I spent the week before I entered middle school sobbing like a Disney princess. I sobbed in the bathtub, I sobbed on the couch, and I sobbed with my head in a pillow. Elementary school felt like a safe and tangible part of my childhood and now, all of a sudden, it was ripped out of my tiny, monkey bar–callused hands.
“Why aren’t you excited?” concerned family members and close friends asked me, as my bottom lip quivered amongst a sea of tears.
“Because I don’t want to grow up!” I wailed, not knowing how else to describe the pain I was feeling.
I was right to be afraid of what was to come, but not for the reasons I thought. From the moment I entered middle school as a fifth grader until the moment I graduated as an eighth grader, I was bullied, nonstop, every day. Bullied for four years straight.
On my very first day of middle school, I remember getting off the bus, walking toward the school, opening the front door (which was heavier than expected), waving to my uncle, and nervously shuffling toward my home base room. Yes, that’s right, my uncle was the principal of my middle school.
In my moments of dramatic sobbing, I never once whined about having my uncle as my principal. I whined about missing my elementary school teachers. I whined about being in a school that was 15 minutes (instead of five) away from my home, my safe place. But I never whined about that specific familial connection. I didn’t think it was a big deal, especially since I wasn’t one of those kids who was thirsty for attention. Instead, I was quiet, contemplative, and a decided introvert. Definitely not the ideal combination for the negative attention I was about to receive.
After excitedly waving to my uncle on that first day, that’s where the fun ended. Immediately, I became a verbal punching bag for my hormonal, misunderstood peers. Once they finished bullying me about my relationship with my uncle, my weight (or lack thereof), my acne, my home life, my shyness, and even the way I dressed were picked apart. I was quiet, which made me an easy target. Unbeknownst to them, I was also suffering with anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Even better.
The most distinctive part of my bullying experience was the fact that I’d lost my name and, as a result, my identity. I became “the principal’s niece,” instead of Anna. Teachers made fun of me, taking out their feelings about my uncle on me. My friends asked for favors that I didn’t have the power to give them, causing innate disappointment. Everyone thought that my good grades were an act of favoritism. My efforts were no longer my own, swirling down the middle school drain, along with my name.
When you’re being bullied, there is no one else that can understand what you are going through. There is no one that can understand your specific situation. That would explain the responses I received when I tried to make my loved ones understand why I started ignoring my uncle:
“Anna, you need to stop being so sensitive.”
“Get a backbone, Anna.”
“Grow up, Anna.”
When I look back on that time in my life, all I see is my small, petite body attempting to walk through a sea of darkness. I see myself, begging to stay home. I see myself having panic attacks at six o’clock in the morning because I couldn’t fathom what my peers and teachers would say to me during the school day. I see myself trying to put into words what I was suffering with, trying to figure out why my anxiety and OCD were getting worse.
I used to talk about this experience all the time, bringing it up in therapy appointments and to anyone that wanted to know why I hated that part of my life. After a while, I stopped, not because it no longer mattered to me, but because I acquired a characteristic I never thought I’d acquire: Strength.
Bullying is a problem. It is a disgusting, evil problem that can cultivate mental illness, suicide, and self-destruction. But as someone that has been affected physically, emotionally, mentally, and financially (therapy is expensive) — in every way possible — I can absolutely say: I am glad that I was bullied.
My experience with bullying has given me a powerful sense of empathy, allowing me to connect with others in ways I never thought possible. Bullying has taught me my worth, making me the strong, empowered, outspoken woman that I am today.
If I could go back in time and tell my dejected, bullied self something, I would say this:
“Anna, you are sensitive and you are quiet, but there is nothing wrong with that. That does not make you weak. Right now, you are surrounded by darkness, but you are still full of light. I know that you are scared, confused, and anxious. I know that you are suffering. But you get through it. Life is hard, but it gets better. Life is hard, but you never stop rising and shining. And that is what matters.”
In life, we all go through our own Dark Ages. We all suffer and doubt ourselves at times. We are all victims of bullying (no matter what anyone tells you). At the time, such an experience may not seem beautiful or universal. In fact, during and for a long time afterward, it will seem really terrible and it will cut you off from the rest of the world.
But there is something beautiful about being able to get through tough times. There is something extraordinary about knowing that you are not alone in the way that you feel. And, yes, there is something universally powerful about being able to not only survive, but to thrive.
It has been six years since I left middle school and, in those six years, I have been bullied every now and then. People have said terrible things to me, but I’ve stood up for myself. I stood up for myself because I know my own worth. I know that people only hurt others because they, themselves, are hurting. I know that now. And in knowing that, I know that bullying has made me better. It has made me both a lover and a fighter. It has made me the woman I am today.