I originally wrote this in response to a question received in the first week after starting the blog, and then I shelved it. After leaving school I never gave much thought to these events so when I undertook to put them to words I mistakenly believed that the most challenging aspect would be the writing itself. Instead, I was so emotionally overwhelmed that I was unable to edit the draft and had to put the piece on the shelf. But tonight I read about a boy named Noah who planned to take his own life on his 13th birthday. His mom explains in the post that he has been bullied for the last year and has been cutting himself. This is why I wrote the piece in the first place. I want kids who are dealing with bullying in school to know that it gets better. I can’t let this post sit on the shelf any longer.
When I was in school, I was bullied for my weight, epilepsy and Asperger’s Syndrome, although that last went undiagnosed for more than 40 years. The first part of the post focuses on the Asperger’s aspects since these were a large part of why I was a target. The remainder discusses the bullying and how that shaped my everyday life and outlook. As you’ll read below, the bullying was physical and at times life threatening. There were and are many people worse than I was but I’m sure I was in the 90th percentile as to severity. The consensus at the time, even among friends and family, was that I’d never amount to anything. But I wasn’t defined by those events or people’s expectations of me. As soon as I was able, I put all that behind me and didn’t look back. Today I’m well known in my field, in demand as a speaker, I am an author, a grandfather, and my wife and I just celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary.
There is nothing special about me other than that I made the conscious and deliberate decision to not give my bullies the satisfaction of beating me. My wish for Noah and kids like him is to live to experience the better days ahead. I’m not suggesting that anyone follow the path I took, only that there are many paths out of the darkness and it does get better. I hope my story helps someone find their path. Here then is my story.
Trigger warning: This post contains adult language, descriptions of casual brutality, and discusses suicide and murder.
You said you were bullied so much you thought about killing the bullies or committing suicide. What stopped you? Why did you say getting beat up and put in the hospital turned your life around?
In order to explain why I never resorted to extremes in response to the bullying I endured, it is necessary to explain a bit about my state of mind at the time. I wrote in Why I Don’t Do Christmas Cards that in order to function in neurotypical society, I need to filter my responses and play a little mental chess. I must think several moves in advance to pick a response that a neurotypical person would arrive at intuitively. With continuous practice, this became a discipline that now pervades all aspects of my mental process. Mention any concept in conversation and, if it is cyclical, my mind immediately extrapolates future outcomes. If the process has a negative feedback mechanism like a thermostat, it may be volatile but should remain relatively stable over time. If the process has a positive feedback loop like a microphone hooked to loudspeaker, any volatility will potentially result in a runaway amplification and extreme outcomes.
The friction between autists and neurotypicals in social settings often arises from positive feedback loops. The autist reacts to some sensation that would not be objectionable to a neurotypical person. The neurotypical person does not understand the source of the reaction, perceives the autist’s behavior as extreme and focuses on modifying it. The attempts to modify the autist’s behavior amplify the original stimulus or compound it through physical touch, loud sounds, anger, threatening behavior, and so forth. This results in an even greater response from the autist, which results in yet greater effort by the neurotypical person to modify the behavior and the situation escalates out of control. What is to the autist completely predictable, understandable and rational cause-and-effect is seen by the neurotypical participant as an autistic “meltdown.”
This flip side of this scenario also applies. The autist engages socially and makes an inappropriate comment, gesture or touch. The neurotypical participant provides what, to another neurotypical person, would be immediate negative feedback through facial expressions, gestures and body language. These are completely missed by the autist who continues on as if nothing had happened. Or worse, the autist sees excitement but, failing to discern its negative nature, redoubles his efforts along the conversational path. After a few iterations, the neurotypical person’s emotions boil over to the point that even the autist now realizes something has gone horribly wrong, and the interaction ends badly. The neurotypical person leaves angry, offended and resentful while the autist wonders why the other person had a “meltdown.”
