Grade ten. A folded up piece of paper. The crinkle sound as I unfolded it to read the contents of the sheet.
“THE I HATE ERIN FAN CLUB”
Scrawled across the top in black ink. Signatures. People signing in solidarity.
Nausea. Hiding in the bathroom. Solitude. Depression.
* * *
I had a very happy childhood.
My parents were young when they had my sister and I (I was born when my mom was 19 and dad was 20) and the benefit of my parent’s youth was that we got to really and truly play with our parents on a regular basis. My dad was the flagship when it came to play. He led us through weekends spent fishing, biking, hiking, playing video games, board games, card games and more. There didn’t seem to be a time when he wasn’t down on our level coming up with the next imaginative journey using our toys as the props in his stories.
My mom, although in her early twenties, showed us a more mature side. My mom took care of us and the household with such efficiency that I rarely saw our house messy or a night where we didn’t have a home cooked meal. She was, in my opinion, Superwoman. This balanced us out between the ideas of play and hard work, which I thought were two incredibly valuable lessons of equal importance.
With two great examples of adult human beings in our lives, who taught us the importance of dreaming, play, creativity, goal-setting and hard work, my sister and I grew up with a solid footing in humility and gratitude with a side dose of “you-can-do-whatever-you-want-in-life.”
My parents also placed a high value on family and because of that, we moved a lot while I was growing up. We seemed to bounce between my dad’s birthplace and my mom’s birthplace a lot through my childhood depending on what was going on with the family. While it was never traumatic, as we always had cousins and family to lean on with each move, it did mean that establishing long-term roots with friendships was difficult. It also meant starting over a lot, which gets tougher as you get older.
In 1996, I moved to a small town in rural Ontario right before starting grade nine – the beginning of high school. The town we moved to had a total population of 9,000 people, which was a big leap from where I had just come from – a village with a population of just 384 people, most of whom were related to me.
To get myself prepared to start at a new school, I got a summer job at a local ice cream factory and met a few people who went to the same school as I did but who were much older than me. However, a few of those people had siblings who were starting in grade nine so I was able to make a few connections over the summer, which lessened the fear of the unknown just slightly.
Grade nine started with an orientation where I was able to meet some of my fellow classmates. I found and bonded with a few girls almost instantly and grade nine started on a high note, even though the knee socks they made us wear during gym class should have thwarted all possibilities of aforementioned “high note.”
I don’t remember much from grade nine aside from the usual routine of wake, school, home, video game, homework, sleep, rinse and repeat. I’m sure there were moments of tragedy and of bliss but I’m fairly certain that grade nine ended fairly uneventfully.
Grade ten, however, was where everything went to hell.
I’ve sat down to write this part of the story many, many times and every time that I do, I can never seem to remember the events that led up to that piece of paper with the words scrawled on top and the signatures of people who agreed below.
THE I HATE ERIN FAN CLUB
I can remember being a girl who so very badly wanted to fit in. Be accepted. Be acknowledged.
I tried hard to do that, sometimes by following others and other times by trying to lead, but all-in-all, I kept a fairly low profile. I wasn’t in the “most popular” group in school but I did have a great group of friends. I wasn’t dating anyone then, I wasn’t actively involved in causes, I just was. I was trying to meander my way through high school while battling hormonal changes, anxiety and math classes where my undiagnosed dyslexia made everything so much harder than it needed to be.
And, to be honest, I thought I was doing okay with it all. Until the day I was handed the paper and found out that the reality was, I wasn’t good enough. In fact, it went beyond not being good enough, I was hated. By a group of my peers. By people that I didn’t have regular interaction with who had no reason to hate me.
The lesson I learned that day was that I was a terrible enough waste of space that I could be hated for simply being me.
It’s hard for me to look at the photos from my high school years now. I see emptiness and sadness in my eyes and I see a fake, plastered-on smile. I see the face of the depression that hit me like a ton of bricks. The depression that drove tiny shards of concrete into my skin to a depth that made them impossible to dig out. It’s still viscerally painful to think about.
My depression reared its ugly head sometimes. In one of my depressed states, I can clearly remember my mom asking me to vacuum the stairs and me struggling with the cord of the vacuum and screaming at the top of my lungs about it. Throwing myself down on the floor in a fit of hysteria. Hot tears streaming down my face.
