From the time I entered Kindergarten at Cotesfield, Nebraska School Dist. #14 until I became a teenager, I obsessed and depressed over my vanity.
Hair. I wasn’t a blonde. I was cursed with dull rusty-brown hair.
Teeth. I didn’t have straight, white teeth like the models in Teen magazine. My teeth were jaggedy and crooked. The gap between my two front teeth reminded me of the Golden Gate bridge.
Feet. Instead of a straight edge on the left side of each foot, I had a bony bump at the base and to the left of each big toe that resembled a camel’s hump. Some brainiac in the early days of the English language decided to play a cruel joke by taking the name of a smelly but flavorful vegetable, the onion, and putting a “b” in front.
Weight. Thanks to two years of steroids to conquer a blood disease caused by an immune system that nearly failed me, I chubbed out at the age of 8.
I was clumsy (zero athletic ability), puffy, and pale, plus I had freckles AND acne, and was demanding of myself and others. On top of that I had no personality. Nothing amusing or intelligent ever came out of my mouth. I viewed myself as a nerdy brainiac, striving for perfection, always trying to one-up my friends. All while silently screaming to be noticed and to figure out my place.
And now…the stories behind how I conquered each of these perceived imperfections.
Let’s go back to our nation’s bicentennial year, 1976. I was 11 – no longer able to get by on homely little-girl cuteness. Not old enough yet for makeup and still too clumsy to operate a curling iron without burning my forehead and ears. My older sister, Marilyn, was in 10th grade and had blonde hair and plenty of boys chasing her, as did all the other popular blonde girls. For some reason, blondes got all the attention, were prettier, were more graceful, and managed to unapologetically breeze through life.
My hair in 1976 was parted in the middle and hung down to the middle of my back. It was wavy and dull, and tangles perpetually collected behind my neck. Breck’s conditioner called No More Tangles was a joke.
And then, in my early high school years, I discovered the wonders of home perms. Mom patiently combed and placed sections of dull hair around every available curler in the house. Then she trussed me up in raggedy old bath towels, put on plastic gloves and played chemist, pouring solutions from various bottles in the home perm box into a plastic bottle. She gave the bottle a good Donna-shake, snipped off the tip of the bottle’s spout with a pair of scissors, asked me to lean over the kitchen sink, and squirted the entire bottle over all those pink curlers as I forced back ammonia-induced gags. I dripped over the sink for a minute, then she placed a plastic bag over the curlers, gave the bag a twist near my forehead and secured it in place with a silver metal hair clip. Then I lifted my head out of the sink and cringed as chemicals dripped down the back of my neck. I “processed” for 20 minutes, dreaming of long flowy curls. What I got was a headful of kinked-up curls so tight I could barely pull a comb through the mess for the next four weeks.
In hindsight, what home perms did was gear me up for the big hair phase of the late 1980s. Funny, our kitchen sink never experienced a clog, either.
Thankfully, in the 1990s I stopped frying my hair with permanents and settled on sensible hairstyles. I was in the early days of my career when I was introduced to a woman who had naturally blonde hair but had chosen to color her hair brown. She was an engineer, and she had gotten tired of men not taking her seriously in the workplace as a blonde.
From that day forward, I loved being a brunette.
I inherited my full-blooded Czech father’s quirkiness, his loyal concern for others, and his bad teeth genes. While my brothers and sister only got one cavity every couple of years, I had a mouthful of fillings. One of my previously-mentioned Golden Gate bridge front teeth eventually developed a cavity, which allowed my dentist to create a crown that closed the gap for a short while. Until my junior year in high school, when I experienced menstrual cramps so severe I fainted after walking out of the high school superintendent’s office after using his assistant’s phone to call my mother to come get me. I fainted forward and fell on my face, chipping my crowned tooth.
That forward tumble was the beginning of all kinds of trouble. The chipped tooth was repaired but died 15 years later, so I got implants – no not THOSE types of implants. I got dental implants for the deceased front tooth and the tooth next to it, since it, too, was facing imminent death. I was awake but zoned out on serious muscle relaxers for that dental implant surgery, but I vividly remember the periodontist using what looked like a Black+Decker power tool to screw the two implants into the bone above my front teeth.
