Friday, 28 October 2011

Bullied and Bully

The talk lately has been loud about bullies. And well it should be.  Kids hurting kids, kids feeling the only way to escape the world by killing themselves... it's not right, it never was, but it's always existed.

And it's something we don't really speak of, still. More and more people mention it, but it's not spoken of that much when you consider the devastating consequences it can have on innocent lives.

Everyone needs to speak out against bullying.  It's not just about being gay, or poor, or even rich, pretty or ugly, smart or not so smart.  It's about people and how people hurt people.  Not just about the labels they use to justify their behaviour. We can all be targeted, with no rhyme or reason, for something as simple as saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.

In grade four, I was bullied in a pool because I said "sorry" when I bumped into someone.  The kid (a girl) pushed me in the water until I was coughing and spitting out water and she kept screaming "Sorry!"  I was still learning English and was confused between "I'm sorry" and "pardon me," so I couldn't tell if maybe I had used the wrong word.  It took me ten years to ask one of my university friends if sorry was the right way to apologize.  (I totally use that word when I bump into people now, too.  And I bump into a whole lot of people cause I'm a klutz.  Never got beat up since.)

Most of us were bullied, too, at one point or another.  Parents, siblings, schoolmates, bosses, co-workers... we all have to learn to cope or fight back in some way.

I followed the usual advice, at first. "Ignore them and they'll go away."  Really?  Who the heck came up with that advice, anyway?  "Ignore the grizzly running towards you and you'll be fine!"  "That bus sure is big, but if you ignore it, it surely won't hit you."

Those words are stupid.  I came to the conclusion early on that people utter those words hoping that they can ignore it, and it'll go away. And it's understandable, even.  Parents might have been bullied at one point and it might be their sincere wish that it'll fix itself because they're afraid of facing the bully's parents, who might also be bullies.

I get it.  But still, don't utter that sh*t.  Standing up is hard, but so is being bullied.

When I was growing up in a welfare, drug-ridden area (which is now a lovely area, might I add), I was lucky because I had my brother and my mom, and we lived on the outskirts of the "low-income housing."  Sure, the house was falling apart and was insulated with Jehova's Witnesses pamphlets (learned that when I leaned on the wall and went through it), but it was home and I loved it.  There was a lot of bullying, but I only got beat up once.  It was for a Club Z towel.

Club Z was the predecessor of the HBC points, before the great Zellers/Bay merger.  The towels were given out for free when you joined.  And that's what I got beat for.  An old towel that everyone got for free, for signing up for a points card.

It wasn't a horrible beating.  No broken bones, no bruises that were difficult to hide, but I remember thinking how sad it all was.  Beat up for a free towel.

I grazed over that incident (and many other incidents, including large objects hitting me). School is where things were really annoying me.  We were a low-income (or poor, as we used to call it) single mom family with two kids, and we didn't have money for "un-necessities," which included clothes.  So I got hand-me downs from my cousins.  My boy cousins.  My straight-as-a-stick boy cousins.  And I developed early, to boot.

At one point, in grade six, I only had two outfits for a few weeks.  One red plaid shirt and one blue plaid shirt.  (My love for clothing and shoes developed later in life, thankfully).  I was teased a lot, as you can imagine.  One day, I was walking home and a boy followed me, screaming at me, asking if I only had two pieces of clothing and saying other nasty things that don't bear repeating.  I tried to ignore him, like I always did with bullies.  Like I'd been doing for years. 

I cried as I walked faster and faster, but he kept screaming at me. The sole of my right shoe chose that moment to begin ungluing and I was horrified he would see it wobbling and make more fun of me.  I couldn't walk faster because of my shoe. He got closer.  I got more scared.

Then something snapped.  I remember my eyesight actually turned slightly black and I got light-headed.  I was pissed. I'd ignored for too long.  (Totally a Hulk moment, but less nakedness, thankfully. Though I look good in green!)

