“You were bullied,” my therapist concluded. I was stunned. How could an adult be bullied? But I was. I allowed adults to torment me.
I was picked on as a kid, probably as much as anyone else. Once, unprovoked, a meathead drove a pencil point into my arm during a middle school health class. Graphite in my elbow memorializes the incident. Another time, my baseball coach’s son hockered on me. I don’t know if I was the target, but a commendable loogie landed on my neck like a slug shot through a rifle. One of my favorites happened in the school cafeteria. An unidentified imp squeezed ketchup down my ass crack. I never responded to any of these events. I don’t just mean that I didn’t fight back. I didn’t react at all (except after the pencil stabbing, perhaps with a bit of a squeal). Acknowledgement implied vulnerability. Instead, I went on about my business, feigning that it was customary for me to have ketchup in my ass. To be clear, I did my share of ribbing and pranks, too. Why should we have to bear the middle school stage? A bunch of pre-pubescent schmucks trying to stake our claims in the world.
I survived middle school and was actually popular in high school. I graduated from college, married, and moved into an apartment. I was a normal guy: drank beer, watched football, and hung with friends. I landed a teaching job at a computer training school. Instructors were a clique when I arrived: four guys and three girls – all young, confident, and fertile. They boozed together after work. They were crass. There were rumors about hookups. At first, things were great. I was a rock star instructor.
Three months later one of the leaders, a balding and pudgy Englishman, encouraged me to take the next step in my career. This meant holding the title of Technical Instructor and teaching computer networking and programming – the smart stuff. Remember, I didn’t pursue this position; I was asked to go after this job. And I did.
My boss removed me from the teaching schedule. My job for the next five months was to study and pass five exams. Apparently, I was the first instructor to be given this latitude. Other instructors had to teach while they studied. Again, I never asked for this. The rock star instantly mutated into the golden boy, and no one wants that title because the golden boy gets taken out.
Each instructor, including the Englishman, started cutting me down. It wasn’t harmless ribbing like, “Hey, Mike. What are you teaching today? Oh, that’s right, NOTHING!” or “Hey, Mike. Why don’t you earn a paycheck today?” It was downright nasty and hate-filled. The gangbang insults were the worst. One instructor would take a shot at my clothes, hair, subject knowledge, whatever, and then the next, then the next. Relentless. I felt like my personality was being sucked from me. Were they jealous? Did they think I was undeserving? Or was I really a schmuck?
Like in middle school, I accepted the abuse and I sure as hell wasn’t going to tattle. I couldn’t beat the bullies, so I joined in on my own assault: “What’s wrong with me? Am I dumb? Ya, I am dumb. I’m a complete loser and waste. I’m ugly. I am such an ass. I hate myself. My wife would be so ashamed of me. I can’t believe I’m alive.” I’ve always had touches of self-loathing, but now, disparaging self-talk became my mantra.
Primitive instinct overcame cognitive development. We’re built to flee from what threatens us. I started practicing my first self-defense ritual of anxiety – avoidance. I became paranoid at work. I was constantly on watch. Like a prisoner on the run, I put all of my senses on high alert so I’d know if someone was near. My muscles were tight and my heart rate spiked. I identified escape routes into and out of the building. My job, my career, my marriage, nothing was as important as surviving my day. Here was my strategy:
- Check the teaching schedule the night before to know which rooms would be empty the next day.
- Arrive early and park my car in a lot far from the building.
- Enter conspicuously through a backdoor.
- Walk swiftly but silently to the empty room.
- Sit in the back of the room with the lights out. Study by computer light.
- Leave through the same backdoor and eat lunch in my car. (And this made me sad because my wife packed my lunch. She didn’t know that her man was running scared.)
- Quietly re-enter the backdoor.
- Leave for the day a few minutes early through the backdoor.
- Get in my car and be relieved for surviving.
When I got home I was often angry and aloof. No way was I going to let my wife into what was happening at work. We married the summer I got the job. This wasn’t a healthy beginning to our life together.
I went to Cleveland to teach a course. I sat in a Red Roof Inn, one with pubic hairs scattered on the bathroom sink. It was decision time: quit or stay. I consulted a book called read Thinker Toys by Michael Michalko. This book has been a great help to me over the years. I listed out all of the negative thoughts I had about myself and then countered them in two columns. For example:
|Mike is an idiot.||I am smart.||Mike is smart.|
|Mike is not a man.||I am a man.||Mike is a man.|
|Mike is a loser.||I am a winner.||Mike is a winner.|
The bottom line is that I didn’t have a way out. I needed the job and made good money. My job was the only way I could afford a house and to start a family. I stayed for three more years. Each of the original instructors left one by one over that time. I may have stood last, but it wasn’t a victory.
I became an expert at avoidance and started practicing it in all areas of my life, including my marriage. Also, I started distrusting people’s motives, questioning whether or not they had my best interest in mind. And I began doubting my own manhood. A man isn’t frail. A man wouldn’t put up with this. I was pathetic. None of these things materialized consciously. I learned about them in therapy years later.
At the same time, my relationship with my uncle, someone who had taken me under his wing, was deteriorating.