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National Bullying Prevention Month

By Sarenka Smith

When we think about a victim of bullying, we generally imagine someone awkward, nerdy, and friendless. The geeky guy with unsightly pimples who has never had a date is the visual picture that comes to mind. That mold was not one I fit into during my freshman year of college as a thin, white, blonde cis woman; I’d always had lots of friends and even began college with a fun, cute boyfriend. Fear of bullying simply never entered the world of issues and concerns I had experienced--or expected to. I was gregarious and extroverted, made friends easily, and seamlessly integrated into different groups and cliques. That changed dramatically during my freshman year at Johns Hopkins University when I was bullied by a group of girls, many of whom I had considered my friends, so cruelly that I left college and could barely function for some time.

I arrived at college with the same strange combination of apprehension and excitement that I think most freshmen students experience. My first time away from home -- without the constraints of parents, a curfew, and rules -- initially felt exhilarating. Within the first few days of navigating the crop of new students, I befriended two young women from New York City. Both were incredibly wealthy, fashionable, and self-confident; both loved to party; both seemed to like me. And so we clung to each other, all of us doing our best to form new attachments during an inherently anxiety-inducing time.

Within the first few weeks, the three of us learned of a secret society at Hopkins: a college sorority that had been kicked off-campus the year before we arrived, for reasons unbeknownst to me--but also not of concern at the time. While there were rumors about that sorority, I was too consumed with fitting in to worry. My new friends were excited to join this sorority, so I was excited to join.  

Most of the young women in this underground sorority were affluent--and accustomed to the “good life.” They came predominantly from cosmopolitan cities like New York or LA. For some of them, the wealth was evident in the packages they received from home: a David Yurman ring, a personalized delivery from Magnolia Bakery. For others, the money was more subtle: conveyed through pictures of their houses in the Hamptons or enormous brownstones in Manhattan. The majority of them had gone to elite high schools, the kind that I recognized from TV shows like Gossip Girl. I had an inkling they were more sophisticated than I -- whatever sophistication meant to an 18-year-old who was desperate to fit in. 

My two new friends and I were invited to join this underground sorority, and we didn’t need to be asked twice. We eagerly accepted the invitation without a moment of hesitation. We were a band of impressionable young women seeking to experience the kind of toxic closeness that inevitably occurs in cliques and secret groups. I was all in because I felt flattered--even as I had misgivings and felt some trepidation about the path I was charting. But my yearning to be included ultimately won out, as it does for many young women, so I pushed aside any doubts. 

At each step, I harbored qualms and doubts but repeatedly suppressed them. When we began to receive invitations to small elite gatherings at the older “sorority sisters’”’ apartments, I heard our hosts speak about others in indefensible ways. A main topic of conversation revolved around the physical appearance of less attractive girls. There was no room to be different; you were either in, or you were out.

I realized, fairly quickly, that I was an edge case within the group. While flattered to be included, I never felt that I was truly “in.” And whatever faults I had ( I had plenty), I found the spiteful mean-girl gossip about others unbearable. There’s a kind of social isolation you experience within a clique if your behavior and ethics begin to veer off course from the rest of the group. When I ultimately decided to leave the group after only a month, the friendships I made rapidly deteriorated.

I think I’ve effectively repressed much of the hurtful, venomous treatment I received at the hands of women I once called friends -- or my memories of that semester have faded as time has passed. But what I do remember is acutely painful and had lasting repercussions.

The bullying was fairly innocuous when it began; many of the young women stopped acknowledging me on campus, and most refused to make eye contact with me. Wrapped up in an isolation of my own making, I leaned on the few other friends I had and a boyfriend who lived in town. One night, while studying with a friend who happened to be a roommate of the young woman I had initially befriended and with whom I joined the sorority, that “sorority sister” entered the room. She immediately engaged in banter and laughter with her roommate as she completely ignored me--refusing to acknowledge my presence as though I were entirely invisible.

Other disconcerting events began to occur. My boyfriend at the time received a text from the same young woman--my original friend--reporting that I had cheated on him. Another classmate told me that the same woman was spreading rumors that I sold drugs. Another guy I had befriended told me there were accounts that I was a liar and could not be trusted. I began feeling fear and experiencing panic attacks when I went to the library and dining hall, and scurried across campus whenever I needed to get somewhere. I was petrified I would run into one of them.

These events culminated one late night at a fast-food establishment near campus. I was there with a few old friends when a group of my former underground sorority sisters entered, laughing amongst themselves. The restaurant was empty, but they chose the table next to mine. As each minute passed, their glances over at my table felt longer. With drunken abandon, they began to jeer at me: mocking and taunting me with slurs. Trying desperately to hold it together, I stayed at the table -- eyes fixed on my sandwich. But after several minutes, I ran to the bathroom in hysterics. Trapped in the bathroom with nowhere to go, I dialed my mother’s number and, through uncontrollable sobbing, explained where I was.

My mother, naturally worried, arrived close to 1 a.m. By then, my phone was ringing nonstop. These former “friends,” still sitting in the tiny restaurant, were calling me again and again. “Slut!” they yelled, leaving voicemails after I stopped picking up the phone. I was crying uncontrollably, but they continued undaunted. Even when my mother showed up to take me home, they continued to hurl insults and hateful invective at me. The only way I could be persuaded to move--to leave the restaurant--was when my mother and the few friends I had come with formed a close circle around me and moved me toward the door as they continued to cocoon me. 

A few weeks later, after a lengthy conversation with the Dean of Students, I withdrew from school for a semester. The anxiety took months to diminish, and I lived in fear of seeing the bullies. When I did, on occasion, run into them (my family home is near campus), my fears, anxieties, and feelings of hopelessness resurfaced. Simply seeing them in the first few months was a trigger. Finally, after almost six months away from college, I was able to return. With support and encouragement from my family--and other friends who had stuck with me--I was able to reintegrate into campus life.

October is National Bullying Prevention Month. StopBullying.gov defines bullying as “unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.” One of two sources of federally collected data on youth bullying indicates that about 20% of students nationwide aged 12-18 have experienced bullying. I was lucky in several ways: not only was I older than a school-aged child, but I also had access to considerable support from family and other friends. It’s difficult to imagine what many younger children experience from their peers, but the repercussions are very real and lasting -- ranging from increased feelings of depression and anxiety to actual physical health issues. 

But behavior is learned, and we can model what that behavior looks like. Treating others with respect, kindness, and compassion demonstrates to others there is no place for bullying. By effectively managing stress and conflict, we demonstrate that friction can be overcome. And today, while I have been blessed with the richest, most nurturing and intimate friendships, I will never forget how isolated and alone I felt during those few months--and how bullying, at any age or any level, is painful, isolating, and can cause a victim to feel and believe there’s no escape. 

Written by

Sarenka Smith

Sarenka has been voraciously reading & writing since she was a small child. For the past half decade, she has worked in marketing & communications for healthcare-focused organizations and...