Backstage at a dance recital when I was in the fifth grade, two girls took a toy away from me and decided to play keep away. They tossed the toy back and forth with me in the middle yelling, “GIVE IT BACK.” When my protests didn’t yield the result I wanted, I stomped on one of the girls’ foot and shrieked, “I said… GIVE IT BACK.” Since I stomped on her foot with my high-heeled tap shoe, she quickly handed over my toy, and I walked away in victory. I never did like the keep away game.
Two years later, in a seventh grade history class, Austin, the kid who sat behind me, decided to be a dick (or a typical 12- to 13-year old) and pull my desk away from me when I sat down. As expected, I fell down, and everybody in the class laughed at me. I got up furious. Austin laughed the hardest, and I’m pretty sure my face turned red in rage and embarrassment. I picked up the binder from his desk and threw it across the classroom. Well, Austin’s binder was full of nothing but loose leaf paper, and all the papers went flying every which way. The history teacher, who saw and heard everything, stood up from his desk and ordered Austin to go outside (after he collected all his paper, of course). He protested and said, “Why isn’t Lara going outside? She threw my binder!” The teacher replied: “You started it.” I felt vindicated as I watched him sulk outside the classroom.
As I went through middle school and high school, I slowly lost that fight I had in me. In middle school, I was openly ridiculed and laughed at by my peers. They would point and laugh at me, and call me all sorts of names, with an emphasis on how ugly they thought I was. However, my story is certainly not a unique story. Puberty is a bitch, and anyone who comes out of adolescence unscathed is lucky, lying or the one who did the name-calling.
Routinely hearing how others think you are the ugliest thing they had ever seen, does take a toll on you. It’s like every time someone decided to put me down to make themselves feel better, they took a piece of my self-esteem, backbone from me. I learned to keep my head down and to stare at the floor because sometimes making eye contact with them, just fueled the nastiness in their heart. I internalized these insults, these unwanted names (again, not atypical for young teenage girls).
I am hideous.
My hair is a mess.
Ugh, my teeth are messed up.
During college, I slowly got some of that fight back in me. Usually, though, these instances were just examples of me being young, stupid and drunk, aka a typical college student, but these moments of backbone were motivated by my desire to stick up for a friend. Once at a bar, I totally lost it when this random guy was saying obscene, offensive things to my roommate and best friend. The dude was just being nasty, and he was not taking the hint from my friend that she thought he was nasty. Me, being young, stupid and drunk, told him off, and our fight quickly got ugly. After I called him out for being a nasty creep, he of course had to call me a bitch and then an ugly bitch (because the worst insult a woman can be called is ugly – yawn – or a bitch). This guy and I had to be separated after I got in his face.
A year or so later, I tried to stick up for this friend of a friend who was being dense and not noticing or caring that he was invading another guy’s space. I said, “Hey, it’s cool,” to the guy who was losing his temper and threatening the dense friend of a friend. This guy growled at me, “Bitch, shut the fuck up. If you say another word, I will beat the shit out of you.” I believed his threat and became paralyzed in fear. The guy who threatened me was escorted out of the bar after my friend got me to tell her why I was shaking in fear, and she told the bouncer.
As I got older, once again, I lost that fight, my backbone just fading away. I never stuck up for myself against certain individuals, who would treat me like a doormat. Now and then, I would argue or walk away instead of letting someone boss me around or treat me poorly. I didn’t fight.
I compromised. I played nice, even when I was mad or insulted, and bit my tongue, even when someone said something unkind. But if you keep doing that, as I learned, you let others think it’s okay to talk or act a certain way around you. By playing nice, these negative people learned it was okay to treat me with little to no respect. I mean, why not? It’s not like I would ever say anything.
Then breast cancer happened.
After five surgeries, seven weeks of radiation, four months of chemotherapy, one anaphylactic reaction (and a partridge in a pear tree), I became a shell of myself. After I emerged from the wreckage that is cancer treatment, I had to rebuild myself. My priorities and perspectives changed, and much to my surprise, my fight came back. I guess, when you deal with insurance company bullshit, plus all the stress that comes with managing your treatment, appointments, job (if applicable) and personal relationships, you have to have some backbone. My fight definitely came through whenever I had to make repeated calls to Aetna and fight them over their most recent bullshit claim denial. My backbone reappeared when I let friendships that should have died years ago just fall by the wayside.
In recent months, I have stuck up for myself in ways I had never done in my adolescence or early adulthood. When I felt hurt and offended by a loved one, I told that person that they hurt me and why they hurt me. Although I received a negative response, I felt better because I expressed myself and my feelings are valid, even if they make someone mad. When someone confronted me for what I wrote (and to be fair, what I wrote was passive aggressive and uncalled for), I stood up for myself and didn’t back down from what turned out to be a nasty fight.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not going turn into some Bravo Reality Tv Housewife and start flipping tables and screaming obscenities. I’m certainly not going to be physically fighting anyone (yikes!) or creating Youtube videos telling my “haters” to suck it. (Waaat.) It means having professional goals and aspirations and fighting for them. It means I’m not going to care about how many friends I have – just about the quality. It means I want to have authentic relationships with my loved ones, which means expressing my feelings instead of swallowing them.
It means I’m going to stand up for myself, no matter what – because I’m worth fighting for. Since I’ve already ran two half marathons and additional long races, I know I have some fight in me.