Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Thought Experiment: The Me of "Could Be"

This is the third and final installment of a series on my personal account of psychological bullying and the long term effects thereof. Here I try to imagine how life may have been different had I been spared that experience.

     When I was really young, I believed that I could be anything I wanted when I grew up.  Being brought up in the 1960's & 70's I had a father who simultaneously encouraged me to dream of big and lofty goals while believing that a college education would be unnecessary for his daughter who would simply marry well and have a nice life with a good provider. At eleven, I wanted to be a doctor, a pediatrician to be exact. With the women's movement in full swing there was a certain amount of hope that this was possible. I imagined my life taking care of children and making a difference in the world. I also dreamed of being a wife to a fellow physician and having a large brood of happy children. I truly believed that I had what it would take to attain it all.
     By the time I hit high school, after years of continual ridicule, I no longer believed in myself or that I could achieve anything. I felt hideous and repulsive all the time.  I took refuge in music and writing. While my friends dated and experimented with relationships, I stayed home and read about psychology. I wound up marrying the first boyfriend I ever had and I did everything within my power to try to make it work, but there were indelible flaws which could not be fixed. It took me 15 years to accept things would never change and so my childbearing years were wasted in a marriage that reinforced the worst possible beliefs I held about myself. Even after I was out on my own, I worried I wouldn't make it and as independent as I was, the fear was near paralyzing!  No matter what friends saw in me that was good, valuable, skillful or otherwise, and no matter how much they said it to me, inside, I never believed in myself. Inside I was a nothing taking up space in a world where the future seemed dim. I longed to have the confidence and self determination that I was inspired by in others. I just couldn't find it. If I'm honest, I can say that I put myself in situations, jobs and even some relationships that nurtured my self-hatred.
    At 52, I still struggle to some degree with self-loathing. I can be cruelly abusive to myself with my thoughts and there are days that I have to work to not say horribly hurtful things to myself in the mirror.  There are also bouts of sadness.  Mostly however, I have worked through these feelings. They have far less power over me than they used to and I am able to acknowledge, accept and appreciate many qualities that I possess which are good. I have a great job, wonderful friends and a life full of joy, creativity and new experiences. Today, I like who I am on the inside... it's the packaging that bears witness to my past.
    But what if I was never relentlessly ridiculed?  What if I never lost the belief that I had the character to achieve my dreams?  What if the bullies did not succeed in tearing me down? What if encouragement shaped my life rather than insults? What if that awkward precocious 11 year-old grew up unimpeded and ran the show that is my life? How would my life be different?  Well, perhaps in a parallel universe that is how it played out. Let's ponder some of these answers...
     That precocious little girl I started out to be would have held on to per potential and never have put up with taunts and jeers in false hope to gain someone's affection. She would have known that people like that aren't worth her time.  She would have worked harder academically throughout junior high and high school and been close to the top of her class. She would have been involved in brainier pursuits along side her music and used her stubbornness on a debate team or speech club. Success in high school would have allowed her to apply to college and receive scholarships and aid to help her study whatever she chose. She may have held on to the dream of becoming a physician or she may have gone in a completely different direction. Perhaps, like the real Lori, she would have studied psychology, only she would have continued on to achieve a PhD.  She would enjoy success rather than fear it. She would have attained mastery over her body and emotions. She would be proud of her physical strength rather than be embarrassed by it. She may have gotten involved in a team sport or gymnastics which always made her feel alive. That version of me would have had dates throughout high school. Her positive attitude, friendly nature and willingness to be helpful all wrapped up in a toned body would be a combination of qualities which would be attractive to people in general but perhaps also to boys. She would be more open and far less afraid of being hurt. She would know deep inside that she was strong in character and resilient in the face of challenge. That girl... she would be unstoppable.
     The downside of being that girl is that I would have different people in my life. I cannot predict who those people would be or what qualities they would possess. To that I must say that I love the people in my life now as the woman I have become. They mean the world to me and I could not imagine my life without them in it.  So, if I were somehow given the chance to magically go back in time and do it over again with different choices, I am not sure I would do it. I am more than the sum total of my experiences: I am all of those plus all of the relationships in my life.  That would be an awful lot to risk, not knowing that the outcome would be as good as where I am right now, today. After all, nothing is certain, even when things are easy.
     The point of all of this writing is to make it perfectly clear with detailed examples that bullying through ridicule does real damage. It changes you from who you were meant to be into something and someone else. It limits your potential because you think less of yourself as a result. But it does not sentence you to a terrible life. There are still plenty of choices to make along the way and there are many wonderful experiences to be had after the bullying days are done.  I am glad I had the chutzpah to take a good hard look back at this demon from my past. What the result of sharing it all in a public forum might be remains to be seen. Regardless of any particular outcome, I can look out and say:  I am here. I survived. I have learned. I have grown and I thrive. If I have to carry around excess weight as an external representation of my past, then so be it.  Neither the bullies nor the fat defines me now. I get to define myself and write the rest of my life story!

