In March 2017, I found myself at BBC Broadcasting House in London, being interviewed live on national radio, by the BBC’s Media Editor, Amol Rajan. It was my first time on national radio and if I’m honest, I was a little nervous about being interviewed by such a journalistic titan. I knew it was going to be more than just a superficial interview. Sitting opposite me in the studio, he asked me a deep question, “Why do you do what you do?”
I paused. In all honesty it threw me a bit. The truth was I hadn’t given much thought to why. I did it because I liked it. But that’s not what anybody wants to hear. They want something deeper. What Amol was really asking is, “What makes you tick?”
I suppose the whole process of making a TV special like ‘Real Magic’, and the companion live show ‘Real Magic LIVE’ that I still tour, has caused me to dig deep and reopen a few cans of worms which, for the sake of my own wellbeing, I’d long kept bolted shut. I mentioned it in the show for the fleeting fifteen seconds you actually get to talk about yourself in a show like that and those who have already seen my live show will know it features too.
The most major of these was my experiences as a bully victim when I was teenager. So this is the first time in about 16 years that I’m going to talk about it at length.
Articles like this one are really difficult to write. Because I know that in order to do this topic justice, I’m going to have to confront ugly and uncomfortable facts about my past that I don’t relish the idea of remembering. And that’s only part of it. On top of that, I really don’t know if I want everybody to know what happened to me. And when I say ‘I don’t know if’ – what I really mean is ‘I don’t’. And in truth, over the past sixteen years since it happened, I’ve only really told two or three people.
In truth, this article has been in the drafts folder of my blog for years and what you are reading now is the 58th edit. It still makes me feel uneasy and I’m still unsure about which bits of my experience I’m comfortable sharing and which details I want to keep to myself. Every time I’ve wanted to post it, I’ve been suddenly overcome by a great wave of discomfort. And every time that has got the better of me. Until now.
So then why am I writing this? If I don’t want people to know, why on Earth would I put it on the Internet? Well… as you’ll see, it’s not all about me. I came through it and survived (I think). There are some who didn’t, and many others who are still suffering. And I think that the entire point of something like AntiBullying Week, is to get people to talk about the issue. If more people talked about this and were open about what they went through, it might help those currently going through it to cope, and maybe even cast a mirror at bullies themselves.
After Urban Illusionist didn’t get picked up in 2015, broadcasters were asking for some depth. Dude doing tricks wasn’t compelling enough. You can watch that on YouTube. They wanted character. So making ‘Real Magic’ turned out not only to be a road trip across the country but also a journey into my past and the deepest darkest corners of my mind.
And while writing the show I ended up thinking about school again. And through older and wiser eyes I found myself thinking, “My God, school was shit!” And at the time, I don’t think I was really conscious of how shit it actually was; how much ill treatment I accepted and how much better I deserved.
Now I’m not naming names here because what good would that do? The people involved know who they are and it’s nobody else’s business really. And for the purposes of this article, they only need be conceptual for me to make my point.
So what was it like? Pretty awful. But I dare say that todays teenagers have it worse. When I was fifteen, the Internet was in its infancy and smart phones did not exist. Nowadays, I suspect the abuse follows you home.
For me it involved constant psychological demoralisation, social exclusion and a degree of physical violence. I don’t know if I want to go into detail. I remember being beaten up several times quite publicly. I remember having my head smashed against a locker which resulted in a nose bleed. I could go on. Probably for quite a while. But I won’t. I think you get the idea.
What strikes me most about what I remember is how little anyone seemed to care. I remember how the staff did virtually nothing and with an older head, it now seems apparent that they didn’t really know what to do. When I was a teenager, mental health just wasn’t a big issue. We just got on with it. Lately, all the media seem to be talking about besides Brexit, is mental health. And I really question whether the way schools respond to bullying has changed. Because in my case, it wasn’t that nobody knew. It was an open secret.
I did think about doing some very dark things. I’ll remain deliberately vague on detail. Of course, I never did any of them.
I can imagine if I HAD done anything stupid, questions would have been asked about how it could be that nobody did anything. The signs were there, though as a magician I’m more than aware of human nature. We often unconsciously choose to see what we want to see.
