Speaking Up

Me, Berkeley, California 1973 


One day when I was four years old, I was outside playing by myself. Alone. Things were different in 1973. Kids played outside without adults around, a lot.

Maybe though, not as often as me. And maybe not as as young as four years old. But my father wasn't always home and my mother was often anxious or depressed. For her, the presence of her children usually made things worse. So, when my brother and I were told to go play outside - we did.

On this day, A group of neighborhood kids approached me. Maybe three or four of them. They were all older by several years.

One of them, a girl, offered me a piece of candy. The other kids were laughing. I wasn't sure why. Mostly, I was just happy that kids were talking to me. I'm sure I was excited that I was going to get a piece of candy, too.

She didn't have the candy with her, she explained. So I followed her and the other kids down the block, to her house. We all went inside. She led us downstairs to a basement. Or maybe it was a garage. I can't quite remember that detail. The floor was cement, I know that though.

Some of the details are fuzzy. It was a long time ago, and I spent many years purposely not remembering. Sometimes I think back to that day and I wonder to myself, when was it that I started to get scared?




The other kids were all standing around me, and straight ahead, sitting on the floor, was a cage. It might have been a dog kennel of some kind. Maybe an empty rabbit hutch. One of the kids told me to get in. They'd give me the candy once i got in, they said.

I didn't want to get in the cage, but the other kids were surrounding me. I was afraid to try to push through them in order to leave. So instead, I got down and began to crawl in. That's how I know the floor was cement. That part I do remember - what it felt like. It was cold and hard beneath my knees. It hurt.

Once I was in the cage, I couldn't stand or even sit up. One of the kids stepped forward and pushed the door shut behind me. I don't know what the locking mechanism was, but I knew I wanted to get out, and suddenly I couldn't.

"Here's your candy. Eat it, and we'll open the door," said the girl who lived in the house. She held out her hand and on it was a short piece of round white candy. I'd never seen a piece of candy like it before, but that didn't matter because all I wanted was to be let out of the cage. I was able to get my arm through the metal bars and I grabbed the candy and then put it into my mouth.

It wasn't sweet. In fact it was immediately clear that it wasn't edible, either - it was a piece of blackboard chalk.

I spit it out and started crying. I asked to be let out.

"You didn't eat it!" One of the kids said, laughing.

I cried harder. "I wanna get out!" I kept saying.

And then the entire group turned to leave.

Someone turned the lights off. I was still crying when the last person left the room and pulled the door shut behind them.

I remember that part too, and I remember what I did next.

I started screaming.



I was let out of that cage, probably within half an hour of having been locked in. I entered Kindergarten a few months later. Already, I was afraid of how cruel children could be, and already, I didn't believe that anyone could help me.

Over forty years would go by before I talked about that experience with anyone. 



Three years ago I was again relapsing into my eating disorder. The relapse was nowhere near as bad as the one I'm dealing with now, but I was still hospitalized for a few days.

When I was in the hospital, I told my nurse in the treatment program, Jake, about what happened that day when I was four years old.

I remember his questions and I remember answering them in monotone. There is a detachment around memories that speaks to the impact of PTSD. I am not sure that there was any intonation in my voice, at all.

"How did you get out of the cage?" He asked me.

"Someone came back. One of the kids. They let me out."

"How long did it take?"

"I don't know."

"When they turned the lights off, how dark was it in that room? Was it pitch black, or just sort of dark?"

"I can't remember."

"Did you tell any adults, afterward?"

"I'm not sure. I don't think so."

Jake was quiet then. I knew what he was doing. I knew he was measuring his words and weighing his next questions.

I've learned about this. I've taken classes on recognizing and working with clients who have PTSD. You tread carefully. You don't push. That's the thing. You don't push a person to remember if they aren't ready.

So he didn't push. He leaned back in his chair and took a deep breath. He returned to questions about the present.

"Are you still angry at them? The kids? For doing that to you?"

I thought about his question for a moment.

"No. It was a long time ago."

"Are you angry about anything having to do with what happened that day?"

"I'm not angry, but when I think about it, I wish I could go back and somehow stand in front of myself. I wish I could tell those kids to go away. I have a picture of myself at that age and I'm so little in that picture. I just... I wish I could go back and pick that little girl up and protect her."

"You wish you could do what a parent should have done." Jake said, quietly.

I took a deep breath. "Yes."



