Writing Challenges

I Don’t Hide My Insecurities, I Hide Behind Them

“I don’t know,” I say with a frown as I angle my body sideways in the mirror. “Does it really look okay?”

“It looks fine,” my best friend replies, rolling her eyes. “You look good.”

I smooth the ruched fabric over my protruding hipbones. They are the part of my appearance I will never accept, no matter how long I spend trying to convince myself that they’re normal. I spin one way, then the other, watching as my shape goes from backyard stick to lopsided pear. But nobody wants to hear my complaining, so I just sigh and move away from the mirror.

“You don’t dress like you hate your body,” a friend remarked once as we ride the el to our downtown destination. I didn’t know how to respond to that. I didn’t even know what that meant. I felt like I should be offended, but I wasn’t sure why.

I’m bothered by a lot of things about myself, not just my hips. I’m bothered by how quickly I clam up in social situations and how easily I blush when I’m embarrassed. I hate that I have to work twice as hard as the people around me to do something as simple as eating breakfast in the morning, because my brain refuses to process things the way that it should. I hate that I take everything personally and spend maddening hours feeling guilty for things that aren’t my fault.

And I’m open about all that, I really am. I write posts like these that present my inner turmoil for the world to see. I crack jokes about my social ineptitude and never fail to cry loudly when the situation demands it. And I guess when I put it like that, it sounds kind of admirable.

It’s not.

I’ve been known to drunkenly disclose my eating disorder when I’m scared someone is getting too close. I tend to use my awkwardness and social anxiety as an excuse to avoid putting myself out there. And I guess, yeah, I don’t dress like I hate my body, because I don’t want to feel like I’m lying. I emphasize the parts I hate the most for no good reason other than the fact that I want to drive people away. Truth be told, that’s the one thing I know I’m pretty damn good at.

Some people hide their insecurities, faking self-confidence until they start to really believe in themselves. Some people actually embrace the parts of themselves they don’t love, because they know it makes them beautiful and unique and human.

Not me. I hide behind them, using them as a crutch, constantly making excuses to wallow in self-pity. I dwell on my insecurities until they’re all I see, and I make myself believe that I don’t deserve good things because of them. I’d rather force people to leave right away instead of waiting until I’m attached and the loss actually hurts.

I hide because I can. Because drowning in self-pity and self-loathing is the lifestyle I’m accustomed to, and because it’s easy, and because that way I’m the only one who’s allowed to hurt me or hate me. I hide because that’s what I do.

I take one last look in the mirror on my way out the door, turning away when I feel the tears brewing in my eyes. Someday maybe I’ll be really, truly brave. Just not tonight.

 

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Who Am I?

I. A daughter

I was born to walk the middle ground, the first child of type A and type B
[and what does that make me?]
Constantly stuck between too small and too tall,
Talks too little, reads too much, sings too loud,
Hips too big, mouth too small,
Needs too little, wants too much, dreams too big.
I am a combination of everyone I’ve ever known,
But mostly I am too much like my mother,
And too much like my father,
[and too torn between the two people I am to really know who to be.]

II. A sister

I had bite marks on my back and my arm in a sling
Because that’s what it means to have your thunder stolen
When your parents decide to procreate again.
[I guess it also means feeling important,
Because someone looks up to you so much
That it makes you want to be better than you would be for yourself.]
And I would have laughed if you said someday I’d be proud
To have him for a best friend,
But the first time he asked for my advice
[because he thought I was wise]
I thought maybe the bite marks were worth it.

III. A friend

I learned more about friendship from the people who didn’t stick around
Than from the ones that did,
Because I learned when to hold on
And when to let go.

IV. A scholar

I’ve been taught to question everything.
[“Don’t be so gullible, Gwen,”
I hear as I fall for another stupid joke.
“Don’t believe anything you can’t prove.”]
I go to class and they tell me,
“Think critically, Gwen. Pick it apart. Find the truth.”
But I don’t think there’s just one truth.
I think sometimes the truth is that you don’t have to question everything.
[my professors disagree.]

V. A writer

My fingers bleed a lot because I pick the skin,
My brain bleeds words because, because?
[because it’s the only way I know how to feel.]

