Kelly’s Story: Beating HIV and Loving Her Life

Kelly Gluckman is a truly inspiring and beautiful woman inside and out. I had the honor of working with her at Mondays at the Mission at Union Rescue Mission. Together we helped to instill life skills and values in young people on skid row and now Kelly is telling her personal story across the United States. I was blown away by all of the struggles she has been through, and yet she continues to hold her head up high and encourage others. Thank you Kelly for contributing your story.

So I’m dating this guy, right? And it was so awesome because I had just come out of an abusive relationship that lasted two and a half years. This one however, Adam, I considered my best guy friend for a year and a half before we even started dating. He and I would go on hikes, do P90X in the living room, go on jogs around the block, and go to the Venice boardwalk to enjoy the beach and the crazies. He even helped me move…twice. Everyone knows thats the real marker of a good friend because moving furniture sucks. The point is that we had a strong foundation of mutual respect and I was SO happy with him. We talked about everything and had great communication. I felt like I was breaking my cycle…that I’d finally found my companion and it was HEALTHY.
One day, we were talking about intimacy, and about not using protection anymore. I had been tested just a couple weeks before we started dating, and I was given a clean bill of health. I was the girl who got tested every six months even though I used condoms every single time, and even dragged my friends in with me to planned parenthood to get tested with me, so I knew I was good. I was the responsible one. I asked him when the last time he’d been tested was, and he told me that it had been about two years, but that the last two girls he’d had sex with were both tested recently, and they both came out totally fine. I trusted him completely, and believed him. He made it seem like he didn’t have very much sex, so we stopped using condoms (against my better judgement).
Six months went by and I decided it was time for us to go get tested together, just for safety. We woke up at the buttcrack of dawn, and dragged (ourselves) into planned parenthood, because everyone knows you have to get there early to not waste an entire day in the waiting room. We got there, signed in, and sat down. After about an hour, he was brought into the office for ten minutes or so, then came back out. I was playing words with friends on my phone the whole time with my legs swung up over the chair next to me. They almost immediately asked him to come back into the office, and he came back out and told me he’d tested positive for HIV. I thought he was joking at first…that was the kind of relationship we had…we would constantly just be talking (crap) and telling jokes. It was something I loved about our relationship. Without looking up, I said “yeah, OK”. He didn’t respond, and he hadn’t sat down, so I looked up and saw that his face was white. He looked like he’d seen a ghost. He handed some sheets of paper to me, and I saw that there was information about HIV/AIDS on them. I was like, “OH, he’s not joking.” Scenes flashed in my mind from the last six months, and I knew. We had had way too much sex for me to even try and hope. I accepted my diagnosis right then and there.
Now, I grew up in the LAUSD school system, so I had gotten the puberty ed class in fifth grade, the birds and the bees sex ed class in seventh grade, and the big girl sex ed class in eleventh grade. I had even taken a health class in community college, so I was pretty well educated on what was out there. Up until that point, I knew what HIV was, how you get it, and that I was never going to. I thought HIV was for hyper sexually active gays, drug addicts, and sub Saharan Africa, and I didn’t fit any of those categories. I remembered being taught that once you get HIV, it takes five to seven years until it turns into AIDS, then you die. So I read the pages my boyfriend handed to me, but nothing I read was registering in my mind. I was searching the pages for when I was going to die.
It was taking them way too long to call my name, so I went up to the window, and asked very nicely for them to open up the door so I could ask them a question. They buzzed me in, and once the door to the waiting room closed, I looked over the counter at the receptionist and said very firmly, “my boyfriend just tested positive for HIV, you need to bring me in there as soon as possible.” It took them fifteen more minutes to call me in, arguably the most stressful fifteen minutes of my life. I finally got back there, and they started poking my fingers for the Western Blot test, which works similarly to a pregnancy test, but instead of pee, they use blood. All the blood rushed out of my extremities. They had to go through three tests and poked three or four fingers seven or eight times before they could get enough blood to administer the test. They also drew blood from my arm and collected a urine sample, then sent me back to the waiting room. Fifteen minutes later, they called my boyfriend and I back together and confirmed what I already knew. I was HIV positive.
They brought us into an office, and sat us at a desk, then tried to give us hope by telling us that it was only 99% accurate, and it could be a false positive. While that was nice of them and all, I looked at them like they were idiots. There’s no way both of us have a false positive. They handed us some pieces of paper with a list of clinics we can go to for care and medication, and then sent us on our way.
