Bullying and bad dreams — and better days

Last night was apparently the night for bad dreams — I had them, and so did Sarah. Both of us have the unique skill/gift of remembering our dreams virtually every morning, so when the dreams are vivid, or upsetting, they tend to stick with us.

Mine were all about my personal bullies.

In eighth grade, I transferred schools and became the only new person in a class of 48. Yup, 48. That was hard enough, entering a group that was so small, that had been together since 5th, knowing nobody and being a true outsider. But I did my best to make friends, or at least get along with people, and before midway through the year I had found myself three or four friends. We would do long phone calls and hang out during free periods and they even came to my house once. It was fun, and it filled a hole in my life where I had lost most of my pre-existing friends when I made the transfer.

Now, I will be honest, I was a weird kid. Hell, I’m working my way towards 40 and I’m STILL a weird kid. I never could keep to topics that were “normal,” preferring to chatter about the most recent story I’d dreamed up, or what I’d read about Bigfoot being real, or experiments into ESP. The first non-fiction book I ever took out of the elementary school library was a book about unknown phenomena from aliens to Nessie, and my interests continued in those veins for years. Still do, to be honest.

I wish I remembered what happened. Things got odd between these new friends and I sometime in the spring, but I don’t recall the specifics. What I do recall is one awkward bus ride and one of them asking me something and not liking my answer. And by the time they got off the bus, we were no longer friends.

It was a sad and lonely time for me. Now I was stuck the rest of the school year with no peers at all I could talk to, no one to do homework with, no one who would sit by me. The rest of my classmates were fine, but they all saw me as an outsider. So they’d chat with me politely, but nobody ever invited me to hang out or actually attempted to include me in conversation. I was on the outside of every group but one, and then all at once I was on the outside of every group.

But I got through the year and hoped high school would be better. After all, in high school the class side would double. New people would come in and I would no longer be the only outsider. And, for a while, it was okay. I made a few friends through both sports and classes. The groups shifted and the dynamics of the 84 people in my grade loosened up a little. Plus, on a much larger campus, there was room for me to hang out in secluded spots so I was no longer forever stuck surrounded by people who would not engage me.

That peace didn’t last, however. Because two things happened:

First, the friends I made gravitated to the friends I had lost for the exact same reason I had befriended them in the first place. We were all nerds of one kind or another. We were all the socially awkward outcasts with in-jokes and interest in stuff off the beaten track. We were all a little too smart and a little too strange.

So my friends that I had made began alternating who would hang with whom, me or those I had lost. They would apologize to me. “Sorry, I said I’d eat lunch with them today. You don’t mind, right?” and go spend their time with those who had cast me out. And it hurt. But I couldn’t begrudge them. After all, they were good people, funny and clever, and I would have liked to be there myself. So I would shrug and try not to let the hurt get to me.

But the second thing was worse. Because one of those former friends decided to become my nightmare.

Of the former friends, one decided to take it to a new level. No one really ever knew why. Or, if they knew, no one told me. But it became another common refrain: “Geez. He really hates you. I mean, he HATES you. It’s really bad.”

He wouldn’t speak to me — ever. Even if we were in class groups together, which happened, or were doing something with an after school activity and happened to cross paths. He would not acknowledge my existence with anything other than a lethal glare. That, by itself, was difficult for me.

Then the drawings started.

I was not, ever, an attractive teenager. I had braces, bad skin, and hair that could kindly be called “frizzy.” (I still have 2 of the three some days.) Accordingly, I had almost zero self-esteem. They all knew that.

The bully would draw pictures of me, with sort of creepy frequency. I figured it was a way to blow off steam at the most readily-available target. The pictures were deeply and profoundly unflattering, both recognizable as me and monstrous in their execution. Torn from pages in notebooks, or taking up full half-sheets, the pen drawings exaggerated everything I hated about myself in loving detail.

And I saw them. I was meant to see them.

Sometimes they would appear on my desk in a class. Sometimes my new friends would hand them to me apologetically. Sometimes one would be waiting in the quiet spots I tended to frequent away from the bulk of my classmates. Once I even found one in my coat pocket.

Now, I don’t know to this day if the person who drew them was also the person delivering them, or if there were multiple hands in this torment. I’ll never know. But I know that someone was cruel enough to draw them, constantly, and someone was cruel enough to ensure I was aware of them. And, at least sometimes, they were delivered by people I did like and trust.

There was never any physical abuse in any of this. But there didn’t need to be.

For the entirety of high school, it continued. The silence, the pictures, and the split custody of my friends. I got into the habit of simply not eating lunch on days when my friends would sit at the table with the bullies. I would do homework, or read in the library, or work on music in the choral room. Anything to avoid being by myself in a lunchroom where every single person knew my name and knew why I had nobody. I never told anybody what was going on, and I never asked for it to stop. I never said a bad word about the bullies — not out of fear, but out of respect. Because as cruel as they were behaving towards me, I still thought them good and decent and deserving people.

