Last month, I was tagged in a Facebook photo: me and 20 of my former classmates, 21 years ago, standing on the steps of our elementary school. I didn’t know it then, but seven years later, in 1999, I’d suffer from one of the most traumatic events in my life—bullying and slut shaming so severe that I spiraled into a deep depression and dropped out of high school in the midst of my senior year—or that, two decades later, I’d not only be surviving, but thriving, living both in Boston and my dream as a freelance writer.
In fact, the only reason the tag made it through was because a friend I’ve known literally since I was a toddler (let’s call him Abe) is one of the handful of people I’ve stayed in touch with from my hometown, a blue-collar city about 45 miles north of Boston. The rest of those once-familiar faces I’d written off long ago, deciding to take the, “I’ll show you” route when I moved to the city, using my resentment as power to fuel my career, and vowing to never look—or go—back.
Still, it was kind of nice to take a peek into my past, if not steep in nostalgia for a moment. My childhood, for the most part, was a happy one; and thanks to participating in the reading series Mortified this past summer, I embraced the opportunity to “come out” as a dropout who’d succeeded against the odds in a nightclub full of people.
Despite that, I felt caught off-guard for what happened next: an influx of friend requests from people I thought I’d never talk to again.
I get that Facebook is kind of like the HPV of social media, and that “friendships” are forged after hazy nights out, or without even having met. I’m one of those people who keeps it on lockdown (or as best as I can thanks to seemingly never-ending variations in privacy policies), letting Google whet OPC—Other People’s Curiosities—and saving my status updates as a place where I can post freely and openly, whether it’s photos from a night out, a quippy one-off, or a rant about hipsters who ride their bikes on the sidewalk (why?) with people I actually know.
It also wasn’t the first I’d received requests from former classmates, including from people who’d seated themselves at the right hand of the worst offender, a girl who’d once stalked and threatened to kill me—which I’d perfunctorily deleted without a second thought.
This time, though, it felt different; whether it was my big reveal at Mortified that’d finally provided closure, or the fact that I embarked on a healing journey of sorts earlier this year, I wasn’t sure. I did know, though, that I was curious, too—and since I hate leaving things in limbo, I knew I couldn’t just keep the requests in queue and forget about them for awhile.
So I hemmed. And I hawed. I consulted with my sister, who pointed out that the nature of the requests I’d received were likely not malicious, and that not every request came from a former bully, including two women I met when I was 10; another friend interlinked with my high school days who saw it as an opportunity to “let the haters see me shine.”
I considered the other reason why I avoid returning to my hometown, save for occasional visits to see my parents: there’s nothing there for me—no reunions, reminiscing with old pals over lunch at a local restaurant or Thanksgiving football games—or, rather, no one. I’d associated all of the pain I’d felt while bullied with the city as a whole, even the parts not affiliated with the aftermath, and I worried that anything beyond that rudimentary “peek” would be a regression of sorts.
Yet I hated that empty feeling, like I had no real connection to my origins aside from the “Yeah, I’m a dropout and I still succeeded” story I’d come to rely upon when someone asked about where I grew up. If I let one person in to the world I’d so carefully cultivated since I left—a world filled with people who loved and respected me, where I was happy and empowered—would I have to let everyone in?
I decided to pull the trigger—incidentally, while I was waiting for the subway to enter a tunnel, without an Internet connection, where I wouldn’t be able to rapidly click the “Back” button in a state of panic—and I waited. For notifications that the half dozen or so strangers I once knew had pawed through vacation photos and made off-hand comments about how I looked in a swimsuit. Or, conversely, that they’d clicked through to articles I’d written and were blown away by my literary prowess. Or for messages, requesting days and times I’d be able to meet for those hypothetical lunches.
I waited, too, for a feeling of superiority to bubble beneath my chest, an, “Oh my God, aren’t you sad for having never left?” gloat of sorts—or worse, falling into a rabbit hole and not being able to stop myself from delving into their respective digital corners, clad in Instagrams of babies and links to things they found interesting. Maybe impulsively feeling the urge one night to reach out and say hi, what’s new?
What I saw instead were people living their lives: as sisters linking arms; as new mothers beaming besides pink-faced infants, as women with opinions. People who, like me, had created environments where they, too, were loved and happy. Who, it seemed, were not wrapped up in the world that existed in 1999, and had created identities for themselves that had little or nothing to do with their high school archetypes. Who, it appeared, were trying to do their best in the day-to-day. Like me.
My big day of reckoning, as it turns out, arrived with little fanfare—and a side of gratitude. Because I’m also one of those people who believes that there are no coincidences in life, and that we learn from trying times. Writing is a career that’s laden with rejection, among other challenges, and it requires a very thick skin. I doubt I’d be as resilient today without having gone through what I did. (For a variety for reasons, I won’t go into the bullying in depth beyond the fragments I’ve already mentioned; it’s something I’ve been encouraged to write about but don’t feel ready for just yet. I realize that some might consider it a cop-out, given the nature of this piece, and I’m okay with that.) Seeing something I anticipated as painful and feeling the same as I did as if I’d looked through another “friend’s” posts was oddly cathartic, and, for me, was a sign that I’d truly forgiven and moved on.
Whether or not anything happens off the “Book” is to be determined; there’s a good chance that those hypothetical lunches will exist as nothing more than a vague idea in passing for the next decade and a half. But I know the possibility, just like the ‘Delete’ button, is there.