We walked back to the car from where we were in the Third street Promenade, and drove home in complete silence. I get asked a lot whether I was pissed at my boyfriend. I think I might have asked him who he had been sleeping with or something while we were walking, but it really didn’t matter. I immediately took personal responsibility. I knew that we should have been tested before we stopped using protection and I knew my sexual health is my responsibility. I figured it had to be hard enough for him to know that he had given this to the girl he loved, I didn’t want to make it worse. As far as I was concerned, it was he and I against the world. I didn’t care where he had gotten it from, it was just nice to have someone on my team. We got home, I parked, and we sat in complete silence. I looked over at him after five minutes or so, and he looked defeated and scared. Pathetic. All of a sudden I got really angry. I still don’t know where it came from, but I looked at him and I said “NO.” “We are not letting this take over our lives. We are going to go in there, do research, and find out how to beat this thing. (seriously, I gave him a coach pep talk and it was pretty awesome). We’re going to learn about medication and what it does, we’re gonna look at possible homeopathic ways of taking care of ourselves, diet, mindset. EVERYTHING. We will NOT let this beat us! Look at Magic Johnson! He’s cured. Watch. In one year, we’ll be HIV negative. One year!” (I seriously thought this was possible…I saw it on South Park, so it must be real, right?)
Anyways, so we go into the house and the very first thing I did was Google “Is Magic Johnson cured of HIV” and of course I didn’t even have to write the whole thing because everyone and their mom has heard the misconception that Magic is cured. The predictive text filled in the rest of my question, and the answer is no, website after website told me no, he’s not cured. Magic Johnson takes medication just like everyone else living with HIV. So then reality set in. I was really going to have to deal with this. My boyfriend and I had made plans to hang out with our friends later that day, and I didn’t want to go after just having my dreams crushed, but my boyfriend was like “Kelly, remember what you said? We’re not going to let this take over our lives. We’re gonna start fighting it” My partner in crime. So we hung out with our friends, and took the curtain off our window that night so we wouldn’t wake up in darkness.
I spent all of my free time after diagnosis doing research like I said I would. That was my coping mechanism. I researched everything I could find, and I actually kind of became a little bit of a nerd. HIV fascinates me. How it replicates, what the life cycle is, how the medications interrupt the replication cycle. I stumbled upon HIV denialism, which is insane. I joined an online forum and started talking to other people around the world who are also living with HIV. I got a book and read what I should do in the first year after diagnosis. My mom always taught me that knowledge is power, and I felt like I could gain back control of my situation through learning what was going on. I also talked to friends and coworkers about it. I was never the kind of person to keep a secret. It makes me feel better when I talk to people. I don’t feel so alone.
My boyfriend took a different route for coping. We lived in Venice at the time, and our neighbor was Buddhist and he chanted twice a day. We would always walk by his house to get to ours, and we constantly heard the chanting coming from his apartment. The energy coming out of there was so positive and resounding and my boyfriend was drawn to it. He started visiting and chanting with our neighbor. One day, my boyfriend came home after chanting and he was FREAKING OUT. He told me that our neighbor was HIV positive too, and that he’d been living with HIV since 1986. That was before we were even born! Gerald had been living with this for twenty some odd years (which is a lot longer than Magic Johnson, and he wasn’t rich like Magic Johnson). Gerald was robust. That’s the best way I know how to describe him. He was one of the happiest, healthiest people we knew, and we thought that about him well before he told us his status. Just knowing that someone like him existed made us feel so much better. All the sudden we weren’t the only ones we knew who had it, and we could live at LEAST twenty something years.
A little over a month after diagnosis, I was approached by our coworker, Mike, whom I had known since before he started working with me. I considered him a friend since we had hung out outside of work several times and we always had fun together. I noticed that Mike had been acting weird for a couple weeks, but didn’t think anything of it. He pulled me aside while I was on a shift one day, and says to me, “Kelly, I am so sorry. I am so sorry.” I was confused, what was he sorry for? I hadn’t talked to him in weeks. Mike says, “I slept with Adam.” I looked at him like he was crazy, I didn’t believe a word. I said, “No you didn’t, there’s no way.” He said, “Yes, I did. Why would I be telling you this, I have nothing to gain from it. That time we all hung out, and you went into the house because you were tired, Adam, my boyfriend, and I went to a hotel. When my boyfriend left to go to 7-11 for snacks and beer, Adam came on to me and asked me to have sex with him. He was actually pretty aggressive about it” He continued to tell me that a couple weeks ago, he had heard from Gina (another coworker of ours who I had confided in) we had tested positive for HIV, and he freaked out and went to get tested. He was afraid that he had been the one to give it to us. It turns out that his test had come back negative, and he showed me the results on paper for proof. He hadn’t given it to us.
