Monday, September 4, 2017
A post about bullying.
When I was in third grade, Becky O'Neill called me stupid, because I wrote my Js backwards. I told her, "J's a hard letter. You never know whether to hook left or hook right." A right hook from Ashton Bellman in junior high was meant to swell me up and make my tiny nose normal-sized. At least, that's what he told me. And in high school, Ryan Mundy called me many things I dare not repeat but still replay in my head from time to time, all because I did theater instead of playing football.
Sticks and stones, right?
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words...A stone I can take. A quick break, yeah, that I can shake. And though you've never punched me in the face, every syllable you speak stabs through my spirit and hardens my heart. And though my hand makes the cut, your words are the accomplice, seeking to accomplish I know not what other than to bury some sense of loathing you have for your own self. I know you hate yourself so much; otherwise, you wouldn't be so obsessed with hating me more. No eye has seen and no ear has heard just how much I care about what you think of me, because I would never show anyone other than the darkness of my bedroom and tear-stained pillowcase. Just in case Mom and Dad could hear my cries, I suffocated my suffering in a cotton case grave and believed all the lies you told me about who I am, or what I would become, or whose fault it was.
It got worse when your fingers started saying what your mouth was too cowardly to utter. Under the influence of your description of me, I learned to despise many things about myself, not because they're so bad, but because if I didn't have them, then you wouldn't have noticed them and be powerless to use them against me. The pricks and pins of pricks' opinions spins my whole sense of self out of whack, and so I shacked up in the safest place possible: on the island of invisibility, on the shore of "don't make any waves," at the corner of complacency and fitting in. I hide in the back country of cowardice praying you won't notice this insecurity factory I call a life, or a family, or a faith, or a body. And even today, I'm not lying when I say I could care less about what people think of me, because I could. I could care much, much less, because I still care a whole lot.
But you are not my source. You are not my well. If your opinion of me were the last cup of water in a desert, I would throw it in your face, and even though there's still a trace of the pain you caused, those scars are hard as armor and so faint that sometimes I can't even see them anymore. Because the sticks that used to harm me have been crossed, the stone that used to bruise me has been rolled away. Sticks and stones were your weapon, but sticks and stones are His way. So say all you want; a better Word has been spoken. Lie all you need to; a greater Truth has been revealed. Hold me back if you must, but my future has been sealed.
Sticks and stones, right?
It's been a while since I've really thought about the bullying I experienced growing up. Progress, right? Well, then things like this poem come along, and I realize I've still got a lot more healing to do than I thought I did...and I've never been more thankful.
Most people know that I was bullied pretty intensely when I was a teenager, to the point where I was forced to leave the church I'd grown up in and spent the vast majority of my high school years contemplating suicide. I was surrounded by so many people telling me that I was unwanted and that I would never be loved that I became convinced that they were right. Even when I got to Campbell and met the people who proved they were wrong, became my family, and loved me at my lowest, my brain couldn't reconcile the truth in front of me with the lies that had been engrained deep into my soul.
I think I've gotten better at it over the years, but listening to this poem made me remember that those wounds are still very much a part of me and how I view the world and relationships. I still struggle to understand why people like me as much as they do and to accept the love that I know in my heart I deserve. I can't help but wonder how different my life would be now if I'd had words like Jon's to hear when I was younger, if I would have sabotaged so many friendships out of fear and shock.
I know the truth now. I know who I am as a person, as a friend, and in the eyes of God. I know how loved I really am. Just today, one of my friends from my neighborhood in NYC called me. He originally said he only had five minutes, but we ended up talking for nearly half an hour, and one of the last things he said to me was a reminder that I am never alone and never forgotten, even though it can feel that way being stuck in this town so far away from the people who know and love me best.
Let's be real: bullying sucks. I know that sounds obvious, but this is something that I think most people don't talk about because they're afraid to, or they're ashamed and they haven't fully recovered from the lies and the hate drilled into their heads. I think a lot of us get bullied, even the people we think are untouchable, the people we think have it all together and everyone likes. People are cruel sometimes, and while it'd be easier to say something cliché like "Why can't we all just be nice to each other?!", the reality is that we don't live in a utopia where that's possible. We're broken, and we hurt, and it's easy to take that hurt out on someone around you you see is vulnerable. I definitely was vulnerable and easy to attack, especially being in a small school where it was easy to be known for all the wrong reasons.
Words can break you. Physical wounds heal. The bleeding stops. The bruises and scars fade. The pain goes away. But mental wounds? They seep into your soul like red wine into a white couch that you have no idea how to get out, except you can't throw out this couch because you've only got one and you're stuck with it for life. So you scrub and scrub and pray that God will perform some miracle and it will go back to the bright white it was before, and some days you think it has, but other days, you look at it, and you notice the faint reddish-purple droplets still lingering and become convinced that it's all ruined, that you're ruined, and you might as well give up.
That's what happened to me. I became so convinced that I was too broken to be redeemed or ever be worthy of love that I stopped trying to find it, but more importantly, I pushed it away anytime I thought it was getting close. I hid. I tried not to be seen so I could avoid what I believed was the inevitable end of someone else telling me they hated me. But people like my soccer boys and my Reformation brothers, they saw me saying "no" and refused to take that for an answer. They made me their family when I didn't think I wanted them to and pursued me when I tried to run from them. They are the reasons I finally began to understand that maybe I am worthy of love, after all.
But ask any of them and they'll tell you the lesson doesn't always stick with me. I've said more times than I can count that I don't understand how I got so lucky to have them, and it's partially because it still seems so unbelievable that everything has changed so drastically. God used two groups of guys I never really intended on meeting to begin with to show me that His declaration of my worth is the final say. He is the voice of truth, and He tells a story completely opposite from what I grew up hearing and believing. It's like Jon says; my future has been sealed because my self-worth lies in a foundation that no person can ever shake. I know it's true because I actually trust people now. I'm not afraid of loving and being loved just because I've been burned or I've heard a lot of terrible things said about me. I stay determined to see the good in people because God sent me people who saw the good in me when I didn't see it in myself.
Do I remember the things bullies told me? Yep, pretty much every single one of them. Do they still sting? Yep, some days more than others. But do they define me? Not in the least. And that change in my perspective is 100% all God's doing through the Holy Spirit and His working through the people He's surrounded me with.
Praise be to God.
If you have scars from bullying (which, really, I think more of us do than we care to admit), go listen to Jon's new poem, "Sticks and Stones." It's embedded in this post. Bring tissues.