For LGBTQ youth, childhood bullying does not have to define our futures. If we do the necessary work, it definitely gets better.

NYC 1995. For several seconds I sat frozen in my chair. I had just seen my face splashed across several large video screens in a packed ballroom during an international modeling competition at NYC’s Midtown Hilton Hotel. My black and white headshot (above) on those screens meant that I was the tenth of ten finalists for New York City’s Male Model of the Year.

After several people at my table snapped me out of my momentary stupor and pulled me up out of my seat, I made my way up the steps to the large stage in the hotel ballroom to join the other nine finalists with — of all people! —  Blane Patterson’s* face in my head! As I reached the top step and turned to the glaring spotlights and the cheering audience, I remember thinking:

THIS MUST BE THE MOMENT.”

In the few seconds it took me to walk from my seat to the stage, I had already dealt with the surprise of seeing his face come into mind after so many years. I’d also reached the quick conclusion that this was the moment I overcame alpha bully Blane Patterson and the bullying I had faced during middle school so many years prior. Once again, I was tying up an uncomfortable thought with a handy little bow. 

I could feel the weight of something I didn’t realize I was still carrying melt away from my shoulders. In my naive mind, the validation of how I looked as a young man in my 20’s was finally wiping the slate clean.

Where once I had been ridiculed, harassed and physically assaulted nearly daily for the way I looked as a bucktoothed and clearly gay pre-teen, I was getting far different attention for the way I looked by the time I found myself on that stage in NYC at the age of 26.

The irony that my first thoughts after being called to the stage were about Blane and the bullying I’d experienced in middle school was not lost on me. It is not as though I had travelled to New York City from my home in Texas for a modeling competition with the intent of exorcising my middle school demons. As I flew to JFK from DFW, I was not thinking, “I’ll show those rotten middle school kids from Marshfield, Massachusetts!” with a fist raised in the air.

In fact, because I was already an attorney, I had publicly shrugged off the entire modeling concept as being “no big deal” or silly. Privately, however, I knew that all of it meant a lot to me, and I diligently prepared for my NYC moment — non-stop workouts, updating and diversifying my portfolio photos, and working with a stylist to pull together runway outfits. I came prepared.

The work paid off.

In the days of competition leading up to this final moment, nearly every men’s division of a major modeling agency from around the world — Paris, New York, Milan, London, Tokyo, LA — had placed me on their call-back lists. When the agency lists were posted in the hotel lobby each afternoon, I rushed to view them along with models from all over the country to see whose name had landed on which agency’s call-back list. I quietly tried to find my name any where it was written, write down the agencies which had selected me for potential representation, and then took the elevator up to my hotel room where I jumped up and down after seeing my name on dozens of agency lists. 

No one I knew was at the event, so my celebration was with myself — I didn’t mind. This moment was for me. I was in my zone.

Though I knew I was doing well, the final night of competition was by no means predictable. I was still shocked to be standing on stage next to nine other young men in front of an audience of complete strangers despite being completely up in my head about my middle school life. I remember thinking that all of it now made sense — my journey had a purpose. I could now compartmentalize my childhood trauma and reframe it as an experience that proved I could overcome adversity, that I was strong, that I was driven, that I was resilient. I could parlay that experience into a life and career direction — whatever that might be — which championed the underdog because I had been one myself and survived. 

All of which, by the way, was true; I was and did do all of those things.

Changing my exterior after childhood bullying didn’t change my interior.

By naively believing that a change to my exterior had healed all wounds and set me on a path forward, I’d neglected my emotional core. It hadn’t occurred to me that I needed to address anything below the surface because from my point of view, that is where all of the attention had been focused. As a result, my emotional maturity and intelligence level remained stunted for many years.

On the surface, one might have thought that I was a complete success. I graduated from U of Michigan in three years with honors, interned for several years on Capitol Hill, and graduated from law school as the youngest guy in my class. Many years later, I have had my own law practice in Beverly Hills for a decade, and I have a 9 year-old son after I embarked on a surrogacy path to single fatherhood 10 years ago. No doubt, in the things that matter, I have done well for myself. Things definitely got better.

