Childhood bullying has long-lasting effects and its impact should be acknowledged as much as other traumas during this era of mental health awareness.
By Khaaliq Crowder
CW: bullying, fatphobia, ableism, homophobia, disordered eating, self-harm, suicidality
As I approach my 25th birthday, I’ve been examining my childhood trauma and how it plagued my late teens and early twenties. Reflecting on my past is the least I can do since I have more free time because of COVID-19.
When I go on Black Twitter (or even Facebook and Instagram), I see other Millennials and Zoomers engage in topics peppered with buzzwords and phrases like “Hurt people, hurt people,” as they discuss “generational curses,” self-love, toxic, trauma, healing, and burnout. We’re in the era of mental health awareness, so it’s stimulating to see long-overdue discussions where we unpack arbitrary ideologies and traditions and prioritize wellness as much as survival.
What I see missing is the dialogue about childhood bullying and its inner-lasting effects—mentally, emotionally, and physically. Sequentially, several ways victims commonly fail to cope later in life—whether in their relationships with other people or themselves—include headaches, self-blame, trust issues, anger and bitterness, isolation, and excessive drug/alcohol use. I can speak from first-hand experience.
I was 19 when my mother allowed me to go away to senior college despite being neuroatypical. Instantly, I beat the odds beyond anyone’s imagination, achieving social, professional, and academic success. Nonetheless, I unconsciously brought the unresolved trauma and pain that comes with aggressive bullying and harassment, and it began to haunt my life. It showed up in my mental health, eating habits, sleep patterns, and how I viewed groups of people in the same demographics as my bullies, such as cishet Black and Latinx men. My classmates weren’t the only people to target me. It was also campmates at “bully-free” summer camps, “friends,” fellow members from my YMCA teen program, people in my neighborhood, and even church peers.
I’ll never forget the first time I was fat-shamed at only seven years old. On a summer day, I was riding my bike in the neighborhood, and I spotted an older kid, most likely a teenager. Due to my developmental disability, I couldn’t articulate that I wanted to hangout (and perhaps befriend him), so I rode my bike closer to his. Eventually, he caught on to the fact that I was following him, looked back, and yelled, “What do you want from me, you fat fucking piece of shit?” At that moment, I felt slighted by his malicious comment and wound up walking back to my house, where my late grandma was babysitting me. This interaction set the tone for how folks outside of my family perceived me along with toxic body politics.
Once I entered my middle school years, the abuse from my peers became an everyday thing. Friendship groups and dynamics naturally change as you and your classmates transition from one school level to another. However, the classmates I was once cool with became bystanders in situations where a new classmate began to torment me. Twice, I had to switch schools because it was toxic and disrupting the academic setting to the point that my mom had to leave work early to intervene. That alone made me feel more guilty as I held internalized pressure to combat the problem by myself without assistance from my family. When the bullying went from verbal to physical, where fights between the aggressor and I ensued, my mom sent me to a local special education school district.
Sure, I thrived somewhat better going to an alternative middle and high school, but I also faced a new challenge: racism. My performative confidence, code-switching, and Nickelodeon-ready smile couldn’t save me from the microaggressions I faced now that I was one of the few Black students in a mostly white setting. No one prepared me for that, especially since my high school years pre-dated the Black Lives Matter movement and the now-heavily used and talked-about term: white privilege. Additionally, at summer camp and its spinoff local teen program in nearby New York City, I dealt with my other campmates (mostly Black and Latinx boys) who reeked of toxic masculinity, mocking me for not subscribing to it. (I wasn’t out at the time). Meanwhile, at church, my lack of interest in things that society expects boys to like, coupled with my social awkwardness and suburban background, made me a pariah amongst the other teens.
I didn’t fit into society’s boxes of what and who I should be, and I never will. I’m a Black and Queer plus-sized man who has socially awkward and quirky moments due to having Aspergers. That’s why I ended up getting name-called, fat-shamed, gay-bashed and threatened verbally.
What made these events insufferable was the lack of proper intervention and punishment of bullies by the adults whose job was to protect me—from school/camp faculty to the children’s parents. Instead, they punished me for retaliating.
In the past six years, I have experienced on-and-off suicidal thoughts (and attempts). I’ve self-harmed, had nightmares, people-pleased, developed a binge-eating disorder, and am sometimes jumpy and easily startled whenever someone touches me. During college, I appeared as a wholesome bright-eyed student. Internally, I had low self-esteem, smiling depression, social anxiety, and played the victim role whenever I did something I knew was wrong.
It’s one thing for someone not to like you or to be a misfit in some spaces. It’s another thing to go through periods of life without anyone to call a friend. So once my life made a positive 180° turn during my college years away from my hometown, I was able to reinvent myself through meeting new people who embraced and accepted me. Yet, I didn’t have the tools to set boundaries to repair my broken self-worth and self-esteem while maintaining healthy relationships. I was so fixated on wanting everyone to like me that I overextended myself to people at the expense of my mental health.
School bullying perpetuates bigotry and carries long-term effects on people’s lives, sometimes for the worst. I don’t want pity or sympathy from others anymore. I want bullying to be recognized, unpacked, and dissected in our communities as a valid trauma, not a rite of passage or passing phase. Especially because marginalized children are more likely to be victims of bullying. When you know better, you do better. Through mindfulness practices, journaling, therapy, and erased desire for revenge, I’m no longer “letting go” of my trauma. I’m making peace with it.
Khaaliq Crowder is a senior Communications student at the University of New Haven and freelance writer and broadcast media personality. Previously, Crowder has interned at VIBE Magazine and freelanced for Black Youth Project, YES! Magazine, The Jasmine Brand, NBC News THINK, Hello Giggles.
JOIN WEAR YOUR VOICE ON PATREON — Every single dollar matters to us—especially now when media is under constant threat. Your support is essential and your generosity is why Wear Your Voice keeps going! You are a part of the resistance that is needed—uplifting Black and brown feminists through your pledges is the direct community support that allows us to make more space for marginalized voices. For as little as $1 every month you can be a part of this journey with us. This platform is our way of making necessary and positive change, and together we can keep growing.