A Bullied Schoolmate's Story
Last week I interviewed a former schoolmate who was badly bullied in middle and high school. We met over Zoom which is always an interesting way to connect with people you haven't seen in 40 years. My schoolmate, who I'll call Kate, has been going through a painful divorce and she shared some of her grief. Through her tears, Kate said that she had always attributed her troubles in relationships to her home life and the strain of living with her late mother who was mentally ill, and her stepfather, whom she hated. Yet, as Kate thought about my interview questions, she found herself wondering how much of her interpersonal woes were related to the bullying she endured growing up. Kate was bullied at school by boys who spit on her, hit her, called her names and tried to knock her crutches out from under her when she was injured. In her apartment building, a schoolmate and neighbor used to hit her with a wiffle ball bat. On one occasion, she was sexually assaulted on her way home from school. She never told anyone about it.
Kate couldn't imagine what she might have done to have provoke all the bullying she received. Was it because she was academically gifted? Was it because others were jealous because she had a "cool mother"? Was it because of her sexual orientation? Kate realized that her difficulty making friends with other girls was at least partly caused by her growing awareness that she was a lesbian. "I was afraid if I became friends with someone, they would find out I was gay and freak out," she said. To cope with all of this, Kate turned to drugs and alcohol but she has been clean and sober since age 18.
In her book "Bullying Scars," Ellen Walser deLara writes about how children who are bullied often have trouble forming lasting relationships. "Bullying in childhood can be responsible for negative consequences in adult friendships and intimate relationships. Issues of trust are paramount. The lack of trust starts with being bullied by peers and adults; it can move into dating violence and from there to domestic violence. Various case studies depict how people struggle to overcome their mistrust of others engendered by incidents they lived through as children. As humans we are particularly sensitive to acceptance or rejection by others. It forms the basis of trust and therefore the basis of the ability to form relationships."
Like Kate, many of us dealt with bullying both at home and at school. There was no place to hide.