A former bully reached out to me on Facebook, even going so far as to arrange a face-to-face meeting. She was one of several girls in elementary school who had harassed me about my weight, my sexuality, and my choice of friends. Jennifer was not the ringleader but simply one of a crew headed by a perky blonde girl by the name of Coralie. Coralie also reached out to me on Facebook, sending me a long list of her joys and sorrows, and I could not bring myself to respond. Not a word of apology or even recognition of her actions was present in her message.
Jennifer and I met at a coffee shop called Irene's, just down the street from my current home to discuss where we had been in the intervening 40 years. We were both married, we had both completed our degrees, we both had children. Jennifer said she had been trying to find me for years. She had felt pretty awful about the way she and others had behaved toward me and wanted to know if I were okay. Did her behavior make my life harder? Where there lingering issues or problems?
The truth is that I'd been abused by my parents in this way. Abused by friends in this way. Abused by lovers in this way. It had become a pattern, and this pattern did have consequences. Long term depression for one. Drug and alchol abuse and addiction for another. Job problems. Self-esteem problems.
The abuse I had hoped to leave behind when I left elementary school was picked up by a whole new set of classmates, but by ninth grade I had had enough. I started dressing and talking tougher. Rather than trying to escape from them when the teasing began, I just waited until they got bored and left. I wouldn't give them the satisfaction of disturbing me any longer. I eventually overcame my victimhood.
It has been harder to push away people whom I love very much but who also get something out of making me feel small and worthless. I see that characteristic in people earlier and earlier in friends now, but I'm still painfully attracted to those who would enjoy mocking and belittling me. At least I have the good sense now to cut it off right away when it appears.
When I thought more deeply about what had taken place, I realized that I could not even remember isolated incidents of harassment. All I can recall is pain, running home to the comfort of my family, and finding no comfort. "It will pass," they said, "when you are older." That is small comfort to someone who is hurting, but I'm not sure anything further could have been done.
Deeper still, I imagined the kind of pain Jennifer must have experienced that drove her to seek me out and offer a heartfelt apology. It was then that I began empathizing with the bullies. When pain is brought, it is brought on both sides. I imagined the people who bully LGBT children to death, and what kind of mark that leaves on them. I began to forgive. And I began to think that when we take on the issue of bullying in earnest in this country, we should think not only of the victims, but also of the perpetrators. I would not want to carry the shame of destroying a life with me to the end. Whether Coralie admitted it or not, she was probably hurting too.
Now I'm in my late forties, and I have found a life partner who always lifts me and never tries to bring herself up by pushing me down. It is possible to escape the life of the victim. I told Jennifer about all of this, and I could see the relief on her face. I hope she can forgive herself.