Social media sites are a… mixed bag. On the one hand, they can bring about some connections, and reconnections, between people who’d otherwise never have been in touch, and these ties are to be cherished and their bonds strengthened. On the other… some connections you wish had been permanently severed long ago.
Recently, on a whim of both creativity and, I don’t know, a desire to perform a random act of return kindness for someone whose posts have moved me over the years, I made this project and posted it to this woman’s timeline. What resulted was an astonishing outpouring of gratitude and far more generous praise than the project deserved.
Now, this is someone whom I knew only briefly very long ago, and even then not very well (although I was on closer terms with her sister). But immediately I was given a warm reception and staggeringly touching responses of overwhelming thanks.
In addition to being reminded how nice people can be, I also had a rare thought: Wow. Maybe I’m not a horrible person after all. For someone with crippling low self-esteem, such rare thoughts are surprising blips in the static. They’re gasps of fresh air when you’re treading water trying to keep yourself from drowning under the weight of depression.
After these warm fuzzies for 24 hours, I was quickly pulled back beneath the waves last night when a tentacle from my past slicked its way around my ankle and yanked me under again. Because among the people who “liked” this post I’d made was–unaccountably, unbelievably–someone whose name brings up one of the two or three worst moments of my past not involving a family member’s death. It was literally a third of a century ago, so it’s probably sounds ridiculous that I’d be so taken aback by the sight of this name, or the evocation of the memory, but I’m not always in control of these things. Indeed I think that’s the rule rather than the exception.
When I was in seventh grade, this person and seven friends taught me a harsh lesson for calling one of them a ‘bitch.’ Something I did as a result of… I don’t even remember what. It was so unbelievably unlike me to speak up to anyone that I’m certain my reasons for doing so — in art class, obviously a hotbed for such confrontations! — must have been provacative indeed. I am, and this was even more true in those days, an introvert. I rarely instigated discussions with others. I didn’t talk in class if I could help it. (The fact that I loved performing in school shows probably seems weird, but those stages were the only outlet I had for expressing myself. It helped that I could be someone else while doing it.)
Anyway, my vague memory that the justification for my mumbled curse was that this person’s best friend and leader of the gang (who was the actual target of my muttered-under-the-breath insult) had ripped my artwork/homework, or knocked into me on purpose and made me spill some paint, or some other pointless act that angered me so much that I was unable to keep my resentment from bubbling out.
The price paid for this insult was being warned that I’d be “dead” after leaving class. Of course, wishing to avoid being “dead,” I went to the art teacher and, while not telling him what had transpired, I asked him a plethora of pointless questions about the homework or the assignment–I did say this was art class, right? Exactly what questions I could’ve asked, God only knows–and basically delayed as long as possible, hoping the bully would get bored and leave. This brilliant, almost Pattonesque war strategy worked. For the moment.
Later… it was either that day, or maybe the next, I don’t remember… came the blowback. It was lunchtime and I was a bit late going to the cafeteria for some reason. I was at my locker alone one minute, and then the next, I was surrounded by this person and the pack of wolves with which s/he traveled.
I think I tried to stammer out an apology before the inevitable. But y’know, they don’t call it “the inevitable” because it doesn’t happen. After about thirty seconds of this, I was slapped a few times, knocked into the locker where I fell to the ground, and then was kicked until I properly learned what a horrible person I’d been. Of course, this culminated with a warning not to tell anyone.
Eventually they left and I slowly got to my feet again. I silently went to the cafeteria, by now pretty darn late, and sat at a table with some other girls I knew. I didn’t say anything to anyone. I was stone cold and stiff by this point. And then–I guess someone had seen the whole thing–one of my teachers, Ms. Newman, this lovely blond woman who was always one of my favorites, suddenly showed up and put her arm around me. She said very softly, “Did something happen to you, Kira?”
And I lost it. Totally. In the middle of the school cafeteria, I–someone who preferred to go through my school days completely invisible unless I was on stage pretending to be Not-Kira–burst into loud, ugly tears and caused a ridiculous amount of attention. I was mortified beyond belief, not just for having been beaten up and for being utterly useless at defending myself (I didn’t even try), but because now by crying, I’d brought myself into focus, and everyone had seen me show vulnerability and emotions, which for some reason Wasn’t Allowed in my weird little brain.
