A Childhood Bully Looks Back

When I was 7 years old and in gymnastics class, one of my classmates fell off the balance beam during our final performance. She turned red with humiliation. I laughed and yelled, “she meant to fall over the beam, but she fell under the beam!” over and over, until everyone else was laughing too.

When I was 13, I hijacked my friend’s yearbook and scratched “ugly bitch” on everyone’s face who I thought was ugly. And a bitch.

When I was 18, I warned a hairless, doughy freshman that he would be totally ostracized from Drama Club if he didn’t walk around shirtless for one entire rehearsal.

When I was 21 and in college, I liked a boy who happened to like another girl. So I enlisted a friend to rehearse, then execute the “bump and pour” on that girl at the end of semester dance. The bump and pour is where one person holds a drink near the target, while an accomplice “accidentally” bumps into the person holding the drink—causing a spill and hopefully a sticky mess on said target. My drink was rum and coke. Her dress was white.

Before this goes any further, let me say for the record that I’m proud of none of this—I’m not Tucker Max. These were all terrible things for me to do to other people, mostly in situations where they did nothing to deserve it. I also didn’t always remember things this way.

For years I went around telling people how miserable and ostracized I was in high school—because when you’re a teenager, you’re in a bubble made entirely of tears and narcissism, and you believe your pain couldn’t possibly be understood by anyone else. That’s what you felt at the time, so it becomes easy to revisit those years using only that emotional memory, which may not actually be, well, the way it was.

In other words, I told people I was a nerd, but I recently realized that I … wasn’t. I found my old yearbook and noticed that I’d been voted “Best Something Or Other” a grand total of 10 times my senior year. In other words, I was no outcast. And if I was misremembering that, what else was I wrong about? How many times was I really the victim, and how many times was I actually the asshole in someone else’s story?

I never set out to be the bully. Most of the time, all I really wanted to be was the clown. I wanted people to like me for being the funny girl. If I could make people laugh at the things I was saying about my peers, their laughter meant approval, and I was winning. For me, a good day meant I got a certain number of laughs—a goal I would actually set for myself before I left for school in the morning. Only one problem: I was a horrible insult comic. I had no timing, no creativity, and no playfulness.

And as I’m sure you can guess, the reason I wanted to be funny was because I was horribly insecure about so many things: I’m too hairy, I’m too dark, I’m too short, my teeth are huge. Sometimes people made fun of me for those things, and feeling like I wasn’t in control, I turned to people I felt I could control. And made them walk around shirtless.

So why am I telling you this? Mainly to tell you how I stopped. Most of what I wanted when I was a bully was a reaction, and I wanted that reaction because it indicated that I was the boss of SOMETHING. The bigger the reaction I got, the more fun the game was for me. My sister cried when I painted red spots on my arms and pretended I was dying; I got the reaction I craved. But another time, when I wrote “Dana was here” on an entire stack of Post-Its and put them up all over her room, all she did was react with a simple “cute”—that didn’t give me what I wanted, so I dropped it. Do you know what the aforementioned balance-beam girl did when I wouldn’t let up on her? She punched me in the gut. Hard. I shut up.

Those things stopped me temporarily. But what stopped me for good, finally, was watching my peers totally smoke me in the life race. When I was a senior in college, my friend and I wrote a parody song about our graduating class, to the tune of “Ode to My Family” by the Cranberries. Part of the song had to do with Tom Nadine—a guy in our class who had gained considerable weight during the course of those four years, and so when we sang that song for everyone at a party, I soloed on the line “Tom Nadine got fat”—and sang it right to his face, because he was standing in front of me.

As the words came out of my mouth, I wanted to shove them back in (especially since I actually had a crush on Tom—what was wrong with me?), but I knew it was too late. Everyone laughed, and Tom did too, but I knew I had done irreparable damage to our friendship—all because I had to get a laugh.

Then, 12 years later, I watched Tom win an Emmy. (By the way, “Tom Nadine” is not his name, don’t bother Googling him. Just trust me, he has an Emmy and it rocks.) I was happy for him, but I also finally, fully realized that other people were getting some serious shit done. They were focusing and working and running smack into their lifelong dreams and I … wasn’t.

This other stuff–needing to be funny and liked by pointing out what was wrong with everyone else–had been taking up so much valuable room in my brain. That room could have been occupied by my own goals and my ideas for getting there. But I had been wasting so much time–and not with anything fun or harmless like binge-watching old episodes of “Cheers” or organizing my record collection according to album color. The time I wasted I wasted by being mean, and it got me nowhere. It was time to stop.

It sucks that bullying is part of my history, but it was. I’m not proud of it. I’m not even proud that I stopped. Big deal, I finally managed to not be mean to people to get laughs. I don’t deserve a cookie for that.

But maybe I do deserve a well-crafted insult, or a wedgie, or a stiff middle finger aimed in my direction. So if you see me and you’re looking to get out some old aggression at your childhood bully, let ‘er rip. Loudly point out that I really shouldn’t let anyone see my ass–even in pants. Stick your tongue out at me. Blame that smell in the public restroom on me. I understand; I had it coming.