By: Todd Matson
Words had been weaponized against him.
“Nobody likes you.” “You’re ugly.” “You’re annoying.” You’re a moron.” “You’re a loser.” “You were born by mistake.” “You’re weird.” “Everyone hates you.” “I wish you were dead.” “Just die, no one would care.” “Go cut yourself again for attention.” “Go kill yourself.”
Brett never understood why classmates would say these hateful and hurtful words to him. He once believed he was a good kid, with good friends, playful and fun-loving. He loved music and art classes. He loved being creative, drawing and painting, and since he loved animals and birds so much, he would draw and paint them every chance he could get. He could never understand why some of his classmates would mock and ridicule him for this. He also loved writing poetry, and he couldn’t comprehend why certain peers would laugh when it was his turn to read to the class what he had written. He often wondered if he was just too sensitive, not coordinated enough in gym class, not strong enough in the weight room, not good enough on the ball field. He would often think about a nature show he had watched that explained of how sharks smell blood in the water from miles away and prey on the bleeding fish. He wondered if he was bleeding somehow. All he knew is that these cruel words had been said to him so many times that they seemed to take on a life of their own. He thought maybe there was some kind of short circuit in his brain that kept words like these on repeat even when he was alone. He came to realize that he truly was somehow bleeding inside. Hurting and bleeding. Sometimes he would even scratch or cut himself on his arms and legs to distract himself from the deeper and more excruciating pain he felt deep inside.
It was always more comforting for him to sit on the edge of the cliffs behind his house when these painful words were echoing in his brain. His mom, whom he felt didn’t have an affectionate bone in her body, never wanted him to go there. He didn’t understand why she would even care. Since the cliffs were the only sanctuary he could find, he went there anyway. Every chance he could get. He could always hike up the mountain and soothe himself when he reached the cliffs: “Maybe this time I’ll jump.”
He could see the cliffs from his bedroom window, and he would often daydream about stepping off the edge of the cliffs and amazing all of his teachers and classmates from school who would be watching from below as he suddenly soared on the wings of an eagle. He would imagine that all of his classmates would want to be his friend. He would almost always comfort himself to sleep this way. He would feel a sudden jolt of power surging through his body as he would imagine himself to be a bird of prey swooping down on the school bullies, especially the meanest ones like Kevin and his sidekicks, clutching them in his claws, flying them high in the air, then dropping them like sacks of potatoes. As his dreams of vengeance would give way to images of the bullies pointing and laughing at him, as the bullies did daily, he would find solace in the fact that he could always hike back up the mountain and make his way to the edge of the cliffs for real. “Maybe I’ll jump.”
Now Brett’s school had a zero-tolerance policy on bullying, but he knew better than to tell his teachers, school counselor or principle, because Kevin, the ringleader of the bullies along with his entourage of wannabes would remind him that “snitches get stiches.” Being pushed around, knocked down, tripped, kicked in the crotch, and punched in the gut by bullies who mocked and ridiculed him made those threats easy for him to believe.
Brett was also very apprehensive about telling his parents because he felt they were too busy fighting with each other to care about what he had to say. Besides, his parents had a bad habit of saying basically the same cruel words to each other that the bullies at school would say to him.
He felt sure that if he were to press his mom to do something about how he was being tormented at school, she would look at him as if he was a pathetic and disgusting nuisance and tell him to “stop being such a baby.” He couldn’t understand why she couldn’t find a way to be nicer to him, and he often wondered if it was because she lost her own mom when she was a kid and then she had to take care of her younger brother and sister. He often felt like she would snap at him in the same way he imagined her snapping at them, feeling irritated and annoyed by them, wanting to just be left alone, resenting the obligation to look after them. He just knew that if he approached his mom about being bullied, she would make just enough of a stink about it at his school to open Pandora’s box and somehow manage to throw him under the bus, as if he had brought it on himself. He felt convinced he would end up with stiches.
