Not My Bully: Part Two
I didn’t realize I had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. A concert changed everything.
By Dave Fox
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
January 18, 2017
This article is part two in a three-part series about the severe bullying I faced as a child and how I have dealt with it as an adult.
Yesterday, I wrote about how I nearly attempted suicide at age 17. Today, I explain how music has been some of my most powerful therapy.
Globejotting is a website that focuses on travel, humor, and how to become a better writer. This story is about none of those things. In the final installment tomorrow, I’ll explain why I’m deviating from my usual topics and telling my story now.
On October 7, 2000, I was in a great mood. I was working in my dream job as a website content editor and European tour guide for Rick Steves. I had just bought a condo in Seattle. I had an amazing circle of friends, many of whom were knocking on my door. My 32nd birthday party was just getting started.
My friend and co-worker, Jacquie, who knew I was a huge fan of the Welsh alternative rock band, the Alarm, showed up at my party with a surprise – a concert flier she’d torn off a telephone pole for me.
A few days earlier at work, I’d mentioned how much I loved the Alarm – not only because they played great music, but because their lyrics had carried me through the darkest moments of my teenage years.
I hadn’t gone into all the details with Jacquie. I hadn’t told her that in 1986, I’d chosen to go home and listen to the Alarm’s album, Strength, as an alternative to jumping off a bridge. All she knew was I loved their music. The band had broken up nine years earlier and I’d been lamenting to her one day, during a moment of work procrastination, that I’d never get to see them play live again.
Unbeknownst to me, however, the Alarm’s lead singer, Mike Peters, had sparked a reincarnation of sorts. He was playing all of the Alarm’s original music with a new back-up band – and they were coming to Seattle in 15 days. I shrieked when I saw the poster.
In the 1980s, the Alarm had been selling out large stadiums. Now, in 2000, they were playing a smaller, cozier venue. Two weeks after my party, I squeezed my way to the front row, stunned to be watching my favorite musician from my teenage years from two feet away.
When their set was over, I approached Mike. I told him, in vague terms, that his music had gotten me through some painful times in high school.
“Hearing that makes it all worthwhile,” he said, and he gave me a hug.
Getting a hug from the guy whose music I gave partial credit to for steering me away from a leap off a bridge 15 years earlier felt far more intimate than he could understand. He had a jovial crowd of fans waiting to talk to him. It wasn’t a great time to chat about teen suicide.
What I did not realize in the moment was this concert was about to trigger an emotional earthquake like nothing I had ever experienced.
Most of the Alarm music I owned was on vinyl or cassette. It was wearing out. So at the show, I bought a nine-CD boxed set of every album they had ever recorded. I went home and spent the rest of the weekend in my living room, listening to my new CDs over and over – obsessively.
As “Knife Edge,” the first track on Strength, played on my stereo for the third or fourth time, memories, to steal the opening line from the song, came flooding back. Something inside me cracked open.
Playing my new CDs over and over transported me back to the bedroom of my teenage years. In high school, I’d spent countless hours sitting on the floor, staring at my carpet, latching on to the lyrics for motivation to not give up. Now, at age 32, I felt as if I was back there. A torrent of emotions I hadn’t looked at in years washed over me.
I began shaking. I started to cry. The next thing I knew, I was sobbing uncontrollably. I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t turn it off. This went on for nearly two hours.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. Once I finally caught my breath, I said to myself, “Well, it felt good to get that out of my system. I’m glad it’s over.”
But it wasn’t.
I was in the throes of a full-blown nervous breakdown, and it was just getting started.
For the next several hours, every time I thought my tears were done, they started again, accompanied, as time passed, by panic that I was seriously losing my mind.
I knew it was the music that was triggering my runaway emotions. I called a friend who insisted I stop listening to it. I ignored her advice. I played CD after CD, again and again, and cried late into the night. It was as if I was trying to exorcise a tangle of ugly, ancient demons.
Monday morning, I woke up thinking I was okay. As I got in my car, I questioned whether listening to the Alarm on my way to work was a wise idea, but I popped a CD into my car’s player anyway. Halfway to work, I had to pull over. I was crying too hard to drive.
I shut off my engine, took a few minutes to pull myself together, turned around, and drove home. I called in sick, and spent the rest of the day trying to get my emotions under control. On Tuesday, I made myself drive to work in silence.
I had barely slept in three days. I was feeling angry and panicky. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I went in early so I could get my coffee and slither to my desk with minimal social interaction. I sat down in my cubicle and quietly fell apart again before telling my supervisor I needed to leave. I went home and called my therapist. When she answered her phone, I was such a mess, I could barely explain what was happening.
