It seems like not a week goes by that I don’t see a heartbreaking post about a young person’s experience of being bullied, often with tragic consequences. My heart breaks for all the kids who are suffering, and at the thought that my own kids might experience this one day.

But my heart no longer breaks for that girl in the picture, my adolescent self. She suffered, too. There were deep emotional wounds from my own bullies’ words. For a time, the pain they inflicted colored my entire world. But the cruelty of those kids long ago lost its power to hurt me.

My family moved from the city to the suburbs when I was ten years old. Geographically the move wasn’t far at all, but it felt like the firm closing of the chapter of my childhood, a carefree time of being oblivious to things like what I wore, how my hair looked, and how much money my parents had. I was utterly unprepared for the judgment I faced from my new classmates.

None of what I experienced was particularly unique or extreme. The girls in my class mocked my clothes and the fact that I hadn’t started shaving my legs yet. They would convince me that one of the boys in class had a crush on me, and then laugh hysterically when it dawned on me that it was a joke.

The stories that people tell us about ourselves can become the stories we believe. I was too repulsive for anyone to be interested in romantically. I was ugly. I was not athletic. I let the messages absorb into my skin and define, fundamentally, who I thought I was.

If you are suffering the way I did, don’t let the bullies win. Don’t let their demeaning words become your truth. They want to reduce you to some tiny flaw—real or perceived—and put you into a confined box based on it.

There is so, so much more to you than that.

You are strong. You are talented. Your humor, your intelligence, your friendliness—whatever your strengths were before others tried to tear you down—hold onto those truths about who you are.

The pain you are feeling right now probably feels all-consuming. But the fire you are walking through is forging you, not destroying you. This is a dark chapter. But what hero or heroine floats carelessly through his or her story? They face pain and emerge stronger, prepared for the journey ahead.

You have a purpose, a mark to make on this world. When I was an 11-year-old girl, I didn’t know the people down the road who would need me. It would be another 15 years until I met the friend who I would help walk away from an emotionally abusive fiancé. I didn’t know that my encouragement would help veterans with PTSD get connected to treatment.

I don’t know your path. No one can. But yours will be entirely unique. You are the only one on this earth perfectly positioned to change the world in the particular ways that you will. Have faith that there is a greater purpose for your life that is only beginning to unfold.

Those bullies reduced me to an awkward girl with braces and bad skin. But the girl whose social anxiety once caused her hands to perpetually tremble became a world adventurer, cliff-jumping in Greece and hot air ballooning in Turkey. The cliché last kid picked for the team in gym class became a total “beast” of the home workout. The girl who it was laughable to imagine having a boyfriend ended up marrying the man of her dreams.

I wish I had some secret to reveal, some magic bullet that turned things around for me. But I don’t think there is one. Things shifted for me slowly and irregularly—two steps forward and one back. The shuffling of class members from year to year brought me together with new friends. In high school, I found my tribe in the theater program, where nerdiness was celebrated instead of mocked. I slowly reconstructed a sense of who I was, branching out and building confidence.

I walk through the world now assured of who I am: a loving mom, a giving friend, an awesome wife, a competent employee, and a kind human. Being smart and nice didn’t always get me far in the social world of middle and high school. But in the real world, outside of those bizarre pre-teen and teenage bubbles, those attributes actually matter a lot. They will lead you to a fulfilling life, and this dark time will eventually be a distant memory.

Right now it’s hard to see beyond the walls that these bullies have built for you. But please believe me when I promise you: IT. GETS. BETTER.

Originally published on the author’s blog

April Aiello

April Aiello is a mother of two with a special knack for producing kids that are extremely cute but terrible at sleeping. She tries on her blog to write honest reflections on imperfect parenting. You can follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/AModerateMama.