I don’t write about my experiences with bullying very often. Maybe I have internalized society’s beliefs that I should have stood up for myself in middle and high school, especially when my peers were doing the bullying. Maybe the shame is more significant because this time, the abusers were my age. Maybe the messages about “asking for it” are still driving my interpretation of the situation. Sometimes it is even hard for me to believe that I could be subjected to so much cruelty by so many heartless people. I felt as though I was a magnet for abuse.
To be fair, I believe that everyone experiences some bullying. Everyone is called names. Everyone has at least one friend who talks behind their back, whether they know it or not. Most experience boundary invasions from pushing, shoving and other physical experiences that seem harmless to school children. I certainly experienced this.
Many bullies stop there. Why? The victim stands up for themselves. They say “no”. They get angry. They stop speaking to the “friend” who is mistreating them. They tell their parents or teachers. These are all perfectly acceptable answers to bullying. And most of the time, the bully moves on. It is too much trouble to target that kid.
I am sure my experience with bullying started with name-calling, pushing and shoving. But there was a problem. I had been “trained” by my family to respond differently to abusive behavior. I had been taught that “no” was not a word I could utter unless I was willing to be severely beaten. I had been taught that expressing my anger would result in retaliation that might lead to death. I had been told to keep my mouth shut. Asking for help was out of the question. And anyone who has ever read a parenting magazine knows that our relationship with our parents guides our relationships with others as we grow older.
So I quickly became the subject of more sinister treatment by my peers. It grew over time. Those who I considered my closest friends betrayed me on a regular basis. I would confide in them only to find out they had shared my deepest secrets with others. Or they would randomly stop talking to me for periods of time with no real explanation as to what I did wrong. I was always walking on eggshells with my friends because I didn’t want to make them mad. It was a continuation of the chaos at home with no predictability or logical behavior. A healthy kid would have kicked that person to the curb, but I didn’t know how to do that.
It didn’t take long before the sexual boundaries were crossed. I had a couple of male friends who knew about my familial abuse. They threatened that they would tell everyone my secret if I did not fulfill their own sexual requests. In one extreme case, a teenage boy, one of my closest “friends”, started selling me at the school. And I did nothing about it. I had taken on the shame of my abuse. And nothing seemed worse that revealing it to the world. In my darker moments, I often wonder why nobody with a heart found out about my abuse.
It wasn’t just boys who were taking advantage of me. During my junior and senior year of high school, I had a “girlfriend” who was a trafficker. She would arrange for groups of kids and adults to go out together. She would arrange parties in the woods or at the beaches, but she always made sure there were private places for people to disappear. Somehow, I would always find myself alone with an adult man. And it always seemed like he knew about it ahead of time.
Had I been raised in a healthy family, I would have called the police or at least rejected her invitations. But my brilliant childhood defense mechanism stopped such a logical response. By the next morning, I completely forgot about the night before. I never consciously remembered that I was being raped, so I never knew to stay away from those who were arranging it.
And so the abuse continued. And so did the memory loss. Even in to adulthood, I remained connected to some of these abusive people (at a distance). It scares me to know that many of these abusers have children of their own. It scares me to know that they may never have learned that this behavior is abusive and illegal. It scares me to know they may be handing down these disgusting beliefs to the next generation.
When someone is a bully or is being bullied, it is not by accident. They have learned this behavior. Either they learned to be a bully from their family’s behavior or they learned not to stand up for themselves from their interaction with their family. We have to reach out to these kids and teach them right from wrong. We need to ask the bullies why they are choosing to mistreat others. We need to ask the victims why they don’t stop it. We must teach children and teenagers that they can always say “no” to their bullies and their family. And if something seems wrong, it is.