Untouchable

by Susan Pogorzelski on April 27, 2011 · 18 comments

Take a look at my body
Look at my hands
There’s so much here
That I don’t understand

Contempt loves the silence
It thrives in the dark
With fine winding tendrils
That strangle the heart…
- Natalie Merchant, “My Skin”

 

Similar to my friend Brenda, puberty hit when I was in the fifth grade, where, for one whole summer, I was the tallest one in the class, where I thought I could be a great women’s basketball player and believed I would actually fit into something bigger than a size 4 shoe.

Genetics had other ideas…

5th Grade Graduation

Childhood. It’s a time when insecurities are beginning to take shape as you become hyperaware of your body and the changes that are taking place — hyperaware, but not at all understanding what is happening. All you know is that everything is different now when you look in the mirror — you’re suddenly different — and instead of celebrating those differences, you’re made to feel ashamed of them by young boys who don’t know the first thing about a girl’s body and girls who are desperately wanting to see a change in their own.

Teasing. I remember the clever jokes they would create, led by the boy who lived a block over from me, who I’d used to play with when we were even younger. I remember how I cried — in part feeling bad about myself as I struggled to understand all of these changes that I couldn’t stop from happening , in part feeling betrayed by those I had considered friends and allies. But soon everyone else caught up, and soon we each began to realize that this was part of growing up.

Soon, we had other insecurities to replace the ones we had outgrown…

When I was in the seventh grade, I caught mono and was out of school for a month and a half. Instead of losing the weight, as so many others can claim, my metabolism tanked and my immune system went with it. I remember my mom pulling around to the back of the school to drop me off after receiving the clearance from the doctor; I remember bursting into tears at the thought of returning, of facing everyone after such a long absence. It wasn’t the first panic attack I’d ever had, but, looking back, it was the first one I could really recognize.

I wish I could say that I was afraid of not being able to catch up with the work; I wish I could say that I feared being out of sight and out of mind, that everything would have changed and I wouldn’t recognize or be a part of any of it. I wish I could remember — and I’m sure each of these doubts played their part, as they play their part to this day — but what I remember most was being ashamed of myself and fearing the ridicule that seemed only inevitable, that I had built up in my mind.

Mom took me home that morning, letting me have one more day before I faced my peers, before I faced my fears. I remember I was welcomed back by my teachers; I remember I was surrounded by friends again, easily slipping back into that circle and, somehow, that made it seem like everything else would be alright, even if I did spend the rest of my middle school days subconsciously hiding behind baggy sweaters and t-shirts.

High School felt like a promise –  a golden promise that everything would change, that I would finally be able to grow into myself and show on the outside the person I was on the inside. Even now, writing this, it’s hard to admit that it’s all I’ve ever wanted — that someone would see beyond the flaws to the person inside; maybe that’s all we could ever hope for, in our secret heart of hearts…

France 2000

He did. He found the person I was hiding and drew her to the surface, and maybe that’s why I loved him so, why I cherished our once-upon-a-time story.

Maybe that’s why I’d had so much trouble letting go…

But maybe it wasn’t all him…Maybe what he recognized was simply that I was finally beginning to accept myself…

I was sixteen when I went on my first trip to France, with a dozen and a half kids and three teacher-chaperones for ten days during the summer of 2000.  I was sixteen when I flew on my first plane, when I visited my first foreign country, when I spent an extended time away from my parents, my family…

When it changed everything…

When it changed me.

I was sixteen when I first I discovered the world, when I discovered my voice, when I discovered myself.

I  made myself a promise then (or maybe I’d just promised my mom) that has since been my life’s mantra: I wouldn’t hold back.

I wouldn’t hold back from being who I was for fear of what others might think of me; I wouldn’t hold back from experiencing what I wanted to experience because I wondered how I would look, how it might seem.

And I would never, ever hold back what I was feeling, would never keep from expressing how much I care about something or someone, in fear of their reply.

