When the monster was born.

I was not popular in high school.  I wanted to be.  Didn’t we all?

Initially I tried being like everybody else and found I wasn’t any good at it.  So eventually I took off in the complete opposite direction, bucking all social norms and claiming that I didn’t care for acceptance.  Of course, that was a lie in equal parts to both myself and my peers.  I was the bullied kid, all throughout school; the weirdo.  I had some friends, but even they knew I was a social liability when hanging out with others.  I spent a tremendous amount of my high school days alone.

That is why Christianity was so appealing to me.  It was a sure path to social acceptance, which is why I imagine they get a lot of people that age.  I was so desperate for that outlet that I even let church make me a bad person in order to get it.  The things I said about gay people, and the money I paid for the condescending peace of mind at church…I regret it now.  But pain makes you do stupid things.

For a long time I wanted to be loved.  Every time I vocalized that desire to someone they would simply assure me that there were people who cared for me, in an effort to convince me that of course people loved me.  I realized after a while that we meant different things when we used the “L” word.  Sure, there were people who cared for me, but nobody who wanted to be with me, who would be proud to stand beside me, and certainly none who would kiss the fat kid.  There were plenty of people who cared about my happiness while at the same time being none of those things.  There is a distinct difference between being loved and being wanted, and it’s not inconsequential.  This went on for so long that whenever a woman would finally say she wanted me, I would relegate her to the category of “just trying to boost my spirits” along with the assumption that we both knew she could do better.

I have written before about my mental illness as a monster chained against the back of my brain.  This time of my life, beneath the bullying and ostracism of my public school days, was undoubtedly when that monster was born.  Back then I would often go out at night alone and stare at the stars.  The warmest part about them, even during the winter, was that they were always there.  To someone who always felt abandoned, like a last ditch option for company, that type of consistency meant something.  The beauty of the world, the stars, storms, the woods…to me, these were more honest company than people.  I was so convinced of my loneliness that the thought never even occurred that I could enjoy the splendor of the world more by sharing it with others.

In college and beyond, the monster was subtle.  It kept me on the wall at parties hoping someone would notice that I was too scared to move; paranoid that my interactions would be just like they were in high school, with me trying to shove my way into cliques that never wanted me there.  It moved me to ignore my school work to search for ways to discover and establish self-worth to my satisfaction.  All those shmancy skills of mine were acquired while ignoring my studies.  To me, there was no other choice but to feed my obsession.

The ironic thing about obsession is that it pacifies the monster and feeds it at the same time.  As I grew older, I would weed through an ocean of rejections before landing in a relationship that was supposed to prove to me that I was desired, but it always felt hollow and fake, and failed to make me feel any more worthwhile.  In between, I learned to sing, to do magic, and the rebuttals to gobs of arguments for god’s existence.

As I monitored the religion arguments, I began to pay closer attention to religion across the world and the ends to which they applied their power.  They reminded me so much of the bullies from my youth.  Even the bullies in my school had sweet moments, but they were not above using psychological or physical means to keep those around them in check and to remind their friends or their enemies that they were beneath them.  Religion was clearly the bully who never grew up.

After that, what I had learned about religion was no longer for my mind alone.  It was now for pushing back the bullying of LGBT people and for putting those in place who told atheists they were somehow unworthy.  In my childhood, I had never been strong enough to stand up for myself, but in my mid-twenties I had found that I had become decent at it.  To this day, whenever I put a religious bully in their place, it feels like going after someone from my high school.  I despise bullies, and if any effort on my part can keep them from doing to someone else what they did to me, then I will do it.  Of all my younger years, it was at this time, though still alone, that I felt most at peace – ironically while fighting harder than at any time before.

And still the monster continued to grow.  It didn’t leave as I became admired and loved.  It didn’t leave when I tried to starve it (and myself at the same time).  It didn’t die when I worked out so much that I wanted to die.  It didn’t die when I nearly did.  In fact, it was during these times that it grew so large that it took over my mind.  During these times, I was even apathetic to activism.

You all know the rest of the story.  I was lucky to have good friends and I eventually got medicated and treated.  The monster’s still there, still struggling to get loose, and some days the bastard does.  But with treatment I can always get him back in his cage within a day, rather than weeks, and I know what to look out for.

My hatred of bullies still remains.  But now I can share the stars with someone and believe they want to be there with me.  I can have a repartee with a summer storm all by myself and enjoy it, rather than needing it.  I went back to school and did very well, because this time I was there to learn.

A while back I got a notice on facebook that invited me to check out the profiles of people with whom I had attended high school.  As I scanned through their pages, I realized that most of them were not in as good of shape as I.  Most of them were still in the same town in which we grew up, working at Wal-Mart or some such.  I had thought that there would be some sort of glee at “winning” in life over the people whose wanton cruelty all those years ago remains chained up in the recesses of my psyche, still doing damage to me over a decade later.  However, I felt nothing.  I even felt pity for the ones who had stopped chasing their dreams.  Nobody’s misery was going to make my monster go away, and these were all different people than they had been.

Today I am much better.  The motivation for my activism is undoubtedly due to the empathy I learned by being the victim of bullying so many years ago.  I’ve realized now that the best I can do for my self-worth is tied to how much suffering I can prevent and how much happiness I can create in others.  It turns out that care is a greater and more lasting social magnet than bright lights and magic.  I suspect that’s how famous people can be miserable: they always thought being wanted would unmake the demons of their youth, but it doesn’t.  It doesn’t mean anything until you love yourself, and a stage or an entourage don’t make that happen (regardless of what magazines tell you).  I do my best now to help others make those realizations, and I wish I’d done more of it in my youth.  Ah well, better late than never, right?

