That time I punched a teacher
How Ketamine treatment enabled me to re-live a traumatic experience and find self-compassion 30 years after the event.
The second time of my life I had a panic attack, I was around 10 years old. I was in the Principal’s office at a school in Norway. I don’t remember how I got there, or what had happened. As the red mist of anger was dissipating, a number of very angry adults were shouting at me. I recognized several.
I recognized the school janitor and the principal. In addition to them, there were other men. Big men, with veins popping out of their necks. They were towering over me. One of them had me by the arm so I wouldn’t run away. They were furious with me, and told told me that I had punched a teacher. That, no matter what else had happened, I was never allowed to punch a woman, and especially not a teacher. They told me that she was in pain and that she wasn’t there because one of the other teachers had driven her to the doctor. That my parents were on their way, and that I was in deep trouble for making them have to come all the way here from their work to deal with me. Why couldn’t I just be a nice boy? A good boy? Why was I always causing so much trouble?
That was the second time I had a panic attack.
The first time was a couple of hours earlier.
The worst bullying I ever experienced
A few years ago, I read this Twitter thread, about Erynn, and about her mother — it’s moving, and it goes deep into topics of agency and consent. I’ve referred people to it a number of times, with the comment: “You can always leave. If someone tries to stop you, leave anyway — you have autonomy over your body.”
This week, a friend of mine called me to ask about a situation; if I could give one piece of advice to a vulnerable person? And, put on the spot, I was surprised to find myself thinking of Erynn’s tweet thread.
And the piece of advice I gave, was:
- 1 — You can always leave right now.
- 2 — If someone doesn’t let you leave, leave anyway.
Yes, you can leave even in the middle of a doctor’s appointment. Yes you can leave mid-sentence. Yes, you can get out of there even even if someone asked you to do something. Yes, you can leave even if someone is expecting an answer to a question. You can stand up, and get the fuck out of there. You have autonomy over your body. You can always leave. See rule 1.
The advice that you can always leave, comes from a place of wanting people to feel safe. And, ‘as someone who seems to have thought about this a lot,’ my friend asked me for advice.
She wasn’t to know that the reason I’ve thought about it a lot is that I’ve been bullied a lot. My various therapists and I have been working on my bullying in lots of different ways. Some of them worked. In one memorable instance, a therapist suggested I imagined murdering someone, and I knew it was time for another therapist:
Healing happened when I stopped waiting for the reveal.
When my previous therapist invited me to imagine murdering someone, I knew I needed another therapist.
A few years ago, I did a therapeutic journey facilitated by a new form of mental health company: Mindbloom. I recently had the chance to interview the company’s CEO, and in the midst of that interview, I ended up telling him how meaningful his company’s treatments had been to me.
Mindbloom does ketamine-assisted mental health treatment. So yes, that means that I had my major breakthrough while I was under the influence of ketamine.
In this particular session, I was thinking about that piece of advice I had given my friend: That you could always leave. And my mind kept wanting to return to a particular incident that had been bothering me for more than 30 years. Laced with shame and dipped in confusion, I kept circling back to that time I had punched that teacher.
In slow motion and with astonishing clarity and detail for an incident I hadn’t dare revisit for so many years, my mind decided to replay one particular afternoon — and incident of some of the most intense bullying I had ever experienced.
“All fun and games”
The incident had been brewing for weeks and it all revolved around a ‘game’ called “Jubel i busken.” That’s Norwegian, and roughly translates into ‘Joy in the bush.’ The name is a reference I didn’t realize was a reference until I Googled it fiveminutes ago. And I still don’t understand it. It was a ‘game’ — Jubel i Busken — which involved a revolving cast of characters, but I was always in the center of that particular game.
The game? The rotating cast of characters would shout “Jubel i busken,” while picking me up physically by my clothes, arms, and legs. They would drag me out of the classroom, through the hallways, down the steps, and across the school courtyard. They would expect me to resist and they’d fight me if I resisted too much. And then, the grand finale: Chanting “Jubel i busken”, they would heave me up, and then throw me — sometimes face first, sometimes ass first, sometimes legs first — into a bush.
It didn’t really hurt.
I keep telling myself. It didn’t really hurt.
I kept convincing myself. It didn’t really hurt. Not really.
They threw me in a bush, for god’s sake. Bushes are soft. At least it wasn’t a slab of concrete! Besides, this was in Norway. It was winter. I was wearing thick winter clothes. Being thrown into a snow-covered bush was better than many other things they could have done to me. I never bled. Not much, anyway. I never broke any bones. And the sprains and cuts and bruises all healed. It didn’t really hurt.
