Why six weeks? Because this topic is huge. Way too big to discuss in a week or two. I don't think many people fully realize just how ingrained bullying is to our society. And before you get the impression that I'm going to spend the next week bully-bashing, please know this: I was one. I still am one, from time to time, though I never intend to be. In fact, this first article is about myself. Again, you may be wondering why I would do that. Why would I share something so intensely personal and even a little embarrassing? Because if I want to generate an open and honest discussion, I must begin by being open and honest about my personal experience. I hope that reading my story will encourage others to come forward and share their thoughts and even stories of their own. I'm sharing it in the hopes that it makes at least one person feel a little less alone. A little less hopeless.
I encourage you to leave comments, however I ask you to be respectul and if possible, positive.
I was a child who was chronically bullied all through my school days. I honestly don't remember a time in my childhood when I wasn't being singled out and picked on by one or two children, or an entire crowd of them. That is, until my sophomore year of high school when the beaten down girl lashed out and became a bully herself. This is my journey.
I still remember my fifth birthday. At least, I can remember parts of it. I remember it was the day I decided that I loved painting more than anything else in the entire world and I would become an artist when I grew up. I remember, because Mrs. Haney told me that since it was my birthday, I could do anything I wished and I chose to paint. I realized something else for the first time that day as well. The other kids in the class didn't like me.
This was an ever-present feeling during my elementary and jr. high days. Whether I was being ignored by kids on the playground, picked last for sports, taunted and teased or called names. I would occasionally make a new friend, but that friendship would ultimately end as we moved frequently.
Why was I bullied? I can give you several reasons. I can also tell you that it wasn't because other children were jealous of me as my mother so unhelpfully asserted. Even at the age of 9, I knew better than that. What on earth would they be jealous of? That I was poor? Dirty? Obviously neglected? I could blame it on my freckles, my strange hair or my dishevelled appearance. But looking at it now, I know it is something deeper and less definable than any of those factors. I was just plain socially awkward. I seemed to be living on an entirely different hemisphere than those around me. Most kids just didn't "get" me, and I didn't really get them either. The other factors I mentioned most surely played their part.
Near the end of my eighth grade year, I'd had just about enough. I was tired of being the butt of jokes and talked to disrespectfully. I remember the first time I asserted myself was to tell a girl to shut-up. That felt really good. The look on her face left me glowing for a week and I began looking for other ways to be assertive and stick up for myself. I made a promise to myself to do so anytime someone was rude to me.
As my freshman year dawned, I was getting pretty good at it. I was still being teased, but it had abated quite a lot and I had a fair few friends that made the teasing easier to take. That was, until I got into a confrontation with Amy. Amy was a cheerleader in my freshman class. She was pretty, very popular and well off. Her grandparents were not only our neighbors, they were our landlords, so they got a good inside view to my impoverished, dysfunctional household- which made Amy's cutting remarks that much harder to take.
We had a misunderstanding one day in algebra class. I thought she had said my name and when I looked at her, she thought I was being nosy and trying to see what she was up to. She said something hurtful and the bell rang before I could retort. I left class fuming! I couldn't let her get away with talking to me like that. Hadn't I promised myself that I wasn't going to take that sort of thing anymore? Who did she think she was, anyway?
I wrote her a really long and nasty letter. It was as hateful as I could make it and said exactly what I thought I knew about her personality, her looks, her money, her station in life - except the fact that I was insanely jealous.
Before I go on, I want to be very clear about something: Amy had never said a word to me before this day. She had never teased me or called me a name. What I said to her in that letter attacked everything she was proud to be in the most brutal way I could think of. I took 14 years of verbal and physical abuse at the hands of my peers and my parents and unleashed it all on her. I'm not saying I deserved what I got, gosh no! But I admit that what she got from me was completely unfair and she didn't deserve it either.
I thought I was provoking her into a fight. But where I was mistaken, was not realizing that pretty popular girls don't brawl with each other when they get angry. There would be no duking it out behind the cafeteria after school that I had anticipated. She had a much more effective means of putting me in my place.
The next day, she read my letter aloud in algebra class, surrounded by all of her friends who chuckled and sneered derisively in my direction. Added to every sentence (that had been written in limerick form, I might add), was an aside to how I was so wholly inferior to them in every regard. I took my lumps and when I left class I was of course embarrassed - but grateful that it would probably be the last of that, and I could take my lumps better than the next girl.
Except that was not the end of it. What followed were a near three months of brutal torment at the hands of my classmates. By the end of that first day, I had a new nickname. Roadkill. Very rarely did I hear my real name after that. During the course of those three months, I was ridiculed relentlessly for my looks, my clothes, my grades, the way I walked, my family, my poverty. Mainly was the insinuation that I was somehow Less Than. The Undefined Less Than* was what did the most damage. I knew my circumstances were temporary, after all. I would outgrow my awkwardness, leave my mothers household and make something of myself. But the undefined Less Than quality challenged all hope I could arouse that things would some day get better.
