Monday, March 21, 2016

Sister Christian and the Bully Days

"Sister Christian
 Oh the time has come
 And you know that you're the only one
 To say

The song came on, after a flash of premonition. It popped into my head, just as the DJ said the theme for the morning was songs related to family. Goosebumps rose on my skin as the first familiar notes played and internally I shivered.

I had just been thinking of the song the previous night. It came out in the summer of 1984, the summer before I started 8th grade, I was twelve going on thirteen, and it spoke to me. It spoke to my pain and struggle in my emerging adolescence, my tender-hearted confusion, but most of all my loneliness.

I was reminiscing about that time purposefully after a couple close friends had suggested I do some writing about my experience being bullied in middle school. I was lying in bed, drifting there, letting flashes of feeling, smells, sounds, sights emerge, bone deep memory rising to the surface, and that song came playing from the depths of memory, almost haunting. My heart dripped with something close to longing for it. I felt the old familiar belly ache, like being punched squarely in the gut, breathless and penetrating.

"Where you going?
  What you looking for?
  You know those boys
  Don't want to play
  No more with you
  It's true."

It's true. Those boys did not want to play with me, nor did the girls. I was a loser, a geek, a reject. I didn't have the right clothes, the right hair, the right anything. I was picked on ruthlessly most days, other days mostly ignored, nonexistent, a nobody. I had a couple friends in the same boat as me. We clung to each other like girls overboard, in a cold and punishing sea.

What I went through in those middle school years we now call bullying, back then it was called teasing. Whatever you call it, it hurt like hell and ripped my young confidence to shreds, buried it alive, screaming. And honestly, at that time, there was no intervention to be had, it just didn't happen.
Even today it seems like a nearly impossible problem to overcome, adults can step in and attempt to intervene, it can help or hurt, but the damage is often already done. The damage goes deep.

I was teased about my clothes even though we wore uniforms, Catholic school. I didn't have brand names, and I sported K-Mart tennis shoes not Nikes. My face and body took constant hits, my hair, my teeth, how I smelled. I was called a dog, ugly, flat chested, freak. I always had to worry about getting a seat on the afternoon bus, as everyone piled in, usually no one would let me sit with them. I was consumed with anxiety every single day. My heart would race, jaw clenched, biting back tears or shrieks, stuffing things down into a widening chasm of ache and razor sharp pain, buried in flesh. Some events blaze in my memory, but the whole of it seems blurred, like a dirty smear on my own reflection. It is hard for me to fill in all the details, who said exactly what and when. Like many traumatized people, I tried to block it out, had to block out what I could, or perhaps I would not have survived.

"Babe you know you're growing up so fast
 And mama's worrying that you won't last
 To say let's play
 Sister Christian there's so much in life
 Don't you give it up
 Before your time is due"

Every time a kid commits suicide and it is attributed to bullying we all collectively gasp in horror. We wonder how such an awful thing could happen. People question why no one did anything, why no one knew? The bullying often goes unseen. It happens when people aren't looking. It happens in the bathroom, in the hallway, on the playground, in quietly passed notes and whispers, in sideways glances, in isolation tactics, and now, under cover of social media.

The victim of bullying is silenced by shame and humiliation, not only from the perpetrators, but also by not being seen, and when the problem is seen, it is often minimized. I think people may have noticed that I was being "teased", but the conventional wisdom was to scold the teasers, tell the victim, me, to brush it off, or toughen up, and that was that. Problem solved.

It did not solve my problem. The pain I endured was excruciating, and I did think about death, about running away. I just wanted to escape somehow. My favorite part of my days was sleep, and each night it seemed I had just closed my eyes, barely rested, and the alarm would throttle me to the beginning of another round. Another insult laden punch in the gut, or waiting for one, at any moment, around any corner. So much fear and pain, and brewing underneath that, anger, rage.

I was torn between hating my classmates intensely, violently, and on the other hand wanting desperately to win them over, somehow.

The summer of 1984, I loved the song Sister Christian and the video pulled at my heartstrings, it struck every lonely chord. The video featured a beautiful girl who seemed like me, a bit lost and lonely, apart from the crowd, trying to catch up. She had blonde hair cut in a bob, she wore a school uniform quite like mine. At the end of the video, she jumps in a car with the cool kids she has been wistfully watching, and is laughing and happy as they drive off into the sunset.

The summer of 1984 I cut my long, and very uncool hair, one of the objects of my taunting, into a Sister Christian bob. I managed to procure a pair of Nikes and some cheap make up. I thought this could be just the thing to save me from yet another year of dejection and wounding. I was wrong.

I got crushed.

