This is a story about being bullied. It's also a story about a happy ending.
Recently, I met up with my youth pastor at a reunion event. He'd been a great influence during a time when my faith had been in flux, when I had been concerned that God, along with everyone else, didn't have a place for me.
I was also afraid there would be no one who would ever love me, maybe except for those legally obligated to do so.
The pastor asked me what I'd been doing with myself all these years. "Well, I've had a career in writing and broadcasting sports and news, as well as writing for nonprofits." I told him.
He laughed heartily, "Alison," he said. "That is the LAST thing I would have expected you to do with your life!"
I've been doing all these things for so long, and have been so comfortable in all these professions, I was really taken aback at his words. I'm sorry now I lacked the courage to ask where he thought I might have ended up. But I thought I understood why.
"Well, Pastor," I said, "Probably no one could have known where I ended up, because my light was hiding under a bushel."
I really never defined myself in those days, when I was 14, 15, 16. I was just trying to go along with the crowd, after years of standing out. I don't know that I did that particularly successfully, because I was still the same person. Just a lot quieter about who I was.
I haven't talked or written much publicly about being bullied, and stepping forward just ain't easy for me.
I still may do a video for you, as others have, but for right now, you can read my words. I hope you read Carrie's as well. Most of all, I hope we can help.
To those who are being bullied, I can say this...it gets better. Really.
I also want you to know that you don't have to grow up to be an embittered loser. Or friendless. Or alone.
Why? Because I didn't. And I could have. Every now and then, when pressures mount, I can still feel myself slipping back into old patterns of thinking.
But I stop myself, because, at this point in my life, I can tell you that I am everything I ever wanted to be. And I owe it to God, those who believed in me, and a new attitude about me to have overcome resentment, bitterness, and anger.
Back to the beginning, though. Let's count the ways I was different as a kid:
- Outspoken in a polite era ("Blurting out the truth," as Mom put it)
- A team sports fan (Cubs, Bears, Blackhaws) in a family that embraced individual sports (tennis, swimming, running)
- Lefthanded in a righthanded world
- A tomboy in Pre-Title IX America
- A Democrat in a Republican suburb
- Awkward in a (seemingly) graceful world
- A slow presence in an athletic world
Yep, I was different, alright. And more than a few people noticed. Every day during the school year, I remember hearing remarks about me. Head to toe, I felt covered in shame for my appearance, my lack of interest in 'cool' clothes, my 'cats-eye' glasses and tangled, curly hair, my lack of grace in dance and phys ed, and my family's devotion to "standing up for the little guy."
I don't think a day went by when I didn't cry when I got home from school. I was so depressed, I gained a lot of weight between my 8th and 9th birthdays...about 30 pounds. So weight became another issue. Constant dread churned in my stomach every time I had to wake up for school. Sometimes, on the way home, I'd have rocks thrown at me. Or mud. One boy beat me up once a year, like clockwork, between 5th and 8th grades. I think the first time I ever thought about suicide was in 4th grade.
And yet, Mom and Dad refused to let me quit anything so I could hide myself from others. I couldn't switch schools. I stayed in ballet, tennis, band, Girl Scouts, choir and every other activity my schools had to offer. "Be who you are," they said. "We'll always love you. Your place is with us."
In all that, I took comfort in the fact that I wasn't completely friendless. I still treasure those who were there for me, sometimes privately, sometimes publicly in order to be my friend. You know who you are. And I thank you for being my rock and salvation. I know God put you there. And right back atcha, too!
The bullying went on, in varying degrees, through most of my schooling. One of my dearest friends wrote in my yearbook, "Hey, girl...Good luck. Don't let 'em give ya any s***!" As I told her, I took her advice.
How'd it all change? After a few false starts, I began in earnest in my 20's. I had one goal: To like myself and my life.
At the bottom of everything was my faith. I was raised with the idea that God created me for a reason. The faith always had been there, but it was important that I put this journey in God's hands. Secondly, I tried to find joy in life every day. I started with that. Whether it was a nice sunset or a great dinner, or a kiss from a pet, a good conversation with a friend, or a well-written article I had completed, there was something to feel good about. Then, I focused on what I could be thankful for about myself. Did I like my eyes? My smile? My body? How could I be the best I could be? And once I felt I had it put together, I didn't compare myself to others. I just was thankful for what I had and enjoyed it. Those daily exercises eventually built my confidence and my belief in myself. And the friends who could embrace me, did. I learned not to care so much about anyone who couldn't.
Today, I am grateful for a network of people I can rely upon. And that network keeps growing, as long as my heart remains open.
Finally, I focused on forgiving those who had bullied me. Not so much because they had asked (most hadn't), but because I needed to move on. At first, it was just biblically sound ("Forgive your enemies, as I have forgiven you," says the Lord.) As I figured, just as they didn't know me, I didn't know them, either. We were very young. And maybe, they too, were being bullied. Maybe at home. There was no way to know.
Once I forgave, a crushing anchor was lifted from me. It didn't mean I became magically popular. Or any better of an athlete. But I did develop the confidence to be who I truly am, for better or for worse. And to know that there is a reason for my being on Earth. Most of these days, I feel like it's for the better.
Even if you are feeling like you're different from anyone around you, please take this to heart: God made us all unique, and with different gifts for a reason. Your calling is there, if you ask. Your confidence will come, if you let it. And your world will change for the better, if you embrace yourself.
To help find your own way, my dear friend and former schoolmate, Dr. Kurt Senske, has written a remarkable book called The Calling. Use it, along with Carrie's book, to discover your own path in life.