We shared Lilian’s story last month of her experiences with bullying when she transferred to an international kindergarden in China. Lilian, born in Fujian China, is now studying at Madeira High School in Virginia, the USA. Today, we want to share her story on bullying in high school when she first moved from China to the US. Lilian’s now actively involved in mental health advocacy work and is part of our Teen’s Mental Health Program. We hope that her story could bring teachers, parents and school’s attention on improving the environment for teens, and support new students better in navigating through changes.
Editor in Chief
When the plane touched the ground at Dulles airport in the USA, my mind was occupied by the wild visions I had of living abroad during high school. No more practice exams, and no more teachers forcing me to study things I don’t like. I was excited to focus on activities that I liked, like joining many clubs and making lots of friends.
The reality was different from my dream. Coming from a middle school in the normal Chinese education system, I didn’t have much in common with my peers who were local or came from international schools. I found it difficult to fit into the cliques at school. I didn’t get acquainted with my peers until one day I asked some of them to have some late-night snacks in my room.
That night proved to be disastrous for me. When everyone was ready to return to their dorms to sleep, two people in my grade had a conflict with some upperclassmen in the hallway. The residential assistants asked me what had happened, and I told them about it, hoping they could solve the conflict. Rather than resolve the conflict, the residential assistants became involved in the fight and I became the target. I didn’t realize the severity of the event until I received the first notification from my phone. Then, the second, the third… Bombarding notifications showing that everyone left the group chat—except for me. The notifications came in like a flood. As I stared at the screen, my mind went blank. Just as suddenly, I realized I was being left out on purpose.
The next thing that came to me was rumors. It should have been easy to prove my innocence, but it wasn’t. By the time I heard about the whispers, they’d already grown into a “fact” many people believed. I had tried to speak up once during lunch. I wanted to talk to one girl first. But before I had a chance, I saw the person who spread the rumors coming toward me, staring at me. I immediately gave up. There was an invisible hand covering my mouth tightly. No voice could break through that firm cover, and nobody listened. I suppressed my feelings to avoid crying in front of the crowd. When I tried to talk to my classmates, they wouldn’t reply. Everyone was talking to each other and laughing. I was like an invisible person at lunch table. I sat there awkwardly with two empty seats beside me. To avoid being in an embarrassing situation again, I kept my mouth shut unless someone else talked to me. I began to have the feeling of loneliness and believed that everyone avoided me on purpose. After a month, the situation escalated further. I ended up being questioned and threatened by a small group of people in the school cafeteria. I said sorry again and again for things I didn’t even think I did. They just left and didn’t accept my apology. At that moment I felt exhausted and empty. I wanted to find a place to escape so badly.
I thought of going back home for a while. I even told my parents about what happened, and they agreed. Yet, I hesitated. I chose to study abroad and I didn’t want to give up so quickly. I knew my parents wanted to help, and we were messaging every day. I was afraid to call them because I was my classmates would eavesdrop on me. My parents gave me lots of advice. They told me to be strong and to talk with the people who treated me badly. But none of these really works since I had already tried all of them. Fixing the relationship was impossible, and I felt resigned.
Changes in my physical and mental stage happened, even though they weren’t immediately apparent. After the night I got kicked out of the group, I felt it was more difficult to fall asleep. I was so traumatized that when I lay on my bed and gazed at the ceiling, I had flashbacks of my past childhood experiences of being bullied. I thought the insomnia would end quickly, but it did not. I used to lay on my bed for hours and couldn’t fall asleep. When I managed to fall asleep, I would wake up several times a night. The sleep deprivation left me exhausted. I was tired and often fell asleep during the daytime. The emptiness I felt made my heart ache. The stronger the sense of loneliness I felt, the more reluctant I was to talk to other people. Even though I wanted to make new friends, I was worried about others’ thoughts about me and I did not trust my abilities to make new friends. My anxiety related to interpersonal communication worsened at that time. I began to think that I was not as good as my peers. For a long time, I didn’t know what to do. The hopelessness was eating me alive snip by snip.
Sticking to a daily schedule was the key for me to not becoming overly immersed in my negative feelings. I tried to fill every time slot so that I wouldn’t have too much time to let my mind wander. Instead of locking myself in the restroom during breaks, I signed up for several clubs and forced myself to show up. I also found that after running, I felt a little bit more relaxed. I exhausted myself on purpose by running every day in the afternoon. Most of the time, running helped me fall asleep much easier. In the evening, I filled my time by doing extra work outside of school and even planned to transfer to another school. As I became busier, I finally became friends with some of the day students. When I returned to the dorm at night, the loneliness came back to me. I was still uncomfortable with the situation I was in; however, things were improving a lot.
I was lucky that I realized that there were still some people who trusted me, but I wished I have more support. I remember some people noticed my social isolation. Several of them had come to me and told me that they trusted me. Some of them were even close friends with the people who hurt me. Since every one of them came to me alone, I never know how many people they meant when they said “we.” I wanted to be friends with them, but I didn’t dare to step forward, and neither did they. I thought my life might be better if one of them would be a mediator of this conflict, or would spend some time with me. Still, I was so deeply thankful for their kind acts. They made me believe I wasn’t alone and there were people willing to help me.
It took me about one year and a half to be fully recovered from this traumatic experience. After I came back home, I felt better and better. I could fall asleep, I was no longer anxious. It was like my true self came back to me little by little. Instead of pretending to be happy, I eventually felt happiness like I used to do. However, every time I’m in a situation that reminds me of what happened in the past, my emotions suddenly breakdown and I can’t control my tears from pouring down. This led me to finally going to a counselor. Now, I can look back at my experience and appreciate it. I view this experience as an opportunity for personal growth instead of a sad story. When facing difficulties, I now think positively. I believe in my ability to overcome difficult times, but I am also prepared for failure because I know the setbacks always result in comebacks. Self-care became part of my life. I pay attention to the beautiful things around me, whether it’s a warm breeze or fluffy cat. I found the pace for my life that I make little progress every day. The biggest gain for me is to be confident. I trust myself as a person and nobody other than me can define who I am.
The experience of bullying can have a long-lasting effect on a person's mental health. Whether verbal bullying, rumor-mongering, or social isolation, it usually leaves the recipient with complex negative emotions, ranging from intense self-doubt to feelings of loneliness and frustration. Moreover, bullying often occurs in adolescence, when our sense of self-identity is not yet fully developed. This can often have a long-term impact on our self-esteem and social experiences later on. When faced with bullying, it's important to try to maintain a sense of order in daily life, seek help from family members, or seek counseling, as Lilian does.
For parents, teaching children how to deal with bullying is the first step in protecting them. For example, role-playing school bullying scenarios at home to teach children how to express themselves assertively, going over ways to report to school staff for support if necessary, giving children more support, praise and recognition to protect their self-esteem, and helping kids build other relationships outside of school are all great ways to start.
While bullying can be a traumatic experience, many, like Lilian, transform the traumatic experience into an impetus for post-traumatic growth. If you have ever encountered bullying, learning how to deal with it may be an important life lesson.
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