MEMOIR: HISTORY (FINAL–BETTER)
When I was sixteen my entire life fell to bits, as if poorly made, the warranty long expired. It was the year I had what was then called a breakdown, following surgery to have my appendix removed. It was the year I met my first psychiatrist. The year I entered a psychiatric hospital for the first (but not last) time.
It was the year so much happened to me, inside me, and around me. It felt as if my whole life had been building up to this eruption, and yet that very eruption turned out to be much less interesting than the question of why had it taken so long to turn up? Why hadn’t it happened earlier?
I was in high school, in Year 11, what was once called Fourth Year. It was harder than I could manage, harder than I could even imagine. I had failed the mid-year exams, and felt as if I were drowning every day and nobody could see the trouble I was in. I was going down. I couldn’t touch bottom. Between the work I couldn’t do, the bullies I couldn’t escape, and the noise in my head that wouldn’t leave me alone, I was done for, or so I thought–
Flashback. February, 1969. Man has yet to set foot on the Moon. One little boy has yet to set foot inside his grade one classroom, but today is the day. Day one, grade one.
And there I was, a little boy in grey polyester-cotton, with my my mum, and school was about to start. It was a big day. I was five years old. I was upset. This was a lot to deal with. My mum had walked me to school this morning. She held my hand in hers. When we got there, I asked her, crying, if she would wait for me. She was crying, too. She said she would. It was okay. I was scared. It was bad. There were all these other kids. The polyester-cotton shirt I was wearing chafed my neck. I can feel it even now. I remember that texture on my skin. I was scared. All my life up to this point I’d always been with family. I’d never been on my own. Not like this. Not for this long–half a day. It was too much.
Mum left to go and wait in the Boys’ Shed (she actually went home, because she wasn’t seriously about to spend half a day sitting in a drafty shed waiting for me). I joined the line for grade one. Everyone was nervous, fidgety, talkative. It was scary and exciting.
But just then a Level 1 Bully named Geoffrey and his droog Craig pushed me out of this line and I fell, shocked, hot with outrage, to the bitumen. That bitumen was hard, rough, and, on that February morning,it was hot under my tiny hands. Bits of dark grit pushed against my skin and hurt. I hurt all over. The world loomed and towered over me as I sat there looking up.
Sometimes, even now, I feel as if I never got up off that bitumen. As if I’ve been trying to get up off that bitumen my whole damned life.
And here we were. The beginning of the whole thing. My first day of school, and my first experience of bullying. I was five years old. Up to this moment, sprawled on the hot bitumen, my life had been good and happy. Now I was confused, and that was giving way to fury. I wanted to scream, and cry, because nothing like this had happened to me before. WHY DID YOU DO THAT TO ME? I wanted to scream at the other boy, who had shoved me over. Who had initiated me. Who had shown me that I was a joke, and you could see that because he and Craig were laughing at me.
If I were a Time Traveller visiting this shocked and upset little boy, three feet tall and full of towering fury, I would tell him that that question would haunt him for the next twelve years. Every single day there would be bullies of one sort or another. That some bullies understand only brute force; while others know the power of cutting, quiet remarks; and others still understand how to manipulate public opinion. The ways of the bully are many and various. In time I would see everything. And all the time, every time, I would think, Why did you do that to me? Why do it? What do you get out of it? Is it power? Is it the sight of someone else’s suffering? Are you like a vampire who feeds on the pain and misery of others? Or is it just because it’s funny? Because it’s entertaining, toying with the weak, the defenceless, the soft?
I remember laughter. Bullies were always laughing and joking with their mates. So I guess that’s it. It’s entertaining. It’s fun. Sure, it’s dehumanising for the victim. But hey, it’s just a joke–can’t you take a joke? We’re just joking around! When did you get so boring, Bedford?
Trust me, I’ve always been boring.
Many years later, I learned that bullies are often the victims of a higher-level form of bullies, or even of abuse at the hands of their parents or close relatives. They’re playing “Hot Potato”, and in many respects need help and therapeutic interventions as much as their victims. As a Time Traveller I will just note here that telling a child who’s been the target of systematic, daily bullying, mocking, harassment, torment–that his nemesis is also a victim of some kind of awful abuse will likely result in very mixed feelings at best and indifference at worst. “So what!” is what you’d likely say, at the time, nursing your own pain. But later, you’d think. You’d wonder.
My junior, short-pants self is on the bitumen. He’s furious about what’s just happened, what Geoffrey’s done to him, and the way the other kids are staring. He’s not interested in a seminar on Bully Studies. He wants justice. He wants, quite possibly, bloody revenge. I remember, as a boy, many nights in bed, imagining the Bruce Lee/Batman-esque action sequences in which I would destroy my tormentors—and those who allowed my tormentors to do their thing.
I have thought a great deal about bullying, especially as I’ve grown older, and seen how we humans carry it with us into adulthood, this need to crush those we see as weak, those we think of of as “beta” animals or “prey”. I know there are people who have whole detailed personal mythologies built around the idea of themselves as “apex predators”. The Internet has been a wonderful thing in many respects, but it’s been fabulous for these creeps.
