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Not My Bully: Part One

As a teenager, bullying nearly drove me to attempt suicide. Thirty-one years later, this is my story.

By Dave Fox
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
January 17, 2017

Author’s note: Globejotting is a website that focuses on travel, humor, and how to become a better writer. This three-part article is about none of those things.

This a story about how severe bullying nearly pushed me to attempt suicide as a teenager, about my resulting diagnosis years later with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and about my concerns about a new, institutionalized kind of bullying that I feel a need to speak out against.

Globejotting is also a website about personal storytelling. In that sense, this story fits here. This a very different kind of story from anything I’ve published before. I thank you in advance for reading it. And rest assured, Globejotting’s usual mix of world travel and global goofiness will return next week.

 

scissorsIn 1986, at age 17, I came dangerously close to attempting suicide.

Thirty-one years later, that dark period in my life feels so far in the past, I don’t honestly know how serious I was about going through with it. I do know I had two different plans – pills or a leap from a bridge. And I know that when suicidal fantasies go that far, they’ve gone too far.

I had not gone out and bought the pills. I had, however, picked out a bridge.

Several things had led me into a deep depression, the most profound of which was a steady stream of bullying I had endured for years. It began when I was a young child. In my senior year of high school, I hit my breaking point.

Throughout elementary school, I faced frequent taunting for being the shortest kid in my class. By high school, I’d been conditioned to carry myself in a meek way. I didn’t realize my submissive body language was as much a bullying magnet as my height. Some self-defense classes might have done me wonders, but I never considered them because I was terrified of physical confrontation, even in the controlled environment of a martial arts dojo.

If you are feeling suicidal, or if you are struggling with untreated depression or anxiety, please be kind to yourself and contact one of the resources below.

And so, in high school, while most of the abuse I faced was verbal, and rarely escalated to anything physical, the threat was something I always felt. I lived with an ongoing fear that someone might try to hurt me. Rarely a week went by when a vague threat of some sort didn’t stir up my anxiety.

Add to my quick-to-recoil body language the fact that I carried a violin to school every day, and stayed awake late at night tapping out Morse Code messages to ham radio operators on other continents, and I just wasn’t perceived as one of the cool kids.

My one saving grace was my taste in music of the non-classical persuasion. A friend had introduced me to British new-wave and alternative rock. The records I played not only gave me an escape from my daily anxieties; they also gained me fringe acceptance among my school’s alt-rock clique.

In 1986, I had a thick head of hair (which has since left me), and a hairstyle to go with the music I listened to. I sported a “rat tail,” a wispy, three-inch strand that dangled down the back of my neck. Every morning before school, I’d soak a Kleenex in peroxide and squeeze it down my tail, turning the trail of hair from light brown to bleach blond. Among my peers, it gave me street cred.

One day, that changed.

 

Scissors

It was around eleven in the morning. I was sitting at my desk, waiting for my 12th grade law class to begin. Students were filing into the room. Our teacher had not yet shown up.

Another kid – I’ll call him Tom – had taken his seat on the other side of the classroom. Tom had a bushy nest of chronically snarled hair. He wore tie-dyed T-shirts and reeked of pot. He was what was known as a “burn-out.”

On this morning, four guys on the wrestling team began peppering Tom with anti-Semitic slurs.

I don’t know if Tom was Jewish or not – and I don’t think the guys who were hassling him knew either. They grabbed a pair of scissors from the teacher’s desk. One of the wrestlers put Tom in a headlock and urged another to cut Tom’s hair.

Tom didn’t react. He went limp. He waited for them to get bored and let go, which they eventually did. Then they spotted me.

Their ringleader started mumbling vaguely anti-Semitic comments at me. He asked if I was Jewish. As one of his friends put me in a headlock, I insisted I wasn’t – which wasn’t entirely true.

I wasn’t raised Jewish but one side of my family is of Jewish descent. But this didn’t feel like the time to go into that. I had four kids on the varsity wrestling team ganging up on me. In the heat of the moment, the best defense I could come up with was to deny my heritage.

But I don’t believe these guys had a specific issue with Jewish students. They just wanted a target. And so, convinced I wasn’t Jewish, the wrestlers changed their tack. One of them announced that my peroxide-white rat tail was “gay” – and that they were going to cure me of my gayness by cutting it off.

