Bullying: it’s not just for kids

This is a hard piece for me to write. No one likes to admit they were a victim of bullying (if the number of “anonymous” kids writing into The Globe and Mail about that topic lately is any indication). Also, there is always the fear that someone will pipe up and say “You asked for it, Weirdo” and proceed to tell me how.

But because bullying – and the number of young people killing themselves because of it – is in the news so much these days, I feel like I need to step up and say, loud and clear, that bullying is not something that magically stops at graduation: adults do it too.

In my case, I was bullied more or less constantly at a job I held for three and a half years, until my contract recently (mercifully) ended in September.

I will say that this was not part of a pattern for me; I was not bullied at school as a child (despite being a bit of an “oddball,” due to having Asperger’s, and despite being abused at home, which often sets kids up for a lifetime of victimization). Nor was I a bully myself. As an adult, I am still a bit of an oddball, and although there have been some bumps in the road, I am incredibly lucky that the vast majority of my experience, career-wise, has been positive.

Also, in the case I’m talking about here, I actually did (very reluctantly) what all the anti-bullying texts say to do: I went to my supervisor and talked to her about what was happening – not just to me but to a couple of other people who were getting picked on and excluded. She smiled and nodded but told me that the two women who were at the centre of most of the incidents had been an “ongoing” problem for years and, sorry, there was really nothing anyone could do. Shortly after that, someone told me that she is actually good friends with both of them, so I probably inadvertently made things worse for myself – sadly, one of the reasons that people who are being bullied don’t often speak up.

I will not name the place I worked, or the people involved; those details are not germane to this story. My point here is that when we talk about bullying, we need to remember that behaviour that is not dealt with in childhood simply carries on into adulthood, into offices and onto factory floors. The people who bullied me at work were probably bullies when they were younger; I don’t know.

Regardless, whether you’re nine or 29 or 59, being bullied makes you feel helpless, ashamed, angry, and achingly lonely. We humans, Aspergian or not, are social animals, and being excluded from the herd, or having the herd turn on us, is painful, often beyond bearing. A friend of mine killed himself after being bullied at another job; I came very close to taking my own life this summer.

What follows here, by way of illustration, is an excerpt from my journal, written the day after my contract ended. I have thought long and hard about including something like this in a blog. Even my friends don’t know much about what went on in my head during this time, although they knew I was unhappy, and I am a bit nervous about the results of this little exercise in “coming out,” as it were.

But every time I hear about another young person ending their life because of bullying, every time I think about my friend who walked out to the O’Connor St bridge early one morning and jumped, every time I hear my friend K reminding her young teenagers to be kind to their classmates and not join in mobbing on MSN or Facebook, I realize I need to speak up and add my voice to the discussion.

And so, here goes.

September 3, 2011. A friend just asked me if I had a nice send-off from work yesterday. Ha. No. … No one really bothered with me.

I am hard-pressed to say what I feel about this. Sad probably. Humiliated at being so flagrantly ignored and discarded like that. Unsure of myself again – as much as I try to be brave, rejection (and such a cruel one) really makes me feel awful about myself.

What a terrible experience. It made me feel like a hooker, staying there for the money … .

I honestly don’t know how to frame any of this. All I know is I feel very low. Maybe angry too. Ashamed and possibly afraid like when people laughed at me when I was a kid. You know people are picking on you and that a computer-like “Bullying Sequence” has started, but you are powerless to stop it. They don’t even see you as human, as someone with feelings or a brain, or things to offer: now you’re just an It.

[At work], I was something to be “put up with” because I got the work done. But I was not someone to be included in parties or birthdays, no matter how I asked. (And then I stopped asking.)

It really hurt when I’d go in on my own birthday and no one even acknowledged it – while everyone else’s got celebrated. It reminded me of being a kid and having my birthday ignored [by my parents].

And I would feel so foolish and angry when they wouldn’t give me a desk and I had to stand there like a beggar every morning, holding my coat and my papers, asking for space to work, while people rolled their eyes and acted like I was a real pain in the ass.

And S., C. and K., giggling at me (and, let’s face it, a lot of others) behind my back.

