I was the kid in school that nobody wanted to be friends with, the kind of kid whose very existence invalidated him from entry into any social groups. I wasn't exceptional in sports or academics; I was too nerdy for the nerds because I read comic books; and my lispy and girly nature was embarrassing to the few friends I had. But it didn't end with my peers. My teachers were quick to ostracize me as well.
"You should have been a girl," one of the after-school teachers once told me. "You need to start acting like a man and less like Goofy."
It was clear from a young age that it was me versus the world.
This essay won't dwell on another one of my bullying experiences. Instead I want to tell you about the impact being bullied had on me as an adult, how, once I graduated from high school, it took time for it to get better. I may have been freed from my tormentors, but I carried in me their cruelty and lashed out at every new face I met. I became a bully and regret my actions to this day. But healing, I've discovered, is not a destination but a journey, and like all good journeys worth talking about, sometimes you get lost along the way.
My previous essay on bullying elicited a variety of responses. Both my editor and my mother said they cried reading about how the boys poked my butt during religion class and chanted "fag"; my friend Amy held my hand during a lunch at Westville in Manhattan and told me she had no idea I'd gone through all that; I had complete strangers on Twitter sharing my essay with their followers. But perhaps the most interesting reaction came from my cousin George.
"Primo," he said to me last month when we were in Miami. "Some of those comments about your essay were mean."
George was referring to what some readers had said in the comments section:
"If you are still holding out a grudge from high school, that speaks more about you than the person you hold the grudge against," one reader posted.
"If someone is older than about 28, and still remembers the name of even one of his childhood bullies, that is a sign you are just not busy enough with real, adult life and should GROW THE FUCK UP," another one wrote.
As it turns out, I am 30 years old and can still give the first and last name of every bully I ever had.
I'm not angered by those comments. As a writer, you accept that your words will be misinterpreted, or that not every reader will be on your side. The essay in question was about confronting my high school bully and understanding him. At the time of the writing, I thought I was taking the discussion of bullying to a deeper and more meaningful level, but the above comments caused me to think about the subject even further.
Dan Savage is a hero for starting the It Gets Better campaign. I can't imagine how many young LGBT hearts have been touched and inspired by those videos of support. The campaign has truly been revolutionary. However, those of us who are severely bullied don't simply receive our diplomas and magically get over years of ridicule and humiliation.
I want to drill into your head, dear reader, that I've been called a fag ever since I wore a Little Mermaid shirt to Field Day in the first grade. I've had to defend myself against the world since day 1. To this day I still tremble when I speak in public, for fear that someone will cough "gay," or that spitballs will be thrown at my forehead. I find myself stuttering or avoiding eye contact even amongst friends because of a de facto feeling of inadequacy. I can't just "get the fuck over it." Am I still angry with my bullies? Absolutely not. Am I traumatized? You bet.
And trauma is where I want to get at with all this. I never thought of my bullying as traumatic, and it didn't occur to me that I could have been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the years after high school until a few months ago, when I came across a study conducted by the University of Stavanger and Bergen's Center for Crisis Psychology.
"Bullying is defined as long-term physical or mental violence by an individual or group," said psychologist Dr. Thormod Idsøe. "We know that such experiences can leave a mark on the victim."
The study found that out of the 965 students they studied, 33 percent were left with "a mark" or symptoms of PTSD. Dr. Idsøe goes on to say that "traumatic experiences or strains imposed on us by others can often hurt more than accidents."
Much like all other mental diseases, PTSD is a tricky thing to diagnosis, but widely recognized symptoms include flashbacks, avoidance behavior, apathy, anger and being easily startled. I've never been officially diagnosed with PTSD, but the symptoms I listed do accurately describe my behavior after high school and even in my current adult life.
I was angry when I began college. Even though I had made new friends, been working out regularly, and maintaining a 4.0 GPA, I still felt that the world was plotting against me and that at any moment someone could heckle me. My bullying had inhibited the development of two very important human traits: trust and empathy. I did not trust the world, and I could never relate to anyone because everyone was making fun of me.
One day during my freshman year, I turned to my friend Yazmin while we were waiting in a line at the registrar's office and said, "Do you see that girl in the corduroy skirt? It's the ugliest piece of clothing I've ever seen."
I was loud, and the girl in the corduroy skirt heard me.
"You should be careful what you say out loud," she said.
I remember seeing her eyes watering up and her lips quivering. She was standing up for herself, and it was taking everything she had.
"And you should be careful with what you wear outside of the house," I snapped.
For the first time in my life, I was the bully, and someone else was scared of me. My behavior was despicable, but I felt empowered.
The above situation is just one of many where I acted out. I adopted an "I'm going to get you before you get me" attitude and was standoffish for about two years. When did my attitude change? Well, there was never an exact point. I just stopped being angry one day and realized that true confidence wasn't picking on people. I was lucky: I had made a whole group of friends who had taught me that confidence is making others feel welcomed and accepted. And I can say with utmost clarity that confidence is better than being angry.
To what degree could I be suffering from PTSD? I'll leave it to my therapist to decide, but I had a road-to-Damascus moment years ago. It was when a famed New York columnist called me slap-happy in one of his articles. At first I was upset, trembling that once again I was seen as a "Goofy" character. But you know what? If being slap-happy means I'm still the same openhearted kid in the Little Mermaid shirt who was confident enough to wear a girl's shirt in public, then call me Charlie Chaplin.