Put your gun down and don’t shoot it.
It’s funny (peculiar, not ha-ha) how the thing i’ve been trying to write about for, well, maybe years, comes to the forefront after i get back to a draft i’ve saved for 6+mos. It’s sat on my blog and been reworded, revised, and deleted over and over, because it’s one of the most difficult subjects for me to address. I’ve never felt like i’ve gotten enough distance from it to have anything helpful to share.
Maybe now i do.
I may still put this back on the shelf.
I don’t know what i’m gonna decide, but i’m in suspense!
(I know, if you’re reading this, that makes precisely one of us. Heh.)
The bullying started in grade two. I’d just been returned to my mother after nearly a year of being in the foster care system. During that time, i learned to cope with food. Unlike at home, foster care afforded me regular access to healthy food. Breakfasts came with fruit, toast, cereal – i had Flintstones chewable vitamins for the first time in my life. Lunches were either prepared for me to take to school, or i came home to a mother who had it ready on the table. And the most amazing meal of the day was suppertime, when there was a father, hungry and home from work, sitting with mother and children. Everyone chatting about their day, as the other children snuck their Brussels sprouts onto my plate. It was just like i’d seen on television. There were even after school and bedtime snacks, for crying out loud.
At home there was often nothing in the fridge. I’d come home from school starving, having not had lunch, and tear apart the cupboards looking for anything edible. I remember i’d make a treat out of soda crackers: i’d put a small dollop of ketchup on one, followed by a tiny drip of mustard, topped with a quick sploosh of Worcestershire sauce, and then pop the entire thing in my mouth. I pretended i was eating fancy appetizers.
If there was food, i was often expected to prepare it, and if my mother thought i had eaten any of it before she returned home from work, i was guaranteed some kind of beating, the severity of which usually depended on what kind of day she’d had.
I’m telling you this to demonstrate why, when i was returned to my mom on Christmas Eve, i was a bit overweight. Add to that, my mom was celebrating getting me back from the “evil” foster parents that were trying to take me away from her – and her favourite way to celebrate was food. This time though, she actually shared it all with me, because she was fresh out of the mental hospital and chest-deep into the latest 70s pop psychology, so she was wearing her Bonnie-Franklin-as-Ann-Romano-in-One-Day-At-A-Time-i’m-a-great-modern-mom mask. (It came off before Christmas holidays were over.) For 2 solid weeks, all i did was eat. And i’m telling you that so you know why the bullying started immediately on a frigid January day in 1975.
I was the fat (not really) kid.
Being the fat kid was bad enough, but i increased my target value by being both obviously poor, and overflowing with personality… personalities… Whatever. I had the reek of something gone off inside me, and everyone around me could smell it. To the sharks on the playground, i was blood in the water.
I could share lots of stories, but you’ve likely heard similar ones, or had an experience or two yourself. I don’t want to wallow or dwell. I’m loathe to talk about this part of my life at all, but it has become clear to me that it still effects how i experience friendships and peer groups, so i either handle it, or it’ll just keep on handling me.
I’ve said stuff like this before in other journalling pieces, but i may have glossed over it. Maybe it’ll help if i just let it get embarrassingly emotional and awkward for everyone – the ugly cry of the blog post. A little bloodletting to balance the humours. Trephination to release my inner demons. Barf it up and flush it, H. (I’m revving myself up with metaphors.)
I avoid this issue because that’s how i felt the entire 12 years i was in public school. Embarrassed. Emotional. Awkward. Also, exposed and vulnerable and utterly alone.
I was being raped and beaten and emotionally tortured at home. On the good days i was just neglected. School should have been a port in the storm. It should have been some respite from the constant emotional upheaval. Instead, the armour i wore to protect me at home was like waving a cape at the school bullies. I added more fat over the years, and threw in poor hygiene because i’m an overachiever. Heh. It was actually because my mother modelled it for me, coupled with the bathroom being a very dangerous place for me, abuse-wise, but if that had occurred to anyone at school, it never manifested in my rescue. There were a couple of visits from social workers – they came to the school, not the home, so i think a teacher or 2 may have tried, but my mother was an exceptionally clever woman, and a fabulous actress.
