With the recent release of Netflix original series 13 Reasons Why (based on Jay Asher’s book by the same name), a light is being shined into the dark places of teen depression and peer abuse. While the series focuses on the most dire results of bullying and depression—namely, Hannah’s suicide—the far-reaching consequences for survivors of peer abuse are destructive and can drastically affect the course of someone’s life forever.
This article focuses on the issues faced by many adult survivors of peer abuse and ways to move past that trauma.
When most people think about school bullying, they imagine a lonely child struggling to get through the day. But there's a side of peer abuse that's rarely considered—its long-term effects on adulthood. If you're an adult who was chronically bullied at school, whether you were overtly taunted and teased, constantly excluded, or simply felt invisible to your classmates, and it's still affecting your life today, you may be what I've come to call an "Adult Survivor of Peer Abuse."
And you're not alone. As a former school outcast who, from fifth grade through high school, cried myself to sleep every night because of how my classmates treated me, I know what you're going through. There is a reason for it. And I've met thousands of others just like us. Suicide is not the only outcome of peer abuse.
Perhaps, like me, you've become an overachiever driving yourself into the ground because the only way you can turn off those negative voices is to drown them out with accomplishment. Or, maybe it's the opposite for you: You have so many dreams of what you want to do with your life but never seem to have the energy or ambition to go for it.
Whether you're the adult survivor who's attempting to fill the hole in your soul with success after success or the one who never reached your full potential, we are, all of us, victims of what I've come to call "Adult Survivor Syndrome."
Here are six of the primary symptoms:
• A nagging insecurity that makes you second-guess yourself to the point that it negatively affects your daily life
• A compulsive drive in your career or the opposite extreme of never living up to your full potential
• A susceptibility to abusive romantic relationships
• A tendency to overextend yourself to others for fear of abandonment, rejection, or exclusion
• A fear of bumping into former classmates or peers that can be so extreme you avoid necessary errands
• Negative voices from school keep replaying in your head, making you a hostage to self-doubt
It took me until the night of my 20-year high school reunion to realize there was never anything wrong with me back in school. I was simply an old soul who was misunderstood because of it. Before you can truly escape the hold your former classmates still have on your self-esteem, you need to reprogram your self-talk now rather than replay past voices.
Say to yourself, "There's nothing wrong with me. It was everything that was RIGHT about me that made me stand apart from the crowd. I was not excluded because I was beneath the crowd. I was excluded because I was misunderstood."
Years later, I would be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of my years being bullied at school. Most of you probably associate PTSD with soldiers who have seen battle. The truth is that PTSD can affect anyone exposed to prolonged traumatic experiences.
My diagnosis saved my life. I encourage you to seek out a therapist or other mental health professional to help you overcome your own past as a victim of peer abuse. Make sure that whoever you choose understands PTSD and has experience treating PTSD patients.
I won't lie to you. I'm still working through my own healing. Sometimes, when I drive by my old high school, hear a certain song, or smell something that reminds me of the school cafeteria, it takes me right back to those painful years and I am gripped by an irrational panic.
The struggle to become whole again is a daily process, achieved through small but vital triumphs. I celebrate my courage every time I step foot inside a school gym. If I run into a former classmate in a restaurant and am comfortable making small talk, I smile inside, knowing that I'm getting better.
If you're an adult survivor of peer abuse, don't let anyone diminish the seriousness of your pain. Your struggle is valiant. Your wounds are real. And you can reclaim your life.