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In the Eye of the Beholder

Updated: Mar 16, 2021

That expression, caught on camera, more familiar to me than seeing me own smile. I have spent my entire life thus far struggling with how I feel about my body- and how it looks. To me. To others. To men. To other women. To strangers. On camera. In pictures. In certain clothing and accessories. In a swimsuit (especially in a swimsuit). Naked, in the

dark... and with the lights on. I could literally drive myself crazy going

over all of the scenarios when I have become obsessed with how I

looked- or shouldn't have looked- or wished I had looked. And in this,

the one thing I am sure of, is that I do not struggle alone.

My story begins in elementary school, when one of the nice ladies that worked in the front office looked at me one day and said, 'You look just like your dad'. At a very young age, my mind went straight to an image of my dad, with dark hair, thick eyebrows, piercing eyes, and a very 'male' image down to, and including, his thick sideburns. (To any of you younger readers out there, take a quick sec and google 'sideburns' in the early 70's). That stuck with me for quite a while, this image of me looking so very male.

It wouldn't be too long after this interaction, that the boy I had a young school girl crush on, called me fat in front of a whole group of us out on the playground. Looking back at pictures from that time in my life, I was not what you would call a fat child, I am pretty sure he was just being mean- but that dart still stuck deep. Not too long after this, I wore a halter top to school since the weather was shifting to summer. Back then, halter tops were trapezoid shaped fabric with tie strings at the top and the bottom (imagine a bikini top in the shape of a wide thick triangle with the top lobbed off). I remember being outside on the playground with a whole group of friends and the boy I really liked looked right at me and said 'Get a bra'. Maybe that should have been a confidence booster since that meant my breasts were starting to show, but at the age of 8, that more so made me want to run and hide. It made me feel ashamed of the fact that I was getting boobs. That dart stuck pretty deep.

Then the movie Grease came out and planted a whole new image in my mind of what females were 'supposed' to look like, and I felt like I did not look- and might never look, anything close to that. Mind you, that was in 1978, and I was only 9 years old. But that was another dart that still stuck deep. Not long after, I got invited to a sleep over with some older girls that were friends with my brother- which is probably the reason I was even invited. That sleepover turned into a very uncomfortable game of each girl taking turns sitting on top of you and if you wouldn't kiss her, she would pin you down and pinch your nipples- until you would give in and kiss her. If you didn't give in, then other girls would also sit on top of you to help hold you down. I did not like this game. I did not tell my parents about what happened at this sleep over - and I didn't want them to tell the other parents what had happened. I didn't want to get in trouble and I didn't want to make all those girls mad at me- or to tell on me to my brother.

Junior High School only managed to increase my awareness of how I looked different than other girls. Part of it was the fact that other families could afford trips to the mall, or to the beauty salon- and more times than I can ever count I felt like the ugly duckling trying to fit in with the swans. At a young age, especially an age when puberty has arrived, it is very difficult to feel comfortable in your own skin, let alone the clothes or hair style you have to fit with it. My older brother had this friend that I thought was cute (I'll call him Jeff), and I would always feel all funny inside when he was around. I was too shy to try to find out if he liked me- if my brother would even allow him to like me. One day, my brother made a very loud comment, which came out more like an announcement, that made me literally have to suck in air just to breathe. He said, 'Jeff thinks you would be really cute if you weren't hairy like a gorilla'. That dart sank really, really deep. I was in 5th grade at the time, in a school that was 5th through 7th grade, and I was not allowed to use a razor to shave, so I was already embarrassed by the fact that I had visible armpit and leg hair. I really started to move from dislike to hatred with my body around that time. Then to add to that new found hate, I was sitting at the lunch table with a few of my friends, and one of my male friends looked me straight in the face, and asked me why my boobs didn't sit high like the other girls. I shrugged, then I laughed along with everyone else. What else was I supposed to do? I felt like my body was betraying me when it seemed so simple to just be like everyone else's. Even our uncles would slap sticks against the pavement and make a big ruckus about how our 'thunder thighs' caused the ground to shake when we walked or ran. Us girls just laughed along, we really didn't fully understand that even though it was a joke- it was a mean joke to play on young developing girls.