Life is too short: it’s cliché, but it’s true. I may not know exactly when it was decided, but something in me knew that I wasn’t going to tailor myself to fit someone else’s idea of who I should be, not there on this trip, and not, I later learned, in life. This was one of those rare, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities from which I couldn’t hold back, where the experiences were worth far more than the fear and worry…

Climb a thousand-plus stairs for a breathtaking view of Monaco? It would be hell, but sure.  Hold an impromptu modeling session with friends at Mont Saint-Michel after marveling at the beauty of the abbey? A picture book of memories. A longing to see La Place de l’Opera more than any other monument because you read the Phantom of the Opera the year before and fell in love? Go. Tears cascading freely down your cheeks as you watch war footage in a memorial museum in Caan? Let them.

The question, “would you like dessert this evening?”

An answer: YES.

When I returned from France, my mom said she saw a change in me; when I finally looked inward, I saw a change in myself.

I shed the weight, both literally and figuratively. I began to pursue my passions through projects and in leadership roles in school, and I focused on the things and people that mattered the most to me. Maybe it was because I was in love, and I know how much that can change you, how, in its best form, how strong that can make you  feel; maybe it was because I had finally found my own voice and I realized how powerful and beautiful that could be.

France 2008

Either way, I had found myself.

Either way, I liked myself.

Until…

Fast-forward.

Heartbreak. Illness and illness again. Grief, mourning what seemed permanent losses — a loss of family, a loss of faith…

And then…a loss of self.

I didn’t think I could feel any lower than I did when I first started this blog — it was the beginning of what everyone claims is a quarter-life crisis, as I had no direction and any self-confidence was shattered. Who would hire me, has since been replaced by, who will love me?

It’s safe in the darkness, in the depression — you can let those voices whisper their poison until eventually you believe them to be true and by then, they act as a comfort, a shelter. You can convince yourself that happiness is fleeting, and that who you were then in the twilight years after France was just a fluke, that you’re older now, that you’ve changed — that it was only the innocence and folly of youth.

You can try to reclaim it by revisiting the country you adore, the country that feels like home…

But it’s only so long before you realize that it feels so much like home only because you had found your home in it…

You had found yourself.

And now you wonder where that’s gone…

You wonder how to get it back.

Self-esteem isn’t a switch that you can flip and await some grand transformation. There will always be moments when I look in the mirror and wonder how anyone can possibly love me as I am again, wonder if that wasn’t just some ironic twist of fate, if that wasn’t just the specialness of him. There will always be moments where I compare myself to others, wondering why I can’t be smarter or prettier or kinder or wittier. There will always be breakdowns in the shower and tear-soaked pillows in the quiet lull of night…

There will always be a time when, instead of your own reflection, you see your own worst enemy staring back at you. And that enemy has your face and your own name. And no matter how you try to escape her, she’ll follow you, a shadow that can’t be dispelled.

No, self-esteem isn’t a switch you can flip, but it’s a battle against the voices that haunt you, the voices that sound so very much like your own, that threaten to spread it’s poison as it belittles you, as it demeans the goodness in who you are.

Self-esteem is a war you wage, sometimes daily, against yourself and the insecurities that foster self-hatred instead of self-acceptance.

It’s a journey — a very personal and difficult journey — in discovering and rediscovering and discovering yet again who you are and why you are so loved.

Why you are beautiful.

And how you can love yourself.

 

NYC 2011 (with Sam & Alyssa)

Note: I can only imagine that this is the first post in a series on self-esteem, as I battle weakness and find strength on this journey towards my own self-acceptance. I want to thank Tatiana for her honesty and touching on the subject in her guest post, and Brenda for continuing the conversation and being vulnerable on her own blog — you’re both inspirations to me.

 

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Bryan Rutt April 27, 2011

“There will always be a time when, instead of your own reflection, you see your own worst enemy staring back at you.”

Well damn if that line didn’t just drill down to my very soul!

