When the Bullied Becomes the Bully (You Can’t Punch Up, So You Punch Down)

A study from JAMA Psychiatry, as reported in Time, looks at the effects of bullying in school into adulthood, from the perspective of all parties involved, the bullied and the bullies themselves.

First, I’ll say that I’m always glad to see any recognition that bullying has long-term effects, as I’ve lived my life being told that “it was all in the past,” that “everyone goes through it,” and that one should just “get over it.” But of course that’s nonsense. Here’s the study’s author, William Copeland of Duke University:

What this study really suggests is that what goes on at school, and what goes on between peers, may be just as important in understanding their long-term function as what goes on at home. In childhood, when kids are in school, they spend a lot more time with their peers than they do with their parents so we should not be so surprised about this.

It’s hard for me to imagine that this has not always been obvious. Anyway. From the article:

After controlling for family hardships that might also make these mental health issues more likely, the researchers found distinct patterns of psychiatric problems that distinguished the bullies from their victims. Victims of bullying were nearly three times as likely to have issues with generalized anxiety as those who were not bullied, and 4.6 times as likely to suffer from panic attacks, or agoraphobia, in which they felt trapped or had no escape, compared to those who were spared bullying.

No surprises to me, there, but again, it’s validating to see it backed up by science. Indeed, all those symptoms are very, very familiar to me even today, especially after some unpleasantness that was visited upon me a couple of years ago.

Bullies themselves showed a four times higher risk of antisocial personality disorder as adults compared to those who did not bully others . . .

I have to admit, my first reaction to the topic of troubles for those who did the bullying was “boo-hoo, poor babies.” But of course, this kind of behavior rarely occurs in a vacuum, and there are likely situations in which these bullies are growing up that encourage bullying or make a kid feel compelled to it. Which leads us to this…

. . . and children who reported being both bullies and victims seemed to fare the worst of all; these participants showed a nearly five times greater risk of depression as young adults compared to those who had not both given and received bullying behavior, and a 14.5 times greater risk of having a panic disorder. These effects also showed some gender differences; women had a dramatically higher risk, at nearly 27 times, of having agoraphobia, while men showed an 18.5 times greater prevalence of suicidal tendencies.

I had never even thought about this as a category, but it makes a lot of sense as I think back to those ugly days. Imagine: In desperation to avoid being bullied, or to make up for it in the eyes of your peers or in your own sense of self, you yourself turn to bullying someone else. In other words, since you find yourself unable to punch up, you opt to punch down.

I even found myself in a similar circumstance. As the lowest kid on the totem pole, I at times managed to befriend some less-reviled kids in middle and high school. But I also remember feeling so terrified of being socially demoted back to the bottom, that I’d single out those few kids who I perceived to be a notch under me, even if they had at one point been my friends, and haplessly find ways to lift myself up by singling them out. I never “bullied” per se, but I did make a handful of bungled attempts at teasing, which always backfired and wound up making me look worst of all. Which, in those cases, was just.

So anyway, I get it: the middle-ground. According to the study, I would have been better off to stay at the base of the totem pole, hunker down, and bear those years with a little more character.


What’s not news is that high school is, for many, hell. But the effects of one’s experiences during adolescence (and for this purpose I’ll use “high school” as shorthand for the general puberty-through-adolescence time period, which can include middle school and junior high) are often minimized, at least in my anecdotal experience. For most of my adulthood, I’ve been keenly aware of how my high school experiences have shaped me, mostly for the worse, but even the most well-meaning and caring people in my life minimize them, saying, “But it was just high school. It was tough for everybody!” The message being, really, get over it.

I know better now. Especially after the tough work of recovering from PTSD brought screaming into prominence by a violent attack a couple of years ago, I’ve come to understand just how formative my experiences between the ages of 10 to 18 really were. I won’t go through everything I’ve learned, but suffice it to say, “get over it” was never an option — one forms an understanding of one’s self and one’s surroundings at a time when the mind is most malleable, and most prone to rely upon the lizard brain, as it were. When painful interactions take place, it’s not just unpleasant, the adolescent brain goes into fight-or-flight mode. For me, being the subject of relentless bullying and mockery and humiliation at the hands of my peers, I learned to be in fight-or-flight mode during almost all of my waking hours. My lizard brain never got a chance to rest.

