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Every so often I find myself confronted by a seemingly innocuous phrase that rubs me the wrong way. This week, the offending line is “Don’t let it get to you,” a sentiment that simultaneously comforts the recipient while displacing the blame. It has a way of scratching into one’s psyche, leading one to believe, I let that get to me, therefore any hurt feelings I’m experiencing are my fault.

The simple fact of life is that people can be jerks. The interwebs have increased the average person’s exposure to jerks by an order of magnitude. If I could have bought stock in internet trolling, I’d have a few planes by now. From the playground to the office to the comment thread, at some point we all have to deal with a generally unpleasant person who derives pleasure from putting others down.

If Psychology 101 taught me anything, it’s that those who lash out at others (trolls, bullies, abusers, whatever your name for them) are unhappy and insecure. But that’s only a salve to slap on a sting while the poison gets under your skin and spreads.

I was bullied mercilessly in junior high. I had a tier of tormentors. It wasn’t the ruthlessness of the lone individual at the top that got to me, but rather the number of people who jumped on the bully-Barb bandwagon. My main tyrant — a 13-year-old sadist — wasn’t the worst of my problems. Sure, he made me dread showing up to school — taunting me with unflattering nicknames like Bar-Barf, putting melted chocolate in my backpack, and Vaseline in my shoes. But even in the eighth grade I could tell he had issues. So, as irritating as he was, I could write it off as, That one’s not right in the head.

It wasn’t the name-calling or the physical harassment that ruined junior high for me — it was the psychological agony that stemmed not from my being targeted so much as my being tested. I had a close-knit group of girlfriends and a few “best friends.” One day, without warning, I found myself unwelcome at the lunch table and told to go away if I was walking too close to the group in the halls; it was as if I’d ceased to exist. It was a collective shunning — I was like a diseased monkey being pushed out of the troop.

Meanwhile, my friends welcomed the new girl I’d introduced to them. She’d been a mid-year transplant from another school and, until then, I’d been the only one to reach out and offer my friendship. Even she joined in on the shunning. Too embarrassed to sit alone, I began to take my lunches with a teacher whose work I helped grade.

At the end of the school year, one of my “friends” was passing out invitations from a giant bag on her shoulder for her end-of-the-year party. There had to be at least a hundred of those little scrolls. I thought it was so cool she’d thought to roll them like that. As I stared at the bag expectantly, a girl named Sarah stepped forward to shoo me away and said, “Don’t think about asking for an invitation. You’re not invited.”

That summer, I spent a lot of time crying. My mother and sisters did their best to cheer me up, from deriding my ex-friends to attempting to rebuild my shattered self-esteem. I smiled and pretended their antics were working so that I didn’t seem like such a miserable chump.

It wasn’t meant to be cruel, what those girls did to me. When school began again, we were all friends like nothing had happened. It wasn’t until senior year that one of my besties finally shared the answer to the question that had plagued me for years: Why?

To my surprise, the answer had nothing to do with my failings as a person. “I just wanted to see if I could get them to do what I wanted,” she explained. “I told them to stop hanging out with you, just to see if they would.”

My friend’s revelation conjured images of a documentary I’d seen in which lion cubs tackled and tumbled, unknowingly honing their predatory instincts as they played. I didn’t blame my friend for her little power trip; she was just unwittingly preparing herself for the shark tank that is adulthood. What I didn’t realize at the time was that rather than being just a victim, I, too, was growing — developing and hardening my emotional armor.

Sometimes I feel like I live on a little island inside of my head. I’m on this island, and there’s a giant ocean between my shore and the physical me that interacts with other people. My survival mechanism is to detach myself emotionally. But, words...they’re such good swimmers.

I live my life in the public eye, a lifestyle that invites commentary. It’s one thing for someone to disagree with my opinion — I respect and value disparate points of view. That’s cool. It’s a big world with room for a lot of different ideas. However, when all talk of opinion is tossed aside, when people revert to their scared, confused, still-figuring-out-the-world middle-school personalities and resort to name-calling when there’s no objective defense, what’s left? “I’m rubber, you’re glue, whatever you say bounces off of me and sticks to you”?

“Don’t let it get to you,” David will say after I read him a message that has already gotten to me.

“I just...I don’t understand why,” I respond, wiping a tear from the corner of my eye and then huffing at myself for caring what some person on the internet thinks about me. In that moment, I hate myself. Not because a part of me fears that every terrible thing that is written about me might be true, but because I allowed those words passage across my ocean and onto my island. I let them get to me.

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Comments

bohemianopus Oct. 17, 2012 @ 2:17 p.m.

