One of her bullies dressed up as her for Halloween. She responded with resilience – and a book to help others survive and thrive.
If Aija Mayrock had to finish the sentence “I am…,” she would add “strong.” Indeed, for a young person to go through harrowing childhood experiences at the hands of classroom and cyber bullies, and to emerge a champion for the next generation – that’s an example of tremendous, admirable strength.
After hearing stories about several young individuals who were bullied and had died by suicide, she decided to write a book which would empower people whose pain she could relate to. Thus, the idea for The Survival Guide to Bullying: Written by a Teen, was born.
“At first, no publisher was interested,” Aija says. “They said ‘there’s no market for this book, who are you, a 15-year-old, to tell this story?’ But I was determined to get it out there, so I self-published it and one month later, Scholastic bought it.”
The book has since been published in 18 countries, and Aija has become the hero she once needed. In between her busy schedule, which includes working with the United Nations and Girlboss, she shared some of her reflections with us, and the exciting things she has planned for the future.
The Glam Salad: How old were you when things took a turn at school?
Aija Mayrock: When I was 8 years old, I went to a new school and that was when all the bullying started. I actually remember visiting the school before I enrolled and I remember talking to my mom and saying “I think the people at this school don’t really like me, I think that they are excluding me.” We both agreed that I would just give it a try.
I think in my particular case, being the new kid was just my introduction to becoming a target, but it wasn’t what made me a target. There were other new kids in the school that were accepted. It began that I had a lisp and a stutter and I stopped speaking up for myself because I was bullied for the way I spoke. Once that happened, I became an immediate target because I was defenseless. I never spoke up. From there, it escalated.
GS: What was the first incident you can recall?
AM: When I was in third grade, I think it was the first day of school, and there was a girl who was assigned to keep me away from my class. We were on the playground, and all of the girls and boys were in one part of the playground, and this girl’s role was to make sure I stayed away from them because I was gross, I was a freak, I couldn’t be near them. I would literally try to walk over and she would push me down. That was the first vivid experience I had.
GS: Wow. What was your immediate reaction to that? Did you tell anybody about what had happened?
AM: I had never experienced bullying or social isolation before and I had never felt like such an outsider in my life. It was shocking and I couldn’t fully process it. I do think I told my parents and the bullying then morphed and changed in different ways.
GS: In your book, you write that it’s important to tell your parents – and it sounds like you felt comfortable doing that – but what if someone feels like their parents would not validate their feelings?
AM: I actually didn’t tell my parents for years. I may have brought up certain instances once in a while, but I stopped telling them early on in third grade and it was my biggest regret. I spent years and years being depressed and being in a very bad place because I didn’t talk to anyone. I was completely alone in my struggles. That’s my biggest regret and I encourage every young person to talk to their parent or guardian. That being said, there are situations where a parent or guardian isn’t sensitive to that and is not an ally. In those cases, I would tell people, create a top 5 list of the adults that you trust. It could be your favorite teacher, coach, guidance counselor, neighbor or relative. Go to those 5 people and try to have that conversation. It’s really important to tell someone, because to suffer in silence, to suffer alone, is really dangerous.
GS: What were some tools that helped you through the darkest moments?
AM: When I was 15, this girl who I had never met dressed up as me for Halloween and posted it online and it went viral. I started getting all these death threats and horrible comments and I felt so hated. I felt like the entire world was against me. After that, it took me a really long time to find hope again, to love myself, and to want to be on this planet. It was a very, very dark moment for me. My writing was what saved me. When I write, it’s like a release. I put it all out on paper and when I finish writing I’ve let go of a lot of that stuff – that anger and sadness, so I feel lighter and happier.
Writing is also a discipline. It’s not easy, it’s not always fun. When you are in a difficult moment and are struggling with depression, discipline is very important to get you through those times. I realize that more and more, even now. The discipline it took to write every day, to sit down and take that time for myself – that started my healing path. It also translated to having the discipline to eat healthy, to exercise every single day, to go to therapy, and to avoid reading comments about myself that weren’t nice.
GS: When did you decide to write your book, The Survival Guide to Bullying?
AM: I was reading news stories about all of these young people who had died by suicide because of bullying and I was so angry. I was so angry they felt like suicide was the only option. I knew that as hard as it was, you could survive. That’s when I started writing the book.
GS: In the book, you write: “Bullying does not define you. Nothing does. You have every possibility in this world.” Can you elaborate a bit more on what defines a person?
AM: For so many years, I felt like “the bullied girl.” I felt like my story, and what happened to me, and the fact that I had been ostracized for so many years, was what defined me. I realized eventually that when you take the power away from these difficult moments, from things that people had done to you that you had no control over, you take the power into your own hands. You choose what gets to define you and you choose who you are as a person and the path and destinies that you have. That quote is something that I’ve learned to live by because I don’t want to be defined by things those people said to me all those years ago. Bullying stays with you for a long time and maybe for your whole life but if you take the power back and you say “nothing anyone has said to me defines me, I can choose what gets to define me,” you feel like there’s endless possibility and you can do anything you choose.
GS: Was there a specific moment when you came to this realization?
AM: When I was 15, I won an award at the International Film Festival, and for the first time in my life, I didn’t feel like this girl that was bullied and hated. I felt like this powerful, talented young person that has so much potential and so many possibilities. I had never felt that way. I felt free from my past.
GS: What’s your vision for the future?
AM: I want to write for film and television. I’m actually working on a TV show pilot right now. It’s a dramedy about high school in America. That’s about all I can say. I’m very excited. I also want to act and perform all over the world through music, spoken words and motivational speaking. And I want to be an activist through the arts.
Aija recently wrote and performed #TheTruthAboutBeingAGirl for Buzzfeed after experiencing “blatant, no-shame misogyny and sexism.”
GS: Today, have you forgiven your bullies?
AM: Yes, I have forgiven them. I’ve let go because I want to be able to move on, and grudges and anger hold you back.
Some facts about Aija:
- She feels most at peace “at the beach.”
- Her favorite app is “Instagram.”
- She would love to meet “Lin Manuel Miranda.”
- When she’s feeling down, “getting messages from fans” always makes her feel better.
- One moment that felt incredibly surreal to her was when she “performed at Madison Square Garden for the first time.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.