As I tried to break free, the rest of the students in the room sat and watched silently – as I had done moments before when Tom was the target.

In that moment, our teacher, Mr. M, arrived. The wrestlers scattered. Class began. For the next 45 minutes, I sat at my desk in the second row, listening to a constant snip, snip, snip sound from the back of the room.

Over the years, I had developed a pretty good ability to talk my way out of these sorts of situations, but this time, it felt different. I felt trapped.

After class, fearful for my safety, I asked Mr. M, who happened to be the wrestling coach, if he’d follow me to my locker. He asked me what was going on. I wouldn’t tell him. Snitching wasn’t going to help matters.

But Mr. M could tell something was up. He had seen and heard the scissors. He knew who was involved.

As we walked down the hall, Mr. M tried to get the details out of me but I wasn’t talking. Suddenly, he stopped outside the boys’ bathroom and told me to wait. He stepped inside, dragged one of the wrestlers, stolen scissors in hand, out by the collar, and pulled us both into the teacher’s lounge where he screamed at the wrestler like I’d never heard a teacher scream before.

My heart was pounding. The boy glared at me as he denied doing anything wrong. Terrified, I was agreeing with his lie, but Mr. M knew better and ignored me. This kid was sent on his way with a stern warning.

“They’re not going to bother you anymore,” Mr. M said to me.

“I really wish you hadn’t done that,” I replied.

I felt utterly fucked. Mr. M had just made things worse. Dodging this one bullet was useless. I knew there would be more to come.

 

Decision

This incident was the last humiliating straw in what had thus far been a dreadful senior year. A string of other adolescent events had already caused my depression to spiral in a way it never had before. My emotions were fried. I was unequipped to deal with them. My anxiety boiled to an unsustainable level, and I knew no way to shut it off.

I never skipped class, but on this day, I didn’t care anymore. I snuck out of school.

Tears streamed down my face as I walked through the parking lot. I looked around to see if the wrestlers were following me. And I pondered three options: Go to the bridge, go buy the pills, or go home and think about it.

I chose option three.

The_Alarm_StrengthI went home and sat on my bedroom floor. I turned my stereo up loud to muffle my sobs.

My favorite band, a group called The Alarm, had just released a new album. Many of the songs on “Strength” were about working-class struggles in the band’s native Wales. The Alarm’s perspective was a far cry from my own situation as a teenager in Bethesda, Maryland, but their music carried a deeper message of hanging on, clawing through hard times, standing up against oppressors … and surviving.

Which, obviously, I did.

I got counseling for depression. Meanwhile, the threats continued. For months, I felt hunted. For protection, I carried a can of pepper spray a friend had stolen for me from his mother’s purse – though I wondered if I’d use it if it became necessary.

Somehow, I made it through the year –taking control of the situation months after the initial encounter by snipping off my tail myself. I hadn’t wanted to do that when the incident first occurred. I didn’t want to appear weak. But once things finally started to calm down, cutting off the strand of hair that had been part of my teenage identity felt liberating. That was all the wrestlers ever wanted – to cut my tail off. Now they couldn’t.

One month after graduating, I moved to Norway, and dove into a very different life as a foreign exchange student. I never again lived in the Washington, DC, suburb where I grew up. Over time, I grew happy and confident.

And yet, for years to follow, the emotional trauma I had lived through – not just from this single incident but from a steady stream of threats and taunting through much of my childhood – still simmered in ways I hardly noticed as I plowed further into adulthood.

My life felt so genuinely, sufficiently awesome that I was oblivious to the fact something was still very wrong.

  • Part Two: A nervous breakdown, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and a concert that changed my life.
  • Part Three: “Get over it” is a favorite demand of bullies. I’ll do that on my terms, not theirs.

If you are feeling suicidal, or if you are struggling with untreated depression or anxiety, please be kind to yourself and contact one of the resources below. While severe depression can feel crippling, I know from personal experience it can be overcome. This might not happen instantly, but the pain is temporary. It gets better.