It got so fucked up that when they weren’t bullying me for once, I would go up to the leader of the group and ask ‘Jubel i busken?’ and he would laugh. “Back for more?” he’d shout, gleefully, and round up the whole group for another round of assault. Once again, I’d be attacked, dragged out of the classroom to returned to the bush from whence I had extracted myself the day before.
Asking for it.
I literally asked for the abuse. I never understood why until this particular ketamine journey.
You see, it turns out… When you know when the attack was happening — because I made it happen by asking for it — it meant I was resourced to deal with the attack. Provoking an attack meant I had control over the timing of the attack, and that was better than the horrifying anxiety of not knowing if and when I would be assaulted next. It was better than being attacked by surprise — maybe at a time when I was hungry, sadder than usual, or tired.
The ‘attention’ I was drawing to myself often resulted in scrapes, bumps, strained muscles, and scratches. The ‘attention,’ still has a hold on me. I’m typing this some thirty years later, in the safety of my apartment, some 8,000 km away from where all of this took place. I’m shaking like a leaf.
The ‘attention,’ I finally understand, was brutal assault, enabled by a school that had no systems for dealing with bullying, and allowed it to go on for week after week, even though both my parents and I had told the school many times over that this was going on.
Week after week of a spiral of helplessness and loneliness, not fitting in, desperation to be seen. Turning to my bullies as a form of validation. Turning to them and asking for the attack was the only way I could think to control the situation. The only way, other than pretending I was sick yet again so I could stay at home.
I was, what, 8? 9? 10? I didn’t know any better, and everyone around me seemed to think that this was perfectly normal behavior, so why would I cause a stink?
My first panic attack
All of this culminated in an incident where one of my bullies cornered me in an empty classroom at break time, with a comically large 1-meter (3ft) plastic ruler used to draw lines on the blackboard. It had a bright orange handle in the middle. He took a swing at me with it, and I was able to block the first attempt with a chair. The second one I blocked with a book. The third time, it connected with my arm. And it broke. My bully had broken a ruler that was almost as tall as I was over my arm — and I was in agony. Scared. Angry.
And I knew exactly one thing: I needed to get the fuck out of that room. Right. Fucking. Now.
In the depth of this disassociated haze of Ketamine, I was able to re-experience the incident without judgment. I found curiosity. I found self-compassion. I found that my brain had remarkable amounts of detail in my recollection of a formative event I hadn’t dared revisit for decades.
My eyes closed, eye-mask on, my mind’s eye replayed what happened next. I managed to shove my bully out of the way, and as I did, I realized I couldn’t breathe. My vision was so narrow as if I were looking through a pair of straws. Adrenaline was rushing through me, my heart racing, my mouth dry. I thought I would never breathe again. I feared I might die in that classroom. I had to leave. I had to get. out. now.
The bully, still holding the remaining half of the ruler in his hand, was on the floor after I pushed him away. The classroom door was across the room from me. I had to get out of there. I couldn’t breathe. I bolted for the door.
As I yanked the door open, there was a teacher on the other side. A sweet lady whose name completely escapes me. She had heard the noise from the fight in the classroom and was wondering what the hell was going on. I tore open the door and there she was, facing the scene: One boy on the ground, shouting bloody murder, holding a broken ruler. And me. Presumably, I had a bright red face and a crazed look in my eyes, trying to get outside so I could breathe.
The teacher tried to stop me from leaving. She blocked the doorway, and said something. I can’t remember what. It’s possible it didn’t register, even in the moment. I couldn’t. Fucking. Breathe. In the midst of a panic attack, I had to get outside, into the open air, away from the boy who had just broken a ruler over my arm. She blocked the only path between where really didn’t want to be and my next breath of air.
The principal told me I punched her.
I don’t remember.
I think it’s more likely that I just ran straight through her, shoulder-checking the 50-odd-year-old woman out of the way as I made my way to oxygen. It happened in a split second.
And 30 years later, I was there, again. I needed to breathe. I needed to leave. And nobody was going to stop me from leaving. And so I left, shoulder-checking a middle-aged lady out of my way in the process.
I made it to the yard, I’ve been told. I remember catching my breath, and the color returning to my vision. Only then did I realize that the entire incident had been playing out in a weird, grainy black and white.
The next thing I know is that a massive, burly man of a school janitor had come to find me, picked me up, and hauled me off to the principal’s office, just in time for my second panic attack. The one that happened at the beginning of this story.
