September 9, 2011

As I was riding home on the subway tonight, the young man and woman sitting next to me began to evaluate someone’s looks.

“Not a good angle,” the guy laughed.

The woman started to say something in response, but he shushed her. Then she leaned over and whispered it.

Cool it, Sarah, I thought to myself. Don’t just assume they’re talking about you.

He passed her his phone and she typed her opinion on there. He read it and laughed. “Now you’re just being mean!”

She muttered a defense I couldn’t make out. He agreed with her.

You can’t just assume everything mean thing is about you.

“So you’re saying she’s not a six; she’s more like a three.”

“I think you were distracted by the hair.”

Grow up. You’re not that kid anymore.

“The problem is that it’s been so long since I’ve had a girlfriend. My standards have gone way down.”

They’re not talking about you. Stop being so paranoid.

But then they started talking about the book that the unattractive woman was reading.

“That’s one of the guys from Top Gear,” she explained.

And there was only one girl reading a Richard Hammond book on that subway car.

I know that the rational reaction would be anger, or disgust. Logically, I get that they’re the human excrement in this equation, not my poor Odo face and deceptive blonde hair. But none of that can change, or even touch, the way I feel right now.

Of course they were talking about me. I’m still that girl. I will always be that girl.

I was bullied as a child. Not physically, but meticulously. And brutally. At some point, a group of girls who had once been my friends decided that they didn’t like me anymore. I can’t tell you when, exactly, it happened. I couldn’t read the signs then, and I’m not much more capable of figuring them out now. They didn’t tell me at first, because pretending to be my friend gave them more ammunition against me. When I eventually wised up and called them on the fact that they were stealing from me and only calling me to make fun of me, they changed tactics. I spent almost a whole school year wandering around the playground by myself. The pack of girls followed me around for most of that time, mockingly replicating every single move I made, no matter how small. I spent every moment of class bracing myself for the vicious whispers and gleeful giggles that were always targeted at me. And then I sometimes came home with writing on my clothing.

I transferred schools to escape it, but the damage was already done.

There’s an increasing amount of sympathy for bullied kids these days, but the unaffected tend to lose patience with the victims as they reach adulthood. By that point, most people seem to assume that you should just get over it.

But the Get Over It crowd fail to see the situation for what it really is. They’re picturing a city razed by fire that can, with time and resources, rebuild on solid ground. But getting over bullying is like building on a fault line.

When you’re bullied during your formative years, you grow differently. While the other kids are learning to navigate friendships and group dynamics and form themselves into functional members of accepted society, you’re learning that you’ll never belong, that there’s obviously something wrong with you, and that you have to be on your guard at all times, because anyone can be a predator.

I’ve worked hard to move beyond that perspective, but it’s always an effort. Even now, everyone I meet is an enemy until I’m proven otherwise. It’s part of my nature, hardwired into my psyche. So too is my reaction when I hear people discussing or making fun of someone in public. My heart races and my breath catches. I am prey anticipating the attack.

For over fifteen years, I have been doing my best to convince myself that not everyone is out to destroy me, and not every furtive whisper on the train or veiled tweet is a personal attack. My instincts have been proven wrong over and over again. But fifteen years’ worth of positive examples is nothing compared to tonight’s episode. All of that work, all of that getting over it, crumbled in the face of one callous conversation.

If getting over it was easy, I would have snapped my fingers and done it long ago. Sitting at home alone and experiencing the feelings of a real life emotional pre-teenager because you’re too humiliated and insecure to be seen in public and then feeling doubly wretched about yourself because you’re too old to feel that way and should just grow up already is a shit way to spend a Friday night. And it’s an even shittier way to spend so much of a life.


2 Responses to “”

  1. alcyonrambling Says:

    which is why I take the seat perpendicular to the direction of travel, backpack on lap, staring out the window….

  2. Laurie Says:

    With you there, girlfriend! Your post made me want to cry. I have to tell myself, “My husband loves me. I have real, true friends. These phonies don’t deserve my time.”

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