*trigger warning: talk of suicide, self-harm, and sexual harassment

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I remember this childhood phrase. I try to chant the words aloud, through gritted teeth, and tears. This occurrence isn’t rare in my life. You’d think I’d be used to cruel words hurled in my direction. It was as if they were made for me. And still, I call my grandparents, I turn to them, and I hold back tears as my grandmother answers the phone. “Mariska!” She says, happily. I always enjoy when she calls me that; a reminder of my Hungarian roots. I explain what has happened to me. I go through the list of names I was called very quickly like I’m checking off a to do list. “They are just words.” She tells me. Words. Cruel words. They do, in fact, hurt.

I have been called a lot of things in my short lifetime. It began in high school. Ugly. You look like a man. Fat. Pathetic. My bullies screamed these words at me in the cafeteria during lunch. Every time I left my table, whether it was to throw away garbage, or purchase snacks from a vending machine, I was met with cruel words. I would calmly walk to the bathroom, lock myself in a stall, and cry. The verbal abuse escalated very quickly. Within a matter of days, I couldn’t eat lunch in the cafeteria. I sat outside of the cafeteria with an English teacher. She let me eat my lunch with her.

The cruel words did not stop in person. There were more online. Then, my bullies told me to kill myself. I should drown in my own bathtub, they said. If I didn’t, they would make my life a living hell. I didn’t want to go to school anymore. I begged my mom to let me stay home. She said if I stayed home, my bullies would know that they won. But, she didn’t know that they already won. Months ago. I found a sharp object, I can’t exactly remember what it was, and I cut myself. I hurt myself… because I deserved it. I was ugly, fat, and pathetic. I hated myself, so I hurt myself. The cuts weren’t deep, but they bled. I layered bracelets on my wrists to hide them while I was in school. One of my teachers smiled at me and said, “I love your bracelets!” Today, most of the faded scars are covered by a lotus tattoo on my wrist.

I survived high school. But, cruel words were waiting for me in college. I focused on expanding my knowledge and thriving as a writer. My first two years of college introduced me to new cruel words. Bitch. Stuck Up. These words left the mouths of college boys on campus, and entered my ears. One boy grabbed my ass while I was walking back to my dorm room in the dark. My mind flashed back to the time this first happened to me. I was in sixth grade, walking down the hallway with my friend. Afterwards, my friend said I was lucky, because that was how a boy told you he liked you. I was sheltered at the time, and I knew nothing of any of this. I remember thinking, what a strange way to tell a girl you like her.

I didn’t respond to the ass-grabbing. So, the college boy called me a bitch. I thought I was too good for him. How dare I not enjoy the attention he gave me? I was asking to be touched in the pair of jeans I was wearing. I was lucky he chose me. He ran off after swearing in my face.

The next time I was called a bitch and stuck up, was when I refused to have sex. Multiple times. I was an object to the boys on campus. I was not their equal. I did not match them in intelligence. I was not respected. What mattered was that I was desirable. I was only a pretty, little thing to look at, to ogle over. I was only a pretty, little thing to substitute girlfriends who didn’t want to have sex. I was only a pretty, little thing to chase. And, when I said no, well that was unacceptable. I became the stuck up bitch. I was labeled. I was branded. And, the words hurt.

Today, I still experience cruel words. Failure. That’s a big one. I’ve let the cruel words hurt me, just like I did in high school and college. I’ve cried. I’ve vowed to give up writing. I believed the words and they truly affected how I viewed myself. They destroyed any confidence I may have gained over the years. They caused me to hate myself, again. I became broken.

But, here’s the thing. In society, as women, we are used to the cruel words. They are the norm for us. We are used to being labelled by our actions; if we don’t respond to flirting, to ass-grabbing, to catcalling on the streets. We are bitches when we speak up; when we say no and when we attempt to fight for what is right. We are told that we’re asking for it. Everything that happens to us is our fault. We are told we cannot achieve things because we’re emotional women. Oh, yes, references to our periods are made frequently. We are silenced. We are told to sit down. Let the men talk. Comments about our physical appearance are very common as well; you’d be prettier if you lost weight, you should smile more. It goes on, and on, and on. These words, they hurt at times. But, it’s time to stop letting them hurt. Sticks and stones.

I am finding strength after years of cruel words. Yes, I remember each word, but these words have given me a purpose. I am going to prove everyone wrong. I am not what they say I am. I am a woman of strength. I am fearless. I am loud. I am unstoppable. And, you are too.

Here’s to finding our strength when words break us down.