People who equate truth with fact are missing the point.

The truth IS going to set you free.

Yes, the truth will heal us all, just as soon as its done stomping all over our spilled guts.

When I got an email message from Dodai Stewart at Jezebel asking to republish The Lessons My Bullies Taught Me, I was over the moon. Like millions of small-time writers the world over, I dream of nothing so much as getting my words in front of more eyes. It will surprise no one who read that piece that my life has been one long search for acceptance and approval.

After Love with Teeth* appeared in the winter 2010 issue of Brain, Child Magazine, I learned to receive other people’s stories, to hear their pain and be connected to strangers by the common experience of loving/hating/loving our high-needs babies. Turns out, that didn’t quite prepare me for hearing the stories of people who were (or worse, are currently being) bullied.

Let’s begin with an admission: I thought that bullying was, if not rare, at least fairly uncommon. I’m embarrassed to admit such a large error in perception, but there it is: I assumed that we, the bullied of the world, were a small group.

And why did I think that? Because I’ve never heard anyone discuss it. Not in real life, not in a gut-level way.

But when the messages started pouring in, I had to rethink it all. And the ones that really stood out were the ones from my own classmates. There were two different kinds. First were the ones that said, “Adrienne, I had no idea!” Lesson learned: I’ve been a part of keeping the issue underground all these years. And second were the ones, almost all sent privately to my FB inbox or my email, that said, “Me, too!” More of them than I would have thought possible. People who I envied and who I thought were socially successful.

I am not an expert, nor even especially well-read, on the issue of peer abuse. Regular readers of this blog know that my research and reading time is pretty well occupied with the topic of pediatric mental illness. However, I’m willing to say with conviction that the problem is much larger than most of us imagine it to be, and that the lessons my bullies taught me are the same lessons that most bullied children learn.

I cannot respond personally to all the many messages I have received in response to The Lessons My Bullies Taught Me. The best I can do is encourage every adult I can reach to do everything possible to communicate these messages to the children in your lives: You matter. You do not deserve to be treated badly. I will do everything in my power to protect you.

I feel guilty every time I see someone on the web castigating my parents for their handling of the matter. Yes, I am still angry. That piece of my pain has yet to melt and heal. However, I absolutely know that they love me and did the best they could at the time. Neither of them was bullied as a child. No one, back then, talked about bullying as an issue worthy of attention. I will not make excuses for them; they are responsible for their behavior, just as I am responsible for my many and varied parental mistakes. But it’s no excuse to say that it’s not easy to find solutions to problems you don’t understand.

I want to address one more thing that came up a number of times: quite a few people mentioned that my teacher was right and that I should have changed my vocabulary to make the other children more comfortable with me. On its face, that seems reasonable. Social pressure brings people into the fold, yes? We couldn’t have a civil society if people wouldn’t learn to abide by our cultural mores.

What if those kids were made uncomfortable because I was a stutterer? Or because I was a minority in a racially homogenous school? Or because I had a big mole on my chin? Or because I was less intelligent than average? I was born a word-person as surely as I was born a blue-eyed person.

This is an important issue to me not just as a person who was socially ostracized as a child, but as the parent of a child who has significant, obvious behavioral and emotional differences. I want to live in a world in which we’re all safe to be who we are, without pretense. I strive to teach my children not to judge. I can think of no other place to start.

Every child is a potential bully. Every child is a potential bully victim. Many children bully and are bullied. Mine is not a story of evil children with me in the role of innocent victim. Neither is it a story of evil, neglectful adults. Bullying is complex and destructive to all involved; it’s an issue that affects millions of people long, long after the bullying is over and it deserves our attention. Thank you for joining the conversation.

Finally, I would like nothing more than to receive some stories from people who bullied other children. Go now and find the people you hurt. When you are ready, when you feel open and willing, make an apology. The person to whom you are apologizing may not be ready to hear you, might refuse to respond or even tell you you’re an asshole. However she or he responds, you will have done what’s right, and you will have given your victim(s) cause to begin thinking of you as a real person. After you’ve done that, come here and tell me all about it. The truth hurts like a son of a bitch, but it’s the only path to healing.

*Haven’t read Love with Teeth? Email me and I’ll hook you up.

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16 comments to The truth IS going to set you free.

  • thenextmartha

    Love it as always. Thanks for sharing once again.

  • lovely and graceful, adrienne.
    super proud!

  • I do not not know you at all outside of the internet, but I am so very very proud of you! I hope you are breathing in this moment and appreciating it to the fullest. Again, just so proud of you.

  • Congratulations on the reprint!

    You did a very courageous thing. You should be very proud.

  • Your point re. finding out many people you had known confessing they too had been bullied at some point is very interesting. It reminds me how in high school, the topic of bullying came up in a creative writing class. Someone posed the question: How many of you were bullied in elementary school? I recall nearly everyone raised a hand. Thanks again for sharing your story.

  • Adrienne:

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

    Ernest Hemingway called guts “grace under pressure.” This post is gutsy. And @HeirtoBlair is right; you are full of grace.

    I work with a charity called PACT (@FindTheKids), helping find missing kids. We’re at follow-capacity on Twitter right now, but as soon as we can add you, I will. The more brave voices out there, the better.

