced by the mobbers, who ensure their malicious gossip precedes me into the workplace.
Things are getting noticeably malevolent. I put my study up on the university’s recruitment program, and get an email from my fellow student to say that it is live. I look, and it is not active. I think they deliberately took it off the system so it wouldn’t be up there before my fellow students’, even though we had co-ordinated it amongst ourselves so that we would all be going live at roughly the same time. Doing this puts me a couple of days behind the others, as I am working or with family and unable to set sessions on the system. This too is the start of a pattern in which the mobbers control and mess with my participants for my study. I think they controlled who signed up to do my study, who turned up to do my study, and briefed participants to spy on me or make comments designed to test me during sessions. For instance, the first participant turns up and asks me lots of questions, including one about whose idea it had been. Was this to see if I would take credit for the idea, which had been established by our supervisor? I cannot believe that proper academic researchers are happy to compromise my study by sending me participants informed by a malicious agenda, but they do. They make it look like things that could happen anyway, that is their clever and devious modus operandi. Every single method they use to torment and test me is something that could have naturally occurred. I can’t tell you how many people have pointed out that ‘these things happen’. Oh, they do, I have lived for 35 years before this and I have a pretty good idea of the amount of negative events that fall within the normal curve for me, and these far exceed it. So not only am I trying to cope with the usual ups and downs of life, but I suddenly have many more negative things heaped upon me. Another trick they are fond of is parading people who have clearly had bad luck in front of me, disabled people, and homeless people. I am being punished because I am comfortably middle class. They want me to think I have nothing to complain about, that what they are doing is alright because hey there are a whole lot of people out there who are much worse off. Does that justify bullying, or negate its effects on me? No. But I dread to think how other students might cope if they too are the targets of this sort of behaviour, especially if they don’t have the sorts of resources that I do. I am lucky that at least financially I can cope with walking away from a job, a career and a toxic environment.
I am in a serious state of vigilance and stress. The night before my fellow student is due to run her first study, I notice there is a mistake in a test I had prepared for all of us. I am devastated, not because of the mistake, which takes some time to fix but is relatively straightforward, and I do it, but because I can imagine the blame I am going to get, the accusations of sabotage and jealousy. I see members of my supervisors’ research team watching me as I go into the testing lab. I believe they were spying on me.
Meanwhile, my instincts are screaming there is something happening. Participants arrive late for sessions, some knock on the door halfway through studies, some turn up in the wrong place for a different study. I hear a stream of footsteps coming down to look at a sign I wrote for the door, underlining some words as my previous signs had been ignored, possibly by instruction. ‘Ooh, yes, look, she is a pushy bully’. Now I clear my throat; who is the bully? One of the most helpful things about recognising what they have done to me is that I believe that they have engaged in many of the behaviours I think they initially accused me of. Who is malicious? Who is sabotaging work? Who is gossiping? Who thinks they are so superior they can ruin my career? Who is a bully, who, who, who? YOU, that’s who. The mobbers.
On several occasions a loud television set is playing next door to the room, confounding my testing sessions that require concentration. I try and respond reasonably but have so little confidence I ring my supervisor, shaky and distressed. I am well aware that in any normal study people will not turn up, people will be late, etc. But I suspect that many of the events that occur while I am trying to run my study are preplanned and deliberate. A shame, because we had quite an exciting result in the end, but how can they take my study seriously when it was so severely compromised? I fall behind the other students, they ask to swap sessions to more popular days, my participant numbers drop. I alone have to deal with the issue of unsuitability of using foreign students in my study, whereas the other student uses them with impunity. The stress builds up as I try and co-ordinate family demands with work and writing my thesis, and running extra participant studies to fulfil my quota. By the end, I decide I won’t be able to get the numbers for my study that we had wanted. Meanwhile, my fellow student has finished way before me, has met her quota comfortably, and is able to work slowly and methodically on her study, which is what I wanted to be able to do.
I am starting to feel like the mobbers are trying even harder now to frame me for evidence for their claims. I borrow a thesis from the previous year, and plan to return it two weeks later, as is standard practice. I get an email towards the end of the two weeks from my fellow student who also wants to look at it. I tell her I will return it on a certain day, and that in the meantime she can access it at the library or that our supervisor also had a copy. I do what I say, leave a training session early to get to the secretary’s office to return the thesis while she is still there. She isn’t, so I leave it at the departmental office. I hadn’t heard from my fellow student about whether she intended to collect that thesis, or whether she had sorted something else out, so I think no more about it. That afternoon, I get a phone call from her, and return her call half hour later but there is no answer. Then, I get an email from her saying that she had been looking for the thesis and couldn’t find it, implying this is my fault. I think the mobbers were behind this, suggesting that I was trying to sabotage her work by withholding the thesis. This is blatantly untrue. Indeed, if I had known she would be looking for it that day, I probably would have texted her to tell her where it was.
