With his large, muscular frame and formidable height, Jason is often mistaken for a football player. He’s a massive man, and you would never think the 41-year-old paralegal and amateur weight-lifter was scared of anything. But he is: he’s embarrassed to admit it, but he’s afraid of dogs.
The fear goes back to childhood. When Jason was six, he was a skinny latchkey kid whose mom worked long hours as a secretary. He lived in a low-income neighborhood full of run-down duplex apartments, nestled around an automotive parts plant where most of the adults worked. A soft-spoken, quiet child who liked to read and watch “The Muppet Show” on TV, Jason would come home from school and play out in the front yard, where he could watch people come and go.
When an older, blond, skinny boy named Jerome moved in across the street, Jason hoped they would be friends. One day, Jerome came out of his house with his German shepherd as Jason played in his front yard. Jason, hopeful for a new friend, waved hello.
Jerome didn’t say hello back. Instead, his dog, snarling with its teeth bare, charged from across the street.
Jason froze at first, thinking Jerome would call off his dog and it would back off. But when it didn’t, Jason screamed and ran away. The German shepherd chased Jason around the yard, barking and snarling viciously as the boy cried out. “I was terrified,” Jason remembers. “I really thought the dog was going to kill me.”
All the while, Jerome stood on his front porch and laughed as he finally called off his dog. “You better not tell your parents,” Jerome said. “Or else I’m going to let him bite you next time.”
That night, Jason agonized over whether to tell his mom. He didn’t want to be bitten, and yet he felt angry. He was ashamed — he was a boy, and boys weren’t supposed to be scared of anything. It took a long time to fall asleep that night.
The next day, Jason came home after school. As usual, he went out in the front yard porch, setting up his G.I. Joes in an imaginary war. All was peaceful and quiet. Until he heard a dog bark.
Jason looked up to see the German shepherd charging at him again, fast and close. Jason turned and ran into the house as quickly as he could. He shut the door just as the dog lunged at him. Across the street, Jason could see Jerome standing on his porch, this time with a friend. Both of them doubled over with laughter.
As the dog barked at the door, Jason watched as the boys crossed the street towards Jason’s porch. Finally, they called the canine off. “We’ll be taking these,” Jerome said, as he scooped up the G.I. Joes. They walked away laughing, the dog trailing them at a trot, tail wagging.
As Jason replays the memory in his mind, his gentle-giant voice still trembles with emotion and indignation. He admits it’s embarrassing, how much it still affects him. But he shouldn’t be. Bullying has a much deeper impact on the psyche than most people believe — for longer than initially thought — and can shape who we are in unexpected, sometimes troubling ways.
From then on, Jason lived in fear of Jerome and his dog. He stopped playing outside. His mom didn’t understand why he seemed so reluctant to be outdoors, but he refused to respond to her questions.
For a while, keeping out of Jerome’s way seemed to help. A few weeks went by without any incident, and Jason began to relax. “I thought I was out of the woods,” he says. “But then Jerome started waiting for me to get home from school.”
As Jason explains, he stayed with an after-school program when school let out, so he took a different, later bus home. Jason would step out of the bus, walk three blocks home — and Jerome would be waiting, with his dog, which would chase him home.
He begged his mom to not go to the after-school program, so he could get home early and avoid Jerome. He asked if the bus could drop him off just a bit closer to the house. He tried taking a longer, roundabout route on the walk home. Finally, he learned to run fast, hoping to outrace the dog before it got to his front door.
Life turned hellish. It began to affect his school performance. Jason became even more withdrawn and isolated. No one seemed to notice anything was amiss. “I was already pretty quiet as a kid,” he says. “I just got quieter.” He didn’t want to bother his mom, who was already struggling just to keep food on the table.
Looking back, Jason exhibited some of the classic symptoms of being bullying: he was sullen, evasive or withdrawn. He showed signs of anxiety or depression, and he had no interest in social life or friends. Bullied kids will also feign frequent and sudden illness to get out of school, cover up unexplained injuries, or suddenly “lose” or “break” physical property.
