Confessions of a Former Bully

October 18, 2012

My name is Ryan, and I’m a bully. (Hi, Ryan.) Actually, it might be more accurate to say that I was a bully, but really, bullying is a lot like smoking—you’re never an ex-bully, you’re just one who doesn’t.

I don’t have any good excuses—there aren’t any good excuses—but I have some reasons. Of course, everyone has reasons. Mine tick all the usual boxes: strict military dad; lots of moving around; divorced parents; mentally ill mother—we could be here all day. Point is, I was a tall, angry kid with a bad handle on my physical strength and some lousy coping mechanisms.

Not an awesome combination.

I got lucky in two ways: 1) I read a lot of stories, and 2) before she was sick, my mom had this whole big thing about not beating other kids bloody.

Stories are empathy-training. Stories literally shove you inside someone else’s head, dress you up in their issues, and if the writing is good, make you like it. Stories are an early inoculation against impending jackassery because they introduce you to the idea of what it’s like to be other people. It’s a lot harder to kick someone into the dirt when you’ve just read, for example, Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small series, which is all about a young girl wanting to be the world’s first female knight against incredible odds.

Does she get bullied? You bet, by kids and adults and the whole culture. Does she fight back? Oh, yes. Does she take her personal strength and use it to help other people? Check out the title.

Hello, healthy example of how to channel aggressive energy.

(Also, kickass female-identified protagonists are awesome. I’m just putting that out there.)

So there was that, and then there was the mom thing. One specific incident always comes to mind when I think about the wee horror I used to be when I was a kid. I have a baby brother, eighteen months younger than I am, and we used to tear strips off each other. He had a smart mouth, I had a short temper—and, well, brothers. But I was bigger, stronger, and I had no brakes. I don’t remember exactly what he did to set me off, but I do remember going at him with the intent to inflict serious damage. I wanted to hurt him, the little bastard, because—because—

Yeah, no good reason. He’d insulted my stuffed toys, maybe. Who knows.

Either way, he was bleeding and screaming before my mom got to us and wrenched me off, and then I was screaming. Full on rage-fit of thwarted fury and thrashing, flinging myself about because I hate him, I hate him so much, mom, what are you doing, let me go, I have to hurt him, I hate you, too—

It’s amazing how much anger a tiny body can hold.

So, I think I was about… seven, maybe? Eight. Somewhere in the region of old enough to know better, but this is what my mom did: she held me. Sat us both down with her back to the hallway wall, wrapped her arms around my arms, hooked her leg over my legs, and held on tight. Waited me out. Until I’d blown through screaming into crying—well, sobbing, because, y’know, seven—and past that, fading down into an exhausted little heap of snot and hiccuping silence.

And then she talked to me about emotions, specifically anger. I don’t remember the word-for-word byplay, but I still have the gist, which runs something like this: emotions are big and sometimes scary, often confusing, occasionally totally overwhelming, but everyone has them, and we learn to deal with them, and it’s never okay to be a little dickbag and try to skin your younger brother.

I’m paraphrasing slightly here.

But her basic point was 1) find your triggers, 2) figure out how to unhook from them, and 3) put on your big boy pants and learn better coping mechanisms.

Which is probably about the point I burst into tears again, because, y’know, seven.

Anyway. My parents split up when I was twelve, and my mom got sick soon after (schizophrenia: fun for no one), and I lost hold of her strategy somewhere in the wreckage. Puberty hit, along with all the confusion of sexual identity and gender, plus more moving, and I picked up some spectacularly poor coping mechanisms, I cannot even tell you.

People say that bullying comes from jealousy. They’re wrong. Bullying comes from two sources: privilege or pain. Often both.

Simple math: if it’s hell inside your head, if your life is falling down around you in big broken pieces, it’s easier to grab that chaos and spread it around with a shovel than to actually deal with it. To smoke and drink, do drugs, have sex with the wrong people, use words like a weapon, punch your knuckles raw—make bad life choices. Hurt other people, just because you can.

There’s catharsis in taking a chunk out of someone, body or soul.

The problem being, if you take enough chunks, you end up doing this to someone:

Or worse. There are hundreds of stories out there. They’re easy to find.

I have a friend who likes to say that achieving personal enlightenment is like leveling up. If you take a long, hard look at yourself, work to process your issues—everyone has issues, there’s no shame in it—and get a little bit better, a little bit more healthy, congrats! You’ve unlocked an adult achievement. Bonus points for you.

I’m twenty-four now, which is pretty much adult-shaped, and I’ve learned better coping mechanisms for anger. I write; I listen to angry music; I read dark fiction. I vent at length to good friends who are patient enough to listen to me. I take advice. I did therapy for a little while, which was its whole own thing. I go to the gym and thrash myself out on punishing equipment. I find art that speaks to me — seriously, get into art, there’s a lot out there and it’s awesome.

Mostly I try to educate myself, because I’d actually like to be a decent human being.

And the thing about catharsis at the cost of someone else’s mental health is that it never lasts. It really doesn’t. It just gives you another reason to hate yourself.

This week is GLAAD’s anti-bullying lead up to Spirit Day on Friday, October 19th, when lots of cool people will be wearing purple to show support for LGBTQI youth. I don’t own anything purple, it turns out, so I went into the city today to buy a purple bandana because I am absolutely okay with looking like a massive dork for a good cause.

Sometimes it’s the little things.

So, from one bully to another: level up. Be a better person. Because the alternative is good for no one. (by Ryan Legg)

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