After the fan club was established, I also developed intense anxiety around social events. I held so much fear during these events that, when I was in attendance at a sleepover, I would go to another part of the house and hide. Usually under blankets with my Discman playing Smashing Pumpkins’ Melancholy and the Infinite Sadness album over and over again.
I measured my worth by the number of minutes it took for someone to come and find me. If they came to find me within two minutes, I was loved. If five minutes went by, I was forgotten and my worthlessness was confirmed. If twenty minutes passed, I was wishing that I were dead.
The effects of my depression went beyond a normal state of sadness. I wrote and re-wrote my suicide letter a hundred times that year. Each time I did so, I reflected on my childhood. Wishing and praying that I could go back to a time before I was told that I was a worthless, hated piece of garbage. Longing for the days where my mom and dad made me feel like I could conquer the world and that my life held meaning.
I could never actually follow through with it though. I was weak and somewhere deep down inside, even though the entire world seemed to be dark and meaningless, I thought there had to be a reason that I was still alive and breathing. I hoped there was. Through all of this roller coaster of emotion, I never once told anyone how I was feeling. I hid away the fan club like a dirty secret and prayed that it wouldn’t go beyond high school. Prayed that my parents wouldn’t find out how worthless their daughter truly was.
I somehow made it out of that year and headed into summer. While the depression still had a grip on me, being out of school and surrounding myself with fewer people, mostly family, seemed to help. I worked at the ice cream factory again, thought less about ending my life and began to feel joy again. As school approached toward grade eleven, I felt the anxiety creep in and the grey cloud begin to form again over my head. I dreaded going back to school and being immersed back into a world that was not so kind to me.
Grade eleven was, for as much as I can remember, uneventful. I joined a few committees to keep myself busy and hung out with people in higher grades than myself. I did a few things that I wouldn’t normally have done, like skip school to go to a bar in the middle of the day (I was sixteen at the time), but for the most part I stayed the course. In May of 1999, as I headed toward summer, I began dating Steve (who would later become my husband and then the father of my daughter, Willow, and now my ex) and quite honestly, that relationship changed my life. I finally had someone telling me that not only was I enough but I was desirable. Interesting. Someone who deserved love.
Some of my friends at the time did not agree with the relationship and I lost friends because of it (he was a year older than me and because I was dating outside of our “inner circle” there was great upheaval) but I forged forward because there he was. Showing up and seeing me for me and actually liking who that person was.
Fast forwarding from 1999 to the present, you’d be skipping over the start of a company, traveling the world, a marriage, psychotherapy, marriage counseling, the birth of my daughter and the breakup of my marriage.
Through all of this, except for that period of time when I was seeing my psychotherapist, I had found ways to manage my anxiety around acceptance and fitting in. Although it still creeps up from time to time, I have done a lot of self-work to measure my own self-worth instead of seeking it from external sources.
I’ve also been quite fortunate. Although being online has its challenges, especially when you have a successful business and you put yourself out there a lot, I deal with “mean girls” (and boys!) virtually. This means that I can shed my tears on this side of my screen, process it and move on. I’ve developed a thick skin over time — for better or for worse.
When the Bricks Come Crashing Down
I haven’t had a moment in my adult life where I’ve felt that crushing feeling like I did in high school. In fact, I’ve probably never had a face-to-face confrontation with someone who disliked me since receiving that letter. I go out of my way to avoid it. If I feel like someone could potentially be a part of the I Hate Erin Fan Club in my adult life, I push them away, sever ties or simply focus on the people with whom I have no doubts. It’s easier to manage my anxiety if I know my place with people and I feel loved and accepted. It’s not the best coping mechanism but it works for me.
Until this weekend.
This past weekend I went to a blogging conference, which was great and I loved every moment of it, and on the way home from the conference, my friend Crystal and I stopped by a non-conference related blogger shopping event. It was focused around Halloween and was supposed to be a fun event that would provide us the opportunity to connect with other bloggers that we knew in the community. I was introduced to new people and people I had connected with online. I was having a great time. Until I met a woman who delivered a sucker punch to my gut. Not literally, of course, but the emotional kind of sucker punch that leaves a deeper, darker bruise than a physical one would have.
