You often hear of bully stories where the victim ends up attempting either suicide or homicide.
Or the one where it wraps up nicely in a reconciliation scene, like something out of High School Musical.
This is not one of those stories.
This is a story where the bullied becomes a bully, then makes the decision to reconcile with the victim, thus ending the cycle of violence.
Here is how it happened.
I was a scrawny kid in high school. I had wild, unkempt hair, a tie worn loose because it was hot, and nerdy, thick-rimmed spectacles that I had to keep pushing up my nose.
In short, I was a prime target for being picked on.
[To be honest, considering how much of a cringelord I was at the time, it kinda makes sense why I got bullied. This is 15-year-old me in cosplay.]
It didn’t help that my assigned seat was right at the back of the classroom. That made it easier for me to get picked on without the teacher noticing.
Chris was a lanky dude with beady, cruel eyes and a constant sneer on his face. He sat at the back of the class next to me.
And from the day I moved into this school, he hated my guts.
At first, he’d come over to sneer at me and yank my shirt. Each time, I was like a dog in the headlights — unsure of which course of action to take. I would simply freeze up and wait for it to pass.
During recess, as I would make to leave the classroom, he’d grab my shoulders and push me against the wall.
I didn’t push back or fight back; I just waited passively. He also threatened me, saying if I snitched, he would call his older brother in a gang to come and beat me up.
Trash talk, but I believed him. I was pretty gullible with threats. One time, he tried to get me in trouble by getting me to hit him.
He did this by softly holding his hand to my face. You know when the villain of a movie caresses the face of the hero as he is tied up? It was like that.
I couldn’t articulate what it meant to have my personal space violated back then, but I knew it gave me the creeps.
Why I didn’t fight back
[My old school. Over 10 years ago. To no one’s surprise, I didn’t enjoy school much.]
There were two reasons why I didn’t fight back. I was worried that:
One, my mom was a school headmistress in another school, and I’d feel ashamed if she heard I got in a fight.
Two, I was afraid he’d retaliate by coming for me outside of school instead of in the classroom. At least in the classroom, there were witnesses.
Honestly, I just needed an older brother figure who could teach me how to assert myself without getting hurt.
But I was the eldest, so I had no choice — I had to figure it out on my own.
So all throughout Form 3, this constant egging and baiting kept happening until one day during English class, I snapped.
I got up and yelled at him in a string of English and curse words.
After my meltdown, he avoided me, but so did everyone else. I was known as that weird kid who suddenly blew up with English words in the middle of class.
But it was PMR cramming season, and everyone’s noses went back to being glued to the revision books.
In Form 4, I was sorted into the Science stream, Chris got into the Arts stream — and that was the last I saw of him.
I forgot about the whole incident until, two years later, one day in Yew’s Cafe, I met him again. Chris.
The confrontation after 2 years
I was sitting in a cafe looking at polytechnics in Singapore to visit. I’d just graduated from SPM and I had no clue what my future would look like.
He was with his mother, and when he saw me, he smiled and immediately came over.
“Ah Ming (My Chinese nickname), what are you doing here? It’s been ages. Let’s catch up!”
He acted as if I was simply an old school mate, someone he was friends with long ago and didn’t keep in touch with. I was dumbstruck. Does he not remember any of our encounters?
We began chatting politely about mutual friends and plans for the future. On the surface I was polite, but underneath I was starting to get angry.
Finally, I worked up the courage to say: “Remember when you used to push me up against the wall? Why did you do that?”
He shifted uncomfortably.
“That was a long time ago, man.”
“Yeah, but I remember it. Don’t you?”
“Not really…You’re still thinking about that?”
I gripped the edges of my seat tightly. All the things I wanted to say were jumbled up in my head in a roiling sea of words. I resisted the urge to raise my voice.
How could he not even know the kind of suffering he put me through? How could he brush it off like it never happened?
I remember going back to this particular moment over and over again, thinking about how I should have reacted differently.
