I am on a long haul flight, and for the first time in a long time, I cried while watching a movie. I’m not sure that there is a worst place you could watch a movie which makes you cry than a crowded, flying, aluminium tube.
My memory of my school years is not great. I have an idea of the gist of what happened, but specific memories are sparse and hazy. But I do know that it hurt. I remember in primary school, about age 10, figuring out that there was a small space under some steps that I could hide and cry during lunch when I wasn’t having a good day. I remember frequently getting home and going straight to my room to hide under my covers and cry, so confused and sad and frustrated after a rough day. I remember questioning why the fuck I was on this earth, and seriously wondering if everyone wouldn’t be better off if I wasn’t.
I was hardly ever hurt physically, but I was constantly either receiving, or afraid of, emotional abuse. I was a smart kid - straight A’s, top of the school in my final year and I was kinda goofy (at least I thought so). This gave plenty of ammunition for bullying. If I did well in a test, then I was obviously a swat, a nerd, and had been up all night studying instead of being cool. If I didn’t do the best in the class on a test then I was poked fun at for that. I was introverted and shy too which didn’t help my “popularity” as it were.
During that time I came to believe that who I am is not okay. That I am faulty, a reject, destined to never fit in. I was absolutely convinced nobody but my parents would ever love me. Until recently I hadn’t appreciated how much that time still plays a part in how I view myself and the world and how I interact with other people. In almost every interaction with people my default assumption is that they dislike me, or are angry with me - even when there is no evidence to suggest that whatsoever - which means I have never got as close to friends as I wish I could.
For a long time I’ve even been ashamed of the bullying I got. I’m not sure I ever got punched, certainly no blood was drawn that I can remember. If I mention to people that I was bullied, they will inevitably ask what happened, and I’ll say things like, “well, you know, I wasn’t hit or anything”. As if having a distorted view of the world and myself, having had a pretty crappy time at school, and being held back emotionally ever since isn’t “real pain”.
I think that’s the tragedy of “emotional’ bullying. Trying to explain it, or give examples of what happened, doesn’t work. It sounds trite or silly. It sounds like a normal person would be able to brush it off. It’s very personal too, what one person can brush off can lead another kid to suicide. If you have never been seriously bullied, think of it like this:
Imagine going to work, every day, and being criticised. Every day. I know a lot of adults, and I know that we all struggle with receiving criticism of our work. It hurts, maybe only for a short while, but even very constructive criticism is hard to take.
Imagine that, every day. And then imagine that it’s not your work being criticised, but it’s you, just for being who you are. For being smart, for being fat, for being goofy, for being you.
Now imagine that rather than being an adult, with a sense of self, and some core beliefs about yourself, and some self esteem - you are a kid. A kid who it still learning how the world works, trying to make friends in a weird place, trying to understand what they believe to be true about themselves.
And you are helpless. You don’t want to upset your parents, so you maybe hold back from telling them too much. You can’t fight back or you’ll get in trouble. The teachers maybe notice, but don’t seem to do much about it, and it hardly seems like getting your bullies in trouble is going to solve anything. You can’t just change school or stop going.
Only through my recent experiences with depression, and through seeking counselling, have I started to realise how much of an effect bullying has had on my life. I knew it had hurt me, but I don’t feel that stinging pain anymore, so I figured it must be “over”. I am now learning that while the pain may be over, I still view the world through a very dirty lens. My core beliefs about the world were forged at exactly the time when I was under a lot of negative emotional pressure. And once you are an adult those core beliefs are hard to budge, they certainly don’t move without a lot of retraining and willpower.
The movie that just sent me into floods of tears on an Airbus A330 over Canada was Bully. It is a documentary that follows the stories of five children, and their families, who are dealing with bullying. It is a tragic reminder of the grip that bullying has on so many young people’s lives, and how inadequately adult society deals with it.
Two of the stories covered were of children who had committed suicide, one aged eleven. The school board and police decided there was no evidence to suggest that bullying was a factor in his suicide - despite the fact that we are talking about an eleven year old committing suicide, and his best friend said he had been struggling with bullying, and on the day he killed himself was “really sad” about it.
Another girl, an academically and athletically successful honors student, was so helpless in the face of bullying she resorted to taking her mother’s gun with her on the bus and threatening the entire schoolbus. I am certainly not going to condone violence, but the interviewed police officers response: “if she was getting beaten up then I could understand, but taking a gun is never, ever, a valid response to someone saying nasty things” was telling for me in showing just how misunderstood the mind still is, and how flippantly we often regard emotional abuse and mental health issues.
Beyond the tragedy of the situations portrayed, Bully was particularly emotional for me as it helped me reflect on my experiences with bullying. Looking back on my own experiences is hard, and mixed up with poor memory, and my own prejudices - it’s easy to end up blaming myself. But hearing the stories of the children in Bully was a good reminder of just how vulnerable we are while our minds are still forming, and how the last person who should ever take blame for bullying is the victim.