I am a survivor.
In 1986/1987, I was bullied on a daily basis for one entire year at the Catholic school that I attended from 1977 until 1990.
I was 14 years old.
Classmates who in some cases I knew for almost 10 years (out of 14 years of life), started bullying me in 1986. From one day to the other. It began with a negative comment about my clothes and my body. Unfortunately, the comment was pronounced by one of the leaders of the group. This circumstance turned a casual comment into words carved in stone: most of the friends of the group rejoiced on it and this is how I became the object of systematic, permanent, and sustained insults and laughter. It was psychological, persistent, unknown to adults, and fucking unbearable.
In just a few minutes, my life rapidly and radically changed for the worse. I lost trust in people.
I discovered anxiety. I felt anxious before leaving home to go to school every day, twice a day (I had lunch home). My stomach hurt, I felt dizzy and insecure, and most of all I felt incommensurably ashamed. I felt dirty, torn, and left aside by my peers. I did not want to be there.
I did not want to go to school but I did every day. Against all odds.
Our apartment was cold. we used gas stoves in winter. I was the first to wake up, the kitchen windows were far from being sealed, and I had to turn the rusty water heater on. Freezing. Every day, preparedness to go to hell. By then I was a privileged one at home since I had my own room, the former room of my by then dead sister. Still, the house was packed with stuff all around, dust accumulated and triggered allergic reactions in me and my brothers. Every few weeks I cleaned my room out of sheer need, removing the dust. In the process, dust spread in the room, and I ended up sneezing like a sick fish. I did not know better. Even though at that time my mother and four of my brothers still lived in the apartment, I recall lonely mornings and occupied bathrooms. And going to school every day, except for when I was ill, which was often.
No wonder why. Among other diseases that I developed in those years at school, I remember two episodes of facials paralysis which brought me to have daily injections for weeks in a row, having to skip the leisure time to run to the practitioner, get a painful shot in some area of my body that was still free, and run back to school and join the next class.
I did no tell my family what was going on, and they did not seem to notice the changes in my behavior at all. No questions, no conversation, no interest. I was invisible, nobody could really care. The way my family cared was all about guilt, fear, fake altruism and, ultimately, incapacity, panic, to connect with the others.
A daily dose of torture replaced what was, against all odds, a reasonably content and happy childhood. Despite my parents' divorce, some of my brother’s concerning behavior, my sister’s death, and my mother’s depression — and her radical hatred towards my father — , I had managed to grow myself as a smart, quiet, focused, curious, and super sensitive and with an amazing inner life nice, loving person. That was and still is my essence that keeps me alive, curious, and writing.
At the time of the bullying season and its aftermath, that loving feeling in me gave way to desolation and perplexity. Being raised a Christian, convinced that doing good deeds would bring good deeds to me, the bullying violence caught me absolutely off guard, unable to understand what was going on, and, dramatically lacking tools or resources to leave the bullying behind as quickly and harmless as possible.
Quite the opposite: I shut myself up, I went through it all by myself, passively, I did not raise my voice or my arm not even once, I stood defeated and humiliated and never once managed to hit back. I was totally disarmed, and the hell only paused when summer came and school finished. I healed as much as I could with new friends, far from that school, during the three months of school vacation. Next course I would have to attend the scene of the crime, again. With my old classmates, bullies included. Hell resumed.
I continued to attend that hell of a catholic institution for three more years until I was kindly asked to leave at the end of the course, in 1990. That expulsion was my victory against my mother. I had asked her several times to take me out of that school, but she would not listen: she once told me that probably I was asking to move to another school just because I liked some girl there. I guess she thought that if that were the case (just for the record, it wasn’t), I was better kept against my will in a school of catholic priests surrounded by boys all day, rather than allowing her son to enjoy life, face new inspiring challenges, and feel supported by her mother.
To be honest, by that time I already knew that logistics and lack of money were against my desire, so I never really stood for myself and threatened to give up education unless I was transferred to another school. I was raised to obey, as most Christians do. And so was my mother. And I know now that that obedience is one of the main sources of her internal repression and angst.
