They keep sending me friend requests on Facebook. I got another one last night.
Every time they do, my stomach tightens. I have trouble breathing. My heart speeds up. I start to shake.
Block friend request. Block friend request. Block friend request.
Why the hell would I accept a friend request from them now? When twenty years ago, they blocked each and every attempt I made?
This post has been a long time coming. I knew it had to be written. But it’s a lot easier to be a clown than it it to be serious. It’s a lot easier to leave the mask on than it is to drop it and show what’s behind it. I was raised to not show your weakness; to hide your pain. This is like standing naked on a streetcorner for me.
I don’t even know how to begin. Or to end. Or, hell, what to put in the middle. I’m a wreck just thinking about it, to be honest. But I thought, if even one person who’s going through what I went through reads it, it’ll be worth it, right? If even one person reads it and can relate, or reads it and sees someone else struggling with it, and can help them, then it’s good that you relived it, for one night. It’s good that you dwelt back there, back where things were so dark. And I promised someone I’d write this, to explain myself. I like to keep my promises, when I can.
I told someone on Twitter recently that the people that are the funniest often have a really dark backstory, and they’ve learned humor as a coping mechanism. I think that’s true, for the most part. Are there people who are just funny, without having that well of private pain to mine from? Sure. I’m sure there are. But the ones that make me laugh the hardest seem to be the ones who understand that laughing keeps the demons at bay for a little while.
I’ve mentioned this before, here and there. But not in detail. Because it’s painful, and I try not to think about it. My parents are all for forgiving and forgetting. “Move on!” they encourage me. “They all have!”
Can’t. Not who I am. Would love to. Not capable.
I went to a very small school. Sixty people in my graduating class. We knew each other from kindergarten to senior year, with only a few new kids coming and going here and there. What got stuck to you stayed with you. Nothing disappeared. Everyone still picked on the girl who threw up in her desk in fourth grade. Everyone knew the teacher whose wife killed him when she found out he was a pedophile. Everyone talked. Everyone knew everything.
I was bullied, to the point of almost taking my own life twice, from third grade to senior year. That’s nine years, in case anyone’s counting. Nine years doesn’t seem like that long, now. I’ve lived here for nine years, and it’s flown by, for example.
But when every single day of attending school is complete and utter torture, nine years can seem like an eternity. I know this, because I lived it.
I’m not even sure, looking back, what my most heinous offense was. Being intelligent? Not having stellar social skills? Not being as attractive as the popular kids? There were other kids who fit all of these roles, but they weren’t singled out. Like I said, it’s a small school. Once the kids start, they don’t stop. They were sharks and there was blood in the water. You don’t ever have to tell me that children can be cruel. I know they can. I’ve seen it. I was there.
I was shoved into lockers on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis. My books were knocked onto the floor if I dared carry them in my arms; I had to wear a backpack everywhere I went. My locker was blocked by sneering classmates if I attempted to go to it before school, between classes, or after school, so I had to either carry a full day’s books with me at all times, or get a hall pass to go to it during classes. I got gum smashed into my hair. I was invited to parties to be the brunt of elaborate pranks. I was called up at home for the same reason. I was tricked into answering questions like “who do you have a crush on?” and then the answer would be spread around the school and the boy would come up to me and laugh in my face. I was shoved down so many times that my glasses got broken and I sprained ankles and wrists from falling down stairs. I was attacked in gym class by whatever sports equipment we were using that day. I was shoved down and stood on in the aisle on the bus. There’s more. Do you need more? Because I have more.
And, wherever I went, no matter what time of day, no matter where I was going, they’d constantly catcall. “GEEEEEEEEK.”
Which is ironic, as it’s one of the things in my life I’m most proud of now.
Now, you’re wondering, why wasn’t anything done about this? How did this happen for nine years without anything being done?
It was a small town. Everyone knew everyone. The kids in charge of the harrassment? Their moms worked at the school. Their dads taught there. Their parents were well-known.
Plus – I never said a word.
My parents told me to turn the other cheek, at first. But then they got tired of me complaining about it, so they told me to be friendlier. That it was my fault; that, if I had a better attitude, it would stop, and the other kids would all want to be my friend. Because of this, I didn’t think it was ok to speak up. I thought it was shameful. I thought I was an embarrassment to them.
Years later, my father asked me why I didn’t fight back. I could only look at him in shock. I wanted to scream, “YOU NEVER GAVE ME PERMISSION!”
I love them. They were doing their best. I’ve forgiven them. They had no idea what this was doing to me, or even the extent of it all. It must be a very hard thing, to be a parent. You must often feel very helpless.
I did fight back, once. Not on purpose. I kind of lost my mind, is what happened. One of the worst kids – the one that, if I think back, I’d like to go back in time and murder, cheerfully, with my bare hands, while little Amy looks on and laughs – called my name in gym class. I reflexively looked up, and he was about three steps away from me. He threw a basketball square into my face. This smashed my glasses into my face, making them fly off onto the floor and shattering them, and also causing major cuts and bruising (because listen, glasses used to be made of GLASS.)