They also show changes in sleeping or eating patterns, and perhaps show self-destructive behaviors like cutting or talk of suicide. Parents now are also advised to keep an eye out for changes in relationships — a bullied kid often begins to show bullying or aggressive behavior towards siblings at home, for example.
Back then, though, there was no education about bullying. Bullying was just seen as a challenging rite of passage of childhood, something most people go through. The common way of thinking was that a child dealt with or suffered through the bully, learned to toughen up and then moved on into adulthood, leaving any trauma behind.
These were the attitudes Jason internalized as he dealt with his own bully. Occasionally on some weekends he would see his dad, a taciturn, troubled man ill-equipped to really guide his son as he dealt with his own issues with drinking and gambling. Jason tried to tell his dad what was going on, but Jason’s dad said he had to stand up and show him “who’s boss” — that this was about “being a man.”
But Jason had no idea how to stand up to his bully — he was smaller, and felt like he was on his own. And every time he remembered Jerome’s dog, his heart would pound and his palms would sweat.
He would just have to suffer through it, until Jerome got bored. “I prayed every night that it would stop, that the dog would get run over or something,” Jason remembers. “I wasn’t sure how long I could last.”
Jason doesn’t remember how long Jerome’s reign of terror lasted — two months, he guesses, maybe three. But it eventually stopped. “Jerome just disappeared, as quickly as he popped up,” Jason says. “I think his mom got custody or something of him, so he moved in with her. All I knew was, suddenly he — and that dog — wasn’t there anymore.”
On the surface, life went back to normal, and finally after a while, Jason went back to playing on the front porch on his own. But the fear didn’t go away, Jason says. He still lived on edge. He started to seize up when he saw or heard a dog. He stayed quiet. “I remember feeling like I was hunted all the time, like someone was always waiting in the bushes for me,” he says. “I would walk past someone’s dog and just be waiting for it to come get me.” He felt vulnerable and victimized.
Sometimes he would have nightmares, he remembers, and when his mom would come in at night to comfort him, he didn’t tell her what he dreamed about. “It was always getting chased or mauled by dogs,” he says. “Dogs, every time.”
Jason is embarrassed to recount all of this — when I ask why he seems so sheepish, he says it’s because he’s ashamed at how much “power” this “little” incident has over him. But Jason shouldn’t be ashamed: an increasing body of evidence shows bullying’s effects can extend far and deeply, well into adulthood.
Bullying, Duke University reported, can actually lead to higher levels of adult depression, anxiety, panic disorders and agoraphobia. And according to King’s College London, bullying victims are more likely to experience poorer physical, psychological and cognitive health at age 50, even when other factors such as IQ, poverty and low parental involvement were taken into account.
The constant stress of bullying can even affect your physical health as adults: another Duke study reported childhood bullying victims suffer from chronic long-term inflammation in adulthood, which leads to an increase in cardiovascular and metabolic diseases.
“We were surprised at how profoundly bullying affects a person’s long-term functioning,” William Copeland, assistant psychology professor at Duke and lead author of the study, said. “This psychological damage doesn’t just go away because a person grew up and is no longer bullied. This is something that stays with them.”
These days, bullying is a hot-button topic, with more interventions and awareness in schools and popular culture. Kids now attend assemblies at school designed to education students and teachers on the issue. They learn now to speak up when they see bullying; counselors, teachers, nurses and others are instructed to look out for the signs.
Parents are encouraged to try to engage their child if they suspect bullying by asking simple, direct questions, such as “I noticed your headphones or money is gone… did someone take them?” or “You seemed very hungry when you go home, did someone take your lunch?” If a child won’t talk directly, parents are encouraged to enlist the help of their teachers, coaches and other trusted adults, or talk to their child’s friends or classmates to glean information.
