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Looking Back on the Bullying I Experienced Growing Up With a Disability

Editor's Note

If you have experienced emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

When I was 10, a young couple asked to sit down with me and my mom to discuss having a child with SMA type 2, with which their infant daughter had been recently diagnosed. It was part of a program sponsored by the now-defunct Families of SMA to help ease the shockwaves associated with such a diagnosis. For my part, I sat there quietly and ate a now-defunct Mighty Kids Meal. At some point in this meeting, they wanted my input on things. As with most discussions on disability issues at this time in my life, I didn’t really have much to say because I had yet to fully understand how my condition affected my life, and by extension this couple’s child’s life. I did say one thing that seemed to give them comfort.

“The kids at school are really nice. You might be scared there will be bullies, but I have lots of friends,” I told them excitedly. I knew on some level that bullying could happen to someone like me, but it hadn’t happened. In fourth grade, I did as much as I possibly could to be involved and accepted. Sure, touch football had gotten a little too quick, and play dates were becoming sleepovers, but I was still a member of the school community, and I most certainly was not being bullied.

They thanked us for our time, gave us small gifts for our troubles, and went on their way into a life no less daunting, but a little less confounding. They may not know what to do if their daughter needed a spinal fusion, or how to deal with her assistive technology needs when those invariably arose, but they knew the kids at school were probably going to be nice.

I wish I could take that back, because while it was true for fourth grade, just a few years later the kids would stop being so nice. Most would adopt an attitude of vague indifference, but a select few would become true predators. They would see the wheelchair as an opportunity for an irresistible advantage. Some bullies are fueled by a kind of blind malice that is so arbitrary, it’s almost innocent — the way a snapping dog is innocent. The bite hurts, but you look at the dog’s surroundings and you see maybe there’s something else going on. It allows for understanding and empathy.

“I’m not sitting next to that thing, it’s disgusting,” a snapping dog said right in front of me. It hurt, but it was so mindless it didn’t bother me. I knew this dog, and he was cruel and hateful to everyone, so this was a perverse kind of equality. I also knew this dog was dealing with an addicted parent.

If I could warn these parents, I wouldn’t warn them about this type of bully. This type is an unavoidable part of the high school ecosystem. If I were to offer them a warning, it would be to watch their daughter’s friends very closely. They are the ones that could do lasting damage.

If this all sounds paranoid, I’d consider that a byproduct of what came next. Once middle school came, my closest friend, whom we’ll call Oliver, began flirting with a different approach to our friendship. Oliver was the youngest of a well-to-do family and was perhaps the smallest boy in our class, smaller even than me. He would pass me soon, but for now he was the runt and had developed a runt complex. Since we had grown up together, he had what I thought to be a well-developed sense of understanding about my disability. He treated it with the kind of off-limits sanctity to which children are not accustomed. When middle school came, Oliver decided to slaughter this sacred cow by calling me a “cripple” and when pressed to apologize, choosing to drive the knife in further and making it abundantly clear that he meant it as an insult. I didn’t know how to react, so I chose to laugh it off, and as best as I could tell we had reset the line permanently.

Of course like any abusive relationship, it was only a matter of time before the line started moving again, always under the auspices of “verbal roughhousing.” It certainly helped that I was a hopelessly depressed near-dropout. I was lonely, insecure and vulnerable — the perfect target. In the decade or so since all of this transpired, some of these memories have faded or been actively forgotten. I do remember having my food spit on for no apparent reason, or being arbitrarily kicked in the shin. I remember any number of nicknames such as “cripple,” “retard,” and many other pejoratives. I remember adopting a style of dress, a taste in music, and a worldview that aligned with my tormentor, because free thought was stressful and could serve as a trigger for some bizarre cruelty. If I stayed in line, I could manage his moods. I remember being told I was a “hideous freak” so many times that I completely internalized my undesirability. I would not have friends, let alone girlfriends. I remember cutting off people who showed concern about this treatment and vehemently defending him to anyone that would question his behavior. I remember sabotaging my own grades so as not to embarrass him.

As high school drew to a close, our relationship entered a new phase. The rest of the school grew tired of Oliver and this left me as his last friend, which he managed to appreciate in his own way. He stopped kicking me, stopped insulting me in front of the few people who still tolerated him, and just started acting human again. He insisted the the prior five years of torment was to “toughen me up.” I believed him, which is probably why all of this is so messy in my head.

It’s no secret that having a disability can make a person vulnerable, but it’s often hard to discern where the line between acceptable, unpretentious inclusion and emotional and psychological abuse lies. The problem with Oliver’s torment was that he was using sophomoric male ribbing as cover. I know teen girls have their own version of this, but I don’t know enough about this to speak on it. For now, I’ll stick with the boys.

Boys often use insults as a form of camaraderie, but can struggle with articulating the point where humor becomes hurt. For a person with a disability, this is a fraught moment in development because it’s the time when we become aware of ourselves and the sheer magnitude of our lives. When the tidal waves of realization are crashing down in the teen with a disability, friendship, or whatever is being passed as friendship, is a safe port. Then when adulthood descends and the adult with a disability is looking back with a little time and distance, this is less a series of positive and negative events than a soup of shifting interpretations of the same event. As such, it can become hard to trace the line between these kind of abuses and the lasting impact on development and socialization.

Was this OK?

Was that OK?

He slapped me with my own hand so hard it left a mark, but “stop hitting yourself” is something kids do, isn’t it?

It becomes hard to believe your own memories because you can’t be sure what really happened, let alone how you felt.

It took me many years to come to terms with what exactly happened during middle and high school, and by then any chance at absolution had long since expired. My tormentor has mellowed with age and become a genuinely decent human being. I on the other hand spent many years becoming a crude, crass, unlikable jerk. Perhaps this was a defense mechanism to keep people at arm’s length, because the last friend who got close reduced me to a radioactive blast crater. Perhaps I was just a spoke on the wheel of abuse and bullying. These things are very complicated on paper, and even more so in the head or heart. The only thing that I can say for certain is toxic masculinity is a very real, self-sustaining issue, and even as a person with a disability whom society has emasculated, it can be a brutal and destructive force.

If I could go back, I would tell those parents that kids can be cruel. I would also tell them the bullies usually don’t stop at the end of high school — they just change shape. They become domineering, paternalistic administrators of all kinds who decide they are the right and true guide for disabled life. These will perhaps be the most insidious foes she’ll have to face, but like the most dangerous threats in high school, they may come as friends. I would tell this scared young couple that their daughter is going to have to learn to differentiate between the predators and the pure, and they will have to remain forever vigilant because she has so much more to lose.

I would also tell them she can handle this, but only with their trust and their support. I would reassure them that if they offer their daughter support that doesn’t trample her independence, she may have the tools to stand toe to toe with whatever creatures rise to obstruct her path and break her will. I would also tell them that every child faces dragons from which parents can’t protect them, but they’ll have the ability to make sure she can defend herself.

I can’t go back, but I can take comfort in the fact they were willing to sit in a mall food court for two hours for any nugget of wisdom that might help them give their daughter her best shot. I hope and believe in the long run, things turned out OK.

Getty image by BananaStock.

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