How Deep the Knife Goes

I made an excellent target as a child.

It would have just been overkill if I walked around with a bulls-eye.

I was socially awkward. I was less than fashionable (that’s an understatement). I was super smart, which made me a bit of a teacher’s pet. I was the good kid. I was the kid with cancer.

I stood out like a sore thumb, or at least that’s what I thought. Either way, I received my fair share of teasing. School became a painful place for me to be. I was different, and I knew it. I also knew there was nothing I could do to change those differences in me. I wasn’t sure I would have wanted to if I could though.

I was teased in elementary school. It got pretty bad too, honestly. It would start out as verbal taunting about what I was wearing or something I said. And eventually it became physical attacks – playground fights where someone would want to beat me up because I supposedly said something about them.

It’s amazing how cruel kids can be for a laugh.

I did my best to keep to myself, which only fueled the teasing. I tried turning the tables and becoming the bully. It worked for a while. I was a smart kid, witty. I could make ‘em cry like nobody else. I got good at cutting other kids down because of their weight or their social awkwardness. I had experience on the receiving end. I figured if I could make everybody laugh at someone else, then they’d forget to laugh at me.

I’d go home after school and cry myself to sleep. Not because I was being bullied, but because I had turned into a bully. Self-preservation and all that bullshit. I was 10. I didn’t know what ‘self-preservation’ was, but that was the excuse I used. It’s either them or me.

And then, in 1992, karma came after me with a vengeance. I was diagnosed with leukemia and between the cancer and the chemotherapy, my body revolted. I walked hunched over, because the catheter in my chest hurt. I walked with a limp because I had a burn on my foot from the chemotherapy. I lost my hair and a ridiculous amount of weight. And I became a target again.

Sixth grade was rough. Someone said I was contagious, and everyone started avoiding me. Someone else told me they wished I would die. I wore a baseball cap to school and that would get knocked off my head. I’d hear comments and snickers because I had lost weight. I’d hear more comments and snickers when I gained all the weight back and ballooned because of steroids. My face swelled up and got all round. The doctors referred to it as ‘moon face’.

I felt like an alien. And I was convinced I looked like one, too.

All of this was so completely out of my control. I didn’t ask for any of it. Yet there was someone there to remind me of how inferior I had become. And it wasn’t always the kids at school. Sometimes it was the kid in the mirror. There were so many nights I’d be laying in the hospital bed just praying I didn’t wake up. Not because of the cancer, but because I felt so completely alone.

Things eventually got better, as most things do. I was fortunate. I survived, even though I didn’t always want to.

Others aren’t so lucky.

Suicide is the 3rd leading killer of teens and young adults. We’re seeing news stories now of ten and eleven year olds taking their lives. In 2010, over 4,600 children between the ages of 10 and 24 committed suicide.

We have so many more ways to make people feel inferior now, too. Before, if you wanted to insult someone, you had to look them in the eye. It’s been proven that it’s psychologically harder for someone to shoot you if you make eye contact with them. It forces them to acknowledge your humanity. Now, we have social media to lash out at one another. We don’t hesitate to call each other names and say things we normally would never think of. Because we can hide behind the comfort of the glowing little screen, and we can shut it off and go to bed and not give a damn what kind of affect our volatile diatribe might have had on the person we unleashed it upon.

The sting of the spoken word definitely hurts, because we hear the emotion behind it. But the pain of the printed word lingers as you read it over and over again. You become conditioned to it. You expect it. Sometimes you even look for it.

And then there’s that mob mentality. Things can escalate so quickly as we let our emotions guide our fingers and we spew hatred on a subject that mere moments before we only thought we may have had an opinion on.

But we don’t think about how any of that affects anyone else.

So what, are we supposed to constantly bite our tongues and walk around on eggshells? No, of course not. You don’t need to walk around on eggshells to show respect and dignity.

Kids are living tortured lives and dying tragically because they don’t have the skill sets to know how to handle life, and we don’t seem to have the capacity to teach them about respect and dignity and the human condition. Instead, we plug in to our lives and let them fend for themselves.

Your daughter can’t live in a bubble, and your son can’t learn respect if you don’t give them the time to learn these things. Sending them off to a ‘Scared Straight’ program only works when the problems have gotten beyond control.

And teaching them to fight back, that’s no good either. Hate begets hate. Yes, you should be able to defend yourself, but you shouldn’t have to resort to violence to end violence.

I have to thank a friend of mine for helping me see a different take on this whole situation. These teenagers are going through a time when their brains are all sorts of twisted up with hormonal changes. Their perception of the world becomes just as twisted. It’s our jobs, as adults, to show them this. To tell them that people are gonna be jerks sometimes, but what they say isn’t something you should take to heart. Talking with them, teaching them respect and dignity for themselves and for others, and an understanding that the body is going through changes that can’t necessarily be controlled through anti-bullying programs or suicide hotlines.

These things aren’t bad, by any means. But to shove a pamphlet at a kid who is convinced that everyone in the world hates him and he’d be less of a burden dead – that’s not going to work. Hugs and warm fuzzies are good things too, but if a child is so far down on the spiral, she’s probably going to grab a razor blade instead of the stuffed teddy bear.

There’s no simple solution, because some child will always fall through the cracks. Kids don’t always talk about the hurt they’re feeling, not necessarily because they don’t want to, but because they don’t know how. How would you feel if your insides were twisting and turning with a jumble of feelings and you couldn’t sort it out?

“I’m feeling all kinds of stuff.”

Well, what kind of stuff?

“I don’t know…just stuff.”

Give them the tools to figure out what the ‘stuff’ is; don’t expect them to figure it out on their own. They may look like miniature adults, but that doesn’t mean they’ve had the same life experiences that we’ve had. Besides, chances are, we’ve all been there before. If you ask a group of people how many of them were bullied in school or as kids, you’re likely to see the majority of hands go up.

Because we all feel we’ve been bullied. And that’s what matters. Not whether or not we’ve actually been bullied or what was said. A lot of the people that I went to school with are shocked to hear that I was bullied. They didn’t see it. And that’s part of the problem – what you may mean no harm by can cut me right to the core.

Why do you feel bullied? What are people saying to you?

Those are the questions we need to ask. And we need to teach kids that respect and dignity are necessary.

Most importantly, we need to lead by example.

Yeah, bullying needs to stop. It should never get so bad that a child feels the only escape is to take their own life. But are they escaping from the other kids that are bullying them? Or are they escaping from their own mind?

Either way, it needs to stop. No parent should have to bury their child. 4,800 children taking their own lives every year – that is beyond unacceptable.

And no child should have to live in a world of self-inflicted torture because they were made to believe their self-worth was non-existent.