Jessica was a bully for much of her childhood, intimidating other kids into giving her what she wanted and using fear to exert power and control over her life. Behind the scenes, Jessica struggled with many things – a poor home life, substance abuse, contemplated suicide at a young age. Today she is a huge advocate of kindness, compassion, benevolence and helping kids be the best versions of themselves. Listen to her story to learn how she found the strength to change who she was and how she chose to live her life. Listen to her insights on bullying and how it can be prevented and addressed.

Bullying with a Backdrop of Pain and Suffering

Jessica begins by giving an overview of how she used to bully kids at school starting from grade 2. She targeted many kids, but especially if she thought they were happy, or came from a good home. She also mentioned that she wrote about her life on her “A” blog, how she was abandoned, abducted, abused, addicted to drugs, had AHDH and was arrested. The connection she made was fairly simple – she was very angry, and did not like it that other kids had better lives than hers.

Bullying gave her a sense of status, and a ‘title’ – it meant that she was a force to be reckoned with, demanded respect (compliance), and was in control of this microcosm of her life. It was the only way she felt that she had power. She lived with a lot of fear, because she didn’t have control in her own life. This realization didn’t come until much later however.

In grade 2, her teachers were already connecting with the Children’s Aid Society and trying to determine how to manage her behaviours.

By age 9 or 10 she was already contemplating suicide – her life was a mess, and she was very angry.

Remorse – A step towards the next step

Very early on in the interview she made a point to mention that she was grateful for the rise of social media because it was possible to track down some of the people she hurt in the past and at least make an attempt to apologise. I could tell that she genuinely feels bad about what she did. However, she did do those things, and they clearly had negative impacts on many people’s lives. From an outsider’s perspective, the whole situation is unfortunate because when someone is in grade 2 and they act out, you can understand that a young child like that is simply reacting to their own circumstances. If they could get help, maybe they will stop bullying and acting out. For example she would steal kid’s lunches because her lunches were lacking due to a poor home life. But, when a child gets older and continues with bullying, it’s harder to be understanding because you’d think “they should know better by now” or “they are more in control of their own decisions”.

All about survival and needs

When I asked Jessica what kept the pattern of bullying behaviour going as she got older, she really spoke about survival and getting what she thought she needed. Perhaps the learned behaviour from a young age translated to her as she got older as a viable way of surviving and having her needs met. Since she knew how to be ‘successful’ this way, perhaps she didn’t feel she needed to think about other ways to achieve the same thing. Her pattern of behaviour had her incarcerated a number of times, and I would guess that survival mode kicks into overdrive, and the inclination is to stick with what ‘works’ for fear that trying something different could lead to a worse outcome in her already difficult life.

By trying to understand these modes of behaviour and how they’re tied to things like basic needs, and emotions, it could shed insight on ways to intervene and stop these patterns.

Concerns for others were secondary

I asked her if she felt bad or felt empathy for those she targeted. Interestingly she did acknowledge that those feelings were there, but they were something to be pushed aside and ignored because they would have gotten in the way of her fulfilling her own needs. The types of kids she would target were those who she considered shy, quiet, super intelligent, weak, someone who could do her homework for her. She was so aggressive and out of control, and so feared that nobody ever fought back against her. I can imagine this gave her a great sense of power also.

Team-based approach to therapy

Jessica told me that therapy and support systems played a larger role later on in her life. For example, while she was incarcerated it was mandatory that she undergo therapy. Even things like having access to a nutrition program that promoted healthy eating was a key factor. She had a whole team assessing her and helping her. But, when she was released, suddenly she was alone again and those supports were gone. She had to learn to fend for herself, and often resorted to old patterns of behaviour again because they felt like a safe bet.

Mentorship

In past episodes we talked about the importance of mentorship. Jessica mentioned a pivotal person in her life was a social worker who became a very close friend and mentor, and really got in her face to challenge her world views, behaviours and assumptions. The mentor opened up that can of worms and forced her to deal with that stuff inside. A key question her friend asked her one day was “when are you going to stop abandoning yourself” and that’s when the lights came on for her.

Victim of circumstance – so address the circumstance

Despite the complex nature of these kinds of behaviours, Jessica really boiled it down to the fact that she essentially was taking out her stuff on other people that didn’t deserve it. I’m sure we’ve all heard this before, and it’s true. But the simplicity of the statement doesn’t probe deeply enough into the intricacies of behaviour and it really implies that an individual should be able to solve this on their own. “Should” is a key word here. I would also agree, people “should” behave better. But if it’s that simple, why did it take Jessica so long to actually come to that realization and do something to change her behaviour? I think it has to do with the age at which the behaviour starts – if you come into this world knowing nothing, and you learn certain behaviours then that could be your entire world view. It might take a lot of pain, and a disruption of your patterns to form new ones.

