It’s really easy to bury yourself in bubbles of pop culture, like it’s the ball pit at a Chuck E. Cheese. It’s comforting to hide amongst your fellow Trekkies and Browncoats and tell yourself, “I’ve found my people!” But then you poke your head out the window, peer around the door of the TARDIS, and realize that the real world is still out there. And in the real world, being an alien, a Big Damn Hero, an Other, isn’t nearly as cool.
I was never cool. I was one of a handful of South Asian kids in my entire school system. Not driven enough to be a top tier nerd, not stylish enough to be a prep, too square to be a stoner. I did not fit in. And, boy, did I know it. Like so many children who were bullied or shunned in school, I suffered from low self esteem, depression and anxiety. It was all I could do to get through middle school and high school with any sense of self. This pre-dated the casual use of the Internet, so I had a few fellow “weirdo” friends with whom I talked about comics and vampire novels but I still felt very much like a nonentity. I wore a lot of shapeless clothing that rendered me as amorphous and invisible on the outside as I felt on the inside.
Thank goodness I had the X-Men — a beautiful metaphor for outsiders literally coming into their own power. And The X-Files‘ Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, nerdy FBI agents who told me, “The truth is out there.” And General Hospital‘s Robin Scorpio, a feisty teenager who contracted HIV and fought to survive it. They are who I sought solace with, the place I ran when I felt like I was nothing.
Looking back, I am both heartened and saddened by that. I’m glad that I had a safe haven, entrenched in fannish pursuits, but I’m disappointed that I had no tangible refuge from bullying, from those terrible, pervasive feelings of not belonging. What’s even sadder to consider is how, almost 20 years later, not much has changed for school-age kids. Whether you’re brown or gay or socially awkward…bullying persists and few schools do anything to stop it.
And I think it’s a two-fold problem. One, authority figures are quick to write off tormentors as “kids being kids,” rather than realizing, no, it’s kids being assholes. Secondly, I think people view victims as needing to just “suck it up.” And that’s just tragic, because I don’t know about anybody else, but I remember how overwhelmingly big my emotions were when I was younger. There’s probably research to support this, but children and teens are very “me” oriented, and view the world as generally revolving around them. So when a 14-year-old victim of bullying is suffering from depression, you’d better believe it’s the worst thing ever. It’s crushing, all-consuming. And as much as watching Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project videos makes me thankful that such positive messages are out there, I also know that, in many cases, no amount of “it gets better” sinks in. At that age, you are utterly convinced that you might not live past 18 and what’s happening right now is insurmountable. I think a lot of adults forget that emotional quagmire. Perhaps they were lucky enough to avoid it themselves, perhaps their own high school experience is now being viewed through rose-colored glasses. But when you’re a teen who doesn’t fit in, rose-colored glasses aren’t enough. You need something more like Cyclops’ ruby quartz ones to shield you from destruction.
Don’t get me wrong, it does get better. I am so happy to be 32, with a job and a life all my own. I’m so glad I got here. But, sometimes, getting to adulthood is just as difficult a challenge as facing Darth Vader in Cloud City, solving Jareth’s puzzle of the Labyrinth, and taking the One Ring to Mordor as you struggle to fight the darkness of its influence. It’s a quest. It’s a journey. It’s a battle for the ages. One that no teenager should have to go through alone.