I can’t remember how I was punished for shoulder-checking the teacher. I know the boy who broke a ruler over my arm didn’t even get a talking to. Even today, that makes sense to me. A kid had just ‘punched a teacher’ so hard that she had to go to the doctor. At my quiet little village school in Norway, that was about as serious as it got. I was the worst, most violent, most out-of-control kid in school. I had to be dealt with.
The bullying continued, of course, but perversely, it never got any worse after that day. The rumor mill made the story wild; I was the boy who had beaten the shit out of another boy and beaten a teacher so badly that they were taken to hospital with broken ribs.
It didn’t matter that none of that was true; the bullies believed it. As a result, they scaled down their bullying. They didn’t want to be the next person in hospital, the next victim of that deranged lunatic who had tried to kill a teacher.
And, of course, the situation stayed complex; What do you do with a boy who is as violent as me? Never mind that I had defended myself. Never mind that I literally couldn’t breathe and thought I was going to die. Never mind that I was following the advice I would give to a friend thirty years later: You can always leave. And if someone tries to stop you, well, tough shit. You can always leave.
And I am the first person to say that violence is never the answer. You should never attack somebody. You should never punch or shoulder-check someone. You should never break a ruler over a scared 9-year-old’s arm when they are cornered in a class room.
As the fog of the ketamine lifted, and I was able to start integrating my new-found understanding of what had actually happened in that incident, I realized that I have relived that story in my unconsciousness for many years.
I have been that school teacher. Not literally a teacher, but I was reminded that I have been in that situation. I was a police officer, and while in uniform I have been in almost the exact same situation. I have literally opened a door and had someone charge at me from the other side. He was running out of a house. I had been at the receiving end of a 999 call (the UK emergency number — the US equivalent of 911), stating that there was a domestic abuse situation in progress. The man wanted to flee the scene, and — as the police offer called to the house — there was no way I was going to let him leave. I tackled him to the ground and subdued him. I arrested the man, handcuffed him, and dragged him to a police van. This scene had been magnificently triggering to me — more than almost any other situaton I had dealt with as a cop. It had me shook and feeling out of sort for weeks. It was only now — 15 or so years later — that I realized why.
I had been the man running from a room, wanting to get past someone who didn’t know what the situation was, and had to make a split-second as to whether to stop this running person, or let them pass. But, as a fully equipped police officer facing a drunk man, I had the upper hand and ‘won’ that skirmish. I wasn’t a 50-year-old teacher — I was a 25 year old, well-equipped and well-trained man in the best shape of his life. And I wasn’t facing a scared 9-year-old boy, I was facing a 29-year-old man with a rage and a drinking problem.
Finding the healing
As I am writing of all this, I am shaking. Making it to the end of this story wasn’t possible without taking a bunch of breaks. I originally wrote this piece in 2021, and I haven’t been able to revisit it for many years since then. I’ve staved off a couple of panic attacks in trying to put words to this experience. We are old friends, now, me and the panic attacks. I know how they feel, and I know how I can handle them. It’s taken me many years of therapy to get there.
And I have empathy with everybody in this story.
I have empathy for the bullies who were bored and scared of this very strange, very smart kid who spoke with an accent.
I have empathy with the teacher who really didn’t deserve to be shoulder-checked out of the way by a hormonal, violent, scared little shit.
I have empathy with the man who needed to get out of that room, and who was violently wrestled to the ground by a faceless, soulless policeman.
I have empathy with the kid who swung a ruler. With the woman who called the police to get protection from her husband.
I have empathy with the 25-year-old police officer who suddenly found himself face-to-face with a furious young man who wanted to leave a situation. I shudder to think how that situation could have ended.
Moreover, I now live in the US — and I am terrified at the thought of what would have happened if I had been issued a gun and if I had gone into that same situation with my gun drawn. The only ‘right’ thing to do would have been to shoot. In a slightly — only very slightly — different situation, I would have had to deal with having killed a person, in addition to everything else I’m dealing with.
But most of all, and the greatest gift that Mindbloom’s ketamine treatment afforded me, was finding empathy with the 9-year-old who punched a teacher. The teacher didn’t deserve it, and I have spent many a therapy session trying to move on from that moment. But I also have a deeper level of understanding; in the midst of a panic attack, getting out of the room and doing anything I could to get into open air, is a very different story than the one I had been told and internalized by the adults around me: I wasn’t some out-of-control ball of rage punching a teacher out of the blue.