My experiences with bullying started early, but in primary school they were limited mostly to name calling, ostracism, pushing and tripping. The one exception was in 3rd grade when a kid in front of me in line decided to put a stop to my attempts to engage him in conversation. He turned around and head-butted me forehead-to-forehead, then turned back to face the front in relative peace while I tried to stay upright until the pain subsided. After that we became better friends, mostly because I realized that I’d have to modify my natural responses while in his presence. This worked so well that it became obvious to me that I should apply the technique to all my relationships. Trial and error led to further refinement and the discipline of extrapolating out to 2 or 3 moves ahead to pick the best response. Patterns that lead to positive feedback loops, volatility and amplification were to be avoided. Negative feedback loops lead to stability and sustainability and were preferred. By the time the physical violence became a problem, I had learned to think several moves ahead and to recognize likely positive and negative feedback loops.
I also learned that chronic, sustained bullying isn’t just a matter of walking around looking for targets of opportunity. This type of bullying involves systematic cultivation of a target population of victims within a larger group. In this case, the bullying act isn’t actually the object of the behavior, but rather it is the means to achieve the bully’s objective: accumulation of power within the social group. Parents and teachers told me that bullies are cowards who only pick on those who they are sure they can beat and that, because they seek targets of opportunity, I would do best to stay out of their way.
I hardly ever met that bully. The bulk of bullies, the ones kids really worry about, are the politicians among their peers. These bullies are very aware of their reputation as badasses and are working to maintain it. If they are anything at all, it is lazy. They seek to gain as much social power as possible for the least expenditure of effort. So if they can mess up one kid bad enough, they can intimidate a large group effectively and efficiently. If you are lucky enough to not be the target of their violence, then you are the intended audience of their message: “I have the power and you are my subject. Unless you want to be next, you will do whatever I say and never intervene when I make an example out of someone.” On the few occasions when a bystander spontaneously tried to help me, the outcome was bad for them, worse for me. Once I talked a friend into walking with me to class. The bully met us with platoon of friends and ran him off. When I tried reporting the incidents to school staff, I was ambushed off school grounds and beaten worse. The bullies didn’t just react to my attempts at self-preservation, they overreacted to them. This is a classic positive feedback loop. If allowed to escalate, the cycle ends in extreme outcomes.
So at the age of 11 or 12, I thought all this through to several moves in advance. What became clear to me was that the winner in this game is the person willing to escalate the highest. If I fight back, they show up with weapons and/or in greater numbers. If I pick up a bat or knife, they pick up a gun. As long as you return to fight another day, the escalation continues. Since school is compulsory, you either die or the authorities toss you back in the ring. You don’t get to throw in the towel. You don’t get to cry “uncle.” You either move away, lose or fight to the death.
The strategies to deal with this all involve breaking the cycle of escalation. Adults and school officials told me to avoid the bullies, but I doubt they understood the isolation required for this to be effective. The bully’s power to exile you from the group enhances his power within the group. He will tell his subjects “yeah, that guy knows better than to show his face around here or talk to any of you” and the implication is that you cross him at your peril. So for a while I became a ghost. A complete loner.
I am not by nature a loner. I harbor a deep sense of justice and a defiant streak. It seemed monumentally unfair to me that I had to slink about in the shadows, shunned by my classmates. But most of the rest of the kids in the general population were either indifferent to my plight or afraid to show any kindness to me. Some who talked to me off campus told me they couldn’t be seen with me in public because, as it turns out, bullies have spies. If you are one of the kids the bullies use as an example to the others, they need to keep tabs on you lest you show any signs that you no longer recognize their authority. Like, for example, actually talking to people.
So when indignation got the better of me and my self-respect surged, I would stop hiding and go about my business as if I were any other student. This would bring me into range of my tormentors who were then compelled to make an example of me. No self-respecting bully can allow his victim to retain a shred of self-respect or to violate banishment. In a positive feedback loop of violence the winner is the one willing to escalate the farthest. Merely showing my face was escalation on my part. The bullies defined this as provocation. I determined to escalate just far enough to maintain my self-respect but no further. I would walk the halls openly again but not otherwise escalate.