Around this time in the timeline of our young lives, my parents would visit the family that lived up the road from us. To this day, regardless of how much time or money I have invested to recover those memories, I can still only recall glimpses. Glimpses of very obese women with dirty fingernails that liked to touch me in ways that made my stomach feel sick inside. Men who were just smelly and not clean, with eyes that would follow me no matter how far I sank in the corner, and who would follow me when I tried to escape outside to get away from them. My body image really plummeted during this time. It was the first time I can remember that I could look in a mirror and just see my clothes or my hair- I didn't see my eyes or my smile anymore.

Then Corey liked me. He sent me a carnation, which everyone teased me about- but in a fun way. He even got me a bottle of honeysuckle perfume with a crystal humming bird topper. Corey was nice to me, and although I didn't understand then what respect was, he was a boy that treated me with respect and kindness. I am not sure what happened to Corey, I just remember I quickly found myself instead with a boy named Dale who made me feel a bit sick to my stomach the first time he tried to hold my hand. It wasn't long after that he tried to convince me that we could 'do it' in a ditch so no one would see us and we wouldn't get in trouble. All my girlfriends were crazy about the idea that Dale wanted to be my boyfriend, that Dale picked me. Even just being in 5th grade, I could not shake the gross feelings I had when I was around Dale. I could not understand why everyone else thought it was such a great thing- and I just felt sick inside. Before the big 'do it in a ditch' thing happened, I was invited over with a group of girls to Sam's house. Sam was cool. She had the best haircut, she wore the most trendy clothes, she even had the newest Nike tennis shoes that everyone wanted. Turns out, Sam wanted to have a kissing party with this whole group of girls. I did not like girls that way, and even told her I really didn't want to kiss other girls. Sam said I could just leave then- and the other girls started laughing and teasing me for being chicken and not knowing how to kiss. Even though I didn't like myself for it, I stayed. Sam turned the lights off, we all took turns kissing her so she could vote who was the best kisser down to who was the worst. Me- I was voted close to the worst. Even though that was not a good thing at the time to the others, and they made fun of me, I knew I didn't get a good score because I didn't like to kiss girls. And yes, it did get around at school. And Dale decided to cancel the 'do it in the ditch' thing because I couldn't even kiss a girl right. To say I was mortified, would be an understatement. I wanted to crawl under a rock. Shame began to take over. I truly started to hate me- as a girl, and the way I looked on a whole different level. Then came my period. I ended up attending four different junior high schools, each time having to start over with new friends, teachers, classes and boys. There were a lot of boys I liked, they just didn't seem to like me back much. This greatly effected how I felt about myself as a young teenage girl.

Then along came High School. Those years were truly tragic for me. I liked Hans, a boy in my home room class- a lot. He publicly announced he did not like me, even making fun of me causing others in the class to laugh out loud. Our teacher tried to dissuade me from trying to get this particular boy's attention, but I was determined that he should like me back. He never did. Then I liked Ricky. Just like Danny was Sandy's 'T-Bird'... Ricky was mine. I was entirely smitten with him, with his long shaggy hair, leather jacket, and cool facade- and he could care less that I even existed. A friend of mine, was a friend of his, and she secretly went to him to see if he would 'hang out' with me because I was so crazy about him. His words back to her were 'I'll hang out with her, once, as long as no one ever finds out about it'. That dart, that one hurt pretty bad. To try to ease my suffering, my friend went to another male friend of hers who was more of a semi-popular unattractive nerd. Guess what his answer to her offer was? The same damn thing! He would meet me in secret and keep it a secret. I started to really question things about myself. Was I fat? Ugly? Unattractive? Embarrassing? Was I so disgusting that no boy could or would even like me? That is a very deep, dark, lonely place to be- especially at 14 years old.

