December 2015

Eyes Wide Open:Learning to see myself

Author: Elisabeth Nantz

It was an ordinary day when I unsealed the envelope that opened an old wound: “Welcome to our Fiftieth High School Reunion.” My immediate response was “Hell no! I won’t go!” The only happy time I can recall in school was acting in plays. I was good at this, because I had so much practice pretending in real life.

One trip to the mailbox, and I was suddenly that teenage girl again, with mammoth low self-esteem, who hid all her feelings and called upon her dramatic ability to make believe all was well. Rather than respond as the confident person I have worked so hard to unleash, I found myself obsessing about my appearance, just as I had done so long ago.

I was an only child, and my mother put great emphasis on appearance. I have an early memory of her plastering buttermilk on my face in an attempt to bleach my freckles. She sent me to swing on the front porch, but when the bees began landing on my buttermilk face, and amid my screams, she realized her beauty treatment failed. Early in life, I got the message that looks were important, and I was flawed.

Fast forward to age 13. I began getting comments from classmates that my eyes were “scary.” I stared in the mirror and…yes, they were bulging. At the same time, I was restless and rapidly losing weight. I was taken to a specialist. My heart was racing at 120 beats per minute, and I found myself in surgery having part of my thyroid removed. The condition is known as Grave’s disease, an immune system disorder that results in the overproduction of thyroid hormones (hyperthyroidism), and is rare for children. The surgery was a success, but my eyes did not return to their normal state.

Never once did I dare share with anyone the pain I felt—the shame for my freakishness. People stared, and once when I mustered the courage to tell my mother, her comment was, “Looks as if you could hold your eyes in.” My dramatic ability kicked in, and I spent the remainder of my teenage years pretending to be fine.

I hated myself, loathed my appearance, and cried myself to sleep every night. Meanwhile, my girlfriends were happily getting boyfriends, going to dances and having a great time. I felt left out, ugly, and pitiful.

As the years passed, I slowly began to realize that people were no longer noticing my eyes in a negative way. I remember someone saying to me, “You have beautiful eyes!”

Somehow the comment began a process of seeing myself differently.

I truly believe that we learn more from our difficult times than we do from the happy times. Through my experience, I learned compassion for people with physical disabilities and for those who feel “less-than”—for whatever reason. But the more important lesson I have learned is how to share my own vulnerability. If only as a teenager I could have said, “I feel ugly,” or “It hurts me when you stare at me or laugh or call me ‘bug eyes.’”

Years ago, I heard the song “Real,” by Karen Taylor-Good. It spoke to me! (Listen at youtube.com/watch?v=WJq7iPnaKmg). As the song says, I was “screaming to be free.” I had to stop being that self-conscious teenage girl.

I enrolled in self-help classes and therapy, talked openly with friends, read, listened and actively sought ways to let go of this negative perception of myself. I taught school, became a sales person, trainer and manager with a major company, a public speaker, and a wife and mother.

I recently revealed to my childhood friends what I had gone through during those years. While they were aware of my physical condition, they were shocked to learn what I felt, because I hid it so well.

Today, I don’t think about my eyes except that they allow me to see… and to see how far I have come. 

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