We could talk about the reasons that kids are bullied ad nauseum. There are different theories. Popularity. Insecurity. Poor parental modeling. Early sociopathy. Mob mentality. All of that. We could talk about it and deconstruct it and have some answers and more questions, too.

There is a place for those discussions. More importantly, there is a place for discussions about how to recognize bullying, how to intervene when it is happening, and how to support the person being bullied.

But for the purpose of this essay, I will tell you this. Bullying kills the spirit of human beings. Significant bullying causes PTSD. And ongoing bullying, especially childhood bullying, can kill a person, entirely.

I have talked about my experiences with being bullied in my personal essays before. I rarely had classroom friends. Maybe one. Two if I was lucky. I wasn't invited to play in groups, I wasn't invited to birthday parties, I was often the one who didn't receive any valentines.

I was always hurt. Always humiliated. I always believed that I was less than others.

I didn't fly under the radar. I was sensitive, cried easily, and was scared of other kids. I was the typical bullied child. I cowered a lot. I spent a lot of time in corners. I'd get under desks and put my hands over my ears. And all of that would just make children laugh and taunt me even more.

The primary way that it played out in my neighborhood was that I wasn't invited to play with children very often. At school though, I was spit on. Tripped. Pushed. I had gum and candy thrown at me. Lunches and school supplies were stolen from me. Stolen, in front of me. By fourth grade I frequently ran all the way home, because during the day kids would tell me they were going to beat me up after school. By fifth grade, no one in my class even used my name anymore. Instead, they always referred to me as 'shaggy dog.'

I was always ashamed and I was always afraid.

I remember very little about adult intervention. If anything was happening, it was ineffective.

In the 1970s there wasn't a lot of information available about the impact of bullying. There weren't good studies about PTSD from childhood trauma. PTSD still wasn't understood as it related to war veterans, bullied kids were far behind. Childhood suicide wasn't yet clearly connected to having been bullied.

At the time, the closest thing to advice that was given to bullied children was that they not care and brush it off. Or that they stand up to the bully. But when I was in elementary school, that never worked for me. I may have tried, but I was too scared of the other children. Each year my fear was compounded by the year prior.

Complicating matters was my home life. I always had a bed to sleep in, though never my own bedroom. I always had some food to eat, though the quantity and quality was inconsistent. And I was always told I was loved, but I was never told I was safe. I wasn't safe. 

We could dissect that too. My parents' youth, the cultural lack-of-norms in the 1970s, my family's poverty, and the lack of an extended family around us. My mother's mental illness was a major contributor as was the frequent lack of my father's presence.

But, insofar as mitigating the impact of bullying, understanding the reasons it happened doesn't help. The fact is, I was neglected and I looked it. My hair was rarely brushed in the morning, My clothing was often ill fitting, it was frequently dirty, and usually ripped and stained. Sometimes I would have had a bath the night before, sometimes not.

These were the things other kids zeroed in on. These tangible things about my physical presentation. I felt 'less than' because in those categories, I did have less than the other children. I knew that, I just didn't understand why.

It's a grievous thing, the way that kids join together to torment another. Either someone stands up and says, this is wrong, it has to stop - or the behavior continues and often escalates. I didn't know how to tell people that it was wrong and it had to stop. Instead, my mind and my heart joined them.

I believed the other kids hated me, so I learned to hate myself, too.


It's hard to say how much the bullying impacted my PTSD. My childhood experiences are like a roulette wheel of trauma. There was a lot of sexually inappropriate behavior including molestation. And certainly being raised by a mentally ill parent was overwhelming. Or maybe it was this - by the time I was ten years old, alcoholism and drug addiction were having a significant impact on my family. Then again, my family was very poor and poverty in and of itself can be a trigger for PTSD. So was the bullying the the primary stressor?

I don't know.

Categorizing the degree to which one thing impacted me more than the other becomes difficult. But I do know this, parental neglect has been identified as a stand-alone cause of complex PTSD. And for me, parental neglect is at the core of all of the other trauma. My mother's illness probably wouldn't have had such an impact on my life if my father had been more present. The drug addiction and alcoholism in our family was exacerbated by a lack of adult supervision. And nearly every facet of what I was bullied for, was a direct result of parental neglect. The tangled hair, the ill fitting and stained clothing, not having bathed. In grade school, there isn't much a kid can do to manage those circumstances.

In third grade, my teacher had all of the kids in my class sit in a big circle. She wanted us to have a 'talk,' she said. It was the first time I experienced any kind of specific adult intervention and I didn't know it was coming. Once we were all seated and settled down, she told the class she had a question.

