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Catharsis in a Breath: Healing from Bullying

In a single breath, I became a new, happy man. It began with a note…

The worst part of being abused is I’m ashamed to admit it. Beyond the hurt is a deep sense that I am damaged and broken and if I tell people they will treat me differently.

I want to be whole and perfect, which I know nobody is, but I feel more broken than most. I feel unwanted, unloved, worthless. I feel unsafe, unlucky. That doesn’t mean I don’t also feel loved and lucky and wanted, but the positive feelings rest shallowly upon the deeper negative ones.

I cling to other people for my security and my identity. I’m afraid at every step I take that I’ll be slammed down, hurt, rejected.

I’m having trouble writing this, not just because it’s a complex and incredibly painful subject, but because for fifteen years I’ve been too ashamed to even admit it, let alone analyze it. I don’t know *how* to talk about it. I know how to *not* talk about it.

I don’t feel special in my abuse, either. It wasn’t sexual, which means I’m among the fortunate, and it wasn’t by my family, which makes me even luckier.

It was relentless, top-down, personal and emotional. It was public and private. It was deliberate and negligent. It was attacking and abandoning.

It was inescapable. I would get on the bus every morning to be ridiculed, bullied and beaten, only to enter the cinder block halls of my school to have it done by bus loads of more kids. I’d get jumped on the baseball field, kicked in the bathroom, tripped in the hallways and staircases. I’d get ridiculed in class by students and teachers. And then I’d get back on the bus to be bullied again by the older kids. Dinner and homework, then a restful sleep to start the process again the next day.

Nothing I did made it stop. I learned to fight back, I learned to joke, I learned to escape. It kept coming. I’d complain and get in trouble. I’d tell a principal and then get beaten for being a rat.

It followed me home on the weekends where I’d be tackled by kids in the halls of my synagogue.

It’s here I developed a rawness. It’s here I learned to fight back. They called me The Godfather. But it never helped — this trigger is one of the useless skills I picked up — a primitive, panicked defense response where I’d cry out against my oppressor but to the outsider it sounds and feels like a verbal assault.  It’s this panic that cost me a girl I loved truly and deeply, more than anyone I’ve ever cared for.

It was losing her that drove me to get real help, to change. I could live with decades of abuse, the punishments never registered, but I can’t stand that I scared her and pushed her away with my words.

It has taken months of twice-weekly therapy, meditation, mindfulness, reading, and studying just to get to the point where I can admit I was abused and that it affected me.

But I don’t know what to do about it. Where’s my ‘Good Will Hunting’ Moment? What do I do with this information? What do I do with this new found openness?

My therapist had me write the above note. For months, we’d focused intensely on breathing exercises, meditation and mindfulness. I felt more at-peace and more able to control my emotions — I’d practice Jewish meditation regularly and became more spiritual and closer to my Judaism — but I didn’t understand where it was leading. Finally, the week before I wrote this note, she said, “Now we’re ready to address the trauma.” I didn’t feel ready — and I wasn’t sure what she meant by trauma.


For two decades, I’d pushed back against any therapist’s attempt to delve into my past. I sought rapid therapies like NLP ( Neuro-Linguistic Programming) that promised quick results by focusing on current behavior instead of past events. But now I realized I had to face my past. “Go home and, this weekend, write about your childhood,” she said.

At first I wrote a long list of sentences beginning with the words, “I don’t want to talk about…”. It was as close as I could come. Then, late one night, I opened up and poured out the above note.

“Now, I want you to read the note out loud,” she said as the next session started.

I looked at her skeptically, thinking, What good will that do? I know what I wrote already — I wrote it!

“Just try it.”

I began to read, and by the second paragraph, for the first time in months of therapy, I began to cry. I cried like I was that little boy, stuck in an inescapable hell. And as I read, tears connected to a deep part of me gushed down my face. For the first time, I realized the pain I was carrying.

“I knew you’d been traumatized,” she said, “but I didn’t realize it was this bad. This was relentless. This is where you learned to say, ‘I want to die.’ You didn’t want to die. You wanted the pain to end and there was no escape. This is trauma.”

“Ok, so I was traumatized. What do I do with that information?” I wanted the cure.