It all started to make sense…this is why Mike couldn’t look me in the eye for two weeks. Until now, I had no idea my boyfriend was sleeping with men and this guy decides to tell me while I’m still on a shift, working with the public. I started freaking out, as you can imagine. I was wailing crying in the back of the restaurant. Screaming crying, throwing myself into things. Mike tells me to calm down, tells me he can be there for me as a friend. Tells me I deserve better. He mentioned that the Gay and Lesbian center in West Hollywood had a great clinic, and that he would go with me and that I was not alone. I was not thinking straight at this moment, so I just nodded, calmed myself down, and went back inside and finished my shift.
I biked home after work and confronted Adam about it. He seemed shocked at the accusation at first. He denied it for like forty-five minutes saying, “Are you really going to believe him over me?!” He was a pretty convincing liar. I was on and off the phone with Mike confused, not knowing what to think. Finally, I decided that there’s no way Mike is lying to me…why would anyone lie about having sex with someone’s boyfriend? I went back into the house and sat down with Adam. I said to him, “I’m already gone. If you want any glimmer of hope as far as keeping me in your life at least as a friend, you’ll tell me the truth right now.” We were such good friends before we started dating and we had several conversations about how we wanted to make sure we stay friends if things didn’t work out. He gave in and said, “Yes. I did it.” It was silent for a little and I finally said, “I have to go.” I had committed to Hanukkah at my parents house that night.
I stayed with him for another nine months, but hear me out. Seven days after diagnosis, our room mate had given us a thirty day notice to leave. I begged her for thirty extra days, but she refused, even though I told her about our diagnosis and that money was tight. She didn’t like living with Adam. I was a server and Adam was a part time cook, so I carried us financially to our next place. Just to go over the timeline real quick to make sure you’re following. We got diagnosed on October 25th, November 1st we got our thirty day notice, December 1st we move, and the very next day, December 2nd, Mike comes up to me and tells me he had sex with my boyfriend. I was financially and emotionally drained. My relationship with my mom had been extremely tumultuous since I was a teenager and at this point, it was in a particularly dark place. I was not about to break down and ask her for money and certainly not to move back in. I hadn’t even told her I had HIV yet. I didn’t plan on telling her until I felt like I had everything under control so this was definitely not the moment to do that. I was well liked at work, and had a lot of friendly acquaintances, but there was no one who I was close enough with to feel comfortable asking for help. It was just Adam and I, and I loved him. To me there’s no such thing as “unconditional love” because love IS unconditional. I honestly did not care that he had slept with men. I would have still loved him and been with him if he were honest with me from the beginning. What I cared about was that he lied and cheated, but I was really scared and needed my partner.
Over the next few months, I asked him questions and we talked about it, and the real story started to come out. He initially said he had slept with maybe four guys total, but eventually admitted to having slept with at least twelve guys and a few other women in the year before we dated (some protected, some not). He had no idea from whom he had contracted HIV. He made no attempt to contact anyone he had slept with, that was really big for me. I started to see who he truly was and how deep the lies went. I knew I had to get out, I just didn’t know how I was going to do it.
I was getting my medical treatment at the Gay and Lesbian Center that Mike had told me about, and they hKelly_Gluckman_Nikki_DuBose_Beauty_Projectad free mental health services, so I took advantage of it. I found a great psychologist and went to therapy every week for twenty-six weeks. I also found a woman who I now get to call my best friend. She recognized my call for help when I told her my story and convinced me to move out from my apartment with Adam and into hers for a month while I regrouped and found my own place with a roommate. She saved me, to be honest.
Since then, I’ve been presented with opportunities to tell my story, and I’ve taken every single one of them. I do this because what I’ve been through is completely preventable. No one should have to go through this, and if I had known someone like me before I made the decision to stop using condoms, there’s a very good chance that I would not have stopped using condoms. The number one means of transmission of HIV globally is heterosexual sexual contact. HIV is a human disease because sex is a human condition, and anyone can get this. HIV does not discriminate.
Today I’m on medication, and what’s called undetectable, which by the way is what Magic Johnson is too, living a healthy life. I look forward to living into my 80s, which is what my doctor tells me I can expect, given I don’t get hit by a car or cancer, and I honestly wouldn’t change this for the world. Through this process, I’ve found my strength and my purpose, and I’ve learned to forgive and love myself. I feel truly lucky to have access to effective medication and I’m truly excited for what the rest of my life has to offer.

