Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Self-Esteem, PCOS, and All That Flab: Part 6

* This is part 6 of a series of posts that explore my struggles with self-esteem, weight, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, and the very difficult task of trying to be my fullest self in a world that constantly demands more than what I am. Because this subject is so vast and most of my life has been spent swimming in its waters in some form or another I thought it best to break it up . . . also so as to not bore you to death!

Some of you may not be able to relate, but I hope that you will find it interesting anyway. And perhaps you will be better able to understand someone in your life. Some of you may be able to relate and I hope that you will know that you are not the only one -- that the journey may be long, but progress is progress. Remember that no matter how small it may feel, you still are not the same person that you were yesterday. And that is something to celebrate!

For Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 please scroll below . . .

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As I talked about in Part 5 of this series, the second half of my ninth grade year was a mess.  My life was a mess, my head was a mess, and I was a mess.  Luckily, I made it through and was relieved to have a few months of summer to lick my proverbial wounds.  I did not yet know just how much things would be changing in the next few months.  If I had known, it probably would've been a lot easier to get through those last couple months of school that year.  But as it is with most things in life, I was completely unaware of what was yet to come.  Before you jump ahead of me, I didn't suddenly see the world through rose-colored glasses, my body didn't morph into the thinner, more beautiful version that I had ached for, my loneliness wasn't quarantined to the unusable cellar, and I didn't suddenly love, unlovable me.  No, it wasn't quite the dramatic changes I may have liked.  But they were changes, nonetheless.  And any change, no matter how small, counts.

Before we ever moved to Warren, I had been there a couple times to a wonderful, small community theater named The Pulse Opera House.  My dad had gotten involved there in a couple productions through a long-time, family friend.  My family has always been in love with the theater, and I was no exception.  I inherited the love of the theater from my parents, who have been heavily involved with community theater for a good, long portion of their lives.

The summer after my ninth grade year The Pulse Opera House was putting on a production of The Pirates of Penzance, for which my dad was going to try out and my mom was going to play piano.  The idea was thrown around of me potentially auditioning as well.  The idea was certainly intriguing and I entertained it with much internal pomp and circumstance.  The only problem was . . . even though I had been involved in a lot of productions in school and at churches, this was different.  This was a community theater, in a community that I barely knew.  This was a theater of adults, of "theater people," of very talented people, of people who took their theater pretty seriously.  The problem was . . . I was terrified!  And terrified + a room full of strangers + singing in front of that room full of strangers = Ain't gonna happen!

My parents did convince me to go along, however, I had no intention of auditioning, even though I desperately wanted to.  That's the thing about a bad self-esteem and debilitating fears: they cause you to miss doing all the things you really want to do, all of the things that are so good for you.  So I sat awkwardly in the back of the rehearsal hall with my dad.  He was thoughtful enough to not parade me to the front of the room, even though he would have been perfectly comfortable with it himself.  I watched intently as each person went to the front of the room and sang their prepared audition piece, all seeming quite confident and relaxed.  All the while my dad kept prodding me to try-out as well, telling me how much I would enjoy it.  He knew he was right.  I knew he was right too.  But my terror was far too amplified for me to push it aside.  I was on high alert and I honestly thought that I would crumble into a pile of worry and nerves if I were to stand up in front of all these people.  I sat back, trying to act indifferent, when in reality I wanted nothing more than to be a part of this musical.  I was jealous of everyone else -- jealous that they weren't afraid, or if they were, that they were able to overcome it, and I was not.

There was a moment in which I almost felt my body begin to lift from the chair, when I had nearly gathered enough courage to step outside of myself and throw caution to the wind.  But, as it usually always did, that moment passed.  The moment passed and so did the try-outs.  We went home, and I left feeling . . . ashamed.

That little part of the story may have had a not-so-happy ending, but a nice turn of events came about a couple weeks later.  The director was still in need of more females for the chorus.  Being that my dad was in the play and Mom was playing, she generously offered me a part in the chorus without auditioning for it.  I was cast as Isabel, one of the Major General's daughters.  The Major General, ironically, was played by my dad.  The production became a family event, as my brother, Jeff, was cast in the chorus as well, once he found out that they still needed more men.

It was truly a great summer; being in The Pirates of Penzance helped me begin to find more of myself, more of my voice.  I met people that were a little bit more like me . . . quirky, loved the arts, understood certain references to Rocky Horror, Labyrinth, and Monty Python.  I began to feel a bit more comfortable in my skin, at least in that environment.  Don't get me wrong; I was still incredibly self-conscious.  But I had made a little progress, and it felt wonderful.  I had at least found a place where I could express myself.  Normally most of my self-expression occurred in private while writing, drawing, painting, etc.  Now I was at least able to share some of that self-expression with other people doing the same thing.

