Me, Circa 1990
I’m a lucky woman. I have people in my life who are passionate about the things that matter to them. In fact, they are so passionate that they know, to the depths of their souls, that they can change the world one person at a time. And I believe they’ll do it. How could I not? Recently I had the opportunity to be at August McLaughlin’s Facebook party where she candidly discussed her eating disorder and the ties to self esteem. She shared two powerful videos. One was about her journey to healing and the other centered on education and insight on a parent’s impact on their child. Check it out!
Another great friend is Ande Lyons from Bring Back Desire. Her mission to help educate women on the beauty and joy of accepting yourself. She is a huge proponent of exploring your sexuality and discovering your inner diva. She believes that self discovery is the key to personal happiness and lasting relationships. She’s creating a safe environment where women are welcome to go for tips, pointers and to ask the questions they may be too afraid or intimidated to ask elsewhere. She understands the struggle on a very personal level, and through hard work, love and dedication has managed to keep her love with her darling alive. In fact, they just celebrated their 25th anniversary!
They’re not the only ones, either. I’m extremely fortunate to be surrounded online by people who have such strong senses of self. People who’ve taken the things that have personally impacted their lives and converted them from areas of weaknesses into platforms of strength. It’s great to know I’m not alone.
Most of you know that self esteem and words are near and dear to my heart. Today I thought I’d share with you a bit about how I chose the causes that most impacted my life. Oddly enough, it wasn’t until recently that I connected what happened to me my first two years of high school with bullying. The below is the story of how it impacted me.
Many of you know that my brother died right before my freshman year in high school. What you may not know is that after my brother died, I transferred schools and our family moved. It was too painful living so close to the site of my brother’s accident and there were just too many ghosts (memories, not literal) in our apartment. Fortunately, the hospital my mom worked at offered employee housing at a discount in a great neighborhood. Our church also approached my mom about giving my sister and I scholarships to go to their private school. They thought our faith and positive attitudes might be a good influence and would allow us to continue education in a “Christian” environment.
A couple of itsy, bitsy problems with their plan. That particular private school went from preschool through 10th grade, then the kids went on to boarding school. What did that mean? These kids all grew up together in a very sheltered environment. Many of them grew up in neighborhoods surrounded by people of the same religion, went to church school, then off to private colleges within that denomination. Once they graduated some would go into the secular world, but most would work either in teaching in that denomination, working in hospitals of that denomination…and a spare few would venture out into the “real” world. The other problem? As if their being sheltered wasn’t problem enough, my coming in from the outside made me “fresh meat”.
On my first day of school there were a total of 2 new students in my class. Pretty much all the girls within my general age range hated me on sight because they knew that a new girl coming in was going to draw male attention. Oddly enough, I understood that and wasn’t overly bothered. It only took a couple of weeks for most of the guys to follow suit.
This had never happened to me before. Raised by a mother who told me I could do and be whomever I wanted to be, I was a very confident young lady. In fact, the above picture of me was during this time. After hearing how ugly, stupid and untalented I was over and over again, cracks began to appear. Within one month of starting at this school I was told by a kid I’d gone to church with since I’d moved to this country that he’d heard I’d already been through about 20 boyfriends. Apparently I was also the biggest slut in the school despite the fact that I was “ugly”. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t really dated anyone because I was too busy grieving my kid brother’s loss (we were best of friends despite the 4 year age difference). When I did choose to date, I selected guys I knew from my old world…in public schools. I still remember hearing my schoolmates tell me that I was lying about my boyfriends because there was no way a “public school boy” would be interested in someone like me.
One thing to know about me? Even then I had pride in spades. I realized two things pretty quickly. First, though my instinct was to fight (and yes, I’d done it before…heck, I’m part Spanish and Chinese–pretty much guarantees a temper). I quickly realized this would not be a viable option. Not only could I not afford to get into trouble, my mother did not need more stress. Second, there was no way in heck I would let these people see the body blows their words were causing.
I still remember one particularly painful Friday night when one of my male sophomore schoolmates came by my house before our church youth group meeting. That night I learned just how bad my reputation was. As we were walking in he told me, “I don’t believe it now, but I thought you should know. —- told me that if I asked you out on a date I could get laid by the end of it.” I was so furious that though it was snowing and the dead of winter, I stepped outside with no coat on in an attempt to cool off once the guy who told him that (yes, despite it all, I am still choosing not to name him to protect the not so innocent) arrived. I didn’t even feel the cold.
It was my choir and voice teacher that want in, got my coat, put it around me and sat on the step beside me. She wrapped a comforting arm around me and told me this:
“It’s hard to be where you are right now. The problem is you’ve been through too much. Seen too much. So despite the similarity in years, you’re decades older than your classmates. I’ve been where you are. They’re hurtful. Immature. And they have no idea how badly what they’re doing hurts. As unfair as it is, you will find that despite the fact that they pick on you and are mean to you, when the chips are down…you’re the first person they come to for advice. They know you’ve been there. That you know how to cope. Chances are you also won’t date guys your own age. Eventually they catch up. They grow up. Eventually. But hang in there. You’re tougher than they are and they need you.”
Oddly enough, she was right. Even stranger…I didn’t know the full extent of the damage their body blows caused by words had inflicted until springtime. There was one upperclassman guy that I’d become friends with. He had never quite comfortably fit in with his group…and most of his friends, like mine were outside of this small community. He also lived in my old neighborhood, so one day he invited me to come with him after school. I was elated. That’s when I blew myself away and realized that when you hear something often enough you start to believe it. Words can be insidious. I don’t even remember what we were talking about initially…just the explosion.
