When bullying lingers…

20180515_154637.jpgIt was the day after Mother’s Day and Kait and I were in one of my absolute favourite stores, Icing. They sell just about anything sparkly and have glittered word art, a combo of two of my favourite things. All Kait needed was a wallet with a strap on it but she found two more things and there was a buy three, get three free deal going on that day. By the time we’d circled the small store at least twenty times, Kait was rapidly running out of possibilities and patience. She needed just one more thing and it had to be under $9, which, sadly, left out all the word art. Then I saw it, a sparkly pink butterfly clip, complete with tiny fake pearls. It was $6, which made it free with the deal and thus became my Mother’s Day present to go along with my glittery card.

I put it on right away, before Kait even paid for it, and double checked that it was positioned perfectly before I headed out the door. It was a matter of seconds before anxiety began gnawing at my stomach and clawing at my chest. Suddenly I expected every person we passed to laugh at me, to point out my butterfly clip, to taunt me. I flinched when people drew close because what if they hit or punched me? No one paid a single bit of attention to me but that didn’t stop the fear. It was overwhelming… all encompassing. I tried to reassure myself. I’d got the butterfly from Icing for pete’s sake, it wasn’t like I pulled it out of the toddler section of a department store. No one was going to think I was that weird.

I managed to make it down the hall and even got in a brief run through Dollarama, another favourite store, but I didn’t start feeling better until after we left the mall and were standing in the open by the bus stop. My chest and stomach slowly started to relax although I had to inform my daughter there was no way I could cook dinner that night. My spoons were done and gone. Simply getting home was going to be challenge enough.

Kathleen in 1981It wasn’t until later that I realized the origin of my fear. School. The crowds plowing both ways through the hallway felt like the halls at school and, as soon as my heart took me there, fear followed.

If I’d been bullied the same way as an adult instead of as a kid, it would have been considered abusive or harassment but I’d been a student in the 70’s and 80’s, part of the ere where kids were expected to sort “school yard squabbles” out on their own, so nothing was done.

As far as I could tell I was a perfectly normal kid. I loved to read, especially Trixie Belden books, and adored my pet cat Spotty. I rode my bike, climbed trees, and loved to write. My favourite colour was green and I’d travelled most of the way across Canada twice. My bullies didn’t know any of this. In fact they didn’t know anything about me at all. That didn’t stop them from calling me a freak, a retard, a homo. That didn’t stop them from tripping and pushing me in the hallways and chasing me down on their bikes.

I quickly learned that if I hid in the convenience store, the store owner wouldn’t kick me out and my bullies would get bored and wander away. That if you were hiding behind a car, you had to hide behind a wheel, in case they look under for feet, and move along with them, hoping they wouldn’t take a second peek under the car when you were at the back and they were at the front. I learned to check my assigned seat for spit before I sat down and wipe it up quickly before the rest of the class arrived. I learned that people, no matter how kind they seemed to others, could be absolutely vicious even when they were unprovoked.

It’s been 34 years since elementary school (28 since the end of high school). It’s been decades since I’ve been chased, punched, or spat at and still, feeling a bit different, feeling a bit like I’m standing out, is enough to bring me back to being 11 years old, being attacked for no reason other than I didn’t quite fit in.

Most days I don’t think about it but on the days when fear is triggered, when my heart pounds, and my breath tastes metallic in my mouth, I wonder about my attackers. Do they ever think about how they acted as children? Do they ever feel any guilt or do they brush it off as something everyone did? Do they flip though their grade school yearbook with their kids and think “there’s Kathleen the freak” or do they think “shit we treated her badly”. I’ll never know the answers to those questions. To be honest, I never want to see any of them again.

As for me, I’ll keep rocking my butterfly hair clip and glittery tops and I’ll make sure to keep my trips to the mall on weekday mornings instead of busy afternoons. I know I don’t fit in and most of the days I’m fine with that. On the days I’m not, I’ll try to assure that small, scared part of myself that it’ll be okay.

 

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I feel like I’m losing myself…

We were sitting in my room. Jeremy sprawled on my computer chair, zir feet propped up on my footstool, while I sat cross legged on my bed with Blackie draped across my lap. Blackie was the only happy one in my room. Her purrs echoed loudly while she butted her head against my hand and arm for more scratches. The fur was flying, in a good (albeit sneezy) way.

We’d been in my room talking earlier or rather Jeremy had been talking. Zie’d quite animatedly explained zir plans for zir bedroom. Jeremy wants to build a kitchen counter with space for zir mostly working Tassimo and a real sink, one that has a tank for fresh water and a tank for used water. I’m not sure my insurance would cover a homemade working sink in Jeremy’s bedroom.