“The first step is being aware of it.”

I walked out of that session in a haze. I felt like I’d been punched in the chest. For years, I’d hidden the pain from everyone, from myself, and now I was walking around with the awareness of a deep wound. I knew I’d reached an important point, but I didn’t know where it would lead.  I was overwhelmed and desperate to move forward – but I couldn’t see the road ahead.

“Ok, so I’m aware. Now what?” I was slumped over the couch, depressed and lost as the next session began. I didn’t see where digging into old wounds was taking me.

“Sit up, and feel your feet on the ground.”

I looked at her skeptically, and a bit annoyed. We’d spent months doing breathing exercises and I wasn’t in the mood for another mindfulness detour. I wanted to tackle the trauma head-on. I was tired of the lightweight stuff. I had caused too much hurt and too many mistakes and, dammit, I was going to fix it.

“Sit up, feel your feet on the ground. Take a deep breath. Where are you?”

“My shrink’s office,” I muttered. (I wondered, Was that rude, maybe I should have said, “My therapist’s office?”)

“What’s today’s date?”

“November 26th, 2012 — Look, this isn’t going to work. Why can’t we talk about the trauma?”

“Try this. Close your eyes.” She repeated the questions and added, “Are you safe?”

“I don’t know.”

“Is anyone trying to hurt you?”

“No.”

“Take a deep breath and say it, ‘Nobody is trying to hurt me’.”

I took the breath and said it, and my world changed. It felt like a spring had been released. A tension I had never noticed disappeared and my muscles and body felt physically lighter. “Nobody is trying to hurt me,” I breathed out and cried.

For over fifteen years I’d existed in a constant state of fear that I’d walk around the corner and someone would jump me, that I’d walk into a room and the group would ridicule me and tear me to shreds, that authority figures and systems would abuse me. And I’d never realized it. For two decades, I was wired to react to bullying, even when the bullying wasn’t there any more. I’d push back and scream, I’d fight back, I’d publicly expose my “enemy.” And now I saw it all clearly.

In that moment, I breathed away that fear. In that breath, I released decades worth of tension and abuse.

“Nobody is trying to hurt me.”

I teared-up and my entire face smiled.

For the first time I can remember, I felt safe.

“It’s not a conscious choice. Your body, your mind was trained to do this from years of bullying,” she said. “You’re going to have to train your body out of it.”

“How?”

“By doing that exercise every day, until your body learns it’s safe.”

I walked  home that day with hope. After months of blackness, I could see the road ahead, if only for a short distance.

An amazing week followed. I connected at a deeper level with my friends than ever before, since I wasn’t sitting in constant fear, worried about where I stood and worried if they would turn on me (Growing up, I’d have fun with a friend, and then when we joined a group or went to school, they’d all gang up on me.). My mind was able to relax and savor the moments we shared. I was calm in meetings and friends noticed that I was “on” at an entirely new level. I could enjoy the process without trying to prove myself worthy of the group. I wasn’t just “back”, I was changed. It was a new experience, calm, exciting, and fun.

I had a strange feeling walking home the next night from a group of friends. I couldn’t place it.

Then it occurred to me, “This must be happiness.”

I decided to share the above story for a few reasons.

One, bullying is a curse and it needs to be addressed. Nobody deserves to be bullied. Teachers, principals, and parents must stand up for everyone, and set an environment of respect. Parents must pull their kids from schools that cannot stop bullying. The costs of keeping your child in that environment are too great.

Two, victims often feel shamed or embarrassed and rarely address the pain of being bullied. I want friends to know there is hope, and that they can face traumatic pasts to create a new future.

Three, I have hurt people, been overly negative towards organizations and initiatives, gotten into public fights, and acted in ways against my core values. I have seen many people as bullies when they were not. I look back on some things I’ve done and written and it is like they are the work of a stranger, yet I know I owe a list of people an apology. I cannot fix everything, but I want to be clear that I’m working on it.

UPDATE: you can see some of the incredible responses this article has generated (on facebook). Many have reached-out to ask for recommendations of therapists, to share their stories, and to offer encouragement and support. Thank you.

responses to bullying article