Physically, I wasn't able to defend myself all that well, but I soon learned that words were just as powerful a weapon.  I'd been insulted enough.  I had material to work with.  I made that bully cry and I was proud of it.

And then I made a lot more cry.  Not just bullies, too.  I bullied friends, their siblings... whoever was close enough for a lashing. I was a generalist as a bully. I didn't pick on people because of labels.  I just attacked before others could.

We moved right after the tenth grade and I changed high schools. I hated it. My brother didn't change cities with us, so I'd lost my best friend. We'd gone to five grade schools (that we recall) and I was used to having him around as my sole, dependable friend. I became an angry, dark teenager (I could have totally gotten on the emo train, if the emo train had been identified and labeled back then!)  My new high school was less than favourable and had a lot of bullying, drugs and fights.  I wasn't in the mood for any of it.  There were three bouncers in my new school and they were all scared of me within a week.

My tongue lashings seared and I knew it.

Around this time I also discovered heroic fantasy literature and took away the lesson that it was okay and good to stand up for yourself.  But see, I turned it all wrong. I stood up for myself by becoming, quite frankly, a bitch.  A bully in turn.  I had become my enemy.  And I was damn good at it, might I add.

I enjoyed it.  I laughed at the tears.  I was still well liked, generally, since I was outgoing (always have been). People opened up to me and I threw their pain and weaknesses back at them when it suited me.

I skipped grade 11 and went straight to 12, not wanting to bother with high school anymore.  My situation at home was degrading, I had only a few real friends and I felt smothered.

I was all dark nebulous clouds and lightning.

Before leaving for university, which was at least eight hours away, my mom told me this: "Be careful of your words.  I don't think you understand the power in them."

Now I'd read enough fantasy and comic books by then to take these words to heart.  I really thought about those words for a long time.  My brother gave me a yin-yang ring to remind me to strike a balance.  It didn't have to be all or nothing.  I was terrible at defining boundaries.

I went to university with a clean slate.  I decided not to be the bully anymore. I thought I could be more.  I was right.

Being a bully was, honestly, easy.  It seemed to be the only way to protect myself, because "ignore it and it'll go away" just didn't work.  I tried, until I couldn't take it anymore and snapped.

I had to relearn to treat people right and respect them, but when I was ready to do so, I met the four women who are still my best friends to this day, more than fifteen years later. I had stopped being a bully.

I still wear my brother's ring, to remind me about balance.  To be bullied or the bully are two dangerous extremes.  I write books I hope will inspire people, especially young women, to stand up for what they believe in and for those they love, not because they have the right guy, weapons or outfit, but rather because they believe or learn to believe in themselves and are willing to do what needs to be done. I really want people to believe in the good and the harm they can do.  To refuse responsibility is to deny potential. It makes me sad just thinking about it.

I avoid talking about my past generally.  I hesitated in telling this story, too.  I tell the funny stories (and there are many) and the quirky stories, but the ones I'm not overly proud of, I keep to myself.  Often I also don't feel I have a lot to add to dialogues.  But in this case, I wanted to speak up.  I've been on both sides of the train tracks, I worked hard at becoming who I am today and still work hard at it, and I'm a strong believer in personal responsibility.  I'm also a straight white girl.  Being bullied and being the bully are not all about being gay or macho, different skin tones or belief systems.  Those are the stories I've been hearing lately.  They're important, so important, and thank you for everyone who has the courage to share them. It's not easy.

But they're not the only stories.  There's no need to further isolate kids by saying the label brings the bullying. I know it's meant to bring solace to the bullied, but it somehow echoes the message that bullies who bully certain groups are "normal" bullies.  Bullying affects everyone at one point in their lives, regardless of who they are or what they represent. And we all need to stand together, so that those who are more likely to get picked on know they're not alone, that they have allies.  And not just allies in people that are "just like them," but allies in everyone else, too. Let's break the isolation.

Let's all join our voices against bullying in a chorus that can't be drowned out.