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Denise Crosby: Trauma from bullying doesn’t end with childhood

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Updated: March 23, 2012 8:05AM

The plight of the special needs boy who spoke out recently at an East Aurora School Board meeting about being repeatedly bullied hit home for many, judging from the responses we received after the stories ran.

Bullying is not new. It’s certainly not confined to one school or one district. And the damage does not go away even when the tormenting stops.

None of those we heard from addressed the latter in a more compelling way than Annah Mitchell, who says young Jose’s experiences brought back memories she still “battles.”

Nearly 30 years ago, she was bullied “every single day” of her junior high years in Aurora. Mitchell describes herself back then as a “little skinny black girl with coarse hair and buckteeth” and the other kids “clowned me every day. Everybody had a comment, something rude to say.”

Mitchell remembers begging for help, even staying in her counselor’s office during the periods when the abuse seemed the worst. “They probably don’t remember me or the things they did to me,” she said of her tormenters. “But I’ll always remember them.”

Mitchell’s heart goes out to kids like Jose because she believes they likely will deal with the fallout the rest of their lives.

“I’m 40 years old now and I can’t help but think how my life could have been different had someone just advocated on my behalf or if it just never occurred,” she said. “I’m unsure of myself, I doubt myself, I lack confidence and while I’ve tried counseling, I feel like it’s been an epic failure.”

Toni Tollerud, a professor of counseling at Northern Illinois University, is not surprised by these words: Even healthy relationships you have as adults can’t always heal wounds inflicted by those young classmates from your past.

That’s because bullying can affect children on such a deeply personal level during these critical developmental years, she said, not only stunting emotional growth but making it harder for the bullied child to catch up as he or she grows into adulthood.

Despite what some might believe, getting picked on does not build character. In fact, it can destroy a person’s sense of identity, said Tollerud, who spoke at a conference on bullying last year at NIU. And some who are abused like this even develop post traumatic stress disorder symptoms.

A good therapist, Tollerud said, can help victims move ahead, but it often takes a certain spiritual component to do so. To be able to move on, you must be able to forgive and let go. But that can be hard to do, she said, when the damage has been so great, and there is the expectation that you should just “get over” what happened in childhood.

Mitchell says her life has not turned out badly. She’s a professional woman (working on her MBA), owns a home and has two daughters she guards protectively.

Mitchell, who still sees some of her tormenters around town, says if she had to confront them, she wouldn’t spend much time talking about how they treated her because the damage is already done.

“But if they have children, I would encourage them to raise their children to have respect and tolerance for others ... to save the Joses of the world from having to endure the pain.”

That’s because, she insists, the emotional baggage will never go away.

“All I ever wanted,” says Mitchell, “was someone to protect me.”

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