    And for the record, that teacher was full of it. Learning language is the process of learning to know what you think, and why; no child should ever, ever be discouraged from doing that.


  • Anonymous

    The thing that we, as a society, need to realize is that bullying is as much child abuse as anything that a parent can inflict. It can traumatize just as much. It can kill – in my case, I was lucky to survive it without permanent disability. It is not a “normal part of growing up”. No one should have to go through that. Teachers and parents should not be tacitly condoning it by taking it lightly. Most adults would not last long in such an environment without breaking down. Neither should children.

    I would like to see an adult who can endure what I did – daily, ever-present fear for one’s life. The realization that everyone – everyone including the authority figures – is against you and will never protect you. The constant vigilance (when walking down stairs, always hold on to a railing so that They don’t push you down the stairs; when walking home from school, find a nice old lady to follow so someone can raise the alarm if They attack you; never leave any of your possessions unattended, even for a minute; never relax, never trust anyone, never tell anyone anything that could be used against you – that sort of thing).

    This is not normal. Unless you are preparing your child for a life sentence in prison, this is not how you want your child to learn to function in society. It does not create a normal person.

    Thank you for raising awareness of this issue, and for helping people realize the damage that it does.

  • en

    What a wonderful pair of posts. I was picked on, too – not targeted, just one of the occasionally elbowed and always ignored. It was terrible. And I witnessed some serious torture. I never told anyone – the message “anyone who gets it, probably deserves it” rang loud and clear.

    In your parents’ defense, that was the prevailing wisdom, that the victim needed to change, that kids needed to “work things out for themselves.” Heck, I think they taught that in ed schools. It’s effing UNTHINKABLE to me, but that’s the way they thought.

    I will tell you, I think enough of our generation experienced this and decided to become teachers to change things. My kids had wonderful experiences in middle school. I watched kids of all stripes perform in talent shows, while their peers cheered them on and couldn’t believe it.

    I wish you the best. So many of my most interesting and successful friends were the word kids and the weird kids and the science nerds.

  • Joy

    Thank you for the courage to bring this to light. I grieve for what is happening in our schools. And I fear that – with budget decisions heightening educator stress – things might get worse. Adults are very worried about their own jobs. I hope that doesn’t make them afraid of dealing with tough situations on behalf of students who need them to become advocates.

    Thanks again …

  • […] The truth IS going to set you free.    Oh, the judgment…redux […]

  • I just read your post about this on Band Back Together and then found your blog. You’re a beautiful writer–what you wrote made me tear up at my desk. Thank you so much for sharing your story!

  • My mother LOOOOVED my (former) bully. My mother was (and still was, until I finally stopped it this summer, at 43!) a bully of mine too. She arguably did the best she could … and I love her for many reasons, but we must hold adults responsible for their behaviour … if only to ensure that we hold ourselves, as adults, responsible even when the situation seems impossible. (We have one at our school that I am going to have to address as no one else really is, even though the child is 3 grades above my own … because I am seeing it.)

    My bully had her own problems, much more horrifying than my own; I was merely an unfortunate outlet. My life, once I finished sorting through the wreckage, is infinitely easier than hers ever was. I hold the adults responsible, without rancour, full stop.

    Thanks for your writing, I thought it was exceptional and honest and raw, and I love your follow up too. I am working on something further, possibly with my former bully. She and I are not yet friends, though we are oldest and dearest because of our history and because of this, we stand together.

    PS. I come to your blog via We Band Together. Our Aunt Becky rocks!

  • Anon for this

    I was picked on and bullied at school by other girls and at home by my siblings. I don’t know why but my parents ignored it. I still remember and wonder what I did to make my siblings think it was OK to treat me so badly. It was horrible. I used to hope I could die to get away.

  • Karen

    Thank you for your eloquent writings. I am a former bully. I talk openly about it to anyone and everyone at any time the topic comes up. It is shameful to admit each time it comes out but I need to.

    We were a poor family in an upper middle class town. I see now how it all happened and why I landed in the crowd I did.

    One thing that you dont see about bullies- especially in the case where you had three- is that they actually take turns ganging up on each other. And that is brutal. I remember asking my mom what an ulcer felt like when I was in 7th grade. And I think that the in-fighting only made us worse to the others around us. It was a cycle within a cycle.

    Anyway, I live with the shame of being a bully in school every day. When my child was diagnosed with autism, I knew that it was because I was a bully. It seemed such an appropriate lesson for the world to dish out to me. The old “karma’s a bitch” thing. For two years I have carried my child’s autism as something I did to him.

    I have changed my life. I have a job helping underprivileged kids. I am an advocate for my son and I am a loyal and loving friend and mom. Although I carry the shame of the person I once was with me every day- “outing”myself and bringing light to this issue is helping.

  • Alli

    “…quite a few people mentioned that my teacher was right and that I should have changed my vocabulary to make the other children more comfortable with me.”

    This is the same reasoning that leads people to say, “If you don’t want to get raped, don’t dress provacatively/get drunk around boys/walk alone after dark”

    The onus should be on the bully (or rapist) not on the victim!

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