But those accomplishments came at an irrationally expensive price. The mountain-high successes were made unnecessarily more difficult by dark valleys of debilitating self doubt, and the self-sabotage I unleashed by making decisions about life and relationships without emotional intelligence. I knew I’d been bullied, but I was just fine with letting that chapter disappear in my rearview and characterizing it as something I was actually thankful to have experienced because “it shaped who I am”.

But by failing to address the bullying I’d experienced as an adolescent head on, there is no doubt I failed to mitigate the impact it had on me as an adult. Now of course it is as plain as day. 

The result?

Eventually it became clear that this reticence to face my past stifled my ability to end a cycle of escaping from — but yet returning to — unhealthy professional and personal relationships in which I was not only treated as the lesser, but in which I was seemingly comfortable with being the lesser.

How I viewed myself did not just manifest in relationships with the occasional toxic boss or a romantic interest. Sometimes I faced extreme challenges in which I — without question — gave up without a fight. 

At 19, a police officer in Canton, Michigan and his wife gay bashed me after they discovered unsent love letters their son had written to me (neither of us were even out to each other). Despite gouges to my neck, lacerations on my face, cracked ribs from where I’d been kicked, bruises from where they threw both of us down on their brick fireplace hearth, and threats to shoot me with his department-issued handgun, I did not go to the police or file a complaint against them even when my dad asked me if I wanted to pursue legal action.

I should have. 

I did not pursue legal action because I believed that being subjected to that kind of abuse was simply part of what it meant to be a gay man. I believed that being gay was something to be ashamed of, and shuddering in the shadows was a lifelong habit at that point. The police officer wasn’t the only one who was treating me like I should be ashamed of who I was — I was doing the same thing.


By the time I was a young adult in my late teens and twenties, “Blane Patterson” wasn’t just a person; his name represented an overall concept. 

His name had come to represent not just the bullying he unleashed on me directly, but also the harassment and taunting I received in general from so many in a middle school which tacitly supported a culture of bullying in the early 80’s. I by no means was the only one getting bullied.

For over two years during middle school in Massachusetts, Blane and his mob had hit me with cobblestones at the bus stop, spat in my face, egged my house, called me a f****** faggot…

…made fun of my crooked teeth, slammed basketballs into my mouth once I got braces, called me a “chink” for having slanted eyes, tore my clothes, slid my school books under the bus seats in every direction, wrote “p***y” over an art piece of mine which had been displayed at school, joked that my father must be a “n****r” because of the width of my nose and the size of my lips, and generally shamed me into submission. 

After I could take no more, I somehow came up with my own death date of October 2, 1982. 

Eventually after every coping mechanism my adolescent brain could come up with had been exhausted, suicide seemed to be my only out after more than two years of bullying. As luck would have it, my dad’s unexpected job offer which came in the knick of time during September 1982 resulted in my family moving away from Boston to Michigan — a relocation that saved me.

But despite relocating away from that school, growing up, feeling super confident at times and experiencing successes by the time I was in my 20’s, my perception of myself as “not good enough” was always just under the surface. For so many years, I routinely viewed myself as an anxious fraud who was always on the cusp of being exposed — exposed for what, I was not always clear. My orientation? The irrational feeling that I was always a step away from failure at all times? The unfounded feeling that even when I excelled academically I did not belong in the same conversation with my peers? Who knows. Oh the battles I waged against my own anxiety without ever facing why I had it in the first place!

After much rumination during periods of self-doubt, my bandaid solution was always to use my fears and insecurities as motivation to turn myself around. A lot of the time the bandaid remedy worked. By working hard and keeping myself on a frenetic work and academic schedule, I could keep my self-sabotaging thoughts and gnawing fear of failure at bay. Left to my own devices, I knew I could accomplish anything I set my mind to, but yet I always felt like an imposter in any number of professional and relationship situations.

The duality of who I was emotionally — success and confidence one minute, and crushing self-doubt and prejudicial life choices the next — kept me in a constant state of anxiety which I told myself was normal for everyone.

By 30, it finally occurred to me that not everyone I knew around me — classmates, friends, and co-workers — was going through the internal battles to the extent I was subjecting myself. This notion was confirmed when I realized that my own son did not seem to be having these internal struggles as he grew up. 

Approximately 50% of the time, I seemed to be able to make sound decisions about friends, boyfriends and career paths. Something positive about how I’d overcome what I’d experienced as an adolescent had clearly stuck. But then there was the other 50% “Mr. Hyde” part of me who walked with eyes wide open into unhealthy relationships or accepted job offers when my gut was screaming “no way can I work for this person!”.