It's Still Personal

This is a follow-up to my previous blog post on bullying, "It's Personal"
 which you may wish to read before proceeding if you have not previously done so.

     What happens when you are told by psychological bullies on a daily basis in your formative years that you are fat, ugly, undesirable and indeed unlovable?  At the start you disbelieve it rather vehemently. Quite quickly after the initial reaction, you begin to question the information and look for evidence as to determine whether it is or is not true. Our brains are wired, to look for patterns and so it accepts confirming more readily than disconfirming data. Next, a confirming belief is formed which is reinforced every day when you hear again that you are fat... ugly..., etc. The belief deepens and becomes more generalized into a self-image. The self-image is accepted by the unconscious brain which then drives behavior so that the belief becomes reality. This is manifest in the body as you gain more and more weight which renders you to many as more and more ugly... Further reinforcement occurs with every suggestion for weight loss and every rejection; large, small, real or imagined; creating a cycle of behavior both conscious and unconscious until you no longer simply believe, but rather know with certainty that you are indeed fat and ugly which makes you undesirable and therefore unlovable. This is the effect of relentless ridicule and believe me when I tell you: It's personal.
     It should be noted that I was never a skinny girl, however I was not fat either.  In my early teen years, I was not particularly curvy, but rather more muscular. I was indeed quite strong and though not involved in organized sports, I could play physically for hours in football, basketball, running bases, etc. When I look back at pictures of myself during the time when I received the brunt of ridicule, I did not have a fat body, but a solid one. I certainly felt fat between my ears though,  and as I have stated previously: As you think, so you become.
     My adolescence is documented in detail in multiple journals, but I need not consult them when it comes to this issue.  I remember wanting one thing during that time: a boyfriend. It's what the other girls around me had and they seemed to be having so much fun (when they weren't over reacting, falling apart, fighting, breaking up, reconciling, etc.) and they were getting kissed and touched all the time. I tended to like the smart, artistic type and went from crush to crush like every other girl only my affections without fail went unreciprocated. Every rejection was internalized - swallowed both literally and figuratively - and I began gaining weight. The weight became the reason for all things negative in my life. Countless times you can find a litany of self-loathing emotion followed by the solution, "I need to lose __ pounds. Or else!" or some such permutation.  At first it was was 10 pounds in junior high school and then it crept up slowly over the years until when I was at the end of high school it became 30 or 40 pounds.
    The more rejection I perceived, the more weight I gained. The more weight I gained, the more ugly and less desirable I felt. What I understand now that I did  not back then was that the feelings of self-loathing I kept on the inside were played out through my behavior in ways that perpetuated more rejection.  How?  By ignoring any signals that a person of the opposite sex might like me, or by sabotaging my own chances by acting mean or tough or even worse-cutting them down before they could cut me down.  On a conscious level, my weight was the barrier between me and what I wanted: to be loved.  On an unconscious level it was a shield and armor, protecting me from even risking rejection. So, there were no dates and no boyfriends.  I attended dances with male friends and had fun, and was fun to be around. I used my sarcasm, wit and clowning around to be sure that everyone was laughing because if they are laughing with me, they weren't laughing at me!
     The trend continued after graduation, this time out in the work force and socially out in the bar scene: I would be attracted to someone, they would not return the attraction and I would feel rejected. You guessed it - I gained more weight, reinforced the self-loathing which proved the programming in my mind.  I would look at myself in the mirror and say the most hateful things, sometimes out loud. I took over the role of bully and turned it onto myself in spades.  I was harder on me than any bully ever was!
