It was 1983. I don’t recall the month or day of the week. It did not really matter. It was just another day in my life at the time. I just finished the last class and it was time to go home. And like every other day before that, I could not wait to get home. I waited with all the other kids until my carpool arrived. I bit my lip and held my head low so that I could hold back the tears that were the result of the day’s humiliation. Even if I was not tortured that particular day, I was exhausted from the anxiety of what could have happened to me. Sometimes the nervous anxiety of waiting for a defeating act to happen was worse than if it did. When my ride pulled up, I piled into the car with my oldest sister and the rest of the children. I sat in the corner of the back seat, hid my face and as I recalled the day’s events, tears would lightly touch my cheeks. Any noise coming from my sadness was muffled by the loud conversation all around me on the long ride to my house in the suburbs. If anyone asked me what was wrong, I would reply, “Nothing” and put a smile on my face regardless of the pain that I was feeling. But, the reality was everything was wrong and I wanted to be anybody but me.
It was just another excruciating day as an awkward pre-teen living through the seventh grade. I was already so uncomfortable with my changing body, so tormented by the boys in my class, and so saddened by what I perceived as my unworthiness. I usually spent the day going from class to class avoiding contact with those boys who could smell fear a mile away. It was like a bad teenage movie. The teasing usually happened when I would be walking alone, head down trying to avoid eye contact. I would see the popular kids hanging out in a corner of the school close by where I needed to go. I don’t remember the names or the faces, but the feelings are still quite vivid. I was scared. I was petrified that they would tell me what I already accepted as my reality, I was not popular or special. I was noticed and harassed because I was fat and imperfect. I may have been slightly overweight but if you asked me, the image that I had of myself more resembled a whale than a person. And, if I had a dollar for each time someone send to me or in my vicinity, “If she just lost weight she would be such a pretty girl!” I would be a millionaire.
What happened to me at school would be pretty much routine. I would just be coming from the hall where the lockers were hoping to make it in time for my next class. There was no other path to my final destination, so I had to walk past the kids, usually 2 or 3, as fast as I could. I consciously sucked in my gut and held my breath until I could pass, praying that by doing so I could create the illusion that I was normal and then they would not notice me at all. I wished that I had magical powers at that time so that I could somehow blend into the background. I would take my magical wand and with one full swoosh disappear and arrive safely wherever I needed to go. But, unfortunately without fail, I always got unwanted attention and I could feel the negative energy build as I approached. They never touched me physically, but their cruel and heartless words did enough damage to my self-esteem. These were not boys who you would consider to be delinquents. Not that delinquency has anything to do with mean or nasty behavior. I attended a college preparatory school that was quite expensive. These were the kids of professionals, doctors, lawyers, and business people. For the most part, we were the privileged kids who had everything. And still, this middle school was made up of a caste system where the popular and attractive kids felt that they could treat everyone who was not like them anyway they wished. Like little gangs with one person who directed the pack, these kids gained more power by making others below them feel badly about themselves. Not everyone in the school was like this, however, it was hard to believe that their belief was not universal when my world was impacted greatly by egos that were protected by the negativity they shared. It is not like the story of bullying is new, it happens all the time. Just when it happened to me, it became very personal and real. And, I came to realize that I was just a part of the middle school sociological experiment where kids at the top make it a sport to bully the ones at the bottom. I don’t think that it is much different today for kids or for adults. There were always the boys who were entertained by terrorizing the perceived flawed members of the class. Unfortunately for me, I was one of them. Like I said, I was overweight, awkward, and unsure of myself. I was unacceptable in their eyes and because of that they let me know that I was fair game. It was not that I was born with a weak personality or character. That assumption was further from the truth. I just was really unsure of myself and desperately wanted to fit in. I just did not know how to deal with these daily instances of bullying where I too loathed the fact that I was chubby and I looked different from the standard of what was beautiful then. Furthermore, I was incredibly sensitive and when I was laughed at or picked on as a target of incessant teasing, it chipped away at my resolve and left me an insecure mess. I just wanted it to stop and did not know how to find a way to do it. You would think that the imaginary defensive wall that I built around myself would protect me from internalizing the cruel words aimed in my direction- fat, ugly, stupid! You would think that I would get used to the daily humiliation of the chubby girl with braces, glasses and a bad haircut. You would think that I would get used to the way the boys and girls laughed at me behind my back and in my face. But I never got used to any of it. It was all about survival and getting through the day with the fewest battle scars on my heart. It seemed like all the pretty and “normal” girls in the class were in a competition to be noticed by the boys. All I wanted to do was hide from them. How I hated those boys. Their onslaught was constant.
