This is a story about bullying. Specifically, the bewildering cocktail of being bullied and being a bully, and how that can live in a body. This story is also about me. But it is important that I begin things with a story about someone else. Specifically, two someones- a pair of nine-year-old best friends.
For a chunk of 2020 and 2021, I was a nanny for four children whose families were in a COVID-19 pod together. Towards the end of the school year, when their district went hybrid, I saw them on their remote-learning days. I showed up one Thursday morning, after the kids had been in-person at school for the preceding Tuesday and Wednesday. The parent whose house we were in for the day pulled me aside.
“Could I borrow you for a minute? I need your help with something.”
“Sure,” I said, my heart literally jumping out of my chest. (I don’t know about you, but I have never unlearned the elementary school training of “if someone needs to have a word with you, you are about to be murdered for an unconscionable act that you committed recently. Like asking for permission to go to the bathroom too many times. Or eating some glue. Die, you wretch!”)
I followed the parent out of the room. We sat down. They informed me that, two days earlier, during lunch on an in-school day for the kids, one child in the pod had been homophobically offensive to another. Would I, the parent asked, be okay with mediating a conversation between the two children sometime that day?
I didn’t see how I could very well say no, given that the situation was 48 hours old, and that I was now in charge of the two kids in question. Indeed, I had noticed the energetic dissonance in one of them when I’d arrived that morning. But still, to this day, I can remember acutely how uncomfortable this whole situation made me. It wasn’t just that I was not either child’s parent. I also knew that I was going to have to talk to the actual parent about their choice to ask me to intervene.
The mediation went relatively smoothly. The parental debrief was lengthy. We focused particularly on how they might handle a similar situation in future themselves. I was frank with the parent: this would not be the only instance of harassment their child would have to face in the coming years regarding their identity. But hopefully, this situation and its resolution would lay some sort of positive groundwork for the child and their friend, and help inform how those future occurrences of bullying were addressed.
That night, I recounted all of this for my parents over our weekly pandemic dinner. “How did the accused handle the accusation?” they asked. The two kids involved in this situation were best friends, and my mother and father were correct in anticipating intense emotions from both parties.
“Oh, that kid had completely forgotten that the exchange had happened,” I said. The accused child had been totally unaware of how deeply they had upset their friend with their homophobic “contributions” at lunchtime earlier in the week. “It had been over two days, after all,” I added. “The first part of the mediation was bringing the accused up to speed with how their friend had experienced the whole thing.”
“Of course he forgot,” my mother responded. “The bully always forgets.”
The bully always forgets.
I didn’t come back to that until a day or two later, while out riding my bike. But when it hit, it hit like a ton of bricks. Because as I turned my mother’s words over in my head, a memory from the year I turned fifteen surfaced: I had once done something unforgivable. And I had promptly forgotten about it. As a bully does.
After spending much of my adulthood (and all of the pandemic) cogitating over my worst behaviors in middle and high school, I suddenly saw that there was no longer any way to talk myself out of it: I spent a good chunk of my adolescence as a bully.
I have long remembered my child and adolescent selves as angry, confused kids. Those younger Abigails lashed out at many people, and I think it’s fair to say that a lot of that behavior was a result of my having been bullied very badly from age 9 to age 13 or so. But as I have revisited my adolescence recently, I have updated my internal timeline, and come to understand that my own actions as a bully definitely began somewhere around age 10 or 11. The overlap is inescapable: the parts of me that were harmed by my bullies helped shape the parts of me that fueled my actions as a bully. I was capable of both being harmed and committing harm. And while, according to science, I have renewed every cell in my body since my adolescence-- shedding the bits of skin and organs and blood and whatever else-- those past versions of me are still parts of my current self. Which means I carry both the victim and the predator in me, and must find a way to heal not one, but both.
A dear friend recently pointed out, as we discussed our teen years, that my past actions do not merit forgiveness from the people whom I harmed. That it is better, actually, that I leave those people alone, and look inward instead, working hard to become a better person. So this leaves me, ultimately, with the task of sitting with the realities of what a caustic creature I was, instead of begging the people I hurt for absolution almost 15 years after the fact. Because of course I want absolution; I want someone else to tell me I’m not a bad person, that I’m different now, so that I can stop thinking about it. But that’s not how it works.
I’ve spent a long time not taking responsibility for how I treated people. If I HAVE changed, if I AM distantly better than I was, then the demonstration thereof has to be in the responsibility I (finally) take over the course of the rest of my life. So here I am.
The basic delineation of things in my bullied/bully trajectory was:
I felt weird and out of place after my family moved to a new state,
I made changes to try to control this weirdness and alienation,
I got relentlessly harassed for making those changes, as well as how they manifested,
I became very angry, very terse, and quick on the draw,
I was so carelessly harsh with the people closest to me, it was terrifying for them to push back, or ask me to examine my actions,
Those people turned on me,
I became very angry, very terse, and quick on the draw,
Something gave out in me. I realized that even though I had a deep history of pain from being bullied, I had also caused other people pain.
My critical moment of “the bully always forgets” occurred during my freshman year of high school. I wouldn’t find out until two years later, but that morning, I committed the act that would ultimately end my longest and dearest childhood friendship. For the two interim years, I simply thought it had been a fuckup that I had been forgiven for. It turned out that I hadn’t.
That particular morning, I was with my best friend, G. She lived with her mother and stepfather at the time. Her biological father was a rare occurrence in her life, having left the family on unfair and unkind terms. She and I referred to these two paternal figures by different nicknames, but on the whole, she was close with neither of them. I, on the other hand, was (and am) close with my father. As such, on that day, I was telling her about how upset my father was with me regarding my desire to join the school’s crew team. G would be on the team, following in the footsteps of her older sibling, who was a senior that year. The sibling passed us in the stairwell between morning classes, and caught the tail end of my complaints about my father.
