Saturday, February 23, 2013
Bullying and Healing Old Wounds
For most of my posts I like to have a news item or event on which to base my writing from...heaven knows there are plenty of things in the news to be grist for the mill. The developments within the Catholic Church alone could keep us talking for days. But...for some reason my mind keeps coming back around to bullying. No...it's not some special anti-bullying holiday, nor has some terrible example of peer abuse popped up in the news today. It's just on my mind lately because, like many of us, I went through it. Bullying dominated my life and made me hate and fear school from elementary into high school. School was the hell were I was tortured and telling adults did nothing to fix it....then. Since there was no help for what was happening to me there was little to do about it but find ways to survive and that's what I did....
There is the assumption that time heals all wounds and that after awhile past trauma's should not hurt us anymore. I guess it's true given enough time passes. But as I am sitting here sipping my coffee as a 40 year old adult far removed from the days I was bullied, I am wondering what the long term effect of those years was on who I am today. Bullying...especially intense and sustained bullying...leaves it's mark on a person. It's like scar tissue, it may not be as crippling as when it was new, but it never really goes away completely. If I want to, I can remember the faces and events of what happened with more clarity than I can remember some birthdays or Christmas's. because of those days of constant fear, I have an instictive need to avoid conflict...even watching it on t.v. can trigger anxiety feelings in me. And worst of all is the damage that is done to our self-esteem. It has taken me years to begin to believe that I have a right to consider myself as good as the person next to me...or to speak up for myself at all. I literally lost all sense of a healthy ego. Now, even 30 years later I still struggle with this.
I know that some of what I write here may be embarrassing for me to admit in such a public forum....but it happened. It may be uncomfortable for some to read but this post is my place to work it out and hopefully find wisdom....either in just telling the tale, or in hearing from others. So my question today is....how does being bullied affect us as grown ups? If we can get through those days, does that which does not kill us really make us stronger...or just stranger?
The Bad Times...
Bullying for me began when my parents divorced. I was eight years old and in fourth grade. About halfway through the school year my parents announced that they were going to split up and that my brother and I would be going with my mom to live with her parents in a town four hours north of my home town of Santa Rosa. I am not naming the town because I don't have great memories of it, suffice it to say that it had a Shell gas station at the edge of town that someone had shot the "S" out of so that it only read "hell"...which was appropriate. The people there were not very welcoming to anyone they considered an outsider...and that's just what I became.
I don't know why I got singled out. Perhaps because I was the quintessential nerd. All I needed was a pocket protector and a snorty laugh. I was skinny, did well in school, and kind of obsessive about following rules. Maybe it was because I was a new kid in a school system that almost never saw new kids, or perhaps it was because it was just the age when kids start changing and begin to form social hierarchies and I just had the dumb luck of having to start over from zero at the worst possible time. However it happened, being the new kid in a new town where everyone knew each other put me on the out and it was the first time I had ever felt rejected by almost everyone. There were kids who were bigger, stronger, more athletic, dressed better, more socially connected, already beginning to be interested in dating... and each and every one of them let me know how inferior I was.
These were the years when the kid sitting behind me would call me a name only him and his friends could here and the whole table would laugh just loud enough so a teacher couldn't hear. Telling a teacher never helped and only ensured that the rest of the class became in on the joke and the joke was me. This is when you learn words like faggot and fudge packer. Even if you have no clue what they really mean you know that they are bad...really really bad and you don't want to be one of them. But with your face burning with shame you know you only have so many choices...call them a name back and get called out to a fight at the bike racks after school...ignore it and get called out to a fight at the bike racks after school...or tell a teacher and get called a snitch and called out to a fight at the bike racks after school.
Now a few kids would have eventually reached their limit with being intimidated and either snapped and popped that kid in the face...or shown up at the bike racks as a show that they couldn't be made afraid anymore. I was never that kid. Being bullied by some kid that made me the laughing stock of the class was never half as bad as how ashamed oh myself I was for never finding the courage to fight back. I dreamed about so many ways of getting revenge..or changing myself in nearly every way possible to make myself into a cool kid. But the cycle of intimidation and self hate became my life. Teachers never stepped in to stop any of it and telling them what was going on didn't yield any more response than, "just ignore them"....which is just what my teachers did...ignore it.
The bullies were in my class and at home they lived down the street from me. One boy, "Robbie", was a class mate that I tried every way I knew how to be friends with but he had a mean streak in him. This was the kid who chained me up to a tree and had his sic'd his doberman on me while he laughed his head off. Him and his friends used to have a great time promising to kick my ass and laughing while they chased me off. This was the way my life was...not every day...but most. I knew that the world was not a safe place...school was never a safe place...and just going out to play came with having to be aware of who else was on the street that was out to get me. It makes me sound like I was living like a hunted rabbit...and it some ways it felt that way. I always had to be on the look out.
