If there was more than one email, I was already late.
I feel a bowling ball dropping into the pit of my stomach. My heart starts racing, a swarm of angry bees fighting to get out of my chest. I have three emails from her. I swallow and open the first one, terror washing over me as I brace myself to read the latest list of things that are wrong with me.
I am 12. It is the year 2001 and my best friend is alerting me via email to the fact that everything about my existence is unacceptable, glaringly obvious, and disgusting. My family has recently acquired a large desktop computer with dial-up internet. When I was 11, I spent hours writing chapter books on the computer, always about families with at least six children, finding freedom in experiencing life through my character’s eyes. I don’t have time for chapter books anymore.
I click on my first new email from her. She’s gonna be so mad that I haven’t been online until now. As I read, the bees in my chest start stinging the inside of my body; the bowling ball doubles in weight.
Panic sets in as I click reply and type as quickly as I can. Oh god, she thinks I don’t want to be her friend anymore. I have to tell her that isn’t true. And I need her to know that I will work on my running so that I’m better at it; I don’t want to embarrass her. How can I get Mom to buy me new shoes and lower socks? What was Jessica saying about me? Does she hate me too? My legs are flabby?
Scrolling through my old emails, I reopen messages from yesterday and the day before. They’re all from her. I can’t have other friends because then I won’t be around if she decides she wants to hang out with me. And if I don’t answer her or play with her when she wants me to, she’ll get mad and everything will get even worse.
As I read through the emails from the past few weeks, I am reminded of the extensive list of faults about myself that I need to address. Every time I read them, they carve deeper into my mind, but I feel it in my chest, my stomach, my throat. I’m being carved away by one of those metal scooping knives we used in art class. A sculpting tool.
It never occurs to me that she isn’t being a good friend. I am only obsessed with the faults she has brought to my attention about myself, adjusting everything that she describes so that I can remain in her good graces. I never think that maybe she’s the one with the problem. I believe everything she says with an unwavering certainty, taking all of the negative things that she says about me as fact. A life sentence. I will always be ugly, fat, greasy, spazzy, weird, annoying… I just have to learn how to hide these things about myself so that I can go on in life. How can I disguise myself as normal, thin, pretty, fun to be around?
A few weeks earlier, a friend from my old school had come to visit for the weekend. My mom had made a rule; no computer while Beth was visiting. I allowed myself to let go of what my best friend might say, what she might be thinking, how mad she was going to be that I was playing with someone else, that I wasn’t at the computer ready to absorb her latest critiques. I allowed myself to relax, just a little bit, naively thinking, hoping, that my best friend would understand that I had someone visiting from out of town. Somehow, I hoped that because Beth was only there for the weekend, she wouldn’t be a threat, she wouldn’t be a friend of mine that could create any distance between me and my best friend. She was only a temporary blockade.
I was wrong.
After Mom and I had dropped Beth off with her mom, halfway between our two houses at a gas station off the interstate, the familiar fear, urgency and desperation to get home, get to the computer, returned with a vengeance.
“What’s wrong?” Mom had asked. “Why are you in such a hurry to get back?”
I evaded the question, as I always did. Maybe, in some teeny part of my subconscious I knew that what was going on wasn’t okay. I must have known that on some level, because I knew I couldn’t tell my mom, or else I might not be allowed to get on the computer anymore and then I wouldn’t be able to respond, and the consequences of that were too devastating to even imagine. This pattern of pretending everything was okay, even when my addiction was killing me, would continue into my adulthood. I knew if I told someone the truth, I’d have to stop using, and it was the only thing that made me feel okay with myself.
This is just the beginning. My best friend soon begins to impersonate me on the internet. She sends emails to other girls in our class, as me, telling them how sexy they are. She tells them — as me — “I’ve been watching you change in the locker room.” She will say, as me, “I just want to be near you. I just want to watch you.” She tells everyone that I’m a dyke.
I am 12. I have never thought of the idea of being gay. I am the only one being called gay at school, that I know of, and I am learning very quickly that it is the worst thing one could possibly be. It feels contagious, like I’m walking into school every day with a giant, hideous cloak of gay-ness, and everyone knows it.
Girls begin to dare each other to ask me if I’m really a lesbian, as though getting close enough to me to ask is dangerous, brave, and disgusting. I will deny it with an urgency, a desperation so strong that, to this day, as an almost thirty-year-old woman, the horror reverberates throughout my body as I remember.
For the next several years, I am petrified to go to school. In eighth grade, I hope that enough people have forgotten. I’ve spent the summer writing lists of all the groups of kids at my school and the reasons why they may or may not still think I’m gay, trying to convince myself that maybe this year will be better. I am 13. I work up the courage to tell the boy that I like that I have a crush on him. He looks at me with first confusion, then horror, mixed with disgust. The bowling ball and the angry bees are back. I hear him telling his friends that “the lesbian likes him.” I will never escape. I can’t sleep. I can’t breathe. I want to disappear. I want to die.
