I was bullied for about five years, more than thirty years ago, and I still didn’t want to write about it today because some part of me is still ashamed. That’s the thing about being bullied, you know. Even when people tell you it’s not your fault, and that the problem is with the bully not you, you don’t believe them – not all the way. My experience was being bullied not by just one person, but by two or three, who then united most of the school to shun and ostracize me. It sounds dramatic, doesn’t it? I sound victim-y, don’t I? Deep down, you think I must have done something, somehow to deserve this, don’t you?
It was a different time. We operated in our own world, where adults orbited, but they weren’t part of it, and their thoughts, opinions, and rules weren’t what governed our lives as much as our own hierarchies and social opinions. Up until grade 4 or 5 it seemed like everyone co-existed without much drama. I remember when it all changed.
It started with the new girl. I felt sorry for her when she moved to town, because she had no one to play with. My best friend and I invited her into our circle, which was fine until she got acclimated, and then possessive. Pretty soon petty rivalries erupted, and she’d demand more and more of my time. I don’t really know why I let her do this. Partly I felt sorry for her, and partly I was acutely concerned with people being mad at me at that time.
I let this continue until she was my only friend, at which point she branched out and acquired more friends. Then things intensified, and this group of cronies determined who was in and who was out each week. If you were in, you got spoken to, you got to hang out with people at lunch, and you got to walk home from school with people. If you were out, then you were thoroughly and completely blackballed. People would laugh at you, walk away from you, and taunt you in the schoolyard. This continued through to junior high, at which point the boys were corralled into it, and took it to a whole new level. Stacy, a big, good-looking, mean-spirited hockey player got into the game with relish, and soon the bullying took a more physical aspect. Things were knocked off my desk, I was bumped into, and every part of my body was analyzed and commented on. Loudly. Constantly. The fact that my butt was fat, and my non-existent chest was non-existent was shouted at me publicly each day, every day. Until when that blessed day came where inexplicably it passed and someone else was on the outs.
Some of you reading this will relate. Some of you will have had it a lot worse and wonder what I’m whining about, and some of you will wonder why I didn’t just tell them all to go to hell and not let them bother me. That’s not what I did, because I was overweight, and I was shy, and got really good grades, and I didn’t believe I could do any better. So I clung to the bully, trying to keep her happy to hopefully minimize my time on the outside. When high school started, I believed her that all these new kids were worse. That they were judging me, and talking about me, and laughing at me. I don’t know if that’s true, but I know that once I was identified as an object of scorn, I didn’t have the fortitude to try to show anyone any different.
Every day was worse. It got to the point where I had a consistent gnawing anxiety all the time. The helplessness, and sheer, overwhelming f’ing unfairness of it all was unbearable, but rage wasn’t. Anger made me feel powerful, and the one thing you crave more than anything when you’re on the bottom so long is power. At age 14, I wanted power over my body, the bullies, the school, the authority figures who were letting it happen, society itself for being so f’d up that these tyrannical a-holes were seen as the ‘good kids’ and the popular ones.
I decided that there was something wrong with me, and that I’d fix what I could, and become dangerous to prevent anyone from treating me that way again. I gravitated to the tough kids, the rough ones, the smokers and the drinkers and the ones that talked back to the teachers.
Like I said, it was a different time and country, and I’m a girl so more likely to harm myself than others. I had a family who loved me, and I knew there was a very strong possibility that I’d be able to get out of that s-hole town forever and never look back. And I had a mom who, every night when I was up crying because I didn’t think I could face it again, would get up with me, and hold me, and tell me nothing was ever as bad as it seems. And even though she was wrong, I had that. And even though I had all that, there was a time when violence towards my aggressors seemed like the only solution to my problem. Did I carry it out? No. Would I have if I had had the means and wasn’t worried about being caught? I can’t honestly tell you. I don’t like going there, but if I let myself, I can get back to that dark place of fear, anger and hopelessness. I don’t know what would have happened if it had taken place today, with the social media factor. That would take unbearable to a whole new level, I’m sure.
Instead of hurting others, I acquired a ton of dysfunctional beliefs and coping mechanism that have taken most of my life to undo:
- For years, I had a recurring fantasy about becoming skinny and beautiful and making that hockey player fall in love with me so that I could then cruelly reject him and humiliate him. I eventually lost interest in that, but the idea that if I was skinny enough I would be safe from rejection has hung on until this day.
- That belief that skinny equals safe translated into an eating disorder that dominated my life for years, and it took even more years and therapy before I lost that feeling of terror at the thought of gaining so much as a pound.
- I worked hard to be accepted by my new tribe; the losers, the burnouts, the headbangers. Eventually, even if the good kids would have wanted to hang out with me, their parents wouldn’t have let them. And the idea that I needed to lower my standard for companions hung on for two decades.
- I learned to hate feeling weak, powerless, and in the control of others. I eventually became unable to feel any negative emotion other than anger, because anger made me feel powerful. I learned to numb out all my other feelings with alcohol.
- I also developed a strong, almost visceral dislike of ‘victims’. My compassion was at a negative, to the point where I was borderline abusive to anyone I loved if they so much as came down with a cold.
- On the other hand, I have had to work hard at overcoming an automatic dislike and distrust of anyone who seems too ‘popular’, or in authority of any kind.
So even though I had all the advantages that I mentioned, my response to being bullied was to become a monster inside, which led to self-hatred strong enough to lead me to attempted suicide. I’m pretty sure if there’s a spectrum, I’m on the more sensitive side of it, and genetically predisposed to addiction and self-destruction, but I also know that there are a lot of people out there subjected to so much worse.
It’s been a long time since I was in school. I’m gratified by what I see on Facebook that so many of the kids who weren’t the coolest and most popular are doing amazing. They have great jobs, families and seem really happy. I no longer wish ill on the bullies but not to the point where I’d ever be friends with them on social media, so I don’t know how they’re doing. If I would have known back during those dark days how great life was going to be, it would have helped a lot. If I could have gotten a matrix-like glimpse into that other world, to know that high school (and the world of the internet) is only as real as you let it be and that you can live the life of your dreams outside the bubble it would have helped.
Maybe things are different now, but what wouldn’t have helped was adults telling us to be nice to each other. We didn’t care what adults said, and adults didn’t care enough to follow through. And adults believe the pretty popular kids more than the uglier, slower, less lovable ones. Anti-bullying was a joke.
If you’re out there, and you’re being bullied for any reason, you need to know that it gets better. If you know someone who’s being bullied, don’t just use your adult authority to try to change people’s behavior. I mean, of course we have to stand united that bullying’s unacceptable, but to really change lives, you need to let them know it gets better. Give them the only thing that can help. Give them hope. I’m sure it’s hard to understand if you’ve never been there, but when you’re being bullied, you’re reduced to nothing but shame and rage. We won’t ask for help and we don’t think we deserve it. We’re probably not easy to be around, but you can change our world by helping us find hope. Even if, maybe especially if, it means you have to look at shame again and share it so we know we’re not alone.
Were you bullied? Were you the bully? Do you think sharing your experience would help others? Let me know your thoughts.
Common sense disclaimer: I would hope it goes without saying (although it probably doesn’t) that not all people who say they were bullied were, and that some people who act out in violence are just plain evil or suffer from serious mental illness and I’m not in any way ‘excusing’ or condoning violence or blaming the victims of violence. This is my experience.