I took this non-escalation to a new level. Not only didn’t I fight back, I became downright cooperative. If they challenged me for my books or backpack, instead of running or trying to protect my stuff, I handed it over. At first I lost a lot of stuff but teachers knew I could not possibly have lost this quantity of books and supplies on my own and this became a negative feedback mechanism. If the bullies took too much stuff, it got noticed. They moved on to physical violence. I didn’t run. I didn’t fight back. If I was cold-cocked in the hall, I just picked myself up and went on my way. If someone held me to prevent my departure while his buddy hit me, I went limp. If they pinned me to the ground, rather than struggle I’d go limp. If you live where there are bears, you know exactly what I’m talking about. You curl up in the fetal position, try to protect your face and vital organs and wait for the bear or bully to lose interest.
I got the shit kicked out of me.
For a while.
But many of the kids in gen pop (and, yes, I’m using prison terminology deliberately) started to feel sorry for me. Some spoke to me or helped me gather my things after these events. Many asked in bewilderment why I didn’t just steer clear of these guys. Some actually tried to intervene on my behalf. What I had discovered is that to demonstrate power over the powerless isn’t terribly useful to the bully. After adopting a cooperative strategy, kids in gen pop saw me as an outsider. If you want to intimidate a group by making an example out of someone, that person has to be from the group. The group have to think it could happen to them. The ideal victim should even stand some chance of winning in a fair one-on-one fight so the bully gets to demonstrate how far he is willing to escalate. That’s what puts the fear into the masses. But I had become such a willing victim that the other kids could not imagine themselves in my situation. Their sentiment reversed. Now, the worse a beating I took, the more likely it became that bystanders would intervene.
I had discovered that the simple act of refusing to escalate damps the positive feedback loop. On one level I was saying “I give up. You win.” But on another I had won the ability to show my face around the halls again. The violence was more frequent but less extreme. It had become, for lack of a better word, tolerable. In absorbing a certain amount of punishment, I found my humanity. I determined to win through the simple act of refusing to give up hope. I would win by living my life in the open, in spite of their efforts to intimidate me. I would win by outlasting them.
Obviously, this was a difficult philosophy for a kid barely in his teens to practice. Refusing to be intimidated isn’t the same as not being afraid. I was on alert every moment of the day, adrenaline pumping, looking for danger around every corner and behind every door. I could never have anything of value like a decent watch or jacket because it would be taken. It was a rare morning during the school year that I did not wake up stiff from bruises. In school, I regularly walked past a classroom that had two doors. For a while, a favorite trick of the bullies was to post a lookout at one door. He would signal another kid to exit the second door quickly as I drew near, attempting to strike me “accidentally” with the door. To this day I cannot walk past an outward-opening door without putting my hand up to ward off the blow. I don’t have synesthesia but when I am outdoors and look at sand, loam, clay, mud or other types of soil, I experience their different tastes. I acquired this dubious ability after having, on so many occasions and in so many different locales, been forced to eat dirt. Adopting a strategy of perseverance was not a decision that came to me lightly.
Over time, these injuries and indignities became so routine that I simply incorporated them into my day. Anything in my locker was stuffed into plastic trash bags protect from paint poured in through the vents. I bought a mini hand pump, a patch kit and valve cores so I could get home when my bike tires were flattened. I had extra school supplies and an entire change of clothes stashed in spare drawers in teacher’s desks. I arrived at school early to allow time to get beaten up without being late to class. Of course I thought about killing those responsible. Who wouldn’t? To think that any child could suffer through this without considering suicide or murder is incredibly naive.
In fact, I spent a lot of time reassessing my non-violent strategy. Any meaningful response to my bullies would require an accurate estimate of how far they would be willing to escalate. I also reasoned that if I were to choose escalation, I would have to be willing to kill. If my opponents sought merely to hospitalize me, there was a good chance they’d disable or kill me by accident. I didn’t believe these guys would willingly plan a murder, but their idea of “teach him a lesson” already bordered on hospital-level violence in retaliation for me just walking the halls. There was only one escalation cycle left before my only meaningful response would be to kill them first, and I had no illusions that they had reached their limit of escalation. Every time I reassessed my situation, I concluded that my only options were to accept my fate or retaliate with lethal force.
