PEOPLE MAY TELL you to get a thicker skin, that you’re being too sensitive, that it’s just messing or a bit of craic. But when you’re being bullied it feels like the scene in Indiana Jones where the walls are closing in on you. The anticipation is almost worse than the experience itself. Not knowing when it’ll happen or what form the bullying will take. You can’t enjoy your day-to-day life because, at any given moment, your tormentor could shatter any glimmer of happiness that you’ve managed to gleam glean from it.
I know this because I was bullied. I know this because I then went on to become a bully and inflict the horror that I’d experienced upon others.
As I spoke about on RTÉ1’s excellent series ‘Bullyproof’, and later on The Tubridy Show on 2FM, many of my tactics involved me operating under the ‘just having the craic’ guise.
I started a petition for a ‘friend’ that I picked on occasionally to leave the school. Everyone around me assumed it was friendly banter between mates, so it was easy to convince girls that he fancied to sign it, or convince closer friends to tell me the names of his parents, so I could then include them on the petition for him to eventually see.
I moved the bag of another victim to the end of the PE changing room to let him know he wasn’t welcome there. Because this had come after waves of abuse over a period of weeks/months, he promptly snapped, throwing the bag at my feet in frustration. Unfortunately for him, the room erupted into laughter at another round of successful ‘winding up’.
That’s what I want people to understand: what may seem like a bit of craic at the time may actually have profound effects upon others. Internet trolls justify their behaviour by saying that their targets need to be taken down a peg and it’s all just played for fun anyway. “They should chill out, it’s only a laugh!”
Unfortunately, I could hazard an educated guess at how they feel due to my shameful past. You see, if you asked me during my reign of terror if bullying was wrong, I would have genuinely and wholeheartedly said “Yes.” But as far as I was concerned, I was a victim.
Having tried the conventional means of approaching my family and the school about my own tormentor, he then went on to approach me almost immediately afterwards and made more fun of me for doing so. As far as I was concerned at that time, I was on my own. Nobody could protect me but myself. And the only way of doing so was to make others fear me.
People may consider this self-centred, but I respectfully disagree. I knew that I was a good person, deep down. But if I was forever a victim, only existing to be mocked and pitied by others in equal measure, how could I do good for anyone else? To me, having others deal with a bit of ‘harmless’ slagging was an easy trade-off when you consider the alternative of possibly taking drastic measures. Is that self-centred or self-preservation?
This isn’t to make excuses for my behaviour. There are none. It’s something I have to live with day-to-day, still, questioning whether I even deserve a happy life after making others’ so unbearable. But it is to give an insight into the mindset of someone who’s been there and understands why someone might conduct themselves in such a horrifying manner. In understanding this, maybe we can learn from it and actually achieve what all that the victims and their families want: for the bullying to stop.
Did disciplinary action from the school help? No, is the simple answer. Again, I saw myself as a victim and, as far as I was concerned, the school admonishing me for doing this was a bit much. “Where had all of these people been when I needed them?” I thought. This didn’t need to happen, I didn’t want to be this way, but I felt that I had to be.
What helped me was having someone sit me down, in a non-confrontational way, and ask me, “What’s wrong Rick?” To have someone see me as the good person that I knew I was, and so desperately wanted to be, and to offer me steps to become that way in my everyday life helped enormously. To help me see how my actions affected others, rationalise my thoughts and be able to think through other solutions, so nobody needed to suffer made a difference. For that, I am forever indebted to my school counsellor and to the school for not just washing their hands of me and instead offering alternative solutions.
It may anger parents who are thirsty for punishment and vengeance to hear that the young children causing their own children such misery might need help themselves. But if it works and causes the bullying to stop, is that not ultimately worth it?
People have asked me since the airing of Bullyproof if I ever sought out people that I picked on and apologised. The answer is no.
This isn’t because I’m too chicken to face up to my actions – I’m doing so in the public eye right now – but because I think doing so would be selfish of me. It may clear my conscience to say sorry, but would it undo the damage done to them? I don’t think so. If they need to hate me, to see me as an obstacle that they were strong enough to overcome, or to just forget I ever existed, then so be it. I hope they have moved on to better things. If I was to ever bump into them and felt that an apology would help them, I would offer it in a heartbeat. But for me to seek them out would only ease my own soul, and I’m not the one who deserves that in this situation.
If I could relay one message to them or anyone else who has been bullied, it would be that my actions weren’t caused by any perceived negatives in them. They were just the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time. They did nothing to deserve what I inflicted upon them and it was 100 per cent down to my own problems. That may sound like something generic written in a school journal to reassure victims, but take it from someone who was nearly expelled for bullying: it’s the truth.
The responsibility doesn’t just lie with the bully or bullied, though. Like I said above, there’s a fine line between having the craic and making someone else’s life hell. But I believe it’s a difference we can all see and identify almost instantly. When bystanders see bullying behaviour occur, their instinct is often to protect themselves from being next in line. Some may even join in for the sake of getting on the bully’s good side.
These people need to have the strength to realise that there really is safety in numbers. If you don’t feel strong enough to confront the bully (and I personally, wouldn’t recommend doing so as I feel that would just be pushing them further into a corner and risking an even stronger reaction down the line), you can have a quiet word with the school, or relevant authorities, who are trained to deal with such circumstances. You can show the victim support and friendship at a time when they may feel like they’re alone in the world with nobody to turn to and protect, or even just empathise, with them.
Or you can do what I foolishly did: stand by and let it happen before your eyes, waiting in line until it’s your turn to be the victim. You can then either become one of them or, God forbid, be driven to unthinkable measures.
If nothing changes, the cycle will continue, as it has done for decades upon decades. Don’t wait for the government, the schools, your workplace or your friends to change it, that change needs to start with each one of us: with our understanding of the problem, with our attitudes, with the choices we make and the actions we do or don’t take. If you want bullying to stop, you can stop it right now. Or you can wait until it happens to you or your children. The choice is yours and yours alone.