Damaging Self-Confidence (A Personal Story)

First, I must apologize to those that have submitted stories this last month. I have been blessed to be inundated with stories and have been delayed in posting them, but know they are coming. Dave submitted this story to me and was nice enough to remind me he was anxious to share it, so it is here. Dave gives a great perspective of the power of a good upbringing and how a good family structure and a calm mind can help during times of bullying. Thanks for sharing all sides of the perspective, Dave. ~Alan Eisenberg


Compared to what I read about today, I wasn’t bullied that much, but it was enough to leave a permanent dent in my self-confidence. Sixty years ago when the worst of it ended, my school was safe; the trouble was outside on the streets and in the parks where I spent all my time in good weather.   The bullies, older than I was, roamed in small gangs looking for amusement.  Most of the time they taunted me for stammering or for my bouncing walk. Sometime they’d assault me: a sharp punch to the stomach; a burn on the hand with a cigarette while others held me; or the grip of many hands holding me over the edge of a fire escape. One boy, just a year older, repeatedly thrust my head toward the spikes of iron fence so both eyes would be impaled if he pushed all the way.

I was an only child in this seaside town where my mother wrote children’s books. My father encouraged me to fight back, but I wasn’t a scrapper, as he had been in an equally tough town.  My mother said it was my own fault because my screams of terror entertained the boys and made them laugh.

Despite the fear that these incidents provoked I managed to have a lot of fun as a kid and to get into plenty of trouble.  A landlord left a supply of WW2 trophy ammunition, and I set out with a friend to convert a cap pistol into a working revolver. I had no intention of using it for defense against bullies; it was just an interesting technical challenge. Thank God, as a ten-year-old, my gun-smithing skills weren’t up to the challenge.  Later the brother of another friend detonated one of the cartridges in a vise and received some shrapnel in the face.  I was horrified when the police told me that my bullets had injured this boy. I gave them all the ammunition and apologized to the boy and to his mother.

I graduated from gun-smithing to model airplanes: a safer hobby.  I wanted to be an engineer like my grandfather, but couldn’t manage physics and math in college. I became a research psychologist and later a computer specialist. Today I teach statistics and neural science part-time.  Technical pursuits kept me from dwelling on problems like bullies. I still fix computers for relaxation.

My parents supplied me with a first-rate cultural education; our house was filled with books and recordings of classical music.  They supported all my endeavors, even driving me to another town twice a week for marksmanship training, and, of course, they paid for my college.

The boy in my mother’s books, Azor, supposedly based on me, had some of the good times that I had and said some of the things that I said at his age.  But Azor showed none of the manifest anxiety, stammering, or social ineptitude that I displayed to other kids.  Somehow, I think, my mother allowed her fictional creation to supplant in her mind that actual child that she was supposed to be raising.  How else can I explain her reluctance to acknowledge my pleas for help with the bullies, or hope to understand her failure to confront adults who threatened me, as some did?

Even today, in an era when bullying is not tolerated, I get angry when I read of parents who actually defend their children, as mine didn’t, and even angrier when I hear of mothers or fathers who stood up for their kids in the 1940s and 1950s when I was having so much trouble.  And yes, the bullying left signs of post-traumatic stress like depression and panic disorder, but not the full-blown PTSD described in DSM-IV.

The boys who harassed me were adolescents whose brains had not matured enough to support good judgment; they did not grow up to become violent criminals. Their gangs were spur-of-the moment collections, not the lethal drug-fueled groups that we have today.  They were tame, even by 1950s standards. Can I forgive them for what they did to me so long ago?  Of course I can. One of them, still a good friend, apologized to me recently.

I can’t say that my experience gives me much wisdom to impart to parents, educators or children contending with bullies today. To parents I would say, “Listen to your kids!” They’ll shut down, as I did, if you deny or minimize their complaints.  And to kids, if you’re faced with physical assaults, I’d say, “get some training in self-defense. “

Why didn’t I turn my anger and persisting anxiety into a burning desire for revenge as some victims of bullying have?  For the same reason that I never planned to use my converted cap pistol as a weapon against anyone: I still can’t think of anything worse than hurting another person.

~Dave