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first person

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Illustration by Drew Shannon

I wake up in the middle of the night, and my mind replays the traumatic incident. Again.

I was 12. My family had just moved to a small town in rural Nova Scotia. It had four churches, a large community centre, a small grocery store, a post office and a school.

On the far side of town, a bridge straddled a small glistening creek. It was a physical divide between two counties, but it was more than that to me.

Under the bridge was a magical area. Little beasts had left footprints in the middle of a sandbar and bright bits of quartz speckled the sand. There, the water rushed over stones, curved and bent, and pooled on the far side where the water reached my knees. Minnows darted in between the weeds. There, the noise of town was dulled by the peaceful sound of water.

It was a special place I wanted to show my new friends, Cee and Kay. Cee was a tall, lanky girl, with short brown hair, pointed features, and a snide uptilt to her mouth. She reminded me of a crow. When she got mad, her eyes shrunk to razor-sharp slits. She was quick to judge and uttered sharp, critical comments about others. I wasn’t entirely sure I liked her. But, I liked Kay. Kay was Cee’s best friend. Kay was taller than me, too, by a full head and shoulders. She had fluffy brown hair that met her shoulders, wide, blue eyes and was quick to smile. Kay loved to read and since I’d arrived, we had a few conversations about books. Kay was always kind, but she never went anywhere without Cee.

When we got there, we weren’t long exploring the river bank when Cee grabbed my wrists and Kay grabbed my feet. And with a swing, I was thrown into the creek. Against my will. The water was deep enough that I submerged for a moment; my hip scraped rock in the shallows. Gasping, I scrambled out, bruised, skinned and bleeding from scrapes.

As I emerged, there they stood. Laughing.

This memory has woken me from a sound sleep many times over the 25 years since. That moment of powerlessness and trying to get away. The feelings of violation. Disorientation. The shock of the deep cold, wet. And then, the crying anger, the betrayal, the shame of being soaked and dirty as I dashed home to the safety of my bedroom, avoiding the prying eyes through town on the way.

I hid the incident from my parents. I changed the subject when they asked how my afternoon went. I was ashamed that it had happened. My parents probably wondered why I didn’t want to be friends with Cee and Kay any more. I had been jubilant over the making of these new friends. Me, a city girl transplanted to this sleepy rural town, had few buddies I could hang out with, share things and laugh with.

But, it haunts me still.

I wake up full of unresolved pain. Jaw clenched. Lips thinned into a grimace. I’m trembling. I gasp for air. Then, shame floods and I pull the duvet a little higher, to hide my face in its forgiving folds.

How does one address the trauma of a childhood incident? How does one comfort one’s 12-year-old self?

I needed to put this pain somewhere else, that wasn’t within my subconscious. I needed to shift the narrative so I wasn’t a victim any more. I needed to move on from this trauma.

So, I decided to send Cee and Kay a message on Facebook. Writing would give me an opportunity to sort through the situation, how I felt, my emotions, and map out how to heal and move on.

Dear Cee, I messaged. Dear Kay, I messaged.

I wake up at night, my mind reliving old traumas. One of those incidents involves you throwing me into the creek, circa 1996. I ran home afterward, bruised and bleeding. You probably don’t remember this.

But I do.

I had never been made to feel powerless in my own body before – by people who were bigger than me, by people I trusted. I don’t want to be reminded of this for the next 25 years, so I need to let you know how much you hurt me. You traumatized me.

I hope you teach your children that bullying in any form is not okay. That it leaves scars. That two against one isn’t fair. I know you wouldn’t want your children to ever experience something like that afternoon under the bridge.

I forgive your actions and wish you only peace, for whatever fear or insecurity prompted you to act as you did that day.

I paused writing my note and I asked myself, why did I have this digital connection with these women, anyway? It’s not as if they cared about my life. They never reached out on Facebook. We hadn’t talked in person in more than 20 years.

I realized then I didn’t need these people in my life, going forward.

I imagined my younger self: soggy, uncomfortable, hurting and tear-stained. “No one deserves to be bullied. This is not your fault. Your feelings are valid. You trusted them and they hurt you,” I said to that child.

Personal growth, I guess, comes at all ages. I never would have told those girls directly how traumatized I was, as a 12-year-old. It was only with some distance that I felt strong enough to do so. To release that pain, knowing I could survive without it. To heal by sharing this experience with the people who contributed to it.

Dealing with this trauma made me realize how much strength and resilience I had, even as a child, to get back up, to go to school every day with these bullies for the next six years.

I needed to let go of this trauma to be able to move on. My subconscious has been holding on to this event for decades, and my subconscious deserved peace. This was a healing gift to myself.

It was going to take a while for my inner child to realize that her 37-year-old self had banished a childhood demon.

It took four months for me to find forgiveness and finish the message.

I finished the note and signed it: I forgive 12-year-old you. I wish 37-year-old you peace.

Then I clicked “Send.”

Jessica Patterson lives in Toronto.

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