For what seems like the hundredth time, I have been sorting through boxes that have made it through my most recent move, trying to see if there are any items that I need to purge, or things I want to pull out of storage now that I have a little more room for odds and ends. Luckily, our garage is very large, and right now, half of it is overtaken with boxes and bags, framed art and lampshades, packages of memories and forgotten pieces of my past.
Three moves ago, before I had met my husband, I went through a great deal of my belongings, things that had been in storage for ten years or more. This in itself was shocking to me, and marked a big portion of my life when I could not part with anything that was remotely sentimental. The odd thing was, I think I was holding on to every torn scrap of paper, every memento, every picture frame, hoping that when the time came and I could take it all in, I would somehow find answers in the things I had preserved and carried with me all those years. I thought maybe the sum of all those things would make sense further down the line, so I kept it all, and waited and hoped.
Finally, when I was forced to downsize and couldn’t afford a storage unit, I had to purge. I had to be reckless and not ponder every note, every greeting card, every trinket, but instead let go of things that truly didn’t matter. I couldn’t hold onto the pieces of some imaginary jigsaw puzzle, that honestly, when put together wouldn’t make any more sense than all the scraps of my life combined.
I kept the important things. Journals from so many stages of my life with words dripping in such reality, such perfect snapshots of moments, that I was left gasping at the vividness of the pain. My books from kindergarten – one for each letter of the alphabet, written in my five year old hand- the deliberate strokes so evidently mine- so reaching for perfection even at that age. All the poems I wrote over the years that at times shock me in their maturity and help me see through the eyes of my younger self what once was. And books. All of my books. The books that opened so many other worlds to me when I needed to shut the door to my own and find somewhere safe to go. I can’t easily part with books for that reason, even today.
And then, there was the yearbook box. All of my yearbooks- well, most of them- from kindergarten to high school, some falling apart at the seams, poorly bound, and faded with age. I have rarely opened one of those yearbooks over the years, except to solve a mystery when talking with a friend…what was her name—the girl we knew in fifth grade? Or something similar. I avoided looking at all photos of myself from any of those years. I would actually check the alphabetized list of names if I was looking for someone or something, and make sure I was skipping the page of students in my grade with the last name beginning with “S”.
However, the yearbooks have now taken on new meaning. Although my husband and I are just about to celebrate our first wedding anniversary, and our second year together, we have known each other since seventh grade. We went to the same junior high school and high school together. We passed each other in the hallways, shared lunch time in the cafeteria, sat a row apart in Language Arts class. But we were acquaintances at best. We knew each other, but weren’t close.
We reconnected through Facebook (and my best friend’s urging) over 25 years later…almost half a life later. So, as I came across the yearbook box in the garage a few weeks ago, I smiled thinking of all the captured moments of the two of us that we might have missed. Random group pictures and candids in familiar hallways and classrooms.
As I brought them upstairs, my husband immediately recognized what I had in my hands and moved to the couch so we could share each book together. In the first book, my husband scoured the alphabet to find my last name, looking for the “me” he knew so long ago. I honestly felt my heart begin to race. Even though I know he loves me, the thought of him seeing me then, captured in all my teenage horror, was unsettling. And then he found my picture.
And so did I.
I couldn’t believe the face staring back at me. What I didn’t tell him was that I believed myself to be hideous all those years. Not in a normal, teenage angst kind of way, but in a way that I cried almost every morning for years, looking at myself in the mirror before school, feeling I was almost deformed, I was so ugly. It started in grade school, but grew worse in fifth grade, and was all downhill from there. I finally worked out a way to only look once in the mirror before I left for school, just to make sure I was as presentable as possible, or hadn’t forgotten a stray hot roller, or smear of makeup.
I cannot express the weight I carried every day, feeling that I was the ugliest person in the world, feeling that no one would ever love me, that my friends were in a way, taking pity on me by being friends with me. It was the life of a young girl completely stripped of self esteem. I told no one, and turned more inward every day.
But sitting on the couch that night with my husband, I was frozen, staring at the seventh grade “me”. I am still astonished to say that I was completely and utterly shocked to see a normal teenage girl staring back at me. This girl was not hideous, she was not ugly, she looked just like every other teenager in that book. As I write this, I cannot believe that it took me this long to realize what I had put myself through every day, and what I somehow still held onto as the vision of who I was.
As we opened one yearbook after another, I began thumbing through the pages to find myself…and I did. Each time, a little older, another year survived.
I finally came a little more into my own in college (didn’t we all?). But even as I felt that I wasn’t as hideous as I once had been, I still doubted every time my friends or even boyfriends said I was beautiful. I could never truly accept that compliment. I thought people said it to be kind, or to make me feel better, compassionately overlooking the reality of what I looked like because they cared.
I don’t believe I was born with low self esteem, I don’t think anyone is. Maybe I am wrong, but I believe it is something that is taught. Intentionally or not, it was taught to me- and I learned the lesson far too well. It took me over half my life to see myself when I looked in the mirror- to face the mirror every day and like the girl I saw staring back. I can’t begin to count the mirrors I turned away from, the moments of self doubt that took things and people away from me.
It was the doubt that grew in a quiet house of pain, it was the whisper of my father’s voice that stayed in my ear for far too long. It was the uncertainty and fear of a place that should have been safe.
When I see it all from a distance, I understand how those thoughts formed, why I lost faith in myself, and why I couldn’t see that very normal girl looking back at me that I see now. I hurt for her. I want to go back and explain it to her. I want to rescue her and tell her all the things I have learned, all that I know now. I want to tell her that his words are not the truth. I want her to believe me.
But, I can’t. All I can do now is tell her that it all turns out ok in the end. Better than ok. And that one day, she will see herself as beautiful…more beautiful than she could have imagined. And a large portion of that beauty will come from everything she lived through, everything she overcame, everything she survived.
It will all add up and even out.
It will all be …beautiful.
The artist for the work featured in this post is Beatriz Martin Vidal. View more of her stunning work here.