"Why is everyone so mean to Chelise?" She asked.

All eyes turned to me. In that moment, I couldn't breathe.

I believe that many bullied kids survive by telling themselves that maybe not everyone has noticed. Maybe not everyone is in agreement. Even if we aren't being actively protected, maybe, if nothing else, we are insignificant or invisible. This is preferable to the lens of shame that is often pointed at us.

As I was sitting there in that circle with the entire class looking at me, I believed that every kid there was sizing up my value as a person. I wanted to get up and run somewhere to hide. I wanted to be anywhere but there, but instead, I was frozen.

The worst part was yet to come. One by one the kids began to point out why it made sense to bully me.

"She's kind of ugly."

"That's not a nice thing to say," the teacher admonished.

"Yeah she's ugly, cuz her hair is all in knots," someone else said, defending the first kid's observation.

"Her pants are flooding!" Said a girl sitting across the circle from me.

One kid after another had something to offer about what was wrong with me. Soon enough, kids started to laugh.

I had no defense. Everything they were saying was true. When I started speaking, it was a whisper.

"It's not my fault."

My teacher was trying to quiet the rest of the kids and I burst into tears.

I whispered it at first because I wasn't entirely sure it was true. I didn't know how to sort this out in my head. I didn't understand poverty or economics, I didn't understand mental illness or parental responsibility. I certainly didn't understand trauma or the impact of neglect on a child's psyche. I said what I hoped was true, but I didn't fully believe it myself.

"It's not my fault." I sobbed.

I don't remember how the teacher ended that conversation. I think she may have suggested that everyone should try to be nicer.

That day I went home demoralized and shattered. I went home feeling afraid and unsafe. Which meant, I went home in the same shape I was in most days after school.




It's not helpful to blame people. When I go in that direction, I unearth all of the unbearable blame I hold toward myself, anyway. To me, blame is neither comforting nor appropriate.

My parents were so young when they got married and had children. They were teenagers, they didn't know what they were doing. Add to that, they were all on their own. For many reasons that felt compelling to them at the time, they moved two and half thousand miles from their families, leaving Michigan and heading to California, even before my older brother was born. Very simply, they were kids in charge of kids and they had no help.

My mother was already suffering from mental illness. She was seventeen years old the first time she was institutionalized. Her illness had a profound impact on her ability to parent. But mental illness was largely a mystery in those years, and treatment was draconian. Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest accurately depicted what institutionalization looked like at the time that my mother was hospitalized.

How can I place blame on her for not being able to make good choices when she had a disease that impacted her every decision? Can you blame a blind person for not seeing? A deaf person for not hearing? Any argument that my mother should have been able to do better flies in the face of that which I find to be incontrovertibly true - without effective treatment, an expectation that the mentally ill successfully manage their disease is too high. Yes, my mother's illness impacted her parenting, but as sub par as her parenting was, she simply did the best she could.

Perhaps I could lay blame at my father's feet. He was, after all, the more rational of the two. Certainly, the more functioning. But he was just a teenager, nineteen years old, when my mother became pregnant with my older brother.

When he fell in love with my mother, she was pretty, funny, creative and whip-smart. But she was also damaged in the way that those suffering from untreated mental illness can be. She was vulnerable and misguided. I think on some level, my father wanted to save her. It's almost endearing. Codependent saviors don't do themselves or the people they are trying save all that much good, but certainly saviors are needed in this world. There was some sweetness to his trying.

There is this, too. My father's experience had been that children fulfilled a woman. His devoutly Catholic mother doted on he and his six siblings. He thought that motherhood was a significant source of my grandmother's happiness. In fact, it probably was. So, it's likely that my father thought that having children was going to be of benefit to my own mother's emotional well being, too.

My mother was unhappy and my father thought that children would alleviate her pain. How can I blame either of them for that?

With my mother. San Diego, California. 1969




When John first died, I didn't want to believe that my eating disorder was going to relapse so quickly.

There is so much pain and frustration that comes along with an active eating disorder. Physical discomfort. Shame. Fear. And a lot of self hatred. As each day passed, all of those things got heavier and heavier. It is the greatest irony. With every pound I lost, I felt heavier.

In the first ten weeks after he was gone, I was almost managing. I was waking up with a grief that was the most wrenching bedfellow one could imagine, but I did try to eat.

I kept trying. And for a couple of months I told myself that the anorexia hadn't entirely gotten a hold of me. Other people wanted to believe that, and I wanted to believe it too.




