(Originally posted, November 10, 2010)
Healing is a long process. For some wounds, a Band-Aid is all that’s needed–a day or two passes, the bandage is removed and it’s not long before you have forgotten all about it. Scrapes, cuts and other injuries may require stitches and a longer recovery time. Some wounds are too big for bandages or stitches, wounds that can’t be seen. “Oh, it will be all right…”, “Have a stiff upper lip” or “Just ignore it, and they will go away.” Those words of encouragement and comfort ring hollow when YOU are the one going through Hell. Wounds to the soul take a long, long time to heal if they ever do heal.
Being “different” is a hard thing to be when you are 10, 13, 15, 18, 22. The age itself doesn’t really matter. When the message you are hearing, seeing, feeling from your peers is that you are equivalent to a Leper, worthless, unfit to co-exist in usual adolescent and teenage social groups such as Middle School or High School, or even college, it can be a literal Mount Everest of a survival challenge.
Surely in recent weeks you have heard about the growing number of our youth who have taken their lives because they couldn’t see climbing the Mount Everest before them. Many of those looking up that ominous, insurmountable challenge before them were finding out the hard way what being gay or even perceived as being gay means among some peer groups, sometimes to family members and sad to say it, the society we live in. No wonder some have opted for hanging themselves, putting a gun to their head, or searching out the nearest bridge as the best way to get away from Hell. And it is Hell. I know. I have been there.
Being bullied day in and day out, bombarded non-stop by peers, hurling awful, hurtful names at you and harassing notes being slipped into your locker. Embarrassing labels being taped on your back as you walk to your next class, being mocked by peers in clear view so there will be no mistake that you are NOT welcome–not worthy to interact with them, or anyone else for that matter.
I am a living testament to the importance of unconditional love from family during the days, weeks, months and years of the Hell detailed above. I have told my parents on more than one occasion that had it not been for the safe haven in our home, where I could feel safe–where I could be ME, that I can say with 100% certainty I would NOT be here today. Suicide was something I absolutely considered. My loving parents gave me life….twice.
The damage that is done to the psyche of a child who endures the day in day out hatred and harassment from peers is truly immeasurable. There is a part of it that never heals. Even years later, the memories are as fresh as if it had happened yesterday. I will never, ever forget the words that were spewed at me: “I don’t know how anyone could ever love you in the first place!”
A few weeks ago, I was sitting on the sofa with my partner eating some dinner. Diane Sawyer began telling of a new project being started by two gay men in response to the rash of suicides in recent months. It was entitled, “It gets better.” As the premise of the “It gets better” project was made clear, I immediately burst into tears. The message: the current Hell being endured WILL end. There is a wonderful life to be had! Middle School and High School will not last forever, as impossible as it may be to envision. IT GETS BETTER!
OH but there had been something like this lifeline being tossed out into the water when I was the one feeling as if I were going under for the last time! I will never forget my graduation from High School: May 22, 1981. A happy day? I don’t know that I could call it ‘happy,’ but there was no feeling I have ever experienced before, or in the 29 years since that was as euphoric a feeling as walking away from the place that had been a source of unending pain for 4 years. I have never felt so free, so liberated, so RESCUED. I truly felt that I HAD been rescued!
As painful as High School was, college was just as wonderful! Finally, close friends. An environment where, though conservative, I could finally SEE that THINGS WERE GETTING BETTER!!!!!
It was 20 years before I would even begin to consider returning to a reunion. 10 years? Even then, the wounds were too raw. 20 years? The thought of returning scared the living hell out of me, but I did it. I had no idea what to expect, but what do you know…people grew up. One of the first mind blowing experiences of that reunion evening was a guy from my Senior Class telling me, “You know, you went through Hell in high school. I hate that. But you’re okay.” That experience alone was worth the plane ticket!
As huge as that encounter was to me, it was nothing like what happened this past Labor Day weekend in my Facebook Inbox. What I received on Friday, September 4, 2010 was nothing short of miraculous–LESS than a once in a lifetime experience.
A bit of background before sharing my Facebook Inbox miracle: I transferred schools between the 7th and 8th grade, from a county school to a city school. In my young mind I somehow thought that if I only changed schools, everything would get better! All the name calling, the harassment would vanish and be nothing but a bad memory. How naive I was. At first, it seemed as if my wish had come true, but it was not long that it was crystal clear that I had just moved from to frying pan into the fire. One friend that I had made at the new school, one day for no apparent reason quit being my friend, no explanation, would not come within a city block of me. He never said another word to me throughout the remainder of our school years. Let me note that this person never was one of the harassers, but severed all friendship ties in no uncertain terms. That was early in 8th grade, 35 years ago.
