Thursday, October 7, 2010

It Gets Better

The rash of teen suicides and the media focus on bullying has made me sit back and relive some very painful memories, memories I thought I had tucked away for good, scars I thought that had healed over.

But those memories of bullying, depression, and longing to be "just like everyone else" have always been there, lurking just beneath the surface. The focus on gay teens taking their own lives and bullies doing things like breaking the arm of another boy because he dared to want to be a cheerleader bring them all to the surface.

I was one of those bullied kids. In grade school, I was the sissy, the one who didn't play sports, who walked his baby sister around the neighborhood in a stroller, who preferred the quiet, gentle company of girls to boys. I was the little boy who stayed inside, reading, while my parents exhorted me to go outside. They even put up a basketball hoop on the garage in the hopes it would make me more like other boys. My father was the only one who used it.

In the school cafeteria one time, one mean girl went around the table, pointing out all the people who were in her class the year before. "I was in Mrs. Kincaid's class with him, and him, and him, and her, and him...and her," she said at last, pointing at me.

Everybody laughed.

In sixth grade, a pudgy boy made me his after-lunch sport and would make it his business to get in line as we went back to our classrooms, where he could punch me and body slam me against the wall. I remember praying in my bedroom for him to stop. God must have not been listening those nights.

As I grew up, the taunts went from sissy to queer and faggot. It was all okay; I was able to leave that identity behind once and for all when I went away to college, where no one knew me from my past life.

But the scars remained. They made me painfully shy and introverted. I think I was afraid if I spoke up too much or made my presence known too well, people would catch on that I was "different" and the teasing and bullying would start up again, only in more sophisticated ways, like alienating me.

I'm not writing this in the hopes that people will feel sorry for me. I don't want your pity.

I want you--and especially if you're a little different kind of kid as I was--to understand that it does get better.

It may not get better right away from outside.

It has to get better from inside. It took me thirty years and more heartache than you can imagine to say to myself that I was tired of fighting and exhausted from pretending to be someone I was not. It was terrifying to lay down the shield and the sword and come out, fearful of those childhood reprisals rising up once more, but I did. I had to. I couldn't go on living a lie--that would have been suicide in either a literal or figurative sense.

And once I was finally able to be okay with being different, with being me, with all my quirks, good and bad...it did get better.

I could at last say, "You have trouble accepting me? You think I'm (fill in the blank)? Well, that's your problem, not mine."

Because once you come to love yourself for who you are, once you realize you are not a "mistake" and that you are not a product of what someone tells you you should be, it gets better.


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31 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. I'm sorry it's taken so many suicides to bring people to the point of sharing their amazingly powerful experiences, but I'm not sorry that the stories are now being shared. I wasn't bullied for being gay, but I was the victim of terrible bullying for two years in elementary school before my parents switched me to a different school. I never reached the point of contemplating suicide, but I lived with the consequences of those experiences for a long time before I could finally let them go. I hope the courage people are showing now in sharing their stories will help other young men and women, regardless of orientation, realize that suicide is never the answer.

    Thanks for sharing, Rick (and sorry for the second comment. I realized after I posted the first that it didn't make sense. I obviously haven't had as much tea as I need this morning.)

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  3. I'm overcome, this post touched my heart. No, not pity, because you DID overcome it. Behind every success, one just never knows what heartaches came before it.

    This touched me, too, because--when during my early years--my neighbor was the 'sissy' in the neighborhood. And I was that girl next door that he found more comfortable to hang around with than the boys. And, after reading your blog, my heart swells with happiness because something my soul simply saw him as just like me.

    I'm not gay, but still was a shy, introverted young child and faced my own brand of bullying from other kids. So the pain I do know, from both sides of the spectrum...seeing a friend suffer and myself as well, for different reasons.

    Thank you so much for sharing this.

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  4. Unfortunately, we live in a culture of bullying that has been tacitly supported, even urged on us, by our government for years. Now the mudslinging of politics and the no holds barred personal attacks on the internet and by media on anyone who doesn't conform have become like some ridiculous bloodsport.

    It's harder than ever to imagine that "it" gets better. I imagine teens today have a harder time believing that than they might have had in mine. What is hopeful, I think, is that people are coming forward to say "they" fell better about things.

    Having met you personally, I can only say how grateful I am that you were stronger than all the bullying and grew up to be such a wonderful person. Huzzah! You lived to tell the tale!

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  5. Reading your post made me realize how insidious the cultural problem is - the core defense against bullying is self-respect. Social conditioning first strips that self-respect from a queer child, then punishes him/her in precisely the way it has made her/him defenseless.

    I recall reading a report recently from the midwest somewhere. Parents came to the school to investigate why their son was being bullied. The principal said the boy acted "gay" and so long as he acted that way there was nothing the school could do to protect him.