I only saw Amy once a day in algebra. Even though the teasing had started with her, it soon caught onto the rest of the school. Everyone, it seemed, welcomed the opportunity to feel bigger at my expense - and maybe win points with the cool crowd - so that even those who had traditionally been outcast saw fit to assert their dominance over me.
As I walked down the halls, I would be pushed and kicked, have things thrown at me, get my books knocked out of my hands, spit on. At lunch, I would sit by myself and be mocked. Once, someone knocked my tray to the floor as everybody laughed. The few friends I had made up to that point suddenly went MIA. I made sure I was the last person to leave the classroom each time the bell rang, to avoid being shoved from behind or kicked in the backside.
I was well versed in all of these tactics. In fact, it took nearly three months for them to break me down enough to cry. It took gaining sympathy from a substitute teacher to finally crack me. After a particularly harsh algebra lesson, which started with the assertion at roll call that "Destany" no longer existed but "Roadkill" was sitting in the third row - and the word Roadkill then written on the chalkboard in large letters, the sub slowly walked up to me after the other students had filed out to assail, "Kids can be so cruel."
As if this was news to me. As if empathy from an adult - the adult in charge, I wish to add - would somehow be soothing. I never felt more helpless. For the first time, an authority figure ADMITTED to witnessing the abuse. Up until that point, it had been fully ignored by all adults but that breech in teacher/student recognition sent my world toppling down. "You knew... and you stood by. And you acknowledge this!" I was furious to tears.
I went to my next period, which was gym class with my head down so no one would see me crying. A friend of mine saw me and when she learned that my mother was going out of town with her social club and my sisters would be out of the house for the evening, she became worried that I shouldn't be left alone. She begged me to come up to the school after dinner, as she would be manning the concession stand for the volley ball tournament that was going on that week. I told her she was insane to think I wanted to come back and visit a place that held such anxiety and misery for me. But after much pleading and arm twisting - and assurance that she would not allow anyone to say anything hateful to me, I agreed.
When I got up to the school that evening, my friend was not there. I walked the halls desperately, stopping anyone I dared to ask if they had seen her. Finally, I approached the snack counter as I spotted another friend of hers, in the middle of a conversation. I knew this girl didn't like me, but her response to my interruption was worse than I had feared. I don't recall what she said precisely, but I know it started with the word "Roadkill" and went on to describe how lowly and insignificant and disgusting I was. She hissed out this hateful diatribe in front of parents, kids and teachers from nearly every school in the area. As she ended, I turned on my heel and walked straight home, in tears, with thoughts of suicide burning in my brain. I just couldn't take it anymore.
As I got through the weekend and considered going back to school on Monday, I became violently ill. I took on a fever, chills and vomiting. My mother was annoyed because now everyone in our tiny two bedroom household was sure to get the flu. Nobody did, and looking back I'm pretty sure that I didn't have the flu at all but was sick out of nerves.
I was out of school for a week, unable to keep down food. By that Friday, as I considered going back, I was already sure that it would never happen. The was no way I could willingly walk into that again. The worst part was that home was almost as bad. My sisters frequently had friends over who went to my school, so the taunting often followed me home. Besides that, it was simply a hopeless place to be. My mother was almost never home, and when she was, she was difficult to be around. She was always yelling and cussing at everybody. Our house was minuscule, and crammed with six people who were always angry and upset and screaming at each other.
I spent the weekend in planning, going over all of the what ifs and making certain that I wasn't being rash. I could not think of one single person who would be sorry to see me go. I truly believed that I was somehow so defective (that undefinable Less Than) that everybody who knew me would be glad I was gone. This idea was further emboldened by my sisters boyfriend who walked in on me in the bathroom as I was examining a full pill bottle. He asked me if I was about to kill myself. When I told him it was none of his business, he told me that if he looked like me, he would kill himself too. And by the way, it's not like I didn't ask each of my family members how they would feel if I died. One sister told me she would dance on my grave and the other told me to shut up and stop being morbid. Of course, neither of them knew what was really going on in my head and had no way of knowing that my question was not rhetorical. They just thought I was being weird and melodramatic as usual.
I really don't care to share the next part of this story, I hope you don't mind. What you need to know is that I went through with my plan once everyone had left the house. What I didn't account for was someone to come home early and see what I had done. My younger sister saved my life, literally. She saw what I had done and had the forethought to run to the neighbors house and ask to use their telephone to call an ambulance. The next day, I woke up in the hospital tied to my bed.
I'm sure you can imagine that they didn't send me straight home. I went to a mental hospital to get some help. Help came, not in the form of pills and doctors, but in the form of unexpected acceptance from my peers. I entered this hospital, strapped to a gurney in my poorest, ugliest, most woebegone outfit - with hair that had not been brushed in several days and let me tell you - Hendrix would have envied my fro! No make up and large purple nose that I had somehow managed to break.