Some time passed, and an older boy across the street from where I lived started to show attention. He had long hair, a Chevelle, he smoked cigarettes, drank alcohol- and he liked me! He would show up when I was walking home from school, he would come over to the house and hang out with my family a bit, he even asked me to a High School football game. When he picked me up, he had alcohol in the trunk and my friends were waiting to meet him and to share his alcohol later. He stopped the car in the gravel parking lot next to the stadium, suggested that we go 'do it' in the ditch, and when I hesitated he left me standing there in the gravel while he raced off in his Chevelle with the alcohol still in his trunk, spraying gravel on me. I just couldn't seem to understand why boys, even older boys, thought doing it in a ditch was what you were supposed to do. After that, he showed up more. My mom and siblings left one day to run to the store and he came to the house. His recollection to this day is that we liked each other, we wanted to have sex, so we did. My recollection with much time and money spent in counseling, is that we liked each other, yes. I wanted to have sex but was also still not wanting to have sex- I just wasn't sure if I was ready to. He made very clear he was there to have sex- and he made sure that we did. It would be years later that I would hear from my then boyfriend how this guy told him he was my first, that I had been a virgin. Truth is, sex had happened long before that, and not by my choice. It had just been many years in between- and your body can respond like it is the first time (this happened to me again at the age of 37, if you can wrap your brain around that). He came to my house twice for sex, then agreed to go to Homecoming with me. I told my friends that my 19 year old 'boyfriend' was coming with me. I borrowed clothes to wear from my aunt who is a year older than me, I got dressed up, and stood outside on the front walk for far too long waiting for him to show up. He never did. I had to hear from my mom that he was married with a pregnant wife and a 2 year old daughter at home. Not long after, my mom had to ask me if I was pregnant since she knew my period was late. I hated my body even more by now and I definitely could not stand to look at the girl staring back at me in the mirror.

Then, I met my first love. He liked me and made it no secret. He liked to meet me outside of my classrooms and out at the smoking section during breaks. I had not felt this way about the other boys I had liked before, he was different. He lived across the street and I would sneak over to his house so we could hang out, get high, listen to music, and fool around. I started to feel something in me change. I started to feel like I might actually not hate myself so much. Then one afternoon when I went over to his house, he wasn't there. It was just his dad there waiting for me. He very clearly explained that his son wanted some lines of cocaine, and since he didn't have the money to pay him, he thought I could be the trade. So there I was, not quite 16 years old, being traded for drugs by my boyfriend- to his dad. That one, well it didn't feel like a dart at all. It felt like more like someone had shot a crossbow through my heart.

Very shortly after this encounter, I moved in with my 27 year old boyfriend and his 29 year old friend. Yes, I was only just 16. A lot of time is gone from my mind during these months of my life. I have regained glimpses of being with men I can't put a name to the face of, climbing in drunk stupors over fences and out of back patios trying to escape these men I didn't know. Too, too much alcohol and cocaine supplied by my roomies who called me their 'best girl' and helped me survive on Ramen Noodles and Pepsi. During this time I have a very vivid memory of walking down the sidewalk on a hot summer day in a tee shirt and shorts, the only thought in my brain being, 'Why won't someone- anyone, just pick me up for sex?'. My self-hatred, self-respect, and body image plummeted to depths I have not visited since.

As more time passed, tragedy seemed to multiply. After a move across town to the other high school for a fresh start, I put out efforts to like nice boys who might like me back. Maybe it was the way I looked- or didn't look, maybe it was my age, or personality, or simply my overt desperation for them to like me back- but they did not. This only increased my self-hatred and poor body image. I literally could not stand the sight of myself so I drank more, smoked more, snorted more... what ever it took to make myself forget. I know I put myself in situations that were not proper or safe for me. One night I was held against my will by three guys who repeatedly assaulted me and then would not allow me to leave until they shoved me out on the street the next day bleeding and bruised- and ashamed. This night destroyed the scraps of what still remained of my self-respect and love for being female. To add insult to injury, I was told years later by a then boyfriend, that one guy I dated for a short time after the assault told him I was a dead lay. This dart sank really deep. If I had a shred of feeling good left over about my sexuality at such a young age, it dissolved the moment I heard myself referred to that way. Up to that point, I had only been shown and taught by other girls, by young men and by adult men, that I was to do what I was told, to not resist, and to let things happen to me- even bad things. And to not tell anybody what happened.

And finally adulthood! I had convinced myself that some how, some way, things would just be different. In your young mind it is easy to be deceived by false hope. It gives you a feeling of newness, of freedom, of leaving what has happened behind you- where it belongs. It feels like taking a deep breath of starting over and deserving something better. Although these are all good things, and necessary, without help, support or counsel, it just remains false hope. I continued in self-destructive ways and found myself time and again in unsafe, abusive and violent relationships with addicted men. No matter how much I hoped for better, I still could not stand me. And as the days passed, the self-hatred and shame increased. Perfectionism took hold and I became obsessed with proving I was prettier, smarter, funnier, stronger... more of anything and everything than I had been. I was convinced that it would be easier on my heart, mind and spirit to just make myself be a better me than it would be to do the work to heal the broken sh*t inside of me. So I marched on through the train wreck my life had become. And I drug my little baby boy through the wreckage with me. We both suffered greatly, even more so after I had my baby girl. The only reason we made it is by the power of survival mode and God's grace. My feelings of self-hatred, poor body image, and zero self-respect were only compounded by what I drug my kids through. You see, I didn't know any better at the time. I didn't realize the support and tools that were available to me so that we could escape and heal. And I had not even the slightest knowledge of how shame and guilt can paralyze you from the inside out, keeping you stuck in those unhealthy, unsafe relationships- even with yourself.

