***TW: anxiety, disordered eating, self-harm***
In kindergarten, I was recurrently tossed off the top of a five-foot slide by the same boy while his friends watched. Relief did not come when the principal intervened, but rather when the boy finally moved away. I re-visited that school this past summer while substitute teaching. The same playground equipment and ground-rubber mat that my face repeatedly met still stood looming in the middle of the fenced recreational area. Even after two decades, I could still recall the breathlessness I felt when my body slammed into the hot ground.
In sixth grade, I was funneled into a single building with all the other sixth graders in the district. Jonesboro was unique – our elementary schools contained grades 1 through 5 and our middle schools spanned grades 7 through 9. Sixth grade was a separate school altogether, with the hundreds of students from all reaches of the district being divided into three teams that were subdivided into homerooms. I walked into my second day of school decked out in my favorite sweater vest. It was our P.E. day and I needed all the comfort I could get. During volleyball, a male student grabbed my arm and twisted it behind my back, tearing ligaments and popping joints past their extent. My homeroom teacher walked me to the office, where my assaulter was called in for a conference with the principal while I waited for my mom to take me to the E.R. I returned the next day with a new cast on my arm and my parents trailing behind me. The principal explained the other student apologized to him and it was the principal’s firm belief the apology was heartfelt, and I should put the incident behind me. My parents were furious, but I nodded and went to class. The next day, I was shoved down the bleachers in the gym by a girl who laughed as I bounced down steel steps, landing squarely on my injured arm. As my mother left work and picked me up for my second doctor’s visit of the week, the principal left the building in an attempt to avoid her. By that time the following week, I was a newly minted homeschool student. My grandparents taught me in the morning and my mother instructed me in the afternoon. After six weeks, my cast was off, and I was applying the Pythagorean theorem while perched on my grandparents’ loveseat.
In seventh grade, we reached the decision I should return to public schooling. We went into homeschooling knowing it was a one-year decision. I was assigned the same middle school my mom and aunt attended. The first week of school, I was pulling a book from my locker when I was slammed into it. I grabbed my bleeding nose and looked behind me, locking eyes with the same boy who injured my arm in the sixth grade. My middle school principal was passionate about anti-bullying issues and took this assault seriously. He assured me I would be safe as I sat in front of him with a wad of toilet paper pressed to my nose. The boy never did bother me again. I saw him in the local paper a few years ago after he was charged with assault. Sometimes I think about him when my arm aches and wonder if maybe we both needed to talk to someone instead of just arranging our schedules to never cross paths.
In eighth grade, I was assigned a role in the party scene of the local production of The Nutcracker. I hit a growth spurt, so I towered over the other girls. I was assigned a pair of corduroy breeches and a waistcoat and assigned the male role in pair dances. I was happy with the role – the pants itched less than the dresses and my partner was a beautiful dancer and person. I started looking forward to our dance practices just to spend more time with her until I overheard a pair of dancers making gay jokes at my expense. I started avoiding my partner in full cast practices.
In eleventh grade, I was given a cell phone on my parents’ bill. It was 2009 – the texting was unlimited, but there was a strict “no internet on the phone” policy. One day, it began buzzing in rapid succession as text messages surged in. They were forwarded by a friend who was talking with another mutual friend. That mutual friend was joking about my weight and how the orange tank top I wore to marching band practice made my stomach look like a pumpkin. It didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would; by that point, I had already been purging all my meals for the past year.
In twelfth grade, I started passing out during points of high anxiety. Once I passed out in the English hall bathroom and my skirt rode up to reveal my underwear. I heard people laughing about it when I regained consciousness with a knot on my head from hitting the sink. During the subsequent hospital visit, a nurse raised his eyebrows at the scars across my arms as he prepped my I.V. We made eye contact, but all he asked was if I needed a blanket and all I said was yes. It wasn’t until I finally sought therapy in college that I was told the spells were a manifestation of my anxiety.