Of course, it would be difficult to retaliate at this level unless they were all together and doing so would undoubtedly would mean my own death. But that was the logical conclusion if the cycle of escalation continued. They were all jocks so I fantasized about blowing up the team bench at the football game. I planned out every detail of how I’d do it, when I’d do it and who would be there to see it. I went to sleep dreaming about it and I used that scenario to keep my mind busy while absorbing the next day’s punishment. The fantasy that these guys would pay something in this lifetime for their casual brutality brought with it much comfort. I indulged often in that dream.
Which finally brings me to the original question. What stopped me? Why did I write that getting beat up and put in the hospital turned my life around?
Short answer? Spite. Even if I succeed in killing them, I was not willing to allow them the victory of having ruined or ended my life in the process. They win merely by coercing me to adopt their methods. They win if I abandon my principles and employ situational ethics to justify taking life. They win if I take my own life. For me it came down to a question of whether I’d give up my humanity, play on their terms, and seek revenge, or whether I’d win by outlasting them. Playing by their rules I figured it was not possible to win, even in death if it came to that. Playing by my rules, I win simply by not being broken.
All through school, I never gave up hope. Well, not for very long, anyway. School attendance is mandatory so the bullies have a captive population to subjugate. If you skip school, the authorities find you and bring you back. Do it enough times and they stick you with worse kids. That was an escalation I wanted to avoid. I stayed in school. I had always assumed that any college or workplace would operate under different principles because attendance there is not mandatory. If these institutions turned a blind eye to violence, people would go somewhere else and the institution would fail. I felt helpless but never hopeless because I believed that all I had to do was survive and graduate high school.
The beating that put me in the hospital was the high water mark of the violence and the event I commemorate as my victory in the war of escalation. As I mentioned before, the bullying in my high school had been rather deliberate and organized. It was calculated to fly just under the radar of school officials so as not to require a meaningful response from them. The school staff knew it was going on but never seemed to be in the right place to catch anyone in the act, and no witnesses came forward to corroborate my version of the events. But on the day in question, my attacker lost control and flew into a rage. In doing so, he put himself on the radar.
School officials were obliged to respond to a beating this severe and the perpetrator was suspended for 10 days. Normally, such a suspension would result in a mandatory failing grade for the semester and loss of athletic eligibility. No more varsity football for this kid, not even as a bench warmer. But football is a source of scholarships, school pride and much funding, so special arrangements were made to keep the kid on the team. In addition to sending class notes home and allowing my attacker to make up tests, the school board told my mother, who worked as a substitute teacher at the time, that they could not give her any work while there was a criminal or civil court case, or any official complaint pending with the school board itself. This, they claimed, would be a conflict of interest. For a single mom with no other source of income, it was nothing more or less than blackmail.
Even at my age and pumped full of pain killers I saw it for what it was. We didn’t have the resources to fight so no charges were pressed, no civil suits filed and no complaint lodged with the school board. I knew they had her over a barrel and that to fight would mean financial ruin, but I’d always assumed if I was in trouble she’d go down defending me. That’s what mothers do, right? But, on top of everything else, the school officials and the bullies had forced my mom to choose sides and she picked theirs. I had endured the occasional injury from my many beatings, but I had never been so deeply wounded.
What I didn’t appreciate at the time was how hard this decision was on her. Faced with a choice of financial ruin and a loving son, or of financial stability and a son who hated her, she decided that the first of those choices was selfish. She knew I would not understand or agree with her motives at the time and that trying to convince me would be useless. So she didn’t try. All she could do was to have faith that someday I’d understand her decision and forgive her. I did hate her for her choice. But at some level, I could also clearly see the emotional toll it took on her. They had not broken my spirit, but they had managed to break hers and I hated the bullies and the school administrators for that, too.
My brother had offered to go bash some heads but I was secretly saving that task for myself and begged him not to go. I hadn’t made any specific plans and didn’t see it as particularly urgent; I just enjoyed the fantasy and didn’t want him to take it away. Everything changed the day mom and I discussed the school board’s ultimatum. On that day, in the moment of learning we weren’t pursuing any legal or civil remedy, the pain meds were the only thing between me and a spree killing. I could barely stand, let alone drive. I pretended to take the pain pill mom gave me, went back to my room and started writing lists. One list had all the people I knew whose guns I could borrow or steal. There were several. I was trained on rifles and pistols and had no doubt that I’d be able to find what I needed and use it when the time came. There was also a kill list. It too had several entries. I put my mom last on the list. I assumed I’d probably be killed before finishing the list and for her to survive would be worse punishment than any I could inflict. The third list was all the places I’d have to go to find my intended targets since I wasn’t waiting for the next football game. I hid the lists under my pillow and went back to bed.
