In 1983, when I was in third grade, the bullying began. The popular girl in class wanted my best friend to be her best friend, and so she made it her task to belittle me, scorn me, and gossip about me, until my best friend betrayed me and went over to the dark side. So not only did I lose my best friend – someone I had spent a lot of time with, shared personal secrets and hopes with, and relied on for support – but now I was openly bullied by her, and the popular girl. I remember being surrounded by about 10 kids on the playground – taunting me, pushing me, throwing things at me – and looking over at the teacher on duty, who was carefully looking in the other direction. I didn’t view the adults at the school as any kind of solution or offering help, so I just tried to tolerate the abuse the best I could. As the school bus rounded the corner to enter the school driveway, I would get panic attacks, my heart rate went up, cold sweat on my skin. That year, I developed a strange habit of hyperventilating…my breath was out of control, and the more I tried to breathe, the more out of breath I felt. I would get sent to the nurse to ride it out by breathing into a paper bag, then sent back to class. No one – not my parents, the teachers, the school nurse…ever stopped to ask why a 9 year old girl was hyperventilating at school.
The popular girls began writing on the bathroom walls, graffiti about how I was the “scum of the earth”. Which I believed and internalized. But in some effort at self-defense, I wrote back on the bathroom walls. So we all got a week of detention after school, forced together into a room to stew in anger and hatred for each other. There was no effort at intervention, at opening a conversation about what was going on, about the hateful things that were written on the walls.
In the 4th grade, I stopped going outside at recess. It wasn’t safe. I dreaded the lunchroom. I begged to eat my lunch in the classroom with the teacher – which wasn’t ever allowed.
By the 5th grade, some strange behavior started up. I would dress every day from my mother’s closet, wearing clothes that were too big for me, and putting on lots of make-up. Some sort of effort at willing myself into adulthood, out of a situation that was so out of my control, and so intolerable.
And in middle school, the truly self-destructive behavior began. Cutting myself, smoking cigarettes, drinking, being promiscuous with boys much older than me, fantasizing about suicide, smoking pot…the long road of addiction, co-dependency, and self-hatred had begun.
Here are some statistics about the current state of bullying in our country:
Over 3.2 million students are victims of bullying each year.
Approximately 160,000 teens skip school every day because of bullying.
1 in 10 students drop out of school because of repeated bullying.
Of course, I’m just one example…but I believe that being alienated by and an exile from my peers at an early age, helped to set in motion the self-destructive and addictive behavior that lasted throughout my 20s and well into my 30s.
Here’s an abstract on a study called “Bullying at school—an indicator of adolescents at risk for mental disorders”
A number of 14–16 year old Finnish adolescents taking part in the School Health Promotion Study (n=8787 in 1995, n=17643 in 1997) were surveyed about bullying and victimization in relation to psychosomatic symptoms, depression, anxiety, eating disorders and substance use. A total of 9 per cent of girls and 17 per cent of boys were involved in bullying on a weekly basis. Anxiety, depression and psychosomatic symptoms were most frequent among bully-victims and equally common among bullies and victims. Frequent excessive drinking and use of any other substance were most common among bullies and thereafter among bully-victims. Among girls, eating disorders were associated with involvement in bullying in any role, among boys with being bully-victims. Bullying should be seen as an indicator of risk of various mental disorders in adolescence.
That study confirms my experience, and is a clear sign that if we want to stem the tide of destruction that addiction is causing in our country, bully-proofing schools is an important step.
One bright spot, for me, however. When I was 12, I learned Sun Salutations, a basic yoga series from the Ashtanga tradition. I practiced that series every day all throughout my teens and 20s. It was a small raft of self-care in an ocean of self-hatred. A few minutes of taking care of my body, instead of trying to hurt it. It felt good, but didn’t cause guilt or shame afterwards. Somehow, that little bit of light helped me hang on through the darkness.
Today, I’m a yoga teacher. Yoga has, at several points, literally saved my life. Taking the time for self-care, moving my body, breathing deeply, and making a connection with something beyond what I can see, has been a lifeline. Let’s offer that lifeline to anyone ready to catch it.
Please support CALMING KIDS: Creating a Non-Violent World in bringing yoga into the schools, and help children like me find yoga!