Jeremy’s hands moved while zie talked, they fluttered like butterflies. Zie looked very feminine. I called Jeremy over to my dresser and zie waited patiently while I spread bronze eyeshadow across zir eyelids, swiped a tiny bit of blush along zir cheek bones, and put on some lip gloss. I’d gone with the gloss because it’s pale but I should have gone with lipstick instead. The gloss has a gummy, sticky texture; zie winced as soon as it was applied.

Jeremy hurried into the bathroom. “I don’t like it. This isn’t me,” zie said urgently. “How do I get it off?”

“With a washcloth,” I replied. “No, in the closet beside you,” I added as zie reached for the hand towel. Jeremy smiled briefly and reached around the corner.

“This isn’t me,” zie repeated again, sounding scared.

“Come back into my room. We need to talk,” I announced when Jeremy’s face was clean. Zie rolled zir eyes, not really a good sign but hardly unexpected.

“Just let me use the washroom,” Jeremy sighed.

Zie took a while, which I also expected. This was less a break to use the bathroom and more time to work up some courage. I needed this time too.

Jeremy walked in and every bit of planned speech disappeared out of my mind. I was left staring at zir, positive everything I said was going to come out completely wrong.

“Your gender is not determined by the clothes you wear, makeup, your interests, or how you look. It’s determined by how you feel inside. In one way your Nana was right when she talked about clothing and appearance, they aren’t you. In another way Nana was wrong. She’s under the impression that you need to conform and fit in, ignoring your own comfort levels, because the inner you isn’t the same as the outer you. She’s saying this because she fits in; no one wants her to change her appearance. If everyone insisted she wore micro mini skirts and crop tops she’d be really uncomfortable.”

Jeremy smiled and nodded but didn’t try to speak so I continued.

“I want you to understand that I’m not trying to change you. I’m not trying to force you into gender roles. I just don’t know. When you were in the bathroom I couldn’t tell if you didn’t like the makeup because it didn’t suit you or if you were scared to like the makeup. And that scares me. I love you as you, you’re my child, and I want you to be happy with yourself. I want you to feel comfortable expressing yourself.” By this time tears were streaming down my cheeks. I didn’t try to wipe them off. I just kept watching Jeremy.

“When you were little, we used to joke you’d walk away with the mailman if we let you. You thought everyone was your friend and loved being around people. You got a bit older and I let you wander a little more, but not too much. You had to stay in front of the building where I could see you. This bugged you because your friends could go further.” Jeremy nodded zir head. “But considering they were going behind the building to play in the garbage dumpsters…”

I’d found that out later from one of my neighbours. Those bins had maggots in them, which apparently the kids knew because they were throwing them at each other. I’d have intervened if I’d known at the time. Unfortunately the neighbour hadn’t. Jeremy grimaced and nodded again.

“Then you got old enough to go around on your own. I’d walk into stores and have people tell me what a great kid you are. We’d be in [neighbouring town] and people would honk and yell, “Hi Jeremy!” out their car windows. Even when we first moved here, you’d bike around and meet up with kids. But these days the only times you go out are when you’re with me.”

“I feel like I’m losing myself,” Jeremy said hoarsely. “Like I don’t know who I am.”

My gaze focused on zir, waiting for some honest insight, something I could use to help zir.

“That’s why I need a soldering gun,” zie continued.

Or maybe not.

“Every time I make something, I put a bit of myself into it and then it breaks and I lose some of myself. If I had a soldering gun I could make my inventions stronger so they’d last and I wouldn’t keep losing myself.”

“You are not your inventions,” I protested. “You are more than that. You need to see yourself as more than your collection of electronics.”

“Like you are with your writing?” zie asked pointedly. “How would you feel if you couldn’t write anymore?”

I’d be devastated. I’d hate it. But at the same time, I’m more than my writing.

“Jeremy, I have other things. I have my scrapbooking, I talk with friends, I sing, I go for walks, I swim, I bake. You need to find other things-”

I broke off as music began playing in the living room. It was one of Jeremy’s favourite songs. Had zie set an alarm?

“It’s my ringtone,” Jeremy said as zie got up. “I changed it today.”

“Who’s calling?” I asked and zie shrugged.

“I only set a personal ringtone for you.”

It was Emma. They had a great conversation that lasted well over a half hour. My head was pounding by the time they finished. I’d taken some Advil and was crawling into bed.

Jeremy stayed home from school again yesterday due to stress and I’ve got the weekend off. Hopefully we’ll have another chance at an honest conversation. Hopefully I’ll be able to help Jeremy start finding zirself soon.