In her office a few hours later, Cynthia explained to me the reaction I was having was symptomatic of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The one specific bullying incident that had nearly pushed me over the edge had been part of a larger ongoing stress I had carried throughout childhood – the result of taunting I faced nearly every day for being the shortest kid in my class. I had moved away from it years ago. I had moved on with my life, learned how to be happy and confident – only, somewhere in my subconscious mind, I hadn’t.
The music unlocked memories that were now filling me with rage and sorrow, triggering flashbacks in my waking hours and tainting my dreams at night.
Cynthia insisted I take a month off of work – an idea that seemed absurdly drastic at the time, but in hindsight was what I needed. I was lucky to have a supportive employer and supervisors, and a temporary disability insurance policy that covered my lost wages.
The weeks that followed were not fun. Memories that had faded over time were razor-sharp again. My adult life up to this point had been sprinkled with occasional bouts of low-key depression, but nothing this cataclysmic. I was now realizing that stifling my memories, as I’d done for years, had put me in a state of constant, low-grade stress and fatigue.
As painful and crushing as all of this was, my meltdown 16 years ago needed to happen. I had spent my entire adult life repressing rather than releasing a chronic tangle of anxiety. I had sought counselling in the past, with limited results, but the music exposed a raw nerve that needed to be exposed – in a way no therapist had ever managed.
Counseling, meditation, massage, and some wonderful friends got me through it all, and helped carry me into a happier, more confident era of life I don’t believe I would have reached had I not gone to this concert.
Thirty-one years have passed since the initial bullying incident that sent me walking out of high school one day, wondering whether to end my life or go home and think about it. Sixteen years have passed since my PTSD diagnosis.
I’ve learned to manage my anxiety far more successfully than I did in my 20s and 30s. I’ve learned to flourish in spite of it. (And I did eventually reach a point where I could enjoy my favorite band again. I can once again gleefully play air-guitar to the Alarm in the secrecy of my shower. But let’s just keep that our little secret, okay?)
I’ve built an exciting life on the opposite side of the planet from where I grew up – in Vietnam, a country I feared as a teenager, a country I’ve come to love and call home.
Every day here, I do things I never would have believed I’d be doing back in 1986. I do crazy things I feel proud of, things that prove, to the 17-year-old Dave, who still hangs out in a quiet corner of my brain, that the low self-esteem I wrestled with as a teenager was only that. It was low self-esteem. It was never a lack of courage or coolness. It was never an indictment of my personality or my potential.
And yet, while I wish I could say the bullying I faced in childhood has no effect on me today, that’s not entirely true. The memories will always be with me. I still have moments when I feel an inflated sense of vulnerability, or an excessive reaction to things that seem unjust.
But I’ve learned, in those occasional moments when my anxiety still percolates, how to step back, breathe, assess whether or not my fear is realistic – and have big-ass adventures in spite of it.
So What’s My Point?
I’ve tried many times before to write this story. Before now, I’ve never managed to finish it. Writing this has stirred up old grief. Finishing it has taken a hell of a lot longer than I anticipated. My plan was to slam it out in a day and be done with it. Instead, it has taken me two months.
And then, after all that work, once I finally had all the words down, I found myself hesitating. Did I really want to go public with such personal details?
I have feared publishing this might create a skewed impression of the person I am today. I have feared sharing my story might come across as whiny or self-absorbed. I have feared people might worry about me – and I promise, I am fine. I’ve feared writing this could have professional repercussions.
In spite of the challenges I’ve faced, I’ve built a successful career as a best-selling author, writing coach, award-winning humorist (most humor writers are a little crazy), and international tour guide. I’m usually a happy person. But people get weird sometimes when you talk about mental health issues.
For those reasons and others, I almost decided at the last minute to keep this hidden in a private corner of my hard drive. After working on it for two months, I nearly scrapped it. Sharing this feels scary.
So, why am I doing this? Why have I just spent two months slogging through old, painful memories at the slow speed of writing, on a self-imposed, unpaid assignment that feels utterly shitty?
Why does it feel so fucking important to me to tell this story – right now?
Two months ago, something happened that made me realize, I needed to write this story, even if it meant rooting around in memories that don’t feel good. Bullying in our world is out of control, and a trite, generic, “Bullying is Bad” article wasn’t going to get my point across. And so, I decided I needed to divert from the usual themes of this website and tell my story here.
What happened two months ago that triggered all of this? I’ll explain tomorrow in the third and final installment.
If you are feeling suicidal, or if you are struggling with untreated depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues, 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.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (USA)
- International Association for Suicide Prevention
- Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide
Mike Peters, lead singer of the Alarm, has battled cancer multiple times. His wife, Jules, was diagnosed a few months ago with breast cancer. Mike has founded a cancer charity organization, the Love Hope Strength Foundation, which aims to “save lives, one concert at a time.” Learn more here.