Two days ago, I was casually scrolling through Facebook when a headline caught my eye: Arkansas Ranks 2nd in Nation for Bullying. I snorted and clicked on the link. This wasn’t surprising news to me. I may not have hit my rock bottom until college, but I began to distance and dissociate myself from others shortly after my first fall in kindergarten. Bullying shaped a large portion of my life and I am still learning how to disentangle the negative impacts from the positive strides I have made in the last few years.
I followed the link from the news post to a study conducted by WalletHub. I was confused why a personal finance website would sponsor a study of bullying stats by state, but as I read the intro, I noted the mention of the socioeconomic impacts of bullying. It began to make more sense, even if I was slightly put off by the implication we must also subscribe a monetary impact to bullying to see it as an issue to address.
I’ve spent some time sitting on this article as I moved through the methodology section of the study. I wanted to ensure I not only felt the information was well-vetted, but that I also understood the data points. I do not claim to be an adept or natural statistician; in fact, quite the opposite. For my senior thesis, I spent most of my time banging on a keyboard and grumbling at t-tests before my professors intervened. But after following the data trails and citations, I feel comfortable sharing this article with confidence in the stats. But what do we do with this information?
Do not just mock Melania Trump’s sad façade of an anti-bullying campaign. Yes, given her continued support of her husband’s classic bullying tactics, I have zero faith in this campaign coming to fruition, let alone having a positive impact. Instead, look at your state and district policies for anti-bullying statutes. Are they adequate? Are they reformative, not just punitive? One of my personal favorite authorities is StopBullying.gov. This site has not changed with the administration and has a wealth of information on how to take a public health approach to bullying prevention.
My bullies were not sophisticated. Technology was not even a factor until high school. To ruin my day, they had to find me in person and even then, they could only rankle me with what was visible. I tried to shed weight and manifested eating disorders to control not just my image, but my emotions. I lost the sweater vests and moved quickly around the edge of the hallways to avoid contact. After that dance season, no one could tease me about my sexuality because I never brought it up. All these steps insulated me, but I was not living authentically.
Only after I graduated college did I begin to dress for me, instead of the perception of others. Two weeks ago, Luke and I had a small stand-off because I was avoiding meals out of nerves and frustration. Every woman I had a romantic interaction with was a well-kept secret. To this day, I have never uttered the phrase, “I am bisexual” to my family. And that isn’t out of fear of not being accepted; my family will wholeheartedly love me and continue to be the intersectional, inclusive advocates that raised me. The issue is that exposing something I have kept so close to my chest terrifies me because I am waiting for it to be weaponized and used against me.
This constant fear of being happy is what bullying does to someone. And it doesn’t go away.
I am exceptionally privileged with a supportive family and the ability to seek mental health treatment. And I had several positive experiences throughout my primary and secondary schooling. I made amazing friends, some of which I still keep in contact with and some I don’t. I was actively involved in several organizations I adored and I had some of the best teachers in the state. Yet, I know others do not share these experiences, nor will I ever experience bullying stemming from other intersections, such as race or religion. I admit about half of my past posts have included a call to contact your representatives to acknowledge and increase funding for universal mental health care, but that goes to illustrate how many parts of our lives can be benefited from taking mental health seriously.
Arkansas in particular ranks near the top in bullying, but is near the bottom for access to mental health care. In order to remedy this, we must have universal, inclusive health care and have our representatives support a budget that allocates funds to mental health care. This means ensuring no discrimination based on pre‐existing conditions and requiring coverage of mental and substance use disorder services in the health insurance marketplace. Mental health and physical health have direct impacts on one another. Any representative that tries to fund one and not the other is perpetuating harmful misconceptions; any representative that supports neither needs to be voted out of office.
I finally feel like I am living authentically. That doesn’t mean I am always happy, but that does mean I am not always sad and anxious. And at long last, that is just perfect for me.