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  6. i never knew of those childhood memories of yours,....but I can say that I, like you, have had a enough of this bullying that is taking place. Blake had a rough transition into junior high last year, and i suspect, but do not know for sure, that he may have experienced some ugly words from his peers about his acne, and it is heartbreaking to see. This year all things seem to have turned around for him, but if you ever have firsthand experience with meanness and ugliness from peers, it is one of the saddest things any child should have to endure. How fitting that this exact topic is what prompted my facebook status lastweek, that enraged your sister (for some reason), about "people purposely excludig others" and me, in some small way standing up for the mean and ugly behavior Jordyn has endured from her peers.....Bullying is happening and it is very close to home....thanks for sharing this Rick...i love you ~Becky

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  7. Lloyd...I think what you and other above have said is true: it's about claiming your own self-respect and it's also about a culture that I hope, with all this focus lately, is changing. It never occurred to the little boy above to try to get help. I think there was an underlying fear that he deserved what he was getting...and that's saddest of all.

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  8. And thanks Becky...you don't know it but you, Melissa, and your sister were a sanctuary from a lot of pain when I was growing up.

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  9. Thanks for sharing, Rick. I was bullied as the fat girl and remember some of the desperate measures I took to drown out the voices. Even after therapy, I still haven't been able to put all of those taunts out of my head, but I'm learning and it has gotten better. I'm starting to finally see the real me that got buried under the rubble of other people's insults, opinions and baggage.

    A very inspiring post, my friend. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

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  10. I was a gawky, red headed tom boy who refused to wear dresses and had to wear glasses from an early age. So I was Woody Woodpecker and four-eyes. But I was also bigger than most kids my age and I was told years later that no one messed with me (which they really didn't after about Grade 5) because I wasn't to be messed with. I did get some lesbian comments in high school because I never went out with any of the high school boys and had only one very close friend, another girl.

    So definitely not as bad as you had. This is a great post, Rick. I hope many of the lost kids in today's schoolyards and playgrounds can get the message.

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  11. I was picked on all through my childhood that eventually I started staying away from the neighborhood and going on my own throughout New York City. That led to my trips into Times Square which was like a different world to me. Very early I found out about my life and sexuality, and though it was confused over the years and I certainly was lost, in the end I accepted what I was, a queer writer.

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  12. Self-acceptance is the turning point for things to get better. Thanks for sharing your experience, Rick.

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  13. Thank you. Many of the things in your history are the same as those that happened to me. I'm old enough, though, and grew up in an isolated enough town that the whole "faggot" thing hadn't happened yet. I escaped that.

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  14. Rick, I feel you on this one, truly. I was systematically bullied by the mean girls and boys alike for two years of junior high, over my looks, wardrobe, figure (or the lack of one), financial status, and just about everything else -- the taunts including "lesbian" among other things. I remember trembling and holding a handful of aspirin and wondering if I'd get made fun for killing myself with an overdose of such a lame and common drug because that was all I could find in the medicine chest. I decided, then and there, I'd get the last laugh by surviving, and quietly dumped the pills back into the bottle.

    Looking back, I know, now, that my experiences on the receiving end of such spite made me stronger and better. I looked some of those people up recently. Most of them are still stuck in the same small Southern town. The one girl who made it to Hollywood is a recovering addict battling demons of her own, ones which help me better understand, today, why she was so hateful toward me back then.

    It does get better. The trick is, you have to hang in there long enough to see it. Rick, you're shining proof of this.

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  15. Rick
    Google ate my comment so I'll start over

    I could feel your pain about your childhood and what those bullies did to you. You have achieved so much and you should feel justly proud. When I read your "coming out" story my heart broke. You are very strong or you could not have overcome all that you did in life to get where you are today, and I'm so proud of your accomplishments.

    Bullying is criminal yet the schools turn a blind eye because they are just as culpable as the kids. Maybe over time they will become more tolerant of those who are "different".

    What Tyler Clementi's roommate and accomplice did was egregious and they should be thrown into jail. Let's hope.

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  16. Mellissa said: "I'm starting to finally see the real me that got buried under the rubble of other people's insults, opinions and baggage."

    That's just it, isn't it? It's about the person doing the bullying, really, but the one being bullied feels all the pain.

    I was always the shy, quiet, slightly-too-imaginitave one. I just didn't like being around people, and they knew it. I honestly don't know what the teasing was about. I just remember being terrified to open my mouth, just knowing someone was going to make me regret it. I was off in my own world so much of the time, and teasing only made it easier and more necessary to go there, which only gave kids more amunition to tease with. It was a vicious, vicious circle.

    It took a long time to work up the courage to come out of that self-made prision and take chances, but I did, eventually. It did, as you say, get better, whenI decided my skills and talents might be different, but they were mine, and they were worth something.

    So now, I try to remind my own kids that they are worth so much love and respect and when someone says something, They should stop and think if that thing is really, really true, or is it about the person trying to be a bully? Saying something mean, disrespecting someone is a reflection of the person saying it, not of the person it is being said about. I hope I can help them avoid the painful, lonely childhood I had.

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  17. God, I wish these kids could realize what a monumental achievement it is to claim, and proclaim, one's worth in a small-minded culture that seems intent on fostering shame (for all kinds of damned things).

    The more GLBT people who share their triumphant stories, the better chance these struggling kids have of claiming that legacy. Thanks, Rick, for laying out your path from despair to pride.

