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Last Friday when I was perusing internet news, I came across this article about Amanda Todd. She was only fifteen when she killed herself, and in video form, she described how bullying led her to that horrible tragedy. I Tweeted that her story made me want to cry and that I wished I could let other bullied teens know that people DO care.
An hour later, I opened my inbox to see an email from authors Yasmine Galenorn and Mandy Roth, asking me if I wanted to participate in a mass blog event to speak out about bullying. My answer was yes, of course. Before I say anything else, let me thank these two ladies for putting this together. I believe breaking the silence on this topic is so important.
And now, to the second most personal blog post I’ll probably ever write. If you’re wondering what the first one was, it’s here. As mentioned above, I didn’t hesitate to say yes when Yasmine and Mandy asked me to participate in this. I intended to create a generalized anti-bullyingpost, but during the last several days, I spent a lot of time thinking about my teen and pre-teen years. The emotions it brought up surprised me. The scars from those years have healed, but it seems they’re still there. I went back and forth about opening up in a personal way on this topic, but as with the other post, in the end I decided I couldn’t talk about it without showing how I was affected by it. It’s always frightening to open up to strangers (and people you know) about things that have hurt you in the past, but believe me when I tell you, silence is worse. Bad things happen and at one time or another – or in some cases, many times – we all get knocked down and wonder if we’re going to get back up. My story isn’t nearly as bad as some, but at the time, it felt insurmountable because it seemed like I was going through it alone. That’s the lie bullies want you to believe. I wasn’t alone and if you’re going through it now, neither are you.
Allow me to rewind the clock back to when I was ten years old. Due to a job change, my parents moved us from a tiny rural town in Ohio to a city in Florida that seemed like Beverly Hills. To say it was a culture shock is to put it mildly. I was used to playing where getting dirty was a sign of time well spent, and I never thought about my appearance beyond the concern that I’d get scolded if the grass stains on my clothes didn’t come out. Most of the girls in my new school “played” by going to the mall, the beach, and the movies, all while dolled up in cosmetics I wasn’t allowed to wear yet.
I didn’t fit in, and it took no time for them to let me know it.
In the interest of space, I’m not going to list specific instances of the bullying that took place. Suffice it to say that I know what it’s like to feel as though you’re the most despised person in school. I know that sick feeling in your stomach when you wake up and wonder how bad it’s going to be today, and the secret shame of being relieved if someone else gets picked on instead. I know what it’s like to fake sick when you don’t think you can take it anymore, or to skip class to avoid a confrontation that others have gleefully told you is coming. I know what it’s like to be punched while a crowd of your schoolmates cheer, to scrub hateful things off your locker, to look away when insults are hurled at you, and to pretend not to care when you’re emotionally hemorrhaging inside. I know the feeling of hopelessness because it’s the same thing day after day, and the frustration of well-meaning adults saying you don’t know what “real” stress is. I also know what it’s like to stare at a razor without thinking of shaving.
By age twelve, I’d become bulimic, mostly because one of the most common insults directed at me was a variation of “fat.” The other reason was that the popular girls in my school were thin and pretty, so I surmised that the key to being accepted was to be thin and pretty, too. I hid my bulimia from my family and even got so proficient at it that I could purge in public restrooms without anyone noticing. But though I lost weight and began spending an hour each morning on my hair and makeup, things didn’t change. I’d like to say that faith got me through, yet I didn’t believe in anything back then. I’d pray for things to get better while being more than half convinced that no one was listening.
Then, at age fourteen, I started high school. To my delight, most of my tormentors had been zoned into a different school. The ones who did go to mine seemed to have lost interest in me and I started making friends. Then boys started taking notice of me in a way that was flattering instead of scornful. Soon, I was going to parties and hanging out with the “cool” kids. At last, I thought I had what I’d longed for – acceptance.
The problem was that I was still the same despairing, self-destructive girl inside. My bulimia increased and when I’d occasionally gain weight,* I’d punish myself by not eating for days. I hated the beach, but I went every weekend so I’d have the same tanned look everyone else had (as you can guess, bouts of binging/purging plus starving plus long hours in the sun meant on more than one occasion, I’d also pass out). I wasn’t allowed to date, but to get around that rule, I either lied or snuck out my window at night. For obvious reasons, I wasn’t allowed to drink, but I did that, too. I smoked for the same reason and the list goes on. In short, I did just about anything to be accepted, and in doing so, I lost something critical. Myself.
You see, not only was my self-worth based entirely on other people’s opinions (as it had been when I was being bullied), so was my innate sense of what made me happy. If other kids told me I was supposed to enjoy something, I pretended that I did. With enough repetition, I even began to believe it. I’ve said to friends that it took all of my twenties to get over my teens, but that’s jumping forward. By age sixteen, as should shock no one, my grades were dismal. I was good at lying and/or rationalizing a lot of things to get out of trouble, so when I brought home a report card that I knew would result in severe punishment, I thought of a way to cloud the issue. I handed my mother the report card, waited through the expected explosion and then announced that I’d been bulimic for years, blaming my bad grades on that. I thought it would make her pity me enough to lay off the groundings. Instead, my parents checked me into an eating disorder rehabilitation facility within the week.
I hadn’t seen that coming.
My biggest concern at the time, of course, was what my friends would think. Then there was denial. Since I’d only told my parents about my bulimia to get out of trouble, I really didn’t think I had a problem with it. I had also shoved the pain from those years of bullying so far down that I didn’t think I had any issues with that, either. To summarize, the inpatient treatment lasted sixty three days and I needed every second to confront the real reason behind my patterns of self-destructiveness. Deep down, I had believed every terrible thing those kids had said to me and I punished myself by forced vomiting, intermittent starvation, and a deliberate dismantling of my personality. I also realized that I harbored an abundance of bitterness. That was the hardest thing to get rid of. Long after I stopped throwing up and started re-discovering who I was and what I liked, that secret inner bitterness kept holding me back. It poisoned friendships, relationships, and even stunted my new-found faith. In the end, I couldn’t truly heal inside until I let it go. MLK Jr. said it best: Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Forgiving my childhood bullies set me free in a way that nothing else could.
For people suffering from bullying right now, forgiveness may seem impossible and at this stage, it probably is. You shouldn’t even worry about that. The first step is to get help. I couldn’t have done anything until I got help, and in my case I didn’t want it, let alone think I needed it. You may think you can handle this, but I urge you to seek help. You may also feel alone but you are not and you may feel hopeless but countless others have overcome this and you can, too. It may not seem that way now, but it’s the truest thing I’ve ever written. Please, if you’re going through this, don’t wait. Ask for help today. If for whatever reason you don’t think you can tell your parents and/or report what’s happening to your school, here are some other places that may be able to help:
(if anyone knows of more helpful links, please include them in the comments)
*This is what happens with bulimia. Your metabolism shuts down because it can’t distinguish between dieting and a famine, so it starts converting what it does digest into fat as a survival mechanism. It also does horrible things to your heath, like stripping your teeth of enamel from repeated exposure to stomach acid; causing ulcers, ruptures, and varicose veins in your esophagus that can burst and cause you to choke on your own blood, and intestinal complications.
Below are the links to the other authors participating in this event. All of us may have different stories and experiences but we are all united in our care and concern. Again I say you are not alone and you can get through this. Perhaps one day, your story of overcoming can encourage someone else.
Mandy M. Roth
Michelle M. Pillow
Jackie Morse Kessler
Jesse L. Cairns
Ruth Frances Long