I looked more awful and pathetic than I had ever been in my life. But the kids in that place - who were there for defiancy, drug addiction and eating disorders, were from privileged backgrounds. And they liked me. They included me. They didn't think I was gross and stupid and strange. They braided my hair and lent me their clothes and showed me, for the first time in my life, that I was OKAY. That I was just as okay as everyone else.
I healed in that place, somewhat. But when I left, I was not a whole person and I certainly was not calm or rational or even completely sane. I was very angry and I had no trouble expressing it. For the next year and a half, I hit, kicked, shoved, slammed heads into lockers, and inflicted physical pain onto my classmates casually. It only took a few weeks of this to instill enough fear into others to prevent them from saying anything rude to me, and I soon gained a reputation of being psychotic.
In the middle of my junior year, I was approached by a boy who was a grade older than me. He chuckled and joked about the fact that I had broken five of his little brothers fingers. I was shocked and didn't believe him. I assumed this was just another crazy story someone had made up about me, but that didn't add up. If this was his brother - not some obscure kid he had heard about, he would know if this was true. And why would he make something like that up and present it to me - the one person who would know he was lying. He then described the incident and I remembered it well.
That previous year, a boy in my geography class kept turning around in his seat and making faces at me. There was an empty desk between us and he was gripping the back of his chair with both hands. After asking him twice to stop and being ignored, I slammed the desk between us into his hands. He excused himself from the room and I never saw him again. Nobody ever said anything to me about it and I put it out of my mind. I still have a hard time believing I had gotten away with that. Perhaps the kid was embarrassed and lied about how it had happened. Maybe he was afraid to tell on me, who could blame him?
Hearing that I had truly injured someone made me realize how out of control I was. I never thought violence was cool, I had always felt that I was using it in self-defense. However, I was pretty ashamed of myself. I had been bullied with words for years, and was choosing in return, to bully others with violence.
As I went through my junior year, I began reeling in my anger and learning to keep my temper. By that time, nobody teased me anymore so it wasn't very hard. I spent the next year working on my anger issues and trying to become more of the person that I wanted to be, rather than try to prove anything to anybody else. I will be honest, it took me a long while. I had a lot of anger to work through after all, there was no easy and quick solution for it. Eventually, I found a way to make peace with what happened, with my classmates, and with myself.
I am now 33 years old. I have spent the last sixteen years of my life in a loving, gentle relationship with a man who is fully accepting of every part of me. We have four children and a happy life that is purposely low key. My motto is simplicity and practicality and even though it can still sting just a little to revisit my past self and what I endured, it helps keep me connected to something strong and vital that I carry inside of myself like a constant flame. I practice being centered and calm and teaching that to my children.
I hold nothing against any of my old classmates, they were only kids like I was. I know many of them feel bad for the things that went on. For the record, Amy and I have talked and she knows that I do not bear any ill feelings towards her. I am glad she has a happy life, she deserves it. She had it hard back then too, even though she didn't show it. We can look back on it now and realize that even though we were on opposite ends of the social divide, we shared many of the same insecurities and had more in common than either of us then realized - or would have dared to admit!
Teen suicide and bullying are matters that are very close to my heart. I went through it from both ends and as my children grow I have my experience to bank on to offer them perspective and guidance when dealing with their peers. I am much more in tune to the signs that my child is being bullied. I can also recognize mentalities and warning signs that my child is beginning to bully others. I have an insiders view to the different causes of bullying, and their effects. Although my history was intensely painful and difficult at the time, I can use it now to be a better mother, wife, and friend.
As I go through this discussion on bullying, compiling the different stories and researching, asking experts for their insight, my experience can be used to reach out to others who are being bullied or are bullying others. I hope you will join me as we explore this together.
*Less Than, or the Undefined Less Than, is a term I use to describe a persons internal belief that they are somehow defective (often in some undefinable way) and therefore unacceptable by societies standards. The Undefined Less Than is much more harmful than simply feeling Less Than, because it's nature of being undefined means that it cannot be identified to be changed or improved and therefore, the individual who feels this way believes they will always be defective and unacceptable to society. I believe this Less Than, particularly when it is Undefined, is a major contributing factor to suicide by bully vicitims, or bullycide, as it gererates a feeling of deep hopelessness and shame that the victim cannot express.
If you wish to share your own story, I encourage you to do so. Email me at desfenton (at) gmail.com, and I will be happy to post it for you. You may do so anonymously, if you wish. I do ask that you try and keep language calm and relfective as much as possible, and all submissions are subject to editing for spelling and grammar. Please, no swearing, name calling or "outing" of the person who bullied you (or who you bullied).