The stock images of middle school memories that cling to my brain show a girl with frizzy hair and blotchy skin. She wears a handmade knitted poncho her mother made her — it’s rainbow. She does not fit in with the blurry background of the self-prescribed black legging uniform her classmates abide by. She moves in awkward, clunky strides.
The other kids have knives for eyes. This makes it hard for her to find a place she can sit. At lunch, she grips onto her tray, hoping it will stop the full-body shaking that her nerves have sprung into action. She works up a sweat, pushing aside the gossip that crowds the hallways. She stares into the girls' bathroom mirror, convincing her lanky body to go back out and try to start a conversation.
She does, but the words feel like marbles in her mouth, hitting the floor without a bounce. The knife-eyed kids snicker to one another.
It’s recess and the boys make her a zero on the Hot or Not list. They make fun of her for the multiplication tables she didn’t have memorized, for the layer of armpit hair she didn’t know she was supposed to shave. They call her bossy until they learn a better b-word. A boy cuts her hair with a pair of scissors. They say she has a mustache. She makes friends only to lose them.
The images begin to move faster. She is sitting alone. She is hyperventilating in the bathroom. She is crying and sprawled out on the kitchen floor. Words no longer feel like marbles; they feel like wood chips, and conversations leave her splintery. Eye contact is a form of exercise. She no longer enters the cafeteria. She stops trying to make friends.
Normally, I talk about my pain as if it’s in the past. I write about the scabs of old wounds. It’s all true — the majority of my pain does live in the past. Middle school is a distant array of images. The sting of ninth grade hurts less with each breath, and I spend the majority of my time smiling.
But then, there are the days where it begins to feel bleak, where I get sweaty and don’t know where in the classroom to look. I have my nights where the only thing I want to do is curl up in a ball and watch Parks and Recreation in the dark. Sometimes I blame it on the trauma, even though I hate calling it trauma. Other times I blame it on myself. But sadness doesn’t care who invited it to the party as long as it gets to stay. Which is why I remind myself I can’t let it.
Happiness isn’t a choice, but it is an action. It’s remembering to breathe before the panic attack. It’s acknowledging the triggers, but trying to let them go. It's calling people who care about you even when the loneliness is comfortable. It’s sitting your tray down at a table even though it hurts when you do. It's forcing yourself to talk in class and not beating yourself up when you don’t.
A best friend of mine calls me from a girls' bathroom a few states away. She is scared to walk to class. The boys have been laughing at her lately, commenting mean things on Instagram photos of her, making memes out of the comments and posting them to Twitter. She tells the school. They try to deal with it, but no one can control words. So she sighs against the stall and tells me she can’t believe she’s getting bullied in high school. She knows I know the pain. She asks me how she can deal with it — how she can stop it. I hear myself begin to sound like my mom. I tell her the best revenge is a smile. That it’s all some version of jealousy. That if I were there I would walk with her proudly. That soon I’ll be able to hold her, and it will be summer. To kill them with kindness.
My stomach turns the entire time we speak. I can’t protect her from this agony. She tells me that it feels like there’s a weight on her chest, like she can’t breath for the first time. She asks me if this is what a panic attack feels like. I talk her speeding heartbeat down, tell her to put a hand on her stomach and breathe, feel it rise before the exhale. When she tells me she has to go to class, I hear her wipe the mascara from under her eyes. I am somehow left baffled that it’s happening to someone else, her future memories slowly becoming tinged, her fear becoming regular.
I am no longer a victim, so I hand out “it gets better” pamphlets and share mantras of hope on social media. The memories have become just that — memories. So when the darkness creeps up on me even when the external circumstances aren’t bad, I begin to feel like a liar, which is what I would have told her if I were brave enough. That sometimes it doesn’t feel like it is any better. It will be years from when the boy cut your hair in eighth grade science class, but you’ll hear his name in conversation and find him in every nightmare you have for a week.
When this happens, you will feel like they have won. That no matter how hard you try, they still live in the deepest part of your trauma. But then you will wave to your friend at the other end of the hallway. You will walk over to her without hesitation. You will begin to chat, and the words won’t feel like marbles or wood chips. You will make eye contact the entire time she tells you about her catastrophic date. When you start to laugh, you will feel life bubbling up inside of you. You will not ask if this makes the dark shrink. Because in the moment of laughter at a boy problem, we have three minutes to class, and the light will be so blinding that your body reflexively gives in.
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