Growing Up: A Lesson in Survival

Content Warning: Bullying, swear words, domestic abuse


Ever walk into a room, look around and think to yourself, “I don’t belong here”.  We’ve all suffered from nerves when attending a function where you don’t know anyone but what if those thoughts were because you were told, “you don’t belong here”? Told over and over again that you are unwanted.  That was my lived experience.  


Being bullied isn’t an uncommon experience.  Almost everyone I know has been bullied in their lives.  Bullied for being poor/weird/gay/short/tall/fat etc.  Abusers will target any attribute they can for ammunition.


Like a lot of us, being bullied starts young: being teased by members of the opposite sex, called names that rhyme with your surname (one of my youngest “being-bullied” memories was being called Vanessa Trash Whale, what an opportunity lost, Trash Pail would have been funnier), being excluded in freeze tag (no one would unfreeze you) and just being the butt of every joke.  I remember so clearly this group of older girls I idolized telling me this outlandish story about how a midway had come to town and they had spent all afternoon there, going on rides, playing games, eating carnival food.  I ran home, gulped my dinner down, and begged my mom to take me to the midway.  My mom looked at me like I was hallucinating.  “Vanessa,” she said, “there is no midway up behind Jack-a-do’s place.”  The cold realization that these girls that I admired so and followed around like a devoted subject had concocted such an extravagant lie just so they could laugh at my disappointment was heart breaking.  I was younger than 6 at the time. 

It evolves to name calling.  I'm not sure if I know of a woman who wasn't called a slut, whore or bitch at least once in high school.  I was also called "freak" to which I beamed with pride (My life's motto has always been: Normalcy is a disease that affects the majority of the population").  And once, only once (I was absolutely thrilled to my toes) I was called a Drag Queen.  I mean, how awesome is that! Name calling evolves to harassment, harassment to destruction of property and destruction of property to physical violence.  Whew! The cycle is emotionally, mentally and physically exhausting to the bullied.  I've always wondered how the bullies ever found the time to do it. Nowadays bullies have a much easier time of it, social media put their victims at their finger tips and harassment laws are slow to catch up.

I was lucky enough to grow up with an amazing single mom who made life as comfortable and engaging as possible on our meager budget.  We were very blessed/cursed that we owned our home.  But my mom worked 3 jobs at once to keep that roof over our heads.  The town we lived in was a very affluent, blue-collar town.  The new subdivisions were filled with McMansions and recreational vehicles, meanwhile my mom and I lived in a 3 bedroom townhouse on the wrong side of the tracks and drove a series of, pardon my french, shit-box cars.  My peers got cars for their 16th birthday gifts that were more tricked out than the car my mom saved for, our first ever new car.  It was not becoming to wear hand-me-downs. I remember being called "Aunt Jemima" for wearing a printed outfit.  I had no idea why that moniker was applied.  Looking back the print on the harem pants and vest (Oh god the 90s were cruel) was vaguely "Tribal" so I guess in my white-washed little town, I was dressed too "ethnic"? I still don't understand the connection.


What I have noticed when talking about lived experiences and where mine differ, is that as a kid I was also bullied by adults.  Yep, you read that right.  I quit Girl Guides because my troop leader bullied me, favouring the “daughters of doctors and lawyers” over me.  I was accused of committing crimes I couldn't have and i was harassed by the police, parents forbade their kids from associating with me.  This list goes on.  Looking back I can’t imagine how hard all of this was on my mom.  Working constantly, and this poor kid of hers just can’t seem to catch a break, the worry must have been suffocating.


There are several routes that a victim can take.  Some people become stoic and put on blinders.  Head up, eyes forward: deflect, ignore, block it all out.  Some people endure and try to be invisible.  Head down, move quickly, never speak out.  Those are valid survival tactics.  I never chose either of those.  I chose to throw myself into the faces of my abusers.  I was loud and proud.  I had a group of girl friends who would filter in and out of my life on their whims and a group of steadfast guy friends.  I was active in sports and dance and art and theatre and student council…I WAS EVERYWHERE.  Much to the chagrin of my abusers, no matter how much they kicked me, literally or figuratively, I refused to stay down.  With every attack I found a new way to pull myself up.  With every slur I found something to celebrate.  That also must of been nerve wracking for my dear ol’ ma.  I’m sure she thought I was going out of my mind.  

As much as I survived the emotional war zone that was my youth, I did not come out completely unscathed.  My heart and soul were scarred and tender.  Unfortunately, the scars of abuse act as a honing beacon to other abusers.  The cycle continues.  I wholeheartedly agree with Anti-Bullying laws for schools but I am not so ignorant to think that bullying ends at the school yard property line.  I’ve been bullied by coworkers in 6 out of 7 of my work places since 2003 and I’ve survived two abusive domestic relationships.  What we need in addition to the legislation, is programs for the victims to help them rebuild what gets stripped away.  To help them heal the damage so that they can recognize the patterns of abuse and so that they can protect themselves.  I believe the most important way we can combat bullying is by teaching children that inclusivity is where it’s at.  You don’t have to be besties with everyone but you don’t have to be a jerk to them.  Manners need to make a comeback.  We need to de-stigmatize the mental health issues that victims suffer as a direct result of the abuse they endure.  We need more empathy and kindness and those lessons start at home.


The final item on my grown-up, secular-holiday gift list: an end to girl on girl hatred.  Boys are taught to honour their brotherhood loyalties.  Girls are taught to compete with each other.  We need to honour our sisterhood.  We need to stop shaming.  We need to stop throwing each other under the bus.  We need to stop excluding women who don’t meet a narrow definition of what makes a “real woman” (pro tip: if a woman says she’s a woman, guess what?! She's a woman…pretty easy to grasp no?) and we need to hold each other dear. Embrace your sisters and support and cherish them.  



Here’s a challenge for you: What incident stands out in your mind the clearest and if your bully was in front of you today what would you say to them?


I remember being cornered by the entrance to the gymnasium by my main attacker and 3 of her friends and a video camera while they grilled me about fictitious things I’d said about their friend.  I remember looking directly into the camera and saying, “why would I ever say those things about *Susan? You guys call me a slut and a whore about eighteen times a day and it really fucking sucks, so I’d never say that.  You need to check your sources.”  Turns out their source was my friend who sold me out for an afternoon in the cool kids circle in the smoking pit.  I was intimidated and terrified so that she could skip class and hang out with people she presumed were better than me. 

So.  What would I say to my bully?  Nothing.  She was of less than zero consequence in my life.  I had been treated badly by her for 2 years at that point, what was another instance of brutality on the list of hundreds?  I would however tell my friend that her behaviour was unacceptable.  One does not treat another human being like that.  I would also tell her that I deserved a better friend than her and that I was much happier having no friends than a friend like her.  

Coincidentally, earlier this year I had my Enemy No.1 contact me and apologize for her behaviour in high school.  I didn’t forgive her.  Too much time has passed for that.  I did however thank her for owning her behaviour.  Which, I think, took a great show of character to do after 20 years.

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