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  18. What a great post, Rick -- thanks for putting it out there.

    I'm amazed how similar your story is to mine -- and to many other gay men and women I've known. Like you, constant teasing and taunting (resulting from my innate femininity and my preference for playing with girls instead of boys) from a young age caused me to become painfully introverted and shy. At some point, I basically stopped talking in class -- because I thought that it might (finally) make me disappear and make the teasing stop.

    It wasn't until I started college -- and came out and met my first gay friends -- that I was able to (mostly) put my introvertedness and shyness and pain behind me.

    As such, I agree 100 percent with your final comment: "Once you come to love yourself for who you are, once you realize you are not a 'mistake' and that you are not a product of what someone tells you you should be, it gets better."

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  19. Thanks for sharing this, Rick.
    It's true that it does get better, but you're also right that we're still left with the scars, years later. That too gets better, as you so eloquently wrote, when you finally come to the understanding that you're not the one with the problem - the bullies are. But that takes even longer...

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  20. This just brought me to tears! You were in pain for so much of the time, and we were just to young to know. In my mind you were the loving, fun, best Uncle I had ever know, and still are!!!! I'm glad that we were somewhat of a sanctuary for you, happy to know that you had a little bit of good memories. I'm sorry that you had to endure all of that without a lot of support. I see this every single day of my life weather in school or in my own home. I see the pain of several students that have taken me on as a confidant to "come out" to me...and I'm happy to be a safe haven for them to vent and feel comfortable. I think that there are so many different kinds and levels of bullying, but no matter what, no child ever deserves to be felt as though they are different, left out, or shunned from anything. I am just trying to teach my kids to stand up for themselves and not to let people say things to them I want both of my children to love themselves enough to speak up...I hope and pray that every parent out there never has to see the hurt and pain and sometimes depression that bullying can produce. It hurts, and is painful, and causes depression for the family too. I'm proud that you love yourself now, and are able to not let people get to you. I can only hope that those kids that are going through that now, find that peace and strength long before they have to take any type of drastic measures....I love you!

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  21. Moving post, Rick.

    I was horribly bullied and it's left scars visible and invisible. The worst is that you come to accept others' view of yourself: you are worthless, and inferior, and you deserve to be beaten up. I think my lifelong suffering from headaches began then.

    To this day I am still afraid to go into a room of strange men.

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  22. My heart goes out to you, Rick, and all the others who suffered bullying. I was lucky, I just got called a red-headed witch.
    What worries me is the attitude in schools (still today) where it's up the victim to learn how to "cope" with bullying, rather than the culprits being told to stop. The trouble is that they fear people being different. We should celebrate our diversity not fear it.
    I'm sure your account will give hope to all victims still being persecuted. You are stronger in a way, but you shouldn't have needed to go through that suffering to get there.

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  23. Excellent and brave post. Thank you for sharing it. I don't pity you, but my heart does ache for the boy you were and what you had to endure from other children. I was also bullied for being different. I was an intelligent but sad and frightened child who must have had 'victim' written all over me considering I was attacked, once physically, by children I'd never even met.

    I was lucky in that I wasn't bullied in high school, but I still remember grade school, and how much I loathed it so much of the time. I hope to God I've been able to protect my own wonderful little boy so that he'll be able to either avoid being bullied or be able to handle it if he is.

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  24. Thanks so much for sharing this. I was bullied, too, but for being a geek, for being plump, for whatever they saw in me as rewarding. I tried to tell my sons when they were younger that other kids will always find *something* to bully with, and they needed to build enough confidence to cope with it. I think they have done, pretty well. But I agree it's not right, bullying shouldn't be 'accepted', human nature should somehow be educated away from always seeking weakness.

    I hope my sons will pass on that tolerance, both to their own kids if they have them, and also their peer group. I know at that age it's so difficult to see beyond the immediate moment, and also to keep things in perspective. My heart goes out to everyone in that state.

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  25. Thanks to all of you who posted comments. It means so much to me and gives me hope for the future.

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  26. Theresa Jasenec-CurranOctober 8, 2010 at 7:08 AM

    Rick, my childhood friend! I must admit that I didn't know all this happened to you, and we attended the same schools! Of course I moved all over town every other year or so due to my own childhood problems....you were always one of the kindest and sweetest boys I ever met, and I loved you for it. I am sorry you had to endure such heartache as a child growing up in a very small town. Shame on those classmates that made you feel so "different".
    I can almost hear the sadness in the voice in your head as you posted your words. However, you now have the last laugh, you are a very centered and successful man who has a wonderful son and partner to share life with. Afterall, isn't that what we all want out of life????? Friends always...Theresa

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  27. Why does someone always have to die before the media (and therefore the rest of society) notices and says "We have to do something."?
    I am so glad you made it thru Rick.

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  28. And the problem will never go away until the government stops telling the general population that gay men and women are second class citizens by not giving them equal rights - the right to marry to serve openly in the military etc etc... Politicians, teachers, school administrative board members and all adults who should know better are responsible in part for the bullying that goes on. You're right Rick, it does get better, but tell me why in hell should these kids have to be driven to the edge before it does?

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