I guess the take home is this: people are not static.  The wallflowers you see at parties are scared, and that fear may be giving birth to issues that will haunt them for life, not just for the rest of that party.  In the high school movies, there’s always a good, admirable person who secretly loves the awkward kid, but they’re both too insecure to make it known.  It’s not that way in real life.  Sometimes there really is no way out for those awkward kids, and their isolation is every bit as genuine as it feels.

Of course, nobody can make you want a person you don’t.  But we can all take tome time to help them understand that social acceptance isn’t learning magic tricks or acquiring fame or gaining some great skill, it’s just caring about others – and learning to enjoy the company of others rather than needing it.  That’s what will make you content with your own company and comfortable in your own skin.  We can also make it a priority in our own offspring.  Got kids?  Tell them that bullying has consequences for life, not just for the day.

Skepticon is coming up.  One of the things I love best about Skepticon is that it is the easiest place in the world to make friends.  Everybody there is accepting and having a blast.  Remember, if you see someone standing alone, invite them to come to lunch with your group.  Keep the familial aura of the event alive.  The good you do during those times may save a life, or it may make a life easier to live

(Recovering anorexic, Treated)

You guys are wonderful.
MENTAL ILLNESS: Today's session.
PERSONAL: Sorry to disappoint you, Julian.
PERSONAL: Happy birthday, Hitch.
About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • http://iamdanmarshall.com Dan Marshall

    Thanks, JT, for making me cry.

    All joking aside, this resonated with me, as someone that has struggled with depression for much of my life and as a former victim of bullying. Thank you very much for sharing it.

  • Camille


  • Hank Fox

    Damn, THAT was good! Rang bells in the back of my head like Vatican Sunday.

    I was fortunate to meet someone in my 20s who put up with me for long enough that I eventually realized it was love. A lot of those old wounds healed, and I eventually came to be an adult. It could have come MUCH sooner, but that I got here at all is a triumph.

  • otocump

    Thank you JT. I know you’ve shared your story in different bits before, in different way, but this telling of it really resonated with me.

  • Delphine

    Simply beautifully stated. So much of this feels so familiar.

  • http://wanderinweeta.blogspot.com Susannah

    “Back then I would often go out at night alone and stare at the stars. The warmest part about them, even during the winter, was that they were always there. To someone who always felt abandoned, like a last ditch option for company, that type of consistency meant something. The beauty of the world, the stars, storms, the woods…to me, these were more honest company than people. I was so convinced of my loneliness that the thought never even occurred that I could enjoy the splendor of the world more by sharing it with others.”

    You, too? That brought back memories of my childhood; night after night, coming home in the boat, sitting in the stern alone, feeling the warmth and company of the stars. A lonely comfort.

    “… I could enjoy the splendor of the world more by sharing it with others.”

    I was just writing those words last night! It’s a lesson that I took far too long to learn. Thank you so much for being open about your experiences. My monster had a different face than yours, but the same habits. You inspire me to keep on fighting.

  • Nox

    Thank you for sharing this JT.

  • CC

    As a freshman in college, I got involved in a fundamentalist christian group, in large part because I was socially awkward and they made me feel like I could belong somewhere. But their love was conditioned on me contorting my personality to fit their idea of what a christian is like – outgoing, bubbly, someone who has no problem accosting complete strangers to “share her faith” – in other words, the total opposite of who I really am. That wore me out fast and, in the end, exacerbated my depression. It also made my feelings of inadequacy worse. Why couldn’t I be that kind of hyper-emotive, non-intellectual, extroverted person, you know, the kind of person god supposedly wanted me to be? When I finally became severely depressed and wanted to die, they told me I just wasn’t being spiritual enough. With love like that, who needs hate?

    After I left that group, I wanted nothing more than to be myself and not be ashamed. To prefer books to parties. To say that I have depression. To question the existence of god. To do what I love.

    I’m always proud, JT, to see you showing the world who you really are. We need more of that in the world.

  • emptyknight

    Thanks for this post! So much of what you write resonates so strongly with me that I’m amazed by the coincidence. Then I read the comments and realize how common these feelings and experiences are. It’s a strange thing about human minds that when you share your pain with me, my own is lessened. Thanks for the constant reminders that depression, disease, bullies, and all the other sucky parts of being human don’t mean you have to be alone. I’ll bet you’ve saved more lives than you realize, JT.

  • iknklast

    Damn, does this bring back memories! JT, I have so much empathy – and a monster of my own, born in much the same way. I wasn’t fat, but I was a poor kid in a rich school, and my dad kept pigs. Yeah, you get the picture.

    My mother had convinced me I was ugly, so ugly no man would ever want me (her words, not mine). So when a boy did call up and ask me out, I could only stammer. Then, my mother and sister circled the wagons, telling me he was only asking me out to laugh at me. I believed them. They got on the phone, and when he called back, they insulted him and hang up on him. To his credit, he tried one more time – sent me a carnation on Valentine’s Day. I thought he was mocking me. He finally gave up.

    I went to my 30 year reunion a few years ago, just to exercise some ghosts (yes, I mean exercise, not exorcise). I needed to take them out for a walk and see if they still tormented me. They didn’t. It was quite an experience. All the kids were gonna set the world on fire – now they’re in mid-level jobs or keeping house, and looking at me happy in my professional career wondering what went wrong. I felt for them – I knew what they are going through. And one woman came up to me, hunted me down specifically, to apologize for what a jerk she’d been in high school.

    It gets better.

  • Ashley

    Thank you JT! Sounds so familiar, always good to know that you’re not alone in this fight!

  • B-Lar

    This is why you rock the mike.

  • Silent Service

    Damn that hurt to live again. I at least had a real friend in high school, but not for most of my childhood. I’m a little more messed up than you are JT; and I don’t even want to think what I’d be like if I hadn’t had my buddy Phil to lean on.