     When I was twenty-one, a man walked into work and he was kind of cute. After about 10 months of working together, we were transferred together. A new environment was rather conducive to feelings of connection.  We started dating secretly.  One night we were getting ready to leave work and go out together when the body-building manager asked my new boyfriend to go out with the guys. He said he couldn't because he had made a promise to me. What the other guy did not know was that I was standing off to the side out of his line of view when he said, "Oh man, you don't have to go out with her. Tell her I'm making you work late."  I felt nauseous at such disdain and wished I could disappear. What an awful position my date was put into! But he took it in stride, glanced over and winked at me before saying, "No. I want to go out with Lori. I'll catch you guys another time."  I straightened up, smiled, walked into the other guy's view and said, "Thanks!" to my beau. I finally had a boyfriend! Looking back now it could be said that simply having a boyfriend was more important to me that who he was or what the relationship was like.  It felt good and it occurred to me that since it took so long for someone to actually want me, I better hold on. Even though I had some doubts, I believed that good communication could fix anything and we were married less than a year later.  
     Just before we got married I went on one of those medically supervised liquid diets and lost 40 pounds in a month. I was still a bit overweight with 20 pounds to go, but felt much better about myself. Although there was physical intimacy beforehand, I also thought being thinner would help out in that department too, once we were married and unrestricted. I was very wrong. In fact, nothing could have been further from the truth. The systematic rejection began almost immediately and by the eighth month of marriage my new husband had withdrawn every form of physical contact and affection from me. This became the greatest and by far the most painful and psychologically damaging rejection of my life. I shut down emotionally and felt trapped. By the end of my third year of marriage I had not only regained the 40 pounds I had lost, but added another sixty.  Then we moved to our new house out in the mountains, 75 miles away from everything I knew.  Depression set in quite severely and another 15 pounds came along with it.  A year later the self-hatred became unbearable. I knew something had to change or I was going to die so I started to attend Overeaters Anonymous, which started me losing weight (more than 50 pounds) and gaining emotional strength.  I started working on me for real and found a therapist for both me and my husband.  
Important note: It needs to be stated at this point that my husband was a good man. He had lots of wonderful qualities. He was honest, loyal, trustworthy and a wonderful provider. He loved me and saw wonderful things in me. He sent me to college and allowed  me to achieve my bachelor's degree. There were many good things about my life with him. I simply wanted more than a roommate. (Added after publishing)
    In therapy, along with job stress, my husband blamed (are you ready?) my WEIGHT for his lack of interest. This, even though 1) he started dating me when I was heavy 2) he payed no more attention to me after I lost weight than before and 3) he pulled his affections from me before I regained weight.  My mind exploded as I began to process what he said and all of the insults, jeering and tawdry song lyrics flooded back into my mind and confirmed, this time beyond doubt, that those boys from my childhood were right all along!  Fat, ugly, undesirable and unlovable - that's me!  After all, if my own husband rejected me, I truly was nothing. I felt that way for years in therapy as I tried to face my demons and save my marriage in which I remained through another move, this time 800 miles, and a dozen more years before circumstances arose to cause me to reevaluate myself, my marriage and my life.
     In the mid 1990's I got my first computer with a modem which through AOL got me connected to people from all over the country and beyond.  I met a man in a chat room one night and quickly found myself baring my soul to him both online and on the phone too. I knew pretty early on that I was having an emotional affair with this man and I knew it was wrong.  On the other hand he was filling a need in me that husband refused. He payed attention to me and without seeing me, desired me.  In our own way we fell in love, at least as in love as you can be with someone you've never actually met.  After over a year of corresponding and telephone conversations the opportunity arose for us to meet at an airport. This was back in the days when you could meet someone at a gate.  We spent all of 45 minutes together, but it was a life-changing experience for me because he did not reject me. Shortly after we met, the guilt set in for both of us and we chose to stop communicating, but I walked away with a gift: That man wanted me like crazy and he made me believe it... and it was personal!