He also felt certain that if he told his dad anything about how he was being bullied at school, his dad would wrinkle his face like a prune, roll his eyes in revulsion, and glare at him as if he was just being a sissy: “I had hoped for a boy but got you. Boys don’t cry.” He could anticipate his dad then launching into the same lecture he had heard a thousand times: “You think you have it bad? My dad was in the military and we had to move every year when he got transferred to another base. I was always the new kid on the outside looking in, shut out by the other kids. My dad would tell me to ‘suck it up and just be glad you’re on this side of the dirt.’ Suck it up!” Brett could envision his dad threatening him with his belt: “Do you want me to give you something to cry about?”
At 15 years of age, Brett mustered all of his strength to hold back his tears. He had learned from his mom and dad, and from the bullies at school, that there are wounds that stitches can’t touch, and that even time does not heal all wounds.
Brett hated the fact that he was an only child, and for the longest time he held a secret wish for an older brother or sister who could be for him what his mom and dad didn’t know how to be, someone to confide in, hang out with, play games with. Someone who would stand up for him the way he imagined all of his classmates at school had someone to stand up for them. He told himself that he would settle for just a few good friends, but he found friends to be hard to come back ever since he entered middle school.
Brett told himself that there were only two kinds of pathetic losers who get bullied at school: Those who return home to parents, brothers and sisters who love them, stand up for them, protect, defend, and comfort them; and those who return home to bullies. He came to believe that he had no one to turn to for help to stop the cruelty and torment.
He stopped going to his parents for help. He felt that the only place he had left were the cliffs. He would daydream his way to the cliffs while he was at school. He would make believe he was on his way to the cliffs when he was laying on his bed looking out the window. He would comfort himself to sleep by visualizing himself on the edge of the cliffs: “Maybe I’ll jump.”
One afternoon, having been subjected to a truly horrible day at school that included being ridiculed and threatened by several of the school’s meanest bullies, Brett went behind his house, made his way up the mountain and stepped to the edge of the cliffs. Gone were his pleasurable fantasies of soaring like an eagle and wreaking vengeance on the meanest of the mean. The only thing left inside of him were the mean words:
“Nobody likes you.” “You’re ugly.” “You’re annoying.” You’re a moron.” “You’re a loser.” “You were born by mistake.” “You’re weird.” “Everyone hates you.” “I wish you were dead.” “Just die, no one would care.” “Stop being such a baby.” “Boys don’t cry.” “I hoped for a boy, but got you.” “Go kill yourself.” “Go kill yourself.” “Go kill yourself.”
Something in him finally gave way, snapped, broke. He found himself craving death the way someone starving craves food. It was the release he was after. The escape. From the torment. From the cruelty. From the pain. From the loneliness. From the despair. The comfort of just not being anyone or anything anymore. The comfort of just not being. Anyone. Anything. Anymore.
Just as he was about to step off the cliff’s edge, the girl next door whispered, “Don’t do it.”
There she was. Standing a few feet behind him. Grace. Her name was Grace. He had seldom seen her outside recently and wondered if she and her family had moved.
“What are you doing here?” he asked her.
“I don’t want you to do it,” she answered.
“You don’t want me to do what?” he asked.
“I don’t want you to jump. You’re about to jump, right?” she asked.
His mind momentarily went blank. He didn’t know what to say. Here was someone, the girl next door, actually caring whether he lived or died. She didn’t want him to die.
“Why do you care?” he asked. “It’s not like you’re ever around.”
“Oh, I’m always around,” she said. “You just haven’t noticed.”
What Brett noticed at that moment was her smile. She had a warm smile. An approving smile.
“So why do you think I shouldn’t do it?” he asked.
“Because it would be a lie,” she said.
“What are you talking about? How is ending my life a lie?” he asked.
“Don’t you know?” she asked. “‘What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive?’ Anything based on a lie becomes tangled with the lie. It becomes a part of the lie. It becomes the lie.”