As I grew older, I more and more surrounded myself with, and giving priority to, bosses, peers and partners and even clients who were emotional vampires. The people who I should have been prioritizing were more often kept at arm’s length or on the fringes as I grew embarrassed and isolated by ridiculously unhealthy relationships I could no longer justify to my closest confidants (or to myself for that matter).

So many times I’d follow up a good professional chapter or the end of a healthy romantic relationship with one with a boss/friend/boyfriend who unapologetically crossed boundaries, abused trust, created emotional chaos across the board and treated me like I was expendable. I always had these two competing states of mind in rotation.

It took me years to admit that I seemed predisposed to relationships characterized by a serious imbalance in power dynamics, and that I seemed to encounter them and linger in them to an extent my friends and peers were not. It took me even longer to address why. 

As crazy as it sounds, I recognized that I could even be energized by these kinds of relationship dynamics, but that doesn’t mean it was good energy. Before becoming a solopreneur ten years ago, I was much likelier to work myself to exhaustion for a narcissistic boss who gave me crumbs of appreciation and promises of future promotion than I was for a boss who treated me well. The Devil Wears Prada? Yeah, I felt that movie.

Finally after decades, my subconscious refused to let me ignore my past. It was like the ghost of my adolescent self was continuously tapping my forehead until I finally paid attention. “You need to deal with your past or I am going to put more obviously unhealthy relationships in your path until you do!” 

So thanks to my adolescent ghost, and the pre-adolescent son I am raising right now, I stopped ignoring my past.

To address it, I really dove deep into remembering and writing down in specific detail the chronology of what had happened so I could then move forward. With the help of a coach and a therapist, and after reading so many studies recently conducted concerning the impact of childhood bullying on adult survivors, I finally addressed the internal parts of me that had never healed after several years of emotional abuse as a kid.  “The Long Term Effects of Bullying” by Mark Dombeck, PhD, “The Adult Impact of Childhood Abuse, Neglect and Bullying,” by Grant Brenner, MD, and numerous titles by Ramani Durvasula, PhD such as “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” are some of the more recent published works which concisely get into the adult outcomes victims of childhood trauma may experience.

By finding the right coach and therapist, and absorbing good information, I found clarity about who I was. I not only understood that I had PTSD (of course!) from long-term bullying during middle school, but several of the physical and emotional domino-effect outcomes I observed in myself suddenly made sense after I put a spot light on that period of my adolescence. Once I identified the source, I was able to construct a path forward. I felt like I could breath for the first time in a long time.

After learning where some of my bad patterns came from, I developed the emotional intelligence to establish boundaries for myself and others which finally made sense to my brain. By understanding the source of my own personality ticks, I became more aware of who I was, and boundary enforcement became second nature instead of a challenge.

So yes, it got better….but the recovery from childhood trauma did not end when I got braces. It did not end when I graduated from college in 3 years, or won academic awards. It did not end when I became a model in my 20’s. It didn’t end when I went to the gym. The process (which is ongoing) is much more of a marathon — not the sprint I had wanted it to be. It required going further than skin deep. I do not take for granted that I grew up to experience what it felt like to have confidence in my outward appearance, but childhood bullying doesn’t just cause external injury.


CONCLUSION

The internal emotional injury of childhood bullying lasts long after the last bruise is healed. 

As our own best advocates, we owe it to ourselves to face the reality that bullying causes emotional injury — not just superficial wounds — so that we can maximize our chances at living our best life, and not give up more of our life’s precious time to the ghost of an childhood bully. Like all abuse, no one chooses to be a victim of childhood bullying. But for those of us who have been subjected to it, we are part of an accidental (and literal!) bully pulpit. By becoming the victims of bullying, we unwittingly became members of a select group who have the unenviable yet important roles of being able to talk about it, and can empathize with others who are either going through it or have also survived it. 

As such, it is important that we share an important message to other survivors which is this: 

For “it to truly get better”, you will need to do the work — do not neglect your emotional health if you’ve been subjected to childhood trauma because that trauma can have very real impacts on your adulthood and your adult relationships.

*Blane’s name was changed from his actual name for purposes of this article.

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