Matthew and I speak the same language about our bullying experience. He is finding his way to a solution to his pain as I have been doing for the last year+ as an adult. I think that it is really great to read his positive final words here. He is well on his way to recovery and we can all learn from that. I am still amazed at how many suffer the long-term effects. I got hope from a website called “Tiny Buddha” and then bought Lori Deschene’s book called “Tiny Buddha” and found out she started what she did due to her long-term effects from bullying. What a shock. It is very real and here’s Matthew’s story. ~Alan Eisenberg
Outside of school, I had a great childhood–very loving parents, a home free from any abnormal stress, and a built-in best friend–a brother two years younger than me.
In school, however, I was bullied pretty heavily. I don’t remember it at all in kindergarten, so I guess it started in first grade and went to fourth grade. I will say that I’m pretty smart–I was one of the smartest kids in my class. However, at it seemed like that was the only thing going for me. I was a bit shy, and I didn’t have much in common with the other kids in my class. They seemed to be into video games, Pokemon cards and sports. I really disliked all of these things–in some cases simply on my preferences (reading was way more interesting to me than Pokemon), but more importantly they were based on lack of ability. A mix of asthma, very poor eye-hand coordination, toe-walking, and weak muscles led me to avoid basically all sports, and many coordination-requiring video games as well. (I did play a season of baseball and basketball in third grade, and I remember that I did really poor. The only time I got on base in baseball all year was when I was hit by a pitch!)
Anyway, without much at all in common with the other kids, I had a very hard time making friends. I only really considered one or two kids my friends at a time (one of which, thankfully, is still a great friend of mine!). Most times at lunch or recess, I would sit alone or wander around, always thinking but rarely talking with others. Well, the isolation led to loneliness, loneliness led to weakness, and weakness ultimately led to bullying. I used to tell myself (and it’s possible that I heard this from my parents as well) that the original cause of the bullying was me bragging about being smart to others. That definitely happened at times, I’m sure, but for the longest time I wound up blaming myself for what happened.
The worst year was first grade, when I was beat up (chased and then pushed, kicked, or thrown, not enough to cause much physical damage thankfully) quite often at recess. It was mostly one kid and maybe a few of his friends, but also a few girls in my class as well. In second through fourth grades, this happened less frequently, but I can remember a few specific incidences of bullying more clearly during those years. In second grade, I was coming down the slide at recess when a bunch of kids threw snowballs at me, knocking one of my glasses lens out. In third grade, someone knocked my lunch tray from my hands, I was “pantsed” in front of the class (and made fun of for wearing Superman underwear), and someone painted on my shirt in art class. In fourth grade, a kid who I considered my friend came up to me at recess and asked me if I wanted a “body slam” or “double body slam”. Not knowing what that was (violent cartoons were off-limits in my house), I said double, and sure enough I was picked up and thrown into the sandbox twice (and had my glasses stolen to boot). I also had food thrown at me in the cafeteria right at the end of the year. There were verbal jabs as well, such as “loser,” ‘What do you mean, you can’t swim/ride a bike?,” and “does your Mom dress you for school every day?,” (in response to a button-down shirt I was wearing), and perhaps quite a few others I don’t recall.
At the same time, I was dealing with a myriad of “quirky” habits, some of which I still struggle with now. Actually, as I’m writing this now, I wonder how many of these weren’t caused by anxiety, whether as a direct cause or as an amplification. I would chew on anything–pencils (which I would demolish during the course of a day), pens, clothing (all my shirts had holes in them)…basically anything I could get my hands on. I also got panic attacks over thunderstorms, power outages, and (worst of all) fire drills–the latter to the point that I’d be called out of class and watch the principal pull the alarm during the monthly fire drills. (I still got panic attacks over fire drills up through high school.) Of course, those all added up to more teasing over the years.