Never Let Them Stop You

Je Suis Charlie Emma_Beauty_Project_Nikki_DuBose

Emma believes that “you shouldn’t kill because of art. People should be allowed to make any art they want. (Creating art) doesn’t mean (individuals) should purposely make something for no (reason), offend… and hurt (people). But by
no means should people kill becuse of art even if it is disrespectful.”

Have a B.E.A.U.T.Y submission of your own?

Email me nikki@nikkidubose.com

 

Be*YOU*tiful by Susana Fernandez

Be*YOU*tiful by Susana Fernandez
Be*YOU*tiful by Susana Fernandez

I am honored to share this kid’s art diorama by fellow teammate and recovery warrior, Susana Fernandez. Susana uses her artistic talents every day in her personal life and in her profession as a teacher. She inspires countless young people to hone their energy into pieces that can change the world for the better, and Susana continues to motivate me, too! I had the pleasure of meeting her and her wonderful family last year at the NEDA walk, and I was touched by their passion for recovery and helping others heal as well. Susana believes that art is an incredible tool to bring about social change, and that is what she hopes to achieve with the LA Artist Initiative Team.

“Gifts Come With a Struggle” by Emma K.

What do you see? by Emma Klein
“Gifts Come With a Struggle” by Emma K.

This piece is by a regular contributor thirteen year old Emma K. from Los Angeles. Emma is a talented young artist who understands the beauty of the pain behind her creations. She has struggled with obsessive compulsive disorder but has overcome so much of it through channeling her energy into her incredible artwork.

Emma normally draws in anime style, but her teacher encouraged her to paint something figurative. Emma agreed to step outside of her comfort zone and through the depiction of the Mona Lisa she and her teacher not only formed a stronger bond, but she was able to open up about her OCD.

When I observe this painting, I sense a raw wisdom and emotions that reflect Emma’s remarkable inner beauty and strength. As Emma’s mother remarked, “It’s a true gift that comes with a struggle.”

Thank you Emma for sharing a part of your soul with us today.

B.E.A.U.T.Y hopes to redefine our understanding of beauty. Have a painting or artistic representation of inner beauty you would like to share? Please email me nikki@nikkidubose.com to submit your poem, drawing, painting, recovery story, photograph, song, or any creation that represents your inner self…which is simply beautiful!

Apple of my Eye

Mountain Rose Apple
Mountain Rose Apple

 Our authentic beauty comes from within. Sounds cliche, right? Oh, but how true it is.
Just like this rare Mountain Rose apple grown in the Mountain Hood River Valley of Oregon, we never know what we have to offer until we cut beneath the surface. If we take the time to meditate on the inner beauty in others too, we can form longstanding, rewarding friendships and relationships that otherwise might have been missed.

