When I was in 7th grade (in Mexico City), things got so bad for me that I started to feel that my only and best option may be to end it all. I don’t even remember if “suicide” was part of my vocabulary at that point (I didn’t know what “homosexual” meant until 9th grade; it was the early 80s in Mexico and there was a lot you just didn’t talk about). I sometimes talked with the guidance counselor at school and while I remember him being super sweet, I don’t remember him being in the least bit helpful as I felt my world closing in on me.
The source of my depression was mostly at school. I had 3 best friends - SS, AD and SM. SS and I had gotten closer and SM was threatened by this and she manipulated SS and AD into turning on me. It didn’t stop there. The poison seeped into the rest of the grade and culminated in a scene that still makes me cringe: it was the class Spelling Bee and whoever won would go on to represent the school at the U.S. Embassy, against other schools. The winner of that would go to the National Spelling Bee in Washington, DC. The competition was in the final rounds and only one other girl and I remained. And then I lost. And the entire grade boo’ed me. It was absolutely awful. At the same time, I was being bullied outside of school, at my ballet academy, by a schoolmate and her younger sister. While I was in class, being tortured by the sadistic London School of Ballet teacher, MN and her sister XN would be in the locker room destroying my precious Hello Kitty stuff that my dad had brought me from the U.S. on one of his business trips. If they caught me in the changing room or headed to the bathroom and no one was looking, they would actually hurt me physically.
It wasn’t bad enough that I had awful acne. And braces. In fact, I had a head gear. The orthodontist told me to wear it 24 hours a day, remove only for meals and shower, and I did. When I returned to him after 3 months, he was shocked and said I didn’t need to wear it any more as my teeth had progressed faster than he had ever seen. He asked me, “how often do you wear it?” I blinked and replied, “24 hours a day, like you told me to do.” He shook his head, “No one has ever actually followed my instructions before you.” So, no more head gear. But then there was the fact that I was in a school where anyone remotely relevant at least had Gloria Vanderbilt jeans. I, on the other hand, had to wear polyester. My dad worked in textiles and his clients made fabric so periodically, we would go to local clothing companies and be able to get lots of free clothes. The problem is they were all polyester, because that is the fiber my dad's company made. I still remember the 100% polyester pants I regularly wore, that were this really sandpapery texture that even today, as I think of them, make my skin crawl. I had these pants in various colors. I think I just realized where my textural issues may have begun (which continue today).
The torment at school continued. As did my growing feelings of loneliness and basically feeling like a loser. Even now as I think back to those times and how I felt, I feel this intense foreboding and instinct to crawl up into a ball.
Eventually, things changed for me. I made a new friend in 8th grade at school (Alejandra) and reconnected with some other girls I had drifted away from. I no longer had suicidal ideations but I still wasn’t exactly loving life. Ninth grade was in the same school (it was a private, K-12 school) but in another building. I remember being very much alone that year. During lunch, I would go sit by myself outside in the shade with a book, or I would go to the typing room and teach myself to type. At this point, the bullying had ended at both school and at ballet (note: my mom, a tiny little Swedish thing who seriously wouldn’t hurt a fly, actually got into a shouting match, almost punching the big, loud, rude woman whose daughters had destroyed my stuff and left a few bruises on me; the ballet academy owner came running into the lobby to break up the fight and later told my mother she couldn’t stand the other mom or her daughters and thank you for standing up to her. My mom passed away 16 years ago and this is still one of my favorite memories of her).
I did have some bright spots at school that year, namely my friendship with a girl a year below me. Sasha and I had been friends since grade school as we rode the bus together. We lived on the other side of the enormous city so our bus rides were typically an hour long. She became my best friend based on those bus rides and our geographic proximity. When I was in 9th grade she was in 8th grade, so we were in different buildings. But during these lonely times, I would sometimes venture over to middle school during lunch and hang out with Sasha and her friends. Being a bookworm, I would read a diverse collection of books and at some point I started to read a book, Girls & Sex. Suddenly I had very important information and the 8th graders were eager to learn what I knew about this mysterious topic. (Remember: I was in a conservative country at a conservative time. And there was no YouTube). I then read the book’s counterpart, Boys & Sex. I became the expert on all things dating, relationships, sex - and I had never even kissed a boy at this point. But this is when my lifelong passion of helping people, especially teens, with all things regarding mental health, relationships, self-respect, matchmaking, etc began. As I helped others, I helped myself, as I began to feel less like a misunderstood loser. These very popular 8th graders were seeking my wisdom and wanted to hang out with me, so I guessed I just needed to find my people.