The expulsion from that school was the culmination of three years of frustration, frequent self-isolation, body-damaging (cuts with sunflower seeds in my arms), a building resistance towards incompetent authority, discipline issues, and above all and most worryingly a growing feeling of not belonging, a rejection of social life, and the beginning of a very long process of loneliness, sadness, and brutal angst against whatever was normal, accepted, happy, adapted, naive.
I started wearing black clothes, often combined with white. I guess I never totally lost my bright inner essence.
I started sheltering under music, listening to music as much as I could. I had always loved music, and my six elder brothers would often play vinyl records or cassettes tapes, or the radio, and music was already a healing component of my life. The only nice memory I have of attending mass was the songs we would sing. I still like many of them. Music is so powerful and pure and good that it can beat the bad memories of a school infected with bullies, perverted priests, and a bunch of incompetent teachers. When I listen to “Silent Night” I only hear beauty. I do not care about the religious component to it, and I get always mesmerized by the beauty of the chords, the wonderful pace of the words, the soothing gentleness of the verses.
I started painting my eyeliner. I needed to differentiate myself from the bullies and all those who collaborated with their passiveness. I needed to be different. Since I was not allowed to be one of them, I did not want to be one of them. That is when my process of social distancing started. A disruption of long lasting consequences. Since I was not allowed to belong, I did not want to belong. A tragic vision of life for a 14 years old nice soul. I started to build my own personality on the basis of what I did not want to be, and in the process I dramatically displaced myself from searching who I wanted to be. I just did not want to be like those macho alfas, ultra-confident, integrated, happily cruel bullyers. From then on, I only granted friendship to people who proved to be loyal, kind, and somehow insecure, non adapted, troubled, worrisome, but loyal and with a capacity to recognize and try to heal other people’s suffering.
I started writing introspective notes, I developed a passion for language and precise words, I found myself able to convey in writing my often complex feelings. Along the way, though, I, unfortunately yet comprehensibly, chose a pessimistic perspective on life, which became a sort of identity treat that in adulthood has become a burden and a stigma.
With the help of the first person that in almost 40 years has been able to understand the hell that I went through and the miraculous way in which I have moved on and kept reasonably healthy and fit, I have recently finally understood that the pessimism, the anger, the irrational hatred of certain elements of society, and particularly the allergy towards self-proclaimed winners, overconfident, self-assured abusers and bullies, has been my mechanism to prove myself as the body of the crime, self-evidence of the hell that I went through, and a desperate, agonizing call for leverage, for acknowledgment of that hell, and ultimately, an anxious and furious call for a father and a mother to come to me, hug me, and admit that they failed to protect me as a child and that I was left alone, in the middle of the crossfire that my father and my mother perpetrated all through their lives in front of me and often using me by putting me purposely in the middle of their mutual hatred. (one day they even made me choose who I wanted to live with. I was 12 or 13).
And yet, on those three years under the devastating shadow of the bullying, in the same place, with the same classmates, teachers, and family who facilitated in one way or the other the setting of a living hell for me, not only I managed to stay alive (suicide is often one way out chosen by victims of bullies), but I also performed the miracle of keeping my grades not only acceptable but well above average, with even brilliant marks for literature, mathematics, philosophy, language (dramatic drop in academic performance is another usual consequence of being bullied). One might think — and this is the torture I have had to endure for more than 30 years— that since I managed to minimize the academic consequences of the bullying season, at the end of it all it must have been not really that bad…
Damn you if you think that.
The reason why I went through that is that I am a survivor, I had no alternative, I wanted to protect my family, and I did not know that you could actually hit back. I was told never to hit back. The damage to my quality of life, my emotional well being, my self-esteem, and my vision of the world is so enormous and appalling that I myself feel often overwhelmed by the mere thought of it.
I have enrolled my daughter in taekwondo lessons. You never know.
In the next post, I will explain how a father who was bullied feels about the possibility of her daughter being bullied someday.