When I was fourteen I was bullied by my two best friends. One morning I came to school and had friends, and the next day I had none. Quite literally overnight, every person in my grade was instructed not to speak to me, so that each person I frantically turned to had nothing to say to me for they could not answer. I was a very average girl. I was quiet, not distractingly pretty, I was smart but in a private way, and did well only in English, History, and occasionally, Biology. At home I allowed myself to be funny and loud, I wrote, I read, I noodled with my guitar but these selves of mine rarely intersected. When the bullying began, my first thought was, "I'm not even that remarkable."
For a year I was alone. I ate my lunches in the restroom from where I could hear the cheering, the shouting, the boys yelling at each other to pass the ball, as if each person was trying to outdo the other with the register of their voice. These sounds were cruel reminders of the childhood I was losing . In the restroom I was invisible, and I imagined this is what life would be like without me, indifferent, unchanged, thoughts that – in a humane world – no child should ever have, but we underestimate the cruelty of children. The experience had split me into three: (1) the girl being bullied at school who could think of no possible ending but escape; (2) the girl at home who maintained a facade of her former home-self so that here no one could know what was being done to her; (3) the girl who once she could ascertain that no one was awake could only then allow herself to feel the weight of being totally alone.
At fifteen I had a boyfriend who was a few years older than me. He was popular and would soon be off to college, and at around that time a collective decision was made that I could be spoken to. He was my social currency and he had increased my value. Maybe? I'm not sure and soon you'll see why. His acceptance of me was their acceptance of me, and I believed that the only way I would be able to survive was to say silence and welcome my return. I had started to receive invitations and each of which I willingly accepted, terrified that if I did not join in, I would once again be out. Each day I went to school waiting for all of it to start, and every weekend was a reprieve. And yet somewhere I had stopped blaming them. I grew up in a society where if people didn't like you, well there must be something wrong with you, so of course something must have been wrong with me. The past year was now a blip, and I should consider myself lucky to have found my way back in. I had begun evaluating myself, scanning for any remnants that could authentically be me, and then I put her away. I blamed myself after all, and because something must have been wrong with me and because I was too afraid to ask what it was, I had to no longer be myself. I had a bursting exterior, and inside I had only one overwhelming desire to be loved at whatever cost to myself.
A few years ago I was desperate for the friendship of a woman I was in awe of. She was charismatic, popular, and had a gift of making almost anyone who encountered her feel like they were seen by her. I felt giddy with the validation that came from each like, every comment, delayed responses, and even canceled lunch plans. I hungered for those who dangled our fragile connection before me, out of reach as I worked harder to gain them, only to fall so far behind. Those were the romantic relationships I cared for as well as platonic friendships, and not once had I won but each time I played the same game. The game of hard-to-get has culturally always been pegged as sexy and rarely equated with callousness and emotional abuse. Each period of silence from this woman was my time for reevaluation: had I said something off-putting, did I look a certain way? I had accounted for everything, came to the conclusion that I had performed perfectly, and yet what had I done wrong. I punished myself, depleted myself just to be loved by this person who could not see me. What made me stop was not some concerted effort, but rather I was empty, I had given it everything I had and had nothing left to give, nothing else to show that I was worthy of her love. To me this was not a moment of triumphant realization; I was ashamed.
Two summers ago I was manically cutting across one side of Atlantic Avenue to the other in search of the perfect gift. It was my very dear friend's birthday. For some time I had sensed us drifting after I had foolishly suggested shifting our dynamic: historically I had been the friend who was accessed in times of pain and convenience, but not joy, not when it was inconvenient. Self-help types regularly insist on demanding joy, demanding boundaries, demanding that a relationship serve you, and yet so rarely do they ever discuss the real emotional fallout of when the other party refuses to share, but merely an insistence that one pick themselves up and move on. Her prolonged silence had translated as a failure of my objective, and so I began to scramble, each canceled plan met with an upbeat rescheduling to be canceled. On the day of her birthday she reached out; I took this as a sign: it was now or never, I would do all that I could to prove I was worthy. I had a flight at dawn and appointments throughout the day; the more I told her of my limited time, the more she asserted her value through silence, the more I was determined to upend my day for her, to show her how much she meant to me, as I had come to learn and do. And then the moment came for me to leave, armed with presents I had canceled my first appointment to buy and perhaps I would by flowers on the way with just enough time to deliver them to with the fastest train route mapped out, to say look how far I will go for you, when I couldn't leave, my legs wouldn't move, my mind shouting it will all be over and my body saying I can't, I have nothing left.
There are days when I want to ask my best friend, what makes you love me? We have a bond that is reaching thirteen years. She has a kind of cool self-assurance that she is worthy of love, resolute in her boundaries, determined to treat everyone the way she would want to be treated and unafraid to let go if not so. Her friendship was the first time I'd ever felt fully, unconditionally loved, that I was worthy of it, and that I was welcome to love and be myself. And still in spite of this, every now and then someone comes along and I want to return to the chaos, determined to turn back time, to make this one last, to prove to those who could not love me that I've won, at last. But here is where the problem arises: I am now beginning to understand that I am remarkable, that I am worthy, that I am worthy of experiencing joy with and for, and this realization is unsettling, uncomfortable. It has always felt convenient to fall on myself, to absorb culpability, to disintegrate, to try to the extent of being able to say I really did everything, gave everything, I have nothing left to give, this is the kind of emotional abuse I’ve internalized and am accustomed to. We celebrate martyrs without ever understanding their loss, who become beloved only once they are lost. The difficulty is permitting myself to give that which I receive in order to nurture and sustain myself, to know and understand and believe that I am first in need of my own love and care. This is not a story of triumph in which I have absolved myself and am prepared to receive kindness. What I’m trying to understand is how to feel safe within myself, to permit myself to accept that which I have not before: to be okay, to be happy, to perhaps even love myself as I deserve. For the longest time I believed myself to be a magnet, never once thinking who was it that I in fact sought. My toxic relationships were how I had come to understand myself, and yet, beyond my control, I am proved that I am deserving, that I did not ever have to be empty depleted nil to be so. Who I am is not how I am treated but how I treat myself.
So I suppose now I am learning to be free.