A Tormenting Problem: An Exploration of New-Age Bullying

GLOUCESTER — A dozen years have passed since Anthony Testaverde roamed the halls of Gloucester High School in fear. Yet the 29-year-old remembers the bullying like it was yesterday: the unsupervised locker room that flooded him with terror. The boy who held his arms while another classmate punched him. The day they slammed his head into a metal locker: “Why don’t you just kill yourself?’’ they asked.

On the worst days, when he came home aching with self-loathing, Testaverde told his mother he was going to take a nap. Instead, he retreated to his wood-paneled bedroom and lit a candle, held the blade of his pocket knife over the flame, and then pressed the red-hot metal to his flesh. A decade later, the damage is still visible, in the shape of a small white burn mark on his wrist.

It is not the only scar he carries.

Childhood bullying is an old problem, one that has produced generations of victims. And while many of those bullied as children move past it and thrive in adulthood, a surprising number say they have been unable to leave the humiliating memories behind. Their accounts are supported by a growing body of research suggesting that the bullying experience stays with many victims into young adulthood, middle age, and even retirement, shaping their decisions and hindering them in nearly every aspect of life: education and career choices; social interactions and emotional well-being; even attitudes about having children.

Testaverde was an honor roll student who dreamed of a career in technology or engineering. But he also suffered from a spinal deformity, and said he was ostracized as a “freak’’ and “hunchback’’ throughout his high school years. He never went to college, largely because he feared being bullied again. A self-taught electrical technician, he said he might have done better for himself if it weren’t for the bullying. Deeply self-critical and preoccupied with what others think of him, he said he cannot be at ease in large groups and has found it hard to stay at one job, because even minor workplace conflicts trigger fears and the urge to flee.

“A part of my life has been robbed,’’ he said. “It’s like the show ‘Lost,’ where there are two storylines — one on the island, and one if the plane never crashed. Sometimes I think about what would have happened, if I hadn’t been as depressed, if I could have taken more risks.’’

Lingering effects

The Globe reviewed more than 100 accounts by adults who were victims of bullying in their childhoods and who shared their stories in interviews, e-mails to the Globe, and in public online forums. Common threads run through their stories: the spotlit vividness of the memories. The anger at their own failure to fight back or get revenge. A sense of lingering impairment, felt again and again in flare-ups of self-doubt, anxiety, or rage.

Still burdened with intense feelings of shame, many would not agree to have their names published.

Chris, 55, says he grew up poor in Central Massachusetts where he was scorned because he was overweight and his father was an alcoholic. He suffered daily beatings at middle school. As an adult, he says, he is plagued by fear and self-doubt, and feels unable to extract himself from the helplessness of his childhood. “To this day, I can’t seem to stick up for myself,’’ he says.

Ken, 47, recalled the way he coped with the mockery of classmates, at a Boston Catholic high school, who incessantly chided him for his effeminate voice. He simply stopped talking, and refused to respond even to teachers who called on him. He went to college but dropped out after six months, he says, because he felt disconnected from his peers, an estrangement he attributes to his suffering in high school.

Carl, a 60-year-old North Shore man, said he was repeatedly beaten at boarding school in Vermont. For decades after, he flashed back to the night in 1966 that a 300-pound bully came to his room and beat him so badly he couldn’t get off the floor. “It became like a demon to me,’’ he said of the memory. “As time passes, you think, ‘Am I going to take this to my deathbed?’ ’’

Such tales are increasingly being supported by scientific studies concluding that bullying is far from a harmless rite, and that it can inflict lasting damage, sometimes of a severity more commonly associated with post-traumatic stress and sexual abuse.

The long-term effects can be potent, researchers say, because the hammering insults of bullies act like fingers jabbed in the still-hardening clay of identity.