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Once the summer was over I made another big change -- a different school.  When things were going poorly at my last school during ninth grade, there were talks between my parents and I about what to do to change the situation.  They knew I was miserable there; they knew something had to be different.  The option of home-schooling was presented and I quickly turned it down.  What made me say no so unequivocally, I'll never know.  Everything about my self-esteem should have jumped at the chance to completely avoid the school social scene.  But despite my fears and worries I knew that it would be running away.  I knew it was the wrong thing for me and would only make my problems worse.

I've run away from a lot of things in my life . . . enough to make me ashamed for a lifetime.  But there have been some moments in my life when I chose to face my fears -- when I could have easily passed.  I told my parents that home-schooling wasn't an option for me, and we began to search for the right answer.  The answer turned out to be a very small, Christian school in a nearby town, that was so new that it had only been open for a year.  Community Christian School was in an old elementary building, and ended up being the perfect next step in my journey toward self-actualization. 

Stepping into CCS, after having been at my previous school was a drastic transition -- going from 2,000 some kids (grades 9-12) to about 100 kids (grades pre-K - 12).  Yeah, I'm actually serious.  The only time I'd heard of something that small was back on the 1800's prairie, in a one room log cabin.  In addition to the drastic change in size there was also a change in they type of school -- going from public school to a private Christian school for the first time in my life.

My time there was irreplaceable and the people I met there are still dear to me.  There could not have been a better solution for me at that time in my life.  Again, my problems were far from solved; my self-esteem was still unfortunately far from being repaired; but it was yet another step toward healing -- toward becoming my fullest self (a phenomenon that I am still, in fact, in the process of achieving).

Because CCS was a Christian school, and a predominantly on-the-more-conservative-side Christian school, I often found myself in disagreement about spiritual and political matters.  I was even quite liberal back then, and have only become more so the older I have gotten.  I distinctly recall one particular discussion about capital punishment.  It turned out that the entire class (and teacher) were for it.  Not that they took joy or glee in it.  Far from.  They simply believed that it was a just act under certain conditions and circumstances.  Well, the entire class was for it, except for one . . . . . . me.  The teacher asked if there was anyone who was against it completely and my lone hand lifted.  I quickly felt my face flush and realized that I was going to have to talk.  The teacher (in a non-judgmental way) asked me to share why I was against it.  Knowing that I was the only one on this side of the issue -- that I was essentially the token goose flying north for the winter -- I was scared to attempt to explain my position.  I knew how I felt.  I knew that, for me, it was the right view to have.  But my convictions weren't enough to outweigh the anxiety of being singled out.

My voice didn't waiver, however.  Even though I've had mounds of social anxiety through the years, I have always managed to pull myself together for any kind of performance, even one as small as an oral book report, or a teenage expose on the immorality of capital punishment.  I spoke my piece, they had a few follow-up questions -- some, "Well what if . . ." and "What about . . ."  And then . . . they accepted my answers.  Just as simple as that.  They all still disagreed; I didn't change anyone's mind.  But they listened and accepted this as a valid point of view.  It felt pretty damn great.  

There were other times such as these during my three years at CCS.  I was frequently the lone liberal voice.  Even though there were days when I felt like a heathen, like an inferior person or inferior Christian, I wouldn't wish those times into non-existence.  Those moments helped to strengthen me -- my cognition, my spirit, my skin.   They helped to shape my so far 30 year old self, and someday my 60 and 80 year old selves.  That's the funny thing about all of the darker or more stressful times . . . if they hadn't existed, how would I be different?  And would the change be for better or for worse?  Perhaps without them I wouldn't have, and wouldn't still be struggling with loving and accepting myself or not being ashamed of myself.  Maybe I would have gone through a much more carefree and effortless adolescence and adulthood thus far.  Maybe I would never have harbored thoughts of suicide just so that I wouldn't have to feel anymore.  But really, would I still be the same person?  Would I have as much compassion and empathy for other people struggling and living in pain?  Perhaps not.

The years between 16 and 18 were very important ones.  I began to learn that there were people in the world who were more like me and who would appreciate me, just as is.  I began to see that I didn't have to hide away in the cave of my room always, for fear of looking like an idiot with every scratch of my arm and every turn of my head.  I began to see a glimmer of hope, that maybe I could be comfortable in my own skin one day.  That was about 14 years ago.  I wish I could say that I've completely arrived by the age of 30.  I have not . . . but the good news is, that day is getting close.  And though long, the traveling is worth it.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Curly Is, As Curly Does

I'm a curly head.

It's a little bit scary just how much of my identity, through the course of my life, has revolved around having curly hair.  Not only do I associate so much of myself with curly tresses, but others do as well.  It makes me easily identifiable in a crowd, especially since I also color my hair a fairly bright red hue. 