You see, two years ago (two years!) I had been invited to partake at a conference that happened to be the same weekend as a conference I already had tickets for. The invitation initially extended an offer to set up a booth at the conference but since the blog I had co-founded at the time was new, we declined the offer. A secondary offer to speak on a panel was extended and, because I was already going to the other event, I offered up Friday as a speaking option. I was cordial, I was flexible and I tried to make it work for her.
Steve was running the marathon the weekend before, I was still breastfeeding and only traveling with Willow and I was attending the other conference that weekend. When we weighed out what it would mean for travel (Steve would have to take the entire week off, I’d just stay down in Toronto, he’d watch Willow while I spoke, etc.) and we realized that meant extra nights in a hotel, more expenses and no incoming payment for the speaking gig. So, I politely declined the speaking opportunity. It just didn’t make sense for me to lose those days of work, Steve to use vacation for it and to put out the money for exposure alone. There was no communication after that. I had no idea how the person felt about it but everything, at the time, seemed fine and I completely forgot about it over time.
During the event, I was standing with a group of my friends, fellow bloggers and women I respect greatly, and the woman came over to talk to us. Out of the blue she said, “I tried to get you to come to my event in the past but you were too good for me.” I laughed it off at first thinking that she had to be kidding and I began to explain the circumstances at the time. She brushed it off. “Little did you know who I was… you wouldn’t have said no if you did. But you were too good for everyone, weren’t you?” she continued.
At this point, my smile had disappeared. My stomach was in knots. I was fighting back tears. Biting my lip. Wondering how she got it so terribly wrong.
“So, I put you on that list. You just didn’t know who I was. You didn’t realize that I was a big deal. You were too good for us.”
My friends changed the subject and the conversation moved on with her over-compensating by delivering everyone else compliments.
You see, I’m not the girl who thinks she’s better than everyone else. I’m the one who thinks she is worthless. The one who longs to fit in. The one who wants everyone to like her. To be accepted. To be acknowledged. I’m the girl who had an I Hate Erin Fan Club in high school. The one who does everything in her power to never, ever make anyone feel that kind of hurt.
Crystal looked over at me in that moment and simply asked, “Wanna go?” and I nodded. I walked out defeated, mortified and embarrassed. Everything that I was so afraid of came crashing down into my real, adult life. This woman, as brutal and unprofessional as she was, cut deep to my biggest insecurity. That I was hated. So much so that calling me out in front of my peers had to be done. That I deserved to be treated like garbage.
Post-Processing & Life Lessons
It took me awhile to muster the ability to say more than a few words on the drive home. Crystal was great about it though. She kept trying to bring up subjects that were unrelated in an effort to make me forget about what had just happened (one of the many reasons I love her so). It took me awhile but I finally had the emotional strength to talk about what had happened and I processed it with Crystal in the car. As I talked it out, I realized that I had been trying to learn an important lesson for quite some time and sometimes, when we don’t listen to the little nudges, we get slammed against brick walls. Hit over the head. Sucker punched in the gut.
I realized that I was in the car, headed home and even after having this woman say such hurtful things at a public event, I was okay. More than okay. I was headed home to see my daughter who loves me more than anyone else on this entire planet. I was headed home to an ex-husband who, despite our relationship differences and our current separation, still loves me immensely. I have a house. A career that I love. Friends who love me. Family who love me. And, I had just left a blogging conference where I connected on a soul level with people that I had not done that with before. I realized that I’m surrounded by love.
The other lesson for me was that it’s okay if I’m not accepted everywhere and with everyone. That woman is just not a part of the tribe that makes up my people. She’s not like me and whatever was going on with her that day, whether it was insecurity or something deeper, that is not my burden to carry. I will be okay even if people hate me so much so that they’ll call me out at a public event. I am still okay.
It’s funny how we think we move past the insecurities and the challenges of high school once we leave it behind but the truth is, some of those pieces never really go away until we have a collision with a brick wall moment. Until we truly remember who we are, where we’ve come from and where we’re headed. It doesn’t make what she did right and I’ll still need a few days to untangle the emotional hurt but at least I’m reframing it in such a way that I get a positive reminder out of it. I’m remembering that even if the fan club fills up with members, there are still many people who haven’t subscribed to it.
I finally feel like, for the first time in my life, I’m chopping up that membership card once and for all and rescinding my own membership to the I Hate Erin Fan Club.