I visit with John's mother, at least once a week. Usually, I sit at her kitchen table and we talk about our memories. We cry. And then we talk about current events and the latest movie to come out. It's our new normal.

Every time I see her, she offers me something to eat. Every time, I turn her down.

In June, his family prepares to leave for a trip out of the country. John was supposed to go on that trip. I know that his parents and his sister are wrestling with a lot of pain at the prospect of now going without him. But his young nieces have been looking forward to the trip for over a year. So, John's family is pulling together and moving forward with going, for the girls' sake.

I am selfishly nervous about his family leaving. I am so dependent on them for comfort. Sometimes, I'm disappointed in myself for that. Most times, I desperately wish I could be stronger than I am. His family is suffering so much, themselves. Still, his mother and his sister constantly remind me that our shared grief is the reason why it's ok to need one another, and not the other way around.

So, yes - I am selfishly nervous about their leaving - because the comfort and support they offer me is always so profound.




A week after John died, his father offered my son John's car. The offer was completely unexpected. Repeatedly, my son asked me if it was ok for him to accept the gift. He, like me, was overwhelmed with the generosity. My son was nineteen, old enough to accept the offer without my permission, but he wanted to make sure I was comfortable, first.

After my son accepted the car, John's brother-in-law pulled me aside to tell me how happy he was that my son had done so.

"We were hoping that he would take the car. We wanted it to stay in the family."

I wept when he said that. Not because of the generosity of the gift, but because of the generosity of his words.



In the first months after John died, I couldn't bear to be by myself. 

I missed being able to taste the air I was breathing. I missed laying on John's chest and being able to hear the beat of his heart. One might return, the more beautiful of the two never would.

Every fight John and I had ever had flooded my memories. The 'what-if this or what-if that' thoughts that plagued me day and night were unbearable. Every resolution of the what-ifs led to my believing that he would have lived, if only I had done something differently.

I hated myself.

I could not bear to be by myself because I could not bear to be alone with those thoughts.





Before John died, our friend Steven extended an invitation to both of us, to an event that was a couple months away. John and I had planned to go together. When the week of the event arrived, I had to decide if I was going to go without him.

I decided I would try to go, so I sent Steven a message letting him know. I told a few other friends too, but my friend Stacey sounded worried when she heard about my plan.

"Jeanne is probably going to be there, I think she's together with Steven," Stacey told me. "I mean, I don't know for sure if they are dating, but Jeanne's been telling people that Steven is her new best friend, or something like that."

I took a deep breath. This was none of my business. Both Stacey and I knew that. The only reason it was relevant was because Jeanne had been saying terrible things about me, and it would probably be very uncomfortable for everyone if I were to show up at an event being held by her boyfriend.

I look back now and wonder what would have happened if I just didn't show up? Likely, nothing. Very likely, my absence wouldn't even have been noticed. Maybe I should have sent Steven a quick message and told him that it turned out I had a conflict and wouldn't be able to make it after all. That would probably provide a sigh of relief to all parties.

But I did neither of those things.

I wasn't thinking that clearly. I felt embarrassed and sad that the thing driving me to change plans was how much Jeanne hated me. I felt as if I'd been uninvited, even though I was the one making the decision not to go. 

I did send a message to Steven to let him know I wouldn't be there. I told him how nice it was that I'd been invited. (It was nice.) I told him that John had cared about him, and had been looking forward to going to the party. (That was true too.) and I told him how sorry I was that John wasn't with us anymore, and also how sorry I was about everyone's loss. Everything I said was truthful.

I then explained I thought it was best if I skip the event, though. I told Steven I wanted him to have a good time and to focus on happy things at his event. I told him that I wasn't going to be there because 'Jeanne had been saying something' about her relationship with him. I did tell him I wasn't sure what she was actually saying. I made it clear that I wasn't asking for any details and that I truly understood that it wasn't my business. Still, I explained, I thought it best not to go to his party.

I didn't hear from him the day I sent the message. I didn't hear from him the next day either. A week went by. Nothing.

All of that was ok. If he were dating Jeanne - how could he not be pulled in the middle by communicating with me? If he agreed with her that I'd been responsible for John's death, then perhaps he was being compassionate by not responding in anger. Or, almost as likely, he was busy and wasn't sure what to say in response to my message.

John's death and all of the messy and painful emotions around it left a lot of people without words.

I understood.




But, the agonizing drama around Jeanne's anger at me continued.

