[Editor’s Note: Everyone has mental health experiences on the spectrum between thriving and struggling. Perhaps you (or a friend) are in a season where you need extra mental, social, emotional, spiritual, and physical support. In this #mentalhealth series we want to balance personal experience/story with input from mental health and medical professionals. We want to also explore, “How does our faith in Jesus relate to our mental health?” Our desire is to support you as you work towards mental well-being.
If you are considering hurting yourself or someone else, or you know someone who is, please contact a mental health emergency hotline. If you need urgent counselling support, Kids Help Phone is also available for young adults up to age 29 for phone calls, Facebook Messenger, or texting conversations.]
I’m flinching in the corner of my elementary school building as body after body collides into me. The boys in my class have decided to use me for body checking practice. Well not all the boys, just the ones you––my bully––wield power over. I’m walking home from school as fallen pears from the nearby pear tree come whizzing past my head, and then hit me in the back. It’s never a fair fight. There’s always two…three…ten.
I internalize that it must be my fault. I must have done something to deserve this. I must be deeply broken in some way to warrant such treatment. I deserve it.
I wonder if you knew. Knew what a lasting impression you would have on my life. If it occurred to you that, thirty years later, I would still be contemplating, reacting, and suffering at your hands. But of course you didn’t know. How could a ten-year-old comprehend the countless ramifications their actions would have?
I am a scrawny little kid––youngest of three boys. I will find out later that I have attention deficit disorder, and this makes it hard to connect with others and make friends. All I know is that I’m not part of the “in” crowd. I have absolutely no idea why. My middle brother, my idol, is one of the coolest kids in his grade. All the girls like him, he’s got friends upon friends. I try to be like him, it doesn’t work.
Grade four, I find myself thrust to the margins, excluded. It must be me. I must be weird. I must be unlikable. And just like that, the downward spiral of self-doubt, lack of friends, exclusion, physical bullying begins its self-prophesying dance of misery. I start to shut out my emotions. I can’t show any weakness, any cracks in the armour. Tears are weak, pain is weak, caring is weak.
Grade five marks the beginning of an intensification that doesn’t end till grade nine with its new terrain, bigger classes to hide in, a bigger school of fish to find friends in. For now, something new emerges, a gnawing, twisting, sickening, horrid feeling in my insides that seems to permanently reside within me. It will take another twenty-five years and counselling for me to admit and understand this feeling as generalized anxiety disorder.
I start to become hard. Anger is my shield. Anger and its friend hatred are powerful emotions. They feel safe, like they can be trusted.
I wonder what was happening for you. What were you feeling inside? Did you feel insignificant, powerless, precarious in our circle of twenty-five puny ten-year-olds? Or did you relish the feeling of power; the rush of holding sway over the thoughts of the “cool kids”? I wonder what your motivations were.
I wonder what you saw that identified me as a target, the sickly antelope in the back, an easy kill. I wonder if it had anything to do with me at all, whether it was simply fun the first time, and escalated without explanation for you, too. Was I simply a game that unexpectedly turned out to be fun? Did you even stop to consider?
That’s what I internalize––I deserve ill treatment. Otherwise, why don’t my parents intervene? Why don’t they move me to a different school? Involve teachers, parents, or police? A deep wound has been created. I start believing that I can only trust myself. Others won’t help when I am being destroyed. I have to protect myself.
And I try. I try fighting with my fists. You simply come with larger numbers. I try telling teachers, I am simply labeled a snitch. We all know what snitches get. I try running, you are faster. I try getting help from my brother, you pretend to be my friend. I try everything I know how. One day, tears in my eyes, I grab a baseball bat, and walk out the door. My grandmother stops me, sensing something in me that isn’t right. Looking back now on that day, I don’t know exactly what would have happened, but I can guess. I likely would have beat you to death, or at least tried. Thank God for grandmothers.
It is painful to write thirty years later about all of these feelings. Feelings of helplessness, unwantedness, deserving harm, anger, brokenness. It is difficult to see how these events irrevocably changed my life, defined my childhood, and affect me to this day. But it is a lie to think that it has to stay that way. It’s a lie to think that I have to victimize myself over and over.
It’s easy to blame you for the roots of my anxiety, for my tendency to lock my emotions away, or for despising weakness. It’s easy to see the effects of my anxiety whenever I feel “ganged up on” in meetings, or in the way that I tend to get loud and angry when confronted with a perceived challenge, wanting to at least appear “strong.” I see my anxiety in my constant appraisal of situations, waiting for them to turn on me, suddenly, and without explanation. And I see it in the way that I often feel trapped like a ten-year-old, unable to see my way clear of this scary situation.
However, as time wears on, I realize that it isn’t you I really blame. Kids are stupid, they do things for all sorts of reasons. I doubt you even remember all the things I have held on to for years on end. I also know now that I am not really to blame either, as it had very little to do with me. And if I am truly looking for someone to blame, which is what we all do, it was the adults around me that failed me. But blame isn’t healing; it isn’t really helpful either, even if we all feel tempted to do it. What is helpful is to continue to walk in the journey of forgiving myself, forgiving you, my bully, and forgiving the adults who saw what was happening and failed to act.
And if I am honest, I need to grapple with the question behind all this blame searching, “Where were you, God?” Why didn’t you intervene, and open up one of those classic holes in the ground to swallow the wicked? As cool a story as that would have been, I have to acknowledge that this too is a flawed solution. Too bad. If I look to Jesus, to see how he models for me how to act, I see that Jesus too was marginalized, falsely arrested, beaten, executed, and more, and yet he still said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
The trauma I experienced as a child was real. It has lasting effects that I need real help to unpack, understand and heal from. But I am slowly coming to realize that blame, hurt, anger, and bitterness, as much as they seem like a good idea, are not as powerful as forgiveness, grace, and love. I’m not perfect at applying this by any means, but I see it producing better fruit in my life than any strategy I tried before. My history has a significant impact on my mental health, and I don’t feel like it’s a stretch to posit that yours does too. But it doesn’t have to define it.
Did you enjoy this article? We encourage you to check out more articles in our #mentalhealth series.