I was bullied through much of my childhood, beginning when I was seven years old, which was when we moved from New Jersey to a wealthy town in Connecticut in which sports were worshipped. I was, to put it mildly, not very good at sports. Not only was I somewhat uncoordinated, but my Attention Deficit Disorder (or complete lack of interest) caused me to space out when the phys-ed teacher was explaining the rules of whatever game we were about to play. When we were subsequently playing, of course, I wouldn’t have any idea what was going on and would screw things up for my team. Or I’d be daydreaming in left field and miss a ball coming right at me.
I also was shy, wore glasses and loved to read. This, as you can imagine, was not the recipe for a successful social life in a town that was so athletically inclined. I probably wouldn’t have minded if the other kids had just ignored me, but for some reason I was an irresistible target. Most of the bullying was psychological, but there was one (recurring) incidence of physical bullying. I took the bus to school, and every day, or nearly every day, a girl named Gretchen sat behind me and hit me over the head with her math book, which was very thick. I told her to stop many times, but the beating continued until she got bored with it at some point and stopped.
I also was frequently teased and humiliated by my schoolmates. The teasing went along the lines of being called “egghead” and “four-eyes.” That wasn’t too bad. The humiliation that the other children cooked up was worse. In fifth grade, we had homerooms with our own desks, but we spent part of the day in other rooms learning science and social studies. Apparently when I was away from my desk, another child filled it with rubber cement “boogers,” and someone alerted the teacher that I was supposedly picking my nose and depositing the remains in my desk. During a study period, my homeroom teacher, Mrs. Gus, called me up to her desk to discuss it. As my face flamed and I struggled to keep from crying, I heard the other children snickering. It would have been nice if Mrs. Gus had asked me to stay after class, so the other kids could only guess what she was discussing with me, but I noticed that many of the teachers I had were not particularly sensitive to the bullying, nor were they assertive in preventing it.
That incident was thirty-five years ago, but it is, as you can tell, painfully fresh in my mind. Time has not blurred my memory in the least when it comes to recalling the torment I went through almost every day. The time I spent at school, to put it bluntly, was miserable.
We’ve begun to realize over the past few years that bullying has a profound affect on our mental health. According to a study conducted recently by Kings College, bullying can cause children to manifest symptoms of internalizing problems. Internalizing problems occur when the child directs the negativity inward instead of outward. Directing it outward, towards other people, would result in conduct disorders. Directing it inward, towards the child’s self, results in the symptoms such as frequent crying, anxiety, being withdrawn and excessive guilt.
I’ve begun to wonder recently, which came first – the chicken or the egg? Did the bullying cause my depression, or contribute to it to a great extent? Or was I bullied because my depression and shyness made me a likely target? I would say that an argument could be made both ways, but I tend to think that I was susceptible to depression because of my personality and my parents’ divorce, and that being bullied is what made it manifest.
Some people will tell you that bullying is harmless, just kids being kids. Not true. I’m here to tell you, as a victim of many years of bullying, that it’s not harmless. It can make a child’s day-to-day existence a living hell. Is that what childhood is supposed to be like? And there is no question in my mind that it can lead to depression, which absolutely is not what a child should be living with.