This morning my nine-year-old sat at the counter cracking all of us up. He was on fire! I don’t think he set out to be the morning comedian … it just sort of evolved. I was making lunches and prepping breakfast while my sons sat on our counter stools nibbling their food. For whatever reason, he started drawing a picture of my soon-to-be-seven-year-old son on his napkin. Based upon this apt rendition, in 30 years my youngest is going to look like Pippi Longstocking. I’m not really sure how or why. But he is!
I was laughing so hard, I honestly had tears streaming down my face. This of course encouraged my funny-man even more. Long after they left the house, my stomach still hurt from gasping for air between fits of laughter. At one point I interjected and declared, “You do realize that in 30 years he’s going to be younger than I am right now!” “I know! I know!” He said with an impish grin and a raspy old man’s voice, “I’m going to draw YOU in 30 years!” And that was the end. Or the beginning.
I think both.
I’ve always hated pictures of myself. It’s gotten worse as I’ve grown older and my obsession with my wrinkles has taken hold. But mostly I just avoid being photographed. I recognized this a few years ago and since noticing, I started making a conscious effort to allow myself to be photographed. To build courage, I often reflect upon an experience I had not too long ago of seeing a picture of myself while in my early 20s.
At the time the picture was taken, we still used film in our cameras and we had to tolerate an anticipatory waiting period to relive our captured moments. I distinctly recall seeing the photo when I finally opened the packet. I felt like I had been waiting a lifetime to get them. Within the 36 pictures there was one that stuck out. I remember seeing it and feeling as if I’d been kicked in the stomach. I looked awful.
Or so I thought.
When my 20-year-old-self first saw the photograph all I saw were my multitude of imperfections. This image of myself catapulted me into that familiar place of self-loathing and self-hatred. I had a visceral reaction to the photo and this stayed with me for longer than a day. Sitting with self-contempt is a scary, sad and lonely place to sit. Hating myself but not wanting to is immobilizing. I spent a good portion of my life with this as my story — this push and pull between feeling self-hatred and knowing in my gut that something was amiss. I wasn’t supposed to hate myself. It didn’t feel like me; it didn’t feel authentic. I just didn’t know how not to. I had done it for so long.
Some 15 years later, I looked back at the same photograph and thought to myself, “Wow. I looked great. Look at how young and healthy and vibrant I looked.” I thought about what I was doing at the time. Traveling. Exploring. Now, with hindsight in my pocket, I don’t see the imperfections I once harped on. I just see me. A young woman with the world at her fingertips. Happy and in love. I remembered that day … that week … of being eaten up with self-contempt and hate and despair. I remembered when I first saw that photo, I let all of the joy of celebrating our photographic memories slip through my fingers because I couldn’t shake off feeling awful.
A mere image of myself could do this — send me spiraling down the toilet bowl. Mostly I felt despair because I didn’t want to feel horrible about myself. I wanted to be free. I wanted to look at the photographs of our vacation and re-experience the joy. But feeling good about myself was so unfamiliar I didn’t know how to let that in. When you’re told over and over again as a child that you are wretched, it sinks in. The seed is planted and the roots take hold. For years I looked for my hideousness at every possible opportunity. A picture could become confirmation of my horribleness if looked at through my critical eyes.
Self-loathing had been my cage. It kept me quiet. It kept me disconnected from myself. My own thoughts have kept me hostage. Thoughts whispered in my ear, imposing themselves upon my young impressionable mind, changed the story I had about myself. I bore witness to evil over and over again for years. In turn, I began to believe it was me who was the evil. As a child, the monster under my bed was real and lurking … always. It was impossible to live in fear and terror and not slip away from myself. Staying was unbearable. So I left. I disassociated. I was gone. For a long long time. Half in. Half out. Of my life. Without really even knowing why.
Here is what I have recently come to know — being gone is losing. It means the monster wins. It means my mother wins. It means I have no power over my own perceptions and beliefs about myself. If I can’t let go of these faulty belief systems — if I can’t rip up the roots and chop down the weeds — I will forever be a sobbing, aching, wounded child crying in a heap on the floor.
But guess what?
I don’t like to lose. I am an athlete after all. I like to win. Writing to you is winning. I’m not feeding the monster under my bed his fuel — the bread and butter of my self-loathing. Enabling him to continue the abuse, be it only in my own perceptions. I will starve him forever and he will wither without sustenance. Thoughts are only real if I believe them. He only has power if I give him power to dictate my experiences of myself. I am done. I have the power to control my perceptions about myself. Just me. I have my pen and paper and I have you as my witnesses. I love that I have you.
I am reclaiming myself.
With that, I’m opening this piece with a photograph of myself. Running towards the finish line at Ironman Lake Placid last July. After each triathlon, athletes are sent an email with their race photos and the option to buy them. I have always looked at my race photos with a harsh eye and no matter how the race went all I would see were my shortcomings. Period. My husband often buys the photos for us. He reminds me that someday we’ll look back and wish we had them. I’ve always known that he is right. I think back to my 20-year-old-self and I’ve known in my gut that one day, I would arrive at this place. This place of embracing myself. Of coming home to myself.
I am ready.
Originally I was going to begin my post by showing you all of the ways I could rip myself apart. Showing you the lens with which I have viewed myself for so many years. Paint a picture of who I saw myself to be in that race photo up above. But you know what? I just don’t have the heart to do that to myself any more. I don’t want to tear myself apart anymore. It feels cruel and disingenuous. It doesn’t feel authentic. It doesn’t feel like my voice.
It’s not my voice.
Instead I’m just going to paste that picture up there and tell you that I’m daring and being brave and completely stretching myself out of my comfort zone. I am finished with my critical voice. The whispers that stole my real voice from me. Posting that photo is twofold. You see, the run leg of triathlons are the hardest for me. I am posting this image of myself running as another stepping stone to conquer my inner demons. The only thing left for me to do is to get out of my own way. To do that, I have to see myself as a runner. Not running away from a monster but running for the sheer joy of it. Running because …
I am free.
I hope you can dig deep into the depths of your heart and find your inner strength and beauty. Just put it out there. If I can put that photo up and let go of the ingrained belief that I am bad and evil and hideous, I know you too can embark on your own journey towards self-love and self-care. And if it is too painful, because believe me, I get it, old habits do die hard and sometimes we think the pain is too unbearable to shake off, well take a look at this — in 30 years you could always look like me!
“Don”t forget the future chin hairs I cried out in between fits of laughter. Please! You have to promise to pluck them out for me when I’m too old to see them!” “I will, Mom! I will!” He chuckled exuberantly. The forehead wrinkles he drew all on his own. I think he captured them quite well.
Sending love your way!