I promised to tell the silly, sad, ridiculous, selfish, stupid, heart-breaking, funny story of why it matters to me to have reached 355 “likes” on Facebook once I got there. Well, as of writing this I’m at 354. Close enough. So here it is.
I was bullied in school. Like, a lot. It wasn’t violent, physical bullying. No one ever pushed me into a locker or flushed my head in the toilet. I went to a private, religious school and as far as I know we didn’t do that there. But what the girls in my class were very good at was emotional bullying.
I read not that long ago in Dr. Louann Brizendine’s book The Female Brain that teenage girls work in packs. At that age they are just beginning to be aware of the control that they can wield over others. It’s deeply psychologically important for teenage girls to feel included as part of the pack. This has to do with, among other things, primitive survival instinct. To be included as one of the pack means that if there is an attack on one female in a group all of the other females will come to their defense to save them. The worst possible thing you can do for the mental well-being and psychological security of a teenage girl is to exclude her from the pack.
Well guess what. That’s what happened to me. And it was deliberate too.
Granted, I had other problems. In 1988, when I was 14 years old, I was diagnosed with agoraphobia. I had horrible, crippling panic attacks that would cause disruptions and make me feel like I was going crazy. I was in therapy twice a week trying to work through it. Life was one terrifying test after another. It was a supreme effort to go to school every day and keep it together. I lived in a state of constant, irrational, chemical fear.
This was made infinitely more difficult to bear by the fact that my classmates had deemed me the least popular girl in the class. Yes, they made a list. They sat around and discussed it on a class trip with all of us there. They ranked the class in order of popularity from most popular to least popular and told me to my face that I was the least popular person in the class. And everyone agreed. Including the girl who was ranked as second-least popular. I’m a writer and even I can’t find words to describe the way it felt to have all of my peers look at me and tell me to my face that I was as low as it goes.
While dealing with daily panic attacks.
So how did I deal with this?
I had been writing since I was ten years old and it dawned on me that I didn’t have to wait for the teacher to assign a creative writing project to write something. I scribbled down stories whenever I could. I wrote a lot of very silly fan fiction; about Labyrinth, about Star Trek, about Days of our Lives, about a lot of things. I began to transition slowly to my own material towards the end of high school, but the things I wrote still weren’t very good. But the act of writing them, of making my escape from this impossibly cruel world of exclusion and anxiety, was what kept me going.
I am very happy to say that when I walked out of high school, the day I graduated, in spite of being invited to various graduation parties with my classmates, I washed my hands and said good-riddance to all of them. Physically I moved on.
Mentally it took a little longer.
I carried around the pain of that emotional bullying for a long, long time. Everything I did, every achievement I made, I compared against what I thought those girls who ranked me as the least popular girl in the class would think. I thought about them nearly every day with a “take that!” sort of attitude.
The grind began to ease a little when I went to my 10 year class reunion. People don’t really change that much after 10 years. The queen bee girls still sat together at their table talking almost exclusively to each other. I realized very quickly that the most interesting people in my class were the ones like me, the ones who had been treated badly but had gone on and grown. They were mostly the guys from my class who had been dorky and awful in school. I had a great time talking to them. The popular girls still pretty much ignored me.
All this while I was still writing. I was getting a little more serious about things, biding my time, figuring out who I was and what I wanted to do. I didn’t feel as if I was in any hurry. Writing was my dream, after all. It was my escape, my soul, my essence. It was the thing that made me ME. It was the thing I knew I was going to do to make my mark on the world. It was my legacy. It was my everything.
In August 2010 my classmate Chandra Hoffman, one of those girls, published her novel Chosen. It’s a literary fiction story about an adoption gone wrong. It was published by Harper. Last week it hit shelves at Target stores as an emerging author pick.
GOD DAMMIT! Writing was MY dream! Writing was what I wanted to do! Writing was and is MY soul! How the hell is it even remotely fair that someone who was a ring-leader in making my formative years a living nightmare could achieve my dream sooner and more dramatically than I did? Where is the justice in that? Chandra grew up wealthy, for God’s sake! She got a car for her 15th birthday. Meanwhile my mom had to struggle and move us in with her mother because she couldn’t support us on our own. Chandra went to grad school for creative writing and met all sorts of people who gave her the insider leg-up that most writers can only dream of. How is this remotely fair?
Yes. I realize I am being a big baby about this. I am fully aware of the fact that I am whining like a four-year-old who needs a nap. Life isn’t fair. I’m sure Chandra has had to go through all sorts of crap in her life. She looks downright miserable in her official author photo. But that doesn’t stop me from crying bloody murder at the perceived injustice of the lives that different people live. We all have our own paths. She’s walking hers, I’m walking mine.
We might grow older, but I sometimes think that we never truly grow up. It doesn’t matter what challenges we have had to face in life, whether we’ve had to deal with major psychological trauma or just disappointment over not getting the part in the school play that we wanted. The point of maturity is to learn how to cope with the cards your dealt. But the petty resentments, the selfish gloating, the overblown fury that makes you want to punch a hole in the wall never truly goes away, even if it stays quiet most of the time.
I write because I have to. It is the deepest part of who I am. But I write commercial fiction, romance and science fiction. Literary fiction leaves me cold. Those aren’t the stories that my soul has to tell. My soul wants to produce a world of happily-ever-afters. It wants to see a universe where men are handsome and virile and always do the right thing. It wants to inhabit a world where women are strong and have a loud enough voice to fight against the injustices thrust upon them. I write the worlds that I wish with all my heart I could live in. I am happy with that. I will succeed doing that.
But I’m only human. I am petty and resentful and incredibly selfish sometimes. Really petty.
As of writing this, Chandra Hoffman has 351 “likes” on her Facebook author page.
I have 354.
HA! More people like me than like you! Take that, bitch!
*takes a deep breath*
*shakes head at self*
See. We can’t all be noble and mature all the time. Wounds don’t work that way. And if you’re tempted to leave a comment along the lines of “You need to get over it, it was high school, grow up!” yes, I’ve already said that to myself. And you might want to take a look at the ridiculousness that you’re holding onto yourself before you go throwing stones in glass houses. We all get stupid sometimes. We all have a hard time letting go. It’s probably not okay, but it’s part of being human.
To me 355 means validation. It’s a reminder that the world of those stupid, nasty teenage girls doesn’t exist anymore. It tells me that there is a much larger world out there that I am a part of. I am included in that pack. It gives me a horrible, selfish little thrill followed by the opportunity to laugh at myself for being ridiculous. It reminds me that there are so many other teenage girls out there right now who are having scars cut deep into their souls because they are surrounded by other fragile, grasping egos. 355 reminds me that I’m not alone, that someone else doesn’t have to be alone.
I write because it is who I am, not because I want to prove I’m better than someone who bullied me because they didn’t know any better. I will succeed as a writer out of love for every word I write, not hatred of the words others have written. Chandra’s success doesn’t preclude my own. There is enough love and enough success to go around in this world. As giddy-resentful as I might get, I really do wish Chandra well in the end. But I’m not going to my 20 year class reunion next year.*
355, you’re the best!
[Note: I wrote and posted this last night and went to bed. This morning I woke up with a whole new feeling of having made peace with the poo of the past. It's strange how close to therapy writing is sometimes. I can't help but think that I come off the worse for parts of this blog post. But I'm glad I wrote it. I feel better on a grander scale. Sometimes you just need to get it all out there so that you can move on.]
*I decided that about ten minutes after my 10 year reunion, long, long before Chosen was published.