I’m always deeply touched by stories like this, (where thousands of people are getting together to make a kid’s wish come true)– and I think part of it is because much of my childhood involved dealing with lots of people coming together to do terrible things.
I spent my formative years assuming that most people were sinister. It’s a happy/sad moment. Happy that I was wrong, but sad because I devoted so much time trying to understand what I had done to merit being bullied, why people were terrible, and why they couldn’t just leave me alone.
I used to say I was over all that tired old stuff; but the mechanism I used as a healing salve was shifting the blame from them to me. How I could have coped in a different way or been a better Catholic or somehow provoked them. To take the blame is to have some control, some recourse, so that it fits neatly in a box in my memory labeled problem: solved.
Now I know better, and that the answer is messier.
First off, nobody deserves to be bullied. I cannot imagine how parents rationalized the 2am drives to my house for their children and their friends to vandalize and shame its inhabitants with soggy toilet paper, broken windows and profanity burned into the lawn with fertilizer or kerosene. One section of lawn was just allowed to die, and still remains that way two decades later; a trophy for the victors who finally showed my father that his horticultural rescue efforts were no match for their persistence.
Growing up under these circumstances can make even a relatively happy person come to some destructive conclusions about themselves and the world around them. While I actually harbor no anger towards my former tormentors (which is why I thought I was over it), I have to work hard to defeat the set of assumptions that was installed in my brain to make sense of it all (which is why I’m not over it). It is for this reason I think I connect with my students, and why I chose to work with PTSD and other anxiety disorders in my research. I have great empathy for people who are vulnerable or isolated, and I do my very best to show solidarity while using the learning process as a vehicle to retrain their assumptions about themselves- for my students, their ability to push through adversity or expectation. With my PTSD folks, to believe that they are whole, worthy and normal for coming back from a shocking experience with more than just a little queasiness.
I recognize the irony of it all: the people who bullied me had the same deep desire I had- to be liked by the group. We were just on opposite sides of the equation, and someone had to solve for x, I suppose.
Now the story of Jonathan Martin being bullied by teammates in Miami has the sports world abuzz. We all knew about-and expect- some degree of rookie hazing on teams and other clanlike organizations. I was thinking more along the lines of a ridiculous haircut or maybe wearing a Hello Kitty backpack for a week. To hear that a fully grown, well-educated professional football player felt compelled to walk away from his team surprised me.
And that’s where the fallacy lies. As if being a certain age makes you bulletproof, or being smart means you can out-think the emotional impact of being threatened and teased. As if someone who is being bullied mercilessly wouldn’t do anything in the whole wide world to just make it go away. It’s not about the person being bullied. Muscular or stick thin, smart or struggling, freckled or dark brown- it has nothing to do with these things. They are just the tools of the trade for those who need control.
It still provokes doubt in me, to be honest. I think “Well sure, I mean that’s true for other people, but they chose me over and over again because they saw the weakness in me. If I had been everything I want to be, they would have liked me.”
Since there’s no time machine or objective way to interview those involved, I am left with the likeliest conclusion: that I am not an exception, and that I, too, did not deserve to be bullied. That I am worth just as much good stuff as other people are. That being me doesn’t mean being inherently defective.
That’s one they called me a lot. Defective. My memory starts to churn. There were the calls to invite me to a sleepover that wasn’t happening at an address across town, the calls with an older sister pretending to be the guidance counselor, the notes slipped into my locker with drawings insinuating the worst possible fate awaited me on the bus home later that day. The rumors I was pregnant. The rumors I had tried killing myself. The rumors I was easy. I was actually suspended from school once because a group of girls who had robbed a vending machine on campus decided to frame me for it. I’m still angry about that one, but only because the principal was gullible enough to believe that an orchestra geek/teacher’s assistant who had not gotten so much as detention had destroyed and robbed a vending machine. What a sucker. I quite enjoyed my little break from school, so it wasn’t all bad.
Sorry that I’ve gone all stream of consciousness on you. As a writer, this is not my best work, but I’ve edited myself enough, and will edit so much more to come. I guess what I’m wrestling with is that there might not ever be neat boxes labeled problem: solved for this stuff. I have definitely learned much from the experience, and there is something empowering about having no vitriol left for people who did their best to cut me to the quick.
My task now is to somehow let go of what I learned in the dojo of my youth. Going back to PTSD, there are parallels. One of the more well-publicized symptoms of combat post-traumatic stress is hypervigilance. These folks feel most comfortable where they can see the door. They start when there’s a loud sound. They check and recheck locks, rearview mirrors, windows, anything that could contain a threat. They’re not like this because they’re weird. Their brain is functioning just as it is designed to: across the world, an unlocked door could mean countless casualties. If you had heard the click of a pressure detonator just before you or your buddy had been blown up, you’d be best off remembering and avoiding that sound. The brain rewires itself for the task it’s given. And if the task is “stay alive in the most hostile and scary environment imaginable”, then that wiring will seem out of place at your local diner or living room. But the wiring has been laid, and it takes some time and effort to convince your brain that staying alive is not predicated on avoiding clicking sounds and blind spots at Denny’s.
I am no longer being bullied. It’s over. Done. It’s time to rewire this brain so that when I’m less than perfect I don’t equate it with being, well, defective.