When I woke up in agony, I decided the pain pill was more urgent and postponed the killing spree. Mom gave me another pill and when I realized I still had the earlier one, I went a different direction. She had the pill bottle hidden somewhere and I could not get more, but I had a stash of whiskey. I had heard mixing pills and alcohol could kill you so took both pills and washed them down with all the whiskey I had left. Between the double-dose of narcotics and most of a pint of whiskey I thought I had succeeded and closed my eyes for what I hoped would be the last time. When I awoke the usual pain was compounded by a massive hangover and profound depression. Even Death had rejected me. Eventually I’d have to go back to school and it would all begin again. I cried into my pillow until my mom came and she held me for a very long time. I apologized and told her I forgave her. I never told her, or anyone else, about the plans I’d made. After she left I tore up the lists and went back to bed.
Returning to school wasn’t as bad as I’d expected. The school would have a very difficult time covering for anyone who caused an incident involving me. The kid who attacked me stood to lose his athletic eligibility for even minor offenses. The others would likely survive minor infractions but a suspension would almost guarantee loss of their athletic eligibility. With this scrutiny limiting the escalation, there was no immediate scenario in which killing my opponents was necessary. I had traded in the recurring daily violence for a lump-sum payment, with the emphasis on “lump.”
To be sure, this didn’t resolve of all conflict. I still endured verbal taunts, pushing, tripping and property crimes, mostly perpetrated in my absence. But the worst of the behavior had been driven underground. I was no longer the example for the other kids. Whatever the bullies did at this point was motivated by petty revenge rather than political gain. But, after getting beat up on a regular basis, these offenses were merely inconvenient at worst. At best, they were reminders that the bullies had finally been compelled to change their behavior. They no longer enjoyed immunity. They were now the ones slinking around to commit their crimes in the shadows. In my mind, I had won.
The following year when one of my homemade rockets surprised me by exploding in my hands, I ended up in the hospital again. On my return to school I was told that I would receive a failing grade for the semester. My 10 day absence was medically excused. Unlike my attacker of the prior year, district policy contained provisions for me to maintain my academic standing. I had several months left in the semester and I was a National Honor Society scholar. Making up the missed work and re-taking the tests would have been easy. But I wasn’t on any varsity team and nobody in the administrative office was looking to do me any favors. Nor was I ready to go back to being bullied, even if now it was the school officials who seemed to have it in for me. At 16, I was past the compulsory school age so I decided to drop out.
I asked the school principal whether he’d reconsider his position on making up the work I’d missed and retaking my tests. He claimed it was out of his hands because the teachers involved would not be around for summer school. I promised to complete the work well before the end of the semester but he declined again. He explained that I would miss graduation with my classmates and instead graduate mid-term one semester late. Allowances had been made for the jock that assaulted me the previous year, so I asked why I did not receive at least as much consideration. The principal would only say that my case was different and never offered a coherent explanation as to why. But he made it clear that I’d be given less accommodation than a common thug who happened to play varsity sports. He lectured me on why by dropping out meant I’d be throwing my life away. When I was still there after an hour of his bullshit, he may have thought I was bluffing when I said I was still determined to leave.
But the discussion had actually hardened my resolve. Attendance was no longer mandatory. I had endured up to now because there was no option to leave, but if I stayed after that day I would have to live with my choice, knowing the school’s principal had picked up where the jocks had left off. Hell, he was already making an example of me with this arbitrary ruling to hold me back a semester. As I considered all this, I had a moment of sudden and stunning clarity. The school officials, who I had assumed were simply inept, were actually complicit. My bullies hadn’t been operating out of the school’s reach as I’d assumed, the school had deliberately turned a blind eye. That explained the lack of effective response from the school, the blackmail and the cover-up. It also explained why the principal had opposed district and state policy first to preserve my attacker’s athletic eligibility and academic standing and later opposed policy again to damage my academic standing and waste 6 months of my life.
