Bullying and the Innate Fight or Flight Response

Good afternoon, everyone. I feel compelled to post something that so many family, friends and teachers of young targets of bullying hardly think about. It has to do with the Fight or Flight Response and it’s relevance to bullying. Anytime a person has been the object of relentless bullying over an extended period of time, that person is constantly in a high state of alert. This hyper vigilance can be unhealthy if the person is in this state for too long, causing stomach issues, headaches, and fatigue among other ailments. Moreover, it can also cause the person to overreact to stimuli due to constantly feeling threatened.

Here is an excerpt from Chapter Seven of my book “From Victim to Victor”, in which I discuss this issue and the impact that it had on me while I was a target of bullying in school. Please allow me to apologize for the length, as the situations recorded completely relate to the topic at hand. I wish you all a very happy Tuesday.

“Every living creature has an innate, perfectly natural physiological reaction in the event of a threat or attack called the Fight or Flight Response and its purpose is to protect us from harm during dangerous situations. It is our survival instinct and involves the release of adrenaline. When adrenaline is released into the blood, it is next to impossible not to do one of either two things…fight or flight.

More often than not, flight was not an option for me as I was either backed into a wall or object, cornered or surrounded. So what else was left to do? I lived on this adrenaline every day, all the time. Just being in the same room with these monsters (my classmates) put my body and mind on constant alert. It was a horrible way to live.

The constantly having to watch my back, look over my shoulder and lay low; and the feeling of knots in my stomach, the nausea, the loss of appetite while at school during the day and the continuous worrying and wondering when I was going to be attacked! All of it was just plain terrible! To top it off, I was now worried about my mother and wondering how she was doing. How I wished over and over again that it had been me that got hurt instead of her.

A week went by and my mother was out of the hospital and recovering at our house. On this particular day, I was having a hard time riding bus 27 to Grandma’s from school. When I stepped onto the bus, I walked down the aisle, stopped at the first half empty seat I came to.

Each seat was big enough for two passengers. But each time I stopped and got ready to sit down, the one person who was sitting there would throw their arm across the vacant side of the seat and very rudely tell me that it was already spoken for. At first, I went along with it and proceeded to the next and each time I did, I got the same response.

Finally, I was over the pettiness. I was not going to stand in the isle during the entire trip. When I got to the last available seat and someone tried to keep me from sitting down, I swiftly took their arm, flung it out of the way and sat down anyway. This angered the person in the seat and they began to react.

“This was supposed to be my friend’s seat! We all have assigned seats on this bus, you rude, obnoxious bitch! “The girl spat.

“Too bad! I got here first! I’m not standing on my feet the whole trip just because you all feel like being a bunch of ignorant assholes! So shut up and DEAL WITH IT! “I fired back.

“I don’t have to deal with shit, bitch! Mr. Hammond has assigned seats! Boys sit on the left side and girls sit on the right! “She said.

“Are you stupid?” I asked belligerently.

We were sitting on the right side of the isle. Did this jackass not know left from right or could she not tell that I was a female, even with the visibly obvious pair of bosoms I had perched upon my chest?

Then I looked around and I saw a few girls sitting on the left side of the bus, where the boys were assigned to sit and decided to get cute.

“Well, he must be doing a pretty shoddy job of enforcing that rule because I see a few girls sitting on the boys’ side of the bus! So piss off, will ya! “I told the girl. Just then, the girls whom I had mentioned sounded off.

“Hey, you nosey little whore! You need to mind your own goddam business! “The girls on the left shouted.

I said nothing.

Then Stella came along and stood over me.

“Oh, you sound really good, being the offspring of a drunken mother! “ She sneered.

“Really? No worse than being the daughter of a whore. “I told her.

“You better watch your mouth! “ She went on.

“Or what? “ I scoffed, calling her bluff.

“You don’t want to know, honey!” Stella shot back.

“Whatever. “I snapped.