Published on Tuesday, January 17, 2017

10 Responses to “Not My Bully: Part One”

  1. Theresa Mottet
    January 17, 2017 at 11:52 PM

    Bless you Dave,

    Your authentic portrayal of a human condition too often ignored or dismissed as mental illness, It resonates with my experience after hospitalization at the age of 54. I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder. It’s taken years of self-exploration, outside help on many levels, to learn that which triggers. I’ve lived a life outside of my home town
    since late teens and have had the benefit of traveling the world and making a living out of it! You have me thinking, not as a victim but as a participant of what outside of my sensitivities, makes me feel whole and a part of something bigger. Your story gave me an “aha” moment and for that I am grateful. Here’s to sharing our authentic selves so that others may benefit! Thank you for hearing the call and acting on it. It’s time for more of the same as we learn more about the potential for compassion, especially for those who have most likely suffered as well, thus the bully!

    • January 23, 2017 at 10:22 PM

      Thank you for your openness in sharing your own story, Theresa. Depression and related issues are still highly stigmatized, and that stigma discourages many people from seeking the help they need. You are courageous to be open about your own experiences. If more people would do that, I believe it would help those who have not yet sought help to do so. That first step is often the scariest, and it can be helpful for people to see that taking it really can lead to a happier and fulfilling life, even if it might still come with occasional challenges.

      I wish you the best of luck onward!

  2. irene
    January 18, 2017 at 12:39 AM

    Thank you for an important story. I look forward to the next two parts. You are blessed.

  3. Janet
    January 18, 2017 at 1:51 AM

    Thanks for sharing this. I’m sure it was tough to write. In sixth grade, I suffered significant orchestrated bullying. Mostly, I remember understanding that, outside of the loneliness and pain it caused, it was not about me. How did I know that?

    Watching one of my (now grown) kids struggle with bullying, I was struck by what might be a universal characteristic of bully targets. We’re pretty nice people who are baffled by the bullies. It makes it hard to defend against them.

  4. January 18, 2017 at 3:52 AM

    Dave,

    You are very brave indeed to put this out here. I, too, was a depressed teen and considered the alternative to living several times. I think your ability to write humor so well is a direct result of a tumultuous childhood. Possibly it began as escape, but, at least in my case, has become a coping mechanism throughout life.
    As class clown, none of the (few) people I have kept in touch with believe I was that depressed.

    Thanks for sharing a very personal story. i look foward to reading the rest.

    Peace and laughter,

    Julles

  5. January 18, 2017 at 4:10 AM

    Hello, Dave,
    Thank you for sharing your story. I appreciate the honesty and humanity. I can imagine it was tough to write and publish.

    It’s funny–I grew up in the same area and graduated high school in 1988. I have now been traveling long-term for a while but am visiting Bethesda while I’m sorting out the next steps. If I am here when you are, it would be nice to meet you sometime.

  6. Billie
    January 18, 2017 at 6:12 AM

    Thank you so much for the gift of this very personal story. I appreciate your sharing it with us and the resources for suicide prevention.

  7. January 18, 2017 at 2:49 PM

    It’s important to let others know about bullying, but it is hard to stop it. Your fear of it getting worse when confronted is often the case unless there is a systematic and sustained effort to stamp it out. One of my adult daughters has been employed by a domestic violence prevention program to go to high schools and work with both bullies and victims. It’s important but demanding work, and it seems like there is no end to it. I think it is very brave of you to share this, and important to let those who have been bullied and are considering self-harm to know that they are not alone in their suffering.

    I’m glad you have soldiered on, and I wish you all the best. You are a very kind, funny man who is in a league of his own when it comes to teaching humor writing.

    I remain your grateful student and dedicated fan.

    Robb

  8. January 18, 2017 at 6:23 PM

    This is beautifully written, Dave, and it must have taken guts to share it. I’m sure many people will be glad you did as it will be helpful to those who have suffered similar and awful experiences like this. I hope writing about this proved to be therapeutic in some way.

    Thanks as always for putting yourself out there and making us all better writers!

  9. January 23, 2017 at 10:17 PM

    Thanks everybody for the kind comments. And yeah, publishing this was a little bit terrifying (yes, I realize “a little terrifying” is an oxymoron) but at this moment in history, some things were stirred up that made me feel like it needed to be told.

    I’ve heard from a lot of people — in private messages as well as these comments — who have had similar experiences. One thing I’ve been reminded by all of the comments I’ve received is that those of us who have gotten through this sort of thing need to recognize our own strength to have pushed through.

    The emotional traumas that linger can leave us thinking we’re weak, but having the strength and courage to get through things like this is anything but weak … and we owe it to ourselves to celebrate who we uniquely are.

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