Raw Reflections of Self Esteem From a Thirteen Year Old

*Note: B.E.A.U.T.Y is meant to serve as a tool to release feelings and to build confidence in an otherwise damaged society. Our perception of beauty today has been lost and many times we feel ugly inside, instead of the perfectly created souls we are. The content submitted is raw and unedited, as every individual has the right to express their perceptions that have led them to where they are today.  The sole intended purpose of B.E.A.U.T.Y and all content therein is to bring healing and the message that full recovery from all eating disorders, mental health issues, abuse, and negative situations is possible.

When we hear the word “self-image,” what comes to mind? The mental pictures we form about our identities may be a reflection of  the positive and negative experiences we have encountered over a lifetime. Sometimes the manners by which we perceive ourselves is consistent, while other times we are capable of changing our mirror formations radically in the blink of an eye. Whatever the case may be, our self-image is critical in how we interact with ourselves and the world around us. Our image is a mere representation of what we show to outsiders; are we giving a correct portrayl of who we are to those around us? Are we honest in our spirits first, and letting that flow to our physical image?  So often in life we wear many masks to various associations and crowds of people; we desire our image to be one thing to one group, and another thing to another. The problem with this is that we can never be anyone but our true selves, and if we don’t know who we really are, we will never live fulfilled. We musn’t live life for others because truly no one is going to be approving of us all of the time. We must connect with a self-image that is peaceful and content at our core, and be satisfied with the image that is projected for all of the universe to see.

How and What I feel about Image

by Jacaila, age 13

 Image to me is a bunch of crap society makes up to make us feel bad. I mean I didn’t receive proper care when I was five years old! Don’t get me wrong, I care about image too. Whenever I think I look good, somebody always has to tell me I look horrible. It brings my self esteem to an all time low. I’ve always tried to figure out how girls can be “ana” or “mia.” I tried to be like that once but food is just too good! When I say, “I tried,” I meant it. I purged and starved myself, tried diet pills without eating anything after words. In fifth grade things were changing for me, just because of someone’s opinion of me. The boy called my “ugly.” It took me awhile but in my mind I thought he was right. Every time I looked in the mirror, all I saw was ugliness. My whole attitude changed, grades slipped and relationships slowly disappeared. In sixth grade, self-harm played its way into my life. I couldn’t stop, therapy wasn’t helping at all and life wasn’t getting better. So I feel that self esteem, image and what we think about it is restricting us from thinking better about ourselves. In conclusion, image is just society’s way of keeping us down.

*Jacaila is now fourteen years old, and has a more positive view of herself through working recovery.

B.E.A.U.T.Y Project Story–Self Esteem: A Long and Winding Road

“Self Esteem: A Long and Winding Road”

by Sam, from New Jersey

When I was growing up, you might not have noticed there was something wrong with me. I was a healthy-looking, fit, active boy. You could have asked me about it, but I wasn’t aware anything was wrong. The problem was subtle and invisible: the face and body everyone saw was not the face and body I saw in the mirror with my own eyes. Where you might see a nose that was proportionate to the rest of my face, perhaps a handsome nose, I saw a weighty, unwieldy, shapeless thing. Some people would compliment my broad shoulders, and I would focus on my imperceptibly protruding belly.

If you’d asked me who I wanted to look like, I would’ve said Superman. As child of the 1980s, I specifically wanted to look like Christopher Reeve as Superman. The fact that I didn’t look like him didn’t make me feel sad or depressed. I believed that if I exercised and did enough push ups, I would build a strong physique. It didn’t bother me that I couldn’t have his face.

