I was browsing Facebook as usual when a friend shared an article about a case in Washington state where a young boy tried to kill himself as a result of bullying in his yearbook. The positive of this story is that his mother found him before he did anything, but it strikes a chord with anyone who has suffered bullying or harassment, and of course with those of us who have been suicidal in the past.
Bullying is a significant, vicious threat to millions of people around the world, from verbal to physical to social and online abuse. It can affect everyone, but younger children and teenagers are often most susceptible, because they haven’t yet worked out all the dynamics of functioning in a normal, healthy society. (That’s assuming there’s anything normal about society at large.)
Merriam-Webster defines bullying as:
to treat (someone) in a cruel, insulting, threatening, or aggressive fashion
In the Washington case, the thirteen-year-old boy was told to ‘kill himself’, and to ‘do the world a favor and die’. Details are still scant, and it’s unclear who left these horrific, degrading messages in the teenager’s yearbook, but it’s easy to believe that it came at the end of a year (or more) of torment and abuse: such things rarely happen in a vacuum.
One of the first, perhaps obvious questions parents, teachers, and even other students have in these scenarios is why: why would a person willfully torment another person in such a humiliating and aggressive manner? Why does bullying happen at all?
There are of course so many possible answers that it turns into a sort of ‘pick one’ mentality: insecurities, abuse at home, social status and power … the list goes on. I remember being bullied myself at school, to an extent; mild, compared to what some children go through, but difficult all the same. I can recall little things: unzipping my backpack so my books spilled onto the floor; being challenged to answer if I was ‘homo’; even physical fighting, if I remember correctly.
This was many years ago now, and my memory is vague, but I’m pretty sure it was embarrassing, humiliating and, dare I say, traumatizing. It faded as I became older and grew a circle of friends, but those years between ten and fourteen were difficult.
What stands out to me most about the bullies, though, is that they had very few friends. I don’t think it felt like that at the time—there were always dozens of kids hanging out with them, surrounding them, but looking back, none of them were friends. They were subordinates, associates: grunts to their generals. That’s the thing about cliques and ringleaders: it becomes about safety (ever read Lord of the Flies?). The leader feels safe, surrounded and protected by their posse. The crew feel safe, being told what to do and not having to think for themselves. Because growing up is a dangerous, vulnerable thing, and safety becomes a precious commodity.
But then there are the outliers. The ones without the social status to lead, yet the independence not to follow. The nerds, the geeks, the goths; anyone whose circle of friends is smaller, or non-existent. Anyone who prefers to be alone. Anyone who doesn’t fit the narrow stereotype of acceptance for the rest of the group.
To be alone is to be weak. To be vulnerable. To be without protection. And my, what an easy target these people make. The leader of the group, the head-bully—they don’t dare take on something that could challenge their authority. They wouldn’t pick a fight with someone who could actually deck them, either physically or mentally. Like a herd of lions after wildebeest, they’re going to hone in one the weakest prey.
In many cases, it’s not that the bully doesn’t care that they’re hurting someone else; it’s that they don’t think about it that way. The lion doesn’t empathize with its prey—it simply does what it must to survive. Putting others down is a way for the bully to come out on top; terms like ‘harsh’, ‘savage’ and ‘burn’ have come into existence to make light of the pain caused to another person. Because even if hurting someone else isn’t inherently funny, if one person laughs then so will everyone, and everyone can feel a little better about themselves.
Except the victim.
What happens when the victim becomes finally overwhelmed? What happens when every day is a terror to go to school? What happens when lion finally catches the gazelle?
As adults, we are usually aware of our options for escape. We can drink, we can do drugs to escape in the moment; we can cut ties, change jobs, move cities or even countries to escape in the long-term. But a child doesn’t have these options. A child has no power to escape; a child has very little power at all.
Every day I read about new cases of children committing suicide, sometimes as young as ten or eleven years old. Think about it: at ten years old, school is life. The concept of leaving school in eight more years for a new life isn’t a reality, or even a consideration: school is forever. When when the thought of eternal torment begins to creep into the youngest minds, what choice are they left with? What else can they do?
When does death become an option? At what age can we comprehend the idea that ceasing to exist might feel better than anything else in the entire world? And how can we help these young people, how can we explain to them that everything is passing, everything is temporary—even the worst torment and pain?
I think it comes back to being alone. I’ve written before about the pain of isolation in relation to self-harm, but it is just as important when discussing bullying. Victims often have a weak support network, few friends or family members they can talk to. Sometimes they have no one. And sometimes, the people they turn to don’t offer what they need.
So if you are being bullied, please—let someone know. Be it a friend, a family member or anonymously online, speak up: don’t suffer in silence.
And if you know of someone being bullied, the same rule applies: talk to them. Sit down to lunch with them. Walk them home. Don’t be afraid to let them know you’ll listen.
Because sometimes that’s all we need.