Similarly, I am encouraged by the computer programmer to meet with him to ensure the program we are using will produce all the data we need. I work hard trying to identify all the categories I think I need. I meet with him, and we go through it all. I ask about things we need to cover, but don’t know whether the existing program will provide. He assures me that we will include my suggestions, it is better to be safe than sorry, he says. He makes it sound easy, and useful. During the next few days, I get an email from my supervisor implying, albeit subtly, that I was wasting the programmer’s time and had no right to ask him things without discussing it with her. She emails me and says ‘well done’ on including a category which, months later, I realise we do not need because there is already a way to extract that data using the existing categories, and she knows this. Sarcasm and implication: add another two devices to the mobbers’ toolbox. They are trying to frame me now.
The implications continue: my boss at work has her husband turn up when it is just the two of us alone in the office one evening. I go to university, and the door leading to the stairs up to my supervisor’s office is locked (unusual). I have to go down to the other end of the department and walk back along the corridor. I notice another lecturer has a picture drawn by children on her door opposite my supervisor. I have never seen this before, or since. Was that to remind me of children, in case I was planning on hurting someone? Are they worried about me, that I am dangerous? I am not. Still, the subtle implications continue.
I am also doing volunteer work one night a week, and I really enjoy it. However, soon the mobbers’ influence begins to pervade. I sense testing situations, and end up in some of the sessions in tears, completely devastated that they are following me even here. They are destroying my enjoyment and ability to perform in all domains. I give up the volunteer work: I would rather stay home that keep going into these situations where people are viewing me with biased lenses and a hidden agenda, especially when other vulnerable people are involved.
My anxiety and depression are severe. I continue to sense that I am being set up. One day, I am running sessions and also trying to get some theses for reference. I go to the department office, ask them if they can help me get the theses. They agree, and we decide on a time for me to come back and collect them. When I do, my supervisor and my fellow student are there, watching me. The staff in the office say they haven’t had time to get the theses, they have been busy, and can’t be expected to meet my demands. I haven’t made demands. I made a mutually agreed arrangement. I know what is happening, they are implying I have been bossy or pushy, and now they are watching me for my reaction. I dash away and break down, crying and shaking, in front of my fellow student, who looks shocked but is sympathetic. I am walking through a minefield now, with traps set by clever and powerful academics who wave their credentials at people to get them to believe their story. I feel powerless. They control me, the people around me, and have invaded every aspect of my life.
Horror of horrors, we have to do a compulsory Honours talk and present our project to lecturers and other students. My anxiety is through the roof, I go to the doctor’s and get beta-blockers to stop me shaking if I do the talk. (I end up using these a few times just to get through meetings at uni without shaking.) He also gives me a note, saying that due to my anxiety I might not be able to complete the task. I resolve to tell my supervisor about my anxiety, and ask whether there is an alternative to doing the talk. I say this to her, but she is positively effusive about our results, strokes me on the arm, persuades me to do the talk. She is not listening to me, she has her own agenda, she wants me to do the talk for some reason. Weak as I am, I concur, and struggle to get a decent talk together. It is by no means perfect, but it is something, and I have the drugs to help me. I am sick with anxiety of course. My fellow student goes before me, gives a wonderful talk with confidence and polish. Now I wonder, was this deliberately set up by the mobbers, to once again humiliate me by comparison? I do my talk, despite everything. Back in our supervisor’s office, she and another lecturer make more comments designed to test me, to take advantage of my state of relief and exuberance at having got through it, to see if they could catch me being self-important.
Towards the due date of our thesis, they try to set me up again. There is a problem I simply can’t solve, and I ask my supervisor and my fellow student for help. They tell me how they have done it, but it is not working for me. I approach another lecturer for help, who specialises in these sorts of problems. He helps me, although tests me even when I am in his office with some of his comments. He suggests we need to do it another way. My fellow student emails me regularly with anxiety about this problem, she says she has based a lot of her thesis on it, and she needs resolution. I contact my supervisor about this problem and what I am doing to address it, but she delays her responses. I send another email asking for input and mention that my fellow student is also anxious to have resolution. My supervisor’s reply implies that I am not making sense, that she needs to talk to this other lecturer, and that she won’t be able to do this until later in the week. Once again, I am made to feel pushy. I remain convinced that this was a set up, to make me look bossy and interfering.
I apply for a clinical PhD position, but am reluctant to remain with my current supervisor. She says she is willing to supervise me, and I am interested in the work she does and the projects I could work on with her, but I simply do not trust her. I consider other options for supervision, and explore these, but get the sense that even doing this is generating unfavourable comment and judgment from staff. I suspect that meetings I have with lecturers are listened to by others, and that testing scenarios continue to occur in these meetings. I receive an email from my supervisor, asking for an additional copy of my PhD application to be sent to another person. This is not standard practise. I think they wanted to review my application, to look for things they could use for their own agenda. Eventually, I am offered a scholarship and interviews for a PhD and a Masters position, but I turn these all down. I cannot remain in such a toxic, damaging environment. I leave the university, and I give up on pursuing my career path. I do not go to my graduation ceremony the following year.
I have decided just to stick to the story as it unfolded at university, to demonstrate my experience as a student. The mobbing, however, is ongoing to this day.
I have since filed complaints with the institution concerned. In response, I was told that the behaviour I experienced would not have caused offence to any ‘reasonable person’, nor that any ‘reasonable person’ would predict that these behaviours would have been unwelcome. Not only did this imply that I am not a reasonable person, but blatantly ignores several incidents of harassment. The university will take no further action.