“Children are forming their personalities, their self-awareness,’’ said Michele Elliott, founder of Kidscape, an antibullying group that conducted a groundbreaking survey of victims 10 years ago. “To have a group of kids tell you you’re ugly, you’re worthless, to deride someone for having red hair — it’s going to the very basis of who you are.’’

Elliott’s unscientific survey of 1,000 adults was among the first to point at a wide spectrum of debilitating effects of bullying — with large numbers of respondents reporting they had dropped out of school because of bullying, experienced problems making friends later in life, or had contemplated suicide. Forty percent said bullying affected their plans for higher education. Sixty percent said they felt angry about childhood bullying years later.

The survey surprised researchers for another reason: They had expected 300 people to respond to the questionnaire, which was printed in newspapers and handed out in London, but got three times that many.

“It was like uncorking a huge Pandora’s box,’’ she said. “We went into it with the hypothesis that if you heap abuse on someone, it will have some effects, but we were stunned that it lasted so long, that people in their 50s and 60s were still concerned about it.’’

Links to adult depression

Drawing conclusions about the effects of childhood bullying can be difficult because of the many factors that might contribute to problems later in life, including underlying mental disorders. But studies have attempted to account for a wide range of factors, and researchers increasingly are becoming convinced as large, long-term studies find links to depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.

One respected, long-term study of 2,500 Finnish boys born in 1981 found that children who endured bullying in grade school were two to three times as likely to have a psychiatric disorder by their early 20s, according to records collected as part of mandatory military service. Boys who bullied were also at higher risk.

Even more compelling to those who suspected the effects could last decades, if not a lifetime, a 2008 study of 12,000 Danish men found that those who recalled being bullied at school had significantly higher rates of depression at age 51 than those who did not recall bullying. The study, of men born in 1953 in Copenhagen, adjusted for differences in social class and parental mental illness.

To those who study such effects, the findings are another pressing reason to address the bullying problem.

The Norwegian antibullying specialist Dan Olweus, one of the first researchers to link childhood bullying to adult depression, found that victims were deprived “of considerable joy and satisfaction with their lives,’’ and called for intervention, “not only to stop current suffering, but also because of the long-term [costs] for these individuals.’’

Elliott put it another way: “This is searing, life-changing abuse, that causes victims great pain,’’ she said. “We never expected this kind of clear-cut, overwhelming evidence about the long-term effects.’’

Christina Bailey, 34, was blindsided by bullying in seventh grade. When her family moved to West Springfield, she lost her secure social standing and became the “new girl,’’ slammed into a row of middle-school lockers; ridiculed and beaten; even demeaned by a teacher. She said she “blocked out’’ most of seventh grade, and still can’t bear to say out loud one of the hurtful names her classmates called her.

Today, she blames the bullying for many of the fears that plague her: She can’t handle criticism. She can’t bear to be alone. She is terrified of being the center of attention, stricken at the thought of embarrassing herself. The mother of a 3-year-old with autism, she is haunted by the fear that he, too, will be preyed on. “It’s no fun to bully people who can fight back,’’ she says.

Like a handful of other victims interviewed, Bailey has recently taken steps to put her painful past to use. The flood of attention paid to the bullying problem in recent months has revived hard memories for many victims, but it has also given some an opportunity to fight back in a way they could not when they were young.

For Bailey, that meant lobbying in support of the state’s antibullying bill last spring, pressing its urgency on legislators and collecting testimony from other victims. For Alan Eisenberg, 42, coming clean about his childhood agony has been frightening but cathartic, an exercise in letting go of fear.

His family moved to Lexington when he was 7; by third grade, the sprawling, poorly supervised school playground had become a setting of electrifying fear. He remembers watching the bullies approach from a distance as heart-thumping panic engulfed him. In seventh grade, when a bully threatened to kill him in the woods, Eisenberg was so desperate he stabbed the boy with his mother’s nail file, a desperate, uncharacteristic act that still appalls him.

As an adult, he built a successful career, and told himself the wounded part of his life was behind him. Then three years ago, in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre, as people questioned if the shooter had been bullied, Eisenberg felt something shift inside him.

