The very first time I remember any indication that something might be different about me is my kindergarten teacher telling me to look at the television and watch “Sesame Street” with the other kids. I had been born with an eye condition that made me see double when I looked straight ahead, and I had learned to naturally compensate for it by turning my head to the left—to the point that my teacher insisted I was looking at the fireplace instead of the television. I told her I was watching it, and she didn’t believe me. I told her what was happening on the show, and she did. I remember wondering what she was talking about but dismissing it from my mind.
I first went to an eye professional for this at nine months old, and my parents were told that surgery had a 10% chance of correcting it, a 10% chance for making it worse, and 80% chance of doing nothing. Dollars were hard to come by in my family at that point in our lives, so nothing was done except regular checkups until I started school. I was also extremely nearsighted, and I got glasses at age 6 and contact lenses at age 7—the youngest person my eye doctor had ever fitted for contacts at the time. The frames of my glasses interfered with my field of vision when I turned my head. I would offset my glasses on my face to see the board, completely freaking out a substitute teacher in second grade at one point. Another doctor who came to the school and did free vision screening tried to convince my parents to enroll me at the Mississippi School for the Blind in the state capitol of Jackson, telling them I would never be able to live a normal life. So I started out with a few strikes against me
As I got older, I would be teased about being “cross-eyed” after what my eyes looked like when I did look straight at you. My most vivid memory of my elementary school years is of being chased around the playground in sixth grade by a pack of kids—almost every other kid on the playground–and backed against a chain link fence with children screaming insults at me. An eternity passed before a teacher noticed. Sixth-grade teacher Mr. Ervin, a big man with a booming voice that could be heard three streets away from the school, came running up to the crowd. “What do you kids think you’re doing?” he shouted. “Stop it right now!”
Slowly the crowd dispersed, leaving me crying up against the fence.
Incidents like this are why I spent the first half of 1982 going back and forth to the doctor for episodes of vomiting. Several times a month I would go to the doctor for being sick at my stomach. We had no pediatrician where I lived; I went to the same doctor that my parents did—Dr. O’Kelly, the same doctor that delivered me at four pounds and fourteen ounces back in late 1970.
After a few months of this illness, he sent me to a pediatrician at a city hospital 30 miles away. After hearing my history, the pediatrician admitted me to the hospital and ran a battery of tests—barium swallow, stool samples, the works. I couldn’t do the barium swallow test because I threw up all the chalky drink on multiple occasions—not even a bribe to be able to go to McDonald’s after the test was enough to calm my system. Finally they thought to give me two anti-nausea shots, and I was able to finish the test after four previous tries.
On the plus side, as long as I was in the hospital, I was not going to school. All my life I was an honor –roll student and teachers’ pet, the daughter of a teacher, so the playground became my own personal hell on earth. To make matters worse, I was nearsighted, pimply, and thick around the middle, with long black hair that my mom used brush rollers on to give some body. Add to that the fact that my mom made all my clothes except my blue jeans and sweaters, and you have a recipe for disaster.
If I touched someone else’s hand, they had “Julie’s germs”. If they found out I liked a boy, they harassed him about being “Julie’s boyfriend” until he had no recourse but to punch someone out. And if I made a 90 on a test, I was teased about “failing” it.
The kids weren’t far wrong. I would feel like a failure. My parents demanded my best in school, and with me having a high IQ and being in the gifted program, nothing but near-perfection would do. I was always on the honor roll, and until ninth-grade biology, I always made A’s. But I wasn’t always the highest grade in the class, nor would I always make 100. And that was enough to get me grief at home, too.
Back to the hospital. After running all the tests, I was declared medically well. They couldn’t find any reason for the repeated episodes of vomiting. I listened carefully to the doctor as he explained that I was likely vomiting because of “stress”.
I didn’t know what that meant, and neither did my parents. I was sent home with instructions to come back to the pediatrician the next time I felt bad to see if they could pinpoint anything by studying me when I was actually sick.
We did that once. I made it halfway to the doctor’s before my daddy had to pull over and let me get sick on the side of the road. We drove back home in silence, with me feeling worse than ever. The doctors had said nothing was wrong with me, so now I went to school, sick or not.
By midyear when I was fourteen, I was now undergoing serious depression. The teasing had reached whole new levels, with older students, particularly boys, now picking on me in hopes of making me cry.
I began thinking about suicide at fourteen. I didn’t know how I would go about it, but I wanted to die. I had been baptized at age 10 and believed that heaven would be my eternal home. I kept thinking about the scene in Tom Sawyer where everyone was sad when they thought Tom had died in a boating accident. I wanted to run away from home and let everyone think I was dead. Then they’d be sorry for how they treated me, I thought.
On occasion, my school put out a school newspaper. This particular year, they began advertising an “advice column”. I had read those in newspapers; people wrote in about their problems, and the advice columnist had printed a reply that would solve the problem. I decided to write in about how I was picked on all the time and how I wanted to kill myself because I couldn’t make grades high enough for my mom anymore. They promised anonymity to anyone who wrote in. The catch was you had to sign your real name to the letter. After much deliberation, I finally wrote the letter, signed it, put it in an envelope, and dropped it in the advice columnist’s mailbox outside the main office.
Two weeks later, I was called to the office over the intercom. I was sent to the counselor’s office and sat down in front of Mr. McCulluch, a man I didn’t know. But he knew me, and he had gone to high school with my mom. He told me that the faculty sponsor for the newspaper had read my letter and sent it to him, and he wanted to talk to me about suicide.
I started crying. I was ashamed and embarrassed. I begged him not to call my mom, but he insisted. He called my mom at work to come and visit him in the office. All I could think about was the whipping I would get at home for being called to the office at school.
Now as a mom, I can only imagine what my own mom must have felt sitting across from the counselor’s desk and hearing that her oldest daughter wanted to kill herself. She didn’t cry, just thanked Mr. McCulluch and walked me out to our car, a tan Oldsmobile.
We drove to my grandmother’s house out in the country to pick up my little sister, Summer, who was not yet old enough for school. I remember my mom doing a lot of talking in the car—she didn’t seem angry, much to my relief—but she did sound hurt and told me that she had no idea that I was being bullied so badly. She said all she wanted for me to do in school was my best, and that she knew biology was hard and that she just wanted me to work as hard as I could to learn it. I was feeling better about the entire situation by the time we got to my grandmother’s house.
Until we saw my grandmother crying in the front yard with my three-year-old sister clinging to her. My sister had found my grandfather dead in the garden, and my grandmother had called an ambulance to come try to revive him. They couldn’t, and my mom had now lost her father.
That day at the counselor’s office was never mentioned again.
It was many years into therapy before I was actually able to forgive those sixth-graders for chasing me around the playground and backing me up to the fence. To all parents, pay attention to your child’s attitudes towards school and their peers, and watch out for hallmarks of school stress—mysterious illnesses, lack of friends, and poor self-esteem. I’m not saying that all children who are bullied go on to develop mental illness. But loving your child through those tough times can make a difference in their lives that can pay dividends for years to come. Take them to church so they can learn about the One who loves them the most as a bulwark against a world that says if you aren’t the best and brightest, you don’t count. Depression can be a real threat to children, and bipolar disorder can manifest in a child’s life as early as age seven. My younger years served as a warning that should have been picked up on but wasn’t.
Julie Whitehead currently writes and blogs from Mississippi at her personal blog. She has been a university lecturer, a disability examiner, and a freelance writer. She carries a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and blogs to create awareness and help others understand the disease and its effects.