I quickly learned in elementary school that I was abnormal–that I was “not like the others,” not wanted, bound to be a loser on the social totem pole. There were many attempts to help me–meetings with the principal’s office, therapies of all kind to improve my coordination and strength, foot inserts to prevent toe-walking, even a special-education plan to help prevent the chewing. Some worked, some didn’t. But all of them worked to reinforce my abnormality. My reaction was outwardly reluctant acceptance of the way things were, to a lot of under-the-surface anger. I’d sometimes take it out on my brother when I didn’t get my way with something at home, or even (at times) when I felt he was being “too nice” to me–because I didn’t feel deserving of the love he was giving me. I also had a lot of darker thoughts–not of acting, but all hypothetical (like imagining the destruction of a hurricane or plane crash somewhere and wondering what type of damage it could cause, and how many people it could kill). I do remember coming home with a drawing in third grade of me commanding military tanks and planes, shooting bullets at a few others running away–my bullies.
The biggest help that came was moving up to middle school in fifth grade. I was actually able to meet some new people from the town’s other elementary schools there, and the main bullies were either in different classes or moved away. I was accepted into a friend group, left that one (after its leader was bullying someone else in that group), and joined one with one of my original elementary school friends. We became really close all throughout middle school, particularly because we all did band together (and I was pretty good a playing trumpet by then!). I was able to partially break free from the “I can’t have friends” attitude, and by the time I graduated high school I was in two very good friend groups and was actually quite popular.
But, the internal scars remained. I still blamed myself first for when anything went wrong (instead of apologizing), I still felt that I was abnormal and wanted to do almost anything to fit in. The times I didn’t fit in–like in gym class, when I was the only kid who couldn’t swim in the deep end of the high school pool–I always felt singled out and abandoned, even if no one else really cared that I was different. I was petrified of losing my friends, because I did not want to go back to isolation. And, although twice I had big crushes on girls in my grade, I never asked either of them out. I felt like they didn’t find me attractive and wouldn’t love me. I also always was envious of my friend’s childhoods, athletic abilities, and even other friendships–always wishing I could be someone society thought “normal,” even though, by that point, I pretty much was normal.
I’m right now a college student studying genetics, and I still have many of the same fears and tendencies. When I look at my future, I can imagine leading a lab, doing, great research and curing a disease like cancer in the future. However, as much as I would LOVE to live in my own and raise kids, any thoughts of family drift towards worrying about rejection by my spouse (what if she cheats on me and leaves me alone?) and the possible deaths of my future children. And I’m still scared of dating someone at this time.
However, like I said at the beginning of the piece, I’m the most hopeful now than I ever have been. I’m Catholic, and I joined my college’s Catholic Student Association right off the bat at the start of my freshman year. I soon bonded with a small group of guys who, for the first time, I’m totally comfortable opening up around. I can trust them, and I hope I’ll be friends with them for life! More importantly, though, I began to do a lot of soul-searching. At a retreat I went on freshman year, I looked at my life and realized I hated the face that stared back at me in the mirror. I then went through everything that I could remember that happened to me–the bullying, the abuse, the loneliness. I then paid that I could break free from all of that, or that at least I could someday break free from all of that. As many things in my life are, it’s been a very slow process….but with steady progress, nonetheless. I now am learning that my identity–an identity based off intelligence masking deep anxiety, fear, envy and self-loathing–was not true. Instead, I am created in God’s image, I am his beloved son, and He (as well as many, many others on Earth)–does love me!
I’ve noticed the anxiety slowly begin to melt, become more confident in what I do, and even started to confront some of the issues that plagued my past–for instance, I just signed up for swim lessons this semester, and I’m no longer afraid to go near a pool, so that’s progress. Over this past break, I spoke with my parents about my childhood. This past year, my elementary school was torn down, and I told them that I was very relieved to see it gone. It turns out that they really didn’t know much about my bullying beyond a couple specific incidences when the school had notified them. However, other parents had later told them that they felt sorry for me and knew what I was going through. I’m not sure yet what to make of this piece of knowledge.
For anyone still personally struggling with bullying, or for anyone who wants to eradicate feelings of self-loathing caused by previous bullying, all I can say is that there IS hope. Healing is going to take a lot of work, a lot of courage, and a lot of patience. But it’s certainly not impossible.