One of your most powerful and most beautiful pieces, Susan – outstanding!

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Susan Pogorzelski April 28, 2011

Thanks, Bryan. Hard to face the enemy sometimes, especially when that enemy is yourself…

Thanks for being here.

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Tatiana April 27, 2011

:] I’m glad that I could be of service to you. And I was actually thinking about self-esteem earlier tonight, so this post is so divinely timed!

Self-acceptance/self-esteem is really hard because it tends to be drawn from finite sources like our bodies. But our bodies are the first thing people see when they meet you. How can the two be reconciled without feeling like you’re playing into some game (which is how I personally feel)?

There’s also this, which I really relate to: “There will always be moments where I compare myself to others, wondering why I can’t be smarter or prettier or kinder or wittier.” I often feel like there’s something extremely wrong with me because I’m not a go-getter, know how to make money easily, or have a clear path for myself (career wise and other). I wonder, “How can anyone like me when I’m really not that smart? Or happy all the time? Or super pretty?”

Depression, self-hate is certainly a never ending struggle. Sometimes, I feel like, a person could spend the rest of their lives battling depression and self-hate, instead of ever actually recovering.

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Susan Pogorzelski April 28, 2011

Tatiana — I’m so glad you were so willing to touch on the subject of body image, something I’ve always wanted to do but just never have — whether it’s because I was still embarrassed or ashamed or I didn’t have the words…I can’t really be sure.

It is such a vulnerable issue — possibly more than anything else because it encompasses every single part of yourself — affecting the physical, the mental, and the emotional.

You’re absolutely right — first impressions matter. Maybe that’s why I blog, why I’m so willing to share so much…because I want to be understood, sometimes desperately so. Because on the street, I might feel overlooked, but here, online, I can share a part of myself and it’s ok, it’s accepted.

I’m accepted…as is.

It is a journey — a personal journey that every single person embarks on at one point or another in their lives (and if they say they don’t, I’m calling bullshit). The only thing I can say is, keep on with the journey…don’t give up.

So glad to have met you, thank you so much for sharing this space with your gues post.

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Positively Present April 28, 2011

Amazing post, Susan! I love how you are able to share so much of yourself on your site. I really applaud you for that. It’s a brave thing to do. I’m hoping that one day I will be able to be more open and able to share more of my personal self (who I am and who I was) online. You’re a true inspiration to me!

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Susan Pogorzelski April 28, 2011

Dani — I wish you could know just how much this comment means to me. I’ve always maintained that this space is an outlet for my deepest thoughts, fears, part of myself and it’s never been more true than right now. The times when I’m terrified to push publish? Those are the times when I feel like I need to. I have my privacy, I keep the things close to my heart that need to be there, but I also share because if I kept it all locked inside, I would suffocate, because sharing has helped me understand the world better, understand myself, and because sharing has helped bring me closer to people like you.

<3

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Joe Heidler April 28, 2011

That was a really well written article. I am amazed at how many beautiful young women, that I have met through social media, struggle with self esteem issues. It’s great that you can be open and relate these feelings to others. Prayers are with you for happiness and peace.

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Susan Pogorzelski April 28, 2011

Thanks so much, Joe (and thanks for your advice on that other topic of asking for help). It’s funny, how you never really know what another person is feeling, what shadows of their own they’re battling. Knowing my own makes me empathize more with others, helps me understand that we really aren’t alone…not at all.

Thanks for helping me feel not so alone today, thank you for the wonderful comment.

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Hillary April 28, 2011

Susan, this was a beautiful and heart touching piece. As another woman that’s struggled similar struggles including the mono weight gain, I can tell you that even having a family isn’t a magic potion against the demons attacking a woman’s self-esteem. They, just likely friends are a source of strength as well as a source of contention. Just yesterday The Bubs told me I had a “big butt”. The rational me knows compared to her toddler butt everyone’s is big but it still strikes a dagger in a soft spot in my armor. You’re so right that self-worth is a journey that ebbs & flows.

