The Amanda Todd story has generated press around the world. I was in Connecticut when I first read it on the international page of Yahoo! News and realized that Amanda was from a suburb of Vancouver, close to where I grew up. Amanda ended years of bullying and loneliness, committing suicide a few days ago just shy of her 16th birthday.
I watched a video she made, telling her story through holding up note cards, 5 short weeks before her death. I have to say, it was an unbelievably artistic, poignant way of getting her story across. The story itself was horrible and cruel, and highlighted all the vulnerabilities people face as they turn from child to adult; the need to be accepted, managing a new found freedom from total parental control, the lack of understanding of consequences for actions, and the loneliness of growing into a new set of rules and social norms that feel far more complicated than ones that we live within as children. Amanda’s video highlighted all of that, and one line in particular of her story touched me as it brought me back to my own time when I was around her age.
She wrote about having no friends and eating her lunch in the library alone.
It was the card that brought tears to my eyes, because those sad, vulnerable, lonely moments of our life never really are too far away from the surface.
I changed schools when I was in grade 9. I had been in small Catholic schools my whole life, and I craved being a smaller fish in a bigger pond, but all of a sudden I went from having a lot of friends to no one. I also emotionally was probably farther ahead than a lot of kids my age because of my Mom’s illness. However, that maturity was juxtaposed with having no older siblings and growing up within the sheltered walls of a Catholic elementary school and thus being extremely young and naïve for my age, and fearing the changes of that security, that high school and growing up inevitably brings. I also had my very best friend move to Peru right before grade 9, and I lost the one person that I felt closest to, without having the luxury to stay in touch that the modern world has brought to our fingertips.
I landed at my new public high school, and although there were some girls on my soccer team, everyone was walled off in their own cliques, and I felt like I had no way in. People laugh now when I tell them, but I remember distinctly looking at a yearbook at the end of a miserable, lonely year in grade 9 and my biggest fear was that I would have nothing to write at the end of high school, that it would be just a big blank page of nothing.
I came home from school crying every day, absolutely miserable, to the helpless faces of my parents who did everything from getting me a counselor that I saw every Tuesday to my Dad handing me books about positive thinking and my Mom shoving Irish prayer cards into my hands and telling me that God was with me.
The low point of my existence was one day that I was in the library eating my lunch because I didn’t want people to know I had no friends to eat with, and the librarian catching me eating and throwing me out of the library, since it was against the rules. I started walking around the school on my breaks to kill the time, and one day in the midst of the pouring rain, and tears flowing freely, I looked down and came within steps of walking right onto a dead raccoon that was in my path. I couldn’t help but laugh, at just how utterly pathetic it all was.
I also remember clearly being at soccer practices and the coach telling us to get in partners and the sickening feeling when I was always the one left without a partner. I remember going on our first trip to Nationals when I was in grade 9 and not having friends. I remember having that panicked lonely feeling that I had had at practice when I would be left on my own, except it lasted the entire week since we were away on the other side of the country, culminating in me crying my eyes out to our chaperone, feeling as pathetic as I did lonely.
I hated life and felt like no one reached out. In fact I still remember the day one of my best friends now, Mike, struck up a conversation with me on the way to the bus stop about our German class that we were in together. Those little acts of kindness when you are at your lowest points are never forgotten.
At some point that year during one of my solo lunches, on a random step in the neighborhood where my high school was, I carved the phrase “never forget”.
I promised myself that no matter how good things got for me, to never forget the person that I was in that moment, someone that ached for kindness and someone that was so low and alone. I vowed that when things got better, that I would always try and be a person that I wished that I had, in that awfully lonely time.
But that was the one thing that I had going for me; despite my misery I had hope and a belief that things would change. It was the only thing I held on to at my lowest points, but there were times where I felt like I just wanted it all to end. And bullying wasn’t even in my equation, it was just that terrible deep feeling of being all alone.
I’m not sure what changed for me. I remember a few big turning points. One was forcing myself into the cafeteria, which was the focal point in the high school for social activity. I had been in there a couple of times the year before but I had always left within minutes because I had such a high level of anxiety and would feel like the whole room would be looking at me when I had no one to talk to.
I remember in grade 10 forcing myself into the cafeteria, and when the wave of anxious nausea rolled over me, I forced myself to stay telling myself that nothing, even standing alone could be worse than the year before when I spent the year walking around the neighborhood by myself. I also remember thinking that I would focus on just being as good of a friend as I could and if people didn’t want to be friends with me that it would be their loss, and that gave me something to focus on instead of the waves of anxiety that seemed to cross over every social encounter I was a part of.
And slowly, unlike poor Amanda, I had a chance to get over that nasty, sad, lonely part of my life and start making some friends that I could sit with in the cafeteria. I was lucky that I had sports that served as a pathway to something better, and slowly gave me the self-esteem that helped me rise above the anxiety.
And some people may think I am joking when I say it, but one of my biggest accomplishments in my life was overcoming that crippling anxiety and resulting loneliness, and being voted class clown my senior year of high school, 3 short years after spending a year walking around the neighbourhood, usually crying, eating my lunch all alone.
Although my friends now laugh at the thought of me as anything besides gregarious and social, I can go back to those times in my mind like it was yesterday. I truly never have forgotten.
To this day when I am working with a group of players, I am always aware of putting them into groups and making sure and encouraging them to reach out and be with partners, or manipulating the situation to make sure that a kid who gets left as the last one, doesn’t for very long. I also feel lucky to be able to use soccer as a forum to try and encourage and teach kids to reach out and include other people into the fold.
We may not be able to get Amanda back, but if every person starts just being a little kinder to those around them, and if we always reach out to those around us who seem uncomfortable and alone, we may be able to give her the gift of a better, kinder world in her wake. We may also perhaps save the next person that feel like their only escape from the loneliness and pain is to end their time on earth forever.