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My Fifth-Grade Tormentor Found Me on Facebook and It Brought Up Past Trauma

What I thought was in the past became top-of-mind again, so I asked experts to help me understand why

By Rachel Spalding

I was lying in bed, upset that my breakthrough COVID-19 left Christmas in tatters. Granted, things felt topsy-turvy. But when Facebook Messenger flashed with a "Friend Request," my feeling was part surprise, part uncertainty.

"Cannot believe this! You look BEAUTIFUL, healthy & happy!" wrote J., my elementary school neighbor in West Los Angeles, using heart emojis.

A black and white photo of a silhouette of a schoolgirl on a swing. Next Avenue, childhood bully, adults deal with childhood trauma
Credit: Getty

Clicking on her profile, I could see the young girl I'd once known in photos of an attractive brunette, now a Dallas mom of two. Her feed was full of quotes from the Dalai Lama. J. appeared a perfect model citizen — but she had been my personal monster, a master of bullying.

We grew up a block apart, running between my yellow home and her Tudor charmer many times a day to listen to records, play Twister, or compare whose fridge contained junk food. I knew her parents and brother as well as I knew my own family.

I can't recall the day I went to school and J. would no longer let me sit with friends. I was cast out, but kids rallied around J.

Until everything changed. J. lead a pack of girls; I was happy to be included. It was a respite from my house, where my divorced mom welcomed a boyfriend who was staying indefinitely.

I can't recall the day I went to school and J. would no longer let me sit with friends. I was cast out, but kids rallied around J. I was followed home, kids chasing me on foot while others threw eggs and sped away on banana-seat bicycles. I had zero friends; not one kid dared talk to me.

Class was agony, as I waited for the next nasty note, delivered to my desk by a smirking girl in ponytails tied with red ribbons. Maybe the ribbons were yellow? Memories are sporadic; they flash with holes in them, like a film strip nibbled by mice.

Lunch was the worst. J. organized singalongs, injecting my name and the fact I was short into unflattering songs. I found a storage shed to cower behind.

One thing I recall? The principal saying she couldn't help. Back before participation trophies, getting bullied was your fault. I was guilty of being weak; that was the message I internalized.

My parents put me in private school, a financial sacrifice. Years passed. I avoided J.'s house. When I got my learner's permit, I used three streets away to practice driving, never hers.

Why Victims Can't Just "Move On" After Abuse

By the time J. found me on social media, this seemed like ancient history. I'd been to therapy, was married and raising three daughters in a house with a picket fence. I'd moved on, right? Maybe J. and I would turn out to be friends.

Except, I started having weird dreams. In one, a woman in a Mardi Gras mask menaced my kids. As I lay there sick, flashbacks flooded me. Or were they hallucinations of COVID-induced fever? I saw J. walking toward me, smiling. People were around, but nobody noticed when her grin turned menacing.

I was annoyed with myself: Here I was in my cozy house, decorated for the holidays, afraid of phantoms.

May is Mental Health Awareness month, and it comes as a revelation how far from alone I am in experiencing a terrible childhood event.

Some 20% of students ages 12-18 report being bullying in the past year, per 2021 government statistics. 2018 numbers from Pew Research clocked the number of teens harassed online at 59%.

Until I spoke with experts, I never realized my reaction when my tormentor returned, and the characteristics I developed following childhood trauma (known as an adverse childhood experience, or ACE), follow patterns.

"I get emails [from victims] daily," said Dr. Dorothy L. Espelage, a William C. Friday Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, whose expertise in bullying has been brought to members of Congress, and philanthropists like Mackenzie Scott.

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"It becomes part of who you are," said Espelage, who herself survived abuse growing up. "There's always this facade you feel you're putting on for the world."

I realized how right she was — in spite of accomplishments, I doubt myself, and the validity of my perceptions.

This is typical: The sense of trust children need in the adults around them, to keep them safe, does not hold after suffering through something like the overwhelming persecution J. visited on me.

I also have anxiety, common in the adult child of such challenges. Studies indicate PTSD can be present in victims of bullying up to 40 years later.

"Trauma can't override your life, but it will be with you forever. There's strength in [surviving] that experience."

"Scientists are finally realizing you can't wish away trauma. The idea of, 'Pull yourself up, the past is in the past' doesn't work," added Espelage, whose dedicated UNC research lab addresses violence prevention in schools. "These are permanent parts of your personality you have to find a way to use [positively]."

This is certainly not the message people heard back when the self-help community pushed the notion that anyone can completely transform. Or maybe I just wasn't ready to consider that this episode, rarely discussed in friendships forged in adulthood, had become part of the fabric of my life.

With bullying on social media grabbing headlines, and celebrities such as Monica Lewinsky and Britney Spears being reexamined as victims of sexism and media bashing, it might have occurred sooner that J.'s behavior was nothing to dismiss.

One Supportive Person Can Lessen Impact of Bullying

Society might be having overdue conversations about mental health, but child psychiatrist Dr. Christine M. Crawford of Boston University School of Medicine and associate director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), added that such talk has not amounted to better outcomes for a vulnerable student facing more powerful peers, like I did. Disturbingly, breaking headlines are full of horrifying recent attacks and teens dying by suicide, allegedly prompted by harassment at school and online.

Bullying is a group phenomena, added Crawford, and teens and tweens need their cohorts; they join in because they think there's no choice.

"There's a growth in cyberbullying, especially since the pandemic," she said. "Kids five to eleven are showing higher rates of depression and anxiety, especially in communities of color."

Before it sounds too hopeless, experts noted the growing normalization of psychiatry and therapy in the quest for improved mental health means things are slowly going in the right direction.

Not only are more people aware of self-care, but it's no longer in fashion to dismiss someone's childhood as a mere excuse for their struggles. Luckily, today's teachers are better schooled than they were in my time about the importance of creating a community of upstanders (someone who intervenes when they see bullying) who will push back against antisocial behavior.

Research shows even one supportive friend or adult can greatly lessen the impact of bullying. Additionally, diagnostic methods to pinpoint personality disorders have improved, meaning people lashing out at others for their own psychological reasons are able to get help sooner.

Even so, Espelage suggested that in my shoes, she might spend more time, not less, mourning the me that might have been if not for J.

"What would you be like if you hadn't been turned on in fifth grade?" Espelage asked. "Because no therapy, no acupuncture, will wish it away. Trauma can't override your life, but it will be with you forever. There's strength in [surviving] that experience."

The mental health professionals must be right, because now I'm not so eager to answer J.'s Facebook Message. I feel a not-unhealthy sense of righteous anger about my past struggles, now that I better understand how deeply bullying affected me.

My tormentor seems reformed, sure, but I wonder if her kids know the truth about her own childhood. My urge to offer her absolution was trying to prove I'm "over" it. I'm not.

Just like the answer to exactly when I'll feel better, I'm leaving J.'s communication unanswered.

Rachel Spalding 
Rachel Spalding is working on a memoir in the MFA program at the University of California, Riverside. She has written for many national publications.
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