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Susan Pogorzelski April 28, 2011

Hillary — I can’t tell you how much this made me want to cry. Because I’m going to tell you something that I’d long forgotten, that I don’t think I even told my mom:

I was babysitting my next door neighbor once when I was in eight or ninth grade, and she bluntly — as kids do — said something along the lines of “mom says you have a big tummy because you eat a lot.” The comment stung, more than anything I’d ever heard, probably because it was coming from such innocence.

The thing is, it’s like your reaction to the Bubs…rationally, her mom probably didn’t have an easy answer — because how do you explain something like Mono or CFS to a kid? And so she probably took the shortcut, not realizing that her daughter would repeat her. And that little girl didn’t know any better — what I remember as we rocked back and forth on the swings wasn’t distaste, but curiosity. Here was someone who looked different than she did, and she was trying to find out why.

Rationally, looking back, I know this. And maybe I knew it then, because I didn’t say anything to correct her. Though it hurt like hell. It will always be a sensitivity. And it’ll always be a journey. I can only hope that we have smoother sailing in the future.

Thank you so much for sharing, Hillary — thank you so much, and so much love to you.

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Sam April 28, 2011

Beautiful and honest as always. As you know, self-esteem is a daily struggle for me too. Recently, I was given the incredible opportunity to take part in group coaching with Molly Hoyne of Stratejoy. Our group is all about self-love and confidence, two things I definitely need help with. We had our first session last week, and I realized something that I’m sure you can relate to: it doesn’t matter how many people tell you you’re beautiful, smart, talented, etc. You can hear it a million times, and as great as it is to receive those compliments, you need to fully believe and internalize them before they carry any weight.

Self-love is a journey, a process. You have to commit to it, or you’ll just go around in circles, not getting anywhere. Writing posts like this is a great way to start. I hope that someday in the not too distant future, you start to believe that you are beautiful, smart, and talented…because you are.

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Susan Pogorzelski April 28, 2011

Sam — when we first started talking about our anxieties, I knew that here was a girl who understood. And you’ve continued understanding throughout the past two years (has it been that long) and supporting and encouraging and for that, I couldn’t be more grateful.

You’re right — and as I wrote awhile ago, I’ve heard it from my family, my friends, and even from strangers, but I never believed it for myself. I always thought it was just me being modest and humble, but now I know there’s something deeper there — an insecurity that isn’t so easily quelled. And I hate it. I hate that I have these insecurities because this isn’t me — not when I’m at my strongest, not when I’m at my best, not when I’m truly me. But it’s the weakness that gets you, that crack in the armor that lets it get ahold of you and pull you down.

That’s what I’ve been feeling, that’s where my self-esteem plummets and that poison does its job.

As nervous as I was to post this — pictures and all — I decided that I didn’t want to hide anymore. I’ve spent four years tackling the big stuff on my blog — for the first time even naming my depression out-loud. I feel like it was time. And I feel relieved. And I feel…like this is a beginning.

On another note: I’m so, so glad that you’re finding your own beginning and are on your own journey — I adore Molly and what she’s created with Stratejoy, just as I adore you. So thank you — for this and for everything. We do always seem to be on congruent paths, don’t we? ;)

<3

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Kristina April 28, 2011

I beautiful piece, Susan. I really admire how open and honest you are in your blogging. You bare your soul for us and that is so brave. I wish I could be like you in my writing.

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Susan Pogorzelski April 28, 2011

Oh, Kris. As I said above, I share here because it’s my place, my space, possibly the only place where I can share the deepest part of me and not feel so alone, possibly help others so that they feel the same. So I should say THANK YOU for letting me do that here, and thank you for reading…

But most of all, thank you for the phone calls and the emails and thank you for being one of my closest friends I’ve found in this online world. I love you!

Now get better so you can get your butt up here to visit! Riley misses you and Seb! :)

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