When Bullies “Grow Up”
I am a heavy man. I was an overweight child. Having been this way almost my entire life, I have had my fair share of up-close exposure to bullies. If you name it I can probably say that I have been called it… Fatty, fatso, fat-ass, lard-ass, blimp, wide-load, etc. I’ve heard them all and then some.
One rather creative term that I specifically remember was “chibbles and tits”. No morning bus ride was complete without a serenade from the back of the bus of “chibbles and tits” set to the theme from the kibbles and bits dog food commercials. It seemed as if the whole bus was a part of the chorus and I felt powerless to stop them.
Those words were like a punch in the gut every single day. Most mornings I would arrive at school trying desperately to hide the tears welling up in my eyes so as to not allow my tormentors the satisfaction of knowing they had hurt me. The terrible truth is those words did hurt me. I soon began to believe what they were telling me: I was a worthless fat pile of garbage – deserving of every name they bestowed upon me. I couldn’t hold back the flood of tears indefinitely. Most nights I cried myself to sleep; wishing for dreams where I possessed the power to fight back.
My childhood was filled to the brim with many moments similar to that. Thankfully, although the weight has remained, the memories and their effects have faded. I was fortunate to have a support system of two parents and extended family and friends who helped me develop the strength of character I needed to not allow the taunting to cause any long term effects. The real solution, I found, was kindness. “Kill ’em with kindness” my father used to say to me. The support of my family and friends granted me the ability to rise above the taunting and accept who I was.
The flip side of the coin
Unfortunately, whereas I was able to rise above my negative body image, my older sister Kim was not so lucky. She dealt with many of the issues I did as well, and I can only assume that my parents provided my sister with the same advice they did to me. Sadly, for whatever reason, the taunting she received (complete with her own personal commercial inspired slur of “double bubble”) had a much more deleterious effect on her. What’s even sadder is the fact that her suffering went unnoticed for years.
By the time she reached high school, she seemed to be the model of the adolescent body image success story. In a short period of time she blossomed from the stereotypical awkward, overweight band geek, to a stunning, athletic beauty who seemed to have everything going for her. In what seemed like an instant, my big sister became everything that I wasn’t. She was gorgeous, popular and had a social circle whose circumference seemed astronomical to my twelve year old, chubby and nerdy self. From the outside looking in, she appeared as though she had it all…
But looks can be – and more often than not are – deceiving. Underneath my sister’s seemingly picture-perfect outer visage lurked a surreptitiously negative self image: she saw herself as overweight and unattractive. That was her truth. What is scary is that no one in my family saw it but her. In hindsight, the warning signs were there. Her incessant refrain of “do I look fat in this?” wasn’t the banal prattle of what I assumed was the manifestation of her vanity mixed with benign paranoia. Rather, it was a cry for help. Every utterance of those words were a questioning of whether we also saw “double bubble” in that mirror. She was pleading for verification that is was her vision that was failing her, and not the reality of her physical makeup.
It turns out that, for my poor sister, that image was burned into each and every mirror; a much darker reflection than anyone in my family could have comprehended. Unbeknownst to us, Kim had been suffering from bulimia, a terrible fact that she had successfully hidden for quite some time. Her subterfuge was so masterful that it literally happened right under our noses. For years we were none the wiser of her binging and subsequent purges. It wasn’t until I sneaked into her room one day and found her “stash” that her secret was uncovered.
At the time, I wondered how my mother, a mental health professional, didn’t see it. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized that the real insidiousness of the disease is the fact that the sufferer becomes a master at hiding their true selves from everyone (and anyone) else but themselves. The sad irony is that this realization of who they “really” are feeds the disease, causing the vicious cycle to perpetuate. The only treatment is to break that cycle, a solution which my mother saw with perfect clarity.
Unfortunately Kim did not see things the same way. True healing only happens when those suffering the injury are willing to help themselves. Sadly, my sister was not in the right place to see it that way and she naturally rebelled against my mother (and to a lesser extent my father); half-heartedly attempting to deal with the bulimia only as a means by which to placate them.
This give and take with both of my parents went on for quite some time, and I remember feeling that slowly, but surely, Kim was on her way to recovery. It turns out that instead, she was simply discovering other ways to hide her pain. Feeling a sense of disapproval from my parents, my sister started making more and more reckless choices as she sought out affirmation and acceptance. Feeling the pressure coming from my parents, Kim desperately sought out someone who would enable her – and find that person she did.
