[This post has a somewhat violin-like tone and is a bit woebegone in content, but sometimes you have to get the woe out in order to move forward.]
I recently received a text message out of nowhere, from a childhood “friend,” and without getting into the nature of the text, which was seemingly harmless, but laced with many complicated and nostalgic layers, it brought up so many intense feelings of rage and pain within me. As I was thinking about our history together—we have a soap opera past—I was telling my very good friend about some of the things I have gone through with her. I shared one story in particular, and when I unfurled my tale to him, his reaction to my story had a profound impact on me. After I relayed this key moment in time to him, he was in absolute disbelief, thought I was making it up, and responded with…
Before I go any further, I believe I must retell the story in visceral detail, as I have not really thought about the feelings behind this incident for many years.
We were best friends from the very beginning. We literally had a love at first sight kind of thing on the school bus on the first day of third grade. However, she had a friend group of cool kids and I was more of an aimless social wanderer. Struggling with deep and troubling family dynamics at home, I could not really manage much more than making it to school every day, getting good grades, and trying not to vomit in class from my daily anxiety. Therefore, at that time, I was not really in an emotional place to have much awareness about my appearance, and about trying to be and look cool, let alone understand any kind of peer hierarchy of popularity. I was nine. She was my best friend and we were going to be best friends forever. That is all I cared about. At home, we were inseparable and connected at a soul level. However, in school, I was a mutant to her, and she generally treated me as such.
I couldn’t find a proper vintage image of our actual Best Friends necklace, but this is close enough. I coveted this piece of jewelry and wore it every day. I remember that it was always cooler to have the “Be Fri” end rather than the “Stend” end, and I think I ended up with the “Be Fri” end because it obviously meant more to me. She rarely wore her necklace and I think was rather embarrassed of our relationship, preferring instead to keep it hidden from the world. She was also best-friend-cheating on me with another girl in our neighborhood and hid her other Best Friends necklace from me whenever she was around me. The day I found out was the day my heart died.
On the first day of fourth grade (the absolute hardest year of my life, for so many reasons), she attempted to ingratiate me into her group, and at her casual urging, I hesitantly joined the cool kids table at lunch time, despite my gut instinct to run. I sat there quietly, feeling so fragile and insecure, knowing I was in the wrong place, but unable to move. All of a sudden, a cool boy poked his way in between me and the girl next to me, glanced at me, then reached across the table to grab someone else’s food and asked everyone, “Who is this fat pig?” I sat in horror not saying anything, just praying to die. My best friend attempted to defend me and repeated to the lead girl of the pack what this boy had just said to me, as if no one had heard. In response to my friend’s plea for justice, the lead girl responded with, “So.” I don’t recall much after that, although that was the first and last time my best friend ever attempted to defend me. After this incident, I knew one thing for certain. I never, ever, ever wanted to sit at that table again. And I never did. [Note: This is not the bullying story example I told my good friend about—although of course, this absolutely counts as bullying. This is instead laying the groundwork leading up to the ultimate trauma.]
Fourth grade goddess, ca. 1990, during the time when all of this was happening. Picture time is later in the year, so this image is definitely post-traumatic. For years I had trouble looking at this pic of myself, but now I see how sweet it is. Notice the splatter paint sweatshirt. I LOVED this sweatshirt with its matching spatter paint leggings. I would have worn this outfit every day if I could have. Also, notice my strange smile. I always wanted dimples like the beautiful popular girls had, so I thought if I bit the insides of my cheeks when the photographer was taking the picture, it would give me faux dimples and I would be gorgeous and loved by all. But right before he took the pic, he made me say “pickles,” so this is what we get instead.
That night I remember my father sitting with me at my bedside as I cried and tried to decide how to proceed with my life—my dad was fantastically patient and profoundly understanding about the hardships of childhood, girls, boys, and bullying, and is a truly gifted and sensitive soul, adept at parenthood in so many respects—and with his support I made my decision. I actually don’t remember if he “supported” my decision or advised me on the action I actually chose to take. But he was there for me nonetheless. He might have actually advised me against the path I was about to take. However, I thought I had come up with a brilliant and utterly flawless strategy.
Chapter page from Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary, Illustration by Louis Darling
The next morning on the school bus, according to plan, I confidently, yet lovingly declared to my best friend, “I think those friends of yours are really mean, and they are just not for us. So, I think it would be best if you don’t talk to them anymore and instead keep hanging out with me. I am good for you and they are bad for you. We look out for each other and understand each other, and they pick on you just as much as they pick on me.”
Sounds like a pretty convincing proposal, right? I recall that my soapbox speech invoked her aggressive defenses and I do not believe she was very happy about my pronouncement. In fact, I remember we had a rather heated argument—nothing new for us—on the school bus that morning. I was utterly confused and astounded by her reaction and truly thought my proposition was sound and foolproof for us both. How could we go wrong if we stuck together and stayed away from the meanies? However, her priorities were in a very different place than mine, apparently.
