I’d like to believe that I am a good person and, for the most part, I know that’s true. However, there is one dark secret from my past that still haunts me. For many years, I was a terrible bully.
In the beginning, I wanted desperately to be liked. My home life was different from that of most children. I didn’t have a mom or a dad, and my maternal uncle, who — along with his boyfriend — raised my older brother and me, moved us nearly every year because of work. We were perpetually new kids, and constantly finding new friends was a challenge at best, and anxiety inducing at worst.
It didn’t help that I was always a bit on the awkward side. Maybe that had to do with my personality, or maybe it was because of the physical and verbal abuse we experienced growing up. While I can honestly say my brother and I had a much better childhood than our mother, uncle and aunt, I understand now that our upbringing was less than ideal. We were loved, but we were also hit — with hands, with belts, with words — and that violence created a broken sense of self-worth and a difficulty in making true connections with others.
That strangeness in me was readily apparent to other kids. Within days of starting at a new school, I would be labeled an outcast, then endure the repetitive teasing that came along with being so weird. They would tease me about my clothes, my body and my face, and the more vicious kids would threaten to kick my ass if I dared to defend myself.
In fourth grade, after being transferred in the middle of the school year, I was once again targeted by a bully. The girl, whose name I’ve long forgotten, made it a point to make fun of my face, telling everyone within earshot how ugly, brown and strange I looked.
“Your new name is Big Nose,” she declared, and everyone around her laughed. I told her to shut up, and walked away. As I left, I felt the force of two hands shove me into the wall. When I whipped around, the girl was in my face.
“You wanna fight?” she yelled.
I was tired of being attacked. Tired of being the butt of people’s jokes. Tired of feeling afraid, ashamed and disliked. In that moment, I decided that the only way it would stop was if I fought back.
“Yeah,” I said. I was calm, and even though inside I could feel my body shaking, I stared her in the eye. My response startled her. I could tell she expected me to back down, to cower in fear. I didn’t, and I never again would.
She backed away and mumbled something about watching my ass because she would really get me next time. Of course, she never did.
The next year, once again at a new school, before anyone had the chance to humiliate me, I took matters into my own hands. I grabbed a classmate by his hair and threatened to punch him if he looked at me the wrong way. I called a young girl in my class “fat ass” and “porky,” even though she’d never done anything to me.
I was, for the first time in my life, accepted into the “cool kids” group, only because they were afraid of my temper. I thought their fear was respect. I thought their willingness to let me stand with them at lunch was friendship.
In middle school, I started getting into regular fights. I was suspended twice for fighting with students on campus and once for fighting a girl at our bus stop. I never backed down, never chickened out — in fact, I usually instigated it. I enjoyed the misconstrued respect I thought I had. No one could hurt me if I hurt them first. If a friend told me someone was bothering them, I wouldn’t ask questions; I would find their nemesis and knock them to the ground, without warning. When I wasn’t harassing others, I was smoking weed or drinking with my friends. I was only 12.
The behavior carried on in high school, when, during ninth grade orientation, I pulled a knife out of my pocket to scare a girl who had given me a dirty look and threw up her hands in a gesture of “let’s fight” a week earlier in the mall. An administrator caught me, and I was immediately expelled.
At home, the abuse had reached a detrimental level. My uncle’s partner was secretly vicious to me whenever we were alone. He would tell me that I was worthless, a c***, a bastard, that no one wanted me, let alone loved me. He thrived on breaking me down until I would cry. I would translate that pain into how I acted at school, breaking students down in much the same way. It was cyclical and ugly. It was the way I believed the world worked.
When we moved to a new state a year later, and I was again enrolled in public school, I continued with the same behavior. I didn’t know how to relate to anyone if it didn’t include some form of violence.
A few years later, at the age of 17, I became a mom. I’d like to tell you that my stupidity and aggressiveness went away the minute I held my son to my chest, but the truth is that I spent several more years acting out and empowering myself by disempowering others.
A change came when I, at 20 and the mother of two sons, realized that I needed therapy, badly. I sat down with my first therapist and detailed the chronic abuse I experienced at home and how angry I felt all the time. The therapist helped me see a connection between my abuser and how I abused others. In that moment, I realized that I had been embodying the person who hurt me the most, and that wasn’t who I wanted to be.
I also didn’t want to set the example for my own children. I had been hurt, and I wanted to protect them from ever feeling the pain I had endured. Because of them, and because of myself, I made the conscious decision to change.
It wasn’t easy. It also didn’t happen overnight. Slowly, through personal work and a commitment to being a better person, I shed the ugliness of who I once was. Recently, I spent a year mentoring incarcerated teenage girls. Many of them, like me, had dealt with abuse in the home and translated those experiences into violent behavior towards others. I wanted to show them that it was possible to rise above the trauma.
I will always be ashamed of the suffering I caused others. Now, nearly two decades later, I understand how wrong my actions were and how I carry the responsibility for what I did, regardless of the abuse during my childhood. I do believe that other bullies are also harboring deep pain and are probably trying to cope with that pain by hurting others. It’s a cycle that doesn’t have to continue.
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