How could that not shape how I behave today? How I perceive myself, and how I believe myself to be perceived by others?

All this comes to mind as I read an amazing piece in New York Magazine by Jennifer Senior on a growing understanding of high school’s effect on us into adulthood. The gist is that research is showing more and more that a) we are far more affected by, and haunted by, our high school experiences than we’d previously believed, and that b) high school itself is a sociological shitshow, a horrible environment to place hundreds of strangers who are all mushy of brain and lacking in self-knowledge. It was, to say the least, eye-opening.

One thing that was enlightening to me was an explanation of what causes this shitshow to begin with. Senior writes:

Absent established hierarchies and power structures (apart from the privileges that naturally accrue from being an upperclassman), kids create them on their own, and what determines those hierarchies is often the crudest common-­denominator stuff—looks, nice clothes, prowess in sports—­rather than the subtleties of personality.

So right off the bat, I was in trouble. Small, clumsy, uninterested in sports, quirky. I was predestined to be screwed. Plus, I was new: I entered middle school having just moved to the area, and I had no connections to anyone in school. Like I said, screwed.

At the time they experience the most social fear, they have the least control; at the time they’re most sensitive to the impressions of others, they’re plunked into an environment where it’s treacherously easy to be labeled and stuck on a shelf. “Shame,” says Brené Brown, a researcher at the University of Houston, “is all about unwanted identities and labels. And I would say that for 90 percent of the men and women I’ve interviewed, their unwanted identities and labels started during their tweens and teens.”

Now there was a word with resonance for me. Shame. Shame permeated my every thought and breath during those years, and its essence is still palpable to me today. More on that:

Shame [is a] . . . global, crippling sensation. Those who feel it aren’t energized by it but isolated. They feel unworthy of acceptance and fellowship; they labor under the impression that their awfulness is something to hide. “And this incredibly painful feeling that you’re not lovable or worthy of belonging?” asks Brown. “You’re navigating that feeling every day in high school.”

Most of us, says Brown, opt for one of three strategies to cope with this pain. We move away from it, “by secret-keeping, by hiding”; we move toward it, “by people-pleasing”; or we move against it “by using shame and aggression to fight shame and aggression.” Whichever strategy we choose, she says, the odds are good we’ll use that strategy for life, and those feelings of shame will heave to the surface, unbidden and unannounced, in all sorts of unfortunate settings down the road.

And so I have. I hid as best I could, I tried to blend, to not be noticed. On top of being mired in self-loathing, I was also exhausted from the effort I expended to avoid attack in the first place.

And, as I learned, these patterns did not disappear as I grew up. They manifested themselves even in what should have been the safest, most welcoming, or benign of circumstances, causing me to perceive danger to my sense of self in all situations, causing me to be stunted and paralyzed. I carried with me the shame.

I’m now much more aware of this as a physiological phenomenon than I ever was. Even when I experience this fear, this shame (and I still do a lot), I can at the very least identify it as an artifact of a bygone time. Even if my body and my lizard brain are in fight-or-flight, my higher self can at least understand what’s happening, and perhaps take steps to mitigate. Take the trolling and abuse I’ve been subject to on Twitter and on this blog, for example, because I dared suggest that people in privileged situations should do more listening than arguing. When I’m attacked for this, even by those who are clearly not worthy of my attention, my heart rate rises, my chest tightens, blood flows from my brain to my muscles as though I’m getting ready to run away from a tiger. I’m in fight-or-flight again. I’m in high school again.

But look, there’s no escaping that high school has shaped me, for better or ill, so there’s no point in pretending I’m totally at ease now, or with simply letting it all go — particularly following my assault. Like it or not, I am as I am, which includes the baggage of shame I have been lugging with me since I was 10 years old. The silver lining is that I can identify it for what it is, I can learn from it, I can use it to help my son and daughter manage better than I did, and I can make it serve as fuel for creativity and thought.

That is, when my heart rate goes back to normal.

After the Attack, the Work

I’m not sure if this was a “secret,” if I intentionally haven’t written about this because it was too personal, or what. Well. The thing is, since I was beaten to a bloody pulp by a couple of thugs outside my home Metro stop back in DC over two years ago, I’d been in therapy to deal with the psychological aftermath. I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, and I underwent two years of treatment using a therapy known as EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), working to heal some of the damage that was not visible on my face, head, and body.
And today was my last day.