It seems to me the real problem with “bullying” is with the terminology. The word itself. The word “bullying” comes packed with connotations of the schoolyard, of kids’ stuff, of childish things we put away once we’re adults. Everything about the word reinforces these notions. It feels weird calling an adult coworker or an abusive spouse a “bully”. The accusation lacks punch and sting, I think.
It would, I think, be better if, starting in school, or even in kindergarten if necessary, we referred to instances of bullying behaviour as abuse, personal abuse, and those who do it as abusers. It’s a word that does work in the adult world. It has a heft and weight about it. It matters. Bullies can smile at that accusation (“can’t you take a joke, love?”), but the suggestion that they might be an abuser might matter to them.
Though, also from my personal observations of such people over many years, maybe not. There are arseholes who live to piss off everyone around them, who love to “get a rise out of” people.
It was people like these, years and years of them, every single day at school, and by the time I got to high school sometimes even a couple of teachers as well, who contributed to my breakdown. Even now I think of them all the time. It’s as though they live with me, sharing their views and opinions. Their fascinating opinions. I see certain people in the media—pundits, columnists, opinion artists, people who get paid to be obnoxious and loud, to be, “controversial”, and I think, “you were a bully, weren’t you, mate? Maybe you’re you’re still a bully.” Politics and sports also seem like natural career options for the dedicated bully.
One of the most terrifying things about bullying, and even the psychological threat of bullying, in my opinion, was the certain knowledge that the teachers doing yard patrol tacitly approved of it. They would see it happening or about to happen, and they would walk off the other way. If you approached them, even if you were bleeding, they would often make various formal noises, demand to know who did it, but refuse to intervene. Some even seemed to find it difficult to suppress smirks. Even if you managed to drag your bully with you up to a supervising teacher to complain, the teacher would make various punitive noises in the right sort of scornful voice, as if playing a part in community theatre, and force you and the bully to shake hands, and you’d do it, all sullen and, “Yes, Miss,” about it, with a muttered sorry–but as soon as the teacher was gone, it was all back on again, and worse now because you got the teacher involved. And it was the same if you got your parents involved. They would visit the bully’s parents, and there would be a scene. Sometimes a nasty scene. There would be promises, and a sense of justice done. Until next day, when the bullying was back on, only twice as bad, because you tried to escalate matters. Because you tried to fight back. And that was not on.
There was no help. No-one was coming to save you. I had some friends who were oddballs and outcasts like me, but also like me they were prey animals and just as likely to find themselves on the receiving end of abuse. We did what we could (travelling in herds), but the predators had too many tricks.
“Watch out after school, Bedford, we’re gonna bloody kill ya!” I heard that many times. What puzzled me was why they expected me to turn up to my own beating. I didn’t. There were other ways to leave school. But they’d keep at you, day after day, these sneered whispers as you were exiting the classroom for lunch. “We’re gonna getcha, Bedford!” Now, they seem so hopeless, but when I was a kid, they made me afraid all the time. I was afraid the entire time I was at school, and all the way home. Before I got a bike I would often try to run home, and try to be sneaky about which ways I went to confuse anyone following. I couldn’t relax until I reached my bedroom.
Nowadays, I know even that sense of a final refuge is denied bullied kids. Bullies can get to them not just with nasty whispers in passing along a school corridor or on the playground but inside their phones, in their most personal, private place. There is no place such bullies can’t reach you. I see these reports, and it makes me think, especially when the story is about a kid who’s committed suicide due to bullying. I never seriously contemplated suicide, but then I had a safe place to go. Even when my dad was moody or strange or angry and yelling, I could retreat to my room. It was mine. Nobody could get me here. But if I was a kid today, and if I had a phone full of abuse? Of countless voices telling me I should kill myself?
I can’t guarantee I wouldn’t do it. I can’t guarantee anything. It’s terrifying, and I’m just plain lucky, simple as that, an accident of birth, that I came along in the time period I did, when it was possible to keep out the bullies.
And yet, even with solid brick walls between me and them, it wasn’t enough. There were too many, and some of them were teachers. One of my high school maths teachers. One of my Phys Ed teachers. One of my Physics and Chemistry teachers.
What also went against me was that I was sick. My brain was messing with my perception of everything, including my perception of myself. I believed terrible things about myself. I suspected that the few girls who were nice to me in fact had ulterior, sinister motives, that they were playing a prank. I didn’t dare accept their fleeting gestures of kindness because I believed myself unworthy of it. I believed the bullies. I believed the voices. I believed I was monstrous.
When I was sixteen, my whole life, such as it was, with its unbearable burdens of grinding schoolwork, unending homework and constant bullying, simply broke and fell to bits, as if poorly made from cheap parts. At the time it felt like the greatest disaster I could imagine.
But it was in fact the greatest opportunity, a blessing, a rare moment of cosmic grace offered to an unhappy and mixed-up boy. It took him a long time to see this.
But he did come to see it.
And it saved his life.