    Once I believed that one man wanted me,  I had to begin to face the things I believed about myself which held me back and kept me in my dead-end marriage. As that emotional affair was coming to an end another one was growing. He too was 1000 miles away  and this time when the opportunity arose, I was certain when I met such an intelligent, successful, beautiful man I was sure to be rejected.  Sometimes, it's wonderful to be wrong. Again I was confronted with a man whose desire matched my own... and this meeting did not occur at an airport, but a hotel.  When I got home, I began planning my divorce. After all, the belief that I was not desirable was shown to be false not once, but twice. The data was confirmed and I had to get free, not to be with the man who opened the door, but to open myself up to possibilities where I lived.  And so I did.
     Not long after my divorce I met a man who was a lot younger and a lot more open than I had ever been. For seven years he helped challenge a lot of my false beliefs. He made it understood that I could be desired at any weight because sexiness lived more between my ears than in the shape of my body. I learned too that I was sexy because I was sexual. Those were major lessons to be learned and I have kept them with me to this day. Some men, who are not shallow, really do see beyond the package and treasure what lies within.
     So now I know that I am lovable because of qualities in my character despite what my outward appearance may be at any given time. I know that I have good skills to bring to a relationship; ones that nurture and deepen to help it last. I have always had  wonderful friends in my life whether or not I am in a relationship and I live a small but wonderful life. All of these experiences and many others have worked together to make me who I am today. I believe I am a good, loving and compassionate person, that I work hard and play hard.  I do not let my physical weight stop me from any experience. I go places and do things. I even get on stage with an improvisation class, in front of an audience. I am smart, funny and open. Most importantly, I think I'm a good friend and if that is true, then my life is a success. I choose happiness!  I choose it every day.
     I can still become attracted to someone who is not interested.  That's just part of life. No one is liked by everyone! Sometimes, I admit, those old ugly feelings of rejection come up and I swallow them down and my weight still fluctuates in response. I lose weight when I am with someone and gain it when I am not. I hate it, and often I hate me for it. I remain my own worst enemy. That's the residual affect of the bullying that occurred 40 years ago. I don't blame or hold animosity towards the bullies. My own psychology did and continues to do more damage than they did. It can't get more personal than that.
    At present, there is another bully in my life, and that is society itself. After all, it is the overweight population that receives the most open ridicule nowadays. We are fair game! It's everywhere from the playground to the White House. Skinny is what everyone is told and programmed to desire. Boys in particular are targeted to believe this.  Just look at the marketing we are bombarded with: It has reared generations of shallow men. In fact, I have several male friends who talk in my presence about what is hot to them and what is not. I never fit the description and they talk as though I am not even there. Sometimes those old feelings come back and I feel less than human as I listen. I would like to rid myself of this leftover remnant though I am unsure what psychological work I need to do to accomplish it. Perhaps writing these very words is part of the process. If I do achieve complete freedom from  my past, will I also be free of the behaviors that keep me fat? Even if the weight remains I long to be free of those feelings and the biggest bully of all... the really personal one... the one within myself... 
     All in all, I can't complain.  In fact people who know me would tell you that I am one of the most well adjusted people around. I am a critically-thinking realist with rational perspective on myself, others and the world.  Above all, I am grateful for everything and every experience I have had - bad, good or indifferent.  No one escapes the fact that we all carry emotional baggage from our past.  It's personal! So what?  Life is good!

