I don’t think I’ve ever published three posts in one day. Go me!
So today is Spirit Day, a day when people discuss bullying and being picked on living and how not to have that happen for other people. Since I can think of no awesome metaphors like I did when I talked about shame and Starburst, let’s just talk about me.
Travel back with me to when I was in elementary school … okay, wait, we have to make a few notes here:
- I’m not very good with dates.
- This is because I was sick and unmedicated for over a decade, and my head is swiss cheese about a lot of things
In my elementary school, it was really cool among my friends to own baseball cards. You didn’t trade them, because you could just buy more (seriously, my friends all grew up with the “do-chores-get-money” system) and if you were extra rich, your parents bought a pack for every pack you bought yourself, so that you could have extra cards to put in the spokes of your bicycle. Now I didn’t have a bicycle, which is likely a story for another post, but I did have loads of baseball cards. In fact, I still have those cards in airtight, waterproof, fireproof cases in my closet, because one day, I can flood the hobby market and make enough money to buy a sandwich, or something, I don’t know.
My two best friends (they lived across the street from each other) were passionate Mets fans, back in the days of Doc Gooden and Daryl Strawberry and World Series hopes. We’d sit in a room and talk about who had better stats, and where we’d put them if we were making a lineup. We were young, and this activity was often punctuated by karate classes at the Y, or pretending we were the cast of Police Academy. But it’s also the first time I didn’t feel like I was good enough to be with my friends.
I was my own bully, because my two friends had this other friend, someone I didn’t know, but someone they knew because they were all on sports teams together. I wasn’t on any sports teams. I wasn’t allowed to be on sports teams, out of fear that being small, frail and sickly, I’d hurt myself. And I grew up with a mostly unspoken policy of “if you can’t do it right the first time, you don’t deserve/get to do it” (see: bike riding, socializing with girls, and sports teams). So I didn’t get to play, but I watched. And I believed that with every hit my friends got, or every cheer they received, I was less and less good enough to do it.
Come with me to school, where in gym class, during kickball games or really any game with bases and running, the infielders, my classmates just sort of accepted that I was “an easy out”. And that even well-meaning gym teachers asked me if I wanted concessions made.
I didn’t want concessions made, I wanted to be good enough at things like running and kicking a ball, or swinging a bat just like everyone else. But I wasn’t. I’d fall if I tried to run, my brain not collaborating with my legs to move in time or work cooperatively to carry the rest of me. So I resigned myself to accepting that I wasn’t going to be an athlete, and that if I was, no one would want me. I’m pretty sure I went through my entire K-12 education getting picked last (or second to last) in any team activity that was more physical than mental.
Contrast all this with the fact that I was the kid who read dictionaries in school. The kid who always scored well on tests. The kid who could ace the exam and explain to you the material so that you could pass too.
I liken it to being a brain on a body made of springs and twigs. I was smart enough to be useful to others, smart enough to get taken advantage by others, and gullible enough to perceive a lot of that as friendship. Of course they were my friends, they wanted to talk to me. Of course they were my friends, they said thank you when I helped them. Not all of them were. It took me twenty years to figure that out.
My home life, which I don’t easily blog about, was a pressure cooker. The son of a prominent educator and an elementary school teacher has a lot of expectations on him – to do well in school, to live up to the name you’ve got, to not embarass anyone along the way. And the fact that I grew up scrutinized to be really good at things, and how dare I not be good at other things, that warps your perspective on growing up. I remember a lot of nights in middle school sobbing over geometry homework, trying to explain that I just didn’t see the shape on the paper, or understand the gibberish of formula, and being told that I just wasn’t trying hard enough. And when I would fail, there wasn’t a sense of “did you try your best?” it was a sense of “so I wasted all that time trying to explain this to you, and you’re just stupid?”. It confirmed that I wasn’t good enough to be smart either.
So I carved this niche for myself. So long as I didn’t fail spectacularly or sit right at the top of the heap, I’d be left alone. If I dumbed myself down in some subjects, and did my best in others, I could pull a range of B’s and D’s, with a few A’s sprinkled in there so that I wasn’t bored. It was enough to coast by.
Then came a pivotal moment in middle school – the day when the school guidance counselor comes in and talks to you about going to high school, as if it’s some mythical place that’s somewhere between Thunderdome, a concentration camp, and a weird hive-like atmosphere designed entirely to get you into college. And the focus of this woman’s discussion was not “this is how you go from one grade to another” it was “If you think your hardest class in middle school is hard, all high school classes are ten times harder, because the minute you walk in that door as a freshman, you’re trying to get into a good college so you can make your parents proud.” I was sitting in the front row. The woman wore a black shawl. It made me think of my own funeral.