There were things about my face and my appearance that did cause me distress, however. Both of my parents had difficult childhoods, and less than loving parents. My mother and father were both regarded as good-looking people; though I inherited their features, my parents would make offhanded comments about my appearance which hurt. These comments were not intended to be hurtful, and I couldn’t have known at the time that some of the things they’d say stemmed from insecurities they had about themselves. My mother didn’t like her nose. She wished I had my father’s nose. In fact, my father didn’t like my nose either. He developed a routine where he’d clench my nose between his thumb and forefinger and hold it tightly until I managed to wriggle away. He thought it was funny. Having a swollen and red nose for the rest of the day wasn’t funny. “Like Rudolph,” my mother would joke. I began to wonder if I had inherited any of my parents’ preferred parts. Were any of my features the right ones? Still, my appearance wasn’t something I thought about every day. Not until I reached high school.

In high school, it seemed like everyone was dating or socially active except me. Other boys would get attention from girls and I wondered why they didn’t seem to notice me. I questioned my looks, I questioned my personality. Most families in town were upper-middle class, and there were periods where we didn’t have much money. Was it my lack of designer clothing?

I wondered about race, too. I’m an American-born East Indian. Around this time, the demographics of my hometown and neighboring towns were changing. East Indians were moving into the area in droves, yet my school’s population remained nearly all White. I got teased a lot for looking different. I was bullied over my religious differences, mocked because I developed a beard and chest hair before the other boys. Some White adults in town were quietly unhappy about Indians buying up homes, businesses, with little to no cultural integration. You could feel something was simmering underneath the surface of tolerance. Walking to school or walking home, the threat of violence from other kids always existed. Having a healthy sense of humor helped me diffuse a number of intense encounters, but jokes didn’t save me every time.

I remember getting caught in a sudden, heavy rainstorm with a friend. His house was a few blocks away, so we ran for it. It was futile, we were soaked in seconds. When we reached the front door, sloshing clothes hanging off our frames, his mother swiftly opened up. “Get inside!” she yelled. My friend ran in first. When I stepped forward, his mother shut the door in my face. How could she not see me? I rang the bell and knocked. Through the hard crackle of rain I heard the muffled sounds of an argument inside. They never let me in.

I was surprised, and yet, not surprised. In all the years we’d been friends, his parents had never allowed me inside their home. All of our mutual friends had been inside. I wasn’t a troublemaker, I got good grades in school. What made me unfit to enter?

It didn’t take much more before I developed a full-blown self-esteem crisis. I returned home from the barbershop one summer day with a crew cut. My mother told me I looked ugly. Looking back on it, she probably meant, “I don’t like that hairstyle on you.” English was not her native tongue. Nevertheless, her actual words were, “You look so ugly. Your face looks too long. And with that beard you look even worse.”

I wasn’t aware that I had a beard. I’d been so busy with activities that I’d forgotten to shave for a couple of days and had some stubble. I was a sensitive kid who wanted to please his mother, and those words injured me deeply. A subtle dig here or there might not have fazed me, yet a lifetime of them can wear down all but the most self-assured. The next time I looked in the mirror, the gap between reality and my own perception had become a chasm. I felt trapped inside an ugly thing, an ugly thing that was not a part of me, not who I wanted to be.

My mother had been injured this way too. Despite being a beautiful young girl, her brothers and sisters constantly teased her about her weight. They didn’t call her by her given name. At home, “Chubby” was her name. She wasn’t chubby. She was a standout athlete and as strong as the boys in school. Her physique reflected that. Sadly, the criticism didn’t end with her childhood. My father criticised her weight as well. She had never been overweight, but he expected a model-thin wife and expressed his desires plainly. I was 4 years old when I realized something was wrong with my mother: she wasn’t eating. What could a little kid do, except wonder why his mother was always sad, why his mother was always feeling sick, always coughing, always throwing up?

The catalyst for her recovery from eating disorder was not one she could have predicted. My father died of Leukemia. Her recovery began not so much with relief, merely the removal of her most outspoken critic. Years of starving herself left her with severe asthma, a significant loss of smell and taste, and lots of weight gain due to metabolic changes and medications. As time passed, I’d tell her that her weight didn’t matter. I’d tell her that her size didn’t matter. All that mattered was that she ate enough of the right things to make her feel strong. That’s all. Some 25 years after she’d married my father, I think she finally came to accept her appearance. I’m very happy for her.