Someone mentioned that Jeanne was upset that my son had John's car. And then another person told me the same thing.

"She thinks that your son asked John's family for the car," the second person explained.

I was horrified.

"He didn't ask for it!" I snapped, defending my son. "John's family offered it to him!"

I thought about the suggestion that my son had somehow tried to profit off of John's death.

I felt sick to my stomach.





This was the first time someone suggested that Jeanne was questioning not just my own integrity, but my son's, too.

What if someone believed her? What if someone thought that when John died, my son saw a material opportunity and took advantage of John's parents? 

I believed that if someone did think this about my son,  it would be my fault, because it was for no other reason than Jeanne's anger at me. 

I was living now because I knew that my son needed me. Contemplating whether my being alive was actually a liability to his own reputation and happiness was a slippery slope for me. 

It was a slippery slope, and I was in a freefall.




I tried to remind myself that when John died, Jeanne lost a friend. She was sad too. And I knew that John would have wanted me to have compassion. So I tried.

The truth is though, I learned in childhood how to barter justified anger at someone else, for self hatred toward myself. I was an expert in that exchange.

The more I tried to forgive Jeanne, the more I hated myself. I wish there were some other way to paint that situation, but there isn't. When it came to Jeanne's behavior, I did not know how to defend myself and I did not know how to ask for help.

Like Jeanne's cruelty, and the gossip that resulted, and the grief where it all started - my self hatred grew and grew and grew.




A few days before John's family left for their trip out of the country, I visited again with his parents.

For those of us who've lost someone to suicide, we are often left with a hole inside of us. A hurt place that is there, always. Memories poke at it and remind us, even years later, that we are still tender and raw in the place where we carry around the hurt.

Perhaps this is not the case for all survivors of suicide loss, but I can tell you for certain that for parents whose children have died by suicide, it's true.

John's mother Jo is the last person I want to have worrying about me.




"Please don't starve in order to punish yourself, Chelise. Please." Jo says. 

Everyone seems to have noticed that I'm in trouble, but I don't believe that eating will make anything better. The ache for John is too profound. All I want are his arms around me and to hear his voice and to hold his hand.

Everything I want is gone.

Why am I still here? 




I was still eating a salad every couple of days. A handful of crackers every day or so. Lots of celery. Carrots too. I was having to stand upright and go to work and talk to people. I wanted to be able to answer my phone and hold a somewhat coherent conversation with my son.

I had to eat something. I told myself that so long as I was having conversations with people, maybe no one would really notice how sick I was getting or that I was losing weight.




Three years ago when I was in treatment and talked to Jake about how kids treated me when I was growing up, he explained that childhood bullying is a major risk factor for eating disorders - especially, restricting anorexia. So, I knew.

PTSD is an even larger risk factor for eating disorders, he said. I knew that too.

And for those diagnosed with an eating disorder ~ grief can be a significant trigger.

When John died, my doctors pointed out that they were scared for me. My initial reaction was anger and frustration. I believed that the expectations of me were too high.

I told my doctor that I didn't want to eat, but I was still eating something - couldn't I get credit for that? Couldn't I get any credit for staying alive when I'd prefer to have died?

But he was blunt.

"Chelise, you're going to die if you keep restricting this way. I'm not going to give you credit for delaying the process by eating a handful of crackers. Sorry."  he said.





John's mother Jo knew I was scared to have their family leave on their trip. Maybe because she's a mother. Maybe because I wasn't hiding my fear as well as I thought. Probably a little of both.

When I visited with her a few days before they left, she opened up a small notepad and started writing down dates and an itinerary.

"We'll be in this place on these dates, and then we'll be in that place on those dates," she said, pointing to the paper.

"We get back on a Thursday, and I'll see you on Friday, ok?" She said, circling the date that I would see her again. She pushed the paper toward me. "Keep it with you, so you'll know."

I took it, thanking her.

When I got to my car, I looked at that piece of paper and wiped away tears.

What I needed in that moment was to know exactly where the people I loved were, even if they couldn't be with me. I just needed to know where they were and that they were ok. I didn't have to tell Jo that. Somehow she knew, and she did what a mother does, and took care of me.




When John's family left for their trip, I took solace in their departure by thinking of John's nieces, Gianna and Emily. They were children still, ten and twelve years old. I knew it was good to remove them from an environment where loss was permeating every corner. Everyone who loved them wanted them to have some reprieve.

John's family took that trip to have time to themselves. They took that trip in order to grieve in peace, and they took that trip for the girls.

