Freelining with Mike Freeman: A night of overflowing horror

 Onto each day, it seems, a little sunshine must fall.
At least that was my hope this morning, when the heavy rains came down so consistently and, it seemed, endlessly, that I started to feel like it was a plot to sour my mood on what could otherwise have been a perfectly fine, relaxing Saturday.
Don’t get me wrong: I have no problem whatsoever with the rain. It hasn’t rained in months, and the poor plants in front of my home not only had to combat the sub-freezing overnight temperatures this week, but the lack of rain for months. For their health and well being alone, I welcomed the downpours.
But for those who think rain can mysteriously set you into a funk, can wash away your happiness and plunge you into a dour mood, on this day they were right.  I desperately wanted some bright sunshine to make me feel more cheerful, rather than sitting by the window watching the rain come down.


But the truth is, the funk had set in much earlier.

At 2 a.m., to be precise.

I’m not a late night person, and I tend to crash early on Friday nights — yes, I know, I know, another sad reminder of the fuddy duddys of getting older, yeah yeah yeah — but usually by Friday evening I’m so worn out from work that a night on the town is about the last thing on my mind. Such was the case last night. I turned in hopelessly early and had no trouble fading into dreamland.

I woke around 2 a.m., and have no idea why. Nothing in particular brought me out of my sleep, like a loud noise or a cat seeking attention, or even a particularly unpleasant dream. No, I just sort of opened my eyes, and the pitch darkness of the night seemed to beckon to me: Geez, haven’t you slept long enough? I was on the verge of being ready for the new day. Too early!!

So I got up, went into the bathroom, quickly did what nature called on me to do, and then flushed the toilet, hoping the sound wouldn’t wake up the others in the house at such a late hour.

Little did I know ….

There’s nothing more depressing at 2 a.m. than watching a backed up toilet fill to the top of the bowl with disgustingly dirty water … and then keep rising. You find yourself standing there in front of that bowl, pleading with it to stop, to resist the urge to go any further, to please have a little consideration at such an inconvenient hour — like the toilet is poised to look up at you and say, Hey, sorry, nothing I can do about it. Isn’t it strange the way a toilet that’s backing up sometimes stops just as it reaches the tipping point? And then, of course, there are nights like this one.

Over the side it went, all that dirty water, flooding my bathroom floor. There isn’t a whole heck of a lot you can do at moments like this, except stand there and feel depressed and defeated. My first urge was to turn and walk away, with the justification that it was, after all, the middle of the night, and who fights overflowing toilets at 2 a.m.? Even insomniacs have to figure they’ve got better things to do.

But I didn’t walk away. With three other people living in my house, I wasn’t about to let any of them wander into the bathroom first thing in the morning and discover, to their horror, what lies awaiting them. So out into the kitchen I went, then back into the bathroom I waded, armed majestically with paper towels and disinfectant spray. I also spent copious amonts of time applying that plunger to the toilet, wondering as I did if someone had died while using it, fallen in, and gotten stuck in one of the pipes. It sort of felt that way for a while.

How can one toilet be so much trouble?

After you’ve spent a half hour dealing with something like this, let me tell you, getting back into bed doesn’t exactly lead instantly to sleep. I sat there in bed, listening to the perfect sleeping conditions — total silence everywhere — but knowing sleep was now a distant memory.
 I suppose it was just one of those nights, when everything seems to go a little haywire. I can deal with that, I suppose, if the other six nights during the week are relatively groovin’.  But I did wish I could have woken up to a bright sunny day, beckoning me outside my house to happiness and bliss.  The rain made it seem depressing, like everyone was ganging up on me just because I went to bed early. I know that’s not quite what was going on here, but when you’re feeling down, I guess you grasp for creative excuses.

It’s sunny now. The rain is gone. I’ve strolled around my front garden and my plants look happier today, so they’ve made me happy as well. Now if I can only overcome the enormous anxiety I have about stepping into my bathroom for the first time since 2:30 a.m. My poor neighbor has got to be wondering by now why I keep ringing his doorbell, asking if I could run to the john one more time ….

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When Restrooms Go Wild -- a possible reality show?

