By Anna Koppelman, 15
It’s been exactly three months since I last did it. Three months since tears hit my pillow. Three months since I last cried myself to sleep.
We lie on the floor of my room, a big bowl of popcorn between us. “You have to listen to this song,” she says. “It is literally everything.” I nod as she starts to play it. We lie there laughing and joking. Time slips away from us -- she’s nearing her curfew. I am happy. It wasn’t always like this, though. There was a time before laughter filled Friday nights. A time before Lexi. A time before I felt safe.
I have written about the bullying before. The way kindergarten playgrounds turned to torture chambers. How fourth grade classrooms would trickle into my nightmares years after the instances occurred. The humiliation of lunchroom panic attacks. I have written about the pain of the moment. The pain of not feeling wanted or worthy. The pain of feeling singled out for things I had zero control over. But I haven’t written about the lasting effects.
The chronic bullying slowly turned into chronic panic. The panic caused me be in a constant state of "watching out." I had spent years being trained to be alert -- to detect the threat before I had even made contact. My experiences had taught me to assume that people wouldn’t like me; to assume I was inadequate. If enough people not only tell you, but act openly on the idea that you are less then, you start to believe them. Without knowing it, I began to play the role of the social outcast. I began to believe that there was something wrong with me. I watched from my living room couch as the kids in my class started going to parties and hanging out with each other. Instagram was a reminder of my lack of popularity and Snapchat became a minefield of loneliness.
It’s not like I didn’t try to be friendly. I would attempt to make small talk in lunch lines or before class, but there was always a reason it didn’t work out. Always something for them to laugh at or for me to become insecure about. I took their rejection as fact that I wasn’t good enough for not only their friendship, but friendship in general. I wasn’t good enough for anyone.
I met Lexi the spring of my freshman year at some sort of inter-school poetry competition. After the performances, they set up snacks for us to meet each other. She came up to me during the mixer to tell me she liked my poem and wanted to read more. I was terrified. There she was — pretty, with friends, and the kind of disposition boys found magnetic. She was cool, but deep. She was nice, but you didn’t want to mess with her; she seemed perfect. My insecurity started to make my body shake. I didn’t know what to say — I stood there terrified trying to find the right words. I finally went with “thank you” and then watched as she circled back to her friends.
I spent the rest of the mixer standing alone by the coffee, debating whether or not I should approach them. Each time I took a step forward, I would hear something a kid had said to me in my past. I would hear the “there’s no room at this lunch table,” or worst of all, I would hear the laughter. I couldn’t take another person laughing at me. I went in circles and circles trying to decide if I should say something. It got to the point where I came to the conclusion that even if I did say something, they would end up hating me or determining me not cool enough, so there was no point in trying.
My worry spun to the point of being sure that Lexi and her friends must have be making fun of me the entire time I stood watching them. I was so scared of being hurt again, I told myself I wasn’t good enough for them before they could tell me. I grabbed my coat, called my mom a little teary and began the long walk home.
I would meet Lexi once again at a summer program. I was standing in line waiting to get on the bus for our Wednesday activity when I felt a tap on my shoulder. “Do you do poetry in NYC?”
I turned to find Lexi in a black sundress with faded out black eyeliner and smudged out berry lipstick. Later, she would tell me that she liked to wear black because it made her feel like a real New Yorker. The eyeliner was the only makeup she knew how to do and the lipstick was borrowed from her roommate. But at the time, all I knew was that she looked cool. Once again, I became terrified.
“Yeah,” I answered. “Why?”
“Well, I once saw you perform and I loved it. I think I may have sent you a friend request. All I know is you are super talented and need to show more people your stuff.”
“Thanks, I’m thinking about doing it at the talent show.”
“OMG, you have to! Wanna sit with me on the bus?”
I smiled. It was hard for me to believe that Lexi would be able to relate to my work, that she would be able to like it. Lexi and I did end up sitting together on the bus that day and becoming best friends. I assumed that she and I would have nothing in common before I ever got to know her. I even assumed she would hate me. I built a whole story of who she was and who I was in my head before I even attempted to find out the truth.
I realized that I became the story my bullies told of me. I was written into the role of the social outcast. The girl with no friends, the loser who ate lunch alone and I stayed there. I had spent so many years as the victim, I never tried to get myself out. To find a new role. To start a new “chapter” or “audition for a new play.” With Lexi, I learned that I was capable and worthy of friendship, of a lunch table, of happiness.
I still have the nights that haunt me. Sadness seeping out my skin, dripping onto the bed. The days where simple tasks blow themselves up. Where the cafeteria becomes a haunted house. When I find myself on the floor, in a ball, wishing to be anywhere but here, hoping for a time that’s anything but now. But there are also the good days, the days that bubble up with laughter. The days I feel like skipping though hallways. My stomach becomes a butterfly battlefield. On those days, I stand up straight. There are days where I smile just because -- days I like myself in the mirror. Eventually, the happy days outnumber the sad days and the survivor days outnumber the victim days.
Somehow I, Anna Koppelman, the girl who cried every single morning of middle school, whose parents had to grip her by the hand and drag her out the door; the girl who ate lunch alone with her teacher every day of elementary school; the girl whose older brother would let hang out with his friends because they were the only people she had to hang out with; somehow, that girl, the girl who when asked to pick an adjective to describe her would have chosen "lonely"; somehow, that girl, the one who would stare at her phone hoping someone would text or call or something only to be left disappointed every single time; somehow that girl became me.
A girl whose phone buzzes with message after message. A girl who laughs on Fridays instead of cries. A girl who when asked to pick an adjective to describe herself, would pick "happy." You may have the days you feel worthless, where the color of life turns gray and somber, where you beg to be anywhere but here and hope for a place that’s anything but now. You may scoff as you hear celebrity after celebrity tell you that it will "get better." You may roll your eyes when your parents tell you that one day you will be happy, and you may wonder what the point to all this is. You may think about giving up. But take it from me — an ordinary 15 year-old girl with brown hair and wide hips. You will find your Lexi. It does get better and there is joy to be found in life. I promise.