The girls were not much better though. Especially on days that we had physical education, we had to dress in a uniform that made the best figure look dowdy. If one expected no sense of style, the uniform sadly did not disappoint. It was a one-piece polyester special, dark blue shorts and a white top that was lined horizontally with blue stripes made to resemble jail attire or the top of a muffin. If wearing the uniform was not bad enough, having to change in the locker room in front of all the girls before the class did not leave any avenues to hide my body from the others. Certainly an experience like this added to the PTSD that I would eventually suffer.
So under this backdrop, I did not know better how to handle the humiliation and allowed the threat or fear of future traumatic moments affect me and control my life. I did not care about school and my grades reflected it. I grew more and more angry as time went on and lashed out at my family. I felt like I was powerless. I felt ashamed and just want too crawl into a corner and die. I had two sisters, one older and one younger who went to the same school and appeared to go on without similar abuse. So I thought, there must be something wrong with me.
While this was going on in middle school, this kind of barrage of nasty comments started much earlier. In fact, when I believe that the name-calling started when I was in the 2nd grade. The second part of the year, I got braces. This may be common-place in today’s world but back then having a full mouth of metal bands around each tooth with a head gear that looked like a crow bar strapped to my face did not lend a hand to a popularity run. Walking into school, not being able to talk clearly because of the uncomfortable prongs poking at my lips and rubber bands attached to the top and bottom of each brace, I drew attention to myself and became a target of verbal abuse. Prior to that time, I don’t remember being so self-conscious of my appearance or so self aware of my presence in this world. I used to run outside, skip, dance, play, ride my bike all over the neighborhood pretending to be one of Charlie’s Angels. After I got braces to correct a severe overbite, in a matter of months, I went from a carefree little girl who had no fear of what the world showed me to an angry little girl who was confused as to why the incessant teasing was happening. I had no idea what I did to have to answer to ridicule for something that I did not choose. To make matters worse, I was a very sensitive child. I was very much an empath, feeling deeply everything that came my way.
Because I got teased so much for the metal in my mouth, I think I stopped smiling as much, I think I stopped laughing as much (two of my favorite things to do in life). As I recall this, I am sad. The death of a genuine smile is one of the saddest things a person can ever experience. A smile has power in it, the power to awaken joy within and the power to pass joy to another. When I stopped smiling as much because I did not feel good about myself and also did not want to attract attention to the railroad tracks in my mouth, I think the joyful, carefree part of me started to die. I went from a fun loving and happy little girl to an introverted and angry and scared child. My anger and fear was not shared with anyone other than me. Instead of lashing out at the world externally because kids made fun of me with comments like “brace face”, I took out a large-scale assault on myself. I was sure that I did something wrong or that something was wrong with me because why else would other kids pick on me. At the tender age of 6 years old, I discovered what it felt like to be ashamed of who I was because it seemed like my appearance offended others.
I dealt with the pain in silence. While I used to use food to numb the pain, it never really seemed to help, just made matters worse. There was always a void that I could not fill. Whenever I could not deal with the outside world, I used to sneak food when my parents were not looking. I remember hiding in the bathroom with the door locked, crying and eating whatever sugary substance I could get my hands on. As I gained weight, the results of this coping mechanism had the unintended consequence of attracting more negative attention when all that I wanted was love and validation. My parents grew more and more concerned and I withdrew more and more as I created the perfect story of how my life should be by living vicariously through my imagination supported by my perfect and beautiful Barbie dolls. They all had names. They became my family, my safe haven. I created furniture for them out of shoeboxes and wrapping paper. I would sew dresses for them from the sheets in our family linen closet. I would arrange them in happy family units where “Barbie” was actually adored and cared for by her doting boyfriend “Ken”. I would get lost for hours in this fantasyland. I would draw for hours and hours the ball gowns that I would wear to galas. I would get lost in the colors of painting and design. I would also create a series of short stories I called “Hello Fellow.” I made up the life of a successful young lady who was attractive, smart, had a stunning personality and a beautiful smile. I would draw the photos of this beautiful protagonist who liked to dance, sing and play. The perfect life! Then I would tie the loose-leaf pages together with rope that I found in our junk drawer. I used to create a new book each and every time I wanted to escape into another world and create a new chapter in my life that I could control. I did whatever I could to escape my own reality and enter one that was far more appealing to me, one where others would pay attention to the main characters for good not for bad. I also was lucky to have the companionship of my beautiful Shetland sheepdog Fred. He too was not perfect. He was diagnosed with mange that left him shaved down without his beautiful fur. I would buy him t-shirts that said “Fire hydrant inspector” or “Coco Chanel” to keep him warm. When I came home from school, Fred would always be waiting for me. He would stay by my side and keep me company as I took flights of fancy into my world of the imagination. Dogs have always been my animal guides, my constant companion and protector. Dog is in fact God spelled backwards.