Monday, April 15, 2013

It's Personal

     There has been a lot of press on the subject of bullying lately and for the longest time I thought how horrible it was that kids are bullied to the point of hopelessness and suicide. My heart breaks a little with every such report.  In my mind, being a kid and feeling hopeless should never meet.  Don't get me wrong, I remember a scant few instances of teen suicide back in the late 70's when I was young, but we didn't talk about it.  Not really.
     Mistakenly I had a very narrow view of what bullying is and my view always had the victim being physically battered or having his or her physical well-being threatened. My views changed when I started reading the stories of relentless ridicule especially to gay teens who were committing suicide; at least their stories were getting the press.  Again, my heart breaks a little with each one. It both saddens me that these kids feel there is no other way to escape but death; At the same time it angers me that other kids are so mean. If that is not enough it simultaneously infuriates me that there are no adults in these kids' lives putting a stop to it.
    I started reading blog posts about the subject and the stories themselves, though compelling, sometimes paled in comparison to the individuals who were moved to reply with their own experiences.  The people replying, some of them barely out of their teens, still trying to make a life for themselves as adults were relaying stories of insidious bullying that had nothing to do with being battered with fists and everything to do with being battered with words. Sometimes those words came quietly.  These young adults talked about how those words affected them and how they continue to be affected by them years later.  They talk of how despite their best mental fortitude they slowly began to change from their authentic selves into twisted versions based on relentless bombardment of name-calling and the cruel descriptive images. Some victims changed from outgoing to reserved and some... some changed into the forms of what they were continually, relentlessly, though falsely, told they were.
     It was reading about this verbal bullying that caused me to stop dead in my tracks and look behind me, look decades behind me and review with new eyes what I experienced, how I chose to cope with it and how 40+ years later it was all still in my head and affecting who I am. The words of others repeated over and over again for nine years of my youth set up an ugly image inside me of what I am and how others must perceive me. Those messages were internalized and over time became beliefs.  The mind creates what it believes: What we deeply believe ourselves to be is exactly what our brain causes us to become.
     In third grade it started with a crush. I had my first little crush on the boy who sat in front of me. Even back then I would say what I felt and though I don't remember how I communicated my adoration, the message got through. The recipient however recoiled from the message and fought back by giving me my first nickname: Turkey.  At first I was notably upset by this name and I remember telling my mother about it.  She said what parents did back in the 60's. So I heard all the cliches, "Oh, don't believe what he says. He's just being a boy."  "It's only words. Pay no attention."  "Just ignore him and he'll stop." They were platitudes. I remember taking it a lot more seriously than my mother did, but I got my marching orders so it was never mentioned again. The name caught on with boys and girls alike and I was known as Turkey until the end of grammar school. That was three years.
     Although the name hurt me, and thinking of it now 45 years later I can still feel the twinge that hearing it caused, it taught me some coping skills back then. I turned it into something funny, which gave my classmates and perhaps myself the illusion that I was above it and in control of the situation. There was no way I would let them think they had power over me.  In fact, it turned into a daily recess game of "If I could catch him, I could kiss him," which pitted the boys against the girls in a very serious game of hiding, spying and revealing, all while running. There was lots and lots of running... and running was not my strong suit. In fact, my running fueled the fire when it came to calling me Turkey.  So did holidays where turkey was served. The jabbing and the jokes reached a fevered pitch then.  It was personal.  I was being compared to a farm animal, a fatted up one that gets consumed and the carcass thrown away. Even a child understands that metaphor and it was very, very personal. But I laughed first and loudest. No one was going to get the best of me... at least not to their knowledge.
