Have you seen this video? It’s one of the most important videos you’ll probably watch this year. It’s one of the most poignant ways anyone has tackled the issue of bullying, and it comes courtesy of Canada’s own spoken word poet Shane Koyczan.
I was scrolling through my Tumblr feed when I came across the link. I thought the image looked cool so I decided to watch it. It was about halfway through when I started sobbing uncontrollably. I’ve never been able to relate to something so quickly and completely. I’ve never felt like someone was telling my life story through their own words. I ugly-cried through the rest of the video, complete with snot and tear-tracks running down my face.
When I was done, I felt better.
I go through most of my days not thinking about the past. I spent so many of my teenage years obsessing about the horrible things that happened to me in my childhood that I basically refuse to acknowledge them now that I’m an adult. I’ve experienced clinical depression, been put on medication, I’ve had several mental breakdowns and spent a few days locked in a youth psychiatric ward. Don’t let the “youth” part fool you — the gigantic metal door separating the ward from the rest of the hospital was nothing to be trifled with.
Let me take you back to the beginning. I was a little kid growing up in Newfoundland near the shores of the Atlantic ocean. I was a happy kid, content to read books and torment my little sister. True, my father was sick and battling his own demons as he fought with a debilitating addiction to prescription drugs, but I assumed everybody my age was dealing with the same situation. How was I to know I was wrong?
I was shy in school. I disliked being the centre of attention and for the most part people ignored me. I had a few friends and in spite of my lack of popularity, I was happy. One day I invited over a girl from school and we were playing with a cheap little plastic bowling set, setting up the pins in the hallway and throwing the plastic ball at them with a level of chutzpah the world has never seen in non-competitive bowling. We were giggling and making noise, the way kids do, when my father came out of his bedroom. He was coming down off something and we were making far too much noise for him to sleep. He went off like a cannon, kicking the pins and sending them scattering, and chasing us down the hallway.
The girl ran home and told her parents. I became a social pariah soon after.
Inevitably, my father’s self-destructive behavior became too much for my mother to handle. I had near-constant ear infections when I was little and my sister would often be left at home alone with my father during my frequent trips to the hospital. One night we returned home to find my dad asleep in his room and Ashley alone in the kitchen with the deep fryer turned on and forgotten.
I believe that became one of the final straws.
We had to move. My mom had no job and couldn’t afford to find us a place, so we went to live with family members. It was around this time I started being molested. It might come as a shock to anyone from my family who happens to read this, but it’s true. I don’t remember how long it went on, but I do remember it happened frequently and repeatedly up until the time we moved to our own house. I never told my mother or brought it up, I buried it somewhere deep inside and coped by binge eating.
My weight became a source of bullying as soon as I went to my new school. Immediately I realized I was different than the other kids. In fact, I can remember the first time I realized I was heavier than the other kids. I was walking down the hallway on my first day at Coley’s Point Primary and I heard one of the kids say to another, “Look, she’s so fat.” I was the only kid in the hallway, so I knew it was me.
Not only was that the first day I became self-aware, it’s also the first day I became self-conscious.
The years passed by and I retreated further into myself. I read books during recess to pretend I didn’t care about having no friends. I excluded myself from activities before others would have a chance to exclude me. I managed to make myself nearly invisible, to the point where my high school teachers didn’t even realize I was in their classes. I hid in the library or the bathroom during lunch.
At sixteen, I finally snapped.
I had been acting out for months, and my mother was stressed to the max. I had laid down in the street screaming I wanted to die, I had attempted to jump from a moving vehicle, I hardly ever left my bed and had completely stopped attending school. I even refused to shower for months, and I smelled so bad that no one would even sit near me at school on the days I was forced to attend. One night, as I cried at the dinner table, my mother grabbed me by the shoulders and begged me to tell her what was wrong.
I confessed the secret I’d been holding inside for nearly ten years, and we cried together. I’d like to say that’s when things started getting better, but they didn’t. I was still depressed, even more so when I realized how much guilt my mother felt for not having been aware of the abuse. One night my sister came home to find me cutting my wrist with a steak knife and I was subsequently admitted to the psych ward.
