When I was in eighth grade, I became a knight. I learned how to battle evil princesses, cruel princes and dragons of many shapes and sizes. I learned how to use the tools of battle, learned how to make armor that could withstand fiery dragon’s breath, that could hold up against tooth and claw. I learned how to walk with my head up and my shoulders back, through a gauntlet of my enemies, without taking on injury.
I did this on my own. I had no trainer, no master to guide me in the art of battle and evasion. I learned on my own how to assess the enemy’s location and choose my egress in order to minimized risk. I learned how to react to surprise attack and how to close my own wounds. My role models were in the books I read and the movies I watched. Being the hero of the story meant forging on despite great odds. It meant standing alone because there was no one else who could protect you.
It also meant knowing, despite the jeers and insults hurled at you each and every day by those same dragons and princes and princesses, that you were not what they saw, not what their words described. To be a knight, to be the hero of the story, was to know deeply and without reserve, who you were despite anything the external world threw at you.
I learned to soldier on, to rely on myself, to believe in my ability, to believe I could come through any trial, any fiery abomination, whole and strengthened. Tempered by fire, that’s what I believed about myself. Stronger because of the attacks, the ridicule, the endless torments.
I learned to be alone, to distrust others, to distrust happiness, to look for the inevitable betrayal.
We are older now, but we are still wearing that armor, grown thicker and more calloused by time. We still have a hard time trusting, we still look for betrayal. We have a hard time believing that good times will last, that they won’t be arbitrarily be taken away. We don’t always remember that people have grown up, they aren’t all mean eighth graders anymore.
When I was in eighth grade, a group of girls started a rumor that I was a ‘lezzy’. I didn’t identify as much of anything at the time, except for myself and I wasn’t sexual at all, much less homosexual. I was a tomboy, a gender-queer little non-conforming kid who was into books and loved school and basketball and track and my horse. I always had a few friends, but they seemed to come and go and I was mostly OK with that.
Once the rumor started, it was picked up by everyone in my grade (and probably beyond). I’d walk down hallways and hear them whispering, see them pointing. Some didn’t whisper, they called out their jeers and insults loudly while others laughed. One of my classes was in a portable and I’d walk up that ramp with classmates sitting on the rails so that I’d literally have to walk the gauntlet of them taunting me.
The girls were horrible and the boys chimed in with their own crude insults. The locker room was the worst place to be, followed by the gym, during basketball practice. They threw basketballs at me when I wasn’t looking. I got hit in the head more than once, that made them laugh and catcall, made me turn red with humiliation. In the locker room, I learned to look down, look into my locker, or high up on the wall. If I seemed to be looking in anyone’s direction, they’d accuse me of staring at her body.
Everyone cringed away from me, no one spoke to me or spoke up for me, not that I witnessed. I became a leper overnight. Only once did two popular girls talk to me, when we were alone in the gym. They expressed their sympathy and told me they didn’t believe the rumors. But that’s as far as it went, they didn’t stick up for me. I was still alone.
I didn’t ask for help from my parents, didn’t speak up to teachers or anyone at school. I was ashamed, embarrassed to be the target of the rumor, sure that the adults couldn’t be trusted not to make things worse. Not sure at all I’d be taken seriously, that I wouldn’t be told to just ignore it. Well, in fact, that’s what I tried to do. I built a shell around myself, I feigned indifference, I worked hard to show no emotion. I pulled so deeply into myself that my tormentors seemed to occupy another world. I told myself – over and over again – that none of them knew the real me, that the real me was out of their reach, that they were weak and miserable people who wanted to make me miserable to compensate for what they lacked.
I became a knight, a solitary warrior. I learned that I didn’t need anyone, that I could make it through the most hellish of hells with only my truth and my internal strength guide me. This experience became one of the central myths of my life, something I’ve drawn upon for strength time and time again.
You’d think I’d never trust anyone again, that I’d never allow anyone to come close after an experience like that. But I did. I opened up and I got hurt. I tried again and got hurt. I learned that I could push away grief the same way I’d pushed away my tormentors. I built a wall around it and I walked away. I moved on, set my sights on new adventures and kept moving. I kept trying because I am a bundle of contradictions. I knew it was easier in someways to go it alone, to be the solitary knight, but I wanted love and belonging and passion and romance. So I’d try again.
And now? Now I’m trying something new and it terrifies me. I’m trying to stay with my grief until it is done, until it is not so huge and overwhelming that it crushes me. I’m trying hard not to push it back into a corner where I can build a wall around it, as I’ve done time and time again. I’m trying to trust and open up and allow others to see the real me behind the walls. I’m trying to take those walls down, to take off that heavy, battle-scarred armor. I’m trying not to see recurring heartbreak as a sign that I should give up on being open and loving and human.
I’m trying and it’s really hard.
In our session today, my therapist encouraged me to open up contact with my eighth grade self, to see if I could encourage him to understand that we were in a different situation now, that it was safe to lay down arms and step outside the walls. He wouldn’t engage, and I’m not sure how to describe that feeling except that I felt his presence – the defiance, the stubborn pride, the loneliness, the grief, the distrust – and when I attempted to draw him out, he slipped back, deeper inside the walls. Not today, that was the message. Maybe tomorrow, but no promises.
It’s going to take a while. I have to build trust internally so I can learn to trust externally. I have to go back and sit with that eighth grader who was hurt so badly and coped so well. I need to honor what he did, his strength, his solutions, because he kept us alive. He had to keep this up for months, for most of a school year. I owe my literal life to this part of me.
I can’t go back and do things differently, I’m not sure I’d want to even if I were able. I do want to reconnect with that part of me, to reconnect and integrate that experience from the past with the present and future I want to live. That’s the work, that’s what’s going to save my life in the here and now. And in the here and now, I am very grateful that I no longer have to stand alone.
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