Chalk drawing of a child huddled up with a thought bubble that reads “stop bullying”

The Long Term Impact of Bullying7 min read

I’m going to warn you at the start of this that what I’m going to write could be trig­gering. I’m not sure if it will be trig­gering to you, but I’m more than cer­tain that it will be trig­gering to me. It does have some ableist slurs in it, and it does describe my autistic expe­ri­ence through child­hood.

I’m going to be writing about bul­lying and specif­i­cally about the ram­i­fi­ca­tions and long-term effects of bul­lying. It’s not an easy sub­ject for me to write about, mostly because I feel like I am a walking test sub­ject. I expe­ri­enced bul­lying that was bor­der­line abuse, and when you couple that with the actual abuse that I expe­ri­enced from spe­cial edu­ca­tion teachers, it cre­ated trauma.

I have been walking around with post-traumatic stress dis­order (PTSD) longer than I’ve even known what post-traumatic stress dis­order is. Bullying is a sub­ject that we’re only seeming to scratch the sur­face of in our day and age, but when I was a kid in the 1980s and the 1990s, it really wasn’t talked about.

Many people saw it as a rite of pas­sage, and many of the well-meaning adults and teachers in my life simply told me that, Bullying is nat­ural. Everybody gets bul­lied. Very few people actu­ally saw the anguish that it caused me as I was afraid to go to school day in and day out. It’s my hope that writing this article will help to shed some light.

School for Disabled Children

When I was a kid growing up, they really didn’t know what was wrong with me other than the fact that I had learning dis­abil­i­ties and some­thing that psy­chol­o­gists described as “autistic ten­den­cies.” There was no label for Asperger Syndrome, and autism meant that you were non-verbal and you were not able to con­trol your inter­ac­tion with the world around you.

I kind of strad­dled both worlds, one foot in my inner world where every­thing was safe, and one foot in the real world where every­thing was dan­gerous. My first school was a school for dis­abled chil­dren, and I fit in really well there. We were all dealing with our own strug­gles, so it didn’t really matter that instead of playing on play­ground equip­ment, I was more inclined to be walking around in a circle rub­bing my hands together and talking to myself.

See, in my mind I was acting out some sort of a scene in a movie or playing with imag­i­nary friends, but on the out­side I was walking around in cir­cles rub­bing my hands together and talking to myself.

That didn’t become a problem until I was main­streamed.

Mainstream Education

I really didn’t under­stand why kids chased me on the play­ground. All I know is that when they saw me, and they saw me talking to myself and rub­bing my hands together and stim­ming, that I was all of a sudden “marked.”

Kids that I didn’t even know were calling me words that I didn’t under­stand. “Look at this kid,” they would say, “he’s retarded.” I didn’t know why they tripped me, why they stole my shoes… I know now, but back then I was too clue­less and too trusting.

Restraint and Seclusion

My first grade teacher liked to punish me by locking me in the coat closet and turning off the lights. Yes, even at six years old, I was still scared of the dark. So I would cry, and then I would hear the teacher and all of the kids in my class mock my crying. What are you going to do if your response is then mocked? You go quiet, that’s what you do. You go in. You shut down.

I don’t remember the date, but I do vividly remember the day when I went into a public restroom at school. I went into a stall and closed it behind me. See, for some reason I didn’t under­stand that you weren’t sup­posed to drop your pants when going pee out in public, so that’s what I did.

At the spe­cial needs school, that wasn’t a big deal. Nobody cared. Nobody even cor­rected me, but I was out in the real world now with ele­men­tary aged kids who were looking for any reason to inval­i­date my humanity.

So that’s when I started going into stalls, because I started get­ting laughed at and made to feel very uncom­fort­able. Instead of cor­recting what was obvi­ously an error and only unzip­ping my pants, I self-preserved.

That’s when the real problem started. I didn’t lock the stall. I just closed it. Kids were trying to get in to make fun of me, and I was pushing against the stall– but I was skin and bones back then. I wasn’t very strong. A couple kids pushed really hard, and the stall door hit me square in the head. I cried out.