My wounds would close, for a time. When I got to university, I was part of a diverse population. I wasn’t a weirdo or a social outcast. Many of us began university with a clean slate, and I felt liberated. Girls spoke to me, I went out on dates. I made better friends than I’d known in years prior. For a long time, all I wanted to feel was normalcy, a peace inside my own skin, and not some great desire to wriggle out of it and hide. It was a good time for me.

Then something hit me, hard. I came down with a bad case of the chicken pox. I never had it as a child, and for some adults it can be quite serious. My body looked ravaged, and I was covered in scars despite my dedication to proper skin care. The fit body I’d build up over the years shrunk down by 40lb. in a month, and my overall health in the following years would be poor. Infections, fevers, body aches, sharp muscle pain, tiredness, allergies, they became constant. I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Best to keep working, I thought. I’ll eat healthy food, I’ll exercise, I’ll do whatever I can to stay functional. Nothing helped. My muscle pains became worse and worse. Then migraines started. Weekly, then daily, then my life was a big migraine. A doctor prescribed a drug called Neurontin. He said, “Take this, you’ll feel better. Don’t worry about side effects, you should be able to tolerate it. It seems to work for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I believe this will help you.”

Neurontin significantly reduced my pain while introducing new problems. My hair fell out in handfuls, I was constantly tired, and my weight ballooned. Every month I’d need new, bigger clothes. The image I saw in the mirror—an image I’d sculpted through hard work and healthy habits, an image I’d finally made peace with—was getting away from me. I saw a face and body that felt like my own melt away into something else. What I saw in the mirror was far worse than what anyone else saw. Some of my friends noted the weight gain, but they never said anything unkind. My hard-won confidence turned out to be quite fragile, and it crumbled. Any compliments about my looks were disregarded as insincere, or I deflected them with self-deprecating humor. I stopped socializing and buried myself in work, all because I couldn’t stand how I looked. I mused, “How crazy am I being? Why can’t I accept how I look and move on? I look like a normal person.”

The self-affirming ideas I had on an intellectual level didn’t sink in emotionally. Therapy didn’t help. I just couldn’t believe that I looked like a normal man to everyone on the street when my eyes saw a distorted mess. I became deeply depressed. I fell into a hole so relentlessly bleak that I didn’t feel like I was supposed to be there. Is this really how I feel, or is it the drug? My doctor and I suspected the drug, so I tapered off the Neurontin.

Within a few weeks, the darkness faded but I hated how I looked and felt. Despair gave way to malcontent. I was overweight, and all of the physical pain I’d compartmentalized was back up front. The pain was more acute than I’d remembered it. We tried other medicines, but nothing helped. I gave up on pharmaceuticals and tried meditation and alternative medicine. Nothing helped.

The stress of dealing with my health problems, work, family responsibilities, and damaged social life became too much for me to handle. My doctor advised me to take a long vacation if I could. I could, and I did. On the second day of my vacation, I felt a searing pain on the right side of my face. When I looked in the mirror, I saw lines of red bumps. An allergic reaction to something, perhaps? I saw a doctor, and he didn’t need too long to give me a diagnosis. “Yep, it’s shingles.” He gave me anti-viral tablets and a topical cream before sending me on my way.

Shingles is caused by the chickenpox virus. Once you’ve had the chickenpox, the virus never leaves your body; it simply goes dormant. In people who have compromised immune systems, the elderly, or the seriously stressed out, the virus can wake up and cause all sorts of damage.

Doctors became worried about nerve damage when I lost hearing in my right ear. Soon after, my sense of taste disappeared and my eyes became extremely light sensitive. And then, things got worse. At some point during my shingles ordeal, I picked up a very serious bacterial infection.

The regime of anti-virals and anti-biotics that saved my senses didn’t come without a price. First, all the undesired weight I’d gained on Neurontin dropped. I was happy about that. Soon, a couple dozen extra pounds dropped too. We realized I was having problems digesting food. The good bacteria which live in healthy intestines, helping us extract nutrients from what we eat and lending balance to our immune systems, were wiped out and replaced by bad bacteria.