I don’t remember much about the day, but I sensed something had shifted with her friend group and their behavior towards me. They never paid much attention to me before, but on that day, they actually seemed to be noticing me in a rather substantial and hostile kind of way. All I recall is that at the end of the day, I was sitting at a classroom table, and one of my best friend’s friends came up to me, or maybe it was my BF herself, and placed a photograph of me, down in front of me. I looked down to find my photograph had ugly markings all over it (devil horns, nasty words, etc.). It was the work of well-planned, thought out, calculated cruelty. I sank inside, knowing that not only was my best friend/soul mate allowing this kind of behavior, but it was clear that she had at least a hand in the initiation, and perhaps even the execution, of the act. As the reality of the situation overtook me, hot and humiliating, heartbreaking tears began to stream down my face. And as I sat there, silently emoting; my best friend and several other girls quietly and steadily stood around me with pink smiling faces, watching as I crumbled in front of them. This was the most savagely diabolical part of the entire experience—their sadistically amused, grinning stares, and their unwavering presence relentlessly towering over me. They would not let me cry alone and insisted on witnessing my pain, for what seemed like an era. In fact, observing my helpless emotional collapse seemed their actual objective.
All this because I expressed my feelings to my best friend in the hopes of protecting her, and me, and our friendship. From this incident I learned something very clearly. Any resistance or attempt at objection of this crowd of people will come back at me ten-fold, so don’t cross them. They’re nastier than I could ever be and it’s just not worth it.
Third grade goddess, ca. 1989. I of course do not have the original color, graffiti-d photograph, so I snapped this black and white version from my third grade year book. This was the portrait the girls chose to vandalize. After my best friend and I “made up” (I was a sentimental sucker with low self-worth), she told me that she had put clear tape over my photo and drew the ugly marks over the tape, because she didn’t want to actually ruin my picture. That was a very sweet gesture, choosing to deface my soul in favor of my portrait.
After this incident, and countless other acts of cruel betrayal and filthy mistreatment, I sadly admit that I continued an on and off thing with my best friend for years. And what struck me as most profound from my friend’s text reaction above, was his question, “Why did you even answer her first text at all?!!” The answer lies in a much deeper investigation of my soul and my level of love for self, so I will let this rest for now, recognizing the reflection on this inquiry as invaluable to my growth as a goddess.
Over the next few years, I began to swan a bit and was no longer targeted as an object of potential disgrace (kind of sad that one’s appearance factors so deeply into bullying dynamics). However, I remained guarded, mistrusting, terrified of, and downright aloof towards any popular ranking person, as well as anyone who even came close to associating with any variation of another cool kid, which pretty much accounted for at least half of the student body. This was also a problem when it came to boys, since I mostly only had crushes on popular boys and yet refused to talk or interact with any of them. I was so utterly terrified, even though they usually approached me with a rather gentle and kind flirtation, if at all. This existence was very lonely and quite un-fun. Still, I could not ever risk that level of humiliation again, so instead I just closed myself off to everyone when I was in school (this is a soul-damaging practice that I do not recommend). I am actually quite a vivacious, rather loud, spunky, and outgoing person. But if you pull anyone aside from my school days and ask them what I was like, they will probably tell you I was quiet and shy. For so many years I kept myself inside as a means of sheer protection. [Unfortunately, I still do a bit of this “dumbing down” when it comes to men I’m attracted to, but I will save that for another post entirely.]
This is my swan pic, seventh grade I believe. Notice how everything is in place, just so (I do love my turtlenecks and I also LOVED this outfit!). By this time I had learned to make myself look in a way that would never invite any kind of ridicule or criticism. I was still on guard at all times and rarely talked to anyone for fear of saying something that might also spark some kind of attack.
Bully’s suck and mean people suck and there is no way around that. The boy who called me “fat” SUCKED, and the girls sucked. I could make excuses for that ol’ best friend of mine and say this or that about why she was behaving the way she was behaving towards me (maybe she thought I sucked, or maybe she had bullies swarming around her as well, or no one to teach her right from wrong), but I think I do myself a disservice when I do that. She and those other girls and boys should have known better, but they simply chose to treat me terribly.
Even though it has been 30 years (almost exactly) since the incident, there are parts of me that are definitely still wounded. But sharing about it from a goddess perspective is so healing, and I thank you for being a witness to my process. Please feel free to share your own experiences with me, as I know I am not the only one.
I love this video of a bullying scenario with hidden cameras, capturing how real life strangers react to bullying and step in to defend. It warms the heart. Click HERE for the video.
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Featured photo by Kat J on Unsplash