When I was about four or five, an aunt told me that if I wasn’t careful when I was eating fruit, if I somehow accidentally swallowed a seed, it would grow in the pit of my stomach into a tree. For years I was terrified it would happen — a seed would somehow get past my teeth and I’d swallow it. The tree’s branches would grow every which way for as long as it took to find a source of light, even if that meant shredding me to ribbons from the inside out in the process. And it would be all my fault. I shouldn’t have swallowed that seed. I deserved what I got. So I started tearing into every little piece of fruit that would eventually pass my lips with my fingernails, just to be one hundred percent sure my stomach stayed tree-free.
My experiences being bullied were very similar, and have had similarly lasting effects. The words and actions of bullies have stayed with me. Once the seed was planted in the pit of my stomach, something ugly grew from it. It slowly made its best attempts to destroy me from the inside out, and, like swallowing the apple seed, I thought it was my fault. Maybe it was because I cut my hair too short, or because I wore no-name sneakers and sweatshirts. Maybe I read too many books, or didn’t listen to the right music. Whatever it was, it was my fault. It just had to be. The girls didn’t make fun of everyone at our school, after all.
For years, I was afraid to be me outside of my own bedroom. It was the only place I felt safe. Even then, though, I would lie in bed at night and stare at my bedside clock, counting down the hours until my mum would wake me up for school. My stomach would start to ache as I thought about what I could wear that would allow me to blend in with all the other kids in the hopes that the bullies would give me a day off from their cutting remarks or cruel pranks, not that it ever worked. Sometimes I would pretend I was sick so I could stay home. I got very good at that. Eventually I turned an emotional survival tactic into an art form.
Whenever it came to letting people into my life, I would tear them open and look for seeds before letting them get too close to me. I had grown up with a lot of the girls that bullied me. They weren’t always bullies. I don’t know what changed, what made them suddenly turn on me, but it made me distrustful of anyone who approached me with an offer of real friendship. One day they could turn on me just like the other girls, I thought. Best to keep them at arm’s length.
The universe kept expanding, but my world, my room, stayed the same size. I was safe in there, but I was alone with my thoughts, and they weren’t always altogether pleasant ones
I wish I could tell you what changed. The clouds didn’t break apart one day to reveal clear blue skies behind them. One day I just decided that instead of hiding in my room, I needed to make a picnic of some of my favourite things, pack them up and take them out with me. Just like Morris, I drank my apple juice, did some puzzles, sang a song and put on my tangerine dress. I had put enough effort into trying to make everyone around me happy in the hopes that they’d leave me alone, when I should have been putting that effort into making myself happy. I stopped looking for seeds, and concentrated on enjoying the fruit.
If you’re being bullied, what they say is true — it gets better. It really does. Do what makes you happy. Wear your heart on the sleeve of your favourite tangerine dress and enjoy the fruit. Share it with the people who love you, and never doubt that you are loved.
If you suspect that you might be a bully, I hope you’ll one day open yourself up to the experience of seeing a seed that you’ve planted and nurtured in someone’s heart with kindness bear a sweet fruit that will eventually bear more like it, rather than a barren, thorny plant in the same place a special soul not unlike your own once dwelled.