People often ask me why I became so passionate about the subjects of bullying prevention and suicide prevention. I tell them that I experienced a tremendous amount of bullying as a child, even into my early teens. Having been born with spina bifida I was often the target of my peers’ vicious taunts. The 1970’s were a vastly different time than today. Bullying wasn’t a subject that adults paid much attention to. Kids were, for the most part, on their own if they found themselves the targets of “bullies”.
The first time I recall feeling like I was any different from anyone else was in first grade. That’s when the teasing began. At times, it seemed to never end. I was told by adults to ignore the “bullies” and that they would stop but that didn’t work. I thought if I was extra nice to the kids then surely they would like me, but that didn’t make a difference either. The teachers and principals in the schools I attended refused to intervene on my behalf. I was left to accept that I was going to be a target and no one was going to make it stop.
I began having headaches, stomach aches, and I started experiencing frequent episodes of anxiety. I didn’t want to go to school anymore. I would try to devise any excuse I could think of to stay home and hide under a blanket and watch tv for the day, hidden away from the people who seemed determined to convince me that my life held no value in the world. Being bullied day after day changes you. You no longer want to raise your hand in class for fear that you might give the wrong answer and that will cause the “bullies” to have one more reason to laugh at you. You want to become invisible and fade into the background of your surroundings. You never get to be who you were meant to be when you are in constant fear of being humiliated. It can make you wish you didn’t have to live another day. That’s how bullying works. It is insidious. It grabs hold of your heart and your soul and it drives out the small amount of self-esteem you might have had left. It fills you with fear and dread and even worse, hopelessness. That feeling of hopelessness is what became my undoing many years later in college.
What most people don’t know is that I’m a suicide attempt survivor. It was during college in the 1980’s and it happened during a time when I was experiencing tremendous self-doubt coupled with a feeling of absolute hopelessness and despair. When I look back on that distant time in my life, I can’t help but feel ashamed for thinking that suicide was the answer; it clearly was not. It was many years ago and I have moved on and grown as a person since then but still, it haunts me and I seldom talk about it. The lesson I learned from that terrible event was that even though I was convinced that my life was never going to get better, it actually did. At that time in my young life I was sure no one would ever love me and I would never have children. I convinced myself that I would be alone forever. I was wrong. I did find love and although that marriage ended, I have two of the most amazing daughters from that marriage and I have been in a committed relationship for the past 10 years. I often remind myself that if I had ended my life all those years ago, then my children would never have existed. I can’t even fathom that as a possibility.
Even though the years after my suicide attempt have had many ups and downs, as life often does, I spend much of my time concentrating on what feeds my soul. The Peyton Heart Project is something which does just that. In the summer of 2015, I created The Peyton Heart Project. It is a global movement to end online and offline bullying and suicide, as well as end the stigma that is often associated with mental health issues. People in over 50 countries are making and scattering hand-made hearts with our positive affirmations attached to them. The goal of this project is to leave these hearts for strangers to find to not only brighten their day and show them someone cares but also to show them that their life matters. These are messages many of us do not hear often enough. I want to put kindness out into the world and into people’s lives where it might be missing. I would like people to embrace what I am doing and see it as a way to show others that their stories are not yet over.
If I had only known, all those years ago, that the best days of my life hadn’t even happened yet, I would never have wanted to end my story that night.