Robert O'Brien and his father, 1984

by Robert James O’Brien

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Living in the Shadow of Bullying.

I know what I could say, what I should say and what I want to say about bullying. Having written a memoir about growing up with a stutter and trying to hide my sexuality into adulthood, it probably comes as no surprise that I endured bullying as a child. But then, I am not alone in that experience and days like Pink Shirt Day are celebrated to highlight that very fact. My story will be similar to yours and millions more around the world. I would rather discuss what I have learnt as a result of it and why I feel we must support young people who are bullied.

For me, the bullying started in primary school when I was about eight years old. I was a small, quiet child who always tried to be good. When a group of boys in my class began calling me teacher pet I was confused. What had I done to deserve this? Eventually my teacher called me up to the front of the classroom, made a spectacle of me by talking about how bullying was a bad thing and proceeded to ask me to point out the bullies. I did as I was told. The bullying stopped but I was suddenly an outcast.

From that moment, I felt broken. I developed a stutter and thought there must be something about me that needed fixing. For the next thirty years or so, I did everything I could to fit in and get by. I was miserable and, looking back, I laugh because I can see now that my flawed strategy never changed. I kept trying to be nicer. I tried in vain to appease bullies I encountered in secondary school, university, work and even in personal relationships. This sycophantic niceness was exhausting and it eroded any modicum of self-respect I had left. More to the point, it made me live in constant fear. I woke up afraid and tried to fall asleep praying not to wake up the next morning. Even on good days, when the fear subsided, I could feel it, like a shadow hanging over me. That is the trauma of bullying. Not the words, not the pushing, not the mean texts—the fear.

I was so tired of it all and nothing I did was ever enough. After a failed suicide attempt, I became resigned to living with it, as many therapists has told me I needed to do. I worked hard on trying to forgive the bullies. It wasn’t their fault after all. I was told that they were also suffering and were misguided. I was told to be the bigger man, to stand tall above it all. I am a huge sci-fi fan and I looked to programs like Star Trek: The Next Generation and to Captain Picard in particular. He could rise above it. He could be a good Starfleet officer and move on. I couldn’t. My weariness gradually turned into anger, bitterness and rage. I could remember ever bully’s face and I wanted to kill them slowly. I fantasized about pushing them, strangling them, watching them suffer and feel all the pain they inflicted on me. I didn’t give a damn about being the bigger man. I wanted retribution. I wanted all the years back I had lost. I wanted to feel something, anything other than the fear I had learnt to wear like a piece of clothing. I know that is not the acceptable thing to say and deep down I know it is not the answer. But, that child within me still feels it. He cries for it and my biggest regret in life is not having pushed back when I had the chance. What I mean by that is not pushing back against the boys who called me teacher’s pet. At the age of eight, I could have fought back and gotten away with it. Boys will be boys and all that.

Over the last few years I have been able to move past that anger. I still struggle with forgiving those who bullied me. I remember them so vividly and doubt they have ever given me a second thought, which in itself is maddening. Rather than getting upset, I now find stillness and silence helpful. To learn to be with all the fear and anger and to find acceptance in it. To learn to like myself and who I am. I do wonder though about who I would have become if I had pushed back all those years ago. Would I have learned that I am not a victim and have the right to stand up and defend who and what I am? Would I have learned to take a physical punch and give one back in return? Would I have learned to ask for what I wanted in life? Would I have come out as gay sooner? And the biggest question of all: is would I have started stuttering?

That is what it is to live in the shadow of bullying. The wondering, the questions that can never be answered. The grief for the person I never became. I can live with it because as an adult I have no choice in the matter, but perhaps others do. I take solace in knowing that on days like Pink Shirt Day, young people can come together and see that they are not alone and more importantly, that they are not victims. There is so much more knowledge and acceptance around the conversation of bullying. There are allies in schools and society to rally around those at the receiving end of abuse. By learning at an early age that they have done nothing wrong, children who are targeted can heal and move on. They can escape the shadow that bullying casts and grow up being proud of who they are without fear. They can build a life they love because that is what we all deserve. And that is why days like today matter so much.

Happy Pink Shirt Day 2022.