“Oh, yeah! You don’t have to admit it! Nobody wants to admit that their mother was stupid enough to get behind the wheel of a car after she’s been drinking in a bar somewhere! I’ll bet she’s picked up a lot of men too! So I guess that she’s both a drunk and a whore! “She mouthed off.

“Boy, you seem to know an awful lot about bars, drinking and being a whore! No surprise there! Everybody knows that your family name isn’t the best in this town…you dirty butt!” I chided.

Thunderous laughs filled the bus and someone shouted “Dang, Stella! She burned you and you’re still burning!” which was followed by even more cackles and guffaws.

By this time, old Stella’s face was beet red and she pinched a plug out of my arm’ prompting me to jump up and hit her in the mouth. The fight went on until the bus driver stopped the bus and pulled us apart. Surprisingly to me, he looked at Stella.

“Girl, I’m tired of you always stirring up trouble! “ He shouted at her. All of the others sided with her.

“She didn’t start it! That other girl did! Don’t be hollering at Stella! “They all said. But lucky for me, Mr. Hammonds had been watching Stella. She had ridden his bus long enough that he was privy to what trouble she was and knew what to look for. He was smarter than most of the bus drivers I had known. After telling her that she was suspended from riding the bus for three days, he looked at me.

“Don’t worry, honey. I’ve been watching her. I know you did not provoke this. “He said sweetly. After Mr. Hammonds told me this, I looked around and could see the look of utter resentment which had appeared on the faces of the other kids on the bus.

As soon as the bus driver went back to his seat and pulled the bus back onto the road to finish his route, a tomboyish looking high school girl left her seat and approached me.

“You will pay for that, you little bitch! For each day that she is not on this bus, I’m going to make your life so miserable! You’re going to wish you’d been the one kicked off here!” She threatened.

Sure enough, she made good on her threat bright and early the next morning, when I stepped onto the bus. There was no sign of Stella anywhere so I knew that Mr. Hammonds had carried out his punishment of her.

While making my way down the aisle to find a seat, I noticed that the same boyish looking, freckle faced girl looking directly at me. Then she motioned for two other girls to follow her and they all three got up to block the isle, forbidding me to pass.

A group of boys stepped in behind me, blocking me from Mr. Hammonds’ view. As I tried to squeeze pass them, old Freckle-face shoved me backwards. Another girl tried to jab me in the eye with a pencil.However, I managed to grab her hand before she succeeded in doing so, causing her to drop the makeshift weapon. She then violently jerked her arm out of my grip.

“Why did you get Stella kicked off the bus?! “ Freckle-face shouted.

“She got her own self kicked off. I had nothing to do with it. “I said haughtily.

“Bullshit! You’re nothing but a lying ass, sneaky little whore! “The other girl retorted.

A high school boy shoved me from the back, hurling me forward, right into Freckle face. Freckle face shoved me back into the boy who had shoved me first and he shoved me again. Throughout the entire trip to school, each of my assailants took turns shoving me back and forth. It was as if I were a basketball that was being passed from player to player on a basketball court. Although I tried to fight my way out of the circle that I was enclosed in, I could not get out despite my best efforts.

When I arrived at school, Stella was there and wasted no time telling the others how unfairly she had been treated by the driver all because of me and for the entire day, I had to listen to threats from her friends, which fortunately turned out to be empty threats. However, it did not end there.

That afternoon, when I arrived at the high school and switched, I stepped on the bus and took a seat. A high school boy sat in the seat directly behind me and grabbed a hand full of my hair and pulled it. When I got up to move, another bigger boy moved in front of me, took me by the shoulders and shoved me back down into the seat where I was.

“No you don’t, sweetheart! We’re going to have our fun and if you try to run away again, I will personally hurt you! “He threatened.

“Let go! “ I shouted as I shoved him away from me.

But he came back and slapped me in the mouth, then grabbed me by the collar of my blouse and ripped it before shoving me hard back into the seat yet again. Then he reached up a grabbed me by the back of the neck, squeezing his index finger and thumbs into the tender area just below my ears. This hurt and I pulled away from him out of reflex from the pain.