“Join the team to piss him off!” was the basic gist of what her sibling suggested. “It’s what I would do!” Then G and I were alone again, making our way upstairs as her sibling ran off. I’m not sure what exactly was said after that, but basically, it went along the lines of:
Me: “I don’t know if I should go that route”
G: “Maybe you should do it because it would bother your dad?”
What I do remember is that I then basically said to her, “oh, what would you know about upsetting a dad? You don’t even have one.”
I think I caught myself shortly after, and apologized for my caustic comment. G told me that it was “okay.” It wasn’t until the next morning when my best friend would not speak to me on the school bus that I registered that something was seriously wrong. I had, of course, forgotten what had happened. I was the bully.
Surprised, I asked G what was wrong. And as she told me why she was angry, I felt a growing shock. On the one hand, I was shocked because she hadn’t told me how upset she was during the previous school day, or via AOL instant messenger after school, where we spent seemingly all of our time. But I was also shocked that I had casually said such a malicious thing to her. It seemed like a million years ago; almost like a different me had said it. But of course, it wasn’t, and the wound was very fresh for her. I didn’t see it at the time, but as I started to beg her to forgive me, I now know that I was just dumping salt into her split emotional skin.
Today, almost 15 years after the fact, I would tell 14-year-old me to buzz the hell off and give her best friend some space, because she had said some wildly harmful shit to someone she purportedly loved. But then, my most base level of wiring was one of “fix it! Make it better! Get forgiven! Erase it! Now, now, now!” I still fight this urge today, every time I am remotely anxious about a possible strain between myself and someone else. That morning, I had no such self awareness. In fact, I remember getting on my knees next to her desk during our first class of the day, French, and asking her to forgive me. Which of course forced her to cave. Wouldn’t you, just to get this insane “friend” to stop invading your space? You are in pain, you hate public attention even in the best of situations, and you want all of this to go away. The easiest way to do that is to say “ok, it’s fine” to the person who has hurt you so deeply. So, you do.
Reader, do you ever look back at your behavior and see how abusive you’ve been in past?
I do. All the time.
Two years after this exchange, in the spring of our junior year, my sharp tongue and cruelly cavalier treatment of G and our circle of friends became my undoing. I was suddenly on the outs with the group for many reasons, and while some of them felt unfair— they were teenage miscommunications and discomforts, there was gossip sent flying around our grade about me that was untrue and inflammatory— plenty of the reasons for the friend meltdown were valid. I had been brutal with insults and condemnations, possessive of G and jealous of other girls in the circle with whom she was close, and condescending in an effort to assert dominance because of insecurities about my appearance, body, and likability (yes, irony does kill). “The dad thing,” G said, among other things, when the blowup happened. Our friends, she informed me, had heard the story, and couldn’t believe she had forgiven me for saying what I said, that morning in 9th grade. And she really hadn’t, in the end. I did a lot of damage as a teenager, but this incident with G has stuck with me more than anything else.
We never repaired things, though G did offer to. I realized, a few weeks into the undoing of everything, that I would always feel like I was under surveillance, trying to be better for her but never able to hammer out my issues quickly enough to be sufficiently better. And now, years later, having sent some emails but also having left all of our shared friendship stuff on G’s front porch, unrequested, because she asked for a pair of boots to be returned years after our falling out, the only “repair” I can personally really cop to is understanding that I failed her, and a lot of other girls, and myself. I am working on coming to terms with the fact that there is nothing to be done here but to try every day to be better than what I was as an angry, deeply hurt teenager. Because that’s what I was, at the heart of things. I had been bullied mercilessly from elementary to high school for presenting as a boy. I experienced a broad spectrum of physical, sexual, and verbal harassment. Pre-teen me, in the thick of all that hurt, would never have thought herself capable of being a future aggressor. But as it turns out, going through that fire trains a person perfectly to turn it on someone else. When the opportunity presented itself, I used that pain to satisfy a desire for power over others and for self worth. And the price paid was steep. As it should’ve been.
It’s hard to reckon with one’s own capacity for cruelty. But I can see it in myself, now, and weirdly, that’s a gift. It’s like knowing where the river’s going to rise, and throwing sand bags or building a bridge well before flood season arrives. I can feel the snake’s head rear back in my chest, ready to strike because of some deep ire or pain that has been activated, but in fact has nothing to do with, the person or object or situation I am actually interacting with. I am grateful for the fact that I am not 14, 15, or 16 anymore; that I am older and more chemically stable (thanks to adolescence finally exiting my brain the year I turned 28, the years of therapy and self work, the anti-depressant I take every night). I’m glad that I have the tools to cope when the ugliest parts of myself light up. I am able to do my damnedest to make a better choice than the one that teenage me, hurting and harsh, would’ve made, even when I’m in pain.
I am able to look at the students I work with as an education professional, and want to model for them the self-reflection and empathy that will help them when their own bullied/bully moments arrive. I try daily to love kindly in my relationships, especially when I’m at my most vulnerable, instead of testing their weight. I can wish that my younger selves, both the bullies and the bullied, had been guided through conversations like the one I had with the two nine-year-olds in my COVID-19 pod. I am trying to do less of what I’ve done for many years: berate my younger selves over and over again for their actions, despairing from the distant future to no avail for them, or me.
I’m trying to do what my younger self could not. Because that’s what absolution is, I think; the bully remembering. Making the change possible, and then doing whatever you can to live it.