Sunday, October 13, 2013

How to Handle Bullying: An Evolutionary Perspective

Today is my 33rd birthday! I'm on Amtrak, on my way back from visiting my cousin in Providence, RI. It was a great weekend, full of Monster Mini-Golf; visiting the Armenian Museum in Watertown, MA; helping in the vegetable garden (she's a vegan); making vegan pie and cookies; searching for edible mushrooms in the woods; finding out that her first cousin twice removed's first cousin once removed is a famous TV producer (don't ask)...

Inspired by reading Richard Dawkins's new memoir, An Appetite for Wonder in which Dawkins briefly discussed his memories of witnessing school bullying, I presented my views on childhood bullying from an evolutionary perspective. I ended the post by stating that I was glad that science could shed some light on bullying and hoped that it could likewise provide insight as to what can be done about it. I think in some ways it can, although not in the way that one might think. I mentioned in the post that the bullying I experienced ended in 9th grade (age 15). What happened? It didn't just disappear. I did something about it, and I think my solution-- which is rooted in a basic understanding of evolution-- could be promising for many victims.

Let's backtrack a bit to the beginning of this story: at the end of the summer of '95, at age 14, I broke my left ankle during a game at overnight camp (my first summer, no less) and had to go home five days early. My ankle was confined to a splint for a week and to a cast for an additional six weeks. I knew that the ankle muscle would be atrophied due to lack of use for seven weeks, so I vowed to build it back up as quickly as possible by walking every day. That is exactly what I did. While the tendons were still stiff from immobilization, I simply walked about 1/4 mile (400 meters) down the street and back again each day. After the stiffness subsided, I gradually increased my distance to about 2 miles (3200 meters). Sure enough, the muscle was restored in about two months. I continued my daily after-school walks because I enjoyed them, and even incorporated a little jogging. It was odd for me to do this as I was always terrible at anything remotely athletic, including jogging. However, I continued these daily walk/jogs throughout the following months.

As discussed in my previous post about bullying, 9th grade was among the worst school years of my life because the bullying was worse than ever. Just like many adults in my life, I blamed myself for the bullying and continually lamented that there was something "defective" about me. I even sometimes said that I wished I were dead (which I didn't mean; I was never suicidal, not even in my darkest moments) and that I wished I hadn't been born (which I did mean). When the spring arrived, my mother suggested I joined the track team. I thought she was out of her mind. I knew she was just trying to make me get some "real" exercise, but I had always been terrible at sports, with teammates always taunting me. The last thing I needed, I felt, was to do something that I was not only bad at and disliked but also something that would put yet another bull's eye on my back. For whatever reason, I acquiesced to my mother's wish and joined the track team; my life would never be the same again.

I was right about one thing: I was terrible at it. In perhaps an apt metaphor for my social life, I could not keep up with my teammates and found myself frustrated, wondering why it was so easy for them (years later I found out that I have exceptionally low lung capacity, even when conditioned). My track coach saw that I was struggling, and instead of chastising me for what I could not do (as did many adults when I ran into social trouble), he helped me to train. Whenever I was tempted to stop and rest, he ran beside me and kept urging me on. Although I never quite kept up with my teammates, I eventually reached a point where I was not too far behind them either. At track meets, my coach initially put me in the 100 and 200 meter dashes. Although I was not built for sprinting, at least it was a short enough distance that he knew I could finish. One day, however, he nonchalantly announced that I was going to do the 800-meter (half mile) run. I was petrified.

At the dreaded track meet, I struggled through the first lap (400 meters). Ready to collapse, I desperately cried, "What do I do?" "Do it again," he said, because, well, the 800-meter-run is the 800-meter-run! I pulled myself through the second lap, timed at a terrible near-five minutes. Nevertheless, my coach congratulated me for completing it. After that first time, running the 800 became gradually easier. My body was adapting to the daily demands of the intense workout that is running. What happens, exactly? Because of the increased demand for oxygen in the muscles, the heart actually grows larger (it's colloquially known as "athlete's heart") so that it can hold more blood and deliver oxygen more efficiently (this is why marathon runners have very low resting heart rates). The lungs increase in size as well. These wonderful adaptations enable the runner to run for longer periods of time without tiring. The ability to do this is important for the point I am trying to make about handling bullying (I'm getting there, I promise!).

After about a month on the track team, I noticed that I felt euphoric following my runs, which gradually increased in duration and intensity as my body became more able to meet the demands of the workouts. As time passed, these feelings of post-running euphoria-- and increased self-confidence-- gradually increased in duration until I felt almost constantly happy... except, of course, when I was bullied. But the fact that running induced this state of mind-- relatively new for me-- seemed to have significant changes on my brain. One day, while heading to class, I had an epiphany: the bullying I experienced was just that-- bullying. It was abuse. It was harassment. Some of it was physical assault. It was not an "understandable response to a horribly annoying and weird person." It was not me "bringing this treatment on myself." As I strode through the hall I realized something important: What I had been experiencing was not my fault. I made myself a promise: from now on, I was going to stand up for myself. I was not going to let anybody treat me like a virus that needed to be destroyed. 