"You're motoring
  What's your price for flight
  In finding mister right
  You'll be alright tonight"

Body shaming and sexual degradation are among the most punishing and cruel things that can be done to a young teenage girl. I was a late bloomer. I am small chested. That became the aim of a lot of cruel jokes, jokes that are abuse. I remember one day we had indoor recess and someone decided to draw depictions of my body and my best friend's body on the board. She was very tall and big chested, I was short and flat. They shot two birds with one stone of insult and shame. One person drew it, but everyone laughed. I wanted to disappear.

I remember, another time, a popular boy feigned asking me out in front of a bunch of kids. I told him to shut up, no way I was falling for that shit. He proceeded to laugh and say he had thought about tossing a dog a bone, but on second thought...gross.

The final insult, among so very many, happened at an eighth grade graduation party held in the school gym. Some of the kids, I don't even know who, or don't remember, made up these fortunes, like who we would be in the future. There on stage it was announced that I would be named "most shapely woman" in some year or another. I didn't register the minute detail. It was a dagger in my underdeveloped chest. They thought it was all in good fun. I wanted to go "Carrie" on all their asses. I wanted to crush them under a concrete wall of insult and injury, I wanted to bust jaws so no more words would come out. I wished they would hurt deep in their chests, bellies and bones the way I did. I wanted to hurl objects right out of my inner storehouse of injury and anger, now bloated and pressurized, explosive, if I had had the power of telekinesis I would have, but I did not.

Instead I turned it inward. I hated myself. I shut down. I became sullen, withdrawn, depressed, and oh so very angry. The impact of this bullying would continue to ripple through my life, and contribute to years of addiction and self destructive behavior. I spent high school and most of college stewing in self hate and hate for the world. I nurtured a contempt for life and those who seemed to skip happily through it. I was so fractured and emotionally hobbled that I longed to either escape or lash out. I tested limits with increasingly risky behavior. I wanted to spit in the eye of the world, because the world did not have a use for people like me. I clutched onto resentment and fell headlong into the darkness of despair. I alternated between numbing out and exploding in rage, other times crying uncontrollably, grief stricken, fixed in a straight-jacket of  unstoppable pain. Depression and anxiety tossed me deep into a suffocating undertow.  Yet there was a part of me that wanted life, that refused to be destroyed. I put my toe right up to the edge of the cliff, but never went past the tipping point, never fully opened to the impulse to jump. For that I am grateful.

I have continued to struggle with depression and anxiety my entire life, in part because of those years of torment. The bullying is not entirely to blame, but it was a major factor. It wounded me terribly. It contributed to my descent into years of deeply damaging behavior, and vicious self sabotage.

At the age of twenty I began the arduous work of healing and recovery. I decided I would fight for myself, that I would lay claim to my truth and my value. I put my feet on the path of the warrior, and I have taken a journey out of the darkness and toward my own light. It is really hard work, to this very moment. I slip and fall regularly. More importantly I have learned how to get back up.

"Sister Christian
  Oh the time has come
  And you know that you're
  The only one to say
  But you're motoring
  You're motoring"

Years after that final humiliation in the gym, I got an invitation to a class reunion. I was married to my loving husband for several years by then, we had our son Mason, and I was early in my second pregnancy. I wanted to go, but I was terrified. I didn't know if I could handle seeing them again, to be near them, to let them see me, and give them a chance to hurt me again. Stephen said I should go, so they could see how good my life had turned out, how awesome I am, and to prove that they did not get the best of me. He thought it would be an opportunity to finally get closure, and he would be right by my side.

As we crossed the street to the bar, it was cold and rainy, the wind whipped sharp and biting. It echoed the atmosphere of my emotions. I was scared, I recoiled at the thought of their faces and voices, part of me wanted desperately to turn and run. But the warrior part of me was dying to step into the room tall and strong, shining in my vitality, in my pretty dress with my strong legs, and my warrior heart. My mere presence would be my testimony to the strength of me, and it was.

I chatted and smiled, I spoke confidently about my life, what I had accomplished. I bragged on my husband and our growing family and showed off pictures of our beautiful baby boy.

One classmate actually apologized to me for the horrible way I had been treated, and for the part she had played in it. That was powerful medicine, the acknowledgement, even more than the apology. It was like finally hearing that I was not invisible after all, she saw me. It is something to have someone bear witness to experience, even over a decade after it happened.

That night I faced demons; demons in the forms of people I once knew, demons in the form of feelings and fears, demons of a girl deeply wounded. I faced it, and by doing so, another level of healing could happen.

After getting through the small talk I felt somewhat avenged, set free. So I took my perfect as it is body, baby bump and all, to the dance floor and I let it fly.

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