As an adult, looking back, I feel so, so sad for the person I was, and how little I thought I deserved.

My friends should have been better, and I should have demanded such. Choosing to spend their time with people who made my life miserable because they were funny should not have been acceptable. Not if they were really friends. There is nothing okay about sitting and making jokes with someone who shows cruelty to others. But I was too lost and immature to ask for better, and I assume those who were my friends were too immature and caught up in their own lives to realize their role in perpetuating the cruelty against me.

By the end of senior year, however, I already knew those friendships were too weak to stand. Of the three people I had counted friends in high school, only one truly seemed to care about me. And she had made it very, very clear to me that she was not intending to carry anything from high school to college with her, including relationships. I’ve always been affectionate — that’s my nature. I think it did not work with her own. And that was fine. She was very clear about her expectations, and that was kinder, perhaps, than pretending to be closer than we were.

I left for college and have never, ever looked back. Nor will I. There will be no high school reunion for me, because there was no “union” in the first place. The school itself got me into the college that helped me redefine myself and create the life I now lead. That is its value and I am grateful for it. But there is nothing for me there with those people who knew my name and never gave me the time of day at best. And there is nothing worth revisiting with those who sought to bring me pain and isolation for years.

After the nightmares of last night, I did a bit of Google searching and found the three main people who started as friends and became points of sorrow thereafter. Anyone is surprisingly easy to track down if you know their full name and general location, after all.

The true bully, the one who drew pictures, has become semi-famous in his field. When I came upon a picture, my heart went into my throat and I was momentarily 16 years old again and just as hurt and lost. Even now, a thousand miles away and surrounded by loving people, he can still hurt me in remembrance.

I thought, for a moment, about contacting him through his website. Demanding to know if he remembered what he had done to me, how he had spent almost four and a half years making my life miserable. Finding out if he recognized the pain he had caused, deliberately, intentionally, constantly. Asking if he would admit that his treatment of me trickled down to everyone else I might ever have befriended and left me adrift. Seeking any kind of apology or acknowledgement.

But just as quickly, I discarded the idea.

Nothing good can come of it. Either he doesn’t care, still, and feels he was in the right at the time (or that his actions, while unkind, were not “bad enough” to warrant my seeking him out 20 years later), or he has done his own soul-searching and come to his own conclusions about his behavior, and he has to live with that guilt, too. Slamming back into his life would open up those floodgates for us both. And, the truth is, that an apology might feel good, but it isn’t going to make anything change. It won’t rewrite the history of those years. It won’t give me the chance at relationships with those already spread to the world. If he doesn’t care, then I am the only one who stands to get hurt all over again. If he does, then I don’t owe him my forgiveness or chance to make amends.

Life isn’t like the movies where the estranged people find one another after a long separation and cry and all is well ever after. One who was hurt does not owe their pain-maker a chance at redemption or a cinematic reconciliation. If it helps the one hurt, then of course it is a good thing — but if it does not, if it does not serve the person already in pain, then it is not worth the doing. Because it is the need of the one who was hurt that comes first.

And I have nothing I want to hear from that bully, so I have nothing to say.

Bullying doesn’t have to be physical, punching in the bathroom and worse in the locker room, to do lasting damage. It doesn’t have to be screamed insults or whispered comments to scar. Bullying takes many forms, as many as there are ways to hurt, and each and every one of those is valid. I was never hit by a classmate, never teased before my grade, but I was a victim of bullying nonetheless. Me and millions of others. And the shadows of that experience colored the first few years of my college life, until the roots I put down in Minnesota became strong enough to beat back the weeds of high school.

Last night, my dreams decided to remind me about all that I endured, and the harm it caused to me. But today, in the fading sunlight, I choose instead to think about how far I’ve come.

I was bullied and alone. But I am not anymore.

I’ve become strong enough to stand up for myself, to demand appropriate and respectful treatment, to defend others when a comment is aimed to hurt, even unintentionally.

I’ve found for myself people who are supportive and kind, people who would not sit idly by while someone spoke of me in a hurtful manner, people who would not choose to sit at a table with one determined to torment me.

I’ve learned that, while it may be a human response to lash out at others in your own selfishness when you are hurting, too, that I don’t have to take it from anyone. I’ve gained the confidence to be able to say, “I get that you’re not okay, but what you’re doing is not okay, also. Now do better.”

I’m happy in this life that I’ve built for myself. I have now far more than I ever dreamed I could find in those dark high school days.

And every one of you who reads this blog is a part of that.

My high school bullies are behind me. Thank you for helping me build the road ahead.