The summer between 9th and 10th grades was when everything changed. My friend Alejandra had moved to San Diego after 8th grade and I went to visit her for two weeks. This was the first time I had traveled without my family. I loved California! Here I was, on a beautiful beach, and nobody knew me. No one knew I had been this studious, pimply, head-gear-and-polyester-wearing bully target, and it didn't hurt that it was too hot there for my polyester pants. My pimples had cleared up, my braces were gone, and I discovered the magic of reinvention. The cute lifeguards noticed me. One of them even taught me how to throw a frisbee, and this launched a lifelong love of frisbee (and ultimate frisbee in college). I felt so free! It was exhilarating, and I knew I would never go back to how I had been. That same summer I got my period for the first time too (while on a flight to Brussels, actually).
When I think of 10th grade the overwhelming feeling I have about it is that I had stopped caring what people thought of me. I had this deep, warm knowing that I mattered, that I was pretty, and smart, and cool, and no one could take this away from me. All of the people who had been part of the middle school angst were still at school with me, and we were even friends again. I was what I call a floater. I did not hang out with one group, but sort of floated around between groups. The social scene at this school, as I remember it, is that there was the American clique (ex-pats whose parents worked at the U.S. Embassy or multinational corporations); the most popular clique, who were mostly wealthy Mexicans. Then there were lots of other smaller groups. I was friendly with all, but by 10th grade my closest friends were not in my grade (Sasha in 9th grade and Vicky in 11th grade) and I otherwise floated. After 11th grade my family moved to the U.S. so I once again had a chance to reinvent myself, for 12th grade in N.J. (As you can imagine, this was another opportunity to build resiliency skills!).
As awful as 7th grade was, and as awkward as 8th and 9th grade were, I would not change that experience for the world. I know what it feels like to feel like a total misfit, to be deeply lonely, and to feel like there is no way out and no end in sight. I know what it feels like to feel like this is the worst day of your life and there is no way in hell things will get better. (Note: it was not a smooth ride from there on out, as later in high school I began a journey through bulimia, and I thankfully eventually recovered but there were definitely some dark times…). I am certain that these painful years led me to the work I do now, as I instantly empathize with people who feel like a square peg in a round hole and feel like they are stuck. And now, during COVID, when so much of what we took for granted about our life has been replaced by the unsettling realization that nothing is permanent or certain, many of us feel this sense of when will this ever end? I hear it every day, from kids and adults, bemoaning the uncertainty that is the only guarantee as we make plans to return to school, to be employed, to stay healthy. Fluid is the new black. Mental health is declining, especially among our youth. So much feels tenuous to them and they lack the perspective of our grandparents, who have weathered other chicken little times (world wars, Cold War, 9/11...) and figure, this too shall pass.
As I walked my puppy this morning I reflected on these collective feelings of despair and hopelessness, and was immediately transported back to my middle school self. I decided to write about this because I found it comforting to zoom out and feel the pain of my middle school self, while being in the time and place I am today. I contemplated the impermanence of things that seem so certain and intractable, which is a concept that can feel unsettling or can be a relief, depending on how we look at it or what we apply it to. When my son would text me from his 8th grade hell at school, “THIS IS THE WORST DAY OF MY LIFE,” my heart would shrivel up and at the same time I would know, this too shall pass. Of course, by the time he would get home and I would ask him what had happened, because my own middle school self knows what a hostile world that can be, especially since we had just moved and he was having to start from scratch in a new state and school, he would reply with something like, “It got better.” It still sucked - but he would just keep going, and he would come home and share some of the stories of rejection and awkwardness and bullying and ineffective school staff. And I would listen, and inwardly cringe, and he would know that I knew it sucked, because of my own history.
Maybe the most useful thing about middle school is it prepares us to face life shitshows. I recently learned that based on research, hope is actually a skill, which means it can be taught and strengthened. I think I will start to think of middle school as Hope Academy, and if you come out alive, you have a master’s degree in hope. If you are reading this, you probably have this same degree, which means you are fully equipped to deal with all hard things.
If you feel like you need to talk with someone, this website has some wonderful resources:
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
Keep going. One day at a time, one step at a time.
Wellness coach, athlete, mom, entrepreneur. I love helping people mindfully reboot their health & joy.