I’m going to warn you at the start of this that what I’m going to write could be triggering. I’m not sure if it will be triggering to you, but I’m more than certain that it will be triggering to me. It does have some ableist slurs in it, and it does describe my autistic experience through childhood.
I’m going to be writing about bullying and specifically about the ramifications and long-term effects of bullying. It’s not an easy subject for me to write about, mostly because I feel like I am a walking test subject. I experienced bullying that was borderline abuse, and when you couple that with the actual abuse that I experienced from special education teachers, it created trauma.
I have been walking around with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) longer than I’ve even known what post-traumatic stress disorder is. Bullying is a subject that we’re only seeming to scratch the surface of in our day and age, but when I was a kid in the 1980s and the 1990s, it really wasn’t talked about.
Many people saw it as a rite of passage, and many of the well-meaning adults and teachers in my life simply told me that, Bullying is natural. Everybody gets bullied. Very few people actually saw the anguish that it caused me as I was afraid to go to school day in and day out. It’s my hope that writing this article will help to shed some light.
School for Disabled Children
When I was a kid growing up, they really didn’t know what was wrong with me other than the fact that I had learning disabilities and something that psychologists described as “autistic tendencies.” There was no label for Asperger Syndrome, and autism meant that you were non-verbal and you were not able to control your interaction with the world around you.
I kind of straddled both worlds, one foot in my inner world where everything was safe, and one foot in the real world where everything was dangerous. My first school was a school for disabled children, and I fit in really well there. We were all dealing with our own struggles, so it didn’t really matter that instead of playing on playground equipment, I was more inclined to be walking around in a circle rubbing my hands together and talking to myself.
See, in my mind I was acting out some sort of a scene in a movie or playing with imaginary friends, but on the outside I was walking around in circles rubbing my hands together and talking to myself.
That didn’t become a problem until I was mainstreamed.
I really didn’t understand why kids chased me on the playground. All I know is that when they saw me, and they saw me talking to myself and rubbing my hands together and stimming, that I was all of a sudden “marked.”
Kids that I didn’t even know were calling me words that I didn’t understand. “Look at this kid,” they would say, “he’s retarded.” I didn’t know why they tripped me, why they stole my shoes… I know now, but back then I was too clueless and too trusting.
Restraint and Seclusion
My first grade teacher liked to punish me by locking me in the coat closet and turning off the lights. Yes, even at six years old, I was still scared of the dark. So I would cry, and then I would hear the teacher and all of the kids in my class mock my crying. What are you going to do if your response is then mocked? You go quiet, that’s what you do. You go in. You shut down.
I don’t remember the date, but I do vividly remember the day when I went into a public restroom at school. I went into a stall and closed it behind me. See, for some reason I didn’t understand that you weren’t supposed to drop your pants when going pee out in public, so that’s what I did.
At the special needs school, that wasn’t a big deal. Nobody cared. Nobody even corrected me, but I was out in the real world now with elementary aged kids who were looking for any reason to invalidate my humanity.
So that’s when I started going into stalls, because I started getting laughed at and made to feel very uncomfortable. Instead of correcting what was obviously an error and only unzipping my pants, I self-preserved.
That’s when the real problem started. I didn’t lock the stall. I just closed it. Kids were trying to get in to make fun of me, and I was pushing against the stall– but I was skin and bones back then. I wasn’t very strong. A couple kids pushed really hard, and the stall door hit me square in the head. I cried out.
Later in the nurse’s office, I looked at myself in the mirror and I saw a huge discolored bump. It was the most terrifying thing that I’ve ever seen.
I actually stopped using public restrooms at that point. I would hold in everything until I got home, until I was so uncomfortable with the pressure and the need to pee. Even as a high schooler, I didn’t like using restrooms. I still feel very self-conscious using them today.
Once at a junior high dance, there was a kid who told me he had a secret that he wanted to tell me. He was all smiles, and I was all trusting. I was so excited that this popular kid actually wanted to be my friend and tell me something important.
He wanted me to come behind the bleachers, and so I did. At that moment, another kid sneaked up behind me and put me in a choke hold. There I was not being able to breathe while two kids were just laughing their asses off at me. As much as it hurt to not be able to breathe, the idea that somebody pretended to want to be my friend hurt even more.
Around this time is when I started to gain weight as well which also was a point of contention with other kids. My weight wasn’t my fault. It was a result of the abuse of special education teachers that would withhold food from me until my homework was done that I had neglected to complete the night before. The more hungry I got, the more I ate, and the bigger I became. Self preservation.
Calls from a “Friend”
At school there was a kid who pretended to be my friend all the time, and I gave him my home phone number. We had our own private line. He would call all hours of the night and in weird voices sounding handicapped and disabled.
He was terrorizing me, and I knew it was him even though he never admitted it. One time we were even on a band trip. How did he know which room I was in? He even called bothering the other kids in the room, as well. They kept telling me the phone was for me, and I finally left it off the hook.
I don’t share these stories for you or anyone to feel sorry for me. These are just a small handful of my experiences that have led to developing post-traumatic stress disorder in relation to bullying. Because of these things, my life has been forever altered.
I like to try to make friends as easy as I can, but I often question whether or not the people that call themselves my friends really are my friends or if they’re just making fun of me.
I have an anxiety condition, I have depression, and I take multiple medications for these. I have been in and out of therapy for years, and I still have a hard time trusting people– especially people in authority. I also tend to cling to those who genuinely do prove themselves to be friends. From those people, I expect too much from them end up chasing them away.
I’m a middle-aged man, and yet I still feel like that scared kid a lot. It’s taken me a long time to figure out what to do with my life. I was certainly a late bloomer in many ways. Only in the last few years have I felt like my wife and I have really been starting to create a good life for ourselves.
How do we fix this? I mean, it seems like the idea of stopping bullying is really simple, but how do you actually do that? What if I told you that most of the bullies themselves are experiencing abuse? How do you fix that? Where do we even start? If the bullies are not even safe, then how do we create safety to those who are marginalized?
I don’t really know that I have those answers. I’m not really sure if anybody does. It’s so easy lash out at things that are different, and people that look and act differently than we do, it seems that the younger generations are starting to fight against that– but man, do they have a long hill to climb.
My saving Grace has always been the people who have been willing to befriend me no matter what. Even if that’s only two or three people, it was always enough to keep me going. Perhaps some of the solution is working on making smaller communities, not where everybody is the same, but where everybody is willing to look past whatever differences there are in order to be accepting and loving.
I wish I had answers as to what that looks like, but mostly all I have are questions. I don’t know how you stop bullying, but I think if more of us are willing to share our stories, then maybe that’s how we’ll find common ground.