So I’m cured! I am now officially devoid of any psychological problems. I am the very picture of mental health. I have the perfect psyche.

Well, no, but I’ve come a long way, and if I haven’t written about therapy before, I figure a good way to mark the occasion is to talk about it in this public forum. Or maybe it’s not, and this is a bad idea. Maybe I’m looking for something of a back-pat from the interwebs, and maybe I just need to, as it were, say it out loud to make it real.

When I started therapy two years ago, I was a wreck. My wife and I had decided to leave DC rather suddenly after the attack, figuring that we’d be better off in Maine, surrounded by my wife’s family (which is an awesome family), living in an environment far less hostile than DC, and giving our then-infant son a better place to grow up.

But of course, we arrived with little in the way of plans. We lived with relatives for a time, and I scrambled for employment (I had been working for the Secular Coalition for America at the time of the attack, but was already on my way out). It was a long time before I felt together enough to work, or to even look for work, and the pickings were rather slim. My work experience, my advanced degree in political management, none of it mattered much now that I was far away from Washington. I had to take what I could get.

So during my first session with my therapist, the cast had just come off my arm, we were broke, I was unemployed, my wife was still looking for permanent employment, we were living with one of my in-laws, and I was in such a dark, ugly place that I began to see my very existence as a detriment to the well-being of my wife and son. I had nightmares and would sink into reveries of sadness and guilt, or from out of nowhere would experience a sense of panic, feeling a need to physically run away from…toward…I didn’t know. Sad, scared, ashamed, paranoid, embarrassed, weary, resigned, terrified.

Therapy, if you’re doing it right, will get to work on the problem you came in for, yes, but will also address whatever might surround the event in question, other things in my life and mind that gave the attack the meaning that I would come to give it. I think we did it right. The work we did in therapy certainly targeted the assault — heavily — but managed to clean out a lot of other cruft that had built up over the years, over the decades. The attack was an extremely traumatic event, of course, but it had been colored by myriad other events from my past, a sickly array of self-conceptions and assumptions that I had spent a lifetime inculcating myself with, being miseducated about by the world around me. We targeted that stuff, too.

We didn’t fix it all, but we shrunk it. We got me to perceive those things as closer to their actual size, to their actual power. I didn’t lose all my misperceptions about myself or how others see me, but I learned to at least acknowledge that they may not all be true. Guys, I’m telling you, that’s huge.

You know what? I got bored with the memory of the attack. What was once a horror movie I would replay in my head over and over with new feelings of terror and dread with each mental reenactment, eventually became a sad rerun of a show that I was tired of seeing. That, I’m telling you, is huge.

So I’m not “cured.” I don’t think I ever will be, and quite frankly, I don’t want to forget. I don’t want to lose what will now forever be a part of my story, a part of who I am. What the work helped accomplish was making the attack no longer define who I am. And it began the work of not letting all the darkness that came before it define who I am — the years of mockery, bullying, and harassment all through middle and high school, the professional failures and life mistakes made in adulthood, my hangups and neuroses. Not exclusively define me, anyway. They will all always be a part of me, but I learned that they’re not all that I am.

You know what I think was the big tip-off that it was time to wrap things up? When my therapist realized that the things that troubled me, that the things that consumed me, were, well, predictable. Banal. My toddler is behaving badly. Work is stressful. Money is always tight. But that’s stuff everyone deals with. And that’s what was consuming me. Not self-doubt. Not a tar pit of guilt and shame. Not terror and fear. Just, you know, the life of a grownup with kids. It’s, well, normal.

I never thought I could ever describe anything about myself that way. I’ll take it.

*  *  *

(For previous writings on this topic, you can read posts under this tag.)

The Attack

On the evening of October 26, I was returning home from my second day of training at my new part-time job. I was in the midst of a transition; in my last week at my desk job as a communications manager at a nonprofit and moving to working weekends and some nights so I could be a stay-at-home daddy. On this day, a Tuesday, I had worked a normal day at my old job, and gone straight to train at my new job.