Thanks again to those bad teeth genes, most of the rest of my front teeth were eventually either crowned or replaced with implants.
Voilà. I finally had perfect, fake front teeth. Problem solved.
This one doesn’t have a happy ending. My bunions have gotten worse with time, and my second left toe is now a “claw toe” because my big left toe is slanted so far left. I have ugly feet and wear orthotics, which actually doesn’t help with bunion pain but does wonders for my lower back pain and supination, since my feet roll outward.
During one of my last trips to the podiatrist, his physician’s assistant told me that, based on x-rays of both feet, I must have an incredibly high tolerance for pain. “Your left foot is full of arthritis, and your bunions will only get worse until the day you can no longer stand the pain.” Given everything that’s wrong with my feet, the podiatrist recommended I wait to have surgery, which will be so complex and debilitating that I won’t be allowed to walk for two months, then will have to wear a boot on each foot for an entire year.
So, for now I wear expensive Brooks tennis shoes, orthotics, and kitten heels. I still have two pair of amazing stiletto heels in my closet that I can’t wear but refuse to part with. Reminders, if you will, of what helped contribute to my chronic foot pain. As senseless as it sounds, I have no regrets.
This one’s easy. If I don’t drink alcohol, eat no bad carbs, eat only lean protein, eat no sugar, do resistance training three times a week, and do 30 minutes of aerobic exercise in the morning AND evening of each day for a total of 60 minutes a day, I can get and stay lean. I know this because I have lived it. But with a full-time job that requires me to be plugged in every moment I’m awake, three different organizations I support as an advocate for their psycho-oncology efforts, this monthly column, gardening, houseplants, a wonderful husband and family, Facebook and LinkedIn networking, about four hours of cooking each week to ensure we eat as healthy as possible, WaterPik once a day (am still cursed with unhealthy teeth and gums), housecleaning, socializing with adorable friends, etc., I have decided to be realistic about my weight and focus on living and loving.
I exercise every day but I don’t get down if I miss a workout. My focus is on stretching and building muscle, since the after-cancer drug reduced my bone density to dangerous levels. I like wine and snacks and a good burger. And I’m healthiest from October to May, when the deck, hummingbirds, and weeds in our backyard aren’t calling me.
I’m at peace knowing what makes me happy. Obsessing about my weight is not one of the things that makes me happy.
To sum things up, why were these perceived imperfections so painful in childhood? Because I am programmed to succeed. Failure isn’t an option. I only give up when it’s going to cost me more (financially or emotionally) to stay in than to walk away. My day is made up of tasks that get me to where I need to go. Each morning I make a prioritized mental list of what needs to get accomplished to stay on track, get stuff done, and operate at maximum possible efficiency. Lists are an important part of my strategy, not just to keep me organized but to show progress. Crossing stuff off lists can be a beautiful thing.
Cancer taught me to change my mindset from “What all can I get done today?” to “What can I realistically get done today?” I don’t set the bar low. I have learned to make the bar challenging, yet realistically achievable. One of the easiest ways for me to launch into a depressed state is to expect too much of myself and of course, others.
I am responsible for me. And only me. I’m not here to save the world. My job is to hold myself and others accountable for holding up my/their end of the deal.
In August I was honored to spend time with Katia Goga, who has started her second year in the PsyD program at GSPP – Graduate School of Professional Psychology at Univ of Denver, focusing on psycho-oncology (COPE). Katia, who is from Brownsville, Texas, is part Croatian and has a beautiful soul inside and out. “It is such a grounding experience for me to be around cancer patients and survivors,” she told me.
I am so grateful to all students of psycho-oncology like Katia who have made the commitment to help those traumatized by cancer find themselves again. We are truly blessed!
What I’m Loving Right Now
I will leave you this month with a recommendation to listen to a haunting song I heard on the brilliant Netflix series, Firefly Lane. It’s titled Who Knows Where the Time Goes, sung by the late Eva Cassidy. I encourage you to find a quiet spot, then curl up with a soft blanket, headphones, and your beverage of choice. Close your eyes, have a listen, a cleansing cry, and a moment of pure solitude.
To keeping it real!