“You’re going out with WHO?” were the first words uttered from my mouth when my sister told me she was going out on a date with an upperclassman from my high school whom I had a past with. Unbeknownst to my sister, that past involved this person being a part of a group of people who had bullied me when I was younger. It was the ultimate punch in the gut to me. The only saving grace I had was the fact that I knew this guy better than she did, and his true colors would eventually come out someday soon.
That day took almost twenty years to arrive. That first date did happen between them, inexplicably followed by many more. Before I knew it they were officially dating. I did my best to stay cordial around him, but that mostly involved me avoiding him at all costs. In hindsight I realize that was a huge mistake as it resulted in me distancing myself from my sister as well. I effectively turned my back on her when she needed me the most simply because I disapproved of who she was dating.
It was also during this time that things with Kim’s disease took a turn for the worse. It soon became clear that she was not recovering and needed more drastic treatment. My parents made the difficult decision to have her placed in an in-patient treatment center. It turns out her boyfriend wasn’t very happy with this. True to form, he came to our house uninvited to tell my mother what a terrible person she was for “locking up her daughter”. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing – and had a friend of mine not been there to witness it with me, I swear that no one else would have believed it either. He effectively treated my mother with the same contempt and disrespect he did to me and felt completely justified in doing so.
My sister did end up leaving the program and she and the boyfriend stayed together. He eventually convinced her she needed to get away from her family and they moved out to Arizona in the summer of 1993. They married in June of 1997. I am ashamed to admit that I had very little contact with my sister during the time she spent in Arizona. I made a couple of visits out to see her, but they were few and far between. Her now husband had succeeded in separating her from her family and I was complicit in it.
You can’t avoid a bully forever.
Bullies love control. The very act of bullying someone is a means by which to exert control. Left unchecked, a bully will continue to try and gain more and more control over anything they can. My sister, with her diminished self esteem and the ramifications of bulimia, proved to be an easy mark. Her husband was a master manipulator. Upon the birth of my nephew in March of 1999, my sister asked my fiance Samantha and I to be his Godparents. We were thrilled with the request and quickly accepted. Several days later I received a phone call from sister telling me that her husband felt it “wasn’t fair” that his family wasn’t being represented and rescinded the offer to Samantha. Playing into his hands, I was appalled that my sister felt this was action was justifiable, and in my righteous indignation, I declined to be my nephew’s Godfather. He cast the line and I bit; hook, line and sinker. He would go on to use my “refusal” to be my nephew’s Godfather as anecdotal evidence that I just didn’t care about my sister and her family.
I really didn’t talk to my sister for the next nine months until, during the middle of one night, I received a phone call from her. She had just discovered that her husband had started an affair while she was pregnant with my nephew. It turned out that his sudden interest in “running” (which developed during my sister’s pregnancy) was merely a cover for his adultery. Upon this discovery, my sister left my brother-in-law and did her best to support herself. Having been plucked away from home before she was finished with school, Kim found it difficult to find a decent paying job to support her and the baby. What made matters worse was that her estranged husband was doing quite well for himself working in real estate. As his success grew, he made sure to remind my sister of it… rubbing it in her face and taunting her with every chance he had. My family and I warned Kim about talking with him and that he was doing this to manipulate her. Frustratingly, after two years of constant reminders of her “failures”, Kim decided to get back together with him.
The next few years after their “reconciliation” seemed to go by with very little outward drama. My sister resumed her role as the dutiful wife and mother and her husband rewarded her with a palatial home and a fancy red sports car. Outwardly my sister looked like she had it all. When we did talk she would lament the distance between herself and our family but seemed otherwise content. During my few visits, I would see and hear her husband constantly put her down. When she failed to do things to his standards he berated her. If she didn’t understand something he belittled her. He was so brazen that he would do it right in front of me. Through it all I did nothing to confront him. I of course privately questioned my sister, but I never stood up for her. I kept my mouth shut, falsely assuming that she was “ok” with it. After all, she had everything she ever wanted. A beautiful home, luxurious vacations, sports cars, jewels – you name it, she had it. So what if he constantly reminded her that she would have none of this without him? She was happy, right?