It is hard to have people hate you, mistreat you, and make fun of you, and not know why, or what to do about it. …It just makes me feel like such a loser because I can’t imagine [any of my friends] getting bullied like that. Or putting up with it.

…[Another friend] told me today that it had little to do with me. In my head I know that, but it hurts me and makes me ashamed that I let them do it, and for so long.

But they are the ones who should be ashamed. They knew what they were doing – to me, to the others who didn’t quite fit in – and they kept at it. S., C., K., N. and even do-gooder L. who tried to be everyone’s friend….

I don’t know whether it’s a [media] thing, whether that industry attracts big egos. It does, but I did fine at [another media outlet] because I was valued for my work: writing and research.

I guess bullying can happen anywhere. I was privileged to work at [my previous job], where bullying wasn’t even on the radar. There, again, I was valued for my work and my sense of humour and my (admittedly quirky) intelligence, and our department was close-knit and no one got excluded or left behind. Maybe that’s because it was a charity/non-profit. I don’t know.

All I know is that the people at [this place] are evil…. They’re hurtful, childish and nasty. Even I, with bloody Asperger’s Syndrome, know better than to hurt people the way they did me. …Even with AS, I did my best to try and figure it out – being friendly to them, asking about their kids, vacations, home renovations, house hunting… and no one ever asked me about myself in return. I simply didn’t exist.

And no, I wasn’t overcompensating or being obsequious – my overtures worked with lots of people in other departments there, and I made some good friends who also asked me about myself, asked me to do things with them, seemed to care about me as a person.

But the [people in my own department] closed ranks on me almost from the outset. I attended meetings and eagerly pitched stories, many of which were turned into on-air segments. But I was never asked to work on those segments, or even learn how, and on the one occasion I did ask to go along on a shoot (at my own expense, on my day off), I was not “allowed.”

They knew my skill set – but did nothing with it.

When I had that awful bike accident, I had exactly one day off – without pay.

Three of my birthdays passed with no acknowledgment from anyone, even though they have all my info on file. “Oh, we don’t celebrate contract birthdays,” [one producer] told me snottily when I asked why I kept getting ignored.

The rest of the staff would leave early on Fridays to go drinking together. I’d poke my head up out of my cubicle and realize I’d been excluded again.

The staff got Olympic goodie bags – shirts, mugs, pens, mouse pads. Nothing for me.

Basically it’s been three and a half years of being told “fuck you” at every turn. Passed over for [a promotion] last summer, laughed at behind my back, told my job was being downgraded to overnights and weekends….

Sure, it paid the bills, but at what cost to my (always precarious) self-esteem and my pride, letting myself be treated like garbage, like a nobody; going in day after day knowing they were laughing at me, and that a high-school-level job was the best they would ever grant me. I thought I could ignore being ignored and shunned, but I was painfully aware of it, every minute of every day.

And how humiliating to have friends ask why I put up with it, and to say “it pays the rent.” That’s no better than prostitution. And at least with prostitution you don’t have to see the person who fucks you ever again.

So shame on them, and I guess partly shame on me for letting them. For whatever reason, it was a match made in hell, and I hope I never put myself in a situation like that again. Those people will keep on doing what they do best…and ganging up [with management’s tacit approval] on anyone who doesn’t fit into their creepy, empty-smiling ranks.

And I will go (limping a bit) back toward the people who like me, who want me in their herd, who value the work I do and actually seek it out.

I will try to forget it, all of them. I will try to forget quietly slinking out the side door, alone, at the end of my last day. I will try to forget all the lunch hours I spent crying in my car or walking off my frustration out in the woods.

And I will try to learn from this. It’s easy to say “Run from a red flag” but hard when that red flag has cash attached.

Is any job worth being treated like that?

Probably not.’