Ms. Newman gently led me out out of the cafeteria and into the corridor, which is where I guess I told her what happened. As I recall, it was more confirmation than revelation; as I said, she already seemed to know. I didn’t want to go to the principal, but there wasn’t much choice given, so I did. I think my mother was called, but I don’t remember her arriving or talking to me right away. In fact I don’t remember anything much happening that very day.
I do remember having a rehearsal that afternoon for our production of The Sound of Music, and by then I think the story had gotten out. My sister Kim was also in that production (“also,” yeah–she had a lead, whereas I was just one of the kids) as were pretty much every one of her friends. But I don’t remember Kim being all outraged that her sister had had the crap kicked out of her. Which to this day actually amuses me. Seriously Kimbo, what the hell? I think she’s still karmically repenting for that lack of protective behavior, because these days I think she’d literally carve anyone open with a knife if they hurt me.
Anyhoo, my mom eventually was called in, as were the parents of these thuglets. Gotta say, being marginally more objective, I really really would’ve loved to be a fly on that wall. Because my mother… I can’t even imagine how she would have reacted. She was so unbelievably overprotective of me when it came to everyday things like walking to a school bus or taking a bath or turning somersaults or whatever. How must she have felt when her little girl was purposely hurt by a ridiculously large group (eight against one? come on!) of wannabe delinquents?
I think I told her to let things drop, because I had an instinct that this wasn’t going to be ending, but obviously that didn’t happen. I don’t remember (if I was ever even told) what the repercussions for my attackers were. I don’t think anything all that serious happened as punishment. Maybe a day’s suspension, or maybe even a threatened suspension. All I know is, those people weren’t hugely intimidated by whatever it was.
For several weeks after that incident, the two main instigators (my new Facebook admirer being one of them) kept up a mini-campaign of threats, physical intimidation and verbal abuse as revenge for my telling on them. I remember walking with someone down a corridor and suddenly feeling two hands shoving me in my back, hard enough for me to stumble forward, while the bully-in-chief said, “Nice shirt, fatso!” or some other Oscar Wilde-like insult, and again warned me to keep the fuck out of her way.
(I was about 15 lbs overweight at this point, and I’m pretty sure after the beating this amount increased. Oh, and in fairness, it was a pretty fugly shirt. Sort of a lime green and white-striped deal. But c’mon, this was 1979. All clothes were fugly.)
So, things like that. I remember spending the winter and spring of my seventh grade in near-constant fear and vigilence, jumping at things. (Again, in fairness: I was never a brave kid anyway.) Eventually the fear subsided, and presumably the bullies moved on to more interesting targets. I don’t even remember what happened to the main person, whether we went to the same high school or not.
Now all this is pretty weaksauce, as the kids say. Far, far worse things happen to people. Sexual assaults, gay-bashing, broken bones, inciting suicide. What I went through was a freakin’ walk through the park. It was nerf bullying in comparison. Even my older sister Karen went through a much scarier incident back in the early 1970s, where she was in some sort of bullying attack involving a knife. (Clarification: she was not the one wielding it.)
But people react how they react. In my carefully constrcuted, leave-me-alone world where my mom tended to keep me wrapped up in protective styrofoam like some delicate electronic product, this act and the subsequent intimidations that sprang from it had very, very long tendrils. To this day, I am afraid of speaking up for myself in what most people would consider the most banal of circumstances.
Just last week, I was telling my sister about being “flirted with” by a cab driver and having a great deal of discomfort and worry that he’d ask me on a date or something, because then I’d have to say no. Kim said, “uh, and so what?” My immediate response was: “I don’t know. He’d hit me.” Which is ridiculous, right? If anything, the worst-case scenario would be some very easily-chosen name-calling and that’d be it. (I mean, if nothing else, NYC cabs don’t make it easy for cab drivers to attack passengers. :))
(Part of me was also indignant because, Jesus, I’m a 47-year-old overweight woman who on that day was wearing no makeup at all. What do I have to do to avoid attention like this? And just exactly what was he finding so beautiful? That’s what he called me: beautiful. It has been many years, if ever, since anyone would be convinced that I was pretty, much less “beautiful.” And only then if I’d slathered on enough makeup. I am not a beautiful woman. Kim is a beautiful woman. My face has always resembled a wax figure of Kim’s face that’s been sitting on a radiator where one side melts slightly so the face is crooked.)