“Are we still talking about death?” he asked. “You think death is a lie?”
“No. Death isn’t a lie,” she said. “Just you giving yourself over to death. Here in this place. Like this. That is the lie.”
“I really don’t follow you at all,” he said. “I’m worthless. It would have been better had I never been born. It would be better if I were dead. I would take myself out of everyone’s misery, including my own.”
“What makes you think that anything you just said isn’t a lie?” she asked.
“Because of everything everyone says about me. ‘Nobody likes you.’ ‘You’re ugly.’ ‘You’re annoying.’ ‘You’re a moron.’ ‘You’re a loser.’ ‘You were born by mistake.’ ‘You’re weird.’ ‘Everyone hates you.’ ‘Just die, no one would care.’ ‘I hoped for a boy but got you.’ Don’t you see? I would do everyone a favor, including myself, if I would just not be here anymore.”
“Lies,” she said.
“What do you mean, lies?” he asked.
“Everything you just said is a lie,” she said.
“I’m not the one who’s been saying these things,” he said. “Everyone else says this stuff. About me. All the time.”
“Not everyone,” she said. “Just a few.”
“They say, ‘Everyone hates you.’ ‘Just die, no one would care.’”
“And you drank the Kool-Aid,” she said. “The cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. I bet those lies run through your brain like a never-ending loop even when you are the only one there. Lies are poison, you know. Lies may be spoken into existence from the lips of others, but once you devour them, they become part of you. You are what you eat. Didn’t anyone ever teach you that? Didn’t anyone ever teach you that if you eat poison you need to get your stomach pumped? You never got your stomach pumped, did you? Now those lies have morphed into your thoughts. About yourself.”
“Why would they say these things if they weren’t true?” he asked.
“They are projecting,” she answered.
“What are you talking about?” he asked.
“They are projecting onto you,” she answered, “you know, like a movie projector. You’ve been to the theater. You know how it works. You’re starring at a blank screen. There is nothing there. There are no pictures on it. There are no motion pictures on it. The screen is completely blank. What you see when you are watching a motion picture is an illusion. The real pictures are behind you. The real pictures are inside the projector behind you.”
“What are you saying?” he asked.
“When bullies call you names, ‘ugly,’ or ‘moron,’ or ‘weird,’ or ‘loser,’ it is because those words and images are inside of them,” she answered. “They are the movie projector. The movie is about them. Someone in their lives probably projected those words and images onto them until they came to believe that is who they are. They don’t want to believe that is who they are, because it hurts, so they project all those hateful and hurtful words and images onto someone else. You know, like ‘I’m rubber, you’re glue. Everything bounces off me and sticks to you.’ You’ve only ever been a blank screen for them. Everything bad projected onto you is a lie.”
“How am I supposed to believe that what they say about me is not true?” he asked.
“Didn’t you learn that you can’t believe everything you read?” she said.
“Yes,” he answered.
“Then why do you believe everything you think?” she asked. “Do you think that just because you think it makes it true? Thoughts can lie to us. Just because you think something doesn’t make it true. Your thoughts can lie to you. Your thoughts have been lying to you. Stop believing everything you think.”
“How can I do that?” he asked. “My thoughts have a life of their own. They are on auto pilot. They race through my brain continually. Like traffic on a six-lane interstate during rush hour. How can I stop semi truckloads of lies?”
“You stop the lies by standing up to the bullies in your head,” she said. “You stop the lies by telling yourself the truth.”
“The truth. What is the truth?” he asked.