VI. A survivor

Once I thought that to be happy,
My bones had to poke out of my skin,
And my worth as a person was dictated by a number
On a scale
[or the label of my jeans.]
But when I stopped chasing perfection,
I found someone wonderful,
[Daughter, sister, friend
Scholar, writer, survivor]
I found me.

 

Written for the Weekly Writing Challenge. I don’t usually write poetry.

The End, In Three Parts

I.

She was always the first one to notice.

“You’re bleeding again!” she’d yelp as she dug through her backpack for a Band-Aid. No matter how many times I drew blood, I never learned to carry them around with me. When she was there, I never had to.

She learned to solve a Rubik’s cube somehow. I was too impatient to figure it out on my own, so she taught me too. “It’ll give you something to do with your hands,” she said. “So you won’t destroy your fingers.”

My history teacher took it away because I wasn’t paying attention. She handed me a Band-Aid, marched up to the teacher, and got it back. “You need this,” she whispered as she slid it across my desk. I spent the rest of class quietly spinning the faces of the cube under the table. I didn’t need the Band-Aid, but it was nice to have it, anyway.

I thought, “this is what it’s like to have somebody you can count on.”

II.

She slept three nights at my house during the Great Ice Storm of 2008.

The days we spent together were full of jokes and musicals and molasses cookies. Then at some point after dark, unexpectedly, she’d slip. Her face would suddenly be devoid of emotion, her voice high-pitched and soft. She’d curl herself up into a ball at the foot of the bed and just lie there, unmoving, until whatever it was had passed.

“Is there something I can do?” I asked once, helplessly, desperate to fix her somehow.

She was quiet for a moment, and I heard her breath hitch before she spoke. “No. There isn’t.”

When she was like this, she never looked at me. She responded to questions sometimes, if I was lucky. But she wouldn’t turn around. I didn’t get to see her face.

I was there, but that wasn’t enough. I turned out the lights and tried to sleep while she kept drowning two feet away.

III.

She made me a card for our high school graduation.

“Don’t forget about me, okay?” it read. “I’m nothing without you.”

I didn’t make her a card. I didn’t even say thank you. I was never good at that sort of thing, and I figured she knew how I felt already. She was my best friend. She’d always be my best friend. Isn’t that how it works?

I took her for granted. I forgot.

And she wasn’t nothing. She was something more.

When Your Words Matter

A week ago, I got an email inviting me to be a Book in Global Engagement Summit’s Living Library. I was flattered, but honestly, a little confused. The premise of this event was that people would come and check me out from the library because they thought the premise of my “Book” was interesting – but I’m not interesting, am I? What do I have to say that is valuable enough to share with a group of people whose influence stretches across the globe?

I expected to sit in my chair undisturbed for two hours. After all, the other “Books” in the library had far better stories to tell. They had made documentaries in foreign countries or been the first in their families to go to college. Nobody would want to waste their time talking to me.

I was wrong, though. Plenty of people took the seat opposite me for a ten or fifteen-minute period. Yes, a couple of them stumbled my way by accident, thinking I was somebody else, and many of them probably stopped by because all the other Books were occupied. But that didn’t matter in the end. Regardless of how they came my way, they did. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past couple of years, it’s that every accident is a wonderful blessing.

Do you know how many people I’ve spoken to, out loud, about my experiences with writing and blogging and recovering from the disorder that has torn my life apart? Not very many. I think it showed. My 1-2 minute opening “spiel” was awkward, erratic, and probably not very much fun to listen to. I felt the people across from me flinch as I said the words “eating disorder” out loud – perhaps I shouldn’t have led with such a jarring phrase. The second it left my mouth, I regretted it. “This was a mistake,” I thought. “This is personal. I shouldn’t be sharing this with the world.”

Should I?

The first person I talked to seemed rather startled by what I had to say. “Oh…” she trailed off as I waited expectantly for her reply. It took her a second to figure out how to respond. “Oh. Wow.” Not the worst response I could have gotten, but not exactly the one I was hoping for, either.

The second person I talked to laughed nervously when I told her what my Book title was. “Um, whoa.” At least the conversation moved a little bit from there. “That’s amazing. I can’t imagine going through something like that.”