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Freelining with Mike Freeman: a bullying victim in my 40s, but not in high school

Last April, I was driving with a buddy when I said something that ticked him off.  I didn’t anticipate his response, which was to remain perfectly quiet, nod his head .. then swing the back of his hand right across my mouth.
I let out a scream of  “ouch!” loud enough for folks in northern Maine to hear, and I was pretty startled that he’d responded so aggressively. Most guys, I suppose, would have pulled the car over and insisted they fight it out then and there. But I didn’t; I continued driving, and kept my mouth shut. I was thinking back to when this same friend told me, “Mike, I’m bigger than you, and stronger than you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
 That’s not the only recent incident I’ve had like this. I have another friend who smacks my hand if I try to bite my nails. And I have a third friend, a bit older than me and considerably bigger than me, who was driving me home one day when I played a practical joke on him. He slammed on the brakes, stared at me indignantly, and then said if I ever did it again he’d take me behind the car and give me a “whoopin’.”
Sometimes I wonder if I have “punching bag” written on my forehead.
The odd thing is, I’m at the age when you no longer expect to put up with this stuff – it’s all supposed to be light years behind you. And thinking about these three incidents made me flash back to my high school days. I spent three years – long, long years, it felt at the time – being the ultimate shy, withdrawn, nervous high school Geek who didn’t dress cool, or act cool, or hang out with any of the cool people. And I also went straight through high school never, ever getting bullied. 

Doesn't everybody feel isolated and lonely sometimes? For Michael Freeman, that defined his high school years, when he felt like he was invisible walking down the halls, as classmates passed him by without even acknowledging him.

I’m not saying I don’t know what it’s like to be bullied. In middle school, I was the virtual poster child for bullying victims. Thin enough to make a Third World villager look like a Weight Watchers candidate, and about the least athletic student on record, I can remember having “Prime Target” written on my back on a daily basis.
There was a long, steep hill leading from my house to the middle school I attended, and so many afternoons the bullies would give me a head start and then chase me, with the warning of a full fledged beating if they caught up. Maybe that’s how I stayed so thin as a kid, running up that hill in abject terror.
I can also remember one sorry day when our teacher left the classroom, and a classmate who disliked me got up, came over to my desk, and began punching me. I responded in the classic Geek manner, swinging my chin directly into his fist with a kind of “Take that!” virtuoso. As you might imagine, it failed miserably to discourage him.
The teacher got back in time to break up this “fight,” as he called it – although if I was swinging my fists at all, it was defensively, not aggressively – and hauled us both down to the principal’s office, where I was given three days of detention. I’m not sure what depressed me more, that I could get punished for getting beat up, or that my parents were distinctly unsympathetic to my outrage.
That was a different era. Back then, if you got picked on at school, you were expected to learn how to fight and punch the other guy in the nose. I’d known that was a lost cause about the same time I first picked up a basketball and football and thought, “Oh, forget it, this isn’t for me.” My poor father was so embarrassed to have a son who couldn’t fight back.
In high school, though, I got left alone. In retrospect, that was no surprise. My mother died during my first year in high school, and after that, nobody ever picked on me again — a strangely uncharacteristic sympathy factor among bullies, perhaps, or maybe just plain old pity. Whatever it was, I faded from the jocks’ regular hit list. 

What a Geek! Mike Freeman was a scrawny kid in high school, but the jocks mostly ignored him in those years.

Something odd happened, though. I went from being a target among those who liked roughing up the weaker students … to being someone who was totally anonymous. I was quiet, withdrawn, and had trouble making conversation. I faded away almost entirely through most of my high school years. I almost became like the school wallpaper – always there but hardly ever noticed. It was a lonely existence, in some ways more agonizing than being harassed. It’s like Pink sings: “If you’re too cool for school, and they treat you like a fool … we can always party on our own.” Well, I did a lot of solo parties in those days.. I had a nasty divorce from my distant friend self respect around this time, and I lost interest in school work entirely and relied on the pity of my teachers to get me by with sympathetic, but still passing, D grades. My father and I didn’t get along much throughout these years.  
I don’t have a lot in common with that high school student these days; my social network is pretty wide, I’m more extroverted than ever before, and anybody who knows me would hardly mistake me for being “quiet.” But one thing hasn’t changed — I’m no fighter, even today. Just ask my buddy who smacked me across the mouth. He knows this all too well.
Until that spring day when he whacked my lip, I thought my days of getting roughed up were long past me.
I don’t feel like a victim, though. There’s plenty of truth in the wisdom that if you get bullied, you need to stand up for yourself and not shrink back and take it. I wish I had adopted that attitude in middle school. Maybe I would have developed the self-confidence I painfully lacked back then.
So these days, I approach things entirely differently. I’ve gone online to find a bodyguard, and set aside some money to hire one to accompany me to various events and activities. Now, the next time my buddy doesn’t appreciate something I say and raises the back of his hand to smack me, the bodyguard will be sitting in the back seat, ready to reach over and break his wrist.
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Parent of a bullying victim urges others not to be silent bystanders

The Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center of Maitland distributes information to parents and school officials on what they can do when they see someone being bullied.