“The truth is that you’re cute,” she said. “You’re smart. You’re funny. You’re curious. You’re imaginative. You’re creative. You’re kind. You’re sensitive, in a good way. You feel deeply. You love animals, birds. You have empathy for others. You understand what it is to feel hurt. You would never want someone to hurt, like you have been hurt. Not really. You’re caring and compassionate. You can be playful, at least when you have the chance to be. You can be a good friend. You want to be the kind of friend you haven’t had during the past few years at school. You want to be a better dad to your unborn children than your dad knows how to be to you. You want to be a better parent one day, than either of your parents know how to be. You always cheer for the underdog. You want to make something of your life. You want to make a difference. A good difference. As if there are good reasons that you were born. Because there are. Many. The truth is that the world is a much better place with you in it.”
“How do you know these things about me?” he asked.
“I’m the girl next door, silly,” she said.
Brett woke up. He awakened to the reality that had not gone up on the cliffs that afternoon. He fell asleep on his bed. The whole thing had been a dream. He thought about Grace, the girl next door. While he was dreaming, he felt like he had known her all of his life. He suddenly realized that the people who live next door, the McNalleys, were old, like his grandparents. He had no actual memories of ever meeting the girl in his dream. He felt a deep wave of sadness wash over him, as if he had just learned that he had lost his best friend.
He didn’t tell his parents about the dream. He just hung out in the front yard and threw a ball up in the air while he waited for Mr. or Mrs. McNalley to come outside. When Mr. McNally finally emerged from his house to get the newspaper, Brett asked him, “Mr. McNally, how long have you lived there?”
“Oh about 14 years or so I guess,” said Mr. McNalley. “Wait, you were a baby, so yes, when you were a baby.”
“Okay, thanks,” Brett replied.
Later that night, Brett gathered the courage to ask his mom about who lived in the house next door before the McNalleys moved in.
“Oh, just some family,” his mom replied.
“Did they have a daughter?” he asked.
“Yes,” his mom answered.
“What was her name?” he asked.
“I don’t remember,” his mom replied. “It was a long time ago.”
“Why did they move?” he asked.
“Why are you asking so many questions?” his mom snapped, now showing her irritation. “Because they had to move!”
“Why?” he persisted.
“Because their daughter had a hard time at school,” she said. “She had a lot of emotional problems. She died in an accident when she was in high school. Her parents moved away after that.”
“What kind of accident? A car accident?” he asked.
“She fell from the cliffs,” she said. “That’s why I don’t want you going there. Those cliffs are dangerous.”
Brett stood there stunned, at a loss for words. He didn’t know what to think, what to feel. He walked away, went into his bedroom, and sat on the edge of his bed, starring out the window at the cliffs behind his house. Something was different. While he felt a deep sadness about the girl next door falling to her death from the cliffs, he couldn’t help but sense that somehow, she had visited him in his dream to save his life. A strange peace descended upon him that he had never felt before.
His thoughts drifted to his mom, how she had lost her own mom when she was just a kid, how she had to be a mom to her younger brother and sister when she was just a kid, when she didn’t know how to be a mom. While he knew that she didn’t know how to express affection, he finally understood why she didn’t want him going to up on the cliffs. She didn’t want anything bad to happen to him. A profound sense of knowing overtook him for the first time in his life that even though she didn’t know how to express it, she loved him.
His thoughts turned to his dad. Even though his dad was harsh with him, even harsher than his mom was, he began to understand that his dad apparently believed that the best way to protect his son from being a punching bag for others was to try to toughen him up. While Brett knew that you can’t make a baby bird fly by hitting it with a slug hammer, he suspected that somehow his dad never learned this. It suddenly dawned on Brett that his dad loved him too, just didn’t know how to show it.
Brett’s thoughts circled around to the older brother or sister he didn’t have. It occurred to him that if only he had an older brother or sister at home, he would have someone to verbally spare with, someone he could practice standing up to, someone who would stand up for him when the chips were down. He didn’t have an older brother or sister.
His thoughts turned back to Grace. Another strange feeling began to swirl around within him as if for the first time. The feeling of joy. He was done believing the lies. He was acutely aware of the truth. He had worth. He had value. Whether the mean kids knew it or not. Whether his parents knew how to express it or not. He realized that everything Grace said about him was true. He was worth more than he had ever known. Suddenly he knew that his life had immense value.
