The author and Bravo reality series star with daughter Olivia. Photo courtesy of Jaime Primak Sullivan.
“I was a bully.” Those were the hardest four words I ever had to say to my daughter Olivia. But though she’s only 6, I felt she had to hear them: Another parent had recently brought it to my attention that she and a friend had begun actively excluding a third girl — which made my heart sink, because there’s a fine line between excluding and bullying.
So I eyed her, full of shame, and she eyed me, full of skepticism. And I made my confession. She listened very intently and processed my statement for a minute before asking, “How did that happen?” I didn’t want to tell her. I wanted nothing more than to have her know only the woman I am today. But I know all too well that without teaching history, it has a habit of repeating itself. I struggled with wanting to protect her from my bullying mistakes and heartaches, but I knew the only way to do that was to share the truth. So I did — all of it.
When I was in high school, I told her, I was a bully of the worst kind. But I also told her that I hadn’t always been that way, and shared with her the following backstory (in a way that I knew she would understand):
I started out a happy kid, and a natural entertainer who loved the spotlight. But over the summer before sixth grade, I gained 15 pounds — fallout from a season at sleep-away camp, where I spent nights devouring parent care packages and s’mores to eat away the pain of homesickness. I remember walking into school that first day back and seeing the horrified reactions on the faces of kids who had known me since kindergarten. They gawked at me as if I hadn’t been the same kid whose birthday party they had attended every year, and the girl they roller-skated with every Friday night. Just like that, I became the last kid chosen in gym, and saw my social invitations slow to a trickle. The light that had shined so organically from within me had begun to get snuffed out.
The Primak Sullivan family. Photo courtesy of Jaime Primak Sullivan.
Things only got worse in middle school. While the other girls were thinning out and growing boobs, I was busy hiding my body in oversized Champion sweatshirts and teasing my hair as wide as I could to draw attention away from my double chin. I tried hard to stay below the radar, often walking alongside the lockers — I called it “riding the shoulder” — so that the popular kids who dominated the hallways wouldn’t notice me. That shoulder would become my safe place (and later, when the tables turned, my target zone).
Life at home wasn’t any easier. My older sister was literally the most attractive girl in our high school. And my mother was humiliated by the fat girl I had become, regularly sweeping into the kitchen to proclaim, “Jaime is eating again!” as if paid to keep tabs on my consumption. She’d shout things at me like, “Stop stomping up the stairs, elephant!” and end it with a dramatic sigh, as if my weight had caused her to have actual chest pains. I cried myself to sleep many nights, then spend days wishing I were invisible.
Talking to my daughter about this, I was sure to share some particular bully incidents, including one that served as a turning point in my life. It occurred on a bus ride to Washington, D.C., during our eighth-grade field trip, and starred two popular kids, Mike and Heather (aka Barbie and Ken) as the bullies. During the ride, they spent thirty minutes trying to convince me that Mike liked me and that he wanted to make out with me (a detail I left out when relaying the tale to Olivia). There was not one part of me that believed this. But they were relentless, and their pleading drew an audience, so Heather stood up and demanded that I switch seats with her and sit next to Mike. He smiled and nodded reassuringly, patting the seat next to him. I felt sick. I started to sweat. I was trapped with nowhere to go. What choice did I have?
I got up and sat down next to him and he announced to the bus that his would be my first kiss. Everyone laughed. “You ready?” he asked me. I wasn’t. I wanted to run away. But as he leaned in towards me I had a split-second of hope: “Oh my god, he really does like me. He’s really going to kiss me.” But just before Mike reached my face, he threw his jean jacket over my head and yelled out, “You really thought I was going to kiss you, Jelly Donut?” The whole bus roared with laughter. I untangled myself and bit my lip to stop from crying, moving back to my seat as Heather retook her throne. Right then, all my sadness turned to anger. And I decided, in that moment, that I would make everybody else pay.
Enter high school. I grew five inches taller, lost the weight I’d gained, and had plenty of friends, partially because of being known as “little Primak” (thanks, sis). You’d think that I’d have found inner peace. Instead, I found that what I’d really gained with my new friends and new body was a certain power. And, as with any power given to someone without the proper tools to use it, the one I found myself with was dangerous — especially when mixed with drugs, an abusive boyfriend, a father dying of cancer, and unresolved anger from my bullied past.
Now I began eyeing those who “rode the shoulder” in the halls. I learned very quickly to spot the insecurities that plagued others and use those against them. I was loud and dramatic and I would humiliate people in public. I was intimidating, and I used my natural power of persuasion to rally the masses. I used it all to make others feel bad about themselves so that I could feel better — vindicated and validated. My feet never touched the ground as a bully. But I lived in constant fear that people would find out who I really was.
When my father died on Halloween during my senior year of high school, my mother checked out completely, leaving me full of grief but free of repercussions for my behavior. Naturally, things got worse. When my targets became too easy, I went after anyone who challenged me in any way, eventually roving to other towns to seek out “tough girls” always ready for a fight. I challenged authority and had little respect for anyone, including myself. I abused my body, staying out late, partying too hard, and eating very little. I longed to be numb, but physically hurting others brought only temporary relief. I was running out of options.
Finally, with college, I was able to leave it all behind. I quit smoking and drugs, slowly allowing myself to feel things again. I was terrified and guarded, but exhausted of always being on and angry. I made new friends — friends who knew nothing of the girl who was bullied or who bullied. I tried kindness and, for the first time, began to hold myself accountable for my actions, eventually finding God (a story for another time).
Today, through my #cawfeetawk series, I work everyday to repay a little empathy and kindness back into the universe. Also, I am beyond grateful to be able to share with other parents the idea that there is hope for those children who are bullied, those who bully, and for those who’ve experienced both.
Finally, the beauty of telling my daughter about my journey was that I was able to show her growth. As a young girl now, and the woman she will one day become, I want her to understand that she alone is responsible for the life she creates. But it is my job to provide her with the tools she needs to build that life, which is why I chose to come clean. And the lesson sank in: She came away knowing that not only would she not want to be bullied, she wouldn’t want to be a bully — wouldn’t want to be so full of anger that she’d hurt other people.
And that, I realized, is how we break the cycle.