Birthdays mean different things to different people. As I gear up to celebrate my 42nd year on planet Earth, I find myself in a reflective mood.
The professional blessings I have received over the last several years have been amazing: the opportunity to finish college and go on to graduate school, to be published, to present my national security ideas in the media and to millions of people on TV, and to lecture at colleges and universities all over the world. Through hard work and a pinch of luck, I have been afforded opportunities I never dreamed possible.
But it almost didn’t happen. I nearly let the past destroy my future.
You see, when I was in junior high school, I was bullied — and I never made peace with it. The impact of the daily insults, beatings, and, at one point, a sexual assault was something I never came to terms with.
For a long time, I considered the abuse something everyone goes through. “Forget about it,” friends and family would say, and to be honest, I felt like I did. But all I was doing was running from the pain, out of fear that it would consume me.
It started when I was 13, entering the 7th grade.
The worst of the bullies was a kid named Joe. I can still see his face — and the grin he would flash at me — before it would begin. Joe would call me the worst things you can think of: fat ass, loser, and words that aren’t suitable for print. Soon, his verbal lashings became physical. He would punch me in the arms and legs to start. It then escalated to daily, full-body beatings when two or three of his friends would jump in — holding me down and hitting me with chairs, stabbing me with pencils, and even drawing on me and ripping my clothes to shreds. I tried to — wanted to — fight back, but the fear of what would happen next was too great.
The attacks were so bad I could not attend certain classes out of fear of what awaited; the teachers passed me out of pity. Most days, I ended up hiding in a bathroom stall, even eating my lunch there, to avoid the bullies. To this day, every time I walk into a public bathroom, I remember.
From there it gets worse.
Enter Bret, a 4’10”, 13-year-old kid who liked nothing more than to spit on me — to impress his girlfriend. During one music class that same year, he spit on me so many times that I was covered in whatever he ate 20 minutes before. Just like Joe’s torture sessions, I could not fight back. I would freeze up. I was scared it would get worse, scared my parents would find out, scared I would lose — and the bullying would only intensify.
At one point, though, I snapped. Things were getting worse, with Bret now in my gym class and spitting on me in front of 50 other students. It’s still all a blur, but in the locker room one day I grabbed him, picked him up by the throat, and threw him across the room. I knew what I did was wrong, matching his awful deeds with my own, but for a few hours I was left alone, at peace, no longer tortured. However, as I feared, it got worse, as eight of Bret’s best-buddies jumped me after class the next day.
I hoped next year would get better, but the carnage continued. Now the bullies had a new weapon: challenging my sexual identity. They started a rumor I was gay. In an instant, I lost all my friends. No one would talk to me. I had no one to sit or share lunch with. It was as if I was erased, only to be tortured when it was amusing.
The worst was yet to come. One day before class, four boys came up to me, held me down, and started hitting my genitals to see if I would get an erection. Random girls even tried to ask me out on a date to see if I was a “real man” and would say yes, only to laugh at me when I was confused, not sure if it was genuine affection or a cruel joke. When they laughed in my face, I felt pieces of my soul dissolve.
All of this left me an emotional mess for years.
As I moved on to high school, the fear that this would happen all over again never left me — and on a few occasions, it did, especially the rumor I was gay. The fear of being bullied was so overwhelming that all I cared about was surviving. In many instances, if the old bullies were in my class, I would put my head down and pretend I was sleeping, praying they would not notice me. If I saw people who tortured me in the past in the hall, I would turn around and go the other way. If I heard my peers laughing I would literally feel like I was going to vomit — my first reaction was they were laughing at me. The desperation was so bad, the fear of being tortured again so intense, that I would go through the newspaper and read the obituaries, hoping one of the bullies’ grandparents passed away so I would get a few days of rest.
So, what happens when the bullying stops? What happens when people go off to college and move into adulthood? Research into the subject suggests a dark future, with some experts actually using a term to describe it: adult post-bullying syndrome. One prominent psychologist I spoke with years ago said the impact was akin to brain damage. Other studies point to a tough road ahead for those who experienced such childhood trauma.