Later in the nurse’s office, I looked at myself in the mirror and I saw a huge dis­col­ored bump. It was the most ter­ri­fying thing that I’ve ever seen.

I actu­ally stopped using public restrooms at that point. I would hold in every­thing until I got home, until I was so uncom­fort­able with the pres­sure and the need to pee. Even as a high schooler, I didn’t like using restrooms. I still feel very self-conscious using them today.

Junior High

Once at a junior high dance, there was a kid who told me he had a secret that he wanted to tell me. He was all smiles, and I was all trusting. I was so excited that this pop­ular kid actu­ally wanted to be my friend and tell me some­thing impor­tant.

He wanted me to come behind the bleachers, and so I did. At that moment, another kid sneaked up behind me and put me in a choke hold. There I was not being able to breathe while two kids were just laughing their asses off at me. As much as it hurt to not be able to breathe, the idea that some­body pre­tended to want to be my friend hurt even more.

Weight Gain

Around this time is when I started to gain weight as well which also was a point of con­tention with other kids. My weight wasn’t my fault. It was a result of the abuse of spe­cial edu­ca­tion teachers that would with­hold food from me until my home­work was done that I had neglected to com­plete the night before. The more hungry I got, the more I ate, and the bigger I became. Self preser­va­tion.

Calls from a “Friend”

At school there was a kid who pre­tended to be my friend all the time, and I gave him my home phone number. We had our own pri­vate line. He would call all hours of the night and in weird voices sounding hand­i­capped and dis­abled.

He was ter­ror­izing me, and I knew it was him even though he never admitted it. One time we were even on a band trip. How did he know which room I was in? He even called both­ering the other kids in the room, as well. They kept telling me the phone was for me, and I finally left it off the hook.

Long-Term Impact

I don’t share these sto­ries for you or anyone to feel sorry for me. These are just a small handful of my expe­ri­ences that have led to devel­oping post-traumatic stress dis­order in rela­tion to bul­lying. Because of these things, my life has been for­ever altered.

I like to try to make friends as easy as I can, but I often ques­tion whether or not the people that call them­selves my friends really are my friends or if they’re just making fun of me.

I have an anx­iety con­di­tion, I have depres­sion, and I take mul­tiple med­ica­tions for these. I have been in and out of therapy for years, and I still have a hard time trusting people– espe­cially people in authority. I also tend to cling to those who gen­uinely do prove them­selves to be friends. From those people, I expect too much from them end up chasing them away.

I’m a middle-aged man, and yet I still feel like that scared kid a lot. It’s taken me a long time to figure out what to do with my life. I was cer­tainly a late bloomer in many ways. Only in the last few years have I felt like my wife and I have really been starting to create a good life for our­selves.

Ending Bullying

How do we fix this? I mean, it seems like the idea of stop­ping bul­lying is really simple, but how do you actu­ally do that? What if I told you that most of the bul­lies them­selves are expe­ri­encing abuse? How do you fix that? Where do we even start? If the bul­lies are not even safe, then how do we create safety to those who are mar­gin­al­ized?

I don’t really know that I have those answers. I’m not really sure if any­body does. It’s so easy lash out at things that are dif­ferent, and people that look and act dif­fer­ently than we do, it seems that the younger gen­er­a­tions are starting to fight against that– but man, do they have a long hill to climb.

My saving Grace has always been the people who have been willing to befriend me no matter what. Even if that’s only two or three people, it was always enough to keep me going. Perhaps some of the solu­tion is working on making smaller com­mu­ni­ties, not where every­body is the same, but where every­body is willing to look past what­ever dif­fer­ences there are in order to be accepting and loving.

I wish I had answers as to what that looks like, but mostly all I have are ques­tions. I don’t know how you stop bul­lying, but I think if more of us are willing to share our sto­ries, then maybe that’s how we’ll find common ground.

