Bullies, Outcasts, and Suicidal Thoughts: Why 50 Is Better than 14
In the last couple of years, blogging about victims of bullies–particularly those that result in suicides or “merely” suicidal thoughts–has become downright trendy, and perhaps that’s why I’ve resisted. It’s not an area of my life I talk about much, because I’ve discovered that being 50 is a hell of a lot more fantastic than being 14. For me, at least. I don’t think much of it, but I’ve been reminded this week. After all this time, that little outcast who never felt she fit in or had a place where she belonged is still there underneath, even though she grew up to find places where she fit and even to relish being different.
Yes. Yes, it does get better.
Two years ago, I started a colossal project to digitize all the paper in my life. That means that important papers in the mail, old tax papers, even old letters are scanned and kept in two backup locations. It took around a year to get through 9 file cabinets of paper representing my home business. My 600+ square foot home office now needs less than half that space due to this project.
Next, I digitized important financial papers–tax records, old deeds, paid off loans, divorce papers. Last summer, I was down to more personal boxes of letters, research, and even–truly an excavation–the first fiction I wrote in my teen and pre-teen years, complete with paper doll cut-outs from magazines to illustrate my early spy novels written in purple (my favorite color) ink.
This week, I hit the very last stash of paper…the deepest-held pains and the longest-held treasures. These were my “nothing books,” also known as “anything books” or “blank books.” I think I was 12 or 13 when I started my first one. Just a hardcover journal, unusual at that time, with around 200 or so blank pages to fill with my thoughts, dreams, ideas, and lots of poetry. I named them according to the theme from those 2 or 3 months of my life that I recorded in the days before blogs, titles like Life Flows On, Anyhow, Melting Slowly, He Waits on a Distant Planet, Better Left Unsaid, and Willow Rover. This was long before my “poetry-novel,” Nails for my Coffin. Yep, I was a chipper little thing, downright Goth in the boogie-oogie-oogie 1970’s, but it was very much a reflection of the isolation I felt in my world.
So much of that pain of isolation is captured in these old handwritten books of mine, whether as rambling poems or short “diary” entries.
Some people are bullied or shunned for their sexuality or their weight or just no reason at all. For me, it was almost always how I thought. Sometimes, it was about religion, but mostly it was about how I thought. I’ve always been different. I think differently, and that’s not something most people can accept. As an adult, I know generally how to fit into the structure. Even so, the colleagues and bosses who’ve encouraged me to “think outside the box” since the 1990’s are quick to tell me to get back into the box when it comes to my ideas about God, relationships, sex, publishing….
But the first time I remembered being treated alternately as an outcast and then bullied, it was early May when I was only 9 years old. And it was a temporary music teacher who incited the incident. Rather than simply excusing me from singing a pop song that wasn’t aligned with my belief system–no one would have known I was only moving my lips and not vocalizing with the other 100 kids–he singled me out to defend my beliefs, beliefs that no one else shared, beliefs that elicited laughter from my peers. And from him.
His name was Dan. I remember his last name, too. The song? “Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog.”
I remember the laughter, the pointing, the constant ridicule after that. I also distinctly remember hiding at home so my parents wouldn’t know how upset I was, sitting and crying on the front door steps alone, realizing for the first time in my exceedingly young life how different I was from my peers…and contemplating suicide.
At the age of 9.
I’ve heard of child suicides over the years, and while other adults shake their heads in confusion, I do not lack comprehension.
After that, my secret was out. Both to everyone else…and to a little 9-year-old girl who didn’t know before that there was something different about her. I was the kid who was different. Or for those who lacked the sense to employ that euphemism, I was “strange” or “weird.” The fact that I saw things in life in a different way was enough to make me a target.
The bullying was always emotional but in my case, it was almost never physical. The closest was a 5th grade incident I wrote about in The Justice Card in Tarot: That Integrity Thing:
….Someone went to get a teacher who was to act as either mediator or judge, though in reality, the plan was that the judge would agree with the mob that surrounded me. I was scared. I was in trouble. Authorities were being called in and I didn’t know why. I’d never seen my classmates so angry with me and I had no idea why but with all the pushing, shoving, and yelling, I was really afraid. Some had sticks. Some had rocks. And they were all angry at ME….
….I couldn’t believe anyone would think I’d destroy what they’d built. All I could do was shake my head and say I didn’t, but they were so loud that I couldn’t be heard. It wasn’t just my head that was shaking. I was shaking all over. Fear. Anger. I truly believed that all one had to do was tell the truth because the truth would set you free. But telling the truth wasn’t working. And I didn’t know what to do. If anything, telling the truth made them angrier….
….“Liar,” the leader of the popular girls announced in front of the thirty or so kids surrounding me. “Don’t you look at me with those innocent eyes! I know better!”