If you took my sister’s word for it at the time, she was happy. “Couldn’t be happier” was her answer to me every time I asked about how things were going. Her husband had grown so financially successful that they eventually purchased another home in the suburbs of Atlanta. My family and I applauded this move as it meant they were much closer to us. In the meantime my sister had two more children and, as far as I could tell, she seemed ok to me. I really didn’t worry too much about her during this time – especially with my own family growing with the births of my two daughters Abigail and Lorilei.
That all changed with housing market crash of 2008. When things started getting bad, I recall calling my sister to make sure everything was ok with them financially. She assured me that they were “fine” and that her husband had made investments to protect them. They ended up selling the home in Arizona, explaining it away as a move of convenience rather than necessity. Kim assured me over and over that everything was good. They continued to go on vacations and for all intents and purposes they conveyed the image of a successful family.
That image shattered in 2011 when I received a phone call from my mother-in-law, which changed everything. In a bizarre twist, my mother-in-law had received a phone call from a collection agency asking if she was related to my sister. They said they needed to speak to Kim because she owed thousands of dollars in unpaid credit card bills. My mother-in-law thought it was a scam and dismissed the call, only mentioning it to me in passing. I, however, could not dismiss the call so easily. Immediately I contacted my sister, informing her of what I had learned. I begged her to look into it without involving her husband…
What my sister discovered was something that surprised no one. It turns out that the financial crisis did have an impact on them after all. My brother-in-law had opened several lines of credit in my sister’s name without her permission…and he was now in default. When my sister confronted him with this information he did what he always did: He belittled her and told her it was her fault. Taking his cue from a Saturday morning cartoon villain, he went so far as to blame Kim for her meddling, and had she not looked into it he would have paid it all off and she would have been none the wiser. His reasoning was that he had to do all of these things to maintain their lavish lifestyle. It was her fault. If she didn’t need all these things he wouldn’t have had to do this. When she asked how he did it without her approval he went on to remind her that he had control of everything. Every account, every dollar and every tax form. He controlled everything, and he told her that her willful ignorance was the same thing as compliance.
Bullies love control
Bullies crave control above all else. A bully granted total control can sometimes appear gracious – magnanimous even. For almost twenty years my sister gave a bully exactly what he wanted, and now the reality of that control had suddenly crashed down on her – waking her from her twenty year stupor. All at once my sister realized that all the trinkets and baubles were nothing more than a means by which to maintain control. Her awakening meant she was finally ready to break free from the control. But bullies don’t give up control so easily.
My sister has been divorced from her ex-husband going on five years now. I would like to say that she is free from him, but that is not the case. In many ways his control over her has actually worsened. She may be separated by the physical space between them, but their children remain a permanent connection that he continues to exploit to exert whatever control he can over her. She is bombarded, almost daily, with insulting texts thinly disguised as inquiries into the children’s welfare as well as her own. He continues to dangle a financial carrot over her head, offering her “help” out of the financial mess that he was an integral part of in the first place. Any time she has accepted his offers her restitution is in the form of reminders of how he “helped” her and the implication that she now “owes him one”.
My family and I have begged her to not accept anything from him. Unfortunately the reality of her situation had made that almost impossible. Hopefully, those days are behind her; as she recently entered into a program to begin the process of becoming a registered Nurse. Still, the harassment has not stopped – and as his control over her has waned in some areas, he has sought to exert that control in others. He has sent harassing texts to my sister’s boyfriend. I am blocked from texting or calling my nephew by him. He has made overtures to my extended family on social media – playing the part of “the nice guy”.
As the harassment has ramped up, my sister has grown more and more desperate to end the torment. I am ashamed to say that for almost twenty five years I had refused to engage her ex, feeling that it would be an exercise in futility. Instead, I did what I could to support her, as best as I could from half a country away. Every phone call, every text that she shared with me recounting her pain was like a knife through my heart. I desperately tried to walk the tightrope of being a good brother, but also a good uncle to my nieces and nephew. I did not want to disparage their father, as no matter what my personal feelings were for him, he was still their father and I respect that – for better or worse. My almost quarter of a century long solution basically remained unchanged… I avoided as much contact with him as possible. I kept thinking time was going to make him go away. It didn’t.
