Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Survival Instead of Suicide, Shifting the Paradigm from Victim to Compassionate Survivor

I am a bullying survivor.

All throughout grammar school,I was either teased or bullied. When kids are taunted because, like me, they have "Pick on me, I am sensitive," emblazoned on their foreheads, is there much difference? Either way a child is meant to feel as if they are not as good as everyone else. Kids know innately when someone is sensitive and vulnerable. I don't need to read "Lord of the Flies." When you are a sensitive kid wishing, hoping, praying that other kids will like you, that is your life. And when, like me, you don't have any real refuge at home, you wish you were dead. Eleven year olds should not be wanting to kill themselves. But they do.And some succeed. Or rather,they fail to grasp that there are benefits to staying alive.They fail to see that suicide is, as some glibly put it, a permanent solution to a temporary situation.The pain feels permanent.

When i was eleven, we moved from Chicago's Southeast side to the suburbs. I thought, new town, new school, I'd have a respite from the bullies. Start over. I was hanging up my jacket on the first day of school when I saw a face I hadn't seen in several years. Was a bully who had moved away three years earlier. He recognized me straight away. "Miller, you are gonna get it!" He made sure that the other kids knew who I was. His best friend was in a nearby classroom. And the best friend's cousin was in my classroom. I had also left behind the mean girls, only to find myself besieged by another set of mean girls.

My desire to end it all was childish, yet my pain was very real. I imagined my funeral. People were gonna stand around at graveside and wish they had been kinder to me. I suppose that, in the case of suicides, the more realistic scenario is that survivors are angry with the person for giving up. No doubt there is some guilt thrown in for good measure.

On Columbus Day 1969 I went down to the kitchen. Instead of joining my folks at the breakfast table, I opened up the knife drawer and started testing knives for sharpness by placing my finger tip against the edge of each one. My dad sat there frozen, but my mom asked me what I was doing. I told her. She got up from the kitchen table and had me close the drawer. I followed her upstairs to my bedroom, and we sat on the bed and talked. She talked to me about how suicide is against God's law. I don't know if that argument would have worked on me if I had all ready been an atheist. All that matters is that it worked then. Mainly I think I realized how hurtful my actions could have been.I still remember the stricken look on my dad's face as he sat there at the table. Even without my mom saying a word to me, I think I knew how much pain I would have caused him. In my self pity, I had not considered how my actions would affect others.Just that I wanted them to be sorry.

Even as I was testing knives for sharpness, I knew I couldn't have gone through with it.I've always had an aversion to sharp objects. If I had escaped upstairs with a knife, I am certain I would have broken down sobbing instead. The pain was real, but the drama made it almost laughable. I got the attention I wanted,but scenes like this is why I occasionally refer to myself as a drama queen in recovery. It's not those of us filled with drama who people have to watch out for. It's the quiet ones who don't come down to the kitchen to test out knives with a dramatic flourish who we need to watch out for.

One can live past childhood, but unless one undergoes therapy or similar there is little way to get past the scars left behind by bullying. The watershed moment for me was in eighth grade when I finally stood up to bullies. All throughout junior high I was afraid of these boys. Eddie was the ringleader. Steve was the big, dumb one,and Paul was the short one. Paul may have been small, but he was great at dumping books in the hall. There was also Mike, but he was not really one of the bullies. He just happened to be Eddie's best friend.

In junior high I was in drama club. On those days I didn't fear the bullies because I stayed after school. The bullies had already gone home. On days that I didn't stay after school, I was often quasi chased by them. They didn't make me run, but they made me aware of their presence. I walked very fast on those days. One winter afternoon,I slipped on the ice right in front of Eddie's house. I had been wearing a skirt that day, and I tore my hose and skinned my knee. As I struggled to gather up my school books and get up, Eddie was crowing triumphantly, "Spit on her! Spit on her!" I turned to him and I said, "You son of a bitch." Eddie's older brother stood there in the opening of the garage. "What did you call him," he asked menacingly. "I called him a son of a bitch," I answered defiantly, all the while certain that, at that moment, the four, five of them were going to gang up on me.To this day it surprises me that neither of those boys made a move to wallop me. There were, to my knowledge, no adults around.Who knows what they could have done to me in that subdivision. But they didn't.After a tense moment, they let me go on my way.And they never taunted me again.