They were new glasses. They were, for the time period, somewhat cool. I was FURIOUS. He walked away, high-fiving his friends. I LAUNCHED myself at him, screaming. I was the kid from A Christmas Story. Nothing I said made any sense. It was just a stream of profanity laced with hysterical crying. I clawed at his face. He just stood there, half in shock, half laughing.
I ended up getting transferred out of gym class not long after that, to another gym class for the rest of high school. As far as I know, nothing happened to him. He just said it was an accident. His mom worked at the school, and he was very good at acting innocent. He’d had years of practice at that point.
Did I have friends? Yes, a couple. One of them is actually still a good friend now. Did they know it was going on? Yes. But they didn’t dare do anything about it. Because if they did, the collective eye of the popular group would turn on them, and they’d be in the crosshairs. It wasn’t worth it. I didn’t blame them then. I try not to now, either. I know how hard it was, going through what I was going through. How could I ask another person to potentially bear that cross for me? How could I ask the boy I was in love with all through high school to risk dating me, knowing he was courting social suicide? I couldn’t. We were children. We were just children, and our reputations were very important to us.
Did I function? Yes. I did. I was in clubs, I acted in shows, I went on dates, I went to church. I lived my life. I just knew, the whole time, that someone could be waiting around the corner for me, so I was very, very cautious where I stepped. I jumped at my own shadow. I was walking around shell-shocked before I even knew what the term meant.
I spiraled into a depression so deep I couldn’t see my way out of it. I don’t see how anyone couldn’t, going into a war zone, day after day after day. I had a plan to kill myself early on in high school; I chickened out at the last minute. I had a more well-thought-out plan at the beginning of senior year, and, were it not for an occurrence that I still can’t explain, one that smacks of some sort of – divine intervention? cosmic coincidence? grand plan? – I would not be here writing this today. It was minutes away. I can’t talk about that. Sorry. That one’s mine.
A way out might have been to downplay my intelligence. That seemed to be what offended them most. However, strangely enough, that never crossed my mind. Everything else under the sun did – getting a boyfriend, changing the way I looked, talked, dressed, acted, everything – but suddenly acting less intelligent never even popped up on my radar. Thankfully. Because I probably would have done it, in order to make it all stop. In order to conform. And then I wouldn’t have had my escape hatch.
College was the light at the end of the tunnel. A big college. Where I could reinvent myself. Where I could escape everyone who’d ever known me, and where no one would know me as “Geek.” Where I could be whoever I wanted, because I was starting fresh.
No one told me that even when you start fresh, your demons come with you. I was a child, still. I didn’t know.
I graduated valedictorian. And in my speech, I actually addressed them, as far as I was able, by telling them their glory days were behind them and it was all downhill from there, for the majority of them. They laughed at me. As they’d been doing for most of my life.
So I squished that lonely, lost, afraid girl down as far as she’d go and I went far, far away. I didn’t talk about high school. I was a new person.
And, much to my surprise? I made friends. ACTUAL friends. Who wanted to spend time with me. Who did kind things for me without expecting anything in return. I didn’t know what to make of this. I wasn’t mentally capable of wrapping my mind around anything like this. I stopped going to classes because my lessons were in making friends. The lessons everyone else learned in elementary and junior high and high school? I had to learn them in college. I was playing catch up. I almost flunked out because I wasn’t doing what I was there to do. But this seemed important, too. This seemed like an important job, one that I was behind on.
It took me a while to realize that most of the time, when people laugh, they are laughing WITH you, not AT you. I started craving that like an addict. I honed humor like a knife. I wielded it like the same. It became my thing. I was the funny one. I liked that; it gave me a purpose, it gave me an identity. I didn’t realize until years later I was funny because it was helping me deal with the fact that there was still a very injured little girl inside of me and I’d never dealt with her. I’d just hidden her away, like a dirty secret. I didn’t tell anyone about her. I closed her in a very dark room and told her to be very quiet, in case anyone were to notice her.
I also thought I made these new friends because I was someone else. Because that girl wasn’t good enough. Because I was very young, and because I didn’t know better, and because I didn’t hear her screaming, even though I told her to be still.
It took almost twenty years for me to look in the mirror and not number the flaws and hate what I saw there; almost twenty years for me to look in a mirror and not see myself through the children’s eyes who tormented me. I can finally see myself through my own eyes, and while I don’t always like what I see, at least I see it clearly.
I’ve not forgiven them for what they did to me. Will I? I don’t know. I find it ironic they keep sending me friend requests on Facebook. Maybe they’re sending them ironically and want to see what I’m up to so they can gossip. Maybe they’re honestly wanting to be friends. Maybe – and, somehow, this is the most painful option of all? – maybe they’ve forgotten what they did altogether. Maybe those nine years of torture to me were nothing to them. Maybe they meant nothing. Maybe I meant nothing. Maybe they saw it as childish pranksterism, nothing more than a good laugh.
