Back in the days when people my age were still interested in Facebook, I got a friend request from someone I used to know.
It was not the kind of blast from the past that might send a wave of happy nostalgia over me. Instead, it was a surge of panic. Hell would sooner morph into a colossal iceberg before I’d consider accepting it.
“Yeah, nope,” I said aloud, wondering at the sheer audacity of the sender. I rejected it immediately.
The sender was someone I’d gone to school with. A girl who terrorised me until I no longer wanted to co-exist in public spaces with her. We’d started off as friends, as most of these stories go. What ensued caused untold damage to my self-esteem, the effects of which I’m still working through 15 years later.
I’d forgotten about this unwelcome contact attempt until this year, when another one of my former high school tormentors followed me on Instagram and began replying to my Stories as if nothing untoward had ever happened. My last memory of this person was of him delighting in telling me I was ugly for the umpteenth time.
Which is perhaps why I have found it utterly astonishing to see this man periodically slide into my DMs like a thirsty fuckboy trying to curry favour in my Insta inbox.
Is he just horny and sliding into everyone’s DMs indiscriminately?
It was weird. I had questions. Did this person look me up and realise that I’m actually pretty hot? Is he just horny and sliding into everyone’s DMs indiscriminately? Or, did he remember everything he’s ever said to me and feels bad? Why the hell would a high school bully get back in touch like this?
When I tweeted about this, scores of people messaged me to say that their high school bullies had also reached out to them. And some of them had even apologised for their behaviour.
I asked Dr Andrew Kirton, a lecturer at Leeds University with expertise in the psychology of ethics and guilt, why a high school bully might want to slide into a person’s DMs years later. “One way of interpreting what’s going on might be that the guy on some level acknowledges that he was a shit to you in earlier life,” he said. “But that truth is quite a painful one to acknowledge.”
“The way you deal with that, when you’ve been a dick to someone, you do these tentative little gestures of bowing your head in shame and guilt without really saying, I’m really sorry about that. You kind of dance around it.”
Asked if high school bullies go on to be haunted by their past behaviour in later life, Kirton said it would be wrong to make a blanket statement, but did suggest that there could be instances where people simply do not have any recollection of their past actions. “You might you might get cases where people are just divorced from the impact of their actions because maybe they’ve just never been forced to confront that they’ve caused people upset. So, it might just be a kind of cognitive block that they’ve got,” said Kirton.
I spoke to people who’d been bullied about what it felt like to hear from their schoolyard demons.
Jeffrey Ingold posted a photo on Facebook after meeting Mariah Carey along with a caption about the impact her music had on him. “I essentially talked about how her music saved my life when I was in high school. I experienced loads of homophobic abuse that pushed me to the brink of suicide,” he said.
“One of the guys who bullied me sent me a message saying: ‘I was reading your post I just remembered a few times where I said some dumb stuff based on your hobbies and idols and the like’ and added: ‘Wanted to tell you I’m sorry if I was a jackass all those years in high school. If I made it any harder, I’m sorry.'”
“I had to reel out my emotional trauma for him to realise he should apologise.”
Ingold said he felt “quite ambivalent” when he received the message. “While I think it was a sweet/kind thing, it also annoyed me that it took me highlighting how shit things were for me for him to reach out and apologise,” he said. “So even though I was grateful to receive it and felt a sort of validation or vindication, it also struck me that I had to reel out my emotional trauma for him to realise he should apologise.”
Seven years after Kimberley Bond left school, her bully made countless attempts to get in touch with her.
“Someone who literally made my life a nightmare reached out to two of my best friends to try and ‘apologise’ — and was left feeling a bit shaken by the whole thing,” she said. He’d reached out via her friends because Bond had blocked him on everything.
The messages sent to Bond’s friends had said he was sorry “if” anything he’d done had ever upset her. That language was jarring given the actual impact of his behaviour, for which she’d seen a counsellor. “The way it was worded made it seem like it was an accident or mistake that I’d ever been upset,” said Bond. “I also felt as if he was only asking for forgiveness because he wanted to redeem himself, and not because he knew he’d done wrong.”
Bond felt angry when she heard about the messages. She felt that by blocking him, she had shut him off from her life and that had allowed her to get over the situation. “Him contacting me to apologise brought all that pain and emotion back to the forefront of my mind again, and I remember feeling angry with both myself and him for still having the power to upset me,” she said. “I’d gotten over it and, in a way, forgiven him on my own terms, and didn’t need him trying to send a shitty, meaningless apology just because it was going to help him feel good.”
After blocking him on all platforms, declining Facebook and LinkedIn requests, Bond felt she’s given him the message loud and clear: “I didn’t want to hear from him or speak to him again.”
“I feel that he ignored all these signs to just barge in and offer an empty apology only to make himself feel better,” she said. “Even now he still tries to check my LinkedIn and it’s just like, take the damn hint.”
For some, hearing from a former bully who wants to apologise can be a positive, welcome act. When Anna Menta’s middle school bully apologised for his behaviour, she deeply appreciated it.
“It was emotional to receive but also validating — sometimes you wonder if you imagine how people are mistreating you, or exaggerating it, playing the victim, so it was nice to have my hurt feelings affirmed,” she said.
One thing I learned from my own high school experience: one unkind word can lead to a lifetime of hurt for someone. It is not fun being the person living with that emotional pain. But living with the knowledge that you’ve caused someone pain is a weight that I would not wish to carry.
We can’t change the past. We can neither erase the way others have treated us, nor can we hit delete on the way we’ve treated people. Sometimes an apology is welcome, other times it can reopen a wound that had long healed.