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10 thoughts on “Bullying: it’s not just for kids

  1. you may be interested in contacting TAASC ( i think it’s called ) they are a group on the spectrum – which you can find at http://www.meetup.com – i’ve hung out with these people and they are a great support group – and i am from east york as well ( as i am assuming the o’connor bridge means you live in the area) – you can contact me at
    sweetwater@live.com – presently i am in Vienna researching Hans Asperger – relatively enjoying mysel but dealing with issues of representation of self and society – you may also come to the realization – that NT’s (some – anyway) are a waste of time- hang out with people on the spectrum – start a paper / a cafe / or some business where the profits and proceeds go towards representation of the ‘autistic spectrum condition’ – Darryl

    • Thanks Darryl. I will email you for more info. I’m lucky that I have some very good NT friends. But these guys at my old job were horrible, and shame on them. Worse, it was a science show, so you think they’d know how to be nice to geeks!

  2. This was hard for me to read, although very well done. I was bullied hard as a child, and even now, after travelling and finishing graduate work, I struggle to convince myself of my own worth. Bullying is something that triggers me- I still have trust issues and get reflexively angry when I hear stories like this. Sadly, I’ve learned that the only way to deal with this kind of behaviour from others is to address it immediately, directly and sharply. Not easy if you have a gentle personality, and bullies tend to be good at achieving deniability.

    ‘ “Run from a red flag” but hard when that red flag has cash attached.’ I have heard this sentiment so many times in the last year from so many people. It’s been a hard year for workers who haven’t bought into the clique-ish behaviour a lot of workplaces unfortunately have.

    I’m glad to hear that you have a good support system, and a job that make you comfortable these days.

    • I think when one is a bit “odd” (like I am) we’re a target for bullies, and we also struggle throughout our lives with a shaky sense of self-worth.
      One thing that helped me immensely was John Elder Robison’s book “Be Different,” (I reviewed it on my blog… use the Search thing if you can’t find it). He’s very encouraging about finding your own strengths & power, and I felt like a new person at the end of that book.
      I do write my blogs with a very positive tone, b/c I think that’s important, but I have very, very black days, like everyone else. Just haven’t had the stomach to put that stuff in print — which was why the bullying thing was so hard to write!
      A.G.

  3. did you do any research on michelle damson’s issues and realizations about representation

    of people on the spectrum? …

  4. Hi
    What courage it took to write about your experience 🙂
    I was in search for a bullying pic and came across your site. I am a primary school teacher and I have seen the damage bullying can do to the soul of a child. As such I have written a book about bullying and I have a corresponding webquest for children. My hope is that the book and webquest will be world wide. Young children will focus on random acts of kindness and have the skills to stop bullies. Taking out bullying as adults I hope . Its a big dream but one I hope to fulfill
    May I ask your permission to use your cartoon picture as my book cover. I will of course provide a link to your site and special recognition in my book.
    Kind Regards
    Kathy Jones

    • Hi Kathy,
      Thanks for your kind comments; your project sounds really interesting! Bullying is a big problem in schools now, for sure, and I hope your work makes a difference.
      I blush to admit I got the little cartoon simply from “Google Images.” It’s not mine — you’re referring to the one of the stick figures pointing and laughing at a little stick-figure girl?
      If you enlarge it, you’ll see the website on the bottom right (looks like wwww.sangrea.net/bully) — hopefully you can contact the artist/author that way. And please let them know that I will remove the cartoon immediately from my site if they want me to do that. The use of these things, via Google Images, is a bit cloudy, legally, but I don’t want to step on any toes.
      Good luck with your project, and thank you so much for reading and commenting on my work!
      Best,
      Asparagus Girl.

  5. How sad. Those jackasses could have been friends with a nice person. I think I may have worked with some of them in another industry.

    • Thank you. I think these things happen in a lot of offices — since I wrote this I’ve heard from a lot of people that it’s happening to them.
      What shocked me, in my case, is that this was a science show, on a channel/network that supposedly devotes itself to science and humanity. I had assumed (wrongly) that these people would be smart and open-minded, and perhaps more compassionate to “geeks” since they had probably been geeks themselves as kids.
      I haven’t actually looked back at this piece for a long time — happily it does seem like the distant past at this point, rather than the sucking chest wound it felt like at the time.
      Thanks for writing in — and I hope your life is also now relatively free from idiots like this!
      Best,
      A.G.

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