I never once told them that my fears were more important than their going away. I never told them that my feelings were more important than theirs. Because they weren't.





They'd been gone for three days, when I got a text from Jeanne. It was the first time I had heard anything from her since the day of John's funeral. She sent one question.

"Do you mind telling me exactly what I've been saying about Steven?"

It took me a moment and then I realized she was talking about the message I'd sent to Steven close to two weeks earlier, the one telling him that I wasn't going to be at his event.

I took a deep breath. I didn't answer her question directly. Mostly, because I didn't have an answer. I'd made that clear to Steven in my original message - the fact that I didn't know exactly what Jeanne was saying about their relationship, and that I wasn't asking for details, either.

So instead, I told Jeanne that I'd heard that she was angry at me and I didn't want to make anyone uncomfortable at Steven's event by being there. I apologized to her, telling her that I was sorry if my message to Steven had caused her stress.

I left my reply at that. An explanation and an apology. Nothing else. No other defense of myself. Nothing specific about what I had heard. No request that she be more kind. Nothing. Just the apology.




She responded right away.

She called me a liar.

She used profanity.

And then, she told me to stay away from her friends.

I didn't reply.

What was I going to say?




I sat on my couch, not knowing what to do. I spoke to my friend Stacey. She agreed that I'd done the best I could. "Maybe now Jeanne will feel like she's yelled at you directly, and so she's got it out of her system?"

Yeah, maybe, I thought to myself.



An hour later, I received another text from Jeanne.

This time she told me that not just me, but anyone else who was talking about her, was also a liar.

She told me that I needed to shut up and and that everyone else needed to shut up. She used more profanity.

And then she referred to my being responsible for John's death. She told me again to stay away from the people she cared about.

"You've done enough, already," she said.




I clutched my phone, my hand shaking.

But I didn't reply.




The next morning, one friend, and then another, and then another, called me concerned. Not because they knew that Jeanne had texted me, but because she was now also attacking them. Each one had received a phone call from her, berating them. Telling them to shut up.

No one expressed frustration with me. And yet, it was because of me that they were now being attacked by someone else. I knew this.

What could I do?





Jeanne contacted the person who had found John's body. She thought that he had told me what she was saying about me (he had not). She was very rude and told him he'd better stop.

This was the person who'd found John's body, but because Jeanne was angry at me, she felt justified in attacking him.



And then, she contacted John's family. They were still on their trip.

She left them a message and told them that she felt it was important for them to know that there were a bunch of people saying things about her that were untrue. All of those people were liars, she said.

Because Jeanne was angry at me, she was interrupting their trip.

Quickly, it became apparent that Jeanne was absolutely incapable of considering the depth of another's trauma or grief, in the face of her own rage.




As that day unfolded, I grew more and more despondent.

Because her rage was directed at me, many of the people I loved were now being dragged through Jeanne's mud. My son. My closest friends. Those closest to John. His own family.

I wasn't capable of containing all of the shame I felt about how Jeanne's anger was now impacting others.


.

I went into shock. That's how I survived those next few days. I couldn't eat at all. I wouldn't eat at all. No more lettuce leaves. No more crackers. Nothing.

I began to get dizzy.

At work, If I were standing when someone initiated a conversation, I'd have to lean against the wall to stop myself from falling down. My supervisor, unfamiliar with eating disorders, pulled me aside and asked me if chemotherapy medication, the kind used to stimulate the appetite, might help me to eat. The problem wasn't my appetite, I told him.

But I couldn't put the problem into words anymore.

My friend Charlotte called me to ask how I was doing, and I began to tell her how much I hated myself. It spilled out. I didn't tell her I was suicidal. I couldn't put what I feeling into words anymore.

Charlotte read between the lines.

Two days went by. And then three.

Each morning, Charlotte would text me with this simple plea.

"Please stay alive."




And then, Jeanne texted me again.

She wanted me to know that unlike me, she had been a good friend to John. She used the word 'loving' to describe their last meeting with each other.

She told me that before he died, she'd promised him she'd help him get through the broken heart I had left him with.




I didn't reply.




And then another text, telling me to shut up.

I wondered if I'd been a victim of identity theft and the thief was now replying to her messages, because I personally had not said a word to her, and yet over and over again, she kept telling me to shut up.

"I told you to stop talking about me," she said, implying some sort of vague threat.




I didn't reply.




Then another message. A threat a little less vague.

"Don't forget I know private things about you."

That is what her last text said.

