Recently, a friend and I were talking about our childhoods, and how so many of our early experiences shape the complicated adults we become. How we can become triggered by seemingly innocuous events and find ourselves reacting to situations in unexpected and often irrational ways. He told me about being bullied in high school and how he does not think he will ever fully recover from the trauma of those years. He said he has “learned to deal with it” and “found a way to move on,” but that it still affects him every day and that he will never forgive the people who “tore his life to shreds.”
His words and the pain on his face hit me hard. They brought to mind my own childhood, specifically my preteen years, when I was a bully. I have spent the better part of 40 years “forgetting” those days ― the people I have hurt, the damage I’ve done and the trauma I’ve caused. It all came flooding back. I thought, Am I a fucking monster?
I did not start out as a bully. It was a choice. I was a good kid ― smart, funny and full of life. That all changed in the middle of sixth grade when I was 11 years old.
I remember the moment with absolute clarity: It was during a recess break when I was wrestling with one of my classmates. He was one of the boys in my school who was maturing more quickly than the others, including myself. He was tall and ripped. He had the beginnings of a mangy mustache and a voice as deep as Darth Vader’s. He had me on the ground and was straddling my chest. My arms were pinned above my head. We were laughing. He smiled at me. I got an erection.
It was the first time I experienced pure panic. I froze. Time stood still as he felt me against him and recognition swept across his face. I heard the words “holy shit” and “faggot,” and saw his smile disappear. I threw him off of me and ran. A single thought followed me: My life is over.
From an early age, I knew that I was different from other boys, but I did not know that I was gay. I knew full well what being gay meant ― it’s hard to grow up in a small town full of machismo and testosterone and not know what being gay meant. I also knew what a “faggot” was and what a “queer” and a “butt pirate” were and all of those other colorful terms.
I knew I couldn’t be any of these things. I believed that being gay was bad ― possibly the worst thing that someone could be. I knew it would get you ostracized, mercilessly bullied and beaten to a pulp. I also knew that it could get you killed.
“From an early age, I knew that I was different from other boys, but I did not know that I was gay. I knew full well what being gay meant ― it’s hard to grow up in a small town full of machismo and testosterone and not know what being gay meant.”
My decision to “not be gay” began that day. The change from happy-go-lucky preteen to disgruntled, petulant asshole happened virtually overnight. As the fear of being discovered began to consume my every waking moment, I set about to obliterate the old me and create someone new. I lived in a kill-or-be-killed world, where the tough feasted on the weak, and where being different made you a target. It was a world where only the strong survived, where you were either predator or prey.
I knew people who were prey. They were different, and I thought they were weak. I saw what a living hell their lives were. I witnessed the endless torture they endured at the hands of the more popular kids ― the name-calling and the constant mental and physical abuse and how it affected them. This was not a life for me.
In the course of just a few short months, I went from a bright, engaged student to an uninterested, disruptive presence in the classroom. My grades plummeted. I became cocky and combative with my peers, I dumped my old friends for a new, tougher crowd and I found myself a girlfriend. I did whatever I could do to deflect the attention away from me and onto somebody else. Thus began the bullying.
I was not particularly big or strong for my age, so intimidation by force was not an option for me ― I found friends for that. What I did have was a quick wit and an uncanny ability to find and exploit weaknesses. I became a psychological assassin. For the unfortunate souls who were more noticeable, like the girl with the dark red birthmark on her face or the chubby boy with Coke-bottle glasses, it was easy. For others, I learned what I could about them and then struck when the opportunity presented itself.
My most devious move came with Mike, the boy I was wrestling with when this all began. Why he never told anyone about what happened is beyond me. I still wonder why, when presented with such a golden opportunity, he did not expose me. Perhaps he was a decent, compassionate human being? Perhaps he was one of the good guys? Regardless, he did not attack, so I did. I flipped the script and told everyone the erection was his and that he had tried to “stick it in me.” From then on, his nickname was “ass bandit” and his life was hellish.
I survived the remaining two years of middle school this way: attacking first, capitalizing on faults and imperfections and ruining lives. It was remarkably easy. The other kids in my school were all too willing to go along with the game because they, like me, had things to hide. Except it was not a game. People were getting hurt and developing emotional scars.
I do not remember feeling bad about the suffering I was causing. So governed by the fear of my secret getting out, I ran a scorched-earth campaign against anyone I felt threatened by, consequences be damned. I did not believe I had a choice ― I thought it was a matter of life and death.
