by Jason Frerichs
Bullying in schools has always been a problem. An estimated 77% of students have admitted to being victims of bullying. This takes a huge toll on self-esteem, academic performance, and future job prospects. The majority of bullied children never tell a single adult what is happening. Fear of retribution from the bullies explains why this happens. This is a topic that hits very close to my heart because I was a victim of bullying.
From grades 3 through 6, my elementary school life was a living hell due to the sadistic and cruel actions of two tormentors who were bigger and stronger due to failing a grade and being held back. I was one of the youngest kids in my class. I was (still am) very bright. I had buck teeth and a stutter. This made me a target for all kinds of bullies. I was called names, hit, kicked, spit on, etc…I had my belongings taken and destroyed. I dreaded going to school. When I was in the 6th grade I remember playing shirts and skins basketball and noticing I had bruises going up and down my arms from being punched. Now that I am an adult, I am surprised that the so-called “responsible adults” who noticed this (my Boy Scout leaders) did not say anything to my parents. One of my scout leaders was the father of one of my bullies. One of the other kids laughed and mentioned the names of the bullies responsible for the bruises. Both were in the gym with me, and this was mentioned right in front of the father of one of the bullies.
One difference between me and other bullied kids was that I wasn’t afraid to punch a bully in the nose. I got into countless fights growing up. I won more than I lost but I learned a very bad lesson. I learned that if a man is angry, it’s appropriate to handle his anger with his fists. I was always in trouble for various scuffles. When I won a fight I was applauded. When I lost, it was just confirmation to others that I was a loser. The fight that sticks out to me the most was in the cafeteria in 7th grade. One of my childhood bullies, who eventually became a division 1 running back, who I was always scared of, started teasing me. He wasn’t very bright, was much bigger than me, and happened to be a stellar athlete. I finally snapped and punched him in the face. I cringed and waited for him to destroy me. He just stood there with a really stupid look on his face so I punched him two more times. I braced for getting my butt kicked but it didn’t happen. The lunchroom attendant finally ran over and tried to stop the fight. In front of her, I punched the bully once more. No reaction from him. I didn’t even get in trouble. I learned to forcefully stand my ground but it had many negative after effects. I recently read an article that said some states want to make schoolyard fights felony offenses. That is just what a bullied kid needs. To potentially be convicted of a felony when he or she eventually cracks and stands up to an aggressor. Instead of being a successful respiratory therapist and political leader, I would be a felon in that scenario.
After fighting my 7th-grade bully, I hit my growth spurt and no one ever tried physically intimidate me again. Unfortunately, once you’re marked as one of the “losers”, it’s a mark that sticks with you. When I entered junior high I decided that I was going to become a good soccer player. I practiced all the time. I worked my butt off and became good enough to play on a travel team. I eventually became good enough to start for my college’s team as a freshman. Even in this arena, the bullying continued. I guess if you suck at sports when you’re a kid, you’re always supposed to suck at sports. You aren’t supposed to get outside of your line and become good. My “teammates” teased me about my acne. In high school, the coach would have us pick teams for scrimmaging. Despite being one of the best players, I was always picked last. They wanted me to quit. I didn’t. I had a travel team coach who believed in me. Being good at soccer gave me self-confidence. I swam during the winter to stay in shape for soccer. Even on the swim team, I got into fights. Freshmen year, I punched a kid in the mouth for calling me a demeaning childhood nickname. Junior year I was suspended for punching a kid who tried to kick me in the stomach and hide my equipment. Senior year my so called “friends” thought it would be funny to start an untrue, vicious, and embarrassing rumor about me. Needless to say, I couldn’t wait to graduate and never see any of those people again. I have never been to a high school reunion and I’ll never attend one.
Toxic masculinity plays a huge role in bullying. As men, we’re taught to be tough. Never cry. Don’t show weakness or fear. The only appropriate emotion that one can express is anger. The most important rule to follow, “Don’t be a pussy and don’t act like a girl.” For years I found it next to impossible to cry unless someone died. I was very closed off and didn’t express my feelings or emotions. The idea that femininity is somehow an insult is what drives rape culture. It puts masculinity on a pedestal and devalues femininity. Toxic masculinity causes men to become closed-off, shells of human beings. Men are rewarded for being aggressive and dominating other people. Even though I reject this system, I still grew up in the culture, thus it’s impossible to not be affected by it.
How did this all affect me? During my 20s I had issues with drugs and alcohol. Ohio State University did a recent study that found victims of bullying are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. I was a regular on a barstool and smoked cannabis on a daily basis. My scholastic goals were delayed. I spent time traveling and running around in Mexico. I’m divorced and I’ve had trouble maintaining romantic relationships. Sometimes I think that I lack the capacity to maintain a long-term relationship. I believe that my fate is that I am going to die alone. I’ve had trouble with interpersonal conflict at work. Because I took enough crap during my childhood, I refuse to do it now, no matter what the consequences are. I’m blessed to have a very caring family and I believe that is why I made it through this. I eventually did graduate from college and have a successful career. I am one of the leaders in Iowa’s progressive movement and I believe that being bullied gave me a very high emotional IQ. I can spot an adult bully from a mile way and I am not afraid to stand up to him or her. I’ve struggled with my weight throughout my adult live. I’ve been both extremely fit and morbidly obese. Bullying takes such a toll that to truly heal; affordable access to mental healthcare is a must.
Iowa is 50th out 50 states in regards to access to mental health care. Six months ago I was diagnosed with depression. I know that I suffered from it for much longer than that. Last year I won a triathlon. Then I went through a bad break up and issues that I pushed away from my childhood came to the surface. I gained 100 lbs. before I was able to work up the courage to finally reach out for help. It became too much to bear on my own. Even now it feels icky to discuss my feelings. I am surprised I feel comfortable sharing this struggle. Because I have good insurance I have been able to undergo counseling. Not everyone has access to the resources I do. Part of being a progressive is that we fight to ensure everyone has access to mental health treatment. Not just those of us who have the financial resources to do so. I know that I will be fit again. I have a strong support system in place. Now I will fight to ensure that everyone has access to the same help I have access to.
Chair of the Iowa Democratic Party Progressive Caucus