Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend the first Anti-Bullying Workshop organized by Trendsetter's Productions Modeling and Etiquette School. The owner, Tracy Palmer, has been running the school for over three years in the Flint area. I met her back in 2013 when I designed a collection and showed it at one of her runway shows. Back then I was pretty fresh into the fashion scene, it was only my third show. What struck me back then was how she combined fashion with community and social activism. Her focus these days is on reducing bullying not only in schools, but across the board. She experienced bullying growing up, and so did a few of her children, so the cause hits close to home. Tracy's goal is to show people going through bullying now that there is hope for the future, and to give them practical tools to cope. The unique aspect to her approach is that she doesn't only focus on healing the bully victim, but also on engaging the entire community to help prevent people from becoming bullies in the first place. This method treats the bully as a human being, and with compassion, rather than blind punishments. Seeing the bully as a person with a past history can help us understand what caused them to end up hurting other people.
When I first arrived, Tracy was reading out some statistics about bullying. The first shocked me: Michigan is number one in bullying across the country! The second was even more shocking: suicide is the leading cause of death of youth between the ages of 10 and 24. This results in approximately 4,400 lives lost each year because of bullying. Hearing this really effected me, because I could have been one of those numbers. After I left the workshop I felt very inspired to share my bullying story, so that hopefully someone can gain some useful insight or a new perspective.
Not many people know this about me, but I was bullied to the point of being suicidal during 8th and 9th grade. Because of my depression, I attempted suicide three times. The only thing that stopped me was thinking how much it would scar my four younger siblings if their older sister they looked up to suddenly killed herself. Just thinking about it gets me upset, even though I haven't felt depression in years. My bullying story is pretty typical: I moved to a new school, where many of the students had known each other since grade school. In retrospect, its clear they felt threatened by the 'new girl' who was artistic, smart, and taller than everyone there. I can say that now with confidence, but back then, the bullying consumed my entire world.
Through my school years, I had always been the 'good kid', did well in class, and got along with my peers. It wasn't until the bullying that things started to change. Because of the bullying and depression, I developed anger issues that got me into trouble with the teachers. It was infuriating to me that the teachers always trusted the bullies' word over mine because I was an outsider. Every time an incident would occur, I would retaliate with anger against the bullies, then get punished by the teachers and administration in response. The principle and vice principle had what seemed to be a vendetta against me. I got suspended for the most ridiculous things, breaking rules that other, more long-time students didn't even know existed. I felt rejected by both the students and the teachers, so I had no where to turn for help.
Back home it wasn't any better. The transition from my secular school in Hiroshima, Japan to the private Muslim school in Michigan was extremely difficult for me. I had been in the secular school for four years during middle school. I had good friends and the art program was spectacular. The teachers loved me and encouraged my unique voice. My parents always wanted my siblings and I to be in religious school, so they had big hopes for my time back in Michigan. I was expected to graduate from the Muslim school like my older brother did. Their dedication to providing me a religious education made it hard for them to hear my complaints about school. They thought that I was simply being a rebellious teen, and that I just needed to adjust.
My depression got worse really quick. Within just those two years, I was diagnosed with clinical depression, tried out three different counselors, and several types and doses of anti-depressants. As a minor I had no control over anything. I was forced to go see a counselor, but lost all trust when I discovered she was relaying every word to my parents. I didn't want to take medicine. I knew I wasn't sick, my environment was just making me this way. Every day I took the pill in the morning before school, but would come home crying and upset regardless. Every time I took the anti-depressant it made me feel like there was something wrong with me, just like the bullies made me feel, just like the teachers made me feel, and just like my parents made me feel for not loving the school they chose. It was a horrible cycle and I felt trapped.
I was overwhelmed by these feelings of being trapped and powerless so much that I no longer wanted to live. The first suicide plan I had was to take a bunch of pain pills and overdose. I couldn't follow through. The second was to hang myself in my closet. I even had a chair set up, a belt hanging from the rod, and in a noose around my neck . I remember taking one foot off the chair and bending the other, letting the pressure build on my throat till I saw black. I chickened out and stopped. The last time was the same, but before I had a chance to put the belt over my head, my little sister knocked on the door asking to play with her. I broke down crying because I knew I could never leave them.
When I wasn't attempting suicide, I was engaging in other self-harming coping mechanisms. My left arm still has scars from the cutting. It started out as a curiosity, to see just how much physical pain could I withstand. The physical pain numbed all the emotional pain I was feeling. It was a rush and an adrenaline that I used to cope. Other teens may turn to drugs, alcohol, or partying. I chose to hurt myself. At first it was just pins and other objects I could make a small surface scratch with. I quickly graduated to real razors that left deep wounds and dripped red. My mom found a blood soaked pillow case in my room, and that's when she really understood the severity of my depression.
All this hurt and suffering was caused by only a handful of people. The private school was extremely small, so I was forced to see these same girls every day in every class. They never beat me up, stole from me, or damaged any of my property. Instead, they made fun of and excluded me relentlessly, day in and day out. It doesn't take being physically bullied to get physically hurt. Often times verbal bullying drives the victim to hate themselves so much that they do the job themselves. Thankfully, I was able to convince my parents to let me transfer schools, and the bullying finally ended. My last three years of high school were spent at Washtenaw Technical Middle College where I was able to heal and rebuild my confidence. Being bullied changed me in so many ways, and if there is someone out there reading this who bullies someone, I'd like you to recognize exactly how much your actions hurt people. Here are some of the ways I was affected by bullying:
Thinking back on my bullying story and how I overcame it, I feel a sense of pride. I pulled through. I came out on the other side as a strong, confident woman. But not everyone is so lucky. There are people of all walks of life experiencing bullying this very moment, and some may be considering taking their own life as a result. It necessary that communities are persistent with opening and continuing dialogue about ways we can work together to end this epidemic. That is why am teaming up with Tracy to bring more awareness to the issue and search for solution. We are cooking up an event together to achieve this, so stay tuned!
Thank you for reading up until this point, and for exploring the most vulnerable parts of my heart with me.
Have you ever experienced bullying? If so, how has it effected you?
What are some practical ways we can stop bullying in our schools, workplaces, and society?
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I observe & write about society & culture.