On Being Bullied

Slate published an article in June by Kate Baggaley on the lasting impacts of childhood bullying, and how some psychiatrists have identified PTSD arising out of those experiences. The article goes over the standard forms of bullying – name calling, exclusion, rumors, physical harm – and the kinds of people who bully (including friends, social rivals, and, in my case, teachers and classmates who didn’t have skin in the game, but wanted to look tough and fit in with the cool kids). One thing people tend to forget, that the article touches on, is that bullying sticks with you for years after it stops.

I suffered from bullying every day when I was in school – kids called me fat, stupid, ugly; they threw food at me and called me “hungry hungry hippo”; they told me I looked like a wetback, said I smelled like fish, called me nerd and loser; a group of girls in 8th grade told me I could be in their group if I went up to all the guys at our lunch table and asked them to marry me – so I did, and all of the guys had something terrible to say to me, but the one that stuck out the most in my memory was the guy who told me he couldn’t marry a transformer, that I looked like a man trying to be a woman and I was “more than meets the eye.” Once, one of the girls in my gym class was being particularly verbally abusive to me and started shoving me. I told her to leave me along because she was just a bastard and she shut up and ran off crying. Her friends jumped in to continue the abuse, and I refused to apologize. Like most kids, I’m sure she had adopted a tough persona to cope with a shitty home life and was taken off guard by my response. She never apologized for bullying me, and I never apologized for my response.

I got the standard advice growing up – ignore those kids, they’re just words, maybe they’re intimidated by you, they probably want to be your friend but they’re afraid, etc. When my brother nearly died in an accident, a guy in my 9th grade class told me that I was such a loser my brother had to try to kill himself to get away from me. Call me skeptical, but that doesn’t sound like the kind of thing someone who secretly wants to be your friend says to you. I also fail to see how an adult would respond by saying, “Oh, those are just words!” I’ve seen grown-ass men get into fist-fights over less. I also got some truly atrocious “advice” from adults:  “Maybe they’re trying to tell you something. If kids are that mean to you, maybe you did something to them and you just don’t realize it. Maybe this is God testing you. Maybe you weren’t nice enough….”

Based on the advice I got, I learned to internalize the bullying I got. I couldn’t trust people for a long time – and still can’t fully trust people. I lived for many years waiting for friends and family members to drop the charade and tell me they were joking all along and I was a loser for thinking they actually loved me or cared about me. I imagined that all praise was sarcastic, that I was actually doing a terrible job at work or school. I still work twice as hard as I think I need to just to show that I deserve to be employed. As an overachiever by nature, I tend to work hard and demand perfection of myself, but as a kid who was bullied and teased over every perceived social fault, perfection isn’t good enough. I also tend to inflate my mistakes and faults as issues deserving of termination from my job, divorce, exile…. My best is never good enough, and even my most minor mistakes are deserving of the harshest punishments.

Baggaley notes that many bullied individuals attain some sort of silver lining as a result of their bullying (a sense of inner strength or self-reliance, cultivated empathy, and the like), and I can certainly see my self-reliance as being over-developed in response to growing up without a strong social network, but that silver lining comes with a price: it’s self-reliance to the exclusion of any trust in a social network, and inner strength that inherently rejects any sense of external support or help.

At 34, I’m still learning how to overcome the trauma of my childhood tormentors. While I consider myself lucky to have made it out of childhood alive, despite numerous suicide attempts as a teenager, I wouldn’t wish this kind of life on anyone. I’m an adult now, and I can match wits with anyone, but I still have that weird kid inside of me bracing for the impact of teasing and abuse. I’m still unsure of where I fit in, or if I even should fit in. I don’t know that I have a place in society and I’m still only partially able to navigate social situations, and then only because I had training at work on how to network and talk to people.

I’m heartened by the recent focus on bullying and the attempts to study and prevent it. There are many more stories of kids who didn’t even make it out of their teen years alive because the bullying was so severe and pervasive. To an extent, you can’t change human nature, and there will always be bullies. But I still think that we as a society can respond and say that we won’t accept abuse as just another hazard of childhood. Kids need to learn how to navigate challenges and failures, to be sure – putting your kids in the proverbial bubble wrap does more harm than good – but we can and should draw lines as to what’s acceptable and what’s not. At the very least, we should be giving kids the tools to deal with their bullying before they internalize the abuse and start bullying themselves.

I think part of the problem, which was addressed in the comments to the article, is that the term “bullying” is such a broad term as to be unhelpful and non-descript. What kind of bullying constitutes abuse? What is just normal teasing? At what point do you stop being just a group of kids trying to figure out your place in the social order and start being abusers? If we try to approach the problem by casting too wide of a net, we end up with stupid Zero-Tolerance policies that get kids expelled or sent to jail for benign acts (like biting your pop-tart into a “gun” shape, or hugging a classmate). If we cast too narrow of a net (say only focusing on physical bullying), we run the risk of excluding other forms of abuse that are damaging, like psychological torment.

Maintaining a dialogue to come to a resolution is important and a key to finding a solution to a problem that’s difficult to pinpoint. In the meantime, as a parent, I see my job as addressing it head on and teaching my daughter to deal with hurtful words that are given to her, to de-escalate situations, to resolve conflict – and most importantly, to not be a jerk to people. One of the most important things we can do as parents is to teach our kids conflict resolution and problem solving so they can learn to deal with difficult situations in general. I don’t hold a rosy view that one day we’ll never have bullying (because frankly, it’s part of human nature, and I don’t see a swift turnaround on that any time soon), but at least we can pass tools along to start changing mindsets.

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