Jessica made an important point about early childhood education. She said that “if I don’t understand compassion or empathy, I’m going to keep doing it” – referring to bullying behaviour. She would even bully teachers because she knew those who weren’t able to handle her behaviours. She said what it really was, was a cry for help. What made things very difficult going through the system was the idea of “broken promises”. Going from one abusive foster home to another, or having resources offered with no follow through really undermined her sense of trust in the system. This also exacerbated her sense of fear, compounding her anger and fuelling her behaviours. She currently facilitates what she calls “real conversations” when she’s interacting with kids. She encourages adults not to be afraid to engage, and to let the kids engage with each other in conversation about their feelings, real issues, and factors that affect their lives.

Interestingly Jessica thought that the school system provided a good amount of support, or at least tried to. However, her take was that they became exhausted because her behaviour was relentless. She did say there were adults within the school that made her feel welcome, and that was something that stuck with her.

Jail as a positive experience

I asked Jessica what she thought could have been done sooner to stop her behaviours and help her come to the realization sooner that she needed to change. Thinking back to being incarcerated she said that it would have taken a team approach. Perhaps a team-based support system could educate parents, educate teachers about issues like abuse, support kids etc. The team approach is important because as I mentioned before the issues are complex and multi-faceted. People with lived-experience like she has can help others to understand and regulate their emotions. She said it’s ok to feel angry or sad, but then what are we going to do with these feelings and how are we going to get through them? Feelings and emotions need to be experienced to be understood, and this should be encouraged rather than punished.

Peer support groups

Another topic that came up which I’ve discussed in previous episodes is the idea of a peer support group. If kids are encouraged to discuss amongst themselves, as questions, share feelings then much can be learned. They are more likely to relate to each other than to an adult about certain things as well. Reaching out to kids that bully others could help them access a forum or outlet to explore their feelings without feeling threatened or fearful.

Don’t call me a bully!

Through the conversation we started talking about labels – and how they can be detrimental. In episode 3 we heard Emerson talk about how he doesn’t like the term ‘victim’. In this episode, Jessica made a similar point about the word ‘bully’. The term has a clear negative connotation – which is obvious, but when it’s used to refer to a person that almost carries a personal attack with it reminding them they should feel bad. If you wanted to reach out to bullies to help them through a peer group for example, you may want to say “if you are angry and take your anger out on other kids at school, let’s chat because I want to help you”. I always say that when you draw a line, or divide something into groups you automatically create some sort of conflict. It gives a direction where you can point a finger. If you can dissolve these distinctions a bit and bring people together as ‘people’ to have a conversation, it can be more open without the fear that comes with the meaning carried by labels.

Learning through experience

Today Jessica is a huge advocate for kindness, empathy and compassion. Another wake up call for her was when she was the target of bullying herself later in life, and she realized how it really feels. She thinks that while awareness initiatives like pink shirt day are good, they should not be restricted to just one day. Kindness, empathy and benevolence play a key role every day.

A few years ago she started her own business called Tree of Stars, promoting mental health and addiction recovery by telling our stories through music, art and resources. She’s also become involved with the Voices Against Bullying advocacy group. Jessica goes live on Instagram weekly, interviewing people, getting involved in the community and generally being kind and supportive to those in need.

What is forgiveness?

I brought up the concept of forgiveness, and Jessica mentioned that forgiveness is strength, commenting on the tattoos she has of these two words. It’s part of the self-care and self-love that she promotes. She says she has to keep forgiving herself each day, and also forgiving people who have done things to her in the past.

More peer group support

I asked Jessica for advice to give to kids who are targeted by bullies. What can they do to at least improve their situation? She thought it would be helpful, with the help of an intermediary like an adult possibly, to sit down and have a chat between the two to ask the bully why they are being targeted, and what they could do to possibly help or be their friend in some way. Either that, or as mentioned before creating a community peer group where everyone can just come and chat, without fear of any consequences or reprisal.

Social media

We also had a chat about some of the effects of social media and how it’s become an influential force for young kids. Kids in grade 2 come to school and start building guns out of Lego, or dancing around talking about their ‘booty’ on TikTok. Then we wonder why cyber bullying is becoming increasingly damaging and commonplace. When kids don’t understand the tools they use, they aren’t aware of the potential dangers of them. Kids learn to link some of their own identity and self-worth to social media, making them vulnerable emotionally if that identity is attacked in any way.

We can be a different person every day of our lives

Overall it’s been an enlightening interview with Jessica from the perspective of someone who had been a bully earlier in her life. Whether or not people choose to forgive her for what she did, there’s still a lot to be learned here. Today, I don’t see a bully, I see someone who genuinely cares about people and wants to help. That’s a good thing. It doesn’t necessarily make up for the past, and it doesn’t undo anything that happened before. What it does mean is this person who had done bad things in the past is choosing to leave those things in the past and not bringing them to the present. At every point in our lives we are defined by the decisions and choices we make. It’s never too late to choose to make a different choice and change the definition of who we see ourselves as.

Organizations mentioned in the podcast:

https://treeofstars.wordpress.com/

http://www.voicesagainstbullying.ca/

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