When I entered high school, I was forced to adapt using new methods of survival. I ended up in a school on the opposite side of the city away from my friends, where I was suddenly a very small fish in a very big pond and nobody was afraid of me. Alone and vulnerable, I learned to blend in, to camouflage and disguise myself, to keep my head down and my mouth shut. Being invisible was easy and a lot less work than being a bully. I concentrated on my classes and on avoiding Chris, one of my classmates.
Chris Jones was the only “out” gay person in school and the only person I was afraid of. His audacity was overwhelming. How dare he have the strength to be himself, to live an authentic life, to be out and proud and fearless? I would lie awake at night stressing about how easily he could destroy my life. It would only take one glance ― a single moment of recognition ― and everything would come crashing down for me. He would know I was gay, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and he would expose me for the fraud I was. It was equal parts fear and fascination. I longed to be seen ― by him or anyone ― but the terror that elicited was paralyzing. In retrospect, what I really wanted was not to feel so utterly and completely alone.
Today, I see the boy who did those terrible things hiding in the darkness near my heart. He is utterly and completely alone. I reach out to him, tell him that I love him, but I do not think he believes me. He knows that I am deeply ashamed. He knows that I am broken, and he doesn’t trust that a broken man can fix things. He is anxious and afraid and furtive. He runs.
The adult me is all of these things. I battle with depression and a panic disorder. I often do not feel worthy of love. I run.
“I know what I did was wrong — terribly wrong — and in no way am I asking for absolution. The idea of reaching out and trying to locate some of my victims and apologizing directly weighs heavy. I want to, but I am afraid. I do not want to reopen any of their old wounds, but perhaps I am simply not yet ready to face the cold, hard consequences of my actions.”
There is a quote by Maya Angelou that reads, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” I find some comfort in these words.
What I did then was survive. It was all I knew how to do. I certainly “know better” now, but it is ultimately the “do better” that matters. Perhaps the act of “doing better” is where compassion and forgiveness lie.
Doing better is accepting responsibility for my actions and apologizing to those I hurt. I am truly sorry for the pain I caused, the scars I created and the trauma I inflicted. I know what I did was wrong — terribly wrong — and in no way am I asking for absolution. The idea of reaching out and trying to locate some of my victims and apologizing directly weighs heavy. I want to, but I am afraid. I do not want to reopen any of their old wounds, but perhaps I am simply not yet ready to face the cold, hard consequences of my actions.
Doing better means telling this story and starting a conversation. It is not easy to admit to these things in such a public forum. I both expect and accept the criticism that will come my way. A logical response to what I have done is anger and judgement. But past that, on the other side of that, I hope there is reflection and an openness to dialogue. We can only begin to effect change if we are willing to speak our truths, admit when we are wrong and start to listen to each other.
Doing better means asking questions and challenging what we are willing to accept. What strikes me as most startling from those early days of bullying is that no one stopped to ask me what the hell was going on ― not my parents, not my teachers, not the school principal. No one. The change in my behavior was dramatic, and it did not go unnoticed by the adults in my life. I was punished with loss of privileges, groundings and detentions, but nobody took me aside and actually talked to me. I imagine I wouldn’t have told the truth, as fear controlled my every action, but perhaps a kind and caring conversation with a trusted adult would have made a difference.
Why do we accept overcrowded classrooms where teachers do not have the time or energy to provide proper care to their students? Why do we accept underfunded schools without guidance or peer counselors? Why do we accept the adage that “boys will be boys” and that those being bullied need to “grow a thicker skin” when we know better? Bullies do not become bullies by accident. The behavior is not acceptable, but the reason behind the behavior is something we need to examine, talk about, treat and hopefully change.
Ultimately, though, doing better begins with myself ― with ourselves. It includes reminding myself to be gentle with myself and to practice self-love and self-care. It includes the continued commitment to speaking my truths, to exposing the ugly and raw parts of myself, to sharing my shortcomings with others in the hope that we can all feel a little less alone.
Finding compassion and forgiveness for the childhood bully that I was is not going to happen overnight. There is a lot of shame to work through and a lot of guilt to process, but if I am diligent in “doing better,” I trust that I will get there in the end.
Robbie Romu is a recovering blogger and writer who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, with his cat, Mudpuddle. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.