Original Articles and Resources
I was a bully. It was a source of deep shame for me. It existed inside in a place I kept apart from the rest of my life. It was a part I couldn’t make sense of. It was monstrous. I remember doing it. I remember liking it. It took me decades to acknowledge these things to myself.
It started with Step Work. That’s where a lot of my healing began. In a 12-Step program for friends and family members of alcoholics. There was finally a place for me to put everything. Everything that I had been ashamed of and had no way to explain. Before I found help I had just been running from myself; trying to escape my insides.
But these people in recovery, like my sponsor, they talked about everything. They knew what to do with secrets. This was an unimaginable relief. Something inside me knew I was safe and that it was time to let it all come crashing out. I had found my people and a solution.
The 12-Step programs are based on 12 actual steps. The 4th Step is one of taking moral inventory. A fearless one, at that. No stone left unturned. I gave it everything I got. I filled a notebook of my resentments that led me to discover my patterns that then led me to discover my part. This was completely liberating. The structure and purpose of the 4th Step completely changed my life. It was then essential that I followed through to finish all 12 Steps. Step 4 is the fearless moral inventory and Step 9 is making amends for the wrongs I’d identified in all previous steps. These two steps trip up many people. But recovery taught me how to go right at the fear to get the prize. In most cases the prize is liberation. Freeing myself of guilt. And amending my behavior so that I don’t repeat past mistakes.
I now know what it’s like to have a clear conscience. I understand that when I feel I’ve done something against my integrity and I have not addressed it, I will have to justify that wrong in my head until the end of time (I’m guessing). I now know that the “easier” thing is to come clean. I am much more experienced in admitting when I am wrong. Often times it is a huge relief.
One of those wrongs I had had to justify to myself was how I had bullied others. There were three distinct people in my elementary and high school years. Three targets. I remember it all very clearly. I remember the pain I saw in their eyes, tears even. I remember how I felt cold and that I liked it. There is a cruelty required to bully a person. It is inhumane. You can’t be connected to your humanity and be cruel at the same time. You can’t see someone crying because of you and laugh at them and be connected to your humanity. And I wasn’t.
As the bully, I would look for weaknesses and exploit them. I was calm, well not really calm but unfeeling. ‘I’m totally cool and you’re the one out of control’ type thing. In one instance, we (all us 4th graders) were in the class room grading our own quiz. I spotted one of my targets cheating. I would watch her like a hawk, waiting to pounce on a mistake. I grabbed her multi-colored pen announcing to the class and teacher that she was cheating. I was justified.
Another memory with another target. This girl wouldn’t fight back. I would use my influence to get the other girls to run and hide from her after lunch. This person would come running after us. I remember her looking at me, a moment of recognition between us. Unspoken was: ‘Yes. I’m doing this on purpose. Just to hurt you. To make fun of you. I don’t know why and I can’t stop.’
With the help and education of my sponsor and trauma professionals I was able to understand how this happened to me. In many ways, when I was young I was a defender of the underdog. I was different, myself. Nothing that seems too radical now and in no way should be radical but it was! I would wear two different socks with two different shoes! I was a “tomboy” (whatever the hell that means). And I would make “weird” Halloween costumes compared to my (female) peers. I was often dressing up as something male/boy or Death. I was ornery and energetic and imaginative and sensitive and a loyal friend. So how did this happen? This couldn’t be the truth of who I am.
First, I realized I had experienced significant trauma. It was difficult to reconcile these two parts of my life. I think Stranger Things (the Netflix show) demonstrated it perfectly in its alternate reality: The Upside-Down. I had a dark, upside-down world that was hidden from view. And I had a world that was brought out during the day: The Regular World, The Normal World, The Everything Is Alright World. In this Upside-Down world I hid things from myself that I couldn’t understand or face. Denial is real, ya’ll! It’s a useful survival tool. But things hidden do not go away. These hidden things have a way of coming out sideways. Like abusing my classmates. Here’s what the bullying was for me: I had experienced abuse. I had felt controlled and powerless. I had experienced injustice. I wanted to make someone feel what I was feeling. I wanted to let that shit run downhill. I wanted to make someone feel bad so that I could feel better. Or I’ve heard it said, “Not be alone in feeling so bad”. It was unnatural for me to abuse someone else. This was learned.
It was essential that I got help for my trauma. This was how I stopped abusing others.
When I was young, I was completely unaware of all of this. I was just reacting. Reacting, feeling high, then shame, then I would hide it from myself. It was frightening to see this darkness and violence in myself. Feeling possessed. So I kept it hidden until I could look at it and I could understand. It was so important for me to have help that didn’t shame me. Shame just makes it go deeper underground. Shame doesn’t change or heal or transform. I was so fortunate to have so many friends and helpers that had looked at their own shadows. They too had been given a hand out. “It’s okay,” these voices of experience would say, “Hurt people, hurt people”. My people had seen that love, understanding, and kindness could transform and heal. So this is what I did.
Looking back, I realized being a monster was preferable to knowing the deeper truth inside me. I was being abused. This was a very important aspect of my healing. These two dots had to be connected. There would be an extremely high price for me to pay to deny this reality. Well actually there was an extremely high price to pay with either choice. Choose to sustain the Happy World and deny myself or destroy the Happy World, open the gate to the Upside-Down World, and believe myself. Both sucked. Both were untenable. As a child, I made the only choice I could. I survived. I worked within the framework. I didn’t risk letting the secret out until I was safe. And now, after so much time denying myself I had to learn to believe myself again. I had to learn to trust myself.
I found that all my behavior made sense. I just had to know where to look and how. I learned to be curious with myself. I learned that feeling bad didn’t actually change anything.
I now know how to take responsibility for my actions, even with a traumatic past. I can hold both at the same time. I will own up to my actions. I know that being a victim of abuse, if I do not do my work to heal I will become a perpetrator. I can have compassion for myself and not abide abusing others.
I hear so many stories of those that are bullied but I don’t hear many people owning up to the bullying. With all these people being bullied and abused there’s got to be bullies out there! So where are they?! Well there’s one right here. And I can tell that story.
As always, I’m interested in your thoughts and feelings. Thanks for reading.
PS This work is not over. I am a work in progress. I continue to be on the lookout for violence in its more subtle forms.
A therapist in Northern California offering free resources that help you heal your inner child and restore intuition.