I was to be put to the test that very day. A few months before, my ceramics teacher had sent me to the room across the hall to work because she could not stop the kids from throwing clay at me. She did this for my safety, but it obviously sent the other students a message that I had been banished from the room. It did not stop any of the kids from sneaking into the room where I was working and harassing me. This happened, too, on the day that I promised that I would henceforth defend myself. Two knuckle-dragging guys entered the room and, as always, started taunting me in the usual manner, calling me names, stealing my tools, and trying to throw balls of clay at me. That day, I was also listening to the soundtrack from Annie. Of course, these boys decided to use that against me as well. Before they could say anything, I was already embarrassed. But I had made myself a promise, and I would see it through to the end. If I had to fight, I would fight. If I broke both hands while defending myself, so be it. 

"What the f*** are you listening to?" one of the boys taunted.

Normally, I would have said, "Nothing," and hoped that the boys wouldn't figure out that I was listening to soundtrack from a musical that many deem "babyish." Instead, I said, "Annie. You got a problem with that?" 

Did they further taunt me about my choice in music? Yes. They even went on to call me a "f***ing circus freak" and told me that the teacher sent me in here because she didn't want me in the class. I maintained eye contact and said something to the effect of, "Okay, so? Why is that any of your business?" 

After a few more minutes of this back-and-forth, I said, "Okay guys, I've had enough fun for today. Why don't you leave?" When they refused, I told them again to leave. I said something like, "I am supposed to be in here, and you're not. And I am asking you to get out. Now!" 

The boys grabbed my tools and ran to the ceramics room, but not without turning up the stereo so that the entire hallway could hear my choice of music. I recall thinking, "I'll never hear the end of this," followed by, "So what?" I ran back to the ceramics room, retrieved my tools, and returned to the room where I had been working. I returned the stereo to its normal volume. The boys did not come in for the rest of the class. 

A number of things happened that day: I have no doubt that the boys thought that they scored yet another "victory" against me. I know that I was shaking while I defended myself. But something else happened: I had at last mustered the strength to defend my dignity. I think the boys came in to harass me maybe during one or two classes after that. Given that their "visits" had been nearly daily before, this was a significant change. Did my teacher suddenly have control over her class when she did not before? I doubt it. Was the decrease in frequency of visits a coincidence? Perhaps. But I think what happened was I did exactly what the bullies were not used to: I stood up for myself. I defended my dignity. I made it clear to them that I was not going to tolerate any abuse. I had won. In fact, very few people bothered me for the rest of the school year.

Clearly, the vigorous exercise I engaged in every day improved my mood and enhanced my self-esteem. Why? I assure you that my experience is not unique. Many runners report feelings of intense euphoria following a run. It turns out that running-- or any intense physical activity, such as lap-swimming-- stimulates the release of endorphins and other neurotransmitters that induce euphoria and act as natural long-term anti-depressants. What does this have to do with evolution? Well, I personally think that every bit of psychology has something to do with evolution; I think without evolution psychology doesn't even make sense. But what happens, exactly? Why the runner's high? Some scientists suggests that runner's high was an adaptation to make prolonged and extensive running-- endurance running, that is, which puts great strain on the muscles-- more tolerable to our ancestors while they pursued prey over long distances (this is called persistence hunting). The neurotransmitters stimulated by running acted as natural pain-killers.

Other benefits from regular vigorous exercise include: neurogenesis (creation of new brain cells), increased attention span, increased energy and motivation, improved memory, and increased ability to learn.

Aside from the evolutionary explanation as to why running gave me the strength to stand up to the bullies, there are some important lessons to be learned:

1. If you or someone you care about is being bullied, it is not your/his/her fault!

2. Ignoring bullies does not work. The bullying only stopped because I defended myself, not because I "just ignored" the bullying, not because I changed something about myself, but because I DEFENDED MYSELF!

3. The best weapon against bullying is self-esteem. Period. Maintain eye-contact when possible and firmly tell the bullies to stop. The first time it may backfire, but eventually the bullies will figure out that what they are doing is something you will not accept.

4. If you are overweight your brain chemistry will change and can have adverse effects on your mood. Talk to your doctor about losing weight, not because of body image (the most important thing to remember about how your body looks is whether you like it) but because of the chemical changes that occur as a result of being overweight.

I should also point out, however, that nobody's life follows a real story arc, complete with climax and resolution. I admit that I got into some terrible habits  while at university including overeating and not exercising and went from being skinny to being overweight; at one point I was close to obesity. At university, I also went through a bit of depression for many complex reasons; this was, I'm sure, only exacerbated by the chemical changes in my brain. Fortunately, in the past year I finally conquered my weight problem: since last October, I lost thirty pounds (for a total of forty since I was at my heaviest a few years back) and am at a healthy weight. I have since embraced running again and plan to run a 5K soon. Exercising, whether running, swimming, or lifting weights, is something that has become a regular part of my life and a near-daily ritual. Losing the excess baggage and getting back into shape, I feel like I have woken up from deep coma. In some ways, I am happier than I have ever been in my life.

Exercise is important for more than just the obvious reasons. Remember that.

1 comment:

  1. As an adult on the spectrum, who was also bullied extensively in my pre-university years, I can relate to posts like this. Even in the adult world, there is bullying ranging in my case from teenagers afraid to sit with me on public transit to in the case of other individuals on the spectrum threats of eviction or nasty letters. I think until the public realizes that it is no more acceptable to treat people with ASD as non-humans than racism, we are going to continue to have problems like this.