Great story. And I so relate to your experience.

When I was growing up in New Jersey, bullying was not only verbal, it was physical. I was a scared and scrawny child and an easy mark. Day after day, I was someone's punching bag, until my Uncle Frank (a semi-pro boxer) took me down the basement of my parent's home and taught me a few pugilistic skills.

I still remember that day in the fourth grade when I had my first TKO. I was wearing my starched, white Holy Communion dress. That day is when I realized that my family and a mean right hook were all that really mattered.

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Barbarella Fokos Oct. 17, 2012 @ 2:20 p.m.

What a visual! I love it. My family always had my back, but no one talk me the fisticuffs. Probably for the best. ;)

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Donna P. Crilly Oct. 18, 2012 @ 12:03 p.m.

What a terrible experience. I'm sorry you had to go through that. Your story totally reminded me of middle school and high school politics I witnessed as an adolescent. When one person in a group decides that someone is uncool, the rest follows suit. It's not enough that you start out "cool." It's a delicate game you have to play to stay on the cool side and not wander off into freak territory.

From one dragon to another (yes, I remember reading your dragon post when it came out), I can imagine that it's another whammy when your astrological sign tells you one thing about yourself but people or life tell you another.

Stranger still is when these people friend request you on FB.

Anyway, I hear you're coming to my opinion writing class at SDSU next Tuesday. Looking forward to it.

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Barbarella Fokos Oct. 19, 2012 @ 10:08 a.m.

Thanks, Donna! And yes, I'll be visiting your class, I'm looking forward to it too! I'm quite the candid person, I'll answer whatever questions you guys throw at me. Regarding us Dragons, I think it's only when we mature that we learn to breathe fire. ;)

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Barbarella Fokos Oct. 19, 2012 @ 10:09 a.m.

A reminder to my wonderful readers, you can find me on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/barbarellaf and Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/barbarellaf

I hope you do! :)

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nickolusroy Oct. 23, 2012 @ 12:11 p.m.

I have a lot of experience dealing with people and I would like to offer some input on this conversation.

Mindy, it sounds like your goal is to get people to adopt dogs or treat them better, is that true? Your comments are filled with criticism and condemnation. Have you found that to be an effective approach in persuading others to adopt animals? In my dealings with people, I find that criticizing people will more likely drive them away from participating in your goal.

I would like to suggest, as a starting point, you offer an apology to Barbarella, which I think would make her more likely to share your point of view. Following this, I recommend that you try to praise people and understand their needs before trying to persuade them to your goal. Once you understand their needs are aligned with your goal, which is to improve conditions for animals, you may be able to get them to commit to helping you. Do you agree that this is a more effective approach? Or is your goal actually to make her angry and stir controversy?

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Facebook Oct. 23, 2012 @ 10:07 a.m.

Tina B. says: Great article, one that many of us can relate to. I used to stay in class during lunch when I was in the 5th grade at El Toyon Elementary in National City. I would place newly mimeographed papers on everyone's desk. I was bullied because of my weight. What made it real tough was that my dad was in Vietnam that year. So I'd like to thank my 5th grade teacher, Mr Bacon (yep Mr Bacon) for helping me get through a very difficult time. And thank you, Barb, for writing this article.

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ParahSalin Oct. 23, 2012 @ 10:13 a.m.

Mins, I couldn't help but notice that you mention going to the restroom a lot. Well, ya didn't actually come out and say that, but going by the amount of comments you make, I just assumed. Have ya tried Flotrol yet? I had that same thing "going" and it was causing some problems when we went bear hunting, what with me marking my scent all over the place. I dint know what all the fuss was about, cuz it sure seemed to attract 'em! I guess cuz it was mostly males that were poppin 'up, if ya catch my drift. Hope this helps.. PS

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brendadancer66 Oct. 23, 2012 @ 1:19 p.m.

I can definitely relate, Barb. I had a very similar experience with "best friends" in high school, only they never really were my friends again.

And that troll is a walking definition of the word!

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ItsJustMe Oct. 23, 2012 @ 4:22 p.m.

Good post. Having been both in the abuser and abused camps, I am very glad I outgrew it.

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RL Oct. 23, 2012 @ 5:40 p.m.

Barb, check out this link. You will appreciate her humor and her message. http://vimeo.com/50006487

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Barbarella Fokos Oct. 23, 2012 @ 6:11 p.m.

I've watched this before, she's the best. Thank you! :)

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RL Oct. 23, 2012 @ 5:41 p.m.

P.S. It's writer Lindy West, talking about getting over trolls.

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