He began writing about his childhood, and cataloguing the ways it had stayed with him, from his fears of crowds and confrontation to his horror over unfamiliar places. He started a blog and posted his personal stories anonymously. Thousands of visitors flocked to read it, and he grew braver. Last summer, he added his real name to his website (bullyinglte.wordpress.com), lifting the last veil he had used to keep his secret.

It is, he says, the most frightening thing he has ever done. And that is why he presses on, speaking to school groups about bullying and making plans for a documentary film in which he would go back to Lexington, find his bullies and interview them.

“Admitting it happened to you is admitting weakness,’’ he says. “Even as a parent, I was afraid to tell my kids.’’

Triggered memories

Specialists say one reason bullying can impart such lasting shame and anger is the deep impression strong emotions leave on memory. Dr. Stuart Goldman, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard, likens victims of severe bullying to war veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Years after the threat to their well-being has disappeared, their memories can be triggered by an external stimulus, sparking a primal fight-or-flight response.

Phil Leven, 55, said his years being terrorized by bullies left him with a rage that flares at the slightest insult.

The computer programmer from Douglas, who grew up on Long Island in New York, said he realized in his 30s why he was so angry, decades after he was pushed, tripped, spit on, burned with a cigarette, and ambushed repeatedly on his walks to school.

“Now, if I even suspect someone’s disrespecting me, it’s only with the greatest self-control that I don’t assault them,’’ he said. “It comes from being mad at myself for not standing up for myself as a kid.’’

Of all the searing memories that stalk Testaverde, one comes back to him most vividly. It is a recollection of gym class at Gloucester High School, where changing in the locker room alongside his bullies felt like “being in an enclosed space with a wild animal.’’

That day, his attackers were bolder, going at him on the gym floor. As they did, Testaverde recalls, he had looked up to see the gym teacher watching, shaking his head in disgust.

“That was the hardest thing — seeing someone who had the responsibility to deal with it, who wasn’t, because he thought I wasn’t being a man or something,’’ he says. “It felt horrible, and it felt like something I had to live with . . . I felt like I probably deserved it, because if it was wrong, somebody would be doing something about it.’’

He says he asked a guidance counselor to change his schedule, so he wouldn’t have to take gym with the bullies, but he was told the change was impossible. His mother went to the school and was told the abuse wouldn’t happen again, but it did.

Convinced that nothing could be done, Testaverde withdrew into himself. He stopped talking to his parents about the bullying. He contemplated suicide. To avoid the locker room, he stopped changing for gym class. Increasingly, he stayed away from school altogether, missing two or three days a month his junior year, then one or two a week when he was a senior.

He also abandoned treatment for his back problem, which included physical therapy and a brace. “Why torture myself more than I’m already being tortured?’’ he recalls thinking. His decision to forgo therapy, driven by his hopelessness and depression, led to more health problems in adulthood: chronic back, neck, and chest pain; diminished lung capacity; and digestive problems. Surgery could improve his condition, but because of his modest income, Testaverde says he can’t afford the time away from work.

He moved away from Gloucester after high school; he says it made him angry just to walk around there. He didn’t attend his 10-year high school reunion last summer, and he avoids driving past the high school when he goes home to visit his family.

Testaverde married three years ago, and with his wife, has thought about having children, but he wrestles with the fear his child would be bullied.

He wants to advance his career by taking college courses, but “the idea of a school setting still makes me nervous,’’ he says. “There’s that little nagging voice inside that says, be careful.’’

Still, he is trying to move forward. He decided to tell his story to the Globe in the hope that it would help people see the seriousness of the bullying problem — and might help to heal his own wounds too.

“It’s not just people picking on you at school, and then you go on and live your life,’’ he says. “It’s so hard, when people think you’re garbage. . . . My hope is that one day people understand it can change you completely.’’