The Lasting Effects of Bullying: One woman’s struggle to overcome misinformation and hate

by T. L. Woodard

I grew up as a young girl in extreme poverty during the 70s and early 80s. We had no running water, no heat in the winter, and often I had to find a way to feed myself. My single mother did not prioritize the welfare of her children over that of the slew of animals she raised so I often had to find a way to meet my own needs for clothing, personal hygiene, and nutrition. Often, the only food I got was school “free” lunches. In grade school through Jr. High, I only had one pair of jeans at a time that fit and my shoes seemed to always have holes in them. My mother wouldn’t buy toothpaste, so I often had to use dish soap to brush my teeth. Since we had no running water, I found a dark color 50 gallon drum and filled it with water from the next door neighbor. The sun would heat the water and that is what I used to bathe in. It is because of my socioeconomic background that I became a target for bullying. What started with one person making assumptions about my home life, spread quickly through my school resulting in many people spreading misinformation. It was the assumptions and misinformation that caused me to become ostracized by my classmates. Before I could understand what was happening, I found myself being trapped in a corner at recess being spit on by more kids than I could count. I don’t share this story seeking pity, I share this story to highlight the lasting effects that experience had on my life. What started out as innocent childhood teasing grew to become an experience that would shape my life and the lives of those who participated in it.

That snowball effect I speak of is sometimes referred to as mobbing. This phenomenon begins when a leader or strong personality within the community, whether it be a school, workplace, or city community, makes a seemingly innocent assumption about a situation or states opinion as fact. People who look up to, or desire attention from, that leader fail to question the statement made, but instead share that misinformation with others sometimes including their own passionate viewpoints. As a child, I often practiced poor hygiene, not because it wasn’t important to me, but because I didn’t have the resources available to practice good hygiene. The assumption, by those around me, was made that I didn’t want to bathe regularly and that assumption became fact which resulted in being punished for it by being called “rotten,” “smelly” or “dirty” by my classmates. The more I tried to prove that I wasn’t the person I was accused of being, the more the “mob” grew to prove me wrong and put me in an uncomfortable box. It was hard to understand that many of my friends would only be kind to me, when no one else was around to witness the friendship, at school they ignored me. If anyone of authority, such as a teacher or another parent, had stopped and asked me why I didn’t practice good hygiene, they would have found the conditions I was living in and maybe would have provided help instead of allowing me to be persecuted for it. That persecution grew into acts of hate. Parents of my classmates would tell their children that they were not to interact with me because I was different, I must be trash, or that I was not worthy of spending time with their kids. No one took into account my kind heart and good works as I volunteered to do odd jobs for the elderly and I raised leader dogs for the blind. No one took the time to see how I was working to become a contributing member of society, even when I had myself emancipated at 15 and worked three jobs to ensure I had a decent place to live, nice clothes, and food to eat all while continuing my education. Not only did I graduate high school, I went on to work my way through college even after being told by the high school counselor that college was “not going to happen” for someone like me.

On one occasion toward the end of Junior High, I was invited to a slumber party and I remember being so excited to finally be included in something. I had a good time until I was jarred awake by one of the kids screaming that I was “playing with myself.” A large group of girls spread this lie as fact and no one questioned it. This rumor followed me around for weeks causing me to withdraw from others and was a defining moment that prevented me from trusting others for a good majority of the 30 years or so that followed. These events that took place in my youth affected my self-worth dramatically. It was because of this time that I fell into an emotionally abusive relationship with a man I ended up being married to for more than half my life. When I had finally gotten up enough courage to ask my husband for a divorce, he punished me by spreading lies about me to our children resulting into becoming alienated from them. In my late 40s, I sought, through therapy, to understand what the root cause of this alienation was and found that it could be directly linked to the extreme mob bullying I experienced in my childhood. The interactions that some people label as “innocent” childhood teasing set the tone for how I saw myself for the next portion of my life. It was through this therapy and seeking a relationship with Christ that allowed me to put the past behind me, build trust in those around me, move on to love my neighbor instead of fearing them, and develop healthy relationships at long last.

During this challenging time in our country, with the rise of social media, I see the type of negativity that I experienced in my youth happening, on a daily basis, and it makes me very sad. I have seen assumptions made about a person’s character because of their support of a cause or something as simple as their decision to wear a mask in public. The hurt that I felt would be worth it if I could share my experience to help prevent just one person from experiencing the same pain.

I implore each of you to ask questions to seek understanding of your neighbors before making assumptions about a person’s character and spreading misinformation, or opinion as fact. I challenge you to reach out to individuals and ask thoughtful questions to participate in healthy dialogue before persecuting them with hateful speech or posts on social media. If you find yourself guilty of spreading hurtful words based on assumptions, a simple apology will go a long way to recharge someone who is trying to do good within your community. When you see people doing good things, take a moment to praise them in public and on social media because we need celebrations of kindness during this time of uncertainty in our world. To those of you who have experienced negativity, I encourage you to keep doing good in the face of adversity. Remain strong in your faith and continue to make the next right decision even if you are the only one who notices. May God bless you all and keep you safe, physically and emotionally.

Photo Credit: Licensed Stock Photo