That day, as I was totally now panicked about how I had to figure out my life and not let my parents down, I wanted to be alone. The prison yard/recess area/field of my middle school had a steep hill in the background, forming a lip around this basin of baseball diamonds and soccer fields. I liked to sit on top of the hill, because it was under a tree and I would be left alone with a book or an ice cream cone. (I should point out that this same hill is what I fell down in gym class and shattered a knee cap and fractured a bone in my foot, but that came later than this moment.)
My first experience with a true bully came that day. I remember his name. He follows me on Facebook. I don’t think we’ve ever spoken since middle school. But I was walking to my favorite spot, and remember how I said I moved slowly and had to be careful in where I put my feet? This kid was behind me, and then decided to sweep my feet out from under me as I walked. I fell, bounced down the hill, broke my glasses and dislocated my ankle. He laughed. He had two cronies. They laughed too. Neither of them follow me on Facebook, because one’s in prison for raping high school girls and the other is either dead or in prison for trafficking heroin.
So there I was laying on the ground, holding my broken glasses, trying not to cry, because to cry was to admit weakness, and admit that yet again John needed medical attention, which would surely lead to my father telling me that he’d either sue the school or that it was my fault for provoking this. I didn’t cry. I just limped along through the rest of recess, went to the nurse’s office, taped up my glasses and tried to pop my ankle back into place.
Weeks later, I’m still limping on the bum ankle, but at least now I can disguise the elastic bandage I’m wearing under jeans. Along comes my bully and his cronies and as I’m standing at my locker, they “accidentally” stomp on my ankle and foot, then walk away laughing. I couldn’t walk the rest of the day, and my mom ended up taking me for x-rays. I broke another bone in my foot, and my ankle re-dislocated. We kept it a secret from my father, though I’m sure he found out when he paid the bills.
See, I never liked my bully. I grew up Christian, and it was very hard if not impossible to love someone who hurt you, and it was even harder to forgive him. I thought he was stupid and that I deserved this treatment because I was weak and not like the other kids. I’d watch nature shows and cry when the slow gazelle got eaten by cheetahs. Everyone looks like a cheetah when you convince yourself you’re a gazelle.
Move forward in time until the summer of my freshman year in high school. I’m at the town pool. I’m not bothering anyone, it’s really hard to see how uncoordinated I was when I swam, so I did it a lot. I have a new bully now, I remember him too. He only had one crony, who stayed a crony but got traded to other bullies throughout high school. They had this fun game where they’d swim up behind you, pull your bathing suit either all the way down or off, then throw it either in the sand of the volleyball court or over the pool’s fence into the woods. I had seen them do it to a few fat kids. I had seen them do it a kid they thought was gay. I was of course, the next contestant in this fucked up gameshow.
But here, my lack of coordination paid off. Because I flailed my legs a lot, it made it harder to get my suit down over my hips. At most, it was a mooning, not a pantsing. So instead they tried to drown me. I don’t mean in that playful way, I mean he put his hands on my shoulders and held me down while the crony kept an eye on the lifeguards.
So there I am, in the pool, ass hanging out of a bathing suit, not able to see (can’t wear glasses and swim), and a high school junior is holding me underwater. I’m running out of breath. I was saved only because the lifeguards cleared the pool for an adult swim. I didn’t go back to the pool for the rest of that summer. And when I went home that night and told my parents what happened, I wasn’t believed. I don’t think they’d believe me now either.
As someone picked on, I thought I deserved it. I wasn’t strong. I wasn’t able to fight people off. This was to be my lot in life. I had (and continue to have) trouble packing on muscle so for all the martial arts I learned, I couldn’t really fend someone off (that training came way later, when I was no longer bullied).
What cemented my sense that I wasn’t good enough also happened that year. I was working at my town’s teen center, which is not a juice bar some Power Rangers frequent, it was more like a social club where you could dump your teenagers for a few hours, ply them with candy and soda and they wouldn’t drink booze or have sex. I liked the job. Well, it wasn’t a job, it was just nice to have friends, sit in a kitchen and listen to Guns N Roses. And Pilotwings 64 I remember liking that too. But part of the job was to walk the grounds and make sure kids weren’t smoking outside, and if they were, go rat them out. This seemed like a terrible idea, this sort of self-policing, but it’s what we were tasked to do.
So of course, I head out and find eight kids (four couples) not only smoking, but drinking and doing far more than making out. Now it’s pitch black, I’ve got a flashlight, so of course they see me, and once I get a sense of what’s going on, my first thought isn’t “Tell the authorities!” it’s “Oh shit, I’m disturbing these kids!” and I should leave them alone, and they’ll leave me alone.
But they didn’t leave me alone. As it turned out, I stumbled across the star high school wrestlers and football players and their girlfriends. And I’m me. Who still can’t put one foot in front of the other.
