Aija Mayrock just turned 21, and to say the past few years of her life were a whirlwind is an understatement. The Survival Guide to Bullying, a book she finished when she was 18, was picked up by Scholastic and became an international best-seller; it's now taught in the middle school curricula of 19 countries. At the time of this interview, she had just spoken with the United Nations on the issue of bullying, and has commenced work with them on a campaign to end violence against children by 2030.
It wasn't an easy journey to this point—from age 8 to age 16, she suffered intense bullying to the point that she was mocked at her old school even after moving away. Depressed and hopelessly alone as she felt, Mayrock chose to write about her experience instead of wallowing in the mental pit of despair too many are unable to escape, and her book began to take root. It's powerful message of hope, mixed with an accessible format and mix of prose with rap poetry—Mayrock calls them roems—has made the book a hit, and a beacon of hope for kids looking to speak out about their plight with bullying or seeking a guide through their own dark tunnel.
We brought Mayrock into our office to talk about her own struggles with mental health when she was bullied and the exciting projects she's working on now to try and create a word where kids, teens, and adults no longer have to struggle with the issue.
Now an adult, how do you look back at your mental state as you were writing The Survival Guide to Bullying?
When I was writing The Survival Guide to Bullying, I was going through a hard time in terms of my mental health—I was really depressed, I was struggling with a lot of anxiety and fear, and I don't think I ever fully processed what I was going through. My book was a form of therapy because it helped bring all those feelings out onto a page and then, as a result, brought me to a healthier way of mentally living and functioning.
Would you say the book helped you heal yourself, whether through just venting or the cathartic act of writing and organizing that experience into something cohesive?
Yes, absolutely! Writing it, talking it out, doing various drafts. If you look at the first drafts of my book, they're much darker and much more depressing than the final drafts. I think you were the one who mentioned this, but if you look at my roems the first one is a lot darker than the last. Funnily enough, they're written in chronological order. In that sense, they're an interesting way of showing the state of my mental health from the time I started writing the book when I was 16 to the end of the process, when I was 18.
What impact do you hope the book has had on kids around the world who are being bullied?
I hope it's showed kids all over the world that number one—as cliché as it sounds—they really aren't alone. I really did feel like I was the only one going through this, and I wasn't. There were millions of people all over the world going through the same things I was going through, so I hope the book shows kids that they aren't alone, and I also hope it shows them that they have a purpose. I hope it guides them toward using their voices to stand up for themselves and others or to take a stand for something they believe in.
I saw you collaborated with some medical doctors on the book—did you collaborate with any mental health specialists?
I collaborated with a psychotherapist, and I also collaborated with a woman named Dr. Deborah Temkin, who is not only a mental health professional, but an educator and works for the U.S. Department of Education and the Obama administration. I didn't collaborate with her on the book directly, but she read it afterward, vetted it, and we made a few changes to make sure it was psychologically sound.
via E.R. Pulgar for Trueself
I saw that you shared an article on Facebook about the Kayden Culp incident, the boy who was intensely bullied and then set on fire in Texas, and was wondering if you could elaborate on it, seeing as your book helped put bullying back in the national—and even global—conversation. How do you feel when bullying incidents such as this are in the news when it's too late to change the situation?
That's a great question; well, reading that article, I was so horrified that I had no words. I was thinking of something to write about it yesterday, and I was just thinking about how this is the most extreme, disgusting, hate-filled form of bullying that I've honestly ever seen. This boy was 10 years old, and the boys who did that to him were 9, 10, and 11.
I posted it on my public Facebook, and saw comments from full grown adults arguing about whether it was legitimate or not. Then they started bullying each other and I thought "This is part of the problem."
To go back to your question, I think what happened in Texas is bullying, cyberbullying, school bullying taken to the extreme. I've always believed that any form of aggression or discrimination comes from not preventing or not stopping bullying. I hope that my book would serve as a tool to stop bullying at it's core so when kids get older, they won't turn into people that are bullying into adulthood.
In terms of that specific case, I concluded that the school or that community as a whole did not have a zero-tolerance policy for bullying. Bullying is usually a pattern; it repeats itself. I can assure you this was not the first time bullying had occurred in their town. The first time someone is bullied, they're not set on fire. There's always threats and smaller incidents that occur beforehand.
My biggest bullying incident occurred when I was 15, but I was getting bullied at 8 years old—it was a perpetuation. I believe that must have been similar to what occurred in Texas, and that a zero-tolerance policy being implemented in that community would, hopefully have prevented that incident.
For all the harm that befell Kayden, the incident brought awareness to the issue of bullying on a national scale. Do you think people are becoming more aware of how damaging it is?
Yes and no; I was actually very disappointed. I know we're in the midst of a presidential election, but the news is not talking about it. There's a few articles here and there, and it was trending on Facebook for like 20 minutes, but it's not on the news. These days, we consume more news than we read about, and I was disappointed the media was repeating topics that had nothing to do with this over and over and not talking about the significance of this incident.
Well, how can we talk about the dire effects of bullying when Kim Kardashian is being robbed at gunpoint?
[Laughs] True, true.
No, but jokes aside, you make a big point in calling this out.
I think the news is just talking about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump over and over, and it's important, but even in the midst of an election there's breathing room to cover other topics. It's Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it's National Bullying Prevention Month and these things only happen once a year.
Do you think the government can do anything to help prevent bullying?
I believe that in this country—and I'll only speak for this country because I can't totally know abroad—we go to school and learn certain things that are created in a national curriculum that mostly everyone learns from. In this curriculum we have classes like health class, where we talk about issues like drugs and alcohol, we talk about sex, we talk about other important things.
Bullying should be mandated in the school curriculum, if not a mandated class on a national level. I say this because if you don't read up on the topic of bullying, what it is what are the signs, how to stop it, you accept bullying as the norm, you look at it as something casual. I think this should be made a requirement in every school across the nation.
via E.R. Pulgar for Trueself
Would you say emotional violence is the crux of bullying?
It's more frequent, and I don't believe there's any form of bullying that is worse, but I think it affects people in different ways. I'm lucky to say I survived it and was able to heal, but a lot of people never do, and that's a whole other conversation.
And as your book continues to grow and as you continue to write, with the name you've made for yourself, you've become this beacon of hope for kids being bullied. As the book grows, what legacy do you want it to leave behind?
I would say that in terms of mental health and bullying, the legacy I hope to leave behind is that you have the ability to be your light in that dark tunnel, to heal yourself, and to thrive. As daunting as that seems, and I know because I went through years where I thought that was impossible, it is possible. Through my book and my story, I want people to know they can not only survive, but they can thrive.