When I got off the bus and went into my grandmothers’ house. I went straight into one of the bedrooms and cried. My grandmother, knowing that something was wrong, followed me and began knocking on the door.

“Honey, are you okay? What’s wrong? Come on out here and talk to Grandma? “She pleaded sweetly. But I couldn’t. I was just glad to be off the bus and talking about it meant that I would have to go through the experience all over again.

When the month of March arrived, mother was still recovering and I was still at Grandmas’.

I had not been able to eat during lunch. My appetite was gone. I had also been having horrible headaches in the afternoon which triggered violent nausea but up until then, although I had come close several times, I managed to keep from vomiting.

On this particular day, my appetite still had not returned and I assumed that maybe I had not puked because there was nothing in my stomach to come up. However, that afternoon I had a headache so intense that I was close to tears and my stomach turned flips. Then my mouth and eyes began to water and I swallowed hard to control my gag reflexes as I approached Mrs. Caraway’s desk to ask to be excused to the bathroom.

“What’s the matter with you?” She asked.

“I don’t feel good.” I replied.

Without a word, she gave me the hall pass and I scurried my way to the girls’ room, barely making it to the first stall before launching a stream of the bitterest, most horrible tasting green liquid into the toilet.

This was followed by a long series of dry heaves which were quite painful. Instead of making me feel better, the vomiting made me feel worse and my headache became next to unbearable.

The sound of the bathroom door being flung open and Mrs. Caraway storming in and demanding to know why I was taking so long did not help matters any. I began to cry and in between gags and wretches, pleaded with her to let me go to the office and call my grandmother.

“Are you making yourself throw up to get out of class?” She asked suspiciously.

“No ma’am! I have a bad headache and my stomach is bothering me!” I sobbed.

“Okay… okay.” She said in a tone of doubt, “I don’t doubt that you’re a little under the weather but I don’t believe you’re sick enough to go home. You stay here until you stop heaving because I don’t want you puking in my class. But when you’re done, I want you back in there.” She said coldly. And she left and came back with Mr. Willard, who stood outside the door.

When my stomach felt a little better, I came out of the stall and Mrs. Caraway escorted me out of the bathroom. Mr. Willard stood in the hall, just outside the door and gave me a cold stare.

“She’s alright now.” Mrs. Caraway assured him, and he started back toward the office as she guided me back to class. My sobs deceased to a quiet, sniffling cry and my head was still pounding. When I returned to class, everyone was staring at me with what surprisingly to me, looked like expressions of concern on their faces.

“Get back to work, everybody. I think she’s alright.” Mrs. Caraway snapped.

As time went on, the fear of going to school and having to face my classmates was growing in me. It was like an infected tumor which grew bigger and bigger with each passing day. My stomach would literally draw up every morning when I would step onto that school bus and for eight hours, it was as if I were walking through a minefield. Any minute? BOOM! I would be attacked- hit…shoved…kicked…or bombarded with a torrent of taunts, insults and name-calling. It was a situation which I saw absolutely no end to. To say that I was afraid would be an understatement. I was petrified.

Soon, there came a morning when I arrived at the high school to switch over to the bus to school and suddenly, my feet froze and I did not have it in me to go any further. It was as if I were paralyzed. My feet felt as if they were stuck in cement and I could not even force myself to take another step.

Once I could move again, I ducked behind a bush until all of the buses left. Then I went behind the shop building and hid for a few hours. The next thing I remember is feeling several nudges to my shoulder. I sleepily opened my eyes to see a man dressed as an officer and wearing a gun in a holster on the side of his waist. I automatically winced.

“Shouldn’t you be in school? How old are you? “He asked sternly.

“Thirteen. “ I answered nervously.

“Where do you go to school? “

“Oakley Junior High. “

“Come with me. “

He escorted me to the office at the main building of the high school and told me to sit down in the lobby. As I sat quietly, I watched as the guard picked up the telephone and dialed a number. He talked on the phone just a few minutes, then hung up. I could not hear his exact words because the office was noisy with the hustle and bustle of high school students and staff. The guard approached me.