Children now also have to deal with cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is less prevalent than verbal bullying or social exclusion — 16 percent instead of 20 percent of high school students, according to StopBullying — but its effect can feel more intense and humiliating. For example, reading an insult on the wall in a bathroom can be painful, but the damage is confined to that school. Online, it reaches a larger audience — and the uncertainty of who sees the insult can produce more anxiety and shame. Harassment can follow a victim around by phone or computer, as well, making it hard to escape from. In addition, evidence of cyberbulling is easier to hide and delete.
According to the journal Emotional and Behavioral Difficulties, cyberbullies also show a higher level of “moral disengagement.” Attacks are mainly indirect or anonymous, so bullies don’t immediately see the reaction of the victims and the consequences of their actions. Therefore, cyberbullying can be more relentless, cruel and extreme.
Children also take cyberbullying less seriously than in-person bullying — in fact, kids think online bullying is often intended as a joke. About 95 percent of the bullies studied, according to the University of British Columbia, said “what happens online was intended as a joke and only five percent was intended to harm.” As a result, researchers think kids underestimate the harm of cyberbullying.
The differences between cyberbullying and in-person bullying will likely require different interventions and educational efforts that teach them to see the seriousness of the behavior — as serious as beating them up. “Students need to be educated that this ‘just joking’ behavior has serious implications,” Jennifer Shapka, associate professor in education at the University of British Columbia, said.
But as Jason grew up, there was no bullying awareness week. He had to work his own way through the uneasy aftermath of his bullying. When the feeling of being hunted didn’t go away, he decided to make himself stronger so he’d never be victimized again.
The bookish, introverted boy joined sports, much to his mother’s surprise, and as he grew into adolescence, he was drawn to weight-lifting. “I got really into it,” he says, “I liked the feeling of being armored. I know people looked at me with fear because I was tall and big, but that pleased me — no one would think of messing with me then.”
“I would spend hours at the gym, lifting,” he remembers. “I got into this zone. Not just the rush of endorphins you get from exercise, but this trance, just imagining myself like this fortress, getting built up higher and higher, where no one could get me.” Always a stoic, even shy guy, his close friends describe him as a “gentle giant,” though his intimidating appearance kept people at arms’ length — as it was supposed to.
Jason grew into adulthood, strong and seemingly successful. He went to college and eventually became a paralegal. Jerome, it seemed, receded into the back of his mind, though he still startled and felt uneasy around dogs. He got married, had children, and embarked upon a stable career.
All was well, he thought, until a few years ago when his oldest son reached school-age and his mother died of a heart attack. Suddenly, Jason says, he began having “moments when my heart just started beating hard in my chest. I got cold sweats, heart racing, all of that.” The first time, Jason thought he was having a heart attack, but when he went to the emergency room, they told him he was fine. But the heart palpitations kept happening, until finally his physician suggested he was experiencing panic attacks and gave him a referral to a psychiatrist.
Jason was shocked and denied the problem at first. He didn’t call the psychiatrist for weeks. He told his wife nothing, saying that his heart palpitations were “an allergic reaction.” But after a few weeks — and a few more panic attacks — he contacted the shrink in secret. After the initial intake, the psychiatrist said Jason had an anxiety disorder.
At first Jason refused to believe his doctor. “I’m a calm, quiet guy,” he says. “I didn’t feel neurotic.” He also worried about the stigma against male anxiety. “No man I knew, or know — particularly a black man — readily admit he’s worried or anxious,” he says. “I thought it made me look feeble-minded, weak.”
He didn’t go back to therapy the next week. Jason tried to hide his problems, but he eventually told his wife about the psychiatrist and the anxiety, and she insisted he continue therapy.
For the next year, Jason faced a great internal challenge. His anxiety, he says, has complex roots in his family history, his background of poverty and the emotional isolation and deprivation of his childhood. “It went pretty deep, because it was all connected,” he explains. “You’d poke at one relationship or event, and it would unearth this whole other mess of stuff.” He dug up his anger towards his emotionally absent father, his worries for his family, his grief over his mother’s passing.
But one of the breakthroughs was finally telling someone about Jerome and the bullying he received. “It was part of the therapy,” Jason says. “My therapist and I were recreating the feeling of some of my panic attacks though visualization and she asked me what the emotion reminded me of in the past. And suddenly it hit me: that damn dog chasing me, that feeling of being hunted. It hit me like bricks. I was so floored by the connection.”