Tenth grade. High school has not been an escape from the whispers, the rumors, the disgust that follows me around the halls. The concept of being gay has become inextricably linked with a self-hatred so deep, a fear so gargantuan, that it reaches every millimeter of my mind, my soul, my emotional, mental and physical self. A few things have changed, though. I am 15 and I have fallen in love with a girl. Everyone was right. I am a disgusting dyke. This is why it always hurt so much. This is why the fear always cut through me like a knife, why I felt like my guts were being twisted into knots and ripped open when I walked by groups of girls in middle school. It was all true, and it all made sense. Of course those girls had been so mean to me; there really was something wrong with me.
Another thing has changed too. I have discovered a whole new world. A world of beer, weed, prescription stimulants, cough medicine, stolen pain pills from other people’s grandmother’s medicine cabinets, and a group of people who don’t care if I’m gay. The girl I am in love with introduced me to these people. They are much older than me and when I walk into their smoke-filled apartments which wreak of booze and various smells I can’t identify, they don’t give a shit that I’m 15, that I’m skipping school, or that I am holding a girl’s hand. They don’t notice the cuts on my arms or the desperation in my eyes. I am free. I am in heaven. And I’m never going back. I drank the Kool-Aid of acceptance, and nothing could pull me away.
I’m 22. I am finishing up my undergraduate degree at a small liberal arts college in a town that I chose because it was known for being “gay-friendly.” I am in love with one of my best friends, and she loves me too… when she’s drunk. I am okay with being attracted to girls. I have decided that “it isn’t about the gender for me, I just like people.” I love this girl with everything in my mind, my body, my heart, and my soul. We stay awake all night as she plays guitar and we sing songs; some that she’s written that she’ll only ever play for me, and some that we know from other bands. She looks at me like I’m special, I’m her dark little secret. Her voice is raspy, haunting, and absolutely perfect. I want those nights to last forever, drinking cheap beer and smoking cigarettes, holding hands and dreaming about running away together, the sexual tension so intense, I can see the electricity dancing between us on that wooden back porch. Every night like that comes to a shattering halt when we wake up the next morning. She doesn’t look at me the way she had all night. She’s suddenly in a rush to get somewhere, to do something. I assume this is what I deserve and I abuse prescription pills during the days, carving more cuts into my skin, as I pray that she calls me at 11pm, ready to enter our dream land.
That girl, my “best friend,” when I was 12 didn’t know I was gay. She had simply thought of the worst rumor she could think of, in a small, southwest Virginia town in 2001. But she stole something from me in 7th grade and twisted it into something dark and horrifying before I even had a chance to acknowledge it myself. She stole my process of coming out to myself.
She destroyed it before I even laid my eyes on it.
As I look back, I realize now that I never really had a process of “coming out” to myself. I fell in love with the girl who I met when I was 15 and the combination of this beautiful feeling of elation, my new group of friends who accepted me, and my substance use helped me stop caring what people at school were saying about me. Or, at least I didn’t care as much. High school felt as though it no longer mattered, and I began to feel happier about loving women. I read every book I could get my hands on about fictional lesbian characters and when ‘The L Word’ came out, I really knew that the LGBTQ+ world was one in which I belonged. I became excited about it.
After this girl broke up with me when I was 15, I dated a guy, and I thought maybe I was bisexual. I went back and forth for years, dating guys and girls, sometimes labeling myself and sometimes refusing to. It wasn’t until I got clean when I was 25 and stayed single for over two years that I realized I wasn’t bisexual, I was a lesbian, and I was, and am, okay with that. I came out to my family and friends, some in person, some via email, and then finally announced it on Facebook on National Coming Out day. I think that if I hadn’t had the experience of being bullied, I would have realized, or admitted to myself, that I was truly gay much sooner.
I’m almost 30 now. I am a proud gay woman. Looking back on the relationships I had with men, they never felt quite right because, well, I was gay. I always felt like something was missing in these relationships but I didn’t realize what it was. I’ve also had several relationships with women, and they’ve all ended when I’ve decided I needed to be on my own, to “find myself.” I’ve quit using drugs, most days. I don’t cut anymore, usually. I’ve been through counseling off and on for years and am about to graduate with a master’s degree in a field I love. I have no problem being gay, in fact, I love it. I love the community, I love loving women. As I reflect on my life, I realize that, although this girl stole something from me that I wish I could have found on my own, the worst part of the bullying was the deeply carved belief that I wasn’t enough and that something was intrinsically wrong with me. These were the lasting effects, not the self-hatred about being gay. Regardless, I don’t place blame on the girl who started the bullying. I know that she must have been a person in deep pain, and while I can’t hide from the scars that these experiences have left on me, if she ever reads this, I want her to know that I forgive her.