Living In Fear
I was trying to get to my desk in history class when he said it. Twenty years later I can still tell you that he was wearing a burgundy shirt that day. I remember that he started to walk away and then turned back for one more comment. He seemed to really take a moment to think before the words came out: "I could never forget your face. It’s so ugly."
Bullying takes a lot of different forms. Some people get forced into lockers. Others get pushed around or beaten. Some people walk into a room and everyone turns away. For me it was words. “You’re so stupid” and “You know that no one likes you, right?” Some days it was comments about how I looked, other days I’d get on the school bus and hear graphic descriptions of how they thought I’d be in bed.
It was relentless. There were six of them and only one of me so I learned the language of silence pretty quickly. Keep your head down. Don’t say a word. Try to be invisible. Maybe if they forget you’re here it will stop.
It didn’t stop.
It didn’t stop in grade 6, or grade 7 or 8. When I started high school I hoped I could disappear in the crowd of 1,200 students, but that didn’t work either. It didn’t stop that year, or the next year or the one after that.
I used to get off the bus and walk as slowly as I could back to my house. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to get home; it was just that I knew at that moment it was 18 hours until I had to go back. It was the safest part of the day but the clock was always ticking.
Keep your head down. Don’t say a word. Try to be invisible. Maybe if they forget you’re here it will stop. It didn’t stop.
I can tell you from experience that fear is an exhausting way to live. I had evenings and weekends off. I can only imagine how hard it is for students today when the Internet can spread a lie in a heartbeat and social media gives the bullies a way to talk to you before you even get out of bed in the morning.
Here’s what I know now: help was available if I had just asked. I got away from the bullies but I could have made that move years earlier if I had told someone what was happening to me. I was too scared to say anything, terrified that it would get worse. I never said a word. I didn’t tell my parents until years after it was over. When one of my favorite teachers asked me, “Are those guys bothering you?” I lied to his face.
As an adult I understand that intimidation is part of bullying. It’s part of other forms of abuse too. The one in power isolates the victim. He convinces her that her thoughts are not valid. She reminds him, over and over, that no one is listening, that he is invisible. They make you believe that you don’t matter and that no one would rescue you even if they knew what was happening. Bullies and abusers convince you that you are utterly alone and that’s a very dangerous place to be.
For me, this belief that all these awful things they said were true left me planning my own suicide. I’ve heard people say that “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” and respectfully, that’s garbage. By the time I was ready to end my life I’d been dealing with verbal and emotional abuse every single day for more than six years. That is not “temporary.” I was 16 by then; it was almost half my life.
Quips and bon mots do not help in the face of something as serious and scary as bullying and suicide. What does help is this definition that comes from the leading suicide site on the web: “Suicide is not chosen; it happens when pain exceeds resources for coping with pain.”
Suicide happens when the unbearable weight you’ve been carrying finally crushes you. It is not a cop-out, a selfish choice, the easy way, or an escape. It is the final scene in a battle that was never a fair fight to begin with. Suicide is always a tragedy. It’s always the worst possible outcome. If you or someone you know is dealing with suicidal thoughts pick up the phone and call 1 800 SUICIDE. There is a better way.
As an adult, there’s something else I know. It takes a long, long time to get the words the bullies said out of your head and make those voices go away. When you hear the same things over and over they get inside your thinking. Reclaiming your own thoughts is possible, but it takes time.
Suicide happens when the unbearable weight you’ve been carrying finally crushes you. It is not a selfish choice. It is the final scene in a battle that was never a fair fight to begin with.
The first time I told the whole story, the real story, of what happened to me, was during my last year of university. A very good friend of mine held my hands as I shook with the telling of it. To this day he is the only one who knows all of it.
He wrote me a letter that I used to read every time those old ideas came running through my head. It was something solid I could hold in my hands when I doubted everything else. It was my lifeline for a long time. I’m happy to say that I don’t have to pull it out very often these days.
If you’ve been bullied his words are for you too. You’re welcome to borrow them:
Don’t listen to the voices. You are beautiful. You are intelligent. You are loved. You are not alone.
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