These were times when I learned how to hate. I hated the people who threatened and harrased me with a fiery passion but most of all I learned to hate myself. I hated my skinny body, the color of my eyes and hair...I hated that I was too much of a goodie-two-shoes to be as bad as all the other kids said they were. I had crushes on girls that would curl up their lips at me as if they had just smelled something horrible. Throw in being monumentally bad at sports, which made the rest of the class angry at me if they had to have me on their team...and they let me know what a f*ck up they thought I was. There really was no place to go to escape it except in a book or in my head, which only made things worse.
I got a little older and I learned to deal with my pariah status by being as invisible as possible. I knew where the bullies hung out and I made sure to be were they weren't. The library became a refuge not really because I wanted to be there during recesses...but more because there was always an adult there and none of the bullies had courage enough to follow me in. I became really good at being unseen and out of the eyes of people who would do me harm to increase their own social standing with their crony friends.
it is my regret that even though I knew what it felt like be the gum on the shoes of the bottom of the bottom of the social ladder...that when it came time for others to be picked on....I laughed to. I was so glad that for once it wasn't me. Some where girls who were really nice but also really poor and people called them all sorts of names and you didn't want to be paired with them. I remember those moments with shame that I knew what it felt like to be treated that way and I still was a part of making their life hell too. I know somewhere they are out there still dealing with the aftermath of their own mistreatment and I wish I could just tell them that I was sorry and that they didn't deserve any of it. None of us did.
Telling my parents what was going on didn't change anything much. They were from that generation where men had to be men and little boys were in training to be men so all of this was just training from the school of hard knocks. Neither my mom or dad understood why I was so scared to fight back or why it frightened me so much to potentially get beaten up. In there mind, being beaten up was a small price to pay for your dignity...to me it was all the same shame. I think my mom had the hardest time with it because she was a single mom and dealing with two boys on her own. In the beginning she would go to the principle over some incident, but over time she got less and less patient with me to where she eventually just stopped doing anything about it at all. It all came to a head in seventh grade when I was riding the bus home and some kids behind me had taken all my stuff out of my pack and thrown it around the bus laughing. I couldn't get any of it back and I felt helpless and humiliated...nor did the bus driver do anything to stop it. I got off the bus at the next stop with white hot anger and shame making my ears and face burn. I walked the remainder of the way home ashamed of myself and wishing I would not exist anymore. I got home to find my mom sunbathing in the back yard and I told her everything that happened through tears. This time though, she did not even raise her head to look at me. she just continued to lay in the sun until it became clear that I wasn't going away. At which point she said, "what do you want me to do about it?" meaning....this is your problem and you have to deal with it. She made it clear that I was on my own from their on out. I had no idea what to do. I just felt abandoned. The kids at school didn't like me and now I had just lost the respect of my own mother....and deep down, I blamed myself. All the things those kids said about me must be true.
Living with my father didn't improve my situation any. I thought moving far away from "hell" would let me get a fresh start. But, I was still me, and in short order I had all the same problems in a whole new school. One day I did get jumped by some kids from my class while walking home. It was the first time I had ever been in a real fight and I had not one clue how to handle myself. It was over so fast I had no recollection of what happened...nor of picking myself up off the side of the road covered in dirt and blood to walk to rest of the way home. No one on the busy road stopped to help me. But, when I made it home I had to tell my dad what happened. My dad made it clear to me that if I ever got into a fight and did not defend myself, he would kick my ass himself. The "I hate myself" meter went off the scale then and if I had the courage to take my leather belt and hang myself in my closet I would have done it then. I promise you that I thought about it. I'm not really sure whether I was too afraid to not live anymore...or if I was my fear of going to hell that kept me from doing it, but I didn't.
How It Turned Around...
Time went on and I got kicked out of high school because I cut more school than I attended. The last chance for me was continuation school. I tease that it was the school for bad kids but in actuality it was the best thing that could have happened to me. Even though the kids I was going to school with were there for fighting, drugs, cutting all of us were now in the position that we had to decide our own fate. We were all kids who had bottomed out...or almost bottomed out, and so there were no judgments between each other. We all had to work our asses off if we wanted to graduate or give up and drop out for good. I worked my butt off to earn enough credit to graduate...we all did....and all of the sudden it was o.k. to be smart again. A strength I had buried to not stand out finally became a positive in my life instead of making me a target and I needed it to succeed. It was a first time I allowed myself to be me in years.
