Woman who overcame childhood bullying is now target of online abuse
A Belfast woman tells Stephanie Bell how she's been trolled online after winning an award for her animal charity work
A 53-year-old woman who struggled for decades to overcome the trauma of years of violent and mentally abusive childhood bullying has now found herself the victim of cyber bullies.
Helen Madden from east Belfast should have been euphoric on Saturday night after months of hard work culminated in a special vigil she planned in her local community for abused animals, but instead she spent the evening in tears after a barrage of vicious attacks and personal slurs online.
Astonished and hurt to find herself still being singled out as a target for cruelty from others in her 50s, Helen has vowed not to let her tormentors win this time.
And now, feeling empowered by her own horrific experience which she says has taken years to come to terms with, she plans to set up a support group to reach out to others who are struggling because they have been or are being bullied.
Helen has enlisted the support of her local MLA, the DUP's Emma Pengelly, to try and set up a register of missing pets in the south and east Belfast areas where 38 cats and two dogs have disappeared from the start of January.
And now she is also hoping to meet with Emma to take advice on her experience of cyber bullying. She also says that she will be reporting the incident to the PSNI.
As a frightened child, Helen never spoke out against a group of school bullies who attacked her so viciously that she had to be hospitalised several times.
Fear that things would get worse if she told anyone, led Helen to convince her parents and teachers that her injuries were the result of accidents.
Now after her recent experience of being victimised online she wants to use the voice she lost as a child through fear to speak out against bullies in the hope that children who are suffering will get help.
Her own ordeal in childhood was extreme and left her feeling worthless as an adult for many years, withdrawing from life and shutting herself at home.
It was only when she turned 40 and started to follow her own dreams of going back to college to study and then later setting up a local community group on behalf of abused animals that she finally found the confidence to face her past. When a cruel group took to her community Facebook page last Saturday to criticise her vigil organised to highlight animal cruelty, the vicious and personal nature of their comments took her right back to the painful days of her childhood.
She says: "If they can do it to me as an adult, how much worse is if for children? I had a six and half hour character assassination - it really affected me and I found it hard.
"I was in tears at the start but as I read some of their comments I realised they were so childlike. I realised that here were grown women bitching about me because I had received an award for my work with animals and they did not like it.
"My first reaction was to close down all of my community pages which I have set up over the years to help find lost pets in Belfast.
"Then I thought 'No, I'm not letting them destroy me again' as I now know keeping quiet about it is not the answer.
"I would like to think that these days there is more help for children and schools are more able to support a child if they are being bullied.
"Bullying must stop and we need to take a stand because no other child or parent should have to go through bullying. I would urge anyone who is suffering to please tell someone - anyone - do not suffer in silence."
Helen enjoyed a carefree primary school life and it wasn't until the age of 11 when she went to high school that her life became a living hell.
She had dyslexia and a problem with her vision which hadn't been picked up and which made learning more difficult for her. She believes this is why she was singled out.
She recalls: "I remember getting my 'Big School' uniform and feeling so grown up. Sadly this very quickly changed and my life revolved around a constant stream of bullying. I would get kicked on the legs until they bled.
"They would leave me crying and the teacher would ask what was wrong with me.
"When I went to tell her I would get another kick on the same leg and so I said there was nothing wrong that I had a headache. I would say anything to stop the agony and to make it all go away.
"I went from loving school to making up any story I could think of not to attend."
The bullying got worse and Helen remembers a very serious incident when she was pushed down stairs in school and was knocked unconscious and broke her jaw. Teachers were told by the bullies that she had slipped.
The abuse continued outside school when she remembers being taken by a gang to a park adjacent to her school where she was held down by the arms on a cycle track and then pushed down a hill.
She says: "As I tried to get up one of the bullies rode down the hill on a bike and rode right over my chest. I fractured my sternum.
"The park ranger called the police and I was taken home in the back of their wagon. I told no one what had happened.
"I was very quiet at school and wanted to learn and these bullies didn't want to learn and that was another reason I believe they picked on me."
Helen couldn't wait to leave school at 16 but when she did she spent many years struggling with her confidence, withdrawing from society and spending most of her days in her room at home.
Her confidence was still very low at the age of 40 when she decided it was finally time to do something for herself.
She says: "I went back to college to conquer my fears. I began with Basic English and Maths and achieved a B Plus in English and after that there was no stopping me. I went on to do my favourite subject, Journalism, and achieved NVQ Level 3 and got a Grade 1 with Distinction. I did it while having to spend a month in hospital suffering from an acute asthma attack.
"The same year I received a special achievement award from the Education and Learning Board and life at last was starting to look good." Helen, who has a passion for animals, has also completed an animal care course and is currently studying for a diploma in animal law and ethics.
Five years ago when her beloved pet cat Bambi went missing from her home she was told by police that they suspected that it and many other missing cats in the area were being stolen as bait for dog fights.
Animal lover Helen, who also has a rescue dog Tiny and two cats Lucky and TC, set up a Facebook page for missing pets which very quickly had dozens of members. She helped organise a rally at Belfast City Hall last year which was attended by around 150 people to draw attention to puppy farming and has set up a support group online called Unity for Animals.
She was honoured last year for her work on behalf of neglected animals when she was presented with the Compassionate Animal Activist Award from the Animal Rights Action Network.
She says: "The idea of the group and the vigils is to highlight cruelty to animals because they can't speak for themselves. I've always been passionate about animals and I enjoy doing what I can as my health is not great now."
Helen has a heart condition and severe asthma and is unable to work but hopes her latest qualification will give her the knowledge she needs to work in a voluntary capacity in animal welfare. She also now hopes to set up a support group for victims of bullying.
She adds: "I was constantly told by the bullies that I was stupid and I was thick and this led to me withdrawing from life for years. I should have asked for help and it frightens me now to think that kids are suffering from cyber bullying. I am 53 and in the safety of my own home but on Saturday night, again I became the victim of bullies because of the internet.
"To be in your own home and still be attacked is awful. It is not right and it needs to stop. It horrifies me to think that adults can do it and if they are doing it what are children doing to each other?
"I hope to set up a support group to help others and I think it will also help me to be able to do something positive."