WINTER PARK – John Halligan knows a lot about bullying, but it isn’t from being a bully himself, or from having been the victim of one.

Instead, his torturous journey from grieving parent to advocate for anti-bullying laws happened in a very different way: as the father of a child who took his own life after years of bullying and harassment from fellow students.

Halligan lost his son Ryan to suicide at age 13 while the boy was a student at a middle school in Vermont. He had been ridiculed and humiliated by classmates until it pushed him over the edge.

Today, Halligan tours the country, speaking out about the dangers of bullying and, now through the Internet, Cyberbullying – a term he doesn’t even accept.

“I don’t like the term too much, because the media and everyone else is saying this is something new,” he said. “I don’t think this is new at all. It’s just called meanness.”

Halligan recently spoke about the loss of his son and the problem of bullying during a program at the St. Peter and Paul Church on Old Howell Branch Road in Winter Park. His visit was sponsored by the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center, based in Maitland, which is hoping to put a spotlight on just how deadly bullying can become. The program was funded in part by the Community Development Funds of the Community Foundation of Central Florida, as part of the “Stand Up to Bullying” campaign.

Halligan said he knows all too well that what can start out as teasing can snowball into something far worse.

“As Ryan’s dad, I had totally underestimated the impact of emotional bullying,” he said. “When it happened, Ryan wanted me to teach him how to fight and defend himself. It turned out this wasn’t about throwing a punch, but throwing words.”

Halligan said classmates started picking on Ryan in the fifth grade, and his self-esteem began falling. Ryan’s parents responded by getting him to see a school counselor, but it didn’t help. The bullying continued, right into seventh grade. By then, Ryan was so miserable that he asked his parents to pull him out altogether and home school him instead.

He also refused to take part in any kind of school mediation program with the principal, insisting that would only make the situation worse.’

Halligan said in retrospect, he now realizes that his son was right. Bringing a bully and a victim together with the principal for a conflict resolution session doesn’t solve anything, he said.

“The bully is sitting there saying, ‘Hah, now I know what got to you,’ “ he said. “Bullying has nothing to do with conflict. What is bullying? It’s a repeated act intended to intimidate, humiliate or ridicule. The methods could be physical, emotional or relational. It exploits an imbalance of power that this person has figured out, and they’re going to take advantage of it.”

Although Ryan was sometimes bullied physically, the bulk of it was emotional abuse – made worse through the Internet and emails, he said. Someone at the school spread a rumor that Ryan was gay, and he started getting crude, homophobic emails – emails that he never told his parents about.

At the same time, Ryan developed a crush on a girl who began telling him how much she liked him, too. But it turned out to be a cruel hoax: the girl finally admitted it was all a big joke. Devastated, Ryan hung himself in the bathroom of his home.

“I blew it on this one,” Halligan said. “On the day my son died, the first thing we did was look for the suicide note. We tore the room apart, but we never did find the note. Then I thought maybe his computer gave us a clue.”

While searching through Ryan’s online accounts, “I learned all about the rumor that my son was gay,” Halligan said. “I unraveled why my son was on the computer so much that summer. He was trying to deal with this gay rumor.”

What he didn’t realize at the time, Halligan said, is that Ryan’s circle of friends had expanded dramatically in the age of the Internet, and not in a good way.

“In today’s world of parenting, the circle of friends you see at the kitchen table is not the same circle of friends you see in cyberspace,’ he said. “Parents, you’ve got to try to pay attention to this world.”

Halligan has tried to learn from this traumatic experience. He convinced state lawmakers in Vermont to pass a new anti-bullying law and is encouraging other states to do the same. His path to becoming an anti-bullying activist started when one local school held a special day urging students to respect one another.

“I was first asked to speak about this at a school in Vermont for Respect Day,” he said. “I reluctantly agreed, and as I hung up, I stressed out for two weeks.”

Finally, on the day he was scheduled to speak, “I got up on stage and told my son’s life story from start to finish. As I did, I sensed that kids were connecting to the story, either as a victim, as a bully, or as a bystander.”

School officials later asked Halligan if he had a speaking program for parents as well – something he hadn’t thought about before then. That’s when he began thinking about speaking to other parents about what they could do to stop their own children from becoming bullying victims – and how it’s not okay for anyone, students, parents or school officials alike, to be a bystander when someone else is being harassed.

“We’ve got to instill in our kids that it’s not okay to be a bystander,” he said. “Let’s not blame it on the kids. This is a problem that goes around all of us. This problem is now epidemic.”

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