When I entered middle school in the seventh grade, having been the target of bullying for quite some time, escaping into the world of the imagination allowed me to cope and to hold onto my belief in magic and miracles. However, when I went to school my fantasies could never protect me from my reality that I never knew when I would be the next target of ridicule. I never knew when I would be the next butt of their jokes. I never knew when someone would say something to me that would hurt me so deeply that I did all that I could to cover the pain up with a forced smile. And, the mere fact that I actually did continue to smile was just a way to mask and cope with what was going on with me internally. So why am I sharing this with you all? Because even though I had no particular interest in living this way, (who would?) I still knew that when I would get home, my mom would be there waiting with a huge hug and an “I love you!” and I could resume my “better” life where I left off the day before. Even as a very awkward and insecure 13 year old, I made it through the most difficult times because my mother was there for me to give me love that somehow did not let the spark of light that she saw in me die out.
There were many days in 1983 and beyond where I would hold back tears on my way home. Finally arriving at my front door, racing from the carpool and falling into the arms of my mom where I would let go and sob uncontrollably. There were many days when I turned to my mother to try to make sense of what was going on in my young life. And my mom would do what mom’s do. She would hold me and caress my hair with love. She would tell me that everything would be all right. She would try to make sense of what was going on by assuring me that one day all of this pain that I was feeling would transform into something good. She shared her own teenage challenges of not fitting in and trying to find her place in the world. She would give me hope by telling me that this too shall pass and I would grow stronger for having experienced it. She dreamt with me that when things did change and I started to believe in myself again and realize what a beautiful person that I was on the inside and out, having experienced such turmoil, I would be able to help others going through the same thing know that they are good. All I do remember is how my mother would cover me in the blanket of her love and I felt like as long as I had her in my life, everything would be ok.
And just like my mother promised, my life and school experience did change as time moved forward. With her support, I did start to believe in myself. As I did, my talents and strengths came through. My braces finally came off at the end of my eighth grade and gratefully a perfect smile was exposed. I went away the summer before my freshman year and returned to school taller, thinner and more confident. I made a decision to no longer hide from the world and as a result met many people who were turned out to be great friends and positive influence in my life. I met one of my best friends Alicia, a soul mate that loved to question our existence, life and purpose. With my sisters, I tried out and made the school’s tennis team and started to compete in tournaments that lent its hand to developing a strong athletic build and built my self-esteem. I had a greater interest in my classes and my grades improved. I joined and became very active in my church’s youth group where I met so many wonderful people who accepted me for who I was. After having been exposed to color and design for years, I had a keen sense of style and knew what I liked to wear and what makeup looked best on me. I fell in love with the art of learning different languages and was fascinated with people of different cultures. I became the President of the Spanish Honor Society and organized various service events for the area’s poor Hispanic migrant children. After my family hosted an exchange student from Peru my junior year of high school, I sought out the life changing opportunity to travel abroad to Colombia, South America where I lived with a wonderful family that I claimed as my own, I fell in love for the first time, and was able to recreate myself and my identity as strong and happy individual. I am not saying that everything was perfect, but things got much better.
When I started to love myself imperfections and all, I started to attract people in my life who saw my value as well. My authentic smile did return because I felt genuinely happy again. The evils of the past no longer haunted me on a daily basis. Although I still struggled with issues that involved my weight and at times would have to deal with the scars of the past, I chose not to be a victim and sought out help so that healing was possible. Through it all, my mother stood strong by my side reassuring me and loving me. Through it all, my mother was the lighthouse that would guide me on my journey to discover a sense of calm and peace through any storm. Through it all, my mother was the representative of God here on Earth for me reminding me of my beauty and potential. And, with her words of love, I swore that if ever I found myself in a position of leadership, I would use that role to make others feel good about their beauty within and their gifts. Instead of letting my past defeat me, I used the experience overcoming the obstacles as they presented themselves to free me. Free me from the good opinion of others, free me from wanting to please people, and free me from those things that would keep me from being the best version of myself. But, I also was empowered because I was never alone as long as my mom was with me. It is with this background that I share with you the rest of my story.