I'd never told her a single private thing about me, so the threat she was making was to betray John, not me. Along those lines, she could easily lie, too.

John is not alive anymore, so he can't correct anything she says. He can't clarify anything. He can't point out when she is lying entirely. And because it might cause me pain, Jeanne did not hesitate to threaten to take advantage of his death and betray him on a larger scale.

I couldn't understand that. I still can't. Threatening to betray someone you say you care about, for no other reason than to cause pain to someone they had loved.

Everything about who John was as a human being, was being violated by Jeanne's behavior.

And she was purposely doing this to him, because she was angry at me.





I didn't reply.




But I stopped being numb. All at once. One big rush. I was terrified. I was horrified. I was bereft. I needed John on my side and to stand up for me and to tell Jeanne to stop. 

And I was dizzy. And tired. I couldn't understand why I was still breathing.

I pulled out my laptop and did an internet search to find out exactly how long it would take me to actually starve to death.

Too long.

Then, I did an internet search to find out how difficult it was to access the part of the Golden Gate Bridge that people jump off of. I began to look up how likely it was that a person might live after jumping.

Because I was so lightheaded from not eating, I couldn't focus. I curled up in a ball and wept.

John, John, John, I cried.

I repeated the words that had become my constant mantra. I said them into the air, hoping that something might catch them and understand. Desperately, I pleaded to be forgiven.

I'm sorry. 

I'm sorry. 

I'm sorry.





And then my phone beeped again. Another text. I froze.

I wanted to throw my phone away.

I wanted to burn it.

But when I looked down, it wasn't a message from Jeanne, it was from Charlotte. One sentence.

Please stay alive.





I don't think anyone could really put into perspective the extent of what was happening with Jeanne, because there was always a greater and more heartbreaking context beneath it all. John's death.

Nothing could compare to the pain of John's death. Nothing could compare to that tragedy or that injustice.

John's being gone was the subtext of everything I was feeling. My inability to process Jeanne's rage. My inability to stick up for myself. Even, my inability to get angry.

It took someone who knew me and knew my history very well to see a bigger and more complete picture of what was happening.

Someone who understood the grief and guilt I experienced when my mother died of suicide fifteen years earlier.

It took someone who understood the shame that fueled my own past suicide attempts.

But me? I couldn't understand why I was so incapable of handling Jeanne's rage.

To see that big picture would take someone who understood the primary triggers for my eating disorder. A person who understood my PTSD and the myriad of factors that caused it.




I have a lot of complaints about inpatient eating disorder treatment, and boredom is not the least among them. Being in hospitals in general is boring, but eating disorder treatment is usually on a psychiatric ward. This means there are no TVs or telephones in bedrooms, and if there isn't some kind of quazi-therapeutic group going on, there isn't much to do outside of the bedrooms, either.

Most art and craft supplies are off limits unless a staff person has time to monitor you. No scissors, no 'sharp' pens or pencils. No knitting or crochet needles. In fact, knitting and crochet needles are never allowed. Perhaps that's for the best. After all, there is only so much boredom one can take before they want to poke their eyes out.

So I'm sitting on my hospital bed staring at my feet. At my socks, actually. They are white with a grey Nike swoosh at the ankle. Nikes. That's another thing that's not allowed in the hospital. Tennis shoes. Because they have laces. Eating disorder treatment programs are full of patients with PTSD, and patients with PTSD can be very suicidal. I suppose we could get into all kinds of trouble with access to shoelaces, so they aren't allowed.

Sigh.

Jake walks into my room while I am still staring at my feet.

"I want to talk to you again about getting a restraining order," he says.

"What? Why? Did she try to find me here?" I say, laughing.

Jake leans against the wall and folds his arms against his chest.

"She's saying vicious things about you behind your back. She's doing it in public in front of other people. She's threatening to start ugly rumors about you. And she says she'll be even more cruel to you if you reach out for help by talking to others."

"Thanks for the recap," I say, irritated.

"Look, sometimes people who aren't willing to control their behavior out of human decency can manage to control their behavior if there's a restraining order against them. It's pretty clear that being a kind person is not a motivating factor for her - but maybe protecting herself will be. The threat of legal consequences might be what you need to get her to stop contacting you."

"I don't want to make her more angry -" I say, but Jake interrupts me before I can say more.

He speaks slowly and clearly, as if he wants to make sure that I hear him and that I understand.

"Jeanne's a bully, Chelise. You're being bullied. It's ok for you to do everything you can to make it stop."