I don’t go to class reunions. When I go home to visit, I don’t like to leave the house, since most of them still live in town and I don’t want to risk running into them. I keep in touch with a handful of people from my graduating class, a very select few who have grown into adults that I want in my life. I try to remember that the children that tormented that sad, lonely little girl then are adults now; that they’ve lived a long lifetime, and they’ve probably changed. I try to tell myself I could benefit from forgiving. That this would be a burden best left at the roadside. That I’d be lighter, were I to leave it behind.
I can’t do that. I don’t know if I will ever be able to.
I identify so deeply with children who commit suicide due to bullying that I find myself weeping over the news reports. I hear about a school shooting and I immediately think, “What did the other children do to the shooter?” rather than, as a normal person might, “what was wrong with the shooter?”
What’s the solution? Well, bullying is taken much more seriously now than it was back when I was experiencing it. It’s not ignored anymore. Officials can’t afford to ignore it; school shootings and suicide rates are up and it’s also just plain bad PR. I don’t know if the programs to stop bullying are helping. They probably aren’t hurting, put it that way.
I know others out there had it as bad as I did. I know others had it worse. I know what I went through probably seems small and petty, maybe even to some of you reading this. And, that’s fine. Because the last thing I want – the absolute last thing – is your pity. That’s not why I’m writing this.
I’m writing this because it needs to be written. I’m writing this because someone I respect a great deal mentioned that I was being a bully toward someone a while ago, possibly halfway in jest, and I immediately froze up, thinking, has it come to this? Have I become those children? Have I done to someone else what they did to me? And when I reacted strongly, and he was surprised, I couldn’t imagine why he was surprised. Then I thought, oh. Because you haven’t told anyone this. Because, for all of your oversharing, this isn’t something you’ve told. Because you’re still ashamed of it. Of course he’s surprised. I promised him I’d write this, and like I said, I like to be the kind of person who keeps promises, when she can. I’m writing this to get it off my chest. I’m writing this because maybe a parent has a child who’s going through this and is at a loss as to what to do. I’m writing this because it’s my way, like Jenny in Forrest Gump, of throwing rocks at the house where my tormentors lived – futile, but a move toward healing, nonetheless. I’m writing this because, as I mentioned, maybe someone going through a similar thing will read it and recognize themselves.
If that’s the case: it does get better. I know, what a cliche, right? But it does. It doesn’t seem like it will, but it does. You can cast off who you are like an ill-fitting suit of clothes, if you like, and step into a new skin. Or, even better, you can find your people. They’re out there. They’re waiting for you to find them. You just have to get through the storm in order to do so. And the storm is bad. I’m not going to lie to you about that. But don’t end things completely. Don’t do that. Please. Whatever you do. There’s help, and there’s hope, and your people are waiting, and there’s going to be a you-sized absence, if you’re gone. One that they don’t even know about, but one that they feel. Please know that little tiny thing you see way off in the distance is the light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s being held by the future-you and your people, and keep working as hard as you can, and do anything you need to, to get there.
Most of all, I’m writing this to give a voice to that little girl I had to keep locked in a dark room for so long. I let her out, finally, about a year ago. I could finally let her out. And you’ve can’t imagine anything so freeing. I’m not all the way there. I don’t know if I ever will be. I hear locker doors slam and I have a PTSD reaction. I hear people laughing when I enter a room and my first, immediate thought is that they’re laughing at me behind my back. I still suffer from depression. It’s crippling, at times. I don’t want to get out of bed, I don’t want to talk to anyone, I don’t want to move. Yes. I’ll always be damaged.
But I’m not broken. I take pride in that. I came through the fire and I got burned and I carry the scars, but what really matters is, I came through the damn fire. And I did it all on my own. I’ve found my people along the way, but the person who made it through those flames is the person writing this.
So yes: I have poor social skills and hate large social situations where I am expected to socialize as I am always, in the back of my mind, expecting there to be another shoe to drop, the joke to be on me, no escape route. I cry easily. I wake up on a regular basis from high-school nightmares. I am sometimes so filled with misplaced anger it spills over onto those I love the most. I try to get as much joy as I can out of every single minute of my life, because I know how fleeting and ephemeral joy can be, and I have lost years of it to make up for. I am so shocked when someone wants to be friends with me that I immediately mistrust them. I hide behind a variety of masks, almost all of the time; I only really drop them when I trust you completely, and since I almost never trust anyone completely, I’m almost always wearing some sort of mask. When someone does something nice for me I’m moved beyond what’s rational because it doesn’t happen often and I don’t know how to react when it does. I have made some colossally bad judgment calls over the years, some of which have screwed me over so royally I’m still reeling from them. I’m damaged. I’m banged up and bruised up and my corners are all bent and spindled and I’m missing some pages and there are some things I just won’t talk about and there are some things I just won’t do. Yes. I’m damaged. But we all are, in our own ways, aren’t we? It’s what makes us unique. It’s what makes us.
I didn’t write this for your pity, because I don’t need it. As damaged as I am, I’m not broken.
And even if I am?
Sometimes things that have been broken come back stronger than you’ll ever imagine.