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  1. *** TW extreme bul­lying, ableist slurs, rape / murder threats and sui­cide men­tion ***

    I wonder what the people who said “bul­lying is a rite of pas­sage” would say if they were in the school restroom with me in 1996 as three girls shoved my head into a toilet and tried to drown me.

    I wonder what they would say to the boy who threat­ened to rape and murder me daily to the point that I was afraid to be alone in my own house.

    I wonder what they would say to the kids who called me retarded because of my stim­ming and awk­ward gait.

    I wonder what they would say when I tried to swallow enough Benadryl to kill myself.

    I wonder what they would say to the authority fig­ures who brushed my com­plaints off as boys being boys and kids being kids.

    I’m so sorry you went through bul­lying, I did too. It’s awful. Schools need to do BETTER.

    1. I’m so sorry for your expe­ri­ences. It’s painful and it’s not right and no one should go through it. How are things going for you now as an adult? What kinds of bag­gage have you car­ried with you? What, if any­thing has helped?

  2. I did not attend any school for the dis­abled. In fact, I was always at the top of my class. Not unusual for an aspie — I was essen­tially one of those “little pro­fes­sors.” Otherwise, though, I can relate to a lot of this.

  3. Odd Bods are bul­lied. 🙁 My younger daughter was ‘bul­lied’ at pri­mary school. But in fact the other kids just thought they were ‘teasing her’.
    Usually the very worst thing that is done to these odd-bods, is that the teacher inter­venes badly 🙁 “Be nice to Alice!” which of course makes it worse.
    Instead the teachers should be telling the other kids to get back to their work.

  4. I feel like “every­body goes through X” is such a dan­gerous thing to tell an autistic person because it com­pletely min­i­mizes the issue and dis­cour­ages com­mu­ni­ca­tion. And autis­tics may have more trouble speaking up, espe­cially due to a life­time of being called “too sen­si­tive.”

    What you went through was hor­rible and you did not deserve it.

  5. I, the victim, was blamed for the bul­lying I suf­fered as a child. The logic is that I should stand up for myself. However, when I did, the bul­lies twisted it to making me out to be the aggressor when I was the intended victim. Plus with my Autistic ten­den­cies, bul­lies would find some feeble jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for their bul­lying. What you went through was ter­rible and this ‘rite of pas­sage’ is just another way of jus­ti­fying some­thing that’s all wrong.

  6. My teenage years were blighted by bul­lying because I was “dif­ferent” … and by the invari­able advice that if I “just ignored the bul­lies” they’d get bored and leave me alone.

    Yeah right. As if!

    It only finally stopped when I turned and hit one of my tor­men­tors … and broke his jaw.

    Suddenly, all the brave bul­lies weren’t pre­pared to con­front me. It wasn’t ignoring them that made them go away.

    I am not proud of what I did that day. Far from it.

    But … I so wish I had done it years ear­lier!

  7. I am an adult with High Functioning Autism. I have a career assisting people with dis­abil­i­ties. I am con­tin­u­ally bul­lied to this day. I think the real rite of pas­sage is sur­viving it all.

  8. Stellar post, one to which I relate com­pletely. I grew up in the 1960’s, when no one had a clue about autism and neu­ro­di­ver­gence. I had ter­ri­fying melt­downs and I rocked so much that as a baby I rocked the crib up against the door to my bed­room. My par­ents used to tell people that, as though it was a funny story. I have con­tem­plated sui­cide on and off for I think my entire life. It wasn’t until I reached my 50’s that I was diag­nosed, and that gave me a pro­found sense of self-understanding. I expe­ri­enced extreme bul­lying by everyone with whom I came into con­tact. It did not matter who they were, par­ents, stu­dents, teachers, pro­fes­sors, bosses. I mask or project a neu­rotyp­ical person but that’s exhausting and sooner than later it is obvious that I am vastly dif­ferent. That I some­times cannot speak. I have melt­downs that overlap with PTSD rage. I am hyper­aware, con­stantly looking out for trig­gers so I can short-circuit a melt­down. i have yet to find a coun­selor who can actu­ally help me.

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