How I should have stood up, picked up the glass of water and threw it in his face. How I should have told him the many nights I stayed awake, plotting ways to confront him. How I wanted him to kneel in front of me, begging for mercy.
But both his mom and my mom were sitting a little bit away from both of us, and I didn’t want to cause a scene.
So I stood up and without saying anything more, I left. I told my mom I was feeling unwell, and we went home.
Confronting your bully is nothing like in the movies.
That night, as I lay in bed, I replayed the events of that long miserable Form 3 year in my head. The intimidation, the face-slapping, the feeling of powerlessness and shame.
I felt stupid. Had I made up my own personal hell over something which others might not even consider a big deal?
But it was real. I was bullied, and I was made to feel like I didn’t matter. Except, none of that was important because he didn’t remember.
I could not now throw my hurt into his face and FORCE him to apologise.
An insincere non-apology would not be enough — nothing would have been enough, unless he were to literally be in my shoes and experience it from my eyes.
Realising this made me depressed. All the righteous anger was knocked out of me. What am I supposed to do with all this hurt?
So I pushed it down and stopped thinking about it. After all, I had a bright future ahead of me. I focused on applying to different colleges and got into a local A-levels college in JB.
Little did I know, this trauma would resurface later in life.
How I ended up repeating the past
In college, there was this one guy in my class, Steven. Steven was the first openly gay dude I knew.
He would talk about his crushes on male celebrities in front of us, plus the drama with the various guys he was texting.
This disgusted me — I didn’t want to hear about his gross infatuations with other men.
Back then, my exposure to the LGBT community was limited to movie caricatures and Christianity’s stance on them.
I was always irrationally angry with this kind of behaviour. Why did they act weird with the flappy hands and high-pitched voices, and why were they always so full of drama?
(Sorry LGBT friends — I was quite homophobic back then).
Eventually, I started thinking he was saying these outrageous gay gossipy tidbits simply for attention — there was no way he was really gay.
In my mind, he didn’t fit the typical gay stereotype — he wore dowdy jeans, an oversized t-shirt, his mustache reminded me of a catfish, and he had a little gut. (I know, I’m being unnecessarily mean. I’m no Johnny Depp myself.)
[Me in the middle and Steven on the far right. Faces blurred for anonymity. ]
“How is this person gay?” I thought, “He just looks like a pervert who lives in his mother’s basement.” Yes, as a teen, I was very judgemental.
Of course, because of the way he looked and acted, the other boys would tease him and make jokes behind his back.
And I joined in, half because it was fun to be sarcastic and half because I was genuinely repulsed by him.
He fought back and I called him out for a duel
One day, I was walking to lunch with the boys when I felt a push from behind. It was Steven, and he had pushed me, out of nowhere.
I was furious — out of all the guys he chose to retaliate against, he picked me. Probably because I was the shortest and smallest.
I turned on him, and pinned him up against the wall. The other boys crowded around us, separating us from the rest of the class.
At first, my reaction was in self-defence, but I started to relish that feeling of power as I held him against the wall.
I was in my element — For once, it felt good to be backed up by people who stuck up for me. Wow, this is probably what bullies feel like.
I said, “You think you can hit me from behind? Come and fight me on the ground floor lobby. See you after lunch, loser.”
To be honest, I was macho grandstanding for the boys. My heart wasn’t really in it, but when you’re 18 with a bunch of other 18 year old boys, you want to show off how manly you are, so you act tough. With my manliness intact, I left him there in a nervous mess as we took off for lunch.
[Me and the boys after classes.]
During lunch hour, I thought about what I was going to do about Steven.
Sure, it would feel amazing to square up to him, kick him to the curb. Maybe it would cure his effeminate mannerisms and get him to shave his gross facial hair.
But how was I any better than the people who bullied me in the past?
How could I say I hate bullies, yet treat someone else in pretty much the same manner?
“He gives you the creeps!” the other voice in my head shot back. Yes he does, but was I myself not poorly groomed, socially awkward, and quiet once?
I wrestled with my feelings of guilt and anger. “So what? Nobody cared how I felt back when I was bullied, so why should I care how he feels?”