When it's time for the patients to go to sleep, I get in bed and stare at the ceiling.

There is a dull ache in my stomach from having eaten dinner. Beginning to eat again just sucks, and that's the truth.

I start to think about a message that I got three years ago, from a woman I'd known in my childhood.

I'd gotten the message just a few days after I'd sat with Jake in this very same hospital, telling him about the bullying I'd experienced when I was a kid.

The universe has such a profound capacity to step in and scoop us up when we are hurting. You can call it what you want. I call it Grace. I believe it is God. That's what works for me. And sometimes grace in the face of pain comes in the form of timing.

Forty years ago, a group of neighborhood kids locked me in a cage, and I'd never since heard from any of them about what had happened.

But three years ago, I told Jake about what had happened to me, and then a few days later I received a message. It was from one of the girls who'd been there in the basement with me, forty years earlier.

She contacted me out of the blue. And this is what she said:

I'm sorry about what we did to you when you were a little girl.




In all these years, I'd held no hard feelings toward that woman.

I was surprised by the fact that my reaction to her apology was sadness. And not for me, but for her. It was not a pity type sadness either, it was much more tender.

I'd always assumed that the children who participated in that day had forgotten it entirely. It never occurred to me that when we intentionally hurt another person and we don't somehow make amends for what we've done, we carry that around with us. 

I'm going to assume that her memories of that day didn't have the same impact on her as they did on me. So, I want to believe that her guilt wasn't anything more than minor.

Even still, it makes me sad that anyone, myself included, carried that experience around for so many years. I don't want pain and regret in people's hearts because of something that has been done to me.

That's the truth. These were kids who locked me in that cage. And all of us were, on some level, victims of a culture that didn't want to supervise their children and that didn't understand the impact of bullying on a person's life.

There was no way these children could understand that their actions were (and would continue to be) compounded tenfold by the neglect I was experiencing at home.

When this woman sent me her short apology, we talked about it briefly. I thanked her and told her that the timing was powerful. I explained to her why. She told me that she wished there were something she could do to make up for what she'd done so many years ago.

I responded to her by saying this:

Here's what you can do to make it up to me: Always teach your children to be strong and proud of how wonderful they are despite what anyone else ever says about them. And, most importantly, encourage them not to bully others and to stand up for other kids if they see it happening.

That will make the world a better place.







For now, I've decided I won't get a restraining order. Instead, I've blocked Jeanne's calls and messages, and we'll see what happens if I leave it at that. 

I think about the woman who told me she was sorry for what had happened to me when I was a child. And then I think about Jeanne, who may never tell me she is sorry for how she is treating me right now.

The truth is, I don't need Jeanne to apologize, but I do wish, especially for John's sake, that she'd stop being so incredibly mean. And, in the bigger sense, because we are a world of connected people, I wish that she would stop modeling this behavior for her children and for others who might look up to her. 

But the longer I invest in any of those things, the more painful her cruelty is for me. 

The author Robert Brault is famous for recognizing this one important thing: life becomes easier when you learn to accept the apology you never got. 

I think about John. I know what he would want, and that would be for me to find a way to be strong and proud. Even in the face of someone being unconscionably cruel.

I can't change my past or John's death, or what has happened since. But I can try to share the impact that bullying and suicide has had on my life. Maybe that might encourage another person to reach out or to get help when they need it.

What I won't do is lie. Not to protect someone. Not because I'm being told to 'shut up.' I'm not going to pretend that what was happening did not occur. I'm not going to clean it up or sweep it under a rug or hide the impact it was having on me. Most children (and adults too) don't speak up, because they are afraid of the person bullying them, or because they are ashamed that the bullying is happening. I am not going to let my life or my writing be motivated by fear or shame.

My favorite memoir writer, Anne Lamott, says this:

You own everything that has happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should've behaved better.

I'm speaking up for those who have lost their lives to suicide. I'm speaking up for survivors of suicide loss and survivors of suicide attempts. I'm speaking up for those who struggle with PTSD and eating disorders. I'm speaking up for children who have been bullied. And I am speaking up for adults who find themselves bullied, too.

I know of no other way to survive these circumstances than to share the love, compassion, and support I have received from so many. But I know that shame and stigma kills people and so I will also share the messiness and pain inherent in reacting to heartbreaking circumstances with cruelty.

I know of no other way to stand strong and proud, than to speak up. That's the truth, and I am glad for it.


Me, 1974, Kindergarten, Berkeley, California

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