I got better at talking the more I talked. By the time the coordinator sat down and said, “got time for one more conversation?” I was an expert in my own subject. Words started pouring out of me, words that I didn’t even know were true. “I have an eating disorder,” I said boldly. “And I was given this shitty, God-awful experience for a reason – so that I could share it.”

There are moments when I surprise even myself. That was one of them. Until that moment, I don’t think I fully processed that my voice, my blog, my writing…had saved my life. I don’t think I’d ever realized how much I owed Little Growing Pains, the brainchild that became the life source. I learned that I had a story, a story worth telling, a story that had the capacity to change other people’s lives as well as my own. I learned that everything I’d written was worth more than I ever could have dreamed.

I walked out of the Library that day prouder than I can ever remember being. There’s nothing quite like knowing how much your words matter.

So Thanks For Making Me A Fighter

I’m doing well.

I visited my therapist for the first time since winter break. “You seem to be in a really good place,” she said.

“You sound happy,” a friend told me on the phone. “I love hearing you sound happy.” I love hearing me sound happy too.

I was chatting with my academic advisor in her office, and she told me I had a really great attitude. I don’t think I’ve ever been told that before. I usually have a remarkably disturbing and pessimistic attitude, one that tends to make medical professionals uncomfortable. Twice my therapist has kept me ten minutes after my appointment was supposed to be over because she was worried about something I’d said. Yeah, having a good attitude is new to me.

“Want some chocolate?” one of my fellow interns asked me at work today. She slid the two-pound bag of caramels toward me. “Sure,” I replied. I ate a few. I still ate my entire lunch half an hour later.

I’m happy. Not creepy happy; things aren’t perfect all the time. But relatively speaking, I like my life. I like the people I surround myself with, I like the work I do, I like the hobbies that occupy my free time. I like me.

I think for a long time I was working toward the wrong goal. I spent so much time fighting the eating disorder that I forgot what’s important. I’m important. It’s not about making the ED weaker, it’s about making me stronger.

Eating disorders don’t disappear. The thoughts that drove me to self-decimation still occur just as frequently as ever. I sometimes spend hours agonizing over my reflection in the mirror even when I have better things to do. I still order fish instead of steak at restaurants because I know it has fewer calories. I still get nervous when things don’t happen right on schedule, the way I like them. The eating disorder is strong, and it will probably always be strong. The difference now is that I am stronger.

I write and I know that my writing matters. I study and I know that it does not define me. I sing and it touches people. I goof off and they laugh. Sometimes, just sometimes, I walk past a mirror and I see someone who’s a little bit beautiful. I know that I have the potential to do great things, regardless of whether I meet someone’s subjective definition of “perfect.” Even if it is my own.

Recovery is a lot of really hard work. It’s long days and uncomfortable situations. It’s emotions you don’t want to feel. It’s a battle against something you so strongly perceive as part of yourself that sometimes fighting seems fruitless. It’s not. Because the eating disorder isn’t you, or me. Finding yourself, growing yourself, and loving yourself – that’s the only way to beat it. I had to stand up tall, stare it in the face, and say, “I am stronger than you are.” I had to trust that I was smarter, more important, more worthy.

I don’t pretend that I’m an expert, because I’m not. I’m just happy. And that’s something I never thought I could be. Imperfect, but still happy. I am not a supermodel or a movie star. I am not a genius or a comedian or Beyonce. I’m just me. That’s all I ever have to be. And that’s okay. I can live with that. I can be proud of that every single day, because it’s more of an accomplishment than anyone will ever understand.

Ed

Crippled at Camp: A Love(?) Story

The first time I was wounded at summer camp, I was eleven years old. It was my fault, of course. I was on a sailboat with a couple of other kids, being as obnoxious as you might expect a kid on a sailboat to be, when the swinging boom whacked me full-force on the side of the head.

I don’t remember this event very well, probably as a result of minor head trauma and major embarrassment. I do recall a very panicked teenager who scooped me up in her arms and sprinted to the infirmary. And that the nurse gave me three blue freeze pops while I waited to see if I was going to die.

