When I was eight, a bunch of classmates bullied me in front of a teacher.
I didn’t see it that way, not exactly. In my mind, they were saying a bunch of stuff that was not true (I sucked, I was a terrible friend, my friends avoided me because I sucked and I bossed them around) and as soon as I got my voice back, I would be able to defend myself.
There was a great big lump in my throat, you see, and it made it hard to talk.
Kids saying mean things to each other isn’t anything new – it wasn’t for me, and every time I told my parents about it, I got the same advice. “Do not engage, let them do what they want, it doesn’t matter.” I understood ‘sticks and stones’ well enough – what I could not understand was why, whenever they did that, I felt so sad and miserable and alone.
They seemed to be winding down, and I was working myself up to say ‘no, that’s not right,’ when the teacher turned to me and asked: “Is this (me bossing my friends around, me being a terrible person) true?”
And I said yes, yes it was.
To this day, I cannot tell you why I spoke those words. I knew they were a lie – that everything the others said, it was false, that it never happened, that I was a decent person. And yet, having that adult doubt me made everything else click out of focus. I found myself staring at my feet, admitting to things I never remembered doing, or saying things I never said before.
The teacher didn’t scold me, but her silence was heavier than water, drowning me in her disappointment.
It was the first time I completely lost the sense of my reality. Before, I considered myself outgoing and friendly, making sure everyone had a good time at school. In the span of maybe ten minutes, I was the reverse – a mean girl, a bully, a monster. My teacher’s doubt made me believe every insult flung at me. “If she isn’t defending me,” I thought, “then it must be true. I must be terrible.”
That was in the nineties. I didn’t have a computer, mobile phone, or even a basic grasp of the English language. Even if I had encountered the term “gaslighting,” I would not have been able to connect it to what was happening to me or work up the strength to push back. Nearly two decades later, I still remember that afternoon vividly – the way the sun burned my neck, how my shoes dug into the dirt, the teary helplessness that came over me when I thought: “I’m bad. This is all my fault.”
Fast forward to a few years later, and it’s happening again. This time, it’s one person, and it’s not just ten minutes on a summer afternoon, it’s every day, every recess, every chance they got, they would push at me, trying to get me to lose my temper. Most of the class were on the bully’s side (I was “crazy,” “bitchy” and “ugly”) and even my friends didn’t want to get in the middle of it. Riding on the bus to school became terrifying. I was sure I would fail the year, I was so distracted.
Again, the teachers saw it happen, and again, they did nothing.
Once, I managed to ask – why are you letting this happen? Why aren’t you stopping this person? – And all I got in response was this helpless shrug. There wasn’t much they could do. They told the parents, and the parents remained complacent. They had no real authority or power. They had to make sure all students were treated equally.
I wish I could tell you this was the moment I woke up, found my mighty, and came roaring out of my shell, ready to fight injustice in the world. But I was still a kid, still deeply confused about the state of the world. I knew the school was underfunded and overworked, but I believed (perhaps naively) that the adults would protect us and treat us fairly.
Was I bad again? Was this my fault, too?
Click, click, click. My perception kept shifting, looking for something concrete to align itself against. I was a diligent student, people liked my drawings, and my friends seemed to have fun when we hung out; but in a group, I became the one who had to be punished, I became bad.
What was true? What was false?
We love to talk about assertiveness and pushing back against abuse; we seek stories about overcoming adversity, about winning against bigger, meaner opponents. We tell each other to fight, fight, fight as if it’s easy as if the power to push back against bullies and abusers lies solely within us. But something is missing from the conversation, something vital. We never talk about how it feels to have your reality denied from you. We celebrate victory because it comes at such overwhelming odds; but we act as if failure is all our fault, too. As if the world is our stage and we chose to walk off the edge.
The stage was spinning and tilting. I was holding the edge in a white-knuckle grip, trying not to fall off, while everyone else stood by and said the Earth was flat.
Think about this, the next time someone sees you being abused, and tells you to just take it. Think about this when your boyfriend cheats on you and then expects you to take him back. Think about it when a colleague steals your work and badmouths you to the boss, and you’re expected to just smile. Think about this when you’re curled up in bed and crying, late in the night, because you have to show up again tomorrow, and do the right thing, and be called a “bitch” for your troubles.
Complacency is abuse because it validates every terrible thing someone does to you. Complacency is abuse because it blames the victim for something they have no control over.
Complacency is abuse. Call it what it is.