I would like to say that when my kids and I finally got free, that the self-love and self-respect just flooded back in. That I was able to once again look in a mirror- and smile back at my reflection. But truth be told, I had only gotten physically free from those relationships. I hadn't yet done the hard work of severing myself and my kids from that kind of life. Things were better for awhile... and then they weren't. At the age of 39 I was sexually assaulted and suffered severe depression and suicidal ideation. I mentally, physically, emotionally just checked out. I lost 30 pounds in less than 90 days, and ended up looking like a stick figure boy than I did a woman about to turn 40. After suffering disabling panic attacks I found myself sitting in a seat opposite a rape counselor who encouraged me start taking small steps towards healing from the assault, which triggered PTSD from the assault that happened in my youth. I was placed with a wonderful female psychologist that I will forever be indebted to. She started helping me build the foundation I had been lacking in self-love, self-respect, and healing from the shame and guilt that had been crippling my life. It would, however, take two more highly abusive relationships before I would make the choice to be free- no matter the miles I had to travel, the time it took, or the pain and hard work it involved.

You might wonder why I find it so important to share such personal experiences that I have walked through, parts that my two kids have endured along with me. It all comes down to the reason I feel that God gives me words to write. You might find yourself in my story. You might recognize your sister, or mother, or friend. You might see your daughter, or niece, or grand child. (No disrespect or offense meant toward the male readers who find yourself in my story. Men can and are victims of assault and abuse as well as suffer loss of self-respect, loss of self-love, and poor body image). Back during the times I walked through those traumas, there was not awareness. No one gave any weight or value to the impact and devastation inflicted by trauma. In my experience, even adults who knew what had happened to me (and there were many), did not step in to help. They, in turn, became part of the problem. They became unsafe for me to go to for help. Today, I understand that those who hurt me are responsible for the pain they caused. They themselves may have been recreating pain from damage done to them. But today I understand and can accept that what happened was not my fault. But it was my responsibility to find me and to help me break free from the rubble. It was up to me to hit my rock bottom. It was up to me to make a decision to want more for my life. It was up to me to do the hard work of repairing the damage done, to forgive my offenders, to uncover those things in me that were good, and true, and worthy of love. It was up to me to look in a mirror and choose to see Patty... to see myself as beautiful, as smart, as brave, as loving, as generous, as kind hearted. And to choose to smile and to not look past my reflection. This is not a one-and-done deal. Each day, every day, I must make this choice. Some days still remain much harder than others. It is not because I did recovery wrong, or because I wasn't healed from my past, or because I am once damaged-always damaged. It is because my rock bottom did not come until I was 43 years old. For 43 years I was lost in that pit of self-hatred, self-loathing, guilt and shame. 43 years! Just like you don't get fat overnight, you also don't find yourself skinny by Monday morning. Healing takes time, it takes energy and effort you don't even know you have. Healing takes everything you know and it questions it as truth. Healing is a process, and I am okay with that. I am okay with knowing that there will be good days, there will be bad days, and there will be days somewhere in the middle. Yes, the mirror and I have made friends. Yes, I can accept that my body will never look like my sister's, my friend's, Jennifer Aniston's or Sofia Vergara's. My body will always look like Patty's. Sometimes my body will change (good or not good) with the seasons, with age, with stress, with effort- but I am okay with that. The fact that I can look at my body and not hate myself is what healing looks like to me. Some of you might wonder if those old memories of abuse and assault rise to the surface, even after all the time spent in counseling and recovery. The answer is yes, they do. But today, the abuse and assaults do not define me. They are something that happened to me, and they are just a part of my story. I choose to embrace my story to embrace my life! #embraceyourstoryembraceyourlife #recoveryfromabuse #newlife #healing

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