Next year is my 30th High School Reunion. Planning is already underway, and emails are circulating keeping everybody in the loop for the big event. I happened to notice a message in my Facebook Inbox from that 8th grade classmate. Assuming it must be something related to the reunion, I then read the subject line. It stopped me dead in my tracks. It read: “Long, long overdue apology.” Although I am mentioning no names, I am reprinting the brief message he sent me.
Long, long over due apology
I’m not sure where to begin this message. This really should be done in person, but I don’t want to wait any longer.
I want to apologize for the way I treated you all those many years ago. I single handedly destroyed a friendship for my own selfish reasons. You had shown me nothing but friendship up until that point and I am truly sorry for my transgressions. I have no excuses for my behavior as there are none. I hope someday you can forgive me.
I wish you nothing less than complete happiness in your life.
When I finished reading his note, I read it again. And again. And again. The next few hours were spent in utter disbelief. After 35 years, this classmate was apologizing to me. I thought about what to respond, and I knew I must craft the words carefully. To compose the message that follows, I stayed up that entire night, typing, thinking, leaving the computer for more time to process, more typing, more thinking. It was completed as the sun rose the following morning.
My reply to his message:
I will begin just as you did… I’m not sure where to begin this message. Let me start by saying that when I saw a message from you I was certainly surprised, and assumed it must be in regard to the ’81 CHS Reunion being sent to several classmates. Then I saw the subject line, and for a moment I surely stopped breathing.
I would have sooner expected to see Publisher’s Clearing House standing outside my front door than to receive a note such as yours from anyone…ever. As I read your heartfelt words, the impact of what I was experiencing was just beginning to hit me. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to write such a note. Let me now respond to the last sentence in the second paragraph where you said, “I hope someday you can forgive me.” Well, that day is today. I forgive you. You have proven true that it’s never too late to apologize. Thank you for this apology and along with it, a gift of healing.
While those days back in eighth grade were indeed difficult, hurtful and confusing, you were certainly not the first, nor the last to feel the weight of peer pressure and the greatest need of a 13 year old–self-preservation in Middle School. In a place where being “different” meant parting your hair on the left instead of the right, finding yourself at 13 with a friend who was gay and quickly becoming the object of ridicule, choosing to flee was not at all unexpected. I do understand where you were coming from with your actions. Had the tables been turned, would I have done the same? I would like to think that I would have stood strong, but I cannot be sure I would not have retreated as well. A quote from the movie Steel Magnolias has often come to mind: “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”
All this being said, I believe things happen for a reason, including the experiences-yours included- I had through most of my years in school. As you may know I went on to become a school teacher, spending 16 years teaching Kindergarten. Never in a million years would I have thought I would be a teacher, returning to a place where there only seemed to be bad memories. Teaching young children is my great love and purpose in life. My years as a student in elementary, middle school and high school provided, as only living through something can do, my core mission and purpose as a teacher–Teaching children to embrace differences in ALL people. Being a good friend. Sticking up for a friend. Sticking up for yourself. Nurturing a community for learning where each child sees every other child as a unique individual who has gifts and talents to share that no other can.
Today I added another part to that mission: It’s never to late to say you’re sorry. Never.
<Name>, you have given me a place to begin healing, and I can never thank you enough for that. Your apology and request for forgiveness is something that I never, ever dreamed would be offered to me–something I never even wished for. That just doesn’t happen in today’s world. But 35 years later, you have shown that honor, doing the right thing, and making amends are better tools for healing wounds than Band-Aids.
I don’t know that you could understand the magnitude of healing your short note brought into my life, just by pressing ‘Send.’ You have given me an early birthday and Christmas gift, greater than any I could have dreamed up, right here on Facebook.
Your closing wish for me–“nothing less than complete happiness” has indeed come to fruition. Next month, on 10-10-10, I will celebrate 18 years with my partner, Daniel. Finally–peace, hope and unconditional love.
<Name>, I have no idea what the past 30 years have brought to your life, but I, too, hope that you have found complete happiness, including an extra dose of peace and great love.
With best regards,
Healing is a long process. That process has begun…