The summer I was fourteen, I came down with a disgusting stomach flu the night before we were going on an awesome overnight trip. I spent two days in the infirmary that time, watching really terrible movies on a very small TV instead of making s’mores in the woods with my friends. I secretly hoped someone else would get the flu so I would at least have some company. It didn’t work out.

My luck only worsened once I started working there. When I was sixteen and training to be a counselor, I wound up with head lice and a staph infection that had pretty much eroded my flesh from the knees down. When I was seventeen, I got stung by an entire hive of bees. And at nineteen I spent too long standing on the hot sand during lifeguard training and suffered from massive, horrible second-degree burns on the bottoms of my feet. Alright, that one wasn’t all bad; it did necessitate my supervisor literally carrying me wherever I needed to go, which amused the campers a great deal and made me feel like a princess.

In 2012, when I was finally on the leadership staff, I shared this story with my coworkers. We were gathered inside one of the boys senior end tents late at night, watching the candlelight dance on the canvas flaps and talking about what camp meant to us. Our stories were supposed to be meaningful. Mine was about getting maimed.

But they understood what I meant. My story was about strange and improbable injuries, sure, but it was also about deciding that getting hurt wasn’t enough to keep me from going back to camp summer after summer. It was about the knowledge that no matter how tough it got, no matter how many legitimate reasons I had to run away, it was always worth it to stay.

That summer, 2012, had its own share of misfortunes. During the three months I was there, I was caught in a violent downward spiral of anorexia that wreaked havoc on my physical and mental health. And it took me so long to recover from that nosedive that I couldn’t even consider the possibility of going back in 2013.

Three weeks ago, I submitted an application. Today, I called the camp office for an interview. Even after the personal hell I experienced a year and a half ago, I’m going back.

My parents are baffled. And worried. A lot of people are worried. You know what? I’m worried, too. But every year that I’ve been knocked down, I’ve come back stronger. I’m a champion for a cause I love more than anything. Something about it will always be tough, and I might not always come out on top. But as we who have worked there know, it is always, always worth it to stay.

The Old Year, The New Year, and a 30-Second Dance Party

my 2012 resolutions

my 2012 resolutions

There are less than eight hours left in 2013.

I’ve been spending a lot of time in the past few days (and weeks, and months) worrying about what I’m going to do in the future. How I will continue to move toward a healthy lifestyle and a full recovery. How I will repair the damage I’ve done to my relationships. How I will push myself to conquer that which I simultaneously crave and fear. How I will manage to complete my college degree in a way that is meaningful to me. Constantly running forward, trying desperately to keep up with all the things I feel like I should be handling. 2013 has been, in short, a year of constant motion – working toward recovery, getting reinstated in school, entering and exiting a brief but significant relationship, earning (and being proud of) my first college B – without a lot of stagnancy.

I was talking to a friend about this yesterday at an old favorite coffee shop, while my unintentional tears dripped slowly into my too-hot mug of tea. She smiled at me. “Gwen, you need to give yourself a break. Stop for a minute, look around at all the things you’ve accomplished. Be proud of yourself. Have a 30-second dance party.”

I, of course, had no idea that she was referencing a Grey’s Anatomy clip, which you can watch here if you’re curious. Basically, a surgeon manages to do a difficult repair, and before she takes the final steps toward finishing the surgery, she makes her dumbstruck interns join her in a “30-second dance party.” I think I would be kind of mad if a surgeon were to do that while I was lying wide open on an operating table, but that’s not the point.

Like most people, I don’t take a lot of time to celebrate the small victories I accomplish on the way to my larger ones. There’s always something else I feel like I could be improving; a new task to work on. I stitched the heart, now time to close the chest and move on to the next surgery. No time to waste being proud of myself when I was just doing my job, right? I ate dinner today, big deal, everyone eats dinner. Why should I be proud of that?

I always enter the new year with a list of resolutions I want to tackle, and the list is always too long. More often than not, it gets me into trouble. I get discouraged when I’m unsuccessful, or I get so focused on one goal that I forget about all the other important things in my life. Balance is hard for me, and it’s hard to achieve balance when you’re never satisfied with the way things are.