For 19 solid years i had it drilled into me that i was alone.
I was defective and gross and no one would ever like, love, or want me.
Everything i did was wrong, or not enough.
Everyone i loved hurt and/or left me.
That’s a long time for some extensive programming to sink in, take hold, and grow roots.
I was physically separated from my mother at 20, but even though she died before we could be reunited, she was always with me. Fortunately, gratefully, no one in my Peanut Gallery is representative of her, although they all have their own experiences and opinions of who she was to them. I’m referring to just how well her indoctrination took. I was generally a very obedient child, especially when i was younger, and her training was thorough. I did what i was told: in public i was unfailingly polite and proper, deferred to all adults, was quiet and demure, unless called upon to be precocious in order to impress someone. As she descended into hopelessness, depression, and rage, her mask began to slip, her hold on me lessened some, and my own facade developed some cracks.
Still, i approached every person and every situation the same way. I wanted desperately to be liked and accepted, but i was terrified for them to get to know me too well, because they might find out how rotted and filthy i was at my core.
Thusly i conducted every friendship i ever attempted – a stilted dance of pulling someone in too close, out of tempo, only to fling them stage left for an ill-timed solo, or turn away and dance by myself as if they weren’t even there, usually in a style that didn’t match the song.
I know now that i must have been very difficult to be friends with. I’m surprised at how long some of them stuck with me. Some left with good reason, others were probably just tired. I mourned them all, but miss none of them today. (I have been happy to reconnect with a couple of good people, though.) People as broken as i was don’t always have the greatest taste. The only long-term friends i have that i’m even remotely intimate with now, are online. They either don’t notice or don’t mind that i get close and then faaaaaaaar. Most of them even know and accept that i’m not always quite myself, and they treat my people with as much love and respect and patience as they treat me.
I don’t know if i can ever have that with anyone in the flesh.
I don’t think i’ve ever given anyone a decent opportunity, but i was ignorant, and now…
Now i don’t know if i can, or even if i want to.
My mother and my home life taught me to wear a mask, and i got so good at it that my masks became people that live in my brain.
My peers and my school life taught me that all my masks were ugly, and it hurt so much that i crawled up inside my brain and let my masks take over.
Since all this inner gardening work i’ve done has finally started bearing some truly delicious fruit, i have only shared it with family in the flesh, and with my dear online friends. I’ve not yet invited someone to my table and served them any of my harvest. I’m afraid they won’t even want to sit and partake. Or what if they do and they find it bitter, or overripe? Or what if they eat it, and i suddenly find that i’m one with my bounty and they’re hungrily devouring me and i cannot stop them? What if they pillage my garden and feed until i am nothing?
Angry children climbing my trees and plucking every fruit, trouncing every lush vine, and mercilessly uprooting every flower. And always, the children who watch and do nothing, as my beautiful garden is turned to desert, their whispers blow all my top soil away.
This is the ugly cry of it.
My mother twisted me into an odd duck, and schoolchildren -both the bullies and the do-nothings- plucked me to death, one feather at a time.
~A Conversation Between Oprah Winfrey and Maya Angelou~
OPRAH: Maya, you were telling me that your life is defined by principles, and one principle you have taught me is that we can’t allow ourselves to be “pecked to death by ducks.”
MAYA: That is true. Some people don’t have the nerve to just reach up and grab your throat, so they just take …
OPRAH: … little pieces of you, with their rude comments.
MAYA: That’s right.
OPRAH: They try to demean you.
MAYA: Reduce your humanity through what New York cartoonist Jules Feiffer called “little murders.” The minute I hear [someone trying to demean me], I know that person means to have my life. And I won’t give it to them.
OPRAH: It is an assassination attempt by a coward.
MAYA: Yes, some people don’t have the courage to just walk up to you and pull the trigger. If somebody just walked up and said “Boom!” — well, there you go. Bye. But when a person commits these little murders, and then you catch him or her at it, he or she might say, “Oh, I didn’t mean it.” But make no mistake: It is an assassination attempt.
I’ll just be over here, swimming in my little pond in my garden.
No peckers allowed.