The Elephant in Me (part 1 Elementary/Middle school)

This is going to be long and three parts, so buckle in readers.

I’m diagnosed with anxiety issues that stems from body dysmorphic disorder. I have been this way since elementary school. I’m 29 years old and the idea of people of thinking what people think when they see me makes me terrified. My anxiety comes from a few other places, but mostly from my poor body image. As a male, society says this shouldn’t happen. As a black male, there’s even less support for people like me. Here I am however; a living breathing black male in 21st century America with a very skewed perception of what I look like to the point I break out in sweats at the thought of people’s opinion of my looks. Take a journey with me as I explain where this started and how I’m trying to cope.

I remember as a young child never having any worry about how I looked or anyone else looked because (as often is the case with young children) it didn’t matter. I had friends, I was smart, I was a good son and brother. I was just a regular boy and as far as I was concerned, that was all that mattered. Then in fourth grade, I remember telling my class “Oh yeah? Well the doctor said I weigh 100 lbs!” and then the decent began. I’ve always had a “healthy” appetite, but never anything too crazy. I was the smallest newborn of all my brothers and my parents never expressed a lot of concern towards what I ate. Around 4th grade, I started growing out. It made sense that I was hitting puberty a touch earlier because my mom and dad both started developing early too. Instead of a growth spurt or body hair; I developed a bigger appetite. It happened gradually but over time in 4th / 5th grade my body started to show the aspects of my new eating habits. Anyway, my 4th grade class didn’t seem to keen on me reaching 100 pounds. I wasn’t even close to being one of the biggest kids in the class, but I guess my openness about my weight opened me up to ridicule. Then the name calling started and never seemed to stop. SPOILER ALERT: I have a large butt. I always have and I think I always will. It is one of my most distinguishing qualities. What made it bad was those first few years (4th-6th grade) I denied it completely, which my tormentors used as fuel each time I denied. Fifth grade was when the bullying really picked up. All the name calling made me sensitive. I didn’t have a lot of healthy ways to cope with this, so most of the time I ate. When I ate I felt better for a while, then I would get made fun of more, which caused me to be sadder than last time to which I would cope with eating (and the cycle continued). Fifth grade was especially hard because my crush at the time rode my bus route and she was in my homeroom with me. The entire school seemingly knew I liked her so, the torment from that never seemed to go away. One particular day, I remember hearing some kids say “She doesn’t like fat kids” while I was trying to play on the swings (the she being my crush). It was said loud enough so I could hear. That was the first time I remember being called fat.

Middle school, specifically 6th and 7th grade, were impossibly worse. I went to a school with all my classmates plus kids from 3 other schools. Our class had well over 400 kids and after a short while I was made into an easy target. At this point I was 4’7″ 135 lbs.  The nickname “meatball” was given to me from time to time. I was on the football and wrestling teams in an effort to curb my weight loss, however it didn’t work out well because of my lack of discipline. Middle school was a trip because it seemed all at once my class hit puberty and we just turned into over dramatic, terrible people. Almost all the boys were over 5’0″ while I was barely 4’8″. The girls in my class all were maturing as well, which made life…interesting (I had a new crush every week seemingly). Throw in the increased rigor of school, new challenges that came with middle school and overall changes that come with living in the world, I was understandably stressed. One thing however remained the same: I was still short fat Kyle and everyone seemed to get their jabs in at my expense.

Now before I get in too far I want to explain something: yes the bullying I went through was a problem and I really was torn up about it. I didn’t do myself any favors though. I can admit that now as an adult. There were three main causes to my middle school body issues:

  1.  I was an attention seeker: I wanted everyone to pay attention to me. So I did what was necessary to get the attention I desired (which was any). I remember my saint of a fifth grade teacher telling me “Kyle, you don’t need negative attention. You’re amazing on your own.” Too bad those words didn’t stay with me.
  2. In addition to being an attention seeker, I was a hypochondriac. Everything that happened was literally the worst. I would over react to small situations and I didn’t posses a ton of self control and maturity to see a situation through.
  3. I told my business to everyone. My father would always tell me “Santino; you never tell anyone outside of the family what you’re thinking.” I always found this odd because a) my dad isn’t Italian, he’s a black man from the farming town of Alton, Illinois b) that was a line from the movie “The Godfather” and he knew I knew that. But there was a lot of truth what my dad tried to convey to me. I just wish I had kept more stuff to myself