Anyway, this is just one example. I’ve spent a lifetime walking down streets with my head down, not wanting others to see me, not wanting to cause offense, because I’m waiting to be slapped down, quite literally. And since I don’t have a history of corporal punishment from my parents, I can only assume that this ridiculous fear of physical retribution as a result of being “seen” springs from that era in seventh grade.
Despite what sounds like a photographic memory of all this, as if I’ve been nurturing it daily for 33 years, the truth is I’d pretty much put that whole incident in the past, except for very rare “hey remember when…” moments with my sister. I haven’t really gone into it in great detail with my various therapists, although I probably should have.
But. Yesterday, as a result of a whim on my part reaching out to someone completely unrelated to this bully (or so I certainly thought–I assume it’s a Friend of a Friend deal), this bully’s memory was thrust back into my head by the click of a “like” button.
And my first thought wasn’t, “Oh, wow, s/he must have changed a lot since those days. What a nice gesture, a way to say let’s let bygones be bygones, sorry I was rough to you back then.” A better person would probably have thought that.
But no, my actual reaction was: “Are you seriously fucking kidding me with this shit?” (Sorry, my thoughts are way more vulgar than I usually am.)
I thought: How does this person have the nerve? Did my name not bring back any memories? Was I so insignificant in the number of this person-and-crew’s victims? I mean, most likely that’s true. Also: 33 years is a long time. And as my sister said (in a rare moment where being a Social Worker Who Empathizes With Everyone As Long As They’re Not Republican is a liability), “Well, people can change, and no one likes to remember themselves as a bully.”
As I basically wrote back to Kim: I don’t give a rat’s ass about the psychology here. On the one hand, if this person just forgot who I am, okay, that’s fair enough. Still gives me a sort of simmering resentment, I admit; someone who inflicted damage on me has moved on, as I know I should have, and now doesn’t remember me at all as a victim of a bullying past. Tra la la, how very nice for this person.
On the other hand, if this person does remember me (the far less likely of the two scenarios), I get even more pissed off at the thought that a “like” is supposed to be some sort of… what, olive branch? A way of being so-very-adult and mature? “How long ago those days were! Getting upset over an art project, imagine! Sorry about that, we were so silly back then.”
Yeah, um, no. You don’t get to pretend to be “changed” without actually making some amends and admitting what a shit you were in the past. Maybe this makes me a horrible person for being so unforgiving. “Turn the other cheek,” some would say. Well, back in seventh grade this person slapped both sides of my face. Two cheeks and you’re out, as far as I’m concerned. I’d offer my two remaining cheeks but I’m pretty sure they kicked my butt as well.
So what’s the upshot of this lengthy trip down bitterness lane? Do I regret reaching out to this utterly unrelated person, who knows absolutely nothing of any of this?
I would offer the same creative post in a flash. It was worth it, it made her happy, it made her family happy, it was actually fun to do, and I reaped far more kind words from it than it deserved. I also had the ability to think of myself as someone who isn’t a sociopathic monster without worth. That sort of thing can’t be measured.
That said: does a not-insignificant part of me wish opening up to social media didn’t mean I was suddenly visible to a bunch of people I never thought I’d have any connection with again?
Very much yes.
But in a way that’s a metaphor for life in general, and it’s a battle I’ve waged against myself for 47 years on this planet. Opening yourself up to others means risking that vulnerability. Risking reopening old wounds. Risking creating new ones.
Where I’ve always lost that battle is in deciding that those risks outweighed the benefits. Which is why I am generally a solitary person who doesn’t reach out to others much.
In this case, I know I have a choice now. It’s a little teeny tiny crossroad I face. Do I let this stupid insignificant “like” actually turn me away from reaching out again?
I don’t want to let it. I hope I don’t. I’d be a better person if I didn’t.
I just don’t know.
On the plus side, I have a great story to share with my shrink tomorrow! 🙂