I've never been what you would call, a conventional person.  I've never had what you would call, a conventional look.  I'm not that eccentric by any means . . . I'm not goth; I'm not a bombshell; I'm not overtly and hip-ly modern.  I'm just not the average girl.  I look as if there's a real possibility that I was born in the wrong era -- that I would sit more comfortably in the Renaissance or the Medieval periods.  I have what many would term as the "classic" look: small, petite features, fair skin, plenty of meat on my bones, and . . . of course, the curly hair.

When I was growing up curly hair (natural curly hair) was not the popular do.  I was born in 1980, so I was around for the somewhat disturbing era of pom-pom perms and tsunamis of bangs.  But during my teen years, mostly the preferred look was straight hair -- something with which I was not naturally endowed.  Sure, I suppose I could have purchased a hair straightener and squeezed and forced my way into mainstream, but I felt an innate resentment for the pressure to fit inside of a mold.  Molds and I don't go too well together.  I made a conscious decision, like with most other things in my life, to go against the grain.  It's not because I see myself as some sort of warrior of the outcasts, some champion of the different . . . I just hate being like everyone else.  And fortunately (I guess) for me, I've never had to work very hard at that.

Let me share with you, for those of you who have not been "blessed" with the curly gene, the number one issue with curly hair.  Like a willful monarch, curly hair has a mind of its own; it is the ruling master over the kingdom called my head.  Example 1: no matter how many times I carefully separate the curls so that they look full, it will never fail that as the day goes on certain ones around my neck will pool together out of exhaustion? confusion? revenge? and morph into an inferior looking Shirley Temple lock.  Example 2: numerous mornings with hair shooting off in every possible direction, as if they had lost their way through the night, and after debating long and hard over which way to venture, each hair grouped together in 10's, yelling obscenities at the others, breaking off from the general population, and taking off on their own way with a chip on their shoulder and something to prove.

This is what we curly-heads deal with on a daily basis, no matter what type of curl it is -- small and kinky, all the way to loose and big.  Mine are more on the looser and bigger end of the spectrum.  My hair is also very fine, and therefore enjoys going flat on me at whim.  The issues are endless, just as endless as the types of curly hair that exist in the world.  And we curly-heads are still wandering in the wilderness for all the right answers to our curly plight -- some manna for our hair hunger.

Let me just lay it all out on the table . . . many parts of me HATE my curly hair, especially when I was growing up.  I hate how temperamental it is.  I hate that I can't control it . . . EVER!  I hate that I still haven't mastered the art of styling it.  I hate that it taunts me, mocks me, laughs violently at me at night, while plotting the next day's follicle failure.  Yes, I realize that I'm being a bit over-dramatic.  But I suppose that it just comes with the territory; curls are a bit more on the dramatic side, right?  Although, all of my drama has been saved for the stage . . . and apparently, hair.

I've talked with other curly-heads, and they all share at least some level of this same frustration.  We all have a strange dichotomy of often hating our hair, but not being completely willing to give it up, had we the opportunity to do a hair swap.  Why is this?  Could it be that we are all secret masochists? Are we hell-bent on making sure that we never have a stress-free start to our day?  Definitely not.  But we (at least most of us) realize that the frustrations and annoyances are part of who we are -- the curls, no matter how laden with extra work, are a strange and wonderful aspect of our character. 

There aren't many days that go by that I don't complain about my hair, at least in my own head or that I hurl at my own reflection whilst begging the mirror for a little mercy.  But truly, I don't want straight hair.  I have nothing against it, nothing bad to say about it.  Straight hair is beautiful. But it's just not me.  I'm not meant to be a straight-haired girl, which is apparently why God planted nothing but curls upon my head.  I wouldn't look right with straight hair.  Honestly, I think I'd look rather stupid, awkward . . . and, well, fatter.  The curls at least help my "meatiness" look a bit more proportioned. 

Even more than all that, I want to keep the curls because they are a physical manifestation of my quirkiness.  They offer a certain artsy, creative, offbeat stamp upon my persona.  And well, that is me.  I am a free spirit . . . always have been.  I think for myself (often thinking the unpopular ideals) and I follow my own path.  I've never been a follower.  But I've never been a leader either.  I've never had the desire to fall into either of those roles; I have just always simply done my own thing.  My favorite quote of all  time is from Thoreau: "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.  Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away." I don't think there is a single quote that could sum my parts so eloquently.  Thoreau may not have had curls in mind when he penned those words, but in a silly sort of way, I feel that they are an extension (really, no pun intended) of his thought.   

My curls are not the summation of me, but they are a part.  And over the years I have made my peace with them, and have slowly, but surely, learned to embrace them.  Don't get me wrong, I'm still going to hate them sometimes.  I'm still going to raise my metaphoric clenched fists to the air and ask, "Why hast thou curs'd me?"  But once the frustration cools and the curls mellow, I will accept them and even marvel a bit at their beauty.  I will let my hands course over them and feel the smooth curves, the dipping and rising of their lines . . . until, I start the whole process over again tomorrow.