The Longest Journey: Moving from the head to the heart
Updated: Mar 27
Have you ever had an experience in life that impacted you more than you realized? What caused it to surface? How did you handle it? What did you learn from it? In what way did you grow because of it?
They say that the longest journey in life is the 18 inches from your head to your heart. Well, that journey, for me, began when I was just 10 years old and it has lasted nearly 4 decades.
I remember it like it was just yesterday, being held down, against my will, while my “friend” sat on my chest and shoulders. I was pinned and unable to move like a mouse caught in a trap. Even now, as I close my eyes, I see him, my bully, sitting over me like a shadow, blocking out the sun. As I struggled to free myself, my bully spat in my face. .
That experience, laying on my back, feeling helpless and humiliated is probably one of my most memorable childhood experiences. And despite telling this story many, many times, while teaching children how to escape while pinned down, lately, when I think about that experience, it is like I am back on the ground, pinned with saliva running down the sides of my face. I see other shadows appear behind my bully, the bystanders. They are standing at a distance as the sun shines above them too. I remember that moment, feeling so alone, so helpless, like no one who was there was actually seeing me. Like no one could feel what I was feeling inside. Like no one cared to help a boy who couldn’t help himself.
"I realized that I have felt like I’ve been held down my entire life."
It was not until more recently, during a powerful training exercise, that I realized that I have felt like I’ve been held down my entire life. Like a part of me never got up from the spot where I was held down by my childhood bully. Ironically, I had spent a great deal of my adult life helping others who had experienced bullying when, all along, I had failed to help myself, at least in the way that it mattered. I had failed to realize how deep my experiences had impacted me and no amount of helping others or retelling my story would move me forward because this was not a cognitive exercise but an emotional one.
Throughout my childhood, I remember all the times my bully impacted me. I remember the laughing at the birthday party. It was not the kind of laughter you’d normally hear at a party, where everyone is included in the fun and the laughter is what results. The laughter I heard was the result of exclusion and, for some reason, I was the one that had been marginalized. It was like all of the party favors had been used up and I was next up on the entertainment list.
I remember kneeling at my bully’s feet feeling helpless and intimidated as he stood in his anger, directing his emotions at me. I remember him just standing there - as if his intention was only to feel powerful as I sat on the ground feeling powerless. I remember his finger in my face, like an authoritarian parent lecturing a child. My heart racing as I backed against the row of phones, pinned once again. I do not remember one positive encounter between us throughout our 8-year relationship. However, I do remember the confusion I felt. How I always wondered, what did I do to deserve this?
"If popularity was a game, I was finally playing and I wanted to stay in the game as long as I could. I did not care to win, I just wanted to play."
I remember switching schools and going from an unknown entity to a well-liked and accepted kid. I remember enjoying the attention because it was so new and my concerns for being liked and remaining popular became a driving force in my life. If popularity was a game, I was finally playing and I wanted to stay in the game as long as I could. I did not care to win, I just wanted to play and this meant that anything that got in the way, like school, was set aside; following the crowd became my priority.
In grade 9 I failed math and science in my first semester and two of my newest friends and I were infamous amongst the faculty. What did I care? I was included. Unbeknownst to me, that impact of childhood bullying was also driving how I interacted with my peers, causing me to do what the group wanted because I didn’t want to be excluded and laughed at anymore. This lead to a lifestyle of partying and I surrounded myself with people whom I called friends. Yet, no strong bonds were formed. At the time, I was just happy to be in the in-crowd.
Beat Down Again
This idea of not having anyone I could really call a friend became a reality the night I found myself at a party, at the age of 16, inebriated to the point of passing out. Yet, in true ‘be a part of the in-crowd’ form, I gained a second wind where I found myself outside of the party home standing up for someone. This decision resulted in the most severe beating of my life. There I was, hardly able to walk and talk, let alone fight, being kicked against a curb. I remember being pulled away and asking the person who helped me, “Why did they do that? What did I do?” And the stranger responded, “I don’t know, sometimes they're assholes.” Funny how certain things stick in your memory. However, it wasn’t 5 minutes later that my “Good Samaritan” had a change of heart and decided he wanted a go at me.
"During the assault, not one of my "friends" stood up for me, not one of them got involved. Their fears were stronger than our bond."
I don’t know what it is about me and front lawns but there I was, laying lifeless on the grass, once again on my back, unable to get up. Not because I was pinned down and unable to mobilize the strength to rise but because I was unconscious. After the beating, and the ambulance was called, a pool of blood formed around me. During the assault, not one of my “friends” stood up for me, not one of them got involved. Their fear was stronger than our bond. The only attempted intervention came from a few girls who attended the party. The girls who were merely acquaintances of mine, girls who were not physically strong enough to stop what was happening.