Me: Well I’m ugly, so what does it matter?
Friend: (Stopped car in the middle of rush hour traffic on busy street, turns and looks at me, shocked.) Excuuuuse me, What did you just say???
Me: You heard me.
Friend: You know that’s not true. The girls only say it because they’re jealous.
Me: (shrugged) Whatever. I could understand if it was just the girls. Most girls haven’t liked me very much anyway, but it’s the guys, too.
Friend: (Stared me in the eye as if willing me to believe him) The guys are just saying it because they’re pissed. Most of them have asked you out and you’ve completely blown them off. Not interested. This is their way of getting even.
Me: Well, it sucks.
Friend: I know. Ignore them. Don’t let it get to you. You know what they’re saying’s not true.
Me: I thought I was. Guess it’s easier said than done.
The funny thing was that I didn’t realize how closely the teaching staff had been paying attention to what had been happening. Back then, it would have been labeled “growing pains” or a part of growing up. People got picked on. The trick was to survive it. The word Bullying in conjunction to what happened to me…well that’s a recent bit of connecting the dots as I’ve watched all these poor young kids going through their heartaches…made that much easier by the internet.
It wasn’t until one of my female classmates who had a tendency to be a bit cruel and gossipy bore the brunt of some teasing that I found out that the teachers had been watching and cheering me on. You see, this young lady was tall, but not at all endowed in the bosom department. She also had the misfortune of having the last name Chestnut. Typical of boys, they began to use the word “Chest Not” rather than her actual last name. Considering she could dish it out, I’m sure you’re not at all shocked to hear that being the target, she didn’t handle it very well at all.
She walked up to our homeroom teacher and whined to him about the fact that the boys were “making fun” of her. His response shocked the heck out of me. Instead of sympathy, here’s what he said:
“You’ve been going through this for a few days. Imagine how it must feel to be some of your classmates. There are people, one person in particular, in your class who have had to deal with you guys treating her like this for over a year and she hasn’t said anything once. Imagine how hurt she must feel.”
That same young lady who’d been whining came looking for me to give me a hug and to apologize for ever making me feel the way she was feeling right then. I thanked her for her apology and dropped the discussion.
When sophomore year ended I begged my mom not to send me to boarding academy and she concurred. That summer I got very sick. In one month’s time I lost over 10 lbs. Considering I only weighed 105 lbs to begin with, my family became concerned. I’d completely lost my appetite. Most foods made me nauseous on sight or by smell. I would get nauseous and shaky at the idea of leaving the house (now I recognize I was probably having anxiety attacks). While at my grandparents that summer there was only one thing I could eat that would not make me sick. Plain cake doughnuts. I only drank Sprite or water and I discovered the healing properties of mint (by way of mint flavored gum). It was the only way to keep me from dry heaving.
The moment I got back home my mom made me see a doctor. He asked me if I was pregnant. He didn’t believe me when I told him I was a virgin until he did tests and they came back negative for pregnancy. What he did discover was that I had an “unrealized depression caused by lack of vitamin B-12”.
It took me months of forcing myself to eat, of bringing water and mint gum with me everywhere…of forcing myself to go out, but I began to recover during my junior year. The carefree wild child I used to be was gone forever. She was replaced by someone who became very controlled. Careful with both words and temper….and I realized something else. That “unrealized depression”? Technically, maybe that’s what it was…but in reality it was simply relief. My body and my mind had, for two years, stayed strong for me. Blocked tears and fears and protected me from people out to hurt me. They’d been on the defensive…”Never give them the power of letting them know they’ve hurt you”. Finally, once I knew I wasn’t going back…I was safe. Once my body knew everything would be okay…it gave itself permission to crash, to feel.
For me, the trauma became a physical manifestation, not emotional. In fact, concerned about how the kids were tearing themselves and each other apart…and fully aware of the damage words could inflict, I went back to that school and found my English teacher. I asked her if I could come back and talk to her class about my experience and the damage… maybe prevent someone else from going through what had happened to me. She asked me to speak to 4 classes from 7th grade to 10th grade. I did. Honestly, I don’t know if it did any good, but I had to try. If it made a difference to even one person, it was worth it.
Since that time building up peoples’ self esteem and helping folks realize the power (both good and bad) that words hold have been passions for me. It comes from a very personal place. I was fortunate. I had a mother who’d already built a core of strength within me by giving me both faith in myself and God. Yes, it was shaken….but my foundation was firm. A little focus and I was back…and stronger than I’d been before. Not everyone has that.
Not everyone has the courage to speak up or speak out. Those of us who do have an obligation to do so. Be the strength for someone else when they run out of their own. Be their belief when they lose sight of themselves. Be the friend to hold them close and build them up when they need it…because as strong as you are…there will be a day you’ll need it, too. I guarantee you, when that day comes…they’ll be there for you as well.
Have you ever been made to feel like less than you are? Do you have a cause that’s near and dear to your heart based on personal experiences? Do you have a poem, quote or thought or song to share that makes you feel strong or confident…or can help build someone up? Please share it… You never know what simple act you may have done that could help strengthen a soul or change a life. Look at those little moments that did it for me!