Speaking for myself, one thing was clear: I was lost.
I was left in a state that can only be described as emotionally handicapped. Friendships were hard, intimacy even harder. Anytime a potentially confrontational situation came up with someone I cared about, I would run away. I had no emotional reservoir for dealing with one-on-one situations that could become negative, and I hurt a lot of people because of it — afraid that I would be bullied again in some way.
Bullying also affected my education years later. When I went off to college, even though I had good grades, anytime a professor offered me any feedback other than praise I felt like I was being attacked again. I quit when I was a junior, only to start and stop repeatedly for years. Criticism felt like bullying — and I could not take it.
Bullying also held me back from trying to achieve my dreams. I wanted nothing more than to get involved in national security studies. However, I always thought I was never good enough, never smart enough, never able to measure up. After I quit college, I found a dead-end sales job that promised high pay for long hours. I suppressed my sorrows by working overtime, and while the money was good — allowing me to bury my feelings in retail therapy, fancy vacations, and fancier cars — all I was doing was running from the past.
And then I ran out of room to run.
Like millions of other Americans, my employer felt the impact of the 2008 financial crisis. In just three months, I went from making almost six figures to $30,000 per year. My wife and I were scrambling to pay the mortgage and buy groceries. Worse still, I lost my coping mechanism for the pain, and I fell into a deep depression.
This is when I reached a crossroads. I knew I needed to change. Despair was settling in, a result of years of trying to cover the pain of a wounded soul. I had not talked to my mother and father in years, I had no friends, I rarely left the house — and I had no idea how to start.
Thankfully, I had a secret weapon: a wife who is a therapist.
I sat her down, crying almost uncontrollably, and told her what happened all those years ago — she knew some of it, but I held nothing back now — how it was holding me back, and how I needed help. Jennifer never judged, she never flinched. She worked tirelessly for days to find me the right therapist.
Then the hard work began. For several years, I talked out everything that happened to me. The first few months were hell — I had to open old wounds to let them heal, and the emotional bleeding was intense.
In a series of sessions that I will never forget, my therapist walked me through a scenario where I could meet my boyhood self, to reassure that part of my psyche that I was okay now. I cry every time I think about it. I will never forget the mental image of “little Harry” and myself, holding hands, walking away from it all.
When I came out of the session, the proverbial light bulb went off. I realized that what happened to me was not my fault. I was a good person — a person that had worth. In that moment, I made peace with the past. That little boy knew the bullying was over, that it was now just a part of my life — it no longer was my life.
And then the miracle began. I restarted college — again — this time taking one class a semester. I could handle negative feedback now. Then I took two classes, then I went back full time and finished my degree with honors.
I also decided I had to give my dream of national security studies a final shot, and found a graduate program at Harvard that made sense. I worked tirelessly, completing internship after internship — sometimes two at a time — while working full time and writing op-ed after op-ed. Eventually, I would land my first job as assistant editor at The Diplomat. Today, I work two blocks from the White House, and have my dream job running a defense program, working daily with some of the world’s top experts on issues like North Korea and the rise of China.
While I have been lucky to make peace with the bullying in my past, I wonder, what will happen when the bullying stops for children in junior high and high school now?
Thanks to social media, they likely have it infinitely harder than I ever did. The one thing that always brought me comfort was that when I went home, the bullying stopped. Nowadays, with children living their lives online, 24 hours a day, how do you shut the bullying off? If I had to endure that type of torture — with no way to escape — well, I am not sure what I would have done.
We spend so much time, energy, and resources on our children, yet we cling to the idea that bullying is some rite of passage. That needs to end. What I went through was tough, but the next generation of bullied kids will have it far worse. That’s why I believe we must not only come to terms with the impact bullying has on us when we’re children, but the damage it can do to us decades later.
Only then can we begin to put it behind us.
Harry Kazianis is a Senior Director at the Center for the National Interest. A slightly older version of this piece first appeared in The Week back in 2017.