Men who join the service are mentally prepared for war and they still come home with PTSD far too many times. The Officers groom them. They tear them down to build them back up. They are all but made into killing machines. My father served in The Vietnam War and was never the same when he returned home. He was never the father I needed or wanted. He was abusive by withholding affection and at times explosive. There were times he threatened to kill his entire family. Many people have said he never left the battlefield. I never realized how similar our experiences were until recently. I was in a different kind of War. An unimaginable kind that plays out every day for every child. Imagine being a child, not being prepared for a war and having to fight for yourself every day. Imagine knowing that you are walking into a battlefield. There was no getting out. There was no honorable or dishonorable discharge. There was just endurance till the bitter end.
I just received an email from my high school Alumni site. I knew I should not have clicked on it but I did anyway, because I was curious. When I saw the list of names for the year I would have graduated, a rage built up inside of me. I can’t help but think of how these people put me through hell.
I remember an incident in ninth grade that did more damage to my self-esteem than any other throughout my entire life. I was infatuated, though I thought I was in love, with the boy of my dreams. The almost white shade in his blonde hair and deep blue eyes were mesmerizing. He didn't see me like I saw him. For this reason I decided to make myself visible in the most brazen way possible. I wrote a letter to him professing my love. His response was just a chuckle and a wary glance around him to ensure that no one else saw what he was reading, the reaction of others spread like a disease. At first I thought he was going to put the note away, I wasn't so lucky. By the end of the day the entire ninth grade had seen the note. The reaction from my class mates was to shame the boy I had hoped to make my boyfriend. Instead of the outcome I had longed for, he was ridiculed for being the object of my affection. I wanted to disappear, not just from him but from the whole world. This is when my cutting began.
On the worst days I would go home and hide in my bathroom. These were the days people saw me. My classmates, the ones who were supposed to teach me about friendship and acceptance, instead taught me that I was not worthy of love or belonging. The worst days were the ones I tried to put myself out there to make friends. I tried to fit in with the different clicks. It seemed as though none of the clicks wanted to acknowledge my presence. The fear of being excluded any more from the popular kids superseded the need to add someone who would bring more attention to their outcast status. I was an outcast of the outcasts. I never gave up trying. At school I would smile and laugh along with the tormentors. Teaching myself how to have negative self-thinking or self-depreciating jokes. I learned to adapt to my environment. I eventually learned how to tune out my environment to avoiding hearing the sneers and the jeers in my classrooms. By tuning them out I didn’t have to hear them laughing at me or whispering about me. My education took a huge hit. By zoning out the students, I also zoned out the teacher. My learning was affected and I no longer held the Honor Student status. At times I felt like I was outside of myself watching the world from above.
I was picked on, had snowballs thrown at me walking home from school. When I got home, the refuge I was seeking would never be found. My father had suffered severe PTSD, or as many of you know Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from his time in Vietnam. Being a Vietnam Veteran not only affected the person who served but also their families when they returned to normalcy. There was no normalcy for me. I had poor communication skills because most teenagers are not taught how to communicate their feelings. The result is acting out and acting out was what I did best. Acting out behavior became my saving grace and my destruction.
After most days at school I would come home and hide in the bathroom. I was desperate for something I wasn't getting. But I wasn’t the only one shutting out the world. My father would lock himself in his bedroom surrounded by an obsession with collecting stamps and coins. When he wasn't in his room, he was in his basement honing his carpentry skills. He made most of the furniture we took for granted. The reason for building the furniture was a far more desperate move than I realized when I was young. We were dirt poor so buying the necessities seemed almost frivolous to my dad who could "build them just as good as any factory." My step-mother was not prepared to raise 4 other children. She had one daughter before I moved in as a vulnerable ten year old followed by my siblings a year later. Her behavior at the time seemed to be almost hysterical. I guess if I had four other kids thrown at me with a husband who was rarely present for their caretaking, I would be a bit hysterical too. But that didn't help my behavior, it only made it worse.