Two years after the shingles, the waves of bacterial infections and immune issues left my face scarred and discolored. The skin that grew back on my forehead was fragile and unhealthy. The look was familiar, I suffered some small but deep burns on my body a few years prior. Only this time, I couldn’t cover up. I looked at myself in the mirror, and saw a face like pizza. Skin dark brown and yellow, mottled and rough, striations of bloody red and moistureless white: this was not the face I’d known. It wasn’t the face I’d come to accept during the good times. It wasn’t the chubby face I’d come to hate, unjustly, in the difficult times. This face cracked and bled when touched, it split when I moved my eyebrows. It burned when I cleaned it. It burned with every gentle breeze that kissed it. It was so sensitive and vulnerable that it easily became reinfected, and it often did. Months passed, and the scarring seemed to set itself in stone.

I could have fallen into despair, but I didn’t. There was a specific turning point: one day I looked into the mirror, sulking, and my cheerlessness, my indulgent self-seriousness became comical. A small laugh ascended into a laughing fit. Had there been a witness, they’d probably describe the scene as a psychotic break. It wasn’t. This was a break of clarity. I experienced one calamity after another. It was amazing that I hadn’t lost my eyesight, I could still look at myself in the mirror. It was amazing my hearing was returning, I could hear myself laugh. Yes, I was unlucky to have fallen so ill, but I was so lucky to have survived largely intact.

Suddenly, the smoke of self-hatred was clearing. For so long, things I didn’t like about my appearance overshadowed things people liked. The distorted view of myself was one I believed everyone else could plainly see. The distortions were phantoms of my mind. Now, everyone could see my scars. There was no hiding them.

I made a decision. I control how I feel about myself, no one else does. Why do I have to look like anyone else but me? And who decides what the best version of me is? I don’t have to look like my friends, I don’t have to look like people on TV. And most importantly, it is not how I look that matters, it is who I am. Taking care of myself physically and emotionally is my goal. If looking good to others is a side-effect of this, so be it. If it isn’t, why should I care? Those who are good, those with values I respect, those who truly care about me will accept me scars and all.

With healthy eating, plenty of water, exercise, and gentle natural skin care, I have begun to reverse the damage my body endured. Every day I feel a little bit stronger, a little bit healthier. The chronic pain and migraines are fading, even my skin is recovering against the odds.

When I go out, people rarely notice my scars. When they do, I don’t take offense, and understand it is usually benign curiosity. If it isn’t, it’s not my problem. It’s strange that my appearance had to become worse before I could learn to accept it. Pain can be a swift and merciless teacher, but I respect its power. I don’t know how long I will carry my scars, but they remind me that I have a life to live, and I can’t allow a negative mindset or hang ups about appearance prevent me from living the kind of life I want to live. Our time in this world is limited, and time is an arrow pointing in one direction. Forward.

B.E.A.U.T.Y Project Art by Jordan

Jordan sees beauty as being outside and playing in the fresh air, surrounded by nature and a dog, too! I think that that’s not a bad way to see life, what about you?

Beauty Project Art By Jordan
Beauty Project Art By Jordan

How about getting back to nature and reconnecting with the simplicity of what God has created?  Life is naturally beautiful; sometimes we just need to stop and pay attention.

Thank you Jordan, for your art and zest for creation!

God Bless,
Nikki DuBose

B.E.A.U.T.Y Art by Damien

Damien believes that “Beauty” is Without Words! I have to agree! What do you think? Perhaps the most meaningful things in life are only felt, and not seen?

Thank you, Damien, for your insight and creativity!

God Bless,
Nikki DuBose

B.E.A.U.T.Y Art by James

Today’s Beauty Project is brought to us by the veryBeauty_Project_James_Nikki_DuBose bright James!

James believes that beauty represents love above all! Love seems to be an ongoing theme here so far on the B.E.A.U.T.Y project, what do you think about that? The love allows the flowers to grow, sun to shine, the clouds to float and the love ties everything together 😀

Thank you, James for your creative artwork, and your super smile 😀

God Bless,
Nikki DuBose