I ain’t heavy, I’m her brother…
Last week I finally decided to take another approach. I decided to reach out to my former brother-in-law to implore him to take the high road and stop harassing my sister. I prefaced it with a challenge for him to prove me wrong (something I was sure he would love to do) and show some graciousness and let my sister live her life. His response: “Hey, Rich, go [have sex with] yourself”. “You’re a pathetic human being”. “Still using big words to justify your [expletive] arrogant way”. “You fat [expletive]”.
In the wake of this pathetically predictable response, I answered with: “Classy to the last…” and figured that was it. It served as an instant reminder why I never engaged with him. Then my phone continued to chime. He continued to text me. A stream of insults followed. Every single one of them a reference to my weight. It transported me back to my school days. With all due respect to my nine year old self, did he really think those words would effect me now? Losing my only son hurt me more than any words he could hurl at me possibly could. The fact he couldn’t recognize that reminded me the he didn’t grow up at all. The texts continued for days – just random insults and taunts. I simply blocked his number and moved on.
Unfortunately, my sister cannot do the same. The dynamics of her situation means she has to remain in contact with him because of their children. I experienced, in a microcosm, what my sister lives with on a daily basis, and I simply shut him off. Imagine what twenty five years of hearing these things over and over does to you?
To this day Kim believes she is unworthy, unintelligent and unattractive. When she looks into the mirror she sees a distorted reflection caused by twenty five years of bullying and gaslighting from her ex. For years I felt powerless in my ability to help her – and when I tried to take a more proactive role, his response reminded me of the futility of taking on a bully. I grew despondent, wishing there was more I could do for my sister and the countless other women who find themselves in similar situations. And then I realized the “solution” is right here. You are reading it.
Bullies can, and do “win”. For many, bullying is an effective way of gaining, and maintaining control. If it weren’t a successful strategy it simply wouldn’t persist. So…if this is the case, then how do we stop a bully? Clearly, ignoring them is not the surefire remedy we wish it to be – as my failure with my sister’s tormentor proves. The answer is surprisingly simple, and it’s one that stares me in the face every day: “Cultivate Kindness”.
Bullies desire control above all else. So, how do you take that control away?
Simple: You take control. We must stop being bystanders and start being activists. Activism isn’t the throwing of stones. Activism is taking control of the narrative and rewriting it.
You don’t stop a bully by raising your voice or your fists. You stop a bully by preventing them from being one in the first place. According to research, teaching children kindness and compassion for others stands as the single best way to stop bullying.
As for the bullies that are already out there? What happens when bullies “grow up”?
The answer is still kindness. We need to get over this misconception that kindness and compassion are weaknesses. Make no mistake: they are strengths. We need to promote kindness and bring the majority of us who believe in it front and center. The time has come for us to give a voice to the power of collective human kindness. When a kind person sees a bully it’s incumbent upon them to say it. Let others know. Remind the bullies that we have the numbers, not them. Bullies count on, and take advantage of our collective apathy. True kindness is standing up and speaking out for what is moral and just in this world; and for each other. As individuals we can be targets. As a collective voice we can drown out those negative ones that seek to control us and our every move.
My nine year old self dreamed of a time where I had the power to stop a bully. It turns out I didn’t need to dream at all. The power was always there…
You want to stop a bully? It turns out that my father’s advice all those years ago was exactly right: “Kill em’ with kindness”.
RICH SPECHT is an author, public speaker and advocate for kindness. Rich authored the award winning children’s book A Little Rees Specht Cultivates Kindness. He and his wife, Samantha, are the co-founders of the ReesSpecht Life Foundation which they formed in the wake of the loss of their only son, Richard Edwin-Ehmer (Rees) Specht at 22 months old. The acts of kindness that the family received after Rees’ passing inspired them to “pay forward” that kindness; which the foundation does in the form of scholarships for High School seniors who demonstrate a commitment to their community, compassion and respect, as well as the distribution of more than four hundred thousand ReesSpecht Life “pay it forward” cards. An animated television series featuring the themes and characters from Rich’s books is in the works. The book and television adaptations of A Little Rees Specht Cultivates Kindness represents the culmination of Rich’s goal to help make this world a little better, one Rees’ piece at a time. Rich currently resides in Sound Beach, New York with his wife, Samantha, daughters, Abigail, Lorilei and Melina as well as his angel above, Rees.