**Trigger Warning** The following story includes bullying and physical abuse.
Somewhere around fourth grade, a seemingly normal group of kids I went to school with started hurting each other. Punching in the arm, indian burns (is there a non-racist term for this?), hair pulling, pushing, and that awful hand-slapping game where it's a race to see who flinches or misses first. These hurting games were not organized games, obviously, nor were they teacher sanctioned. I remember one boy being the main initiator of these games, walking up to each of us in turn and punching us in the arm (or pinching, etc). If you cried, you totally lost the game and everyone's respect. But if you withstood the pain, you'd get a smirk of approval and you'd be in the inner circle of ten-year-old badassery, for a little while.
Maybe this is a normal thing that kids do, it seems horrible looking back on it. There was only one reason that I stuck around for my turn to be injured: I had a crush on the ringleader. Besides being a possible psychopath, he was cute and smart and funny. The sadistic thing was not part of the attraction.
So, this one recess, that creepy little boy initiated a game in which he could demonstrate the pressure points on the human body. Three kids in a row he took down with something that looked like the vulcan death grip. He approached me smiling, he was always smiling just a little, and squeezed my neck in a place that I had no idea held so much pain. My eyes squinted and teared up, my knees went weak, it was hard to breathe. My obstinance held me up. He squeezed that spot as hard as he could and never took his eyes off my face. I stared back and he grabbed my arm with his other hand, squeezed my elbow and made me gasp. I regained my composure as quickly as I could, shoved the pain aside. It hurt more than anything I had felt before, but my satisfaction at not bending to his twisted little will was the best anesthetic I've ever had. And his frustration showed, like he hoped my suffering would. He glared at me, moved closer and tried to get better leverage. I could see his anger at my refusal to be beaten. At this moment, with his hands on me and meanness on his face, when I saw him for what he really was: a twisted-up little boy who liked to prey on the weak, he went from my first crush to my first adversary.
Once my mind made that flip he didn't stand a chance. I would never back down. I remember willfully ignoring the pain. Turning it around and using it for strength. The more he hurt me, the stronger I stood and the tougher I became. I remember sneering at him, "Psh. It barely even hurts", which enraged him After a minute or so, he finally let go and stomped off, disgusted. I had bruises for a week, but he never touched me again.
And when I say he became my first adversary, I mean that I became a sort of tanbark sheriff after that. If I saw him gathering up some weaker kids, I'd stride right over and ask him, all friendly-like, what was going on. If I found out that he'd hurt someone, I couldn't stop myself from confronting him, making things right. I told on him a few times, but mostly, it was playground justice and I'd appointed myself the law.
That story is mostly about how I learned to use my stubborn streak, why I can't help but stick up for the little guy and why I get confrontational at the tiniest whiff of bullying. But, it's also about pain. And how, at an early age, I learned to use pain, break through it, ignore it, or ride it out.
On a particularly bad day recently, I remembered this experience and it gave me strength. I was curled up on my bed, miserable, covered with strategically placed heatpads and icepacks and drugged as much as I dared, and that memory made me smile. Pain can be faced, and lived through and even used for the forces of good.
I'll be okay.