I’ve had a lot of time to think about it since, and I am now fully convinced that being bullied has had a profound effect on my life, setting me back at least a decade in terms of many things. I was well into my twenties before I went on anything close to a date. I was well into my twenties before I really got a handle on life. I was well into my twenties before I really realised how awesome I truly was. And I’m convinced that if I had not experienced bullying the way that I did, that would all have been different. It’s entirely unprovable. But I’m convinced.
As I’ve said in the show, bullying hurts your self-image and basically robs you of confidence.
And I believe that your level of confidence is one of the greatest predictors of how fast you’ll progress in life. In school we’re all indoctrinated with this great misdirection. We’re lead to think that getting good grades is what will get you far in life. And I’m not exactly saying that it won’t. But there are other ways. When you get out of school and into the big wide world, what you know becomes far less important than who you know, how confident and mature you are, and how much conviction you pursue your goals with. And there’s not a woman in the world that fantasises about meeting a passive weedy under-confident guy.
I’ve been asked on a number of occasions whether I hate the people who did it to me. Do I want revenge? And for several years, if I’m honest, I did hate those who did it to me and I did want to do some very dark things.
But hating the people that did it to me didn’t really get me anywhere. Hate of that potency is exhausting. And it was energy misspent on something that nobody has any power to change. I doubt very much that revenge would actually result in me feeling any better. It would just be an outlet for rage. And the thing about rage is that it never really solves anything. It typically makes matters worse.
And it’s all too easy to play the victim – to make “I was bullied” my secret excuse for not advancing. For many years, it was my secret excuse for why I couldn’t have a beautiful woman in my life, for why I couldn’t go on stage, for why I couldn’t do so many things.
I was bullied. It’s true. It did hurt. A lot.
It decimated my self-esteem and left me suffering for years afterwards with the radioactive fallout of an extremely negative self-image, a proverbial waste land on which nothing could grow. I was a loner for a long time. I was afraid to try to make friends for a crippling fear of rejection. And I couldn’t get a girlfriend if my life depended on it. And these things, of course, only compounded the problem and produced in me more anger.
For a long period of my life, every male I’d ever met had been horrifically nasty to me in a way that only teenagers can be.
But this is where magic comes into it:
Only part of my experience is what actually happened to me. And that part is now in the past. The rest of it is how I interpret what happened and how I attribute meaning to it: the story I tell myself. And it was that story that was really the anchor for a lot of the problems that I had. And we let our minds write these stories and tell them, without ever questioning the source material. Before you know it, you’ve created beliefs based on ‘facts’ which are questionable.
I learned during therapy of a technique called cognitive reframing. In a nutshell, cognitive reframing involves identifying limiting beliefs that are influencing your behaviour and then systematically unravelling them.
So if hating is destructive, what do you do with the hate?
Plutonium – the stuff inside nuclear warheads that makes them so explosive, is not inherently destructive. It is just full of energy. And the same energy can be harnessed in a positive way to power entire cities. That’s essentially what nuclear power is.
And the same is true of emotion. While it may not sound like it, getting angry is a choice. For many people it’s the default response to an unmet need.
But rather than getting angry about something, you can instead choose to take back control. I could take what Dexter would call my dark passenger, and repurpose the energy. I made it my rocket fuel.
After many years, I let go of the hurt. I left it in the past where it belongs. I transformed my fear and anxiety into confidence, power and strength.
So while bullying broke me and set me back years, by thinking about it differently, it also made me who I am today. And that’s not to say I wish it on anybody else, because I don’t.
But for myself, right now, I cannot change what happened to me. So it pays to try and twist something toxic and painful into something positive and empowering; to stop using it as my secret excuse to underachieve and instead make it the reason I kick ass.
And, by making Real Magic and Real Magic LIVE, I hope that’s what I’m doing.
So this is the answer I should have given Amol on the radio. Entertaining people is great. And spreading happiness is great. It is a very rewarding way to make a living. But that’s not the real reason I made a TV show. While light entertainment is fun, it’s also fluffy. The real reason I made the show was to reach out to those currently going through what I went through. To show them, by example, that their present does not have to be their future. To show them that all those limitations they think they have are not real. And that no matter what the other kids say about them, the underdog, the under appreciated, undervalued kid, CAN win.
If you know somebody who is having a hard time with bullying, I urge you to share this with them.
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