The principal had tired of wasting his time on me. “Son, hand me the paper and go back to class,” he sighed. “I’ll have the secretary write you a hall pass and a tardy slip, and we’ll put all this unpleasantness behind us.” He held his hand out and beckoned for the withdrawal form.
Years of rage boiled up. Rage for the years of humiliation and abuse. Rage over having given school administrators the benefit of the doubt, of having mistaken evil for mere incompetence. Rage that this supposed public servant could look me in the eye without a hint of remorse or compassion and tell me that my failing grade for the semester was out of his hands. Rage over the humiliation and shame they’d inflicted on my mother.
I signed the paper and threw it at him screaming. “Fuck you and go to hell, you miserable sorry, son of a bitch. You don’t deserve to be in charge of the toilet. You run a prison and call it a school so you can feel like a big man. You’re not. You are a worm. The law says you don’t control me anymore. Stay here and play God with your prisoners or whatever it is you do to feel important, but you don’t get to fuck with me anymore.” I would have continued ranting, but he struck me. I made my way through the gathered crowd of horrified office staff, walked out the door and never looked back.
The experience did set me on the right path but I wasn’t exactly an overnight success after leaving school. I was just another high school dropout bagging groceries and bussing tables. Although I was battle-tested, I lacked the wisdom of experience. I had no idea about my Asperger’s and my social coping skills were still in their rudimentary stages. I had developed a full-on case of delusional paranoia, and this didn’t exactly endear me to my employers. But what I did have was motivation to work as hard as it takes to learn to be successful, and the unswerving belief that, having made it through school I could get through anything life would ever throw at me.
So, yes, I acknowledge that it is counter-intuitive that anything good would come of being beaten so badly as to require hospitalization. But that event and the aftermath taught me to stop letting life just happen and instead actively take control of it. I didn’t always succeed but I had learned not to fear failure and to keep trying. I had the motivation to work hard and teach myself the social skills required to hold a job. When my job required technical skills, I taught myself those as well. Eventually I had a manager who told me I should aspire to be the best in the world at what I do. I set my sights higher and embarked on that path. I wouldn’t think of claiming to be the best in the world at anything, but through hard work and aiming high I’ve exceeded any measure of success that anyone who knew me as a kid would have expected.
Looking back decades later, a small part of me can’t help but think I was right about at least part of it. Nothing life has ever thrown at me since has been as difficult as just getting through school. I’ve been married for 30 years. My two children have grown into happy, productive adults and make me proud every day. I have a grandson who lights up our lives just by being in the room. I’ve enjoyed job stability and good pay and been able to provide for my family. If I was still keeping score, then in every way that matters, I’ve won. And maybe I’ll indulge myself in a moment of satisfaction at the thought. A little salve on old wounds.
But I don’t keep score anymore. Somewhere along the way I gave up spite. Whatever motivations once drove me to prove the bullies hadn’t broken me is gone. Hate can take you a long way, but it poisons the soul. It forms a positive feedback loop that eventually results in extreme outcomes. The hate was replaced long ago by healthier motivations such as the love of my wife and kids, setting and achieving tough goals, making a positive contribution to my community, or the simple satisfaction of helping a stranger with no expectation of getting anything in return. These enrich the soul, and by these measures I’m one of the richest people you could ever meet.
Please understand that the turning point in this story is not the beating I took. That was just the precipitating event for me. The turning point is that moment when you decide not to give anyone the satisfaction of breaking you. It is the moment when you know with all your heart that you cannot be coerced into fighting violence with violence and that you win simply by not giving up. You can decide when that moment happens and that can be today if you wish. Bullies are the human manifestation of entropy. Combating entropy with more entropy just tears everything down. Combat entropy with synergy. Find your passion to build something of lasting value. Focus on that passion and never let go. It will take you through school and light your path for the rest of your life. That path is an adventure starring you, but you have to walk it to find out what happens.