I traveled home by Metro to the Stadium-Armory stop, arriving around 11:00 PM. As I ascended the escalator from the station, I could hear a lot of activity at the bus stop at the top of the stairs. A lot of people were being loud and rowdy, a lot of laughing and shouting. It made me nervous, not so much because I was afraid of being harmed, but I had a kind of flashback-to-middle-school feeling, that a group of rowdy young people would choose me as a target for mockery. It’s an old instinct that I’ve never been able to shake.

I moved briskly past the group and began the walk to my home. I felt more and more vulnerable, so I quickened my pace. I had my backpack on my back and hung my hooded sweatshirt by the hood on my head, not wearing it but simply letting it dangle off my head.

Only a handful of paces from the Metro stop, I heard a pair of very fast footfalls behind me, and before I even had a chance to wonder why someone would be running, before I had a chance to be frightened by it, I had been struck a powerful and painful blow to my head. I was being attacked.

Two people had snuck up behind me, run at me, and began beating me, severely, brutally, mostly about my head and face. They shouted things at me, peppered with curses of various kinds, but I couldn’t make out specific sentences or commands because of the blows to my head. I began to make out something about giving them my items (I had my iPhone and wallet on me), and tried to aquiesce. But even as I attempted to speak, just to shout “okay” in order to let them know they could have my items, they kept hitting me.

At one point, I managed to stagger to a standing position, I presumed to give them my wallet and phone. But no, the moment I stood, they continued to hit me. As I was knocked down a second time, and fell upon the palms of my hands, my wallet, phone, and keys simply fell out of my pockets and on to the ground. I was given a few more blows, and my attackers grabbed my items and ran off. I never saw their faces. I presume that was intentional.

I was seized with desperation to get home. I was in pain, yes, but my head was ringing, and I felt wetness all over me. I tried to stand, and could not even make it to a crouch, and fell again to my palms. I tried again, got a little closer to standing, but my legs were not ready, and I fell again. On my third attempt, I managed to stand and “walk,” but it wasn’t much of a walk. I blundered a few steps, and careened into a fence off to my left, collapsing again. Finally, I stood and managed to begin walking home, slow but determined, moaning, dizzy, and wet. All I knew was that my nose was bleeding.

It was late. After laboring up the steps to the front of our house, I pathetically slapped the door and called out for my wife, in a voice that sounded more like a ghostly version of myself, a half-moan, half-sob. My hand smeared blood on the white door as I struck it.

Luckily, Jessica awoke fairly quickly and opened the door. Of course, she was terrified by what she saw. She would later tell me that I resembled something out of a horror movie; I was covered in blood, my face mashed and distorted. I think I groaned something akin to “I was mugged.” I stumbled into the living room and sat on the floor, moaning as the pain began to make itself known, and the reality of what had happened began to sink in. Fear was taking hold.

My baby boy Toby was still blessedly asleep in his room upstairs.

Jessica wasted no time and called 911, then rushed to our neighbor’s door. She awakened them (and their collection of big, loud dogs) and asked one of them to come to our house to tend to Toby once the ambulance arrived to cart us away. Jessica at some point after that contacted our friends Ryan and Brooke, who we knew far better than our most excellent neighbors, and had cared for Toby before, and asked them to come and relieve our neighbors and take over Toby-sitting duties. They did not let us down.

Paramedics arrived, as did police but I never saw them. I was put on a stretcher, and put on the ambulance, but Jess was not. I started asking after Toby, not knowing what had been arranged, and one paramedic filled me in. They removed my wedding ring, they scissored my pants and shirt looking for wounds — I later learned that they thought I might have been stabbed (I was not). I asked if I was going to be okay, and, oddly, they would not tell me. I think that’s because they didn’t know.

The ambulance began to pull away with Jess still outside. This was because she was taking care of other important business; flagging down police, Ryan and Brooke, and somewhat miraculously, identifying the attackers.

It seems that police were close enough to the scene when Jess called 911 that they were able to pick out two people who seemed “not right.” As soon as the police’s lights were put on them, they dropped a phone, wallet, and keys and ran — though to no avail, as the police caught them. Jess was brought over to the scene of the attack — secretly — to confirm that the items they dropped were indeed mine. So, yes, folks, if you can believe it, they caught the attackers and I got my stuff back that night. (Just a couple of days ago, I found out that my attackers plead guilty to felony assault with significant injury and felony robbery, and will be sentenced in February.)