As lunch came to an end, I decided to end this once and for all.
I saw Steven meandering around in the college courtyard, waiting for that showdown I promised him. Props to him for not chickening out, at least.
When he saw me, his eyes went wild, and he started trembling slightly. I walked up to him until we were 3 feet apart and cleared my throat.
“Ahem, Steven. Look. About earlier. I don’t want to fight anymore.” He looked at me, mouth agape.
“The thing is, I was bullied in high school too, and I was taking it out on you. Sorry.” He stood there in silence, like he wasn’t believing what he was hearing.
Of course, I still felt the need to ruin the moment to save my own ego, so I said:
“I still find you disgusting, but I’m not going to bully you any more. Just do something about your moustache hair, ok? Geez…”
I trailed off. This was getting awkward. “Ok, see you around.”
After that, Steven and I didn’t become best buddies — that’s another movie cliche. We just stopped talking for the rest of the semester.
And that was that.
Chapter 4: The lessons I learnt
Over the years, I’ve learnt to understand the psychology of people who bully. Here’s what I found:
Bullies are actually weak.
The truth is, your bully is someone who has had power taken away from them in another area of their lives, so they are trying to reclaim that sense of power — by picking on someone weaker than them.
It was years later that I heard from a friend that Chris had an abusive parenting situation at home. I guess he had no other way to take it out except on someone who didn’t know how to retaliate.
Essentially, they are trying to make you feel bad so that they can feel better. Don’t give them the satisfaction.
Your self-esteem isn’t a product of what they think. Don’t let their taunts or their opinions of you cloud the way you see yourself.
To stand up to bullying, conquer the fear that the bullying creates. That in itself is half the battle.
You can’t always get closure from other people.
Just because you try to reconcile with someone doesn’t always mean you will get the closure you seek.
Real life is not like the movies. I thought that I could confront my bully, force him to admit his wrongdoings, and once he apologised, I could move on with my life, end credits rolling.
Actually, the scars I bore from my experience weren’t physical, but psychological.
These are the scars that last — the ones which tell you: “I’m not strong enough.” “I’m not brave enough.” “I’m not hard enough.”
If I were to pretend they didn’t exist, I would simply not understand why I still react with anger at certain triggers right now as an adult. But understanding is the key to healing.
My closure only came when I began to help others through their own pain. In the past couple of years, I joined an informal support group called Tribeless that allowed me to contextualise my past trauma.
I was able to share my experiences with others, listen to their own, and relate them back to mine. And that gave me the mental fortitude to put things into perspective.
Now I’m an advocate for non-violence and non-bullying in all of its forms — state violence, racism, and discrimination against LGBT.
Above all, I realised the person I needed to forgive to most wasn’t my bully, but myself.
I needed to forgive myself for being weak. For not knowing how to assert myself. For bullying others as a way to get rid of the pain.
The closure I sought could only come from one person — myself.
You can only heal when you decide to end the cycle of violence.
Revenge is an act borne out of righteous anger — seeking to rebalance the scales of justice in your favor.
But a life focused on vengeance is bad for the heart. Cortisol levels spike, your heart rate elevates, adrenaline floods through your bloodstream.
Recalling traumatic events has the same effect. (That’s why PTSD is an actual condition with documented health effects).
I spent so many years being angry. Trying to make things right. But it didn’t change the fact that it already happened.
Now I realise why the reconciliation attempt with my bully didn’t work, and why the reconciliation with my bully victim did.
It’s because it only works when it’s the aggressor who makes the first move. When I came clean with my bully victim, it wasn’t him who made the first step towards reconciliation — it was me.
It’s the change of heart that makes the difference.
Man hands on misery to man, as they say, but the power is in your hands to break that cycle.
And when you do, I promise that life gets a lot better.
For more stories like this, read: I Reached Out To My Bully After 10 years – Here’s What I Found Out and How I Went From Bully Victim To Meeting Barack Obama in Person.
[Disclaimer: Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of the persons involved. All details are true to the knowledge of the writer. ]