So this year I have just one resolution, and it is this: have more 30-second dance parties. I want to celebrate when I do something I’m proud of, even if it’s for a short amount of time. I want to say, “You know what? It was really hard to let myself enjoy that piece of pumpkin pie, but I did, so I’m awesome.” I want to stop sometimes and look around at my apartment and be proud that a person who wasn’t allowed to flush her own toilet in October of 2012 cooks and cleans for herself in October of 2013. For 30 seconds, I don’t want to be thinking about all the ways I could still be a better person. For 30 seconds, I just want to see that I already am one.

Bring it on, 2014. My dance moves are ready.

The Recovery Pants

I, like probably every middle-class, twenty-something female, own several pairs of pants. These pants range in size from zero to nine, run the spectrum of color from white to black, and take up way too much space in my dresser, banishing my shorts to a second-class home on the shelf of my closet. But that’s neither here nor there. Yes, I have many (probably too many) pairs of pants. I would like, however, to tell the story of one.

It was December 2012 when we first met. I was two months into treatment; better, but just barely. I was still pretty convinced that I could recover without gaining any weight, at least until the day when I could no longer button my smallest pair of jeans. That hope died fast.

The Pants were hanging on a rack at Macy’s, waiting to be snatched up on holiday sale. I was looking for Christmas gifts for my family, giddy from the atmosphere of lights and wreaths and carols, trying to forget about the loss of my beloved flared jeans and doing a pretty good job of it. Then Willa and Kate saw them.

“Hey, Gwen, didn’t you say you needed new pants?”

On came the rush of speeding thoughts. Those are cute. They probably won’t fit me, though. I don’t even know what size I am anymore. I could be a 2. Or a 6. Or oh dear Lord Christ I could be a 16 or a 32 or what if they don’t even make pants big enough for me? What if I have to make my own pants from now on? I don’t even know how to sew!

They must have been able to read my mind, or at least my deer-in-the-headlights facial expression, because they immediately offered to help me buy a pair of perfectly-fitting, gorgeous pants without any knowledge of their size. “Trust me,” said Kate. “I’ve done this before.”

I followed her blindly into the dressing room, where I was given strict marching orders. “Close your eyes,” Willa instructed. “I’ll throw you a pair of pants, you put them on, then you open your eyes. No peeking at the label.”

“Sir yes sir,” I muttered as the first pair sailed over the door and smacked me in the face.

The first two were unsuccessful. One pair was too small, the other so big I easily could have fit Kate and Willa in there with me. And then there were the Pants.

I could tell they fit perfectly from the second I pulled up the zipper. They were soft and long and a little stretchy; a beautiful rust-red color that glowed just enough in the fluorescent lights. Kate was right. They were gorgeous.

I didn’t look at the label. I took them off and lobbed them back over the door and held them tag-side-down as I stood in the checkout line. And right after I’d finished paying, Willa asked the cashier for a pair of scissors and snipped the tag right out of the Pants, ensuring that I would never again have a chance to peek.

It’s been a year since then, a year in which I have gone shopping several times and been totally aware of the size of my new pants. I’ve learned to accept that I am not defined by the number on the label; after all, it’s not actually very reliable. But there’s something comforting about my Pants, the lovely Pants with no size at all. They are the size of me, and they are perfect.

I Remember

When I was three or four years old, we moved from a little ranch on a crowded street to a house that had three stories and a two-car garage. Not surprisingly, I don’t remember much about the move. Sometimes I have a fragment of a memory – a quick image of the view from the top of the stairs, the feeling of the carpet underneath my feet – but before they can come together into something whole, I lose the picture. My first two houses are buried somewhere in my memory, overshadowed by my vivid recollections of the past thirteen or so years.

One day when I was walking with my mother, I had one of those flashes. I remembered a girl, a little younger than me, with curly hair and a big smile. I remembered her name for just a second, not long enough to speak it aloud.

“Hey, Mom, do you remember that girl I used to play with when we lived on Churchhill?” I asked as we moseyed along the sidewalk. “Curly hair…I think she had a baby sister, maybe?”

“Hillary,” she responded. “She came to your birthday tea party.”

