by Tracie Bettenhausen | Photography: Photos by Jacy
It’s why the kids bullied her, all the way back to kindergarten.
They picked on her because she was skinny. She was pale. Quiet. Short.
Kelsey says the bullying started so young because her classmates seemed to have their groups of friends built before school even started. They were in preschool together, or went to the same daycare.
“I had a couple friends eventually, but they were more like bully friends,” she says. “We were friends one day, and I was there the next day for them to stomp on.”
In middle school, they called her fat and ugly. This followed Kelsey all the way to high school. Kelsey says she would try to fight back.
“It was a hurricane of girl power, cornering me in the locker room. Fighting back just gave them more ammo.
“I kind of told my parents about it then, but nobody realizes just how much this affects a person,” she says. “I had it planned out since I was a freshman, how I could graduate from high school early to get out of there, but my parents wouldn’t sign off on it.”
Kelsey’s mom, Jackie, thought the stories were just girl drama.
“She didn’t tell us the detail of what was happening, and I just assumed things would get better,” Jackie says. “I wanted her to stay in high school. I thought she would regret that.”
One day, Jackie came home to find Kelsey hyperventilating, in the middle of a full-blown anxiety attack. So worked up, Kelsey needed to be carried to the car to get to the hospital.
After several emergency room visits, Kelsey was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. But it took outpatient therapy for everyone to learn the cause of her distress was likely bullying.
As Kelsey went through therapy, and learned why her self-esteem was so low, she was having trouble finding the right combination and dose of prescription drugs to treat the anxiety and depression.
That’s when Jackie began to knit a cape.
“When your daughter is hyperventilating for two hours, and she stiffens up so bad, it scares you,” Jackie says. “I was doing whatever I could to try to fix it. I got on the Internet, and found horse therapy.”
A friend connected Jackie with the Triple H Miniature Horse Rescue, founded by Alison Larson Smith. Though not a licensed horse therapy provider, Alison knows working with horses can be therapeutic and invited Kelsey out to help take care of the animals.
“They’re rescue horses, so it was them building trust with me, and me building trust with them,” Kelsey says. “I hadn’t been around horses before this, but they teach you a lot about yourself. We did grooming, basic handling. I got to work with a young filly, and a little goat.”
During this time, Kelsey also started attending SEARCH for Christian Maturity, a weekend retreat sponsored by the Diocese of Bismarck, located in Medora, North Dakota. During SEARCH, Kelsey got up in front of the entire group to tell her story about being bullied and her journey toward accepting herself.
Kelsey found strength and confidence in sharing. When she was talking with Alison one day, they had an idea. Kelsey could help by putting on her own cape.
Alison organizes a program called “Put on the Cape.” Alison has five
adopted pets with different disabilities. She fits the pets with superhero capes, and the crew presents at schools. The students receive bracelets that read, “Put on the cape,” to remind them to speak up if they see somebody getting bullied. The animals help demonstrate that being different isn’t bad.
“Some animals are different, but they want to be loved like everybody else. It’s the same with people,” Kelsey says.
Kelsey shared her story with Alison’s help at Highland Acres Elementary in Bismarck, North Dakota.
“For elementary school kids, it’s all about accepting everyone just as they are. Don’t judge, be compassionate to everybody. When I was finished, the kids had questions,” Kelsey says. “One asked if I’d ever told anyone I was being bullied. That’s a great question. They asked, ‘Did the bullies ever get caught?'”
She approaches older kids differently.
“I try to be realistic and not sugarcoat anything. I think if I’m real with them, and tell them what happened to me, it helps it sink in a lot more. I’m close to their age (20 years old), so I think they can relate to me,” she says. “If I could talk to the kids who are doing the bullying, I want them to know how severely they’re affecting their victim. Do they know that person might cry themselves to sleep? They might start cutting themselves, or starving themselves? I think if they know the true effect, they wouldn’t do it. They’re not thinking about their victim, they’re only thinking about how to build themselves up.”
Jackie says it’s hard to forgive herself for not understanding how bad Kelsey’s bullying was.
“I thank God every day Kelsey is still with us. I’d call home, and if she wouldn’t answer, I was so scared I’d come home and find her somewhere,” she says. “I do believe that if bullies would know the hell they put people through, it would change their behavior. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.”
Kelsey says she’s still different. She always was, and always will be.
“It’s that difference that’s given me two manager positions at work, good grades all throughout school. I feel like I am where I am now because I am different.”
And the cape worn on her shoulders can wrap around others as well.
“I’ve always been super-duper sensitive, and have always wanted to do good for other people,” she says. “If I talk about this, I feel like I can help prevent this from happening to others.”
To see more pictures by Photos by Jacy, click here.
Tracie Bettenhausen is a senior staff writer/editor at Basin Electric. She gives a warm home and regular meals to two once-foster, now-adopted kitties, Basil and Sweet Pea. She is a meditation wannabe who spends too much time on Twitter.