There came a time when I began having suicidal fantasies. Those fantasies were not nearly as disturbing as the homicidal fantasies I had involving throwing one of the football players down the concrete steps in school. If high school is a battlefield. this boy would have been the Commander in Chief. I would follow him after classes down the staircases at the end of the hall. I would imagine how good it would feel to trip or push him. Since I was smart enough to realize that could get me into trouble, possibly even jail, I turned that hatred inside me, because if everyone at school thought I was a freak then that many people cannot possibly be wrong. When I began tearing apart the razors in the bathroom, my own family started seeing me that way. I kept my secret for a long time, quietly feeling the thin blade between my fingers. Carefully holding it so my fingertips would not be cut. There were more injuries to my fingertips that resembled paper cuts than the cuts to my wrists not nearly deep enough to end my life. The hesitation in the cuts was evident in the lack of blood that would be produced. I thought I was trying to end my life, what I was really doing was what people now call cutting. My family refused to "pay attention" to my attention seeking behavior as my father told the therapist I would soon be seeing.
His attitude is partly why I had never fully recovered from this trauma. I wish my family had shown me they cared. What I remember most about those days was my older brother in the next room yelling to my parents "Karen’s trying to kill herself again," and it wasn't the fact that he said that, it was the flippant almost exasperated tone he said it with. They didn't care. Instead of the school, my family or anyone in close proximity to our family helping me cope with this difficult, nearly impossible situation, they sent me away. Out of sight, out of mind. I was able to start a new life, at a new school with little supervision and few reminders of my past life. I believe that is when my personality changed. I became outgoing, promiscuous and more confident .The incredible boost to my self-esteem was confusing and hard to accept. It felt as though the person who was sent to Job Corps was not the same person who came out of it. It seemed as though I could accomplish anything. However, my false bravado did not last past the atmosphere of acceptance and belonging I felt for the two years I spent at Job Corps.
Being that popular without boundaries led me to become pregnant at a very young age I decided to give birth and keep my child. I was young and naive and thought that if I had a child I would always have someone who loved me. Shortly after returning home from Job Corps I was once again sent away to hide the shame my family felt. The unborn child in me would grow up without a father. I eventually had three sons who have each experienced their own personal hell. Living a life of hardship and of a constant need for food and shelter was the life that I suppose was inevitable after what I had endured throughout my childhood. With low self-esteem I didn’t always make the best choices. Those who had tortured me to point of preferring suicide over one more day in what I prefer to call the asylum or high school, had far better outcomes than what I would see in my life, until I was well into my thirties.
Most of the people who were the bullies in High School are living full and satisfying lives and making a good living now. These include real estate professionals, firefighters and police officers. I was cheated out of so much. I struggled with my identity and self-esteem my entire life. Before the bullying became unbearable, I was an honor student. I was on the college track. I know people say get over it. I wish there was a way i could look at them or at that page or think about my school years without pain. I wish I had more control over my feelings, but that kind of damage lasts a lifetime. I hope every single one of them remember what they did to me, but that is never going to happen
High school is a battlefield. You have to be aware of your surroundings. There is a hierarchy of soldiers. If you can’t make it through elementary school, the enemy will destroy you. Imagine having to be hyper vigilant, just like in War. Most of the time the scars that men in war come home with are visible, sometimes they are not. My father was shot three times in battle. His physical scars he had no problem allowing people to see. He wore them like a badge. He would proudly say he fought in war and came out of it alive. Maybe he did but he was not living, he was existing. The emotional toll the war took on him was completely different. It wasn’t discussed. It wasn’t acknowledged. Sometimes people who feel the need to harass others cause physical injuries to their targets, sometimes it’s emotional. Soldiers are taught what to expect on the Battlefield. But they are discouraged from having any feelings about the trauma they have endured, especially the men.
Children are not so different. Feelings are minimized or punished. Children are ignored many times by exasperated, busy parents who don’t take seriously the kind of hell many of them experience in school. Children are not given the tools they need to cope with a very stressful environment. They are not told that high school is a battlefield for some and a playground for others. Imagine the kind of scars children will carry with them from their 13 years of not knowing from one day to the next if you will become the target. Imagine the scars from being the target.
The outcome for these students is far less glamorous than for the Quarterback on the football team, who is so valuable to the school that the bullying behaviors are dismissed or ignored. And what happens to the prom queen, who dated the quarterback. Those are glory days. Those are the days they hold onto throughout their lives as a measure of what they can accomplish. What about the ones without the honorary labels. What about the ones who are ignored or disgraced. Imagine where their lives will take them. I guarantee it is not in the same direction as the football star or the most popular girl.
To be continued.....
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