By Aastha Mistry:
Ever felt the need to escape the world as you know it, run away from everyone you know, everything you know, to a place far far away? I’m sure everyone has felt like this at some point in their lives. Well, I’ve felt it, overwhelmingly, every single day in school for close to three years. That feeling I had when my schoolmates shunned me, bullied me, made me doubt myself, over and over again.
High school is usually a transformational period where first love blossoms and long lasting friendships are born. That’s the experience the average person has, right? But I spent my time in high school a little differently.
I was thirteen, wide-eyed and optimistic about making a fresh start at St. Gregorious. Two months and fourteen days into high school I found myself standing on the ledge of my terrace on a Wednesday night. I imagined my head hitting the concrete. That seemed like a better alternative than going back to school the next day and be attacked by icy stares while I walked down the corridor. I dreaded the sight of banana peels, paper scraps and shards of glass under my school desk.
What did they want from me? What did I even do to them? I wondered, while I wept, curled up in the bathroom stall, every day during lunch break. I would emerge, with swollen eyes, hoping to be comforted by my peers. I just wanted someone to ask, “Are you okay?” For one, just one classmate to say, “I’m here for you,” but, that never happened. I still remember that ‘look’ I got from every new seat partner allotted to me. Their group mates would wish them luck as if I was going to eat them up.
Why did everyone cringe at the sight of me? Every time I looked up, I could see eyes full of disdain staring at me, smirks being exchanged, schoolmates cracking jokes. I thought of myself as strong-willed and opinionated, so initially I fought back, questioning my bullies when I was targeted.
They then started calling me “aggressive”. They had found another reason to stay away from me. It gave me the chills every time I saw a bunch of them in a group; my knees would go weak, I’d walk as fast as I could, to try not to let them know that I was embarrassed.
I began to believe in the image my schoolmates had of me. I began to think the world was against me and would construe anything anyone said as a jab at me. Everyone was an intruder.
I blocked people and turned into an asocial person. I couldn’t recognise myself anymore. The strong, opinionated, bold girl I used to think of myself seemed to have disappeared, to make way for someone who was so tired of fighting, she no longer had the will to live. It isn’t me I thought, and yet I was petrified of my schoolmates.
I had no one to confide in. My mom was a teacher at the school as well. Being the teacher’s kid definitely did not help. I’d come to Gregorious with so much optimism and joy, so when Neha, my old classmate, asked, “School must be so much fun, right?” I replied in the affirmative.
How could I tell her the truth? How could I tell her that the past two and a half months had played out like a horror movie? How could I tell her about my daily torture, and come across as nothing but a weakling? Had I told her, I would’ve received the much-needed emotional support. Familial love takes us far, but it’s in human nature to seek validation and love from the outside world.
When people ask me, what got me through that time. Honestly, I cannot think of anything positive to say. My days were filled with long stretches of staring longingly at the school gate, thinking of ideas to escape. I did escape several times but had nowhere to go.
Once in a moment of desperation, I got onto the watchman’s scooter and took off. I didn’t know how to ride a bike back then, but I willed myself to learn as it seemed like my only way out. I fell off the scooter a few times, but I was undeterred. I drove several kilometres away and then stopped, where could I go?
I vividly remember a school excursion we went on. No one wanted to share a room with me; I had to stay with the teachers. I thought I would get some moral support from them, but they were just as apathetic. They ridiculed me for being stuck with them. We ate lunch out in the open, and no one wanted to sit with me. I saw a little stray puppy, sat beside him, shared my food with him, and that was my happy moment.
Finding another creature that accepted me and seemed to enjoy my company felt good. From that moment on, dogs became my only companions. I would chill with stray dogs in my street, enjoy the little moments of acceptance. I was simultaneously becoming more and more restless; I couldn’t focus on my academics.
The change came in small bursts, and only towards the end. Finally, a miracle happened, and my new seat partner started standing up for me. She had undergone something similar but fortunately not this bad; she had my back thereon. She threatened to complain when the others pulled my hair, stuck post-its on my bag, spilt stuff on my chair.
Finally, I had an ally, she was never a ‘best friend’, but someone I knew who wasn’t intentionally hurting me, and at that point in time, that was enough. The last few months in school went by a little better; I also knew I was graduating soon and the hope of getting out of this school, kept me going.
I had also started therapy, and that helped a lot. Speaking to someone who wasn’t a family member or friend gave me a new form of support. I began to channel my energies better through drama and speech, which proved to be a form of expressive therapy for me. These combined with animal-assisted therapy, started to increase my strength to open up once again.
Once I graduated, I changed phone numbers and never got in touch with any of my schoolmates ever again. I slowly began to make friends in my neighbourhood. I befriended a guy, who repeatedly told me just to be myself. It felt amazing, just to hear those words. To be told, who you are, isn’t something to be ashamed of.
He became my best friend. Through him, I made other friends; I still remember the feeling of surprise, and later unadulterated joy, when they laughed at my jokes when they told me I was funny. It felt so bloody good, to be a part of something, to belong. I couldn’t believe it initially.
With time, I rebuilt my confidence.
I would just like to say the following:
To my bullies – I’m sick of being painted by you in shades that don’t define me. I refuse to let you do that to me anymore.
To those who are being bullied – I know what it feels like. Try to ignore them. We don’t need someone to tell us who we are, what we can and cannot do. Your abilities are yours and yours alone; you decide how you live. The situation gets better. I promise.
Trijog is a 360 degree mental health wellness organization that services individuals with mental health concerns across the spectrum, founded by Anureet Sethi and Arushi Sethi. Awake and Beyond is Trijog‘s campaign celebrating the stories of seven individuals and their tryst with mental illness, in the hopes that their journey will educate, inspire and help people understand what living with mental illness is like. Together, mental illness can be fought, conquered and overcome.