….I wonder now about the look on my face that made her see innocence in my eyes when she wouldn’t believe it. Before I could say anything else, someone in the group demanded justice, and if I wouldn’t admit to being a liar, then they’d go find justice themselves. I stood there alone with tears running down my cheeks from my “innocent eyes” as they marched away to the other side of the school, to where my fort was. Amid cheers, it took a couple of dozen irate children less than five minutes to destroy everything I’d built over the past school year. There was nothing left–the stone stools, the antique bottles, the perfect boundaries, the treasures–all gone or shattered….
But the bully behavior followed me throughout middle school and into high school and even beyond. It wasn’t always my peers. Teachers and authority figures weighed in occasionally, too, on their frustration over the shy, brainiac square peg. One of my teachers gave me an A+ for an essay, but then gave me an F for content because my well-reasoned argument about relationships was too outside the box for her to grade. Teachers slandered me in the teachers’ lounge. Somehow I could accept my peers’ distaste for my viewpoints, but the real disappointment was that teachers were no more mature then their students.
I learned to accept that I saw things differently, held my head up high, and promised myself that one day, I’d find a place where I belonged, if there was one. That one day, I’d be accepted for my beliefs with the understanding that no one else has to share them and that I’m allowed my own beliefs without being shunned or ridiculed. That one day, I wouldn’t have to mold myself into what someone else wants in order to earn being loved or respected or simply acknowledged.
The external part of that teenaged wish is amusing 30 years later in the age of Internet trolls and revenge book reviews from people who still don’t like my “different” ideas but hide behind the anonymity of the Internet. Still, my shell hardened and I gradually…after many, many years…came to like myself as I am and the bullies bothered me less, though they never went away.
Too bad I didn’t have the Internet back in the 1970’s. I might have discovered Something Very Important back then. Or…I may have been cyber-bullied as well. I am still, at 50, subjected to occasional cyber-bullying and online shunning (in which people email me to let me know they’re shunning me!).
I left home and went off to college where I first began to see pale shades of Something Very Important. I discovered that I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t the only one of my species, stranded on this distant planet where I didn’t fit in. There were others like me.
I found a sisterhood in Sigma Alpha Iota, a women’s music fraternity that I eventually presided over, whether we were performing recitals in church or rocking out to Joan Jett in mini-dresses, leg warmers, and 6-inch heels. I let my geek flag fly–back in the days when that was a bad thing, before geeks ruled the world–in the basement of some college boys’ house where we played the original Dungeons and Dragons and I was Kylinda the Elf, with the superpower of extra warm hands to thaw out frozen testicles (don’t ask). I discovered friends who were actors, teachers,early versions of Goths, musicians, Phi Mu Alpha brothers, or…ahem…the guys of the “Give Blood” Mean Machine Rugby Team.
I was still an outcast in many circles, particularly social sororities and fraternities (GDI, anyone?), but the Something Very Important I discovered was that, outside my hometown, there were more people from my planet.
Beyond college, my world closed in again for a while. I fell in line, eventually learned to wear pinstripes instead of some Bohemian concoction or full-body leather. The most destructive thing my ex ever said to me was “You’re weird!” in front of our toddler. It was over nothing, really, but the message was passed to a new generation that I wasn’t normal. Once again, I was constantly reminded that I was different and should be grateful that anyone was willing even to consider I might have value.
Stay in your box, the world was telling me. Don’t think differently. Don’t be different.
And then, in 1992, I discovered an electronic bulletin board and a group of writers, aka GEnie RomEx. My world opened up as I discovered all these other artistic, brainiac, different-thinking people out there who were dialing up at 1200 baud after the kids were asleep. I’d found another race from my home planet!
As time went by, I found another loose group of brethren via the Internet. This time, these were energy healers, light workers, shamans, pagans, all sorts of spiritual people. And the world opened up a little more to me.
Through my work and the variety of people I’ve met, I discovered more about who I was, who I am. More about my personality quirks through all sorts of tests and quizzes. An INFJ. A double Pisces with a Stellium in Aquarius. A visionary, a revolutionary, a driver, an alpha, an intuitive, a creative, an outside-the-box thinker.
Every time that door opened and made me a little less of an outcast to be ridiculed for my being different, I felt a little more confident in my value on this planet. Eventually, I came to relish being different, especially after being on my own for almost 10 years. It’s enlightening to have gone from romantic partners who considered me “weird” to “eccentric” to “the most interesting person I’ve ever known.” It’s heart-filling to find people who prefer my odd facets, whether they are friends, colleagues, or readers. It’s encouraging to know that nobody else can be different in the way that I am or bring that benefit and those quirks to our civilization and that it’s not only okay but a good thing.
I look back at those diaries and the 14-year-old girl who poured out her heart in words because no one else understood the isolation, the bullying, the loneliness. Across the years, I can feel it then as though it were now…the sense of being the last or the only person of your alien species because you seem so different from the people around you. I wish I could find a way to tell that kid that it does get better, and that being 50 is sooooooo much better than being 14.