Meanwhile, at the hospital, I was being treated. It was chaos from my perspective; I rarely had any good idea of what was being done to me, though a few things I do recall; x-rays, a CT scan, and most painful of all, stitches in my head. At my more lucid moments, I tried to make jokes, and then I would panic or confess to being terrified of what was happening to me. The hospital staff, on the whole, was wonderful and kind.

Jess got to the hospital and spent hours waiting to be able to see me, contacting friends and relatives, and talking with detectives.

Eventually, Jess was allowed to see me. It was the first time she’d seen me since I had been carted away hours before. As she entered the trauma unit where I lay, I said to her, “I have an idea: why don’t we move?”

I’ve recounted in previous posts some of the physical damage I took, but to be specific, my head and face were quite mashed up. I had a fracture in my right orbital bone (the bone just below my eye, the top of my cheek), a gash in my scalp, and the right side of my face was swollen to an absurd degree. My right eye was mostly closed and the eyeball was half-covered in red. I could not close my jaw or open it very wide (and still can’t), and a facial nerve was damaged in the attack, causing some of my upper teeth to go numb (and they still are). In general, my entire head and face, but particularly my scalp and mask area (eyes and nose) were covered in painful bruises.

From the several falls, my hands and wrists were damaged. The muscles in my hands and fingers were shocked and hurt for weeks with sharp pain. Two bones in both my wrists impacted into cartilage as well; for some reason my left wrist got the worst of that, and is in a cast today. The right wrist is also damaged, though not as badly, though I had already been undergoing weeks of physical therapy for tendonitis and carpal tunnel related problems in that wrist before the attack, so all of that work was thrown out the window.

For weeks, I could not chew, I could not lift a glass of water. I could not really be hugged. I could not hold my boy, or
let him near my head (as he likes to show affection by smacking me in the face). When I finally allowed myself to look at myself in the mirror, two days after the attack, I was shocked — I looked far worse than I had expected. I was, in general, something of a wreck, as you might imagine. But every day I have gotten a little better.

Obviously, I am psychologically affected. Suffice it to say, I am more afraid, more skittish, less trusting. I feel more vulnerable, and I feel that my family is more vulnerable, then ever in my life. I still relive the attack, the walk home, several times a day. Sometimes it’s clinical, or just a distant narrative. Other times it feels like it’s happening all over again. I find myself locked in morbid fantasies of further similar attacks — what if my boy is with me when I’m attacked? What if I can’t get in touch with anyone? What if they go for my wife? Earlier on the same day of my attack, a rock had been thrown at our door, breaking its glass, while our nanny was with our son. I’m told this is a way of “casing” a house for alarms or dogs. That only adds to my fear.

I have never had a high opinion of my species, and the attack served to exemplify its worst and best aspects. The two who attacked me made me feel worse about my fellow humans than I ever had before — not to mention the large group of people at the bus stop who watched all of it take place and did nothing to stop it — but the people who came to my aid, both professionally and friends in the moment, reminded me of the heights of goodness of which we’re capable. Both stay with me, the low and the high.

I have been blessed with support. People have helped us with babysitting, with expenses, with meals, you name it. Our family, friends, neighbors, and even people we’ve never met came out swinging the second they were needed, and there are too many to name. I am so grateful for these people.

I don’t feel “lucky” as many have said I should. It usually goes something like “You’re lucky you survived” or “You’re lucky they didn’t have a knife” or something like that. I understand the sentiment, but no, I’m not lucky. If I’m “lucky they didn’t have a knife,” that assumes a world in which the zero-point, the point of normalcy, is to be severely beaten by two anonymous thugs and then stabbed. Only then are you “lucky” not to be stabbed. Though I suppose it’s a good thing that my attackers were caught and convicted, I don’t feel triumphant. I know they will likely only come out of prison worse than when they went in. There is little vindication in this.

But I am glad. I am so deeply glad to be alive. I am so glad I did survive. Yesterday I celebrated my 33rd birthday, alive, intact, mobile, able to slowly gnaw through a pizza, hug my wife, and cuddle my baby boy. We’re moving out of DC this month to live a more peaceful, more fulfilling life in Maine.

I’m optimistic. I’m getting better. I have a long, long way to go, and many more wounds to heal. But I’m so glad to still be around.