This is when the idea first struck him that it was high time for him to go to school and stand up for himself to the mean kids. For a moment, he recoiled from the idea as the thought occurred to him that this is a surefire way to get stiches. All of the sudden, stiches didn’t matter to him anymore. He had practically given himself stiches numerous times when he cut his arms and legs to distract himself from the more excruciating emotional pain deep inside. Still, a surge of fear swept over him as he thought of standing up all alone to the mean kids. Then he remembered something Grace told him: “Oh, I’m always around. You just haven’t noticed.”
The dye was cast. Brett told himself he had a date with destiny to get himself some brand-new stiches. He felt ready to wear them like a badge of honor and just be glad to be on this side of the dirt.
Brett slept like a baby that night. The next morning when he arrived at school, he decided that he would simply go through his day as if he was worth as much as the most popular kids in school, because now he knew that he was. When Kevin, the ringleader of the bullies, sneered at him and said “you’re a moron,” Brett calmly set his books on his desk, picked up a notebook and a pen, pushed a chair up in front of Kevin’s desk, opened his notebook, and said to Kevin, “Tell me Kevin, how long have you felt like you’re a moron?”
The entire class broke out in laughter. Even the teacher seemed unable to hold back her smile. Kevin was stunned. This was the last thing he expected from Brett. Kevin couldn’t believe that the entire class seemed to be laughing, not at Brett, but at him. Kevin looked at the teacher as if expecting her to order Brett to go back to his desk, but she seemed to have decided to stand back and allow this humiliation to have its way with him. Stand back the teacher did, as if she instinctively understood that the balance of power in the cosmos had shifted, and that she and her students were witnessing a manifestation of this playing out in the classroom.
Kevin’s mind had gone blank. Seconds felt to him like an eternity. He tried to blurt out a witty comeback, but all he could get out was, “I said you’re a moron.”
“Yes,” Brett replied as he was writing something in his notebook, “that is exactly what I heard you say, ‘you’re a moron.’ My question is how long have you felt like a moron?”
The entire classroom roared with laughter as Brett maintained his composure and Kevin looked as if he was about to cry. The tables had turned. The balance of power had shifted. Brett waited for Kevin to attempt another witty comeback, but none were forthcoming. Kevin appeared to be frozen. The class became very quiet. Brett returned to his desk.
As he sat down, he noticed his teacher was smiling at him. She had the same smile he had noticed on the face of Grace in his dream. A warm, approving smile. He looked around and noticed his classmates were smiling at him. These were warm, approving smiles. He had found Grace in the smiles of his classmates. He suddenly began to see them as friends. Everything was different now. He knew that what happened in this class would spread through the entire school. Everything would be different now.
When Brett arrived home that day, he walked straight into the kitchen and hugged his mom. He didn’t say anything, he just hugged her. As if she didn’t know what to do with her son hugging her, she seemed to stiffen up at first. As Brett didn’t let go, he felt his mom slowly relax, and she hugged him back. She held onto him longer than he held onto her. No words were exchanged. The hug said everything that needed to be said. Something felt very right about that.
Brett turned and high-fived his dad on his way out of the kitchen, which left his dad scratching his head, pondering, mumbling to himself, “Who are you and what have you done with my son?”
A few minutes later, Brett snatched a book off the shelf, slipped out the back door, and hiked up the mountain. He made his way to the cliffs where, in his dream, he found Grace. Where Grace found him. He sat on the edge of the cliffs. He was no longer afraid. He was no longer sad. He was no longer lonely. He read these words aloud from Isaiah 40:31: “Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”
He had been saved by Grace.
Todd Matson is a North Carolina Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. His poetry has been published in The Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling and a variety of other publications. He has also had some short stories published, and has written lyrics for songs recorded by a number of contemporary Christian music artists.