I stand here now with so many memories of fat jokes and friendless years, nights spent crying and wondering what I had done to deserve this. As a teenager, I was so convinced I wanted to die. I couldn’t handle life if this was how it was going to be. But my mom stood by me and asked me to just hang in there. She promised me it would get better. At times, I can’t believe ten years have passed since the moment I told her the truth. At times, I can’t believe I’m still alive.
It’s still hard. My early twenties were a haze of drugs and self-harm. I had a lot of sex with near-strangers in an attempt to prove to myself I was normal. As I spiraled out of control, I looked for something, anything, to hold on to. I wrote songs and sang and read books, I wrote poetry and made art and tried desperately to heal.
But healing isn’t built on shaky ground.
One year ago, I fell apart again. I had worked hard to build friendships and a relationship, but my friendships didn’t last and my relationship was abusive. I had lost myself in a sea of experimentation and had managed to frighten my sister into avoiding me during my drug-fueled rants. My rock bottom came the night my boyfriend smashed the shit out of me. It was from that dirt that my flower began to grow.
The soil was formed by years of abuse and degradation, fertilized by self-hatred, starvation and self-harm. But the flower that bloomed there was beautiful. I remember staring at myself in the mirror one night after taking a razor across my left arm. My eyes were puffy and bloodshot with dark circles underneath, the corners of my mouth turned down, but inside the stormy grey of my own eyes, I saw determination. I saw the truth of who I am and who I was always meant to be. Losing weight didn’t make me happy, sucking dicks didn’t make me happy — happiness and confidence had to come from somewhere inside me and that night I saw the sparks that would flicker into a flame.
The road to here was far from easy. I had so much emotional scar tissue left over from false healing and repeated injury that I had to go back to the beginning to rebuild. I had to cut certain toxic people from my life, and although I did reestablish contact with my boyfriend, I did it on my own terms from the safety of my mother’s apartment. She let me come back to her to begin my process of healing. She took care of me as I tried to take care of myself. In essence, she saved me. I write this now from my own apartment. I work my full time job and pay for this place myself. I’m largely solitary but that’s mostly by choice and I am no longer bullied. I do behavior checks when I feel myself starting to slip and have learned a lot about not only loving myself, but forgiving myself as well. If I make a mistake or eat too much or neglect my laundry for one day, I don’t spend the next day berating myself for being human. That’s taken me a long time to learn.
I have good days and bad days, when the mental demons pop up to let me know they’re not quite gone yet, but I accept these things as an aspect of my personality rather than the whole. Every day takes work, but I’m winning each battle as it comes. This war is my life, and I intend to win it.
I’ve even managed to forgive my abuser. Forgive in the sense of “I’ve let it go, it doesn’t bother me anymore, and I can talk about it to shed light on the damage it does and the importance of speaking up.”
Even now, someone is being bullied somewhere. Someone whose life is a constant uphill battle is being told they’re not worth anything, that their suffering is deserved. Right now, someone is being molested or raped or berated or beaten and they’re being told their lives aren’t worth the ground they walk on. Videos, poems, songs, ART like “To This Day” are so important because not only do they offer hope to the people in the middle of a constant battle for their humanity, they offer a real, personal experience to those causing the hurt in the first place. When you show a person how it feels to be the one crying on the ground, it’s harder for them to walk away and continue hurting people. This is why we need to speak up and share our personal stories — to offer hope for people to hang on to. To stop people from committing suicide when there’s a chance things will get better and a whole world of people who have suffered and are suffering and want to reach out and hold onto you when you’re losing your grip on sanity. There is ugliness in the world but the beauty inside people is so much more powerful.
All these feelings were brought up when I watched Mr. Koyczan’s video. A sense of community, of accomplishment, of shared struggle and the strength to overcome obstacles. They said I would never amount to much or be worth anything. They may say the same thing about you, but as it’s said in the video,
THEY WERE WRONG.
Let’s show them just how wrong they were by living beautiful lives of our own design.
Featured image: My mother and I. She truly saved my life.