At 12 years old, I was a bedwetting, bucktoothed papergirl who lip-synched to Billy Joel in her bedroom. I lived in terror of being exposed as a loser. This terror manifested as look-at-me, just-please-look-at-me bravado. I became what I can only describe as a bloser — a bully loser. I walked the line between evil and less evil. I felt worthless. I tried to find worth the only way I knew how: by putting other children down and sucking up to those above me.
I can only imagine how much more anxious I would have been with access to an international social forum on which to voluntarily offer up my fragile self-image for demolition. There is no doubt in my mind that I would have been involved in the following activities had the Internet been available to me as a young teenage girl:
1. Being taunted mercilessly on a social networking site for behaving like a weirdo
2. Bullying someone online for being more of a loser than me
3. Showing my tits to a stranger I’d met in a chat room
I have no better description for how I felt than the alien that inhabits Edgar the farmer in the film Men in Black. Just always faintly out of my skin, simmering with rage and fear. I remember (actually, it’s more appropriate to say I can never forget) approaching a small group of popular girls in school with this hot item: “My cousin has some playing cards with people having sex on them.” Followed by this natty little turn of phrase that I had rehearsed, eyebrow cocked, in front of my mirror the previous night: “The actual act.”
That was pretty much it for me for the first half of grade 7. I become “the actual act” girl. These days, my gaffe would have probably earned me a brutal Facebook page, a zingy hashtag and undoubtedly some artfully Photoshopped pictures of my head on the body of a woman engaged in “the actual act.” And who knows what else would have ensued when the witchhunt moved into full swing? That guy I theoretically showed my tits to on the Duncan Yo-Yo lovers’ forum probably would have contributed an actual photo of my budding chest to the fray.
If I had been persecuted the way Amanda Todd was, I think I would have killed myself, too. This type of exposure, coupled with perpetual threats of more, forever, seems insurmountable. It’s the teen version of waterboarding. The difference is, there is no way out. No amount of confessing or of dignified silence will appease your tormentors. The only way out of this is to attempt to turn the attention elsewhere — to find another vessel for the bullying.
I have not forgotten some of the cruel things people said and did to me, but I’ll tell you what sits with me harder: the cruel things I did to other kids. I will never forget the pain I inflicted on a girl named Janet when I told her, with gleeful facetiousness, in front of another group of girls I was trying desperately to impress, that she should be a model. I will never forget the sadness and humiliation on her face. Ever. My best and most humane moments will never erase that awful scene.
Unlike kindness, which has the potential to turn into peace and love in an almost magical way, cruelty is only ever repaid with cruelty. Either someone is cruel back or you have to live with the misery of your callous actions. Lessons you learn from it will always be accompanied by a sharp remembrance of the horrible moment.
Thirty-two years later, I don’t deliver newspapers — I write for them. I show strangers my tits for money and art. I soak my bed, but now I do it with menopausal sweat. I lip sync to k.d. lang in my bedroom. What do I know? I know that whenever I’ve been mean in my life, even as a form of self-protection, it stays with me like a splinter in my heart. It feeds a beast that I now know is fear, a beast that is only quieted by compassion no matter how hard I fight with it.
I still wrestle with being compassionate to those who have hurt or frustrated me. In the heat of the moment, being gentle feels like losing. When you have been a loser, losing is something you fight hard against.
When I get anxious, I do this: www.thewildernessdowntown.com.
It reminds me that everyone knows what loneliness feels like. It reminds me of the beautiful solidarity that can happen online and not the ugly malice that makes children want to die of shame. ■