“Your principal is on his way here to pick you up and take you to school. If I were you, I would not try skipping school again. “He said in a warning tone.

“Oh, great!” I thought. Mr. Willard, of all people was going to pick me up. Having to ride in a car with him was unthinkable and I just did not want to imagine having to listen to another one of his male chauvinist cut downs and digs. Now, he would add truancy to his mental list of all my transgressions .

Thirty minutes later, He arrived in the office and made a head gesture for me to follow him. I followed him out to the front of the school where his white truck sat parked and still running.

“Get in. “he said coldly. I did so.

During the entire ride, I tried to explain myself to him and why I chickened out of coming to school. But he said nothing, absolutely nothing. I figured that he would give me one of his thunderous lectures and tell me what a problem and a complete waste of his valuable time I was but instead, I got the silent treatment which was worse.

I would have much rather he say what he had to say to me and get it over with. At least I would know what was on his mind. But the silent treatment I could not handle. It was the not knowing what he planned to do that drove me crazy…the not knowing what his intentions were scared the living hell out of me.

I look back now and remember all the times in the past, when I had tried to explain myself to people. I thought that maybe that was the reason I was treated so badly. Inside, I was just beginning to feel a bit inferior to everyone I came in contact with and forced to answer, even to the other students for everything I did, good or bad.

Somehow, they had all sniffed that out…that I was beginning to feel a little inferior…the fact that my self-esteem was now taking a nosedive and I had run out of ways to boost it back up. If only I knew then, what I know now things would have been much different.

After the dreaded arrival at school, the principal sent me to my next class, which was Reading. I walked into the classroom, sat at my desk and put my head down. Although today, I felt okay, I was not in Mrs. Caraway’s class just yet so I decided that I would pretend that I was sick so that I could go home.

After lunch, I went into the bathroom and forced myself to drink a little bottle of Ipecac Syrup that I had slipped out and bought the day before and kept in my purse. For good measure, I turned the bottle up and drank the entire concoction and it was the most horrible tasting stuff I had ever put in my mouth.

When the Ipecac finally took effect, I was even sicker than I had been that afternoon in Mr. Caraway’s class not long before. I was so ill that I ended up spending the better part of the afternoon in the girls’ restroom camped out by the toilet.

Although we had a substitute teacher that day and she did not seem to have an issue with me, I still was not allowed to call my family. Instead, I was made to go lay down in the sick room for the remaining two hours until dismissal.

However, right before the last bell rang, Mrs. Caraway and Mr. Willard came into the sick room where I was.

“Get up! “ He shouted.

“What?! “ I said. “I don’t feel good. “

“You’re just pretending to be sick because you don’t want to be at school today! Now get up and go to class! “

Luckily, when I got up and was escorted back to class, there were only about ten minutes left before the last bell. No big deal, surely I could hang for ten minutes.

Looking back today, I still cannot remember what on earth possessed me to think that the outcome would be any different the second time.”

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2 thoughts on “Bullying and the Innate Fight or Flight Response

  1. Thank you, Gayatri! I read your blog on bullying as well and it was so on point! And I’m so proud of you for standing up for the junior who was slapped by the senior. You’re a very brave young lady and the world so desperately needs more…many more like you. Sexism was a reality in the days when I was in school, as it has always been. As you well pointed out, a few teachers, surprisingly female, only dismissed it and allowed it to go on. I believe it was because these female teachers were intimidated and afraid they’d also be targeted for taking sides with a kid without as much social capitol as his/her attacker. When I was in school (in a small Southern town where everyone was somehow connected), if anyone spoke up about a bullying incident, they were automatically blamed. In my case, the boys dishing out the sexual bullying were higher up on the social totem pole, therefore, they were allowed to get away with it! Keep blogging and keep speaking out! You’re doing an awesome job making the world a better place!

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