This morning I woke up feeling depressed. It’s a gray day outside, but that’s not the reason.
Last night I dreamed I was back in high school, being bullied again.
Now, I’m 67 years old. I doubt many senior citizens are dreaming about their high school days.
But October is National Bullying Prevention Month. This week I had done some online research, and a blog post about the topic was percolating in my head, and that triggered the bad dream.
But it also underscores one of the points of this post: bullying in childhood can have long-lasting effects even into adulthood.
What Is Bullying?
The American Psychological Association defines bullying as “a form of aggressive behavior in which someone intentionally and repeatedly causes another person injury or discomfort.” Another psychological term is ACE, or Adverse Childhood Experience, which is a negative or potentially traumatic event occurring in childhood which can include physical, psychological, or sexual abuse, or neglect. In the case of bullying, this event is usually recurring or repeated.
What is bullying? Simply put, it’s abuse.
In an excellent article, an anonymous author notes, “Bullying is an attempt to instill fear and self-loathing. Being the repetitive target of bullying damages your ability to view yourself as a desirable, capable and effective individual…You are learning that you are seen by others as weak, pathetic, and a loser. And, by virtue of the way that identity tends to work, you are being set up to believe that these things the bullies are saying about you are true.” (http://www.mentalhelp.net/abuse/long-term-effects-of-bullying).
In the past, bullying was accepted as a normal childhood experience. Children were expected to “grin and bear it.” It wasn’t considered a serious problem; parents and teachers would tell you to “toughen up” or “just ignore them.” You were told to respond with “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” As we will see, that isn’t true at all, but this idiotic advice was repeated generation after generation.
The age of school shootings has changed all that. Bullying has finally been acknowledged as a serious societal problem, and recent research has revealed that in many cases it causes long-term mental and emotional damage.
Effects Of Bullying
The immediate effects of bullying can include:
- feelings of loneliness and isolation
- overwhelming stress and anxiety
- uneasiness in social situations
- poor self esteem and self-image
- depression and self-loathing
- physiological manifestations (such as frequent headaches or stomachaches)
- suppressed anger
- self-harm behaviors
- suicidal thoughts
These effects don’t end with childhood, however. Adults who were bullied in childhood can also experience:
- anxiety and depression
- increased susceptibility to addictions
- anger turning to thoughts of revenge
- difficulty trusting people and establishing relationships
- avoidance of new social situations
- difficulty finding and/or keeping jobs
- increased tendency to be a loner
A Personal Example
My own experience supports these findings. My earliest memories begin in second grade, when I was seven years old. (This in itself is unusual; most people can recall things earlier than that. Some counselors have suggested that there may have been an ACE in my early childhood that my mind has blocked out.)
My abuse began in elementary school and continued throughout junior high and high school.
I was a chubby boy with glasses and buck teeth, a sensitive child, a bookworm with no athletic prowess– in short, an easy target. I don’t recall many instances of actually being beat up, but the fear was constant. There were physical assaults such as frequent punching, shoving, and tripping. The name-calling was relentless and vicious. Not being athletic, I was especially rejected by the other boys because I didn’t fit in. This had an enormous impact on my sense of identity.
My self-esteem was shattered; I viewed myself as broken, deficient, unacceptable. Depression began at an early age. I spent a lot of time alone, and frequently fantasized about suicide. I was brought up Catholic and had a firm belief in God, but He seemed far away and uninterested in me. I thought that if a person killed themselves they would go to hell for rejecting God’s gift of life (something I no longer believe, by the way.) But my thinking had become so dark and dysfunctional that I rationalized that hell couldn’t be any worse than what I was already experiencing.
The emotional pain became unbearable, and the night before my high school graduation I set out to kill myself, planning to run my car into a telephone pole. I wasn’t able to go through with it, though. I barely remember the graduation itself, though I do remember my aunt coming over afterwards and gushing about my cousin, who was a jock and very popular, being invited to so many graduation parties he couldn’t decide which ones to go to. I hadn’t been invited to any parties and spent the evening in my room, staring at the TV and crying.
Three months later I was off to college. I soon learned you can’t have a new start with the old you. The bullying had stunted my social skills, and I found it hard to reach out and connect with others, because I was so fearful of rejection. Three weeks in I had made no new friends, and the depression and suicidal thoughts rose again.
For me, the turning point came when I went to a Christian coffeehouse. After several hours of conversation with a young “Jesus freak,” I prayed and became a born-again Christian. I found myself part of the Jesus People movement, where friendships developed easily and naturally because of the overall atmosphere of love and acceptance. As I experienced the love of Jesus and others, my hurts slowly began to heal.
This was a process, not an instantaneous miracle. It took a long time and eventually involved thirteen years of counseling with pastors and psychiatric professionals. Sometimes I was frustrated by the slowness; so often my progress was “one step forward, two steps back.” But little by little, the Lord transformed me. As my mind was renewed with the truths of what my Creator said about me, a healthy self-image emerged, and my self esteem improved.
It used to be that traits and personality were thought to be inbred and permanent. Modern science has discounted that concept, however. We now know about neuroplasticity, the amazing ability of the brain to change as new neural pathways are formed. The Bible calls this the renewing of the mind: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is– his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2).
This is exactly what happened to me. In fact, God gave me a phrase to describe it: “I am who I AM says I am!” Now when the old lies come up in my mind, I repeat that affirmation and remind myself that I am a child of God, forever loved and secure in Him. Today the memories of my abuse are distant and hazy. There are times when events can still trigger the old feelings of pain, but I am better equipped to deal with them now.
I know there are many people, even Christians, who continue to struggle with the pain of the past. One of the reasons I started this blog was to share what I’ve learned, in the hopes that they, too, might find wholeness, and that their healing experience might be shortened. If you are suffering the effects of bullying, know that there is a way to experience true inner healing through Jesus.
Today I can put the nightmare behind me. I’m living the transformed life– and you can, too.
If you’d like additional encouragement, I recommend the following article:
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“I Sat In Darkness” http://www.livingthetransformedlife.com/i-sat-in-darkness
“Hello, My Name Is…? http://www.livingthetransformedlife.com/hello-my-name-is