“It’s easier to analyze in hindsight,” he says, “but while my childhood and family troubles could have gotten expressed in one way — depression, or maybe getting into crime or something — it got expressed as anxiety. And Jerome and that dog were a big part of that. Those months feeling like I was hunted — and having to be quiet about it and the anxiety around that — really shaped me emotionally.”
Jason shouldn’t be so surprised. If bullying is intense, repeated and persistent enough, it can even lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, later in life, reported the University of Stavanger in Norway. Signs of PTSD — such as intrusive, haunting memories that make it difficult to concentrate and function and avoidant behavior that interfered with daily life — were discovered in roughly one-in-three of nearly 1,000 study respondents who said they had been victims of bullying.
Connecting bullying with PTSD — famous for affecting victims of serious assault or combat soldiers — seems surprising. Initially, the disorder was thought to only stem from a single traumatic incidence, such as a rape or sexual assault or an attack.
But psychologists see that it can arise from repeated exposure to traumatic incidents, or an “accumulation of many small, individually non-life-threatening incidents,” as stated in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, which all doctors use to diagnose mental illness. This “accumulation” can include common bullying behaviors such as teasing, spreading rumors, social exclusion, physical attack and, of course cyberbullying. It can be enough to push someone into full-blown complex PTSD, long after the bully has had his or her “fun.”
Jason doesn’t have PTSD, but his bullying incident shows its trauma can establish deep roots in the psyche, extending its influence well into adulthood and bubbling up in unexpected ways. One of the biggest problems, he says, was the shame and silence he felt around being bullied. “I had nowhere to go,” he says. “Deep down, I felt angry and sad no one seemed to help me. I felt I had to deal with it on my own, and it really shaped my worldview on people and relationships.”
But with his own kids, he sees the chance to heal. “Before I sort of expected them to be tough, at least unconsciously. Kind of like, ‘If I had to raise myself, well, you don’t get a free pass,” he says.
Now, he’s trying to reverse that. “Trying to ask about their day, their lives, what they’re experiencing,” he says. “Just keeping lines of communication open.”
Jason knows one of the best forms of insurance against bullying — no matter what the form — is strong, healthy communication with your kids. That means talking to them about the websites and apps they use, about what they see happening on them. Stay curious about their friends, interests and school, and negotiate strong boundaries around devices, such as firm turn-off times and rules for accessing their information.
Above all, don’t underestimate the pain and emotional trauma that can be caused by repeated, persistent bullying and think a child will simply toughen up or outgrow it. Children’s psychological and neurological systems are still developing, and the trauma and damage of shame and silence that often characterizes bullying can be hard to shake.
“We need to move away from any perception that bullying is just an inevitable part of growing-up. Teachers, parents and policy-makers should be aware that what happens in the school playground can have long-term repercussions for children,” Louise Arseneault, professor of psychiatry at King’s College, said. “Programs to stop bullying are extremely important, but we also need to focus our efforts on early intervention to prevent potential problems persisting into adolescence and adulthood.”
Jason agrees with those sentiments. “No kid should have to figure this stuff on their own,” he says. “They’re just children. It’s not coddling them. They shouldn’t have to live under fear.”
Recently Jason had a watershed moment, telling his own kids about Jerome and the dog. His kids asked him why Jerome did what he did, and Jason says for the first time, he finally considered Jerome’s point-of-view. “For the first time, I felt a little sorry for him,” he says. “All the kids in that ‘hood had family stuff going. There was a lot of drinking, a lot of poverty and probably abuse. Doesn’t excuse what he did, but people become cruel and heartless as ways to deal with their lot in life sometimes.”
Telling his children about Jerome — and speculating why someone would bully someone — brought him a sense of peace and lightness, he says, as well as a determination not to let his own kids suffer the same situation. “You can’t be chained to the past,” he says. “You can only try to make what you have now the best you can.” ♦