On my first day of Middle School, I turned to a group of strangers and said six words no 11-year-old should have to say. I meant them, though, with every single part of me. They were the first real expression of my inner self, my blossoming core that had been battered and bruised and bloodied by repeated emotional strikes that, while leaving no obvious marks, worked me like a blacksmith works a blade. Just six words — innocuous, maybe a little self-pitying, but ultimately a cry for help that didn’t come. I’d already been bullied throughout Elementary School, rarely physical but mostly emotional bullying, ignored and ostracized from my peers. Although I didn’t fully realize it at the time — or perhaps couldn’t look at it because it was too painful for my young mind to acknowledge — I was often lonely. I sleepwalked through life, awash in my inner world, sometimes picturing a familiar by my side as my only companion. It was an imaginary dog, then — a huge, black hound called Shadow, shaggy and fierce and protective. I’d call to him even through my teenage years, picturing him in my mind’s eye until he came running. He was there when nobody else was, and he was a comfort in a way. However, I’m going to dispense with the lyrical for a second because there truly was nothing lyrical about this. I had a few “single-serving friends” that came and went like the common cold, but nobody truly stuck around for long enough. It quickly made me feel “Other,” like there was something fundamentally wrong with me that I couldn’t see but everybody else could see, and sense, and feel after being in my presence for just a little while. And that, dear reader, is a feeling that has stayed with me for the resulting 20-something years. You see, on that first day of Middle School, my loneliness was thrown into sharp relief. In my first class, I sat alone. I think a part of me hoped that now, in a new school, things would be different. But nobody sat beside me, and there, in front of me, sat one of the single-serving friends I knew from Elementary. He acknowledged my presence at the desk behind him and, to the unfamiliar kid seated next to him, said: “Don’t bother with him; he’s weird.” I was loud enough for me to hear. It seeped into me like poison. My new beginning already lay in tatters, and I was naive to think anything would change when some of those same people came with me. The day only got worse from there. At lunchtime, I had nobody — a theme that would continue for many lunchtimes after — so I asked an older boy for directions to the cafeteria. It’s lucky that his friend intervened because he tried sending me to the rugby pitches instead — a long and muddy walk up a gravel road, past a building site. So, they showed me the real way to get there. So far, so good, I guess. I stood in line. I asked for fries. I anxiously handed over my money because even then, anxiety whispered its lies and its secrets to me. And, then, like a bad teen movie… I had nowhere to sit. I had no friends. I recognized nobody. In that moment, I think I would’ve sat even with the single-serving friend who called me “weird” because hey, it’s better than being alone, right? He was nowhere to be seen, though, so I spotted an empty seat at a table otherwise occupied by older girls. I had to do it, I thought. I needed to eat somewhere. I sat down and understandably, perhaps, they looked at me with quizzical eyes. I tried not to make eye contact even while one said, “who are you?” I kept my eyes down, focused on the scattered fries on the plate, and spoke those six innocuous but self-pitying words: “Nobody you would like to know.” They laughed, those girls. One said, “Did you hear what he just said?” The memory becomes blurry after that, but I can feel the humiliation and hear their laughter even now, reaching out over the gulf of those intervening years. Things haven’t changed; not really, at least as far as I can see. When a therapist took me through a thought exercise in which I met my inner child along a country path, she asked me what happened — what I saw, what I felt. “He’s lonely,” I told her. “He feels so alone and he doesn’t know how to trust me.” He doesn’t. I don’t. I don’t know how to trust you, dear reader, because those years of loneliness and isolation have left their indelible scars on the fabric of my soul. I still feel Other . When something happens to trigger those beliefs, as they did just days ago, I see danger in the shadows of every interaction, even with those who would profess to be my friends. There’s something deeply, fundamentally wrong with me, and I can’t quite find what it is. It’s a theme that made its way into my novel, ‘The Shadows at Sunrise,’ in the form of its main character — a teen who, due to supernatural circumstance, is ostracized and hated by everyone he encounters until he finds the one person who doesn’t, and the reality-shattering reason why. But there is no supernatural circumstance for me. Just depression, trauma, and the scars that bullying can leave upon a person. The friendships I have appear to be fleeting. The people who have left are confirmation that my core belief — that “I don’t matter” — is true. The people who are still here — even my loving fiancé, who understands me better than anyone else? It’s only a matter of time for them. That’s what my inner child says, anyway. He’s still hurting. He’s got his guard up because it’s too dangerous to let people in. He’s still sitting alone in that cafeteria while others laugh at him. He’s still walking the halls of the school every lunchtime, feeling eyes upon him even where there are none. He still feels invisible and Other in crowded rooms and in rooms where it’s just him and somebody else who says they know and love him. Even now, he feels like he is nobody you would like to know. If you can relate, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. You can also follow me on my blog at mattsloanwrites.com, or follow me on Twitter @mattsloanwrites.