“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.