No one had taught me how to fend off bullies.Not my mom.Not my dad.Not my older brothers.Not any teachers.Not any friends.Took me years to figure it out.When a person asserts oneself, they are standing their ground.When I called Eddie a son of a bitch, I was clearly angry.I did not yell.I did not scream. It was a tense few minutes, but very little drama. That is how we stop bullies.We assert a quiet authority.

Last March when the DCFS investigator towered over me, and insisted I had to take Kid O to the ER right then and there, I stood my ground. I was quaking inside, but I still managed to calmly state to her, no, I wasn't going to take her to the ER for an alleged scratch. I told her that I would take her to the pediatrician's office first thing in the morning. She started to try to reassert her authority, but she backed down.

It is wonderful when kids have others to back them up, whether it's other kids or adults. Ultimately, however, kids are going to grow up and they will have to face bullies on their own. It is important that we teach kids how to be ethical, honorable and authentic human beings who know how to be calm in the face of adversity. If we do not teach kids how to be independent, self-assured adults, then we do let the bullies win. Victims will continue to be victims instead of survivors.

It's especially important that we, as a society, shift from the language and mindset of victimhood to the language of survival. It is not just for the sake of political correctness that we do that. It is so that we can facilitate the shift in many people to accept responsibility for themselves and their own survival. Women are not rape victims, for instance, but rape survivors.We do not talk about Holocaust victims. We talk about Holocaust survivors.

We are all responsible for the culture that in which bullying thrives. We all need to participate in the prevention of bullying. More importantly we need to all be responsible for how we talk about bullying.If we talk about victims instead of survivors, then we perpetuate that idea that someone bigger and stronger will always take out the more vulnerable amongst us. Each and every one of us, former bullies and former bullying survivors alike, are responsible for this paradigm shift.Language is powerful.How we label people and actions affects how we think about them and ultimately how we react and what kind of behavior we display. In this particular instance we cannot afford to be careless in how we use language. We need protect the more vulnerable members of our society, but we also teach them, as best as we can, how to fend for themselves. We need to help them how to grow up to be strong, self assured adults instead of weak, dependent ones.

Equally important as the shift in language is shift in consciousness from that of a bully to that of a compassionate person. When I was in eighth grade, I was standing in the lunch line with C and L, who were my fellow misfits. C, upon realizing she was no longer being picked on, decided that she would then pick on L, who had the misfortune of being covered with acne and who had a terribly nasal voice. I didn't say anything to C, but it was the beginning of the end of our friendship. I realized then and there that I did not want to be yet another mean girl. Right that moment I chose compassion.

We need to do more than simply teach children how to be survivors.We teach them to be ethical, honorable and compassionate as they become adults.We teach them how to share. We teach them to be generous and loving, not selfish and self-centered.We teach them how to be forgiving. If we do not do these things at this critical juncture, then we will ultimately fail as a society. This is our moral imperative. Not just parents. Not just educators. All of us.


  1. Language is powerful whether used as a weapon or a defense. You are a bullying survivor; bullying victims are those who complete the act you made gestures towards. The power of your story could be a wonderful balm for kids who today are hurting the way you were. Knowing that adults once had the same self-destructive fantasies they now have and found a way beyond that pain could make the difference between a child being q bullying victim or survivor.

  2. And this is why I have continued to blog, even though it sometimes causes a reaction similar to PTSD. Over the years one learns to detach.

    You are right about the difference between victim and survivor. All the more reason why we need to emphasize the survivor/survival aspect. And why we need to help kids onto a path towards self-acceptance and compassion.

  3. Wow! What an insightful, eloquent and heart breaking post. Thank you for sharing this. Your understanding and sensitivity to bullied kids, their needs, their worries and their potential internal plans should bring havoc on every parent's parenting skills. Whether their children are the bullies or the bullied, they need to listen and hear what you are saying...really hear and then take action. May I quote you on some of this?

  4. I'd be honored if you were to quote me.