My CF Symptoms Have Made Easy Bullying Targets
Editor’s note: This column discusses suicide.
Sometimes, the day is raw, a knife grinding round and round and round in my gut. The day also almost feels like fiction; a thing I’d prefer to fade into my life annals among the other bad things, mere pen strokes that have long dried. But yeah, sometimes the day has a fierce sting to it, like a paper cut dipped into lemon juice — this tiny cut that shocks my entirety.
Through all the torment of procedures, needles, side effects, and infections, nothing made me want to kill myself as much as that day when people hurt me.
I was in high school and my cheek soaked in urine and toilet water. Boys took turns hitting me as I sobbed, lying on the ground. I never learned the strangers’ names, though their sweaty pit stench stained my nostrils. And their voices that slung slurs, I’ll never forget those. Many of the hurled insults dealt with sexuality, seemingly inspired by my skinniness and the tears mixing with that toilet water.
I’ve written about the panic attacks that plagued me and the thinness that defined my body image, both collateral conditions of my cystic fibrosis. They’re not the only CF problems that have been targeted by bullies, nor are bullies the only ones who harmed me. Many friends in my distant past crossed lines by making jokes about me dying early or breathing so hard that it annoyed people or being destined never to build a family due to my myriad issues. Jokes like that have stuck with me through the years, and no matter how healthy or different I am, I can’t seem to shake them.
When the bullying occurred, then another attack, I was done with the world. I only wanted to fight for my life if it felt worth fighting for, and my self-value had leaked down the restroom drain that day. I sat outside of my house, heaving sobs until my sister walked out and gifted me a healing hug. With her help, I opened up to my parents about my suicidal thoughts and shortly found myself hospitalized to treat sickness in both lungs and mind. School officials and hospital social workers pried for details about my attackers, but I refused to disclose details and was already working hard to forget them. The bullying made me feel ashamed and afraid, and that destroyed the morale essential to my disease management.
It’s unjust cruelty that people with chronic illness can be exposed to extra harassment in a life already plenty harassed by disease and its treatments. A friend once told me that they were shocked to see a student with special needs get made fun of. They treated it like an unusual event. Who would make fun of someone vulnerable? Well, as rules are meant to be broken, some believe the vulnerable are meant to be exploited for twisted gratification. We make easy targets, frankly.
I was a decently popular guy in high school, so it wasn’t as if I didn’t have social protection. But that didn’t matter to strangers who only knew that my physicality presented “weakness.” And friends knew my sense of self-deprecating humor, so they assumed my boundaries didn’t exist. Perhaps my joking set a bad example, but that didn’t make it right for them to encourage problematic insecurities. I suppose it’s the same concept as race jokes — make fun of sensitive disease topics if you have CF or some other terminal illness, sure, but if you’re healthy, I’d rather you not.
I write all of this not only so others with bullying issues feel empathized with, but so that parents can know to watch out for their kids with chronic conditions like CF. Be on the lookout for clues of bullying or friends’ harsh joking. Remind your kids that they are valued and worthy of respect, and share that they don’t need to tolerate joking about their disease even if it’s intended to be harmless. People with chronic conditions have enough problems on our plate. What we need are words and actions that build us up rather than tear us down.
Anyway, some words of reinforcement for those who are bullied: Most bullies are weenies who haven’t experienced half the horrors you have. We didn’t choose to have this disease, but regardless, it has made many of us tougher than the average person. Those people don’t know what they’re talking about and they likely have insecurities of their own. It is what it is. Don’t let bullying continue. Seek help immediately.
P.S. None of these words are therapist-approved. I’m just a formerly bullied dude.
P.P.S. If you are experiencing emotional distress or suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Line at 1-800-273-8255 or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Note: Cystic Fibrosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Cystic Fibrosis News Today, or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to cystic fibrosis.