One day when I was 11 years old, I came home from school, looked my dad in the eye, threw down my backpack, and announced, “I am DONE being good.” I don’t remember saying this at all, but he sure does, and apparently I meant it.
I was a really timid kid, sincerely frightened of every single thing in the world, including the Easter bunny and my own shadow. I had warts on the backs of my thighs and on my neck, an upturned nose, and bad teeth, so a lot of kids called me a pig. My family didn’t have a lot of money, and even though I know my parents did the best they could by trying to make sure I was supervised and safe after school, the truth was I didn’t have any kind of adult protection a lot of the time. I found myself in several abusive situations—one of my caretakers eventually ended up in jail. By the time I was 10, my parents gave up on sending my younger sister and me to babysitters; I took care of both of us, and I felt very much alone.
We’d moved around a lot by then, and had just left one suburb for another. The first time I spoke on my first day of fourth grade at my new school, I answered a teacher’s question wrong. I was so embarrassed that I cried until I hyperventilated and had to go to the nurse’s office. Every day between that day and graduation, I hated school.
I cried daily—sometimes in class—and had to keep a paper bag inside my desk in case my “breathing problem,” as the teacher put it, acted up. I was a weak kid, and so I sympathized with other underdogs. I started sticking up for the scrawny blond boy the tough kids terrorized after school—I’d walk home with him and yell at bullies; sometimes I’d pick up the football they’d just thrown at his head and whip it right back at them. I wasn’t particularly fond of this kid—he was a little annoying, and I don’t even remember his name. It just seemed really wrong how horribly he was treated, and I must’ve subconsciously recognized my own weakness in him.
Every morning my mom would have to bribe me to get out of the house to go to school. I had insomnia every night from stress and couldn’t wake up in the morning. I would start crying when we got close to school. My mom had to drive me around the block a few times and then basically pull me out of the car to get me there on time, and she was often late for work.
I guess that one day in fifth grade, the one my dad remembers and I don’t, I had had enough of being at the bottom of the pecking order. Don’t ask me what happened; I seriously have no recollection. I just know that one day it changed. Instead of rescuing the kids who were picked on, I started picking on them too, and suddenly I had friends. The girls who wore their jackets off one shoulder, arranged their upper lips in permanent snarls, and strategized about whom to torment took me in, and next thing I knew I was planning matching outfits with them. I started watching scary movies, I went on roller coasters, I hung out at the mall…for the first time in my life, I had a social group, and I wasn’t afraid of everything, and it was fun.
Once I had a taste of living without fear, I was unstoppable. I did stuff no one else would do, and it got me respect. I got detentions for, like, kicking kids in the stomach at recess; in fifth grade I was suspended for spraying people with a hose on a field trip to the local nursery. I’d invite one girl at a time into the dragon’s lair of the weekend popular-girl sleepover, and figure out how to secretly humiliate her by making her do stuff that made her uncomfortable.
I continued this kind of behavior throughout junior high and then on and off in high school: making out with my friends’ boyfriends behind my friends’ backs, punching girls while playing sports, deep insubordination with regard to all kinds of authority. The warts cleared up, orthodontic braces came and went, and by the time I was 16 I grew into my face a little more and felt, for the first time, that I could identify myself as “cute.” This little bit of self-confidence made me cut out the mean-girl act a bit, but the feeling that I had to constantly defend my social status did not go away—and neither did my anger.
The furiousness I felt toward the world, and my unsure footing in it, meant I had to constantly prove myself to everyone. I did this with verbal and physical aggression. It got to the point where NO ONE “disrespected” me, and in most cases I struck out first. By the time I was in my 20s, as one friend recently reminded me, I was throwing whole drinks—like in a glass—at people’s heads and bragging about how hot I thought I was. I would go to shows, and if I didn’t like the band onstage, I would pull the plug on the entire sound system. There was a girl I decided I didn’t like one night, and before she showed up at the party I was at, I figured I’d beat up her BFF just for being friends with her. Later, when the friend walked in the door, I attacked her and gave her two black eyes.
You show people you’re scary, and most of them are like, “OK then, you’re not someone I want to be friends with.” But when you’re high on your own alpha, you mistake that fear or derision for power and respect, and it feeds the worst parts of you. It can turn you into a monster, which I was for a while. And then there are always insecure people looking for a badass gang leader to make them feel strong (cf. me as a fifth-grade scaredy-cat before I found the tough girls). When you have a pack of followers validating your worst behavior, why would you ever want to come back down to the level of everyone else?
I’m not a mean girl anymore, but it was hard work to change. That persona was so much a part of me that I was being paid to be her—I was writing as her, living like her. Then I started to notice that many of the people around me didn’t actually like or respect me—they were just afraid of me. And that made me feel bad. When people had criticized my actions in the past, I had chalked it up to envy (every mean girl’s refrain: “you’re just jealous”)—but now I was beginning to realize that they were right. My behavior was pretty awful, not cool or glamorous at all. The cruelty that had been my suit of armor was shattered by all this truth, and I was left defenseless, devastated.
I felt like I was headed toward emotional disaster, and probably worse, so I fled the social situation I had created. I moved across the country by myself, to see what it was like to not have anyone around who knew me, so I could look at myself and see what was really there. I started to learn real, internal ways to develop self-worth and confidence, instead of getting disposable versions of those feelings in the form of applause for being an asshole.
A good friend once told me that you basically have two choices for how you go through life: you can let bad experiences harden you, or you can choose to be soft, to stay open (and vulnerable). The latter choice is the brave one. It’s much harder, but I’d already tried abrasiveness and look how that turned out. So I started doing what cheesy greeting cards call “the little things,” like smiling at people, and I noticed how just that small gesture of kindness seemed to lift people up a bit. I used to feel like people had to “earn” my courtesy or care; but I learned that if I give those out freely, it’s like I’m giving myself a gift, because it only makes me feel more confident and secure.
These discoveries didn’t fall into place automatically like neat puzzle pieces forming an image of a beautiful swan bathing in a glittering waterfall. I’ve had mean-girl outbursts here and there since then. I had to work hard to shake my old ways—I went to therapy for four years and learned how to name my emotions and control my reactions. This helped my anger subside, and consequently my issues with safety and protection dissolved as well. I was a pretty drastic, near-terminal case, and who knows what kind of happiness I could’ve found for myself if I’d gotten started earlier.
It’s tempting to bury my mean girl and forget she ever happened. She’s embarrassing to me now, and she’s made it difficult to rescue some of my older friendships. But the memory of her is good for reminding me of the wounds people carry that others might never see, and she gives me strength to be kind to people who, on the surface, seem like they don’t deserve it. Being nice all the time doesn’t guarantee that you don’t sometimes get treated like a rotten bag of kale forgotten at the bottom of the refrigerator drawer. Someone else’s cruelty is not your problem, though—the integrity and sense of accomplishment you get from relentless, genuine kindness is never-ending. It’s a source of true power. ♦
Liz Armstrong lives in Los Angeles, writes for a living, and believes no amount of glitter is too much.