Once out of school I started to see what happens to us when we are no longer in the fish bowl of public education. A-list girls got pregnent and became everyday no-makeup, sweat pant wearing house-moms and the jocks that tripped you in the halls and called you a fag, got fat and got menial jobs...all of us were on the same playing field all of the sudden. It was illuminating to me to see them as so less than perfect. Changing how I saw the people who had been at the top of the social heap changed how I saw myself a little bit. I began to get the glimmer that maybe I was just...normal.
Later I finally managed to come out to myself and began dealing with myself as a gay man and so many things about my past began to make more sense. Especially why I was such a late bloomer with girls. Slowly and steadily as my body finally filled out...I also grew into myself. I dated...found love and lost it...learned that who I was as a gay person was another strength I didn't have to disown. As a result now I am here as a 40 year old, happily married adult with two kids looking over the past and asking himself what it all meant in the end. All the times I thought it would never end or that things would never be different...and yet they are.
The legacy of those days still lives on in many ways and I struggle sometimes to understand why they had to be. Was their a lesson to be learned?....to be strong,to stand up for myself, to have compassion for others. And if there was a lesson, did I learn it? I can't say for sure. I know that I did learn to survive and keep moving when someone intentionally wants to grind your spirit into dust. I learned to have compassion for others who go through the same things...and oddly...I learned to have compassion for those who think they sit on the top of the world only to be humbled by life in the real world. And...I learned never ever to treat anyone else the way I was treated.
But with the lessons learned are still some things that are a work in progress. The parts of me that believed I was worthless have taken a long time to change. For too many years I had believed I was nothing and unlearning that is difficult. Speaking up for myself can be a challenge for me and when I do I often worry about if I offended them or if I was right to be that assertive. My husband helps me with this. Sometimes I let people attack me all they want because I have learned to bear so much more than any internet troll could ever dish out. Often I accept treatment to myself that I would go ape sh*t about if it was directed to my family. These are the scars of being bullied and they stay with us for a very long time. Growing up and growing older soften their sharp edges a bit but you still know they are in there, like broken bones never healed.
So when we tell kids that "It gets better" I know that it does, but I also understand why they can't quite believe it. Our lives don't stay the same forever but you can't see that when your mind and heart are full of so much pain. But another thing that we don't see when in pain is that even if our circumstances never change...we do. We eventually gain the power to change those circumstances only to find that those same circumstances had changed us in ways we couldn't see...some bad...some good. Yes we learn to be strong, but we also have a lot of baggage to unlearn.
when my son gets called a name at school(which is rare) it is hard for me not to revert back to feeling like I did then and then going crazy at school because I never want him to have to go through what I did. No one ever should have to feel unsafe at school because of their physical differences, their sexuality, their race, you name it. It boils my blood and hits me in a very personal place. But Daniel does eventually find his limit and fights back. It is part of the reason that I admire him...he has an inner strength I only wish I could have had at his age.
But here I am putting some of my most embarrassing details on the internet. Things that to this day still make me angry at myself that I allowed other people to do that to me. Why could I not find the courage to just pop somebody in the nose then? It makes me ashamed to remember it.....but because I do, I am driven that much harder to not let it happen to me or anyone else ever again. For me and for anyone else who made it into adulthood after intense bullying, our pasts may shape who we have become...but it does not place limits on our future. I am already different than I was 1980. I wanted my parents and teachers to make all my problems go away and I know now that you can't depend on people to fix everything. Sometimes they cant and sometimes they just won't...even when they should. More lessons I guess.
In closing, I know that just as there are thousands of kids who are going through bullying for a range of reasons....and there are countless more grown ups who got through it and carry memories they wish they didn't have that can echo into who they are today. All of us may handle bullying differently, some people learn faster than others to fight for themselves...others never do. There is the perception that we are asking for attention for something that happened so long ago. Many think that once you are out of the bullying situation that you should "just get over it." To be clear, we don't need a giant group hug and a good cry...our scars are our scars and we have learned to bear them. But if we are going to have any kind of conversation about bullying and how to stop it, we need to acknowledge that it is real and that it does have lasting effects.
This is my history with bullying. It is not comprehensive but I don't think either of us has the time for that. Needless to say I have written things here I don't like to remember and like to talk about even less. But in doing so maybe someone else will realize that they are not alone in their own experiences. The process of writing it all out also has shown me how much I have changed from the kid who ran away from everything and everyone. I meant what I said in my "love letter to anyone coming out" of so long ago, for all the crap I went through then, I would not trade my family and the love I know to not have gone through that. The significance of why I had to go through it all is still playing itself out and I don't yet know where it's all taking me. All I can be is grateful for my family and for right now.
but now I stand here with my secrets out for all to read, feeling just as exposed as I did in fourth grade. For those who have found a measure of healing of their own wounds....don't leave me standing here alone. Tell your own story if you can....but be kind to yourself if you find you can't. I have been there many times.
Until next time dear readers