Sixth grade was a nightmare but seventh grade almost broke me. Still at the same school, I was still short (4’10 1/2″) and still large (140 lbs) I had moved up to the heavyweight division in football, and actually found a small amount of success as their inside linebacker or as Coach Dwayne called me “Lil Linebacker”. The teasing had subsided a little bit, I had my place and classmates kept me there whenever I tried to interact with more popular kids. What happened in seventh grade later that year almost was too much for me to deal with. In October of that year, I tore my meniscus in a football game and I was on crutches for 3 weeks after surgery. During my time on crutches, I had little physical activity. I guess I ballooned up during that time. My butt as I was told became a lot larger. That’s when I unfortunately gained the attention of a boy in my homeroom class. “Peter” was a very creative guy. We went to grade school together but our social circles didn’t intersect. Peter was heavy into anime and comic books and art. Most importantly, Peter was in the same social status class that I was. Around January while I was preparing for the black history play, I started getting drawings in my locker. They started off innocent enough, initially just a stick figure doing actions, but overtime the stick figure grew. The only part of the stick figure that grew was his butt. That’s when I put 2 + 2 together. Whomever was doing this, was trying to make fun of me. I didn’t know any of my bullies had interests in art so I was thrown off their trail. Overtime, the one figure drawings turned into a panel. Then into a few panels, by the time February rolled around, there was a comic with 8 panels. The comic, named “attack of the killer butt”, made its rounds to eventually everyone in the grade. I notified teachers and administrators but nothing could be done until we had an owner. This all subsided until a faithful day in the computer lab. I was doing research for a paper when a few classmates showed me a poll on vote4fun.com where the headline was “What do you think of Kyle Robinson” some of the choices were “annoying, big butt, dumb, short, etc”. The classmates who alerted me to this normally didn’t talk to me so I knew that this was a serious situation. Peter decided to out himself as the author saying “How do you like my page Kyle? It is at over 1000 hits!” to the uproar of his friends. At the time, I felt very numb inside. Not angry or sad; just incredibly numb. I excused myself from the computer lab and sat in the nurses office for the remainder of the day. I didn’t go to drama practice after school either. I called my mom to pick me up, saying I was sick and threw up after lunch.When I got home, my mom asked me what happened and I said nothing to her. I went to my room and cried for  seemingly forever. My mom said she was going back to work and then picking my two younger brothers up from school. I was finally broken and I didn’t want to exist in this ugly body of mine anymore.

(WARNING: The next paragraph I go into detail about my suicide attempt. If you want to skip over, please do.)

I never considered self-harm or suicide before, but at that moment I wanted nothing more than to be done with my life. I scribbled out a half page saying how I hated my body and how terrible it is to be fat. The last line was simply, “I just want to be loved for who I am not what I look like.” I put the note on my bed and went into my basement. I had a pair of scissors and I started cutting my thighs. I got in three four inch scars on my right thigh and laid on the floor still crying. I looked at my wrists and really contemplated slitting my wrists open for about an hour. As fate would have it, my youngest brother Keenan came home from preschool and I heard him say “I want to show Kyle the picture I drew of our family.” It was that moment I had the biggest indicator that my life is very much worth living. I had people in my life that loved me and appreciated me despite my appearance. I cleaned up the blood and wen’t up to the my room to see my family. Eventually the truth about what happened at school that day came to light. My parents were both livid to say the least. Peter was suspended for 3 days and was forced to write an apology to me.

I stayed home the following day at the request of my parents. When I went to school the following day and my locker was flooded with notes of encouragement and support. Word about the website got to around to the school as well. I had 8th graders coming to find me to tell me that “it was a bullshit thing for him to do” and “you deserve a lot better that that” My teachers also expressed the same remorse. I specifically remember my science teacher Mr. Tykowski asking to talk to me after class. He said something to me along the lines of “The world is a beautiful place, even when people show how ugly they can be to each other. Kyle you’re an incredibly caring student I’m so sorry that you had to see the ugliness of people.” The website where my poll appeared was eventually taken down. Our principal even got involved to express her remorse for what happened to me. Eventually the whole issue of the website died and we returned to a semi normal middle school for the remainder of the year.

Now I would be remiss if I failed to tell a success story with this. But understand there’s still more to my anxiety and body issues than what meets the eye. There were happier times, but they had to wait. Between the summer of 7th and 8th grade I put on 35 pounds. I didn’t even notice until football season came around and I could barely do any of the drills that I did with ease the prior season. I was noticeably slower than everyone else and my coach let me knew about it from day one. I was demoted from captain and a starter and I sat the bench for the first three games of the season. It was one of the lowest points of my athletic life and I wanted to change for the better: so I did. I got serious about my workouts and my diet. I stopped drinking soda and eating double portions of stuff. I drank more water and I really concentrated on just being a better athlete. It also helped that I hit my growth spurt that helped lean me out as well during that time. From September to mid October I grew to 5-6 1/2 and went from 167 lbs to 140. I started performing a lot better on the football field, earning my starting role back and regained my captain title by the last game of the year. Kids around school noticed too that I was in better shape. It felt good to finally have people making positive comments about my weight and body not gonna lie.

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