“Yeah, I remember,” I said, searching my memory for more information about her. Maybe my mom had given me some retrieval cues. I had a vague, blurry picture of that birthday party in my mind, a bunch of four-year-old girls in poofy dresses drinking water out of tiny little teacups. Sure enough, more information surfaced. “Her sister was sick?” I added tentatively. “Right?”

“Yep,” Mom answered.

“Whatever happened to her?”

She didn’t look at me. “Oh. She died.”

The words jarred me. I combed through every memory I had in my head, trying to find some remnant of the tiny human to associate with this tragedy, but I came up empty. Maybe I’d never seen her. Maybe I’d forgotten her. All I could find to represent her was this blurry, probably inaccurate picture of her four-year-old sister. My heart ached at the thought of little Hillary, who met and lost her baby sister in less than the length of her own short lifetime.

I thought of my brother, who had been almost a baby himself when we lived in that house. The monster who used to drive me crazy, who once drew blood because he bit me in the back. The boy that grew up to become my best friend.

Life is brief. No one stays around forever. But I thank God for giving me the gift of watching my little brother grow up. Through his awkward phase, through his annoying phase, through his morose stage – even at the worst, he was there. I never had to face anything alone. And every time I think of him, I remember them. Claire, the one who never got to steal her sister’s toys or become her best friend. And Hillary, the one who never got to experience the joy and laughter and madness of being a big sister. At least not to her.

I bet not a lot of people remember her. I do.

Your Best Friend

When you first meet your best friend, it’s like the answer to a prayer. Maybe you’re two, four, ten, thirteen. But when you meet them, things start to make sense to you. You are no longer forced to sit alone in the cafeteria or bounce through friend groups faster than you can learn your times tables. You know that when you’re having a bad day, your best friend is there to make you feel better. When you’re bored, you can pick up the phone and she’ll be there as fast as she possibly can. You go on adventures, conquering imaginary beasts and braving dark, scary forests. You can tell her anything at all and she’ll listen. She throws you surprise parties and bakes you an elaborate cake on your birthday. Eventually, people start to mix up your names or roll their eyes when you say things simultaneously.

When your best friend has big secrets to tell, you’re the first person she runs to. Even when it’s hard, she knows she can trust you. So you trust her too. You are the only person who understands her, who doesn’t judge her for being the way she is. You aren’t afraid to be yourself around her, to express the most embarrassing thoughts or emotions. You are each other’s better half; neither of you fully exist unless you are together. When she goes through the darkest times of her life, you are there to listen and to beg her to keep going; that it’s worth it. You give her confidence; she returns the favor.

It seems perfect when you’re young. It makes sense. But you change. Sometimes you find out that when she told you the biggest secrets, she was lying. Sometimes the trust that you thought you had turns out to be false. Sometimes you get angry. It’s not perfect because she’s not perfect, you think. You hold a grudge for as long as you possibly can. You don’t tell her how you really feel because you don’t want to ruin the friendship, so you pretend that nothing happened. Then other things start to bother you. The way she acts, the person she’s become. But you never say anything. Maybe you start to take it out on her because you’re so angry with yourself for keeping it all in. You wait years, always apologizing after fights because you just want to get it over with, even though it compromises your true opinions. You wait so long that maybe it’s too late. She’s made a lot of mistakes that she’s never apologized for, and then you realize that you’ve made a lot of mistakes too, and two imperfect and stubborn people don’t compromise easily. So maybe you stop trying because it’s easier that way, because that way you don’t have to fight. So that way it doesn’t hurt all the time. And maybe that’s not fair to her. But you don’t know if you could try without losing yourself in the process.

When you lose your best friend, it’s the most painful feeling in the world. There are pieces of you that never recover from that; the awkward interactions wound you every time. And those wounds are where she lives. You never forget or stop caring, just pretend that you do. You watch her live her life from the sidelines as she takes center stage. You know that even though things have changed, you are with her just as much as she is with you. You are still proud when she succeeds and disappointed when she fails. Maybe someday you will be able to work things out. Maybe you won’t. Maybe she can never again be your best friend. But for a long time, she was. She saved you when you were falling apart. She was your best friend, and she matters.