     By the time I was in 5th grade, the boy on whom I had this crush was not the least bit interesting to me and by the end of that school year I had a new crush. This time I kept it to myself. I kept it to myself over a couple of years as my secret feelings grew.  I kept silent until 8th grade, the second year of Junior High School. It was then that I let the cat out of the bag. After a year and a half of sitting as close to him as possible on the bus and interacting in silly girly ways, I finally said something.  Of course I did not tell him directly. No, I shared my feelings with a friend who would do some reconnaissance to determine if he liked me back. He did not. Surprise! Surprise!
     Well, in 8th grade secrets are not kept very long and the news got back to the object of my affection and he immediately turned it into a joke. He turned ME into a joke. How could he possibly like me, he stated. He could he ever like me! I was fat! That was personal. Looking back at pictures I can see that it was not  at all true.  Back then however, it felt very true. After all, it confirmed all of the years of being Turkey.  But this time the sting was stronger... more visceral... more poisonous. Again, I laughed first and loudest. I accepted his daily jabs with a "Bring it on" attitude. I pretended that the attention he gave me meant the opposite of the message it brought. I appeared impervious to his taunts and teases which were often accompanied by just as cruel insults delivered by his ever present best friend.  Still, I sat as close to him as I could. Still, I maintained my adoration.  I was good at hiding my hurt feelings. I got so good at it, I hid them even from me... and I laughed.
     By 9th grade my laughter egged him on and he started putting real effort into his ridicule. He started to take popular songs and rewrite the lyrics so that they were musical insults about me. Sometimes he did just the chorus, sometimes a verse too and sometimes he would rewrite entire songs. He would sing them to me in the back of the bus. He would write new ones regularly and refine ones he had already done to make them more and more hurtful. It was personal... and I laughed. Sometimes he would call me and sing them to me over the phone. Once he changed the the lyrics to Tom Jones' Pussycat, Pussycat and he left the lines "Pussycat, Pussycat I love you, yes I do" intact and that was all I heard. The scathing attacks on my physical appearance and character melted away and held on to that one line in the innocent adolescent hope that it was the truth.
     One day, he sat on the bus with a new creation of which he was very proud. This one I remember: It was personal. He took the entirety of Paul and Linda McCartney's song Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey, all 4 minutes and 49 seconds worth and he changed every single word into the penultimate work of tawdry insult. He debuted his masterpiece in the back of the bus one morning.  Now mind you when he sang these things it was not in a hushed tone just for me. Oh no. He was more than happy to share his efforts with whomever wished to hear, and laugh. I can still see his face and hear him sing, "You're so ugly, Lori [My last name]. You're so ugly that I think I'm gonna shit. You're so ugly, Lori [My last name] and I think it's because you don't have any tits..."  That was personal! ... and I laughed.
     One would think that after being the object of such debasement any leftover feelings of attraction would wane and disappear, but adolescence is a time of great personal irony. Several months later upon graduating from  Junior High School after 9th grade, I had a graduation party.  It was there that this boy gave me my first grown-up kiss. My diary states that it lasted about 3 minutes and 45 seconds, the timing of which was derived from the length of the song during which it occurred. Now , as an adult, I know he did not deserve the honor of my first kiss. Sadly and perhaps even sickly I continued to pine over this ASS for at least another year, until our high school paths diverged.  But I never forgot. I remembered his insults and I remembered those songs... I remembered that song. I am sorry that I remember that much, and thankful that I remember no more. In fact, typing it out just now produced a palpable and all too familiar wave of hurt and self-loathing. It was personal... It IS personal... and it contributed to shaping me.

... continues

In the continuation, I will discuss how these experiences were factors in shaping my adult life, how I moved on in spite of them and how recent introspection revealed how in one very basic aspect they still haunt me. Perhaps as I shed these thoughts and share their insight, I can once and for all rid myself of the effects of my experiences and their ever present physical representation. Perhaps indeed.

Note: I understand that the paltry ridicule which I experienced does not compare to the hell others have endured. These things felt big to me at the time and I am only now seeing and acknowledging how they may have affected me. This writing is a catharsis and hopefully proves to be at least therapeutic and if I am lucky, healing.