I got tackled from behind. I got kicked in the kidneys, I got the wind punched out of me. I got told that they knew where I lived, and that they’d kill me if I told anyone. They were nice enough to hand my glasses to one of the girls before punching me in the face a few times. One of my friends called my mom to come pick me up, because my nose wouldn’t stop bleeding.
So then while I’m waiting, I’m sitting on the steps into the building, and someone (who also follows me now on Facebook) comes to check on me, and I feel a sharp metal prick in my bicep. He laughed and walked away, and when I asked anyone if they knew what the kid was doing, I got told “Oh [NAME]? He found a syringe with AIDS in it.” (Note: He didn’t. It was a thumbtack he took off the bulletin board)
I’ve been beaten up. My nose is bleeding. And now I got AIDS? This whole teenage thing is awesome. Also, big fan of peeing blood for two days. (No I’m not.)
But I accepted all this, figured it was par for the course. Figured that this happens to everyone. Except, this didn’t happen to everyone. My friends didn’t have these experiences, I asked. I was a mark, and an easy target. I swore I’d never be again.
I so firmly believed I wasn’t good enough, that the more sick and lost in my own mind that I got, the more aggressive and manipulative I became. And engaged in a policy of “you’re-not-going-to-hurt-me-if-i-overwhelmingly-hurt-you-first-emotionally”, I lived a day to day existence where I became the bully. I was the bully who wanted to mask how he wanted to die, how he didn’t feel like he lived up to his parents’ expectations, how he wasn’t good enough to learn a sport, get a date, or figure out what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
I’m 35 now. I am a fairly coordinated, not frail man. (Sure, there’s a stomach bug today, but whatever) I’m lucky that I don’t get bullied or abused where I work. I’m lucky that I live a life that isn’t picked on or harassed, but that’s mainly because I detach far and hard from interactions and don’t leave the house often.
- I never confronted my bullies and they never apologized.
- I’m still regularly worried and scared that new people I interact with will in fact turn out to be bullies, though far more likely to be emotional or professional ones, rather than physical ones
- A majority of my physical safety stems from the fact that I can close and lock a great number of actual doors between me and the physical world.
- I don’t always feel comfortable in crowds or groups where I don’t know at least half the people
- I devote a lot of mental energy to planning escape routes and defensive strategies when I encounter people – like “Okay, if this date goes poorly and she pulls a knife, I can throw the water in her face, hit her with the glass, keep a chair between me and her, and defend myself with the steak knife. If she swings at me, I can go for the tendons in her wrist or kick out a leg to slow her down.” Yeah, this doesn’t encourage me to interact with people on an intimate social level.
And this came about because I’ve been a victim to bullies and predators. And because I felt such great shame and embarrassment about having a problem at all, I stayed silent. Because not being good enough also means you’re not good enough to deserve a change in circumstances. And you repeat that to yourself, everyday for 20+ years, through panic attacks in bathrooms, visits to nurses and ERs, grades that weren’t A+, failures in college, ruined relationships, mental health collapses and a general sense that unlike the Reader’s Digest article you read once, you aren’t a millionaire at 22, and it codifies in your head.
I’m 35. My most productive professional years didn’t start until I was 32. Hell, I really didn’t start living until I was 32, because it took so damned long to find a way through the fog and terror of mental illness. I can’t even say I’m all the way out, but at least now I’ve got a manageable path.
I hate bullies. I don’t hate much, but I hate bullies at a level that seems beyond cellular. I don’t care if I have to risk some manner of myself to prevent someone from being bullied, I’ll do it. Take away all my money, ruin me professionally, strip away all my friends, cast me out onto the street, injure me, even kill me, but I can’t let someone get bullied. Because they might go through the same hurt I did. And that’s unfair. Part of me is still dealing with the idea that I did deserve it, but that’s what therapy is for.
If your kids are getting bullied, if they say they’re getting bullied, if you see the results of bullying, DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. Treat the injuries, of course, but talk to schools and authority figures. Don’t just dismiss it and stick your kid in a karate class so he knows how to throw a punch. Pay attention, be active.
And for fuck’s sake, help your kid develop their own self esteem. They’re not stupid. You haven’t wasted your time. They’re kids, and they don’t have the experience or wisdom to master the subtleties of math. That’s why they’re learning it. Don’t take away their bike because they fall off it, help them understand that even though it’s hard and scary, you’ll help them see that it’s important to get back on. And that they don’t have to accept treatment for anyone that belittles or diminishes who they are or what they can contribute. Yeah, sure, they’re kids, but they can contribute a lot to a variety of tables. (I trust the opinion of the kids on my block far more than I trust their parents views on things, but I’m biased because they like my dog)
Sorry if this one was a downer.