Matt Shankles lost friends and self-esteem and his depression grew when his eighth-grade classmates learned he was gay. They bullied him relentlessly.
He one day locked himself in his bathroom and jammed the door shut with a drawer, intending to end his life with of a box of X-Acto blades.
"I hated myself more than I hate war," said Shankles, 16, now a sophomore. "More than I hate famine, more than I hate hate."
Thankfully, Shankles didn't die that day.
Rather than give in to his suffering, as do too many other , he has devoted his high school career to fighting bullying. He has been reaching out and reassuring victims, advocating for anti-bullying legislation in our nation's capitol and telling his painful story in front of the very classmates that still ridicule him.
Shankles' story provides optimism to bullied children, and their parents, everywhere. And, it offers some hope in the battle against bullying and cyber-bullying less than a month after a gay Iowa teen took his own life. committed suicide after being teased and bullied by classmates at South O'Brien High School in western Iowa.
"I hated myself more than I hate war."
The suffering was so great that his adolescent mind rationalized his escape from his burdensome depression like this: people that surpass suffering become angels.
"I feel like regardless of whether I am an actual angel or not, I feel like I can help people become angels themselves," he said.
His advocacy has taken many forms. In addition to more routine support of bullying victims, Shankles has spoken at the Safe Schools Advocacy Summit in Washington D.C. and served as co-president of a gay-straight alliance club called Spectrum.
Shankles' mother Tracy Bradley said was unaware of the bullying after he came out or that he contemplated suicide, until recently. She said she feels terrible that he went through so much of this suffering alone, but she said she is incredibly proud of the maturity, character and generosity that he has shown since the bullying began.
"Nobody is please when their child is bullied," Bradley said. "At the same time I am proud. He is going to be a better human being — 10 times the person that a lot of bullies who never grow out of being bullies will be."
Shankles is most known around school for a Twitter account he started last fall.
Shankles said a Linn-Mar student started a Twitter account specifically to harass students, divulge unflattering secrets and spread false rumors.
So, Shankles decided to create a rival Twitter account to tweet kind words to ridiculed students. The handle is linn_mar_love.
But he knew he couldn’t take ownership of the account. Despite his advocacy work, Shankles is still bullied. He said he can’t walk home from school alone without having derogatory words shouted at him from cars. So he remained anonymous to keep his credibility.
"You can pull through this! Stay strong! Don't let him get to you ever," he Tweeted to a student ridiculed by the bullying Twitter handle, which has since gone offline.
Last week he officially revealed himself to be the author of the Twitter feed linn_mar_love and said he was approached by many students that were bullied. He said the trust they have shown him and has been amazing.
"Within the past three days I have felt very empowered," he said. "I have the power to make so much more."
Shankles isn't the only one in the family to experience bullying. Bradley said she experienced bullying so extreme in her youth that it had a profound effect on her.
That's why Tracy Bradley is so proud of her son for getting past his depression and devoting himself to the well being of his classmates.
"If I have done only one thing right in this life, it's raising this kid," she said. "I couldn't be more proud of the path he has taken. It is not an easy one, and it takes more courage than I have, but he handles it with grace."