Every year there was the “Emma Kaufman Camp Annual Talent Show.” This year, I decided to participate, after watching my peers highlight their talents year after year. As I walked up to the wooden stage, I was suddenly facing over 100 ten and eleven year olds. Everyone was laughing and joking with each other. There I was center stage. I would sing the Beatles hit of the year; “Let It Be.” There was no microphone, no music. I was standing emotionally naked and exposed in front of a hundred other kids. I reminded myself that this was my choice. I wanted to take control of my fear. I wanted to take control of the bullies who had taunted me at school and at camp. To become popular, to be noticed, I thought if I could sing “Let It Be,” my excess weight would not matter to anyone and would be accepted. The bullies, who made fun of my weight and psychically assaulted me at school, tearing off my pants because they looked tight around my big stomach, would not matter. I focused on the wooden floor in front of me. I was too terrified to look at the kids staring me down, talking and laughing. I opened my mouth. The only sound that emerged was a guttural groan. The sound was the noise a wounded animal might make.
Kids were laughing and jeering. I was humiliated—not much different from the humiliation of allowing bullies to attack me. Not much different from shyness and the shame of body that constantly gripped me.
I walked off the stage and broke into a run, past the snickering and laughing campers back to my cabin. I cried. Not for my failure. Because I knew that, the worst was yet to come. Déjà vu. My cabin mates would be back soon. Some were just waiting for the next excuse to ridicule me as if they were bored with calling me fat. Our cabin counselor would intervene and tell them to leave me alone, as he had done before to no avail. Anyone stood up for me to that extent.
My fellow campers filtered back into the cabin. One, who had bullied me over my weight since my first day at camp, made his way straight for me as I lay on my bunk. “Not only are you fat but you sing like shit.” The other kids’ chimed in. “Fatso cannot sing.” “Fatso can’t sing.” Still crying I jumped up. I ran at him as hard as I could and used all of my weight to knock him back onto the bunk bed. It was as if I had finally realized that I had to stand up for myself since no one else would. Not the camp counselors who paid lip service when they witnessed the bullying. Not my parents who did not know because I was too ashamed to tell them. Not the other kids who stood silent witness. I had no safe place to unload my pain. Unfortunately, I would not know for many years later but much damage had already been done. Childhood bullying can lead to long-term problem such as depression, and mental illness up to 40 years later. According to the same study, individuals who were bullied frequently were nearly twice as likely to be suffering from depression at the age of 45. I was no exception. This is also coincidentally (or not) around the age I became suicidal, only to be rescued at literally the last minute with a .45 automatic on my nightstand. Add into the mix, a twenty-seven year bought with anorexia then bulimia, drug addiction and alcoholism before recovery. Children, who are bullied, are much more likely to experience these problems. I became a “poster adult” for the longer-term effects of bullying as a trigger for long lasting problems. I bullied my freshman college roommate without mercy hoping that repeating what happened to me would both gain me acceptance and make me feel better about myself. It only made me feel worse. My college roommate was, like me, an overweight quiet, shy kid from San Diego who wanted nothing more than to be included and to make friends. My response to these urges was to call him a “fat pig” and tease him about his loose fitting clothes on his “big body.” I would leave notes on his bunk on how he was not wanted and unworthy to be my roommate. The irony was that our other two roommates wanted neither of us around. They left me notes asking me to find another place to live. Of course in my mind it was because I was fat an ugly and the only way they would change their mind is if I showed I was one of them if I bullied “Hawaiian Dan.” A lot has changed since then in terms of awareness but bullying still goes on at the college level. Behavior is learned. Behavior repeated. A never-ending, damaging cycle to both the bully and the victim unless self-awareness becomes part of the equation to allow us to step back and looks at our behavior, a tall task for a teen wanting acceptance.
That is not to say that every bullied child will grow up to be a bully or suffer the long-term effects. We are all unique individuals. Genetics and environment can take one hundred different people going through the same issues in one hundred different directions. However, learned behavior and the need for acceptance can be powerful motivators when the psychological conditions are ripe.
While what happened to me can be a cautionary tale in the possible effects of childhood bullying, not all children will respond the way I did. Adults who experience the effects of bullying as a child, self-esteem and awareness have to step in for recovery. Face the past. Analyze it. Discuss it. Learn from it. I have been in therapy for over ten years doing that very thing. Not only does it lead to recovery from the long term effects of child hood bullying, it can prevent you from repeating the cycle. It all starts with you.
Brian Cuban is a an author whose best-selling book “Shattered Image: My Triumph Over Body Dysmorphic Disorder” chronicles his first-hand experiences living with, and recovering from childhood bullying, eating disorders and Body Dysmorphia Disorder (BDD) and drug addiction. Brian speaks regularly about his recovery and breaking the male eating disorder stigma.