My goal to be popular so that I would not experience helplessness again, and if I did, I’d have friends to help if needed, did not turn out as planned. It seemed popularity was not the cure to the disease. By the age of 16, I’d been bullied incessantly and now I’d been assaulted and nearly died. To this day, I conceal a permanent metal plate that was once used to fuse a broken jaw. And if you’re curious, like so many others, no, it doesn’t go off in a metal detector.
The Meaning of Accomplishments
Throughout my life, I have had many accomplishments. Despite my lack of interest in school, I became an adult who attained 3 university degrees and to-this-day I continue to improve my knowledge and skill in the areas of connection, communication, conflict management, and healthy relationships. I have positively impacted my community, 100’s of youth, headed countless fundraisers for charity, and have been told many, many times that I have changed lives, and I’ve even been told by two people that I saved their lives. If I hear of someone in need, I do what I can to help. To this point, I have been told I am the hero in others’ stories - but I've never seen that for myself. I have a loving and supportive wife - and we have never had a heated conflict in our 11 years together. Our relationship is founded on respect and dignity. Our values aligned. I see her and she sees me. We have two wonderful kids together who are my world. Yet, that feeling of attaining a successful life seemed to always elude me. With every accomplishment, I set it aside and looked to the next - as though I was looking for something that I could never find outside of myself. And as I’ve heard one of my mentors say, “You can never have enough of what you don’t need.” I didn’t need accomplishments, I wanted peace. I didn’t need more of what I didn’t have, I wanted to become aware of what I did and always have had, the strength and skill to get up when down.
One of the daydreams I've had my entire adult life is beating up my childhood bully. I don’t say this to be cheeky. I say it as if that would somehow magically return the power I'd felt I lost; but I know this is not the case. Truth, I've never viewed myself as someone who intentionally harms others. Even as a full-contract fighter, my father would always tell me, you're too nice for this game. Still, experiences that I had in my young life have stuck with me and have, no doubt, touched every experience I have had since. One way I can recall is when I’d been given compliments. I'd well up with emotion when someone said something nice about me, possibly because I did not feel worthy of such praise. I remember attaining certain goals and not telling others - like celebrating my win was wrong on some level. I wasn't worth it.
As I’ve partaken in a journey of self-exploration I've discovered many things about myself. I unearthed many obstacles that I was consciously unaware of and, as the saying goes, the things we are unaware of have great power over us and I was finally ready to take that power back.
"I was simply going through the motions - not going through my emotions."
I remember writing a letter to my childhood bully - as a simple exercise to get some of my emotions moving. The letter fell flat. It was like writing an assignment in English class. I was simply going through the motions - not going through my emotions. I remember stopping and getting online to research the person I had referred to as my childhood bully my entire adult life. I remember seeing his face and although he was years older, my body reacted at the sight of his physical appearance. I started to read about him online and learn about how he chose to leave the corporate world to become an entrepreneur and how his business served his community. It was then and there that I said, “F-It!” and scrolled down my page and began writing a real letter to my childhood bully, one I actually intended to send. Here is what I wrote:
It’s been a very long time. I don’t think I have seen you since we were teenagers. How are you? How are you coping with COVID? Surreal, isn’t it?
So, why am I reaching out? Well, to be honest, I recently had an occurrence where I recalled our relationship and I was left surprised by the experience. Yes, as a 47-year-old man, something still ties me to the relationship we had as kids. Throughout my life, I have thought through everything that happened between us, over and over and every episode I’d thought I set aside. What I now realize is I have failed to permit myself to feel the impact our relationship had on my life and the fear and helplessness I experience at an unconscious level, as a result.
I am not writing you to point fingers, blame you for being a kid, or get angry, I just feel that I want to finally set this to rest. I am not the same person I was at 10 and I know you aren’t either, we learn and grow (I know your entire business is based around serving others). I also know that you had your own things going on at this time. Still, there is a piece of me that is holding on to those experiences - a young boy who is still afraid of something and feels helpless in some way, regardless of what I’ve accomplished in my life to date. I want to move on. To be truthful, I don’t want to carry this any longer - it’s been heavy.
Would you be open to getting on the phone to provide me an opportunity to get this off my chest? I simply want to talk this out - share my perspective and ask some questions. Just writing this is uncomfortable for me so I am confident reading this is not a joy for you. I realize that you don’t need this and that I am unaware of how you even view the relationship we had as kids. Still, if you have the availability to connect to chat about how things were, I would appreciate it.
Thanks for your time,
I remember when I sent the letter. As I thought about sending it, after pasting it in the message section, my finger automatically just hit send. There it goes, I thought. Afterwards, I messaged my sister. I knew that she had been a client of his almost 9 years earlier. I had learned this while doing my research. As my wife lay beside me, asleep, I chatted with my sister about what I’d done. She congratulated me on my courage but told me not to get my hopes up. I recall wishing she’d not said that, even though I knew her intentions were to support me. I wanted to be open to what would happen and however it would happen. No expectations. I now felt myself leaning to the idea that nothing would happen. That night, as I thought about what I'd put in motion, I struggled to sleep.