Seeing Myself Through All the Flaws
By Rebecca | @rebaredmond | July 8, 2019
A blog about Body-Image, Chronic Illness and Mental Health
For as long as I can remember, someone else’s opinion of my body has negatively impacted how I see myself. So much so that my own mind has adopted an unnecessarily cruel attitude towards my physicality.
For as long as I can remember, my dislike of my physical appearance has been the driving force behind how I feel about myself. So much so that my own mind has struggled with practicality and lost several battles with reason.
How is it that a person can come to have no trust in themselves? Have no trust in how they feel about themselves, mentally and physically, and come to have such a terribly skewed perception of what they look like?
Let me tell you a story…
As a young person, I was heavier than most of the other girls. I was THE biggest in all my dance classes. My bio-mother (whom I no longer have a relationship with) was an exercise fanatic, and former beauty queen, who constantly criticized my fluctuating weight. And, had me going to see dieticians before I reached double-digits in age or hit puberty. In middle school I was tormented and terrorized by my classmates. Horribly hateful messages were scribbled on my lockers and desks in permanent marker, so that even once gone their vicious shadows remained.
In high school the teasing stopped but my self-hate deepened. I starved myself to the point of illness and infection. I wore heavy make-up to hide the emerging vitiligo. I used plastic pen caps to self-harm creating permanent scarring on my upper thighs. I allowed my body to be abused by others in the hopes of gaining acceptance. All those actions and cruel words are still with me, 20 years and a brain injury later. And they replay constantly whenever I look in the mirror. Or get dressed. Or if I let my mind rest for too long.
For as long as I could remember, I felt like there was something off about me. That I didn’t quite fit the mold of a normal person. And when I was fifteen, I finally found out why.
After another trip to yet another therapist, I was diagnosed with Dysthymia (now known as Persistent Depressive Disorder). Low-grade depression but chronic. And sometimes equally disabling as other forms of clinical depression.
So, there I was, destined to linger in the grey zone of the emotional field. Never really sinking into the darkness but never truly entering the light. Less than two years later came another diagnosis. Type 1 Diabetes. I was sickly thin and no longer producing insulin. And I would have to inject myself with it, multiple times a day, for the rest of my life, in order to stay alive.
The pressures on my still teenaged self were now mounting. And always, in the back of mind, was a wee voice, getting ever louder, telling me I didn’t look right. That the weird white spots that kept increasing were off-putting. That my weight (no matter what it was) wasn’t the right weight. That now I was going to be riddled with needle holes. That my face wasn’t pretty enough. That I didn’t look like her (whoever she was).
In my first year of university I suffered Diabetes Ketoacidosis. I had a mild heart attack and suffered brain damage, losing a large chunk of my childhood memories. While my family believed I had tried to commit suicide by not taking my insulin (to be fair previous behaviours - not related to Diabetes - lead them to that conclusion), the truth was, I had been taught to inject myself improperly. And because of that, the insulin was being deposited in some weird pocket and not being absorbed. In the hospital they drained insulin from my belly. Following that event, I developed needle phobia. And began having severe anxiety whenever I had to inject my insulin. I was no longer able to use my insulin pens and switched to syringes, not really improving the situation.
After university, I had a breakdown. A complete mental breakdown. I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Social Anxiety Disorder. I was put on drugs. A. LOT. OF. DRUGS. But they didn’t help. I became completely introverted, afraid to leave my house (and didn’t for nearly two years, save doctor’s appointments). I began having trouble sleeping so they prescribed more drugs and those caused me to hallucinate. And withdraw. At this time my body image issues also came to forefront. My view of myself has never been a positive one. I have avoided so many situations, cancelled so many times, because of how I feel. Or because of how I see myself in that horrid thing called a mirror. But after that breakdown, things only got worse.
Part of why I was unable to leave the house was my fear that what I looked like would draw negative attention from others. As it had during middle school, when the kids so cruelly fixated on my appearance and constantly made me aware of their opposition to it. During one of my countless therapy sessions with one of my many doctors, came the diagnosis of Body Dysmorphia. And it was a diagnosis I struggled to accept.
I was always proud of my selflessness. My want and willingness to help others. I thought that meant that I spent very little time thinking about myself. To be diagnosed with a mental health condition that (by definition) found me spending a lot of time worrying about the flaws in my appearance, made me feel awful. And selfish. Narcissistic even.
I ignored the fact that my terribly low self-esteem had been internalized and had led to me externalizing, shaming my own body. Scrutinizing every single little thing. And there were so many little things. Horrible, awful, flawed things. I would pick out clothes the night before to try and avoid wasting time or cancelling the next day. But rarely did it help. I would change three, four, fifteen times and the end result was always the same: there is something wrong with me and I look terrible, my stomach is too big and covered in needle marks, my face is ugly and my skin there and everywhere is covered in white patches, my thighs are riddled with scars and I have hips ridiculously out of proportion to the rest of me, I am fat, covered in stretch marks, my breasts are too small and unshapely, there is hair in so many weird places (places that make it difficult to get rid of yet feel so painfully obvious!) that make me look grotesque, and nothing, absolutely nothing, looks right about me.
I stopped trusting myself at all and was really struggling to maintain good control of my Diabetes. I had also started to gain weight again. Likely the drugs I was on. And that lead to
For those unfamiliar, high blood glucose levels can lead to weight loss. It is often a warning sign prior to T1D diagnosis. It was for me. When I continued to (rapidly) lose weight after my wisdom teeth were removed, it prompted my parents to ask questions. When I was constantly eating and constantly thirsty, and peeing all the time, it prompted them to ask more and led to me asking my family doctor for the bloodwork that would eventually lead to my Type 1 diagnosis.
And, if I am being honest, Diabetes Dieting is something I kept tucked away in my secret stash of tricks. Between my diagnosis in my late teens to my mid-twenties, I employed it as my weight loss tool.
Whenever I would put on a couple of pounds, whether due to some medication, change in life or extra insulin injections, I would let my sugars run high. In a week I could usually drop the 5-8 pounds I (thought I) needed to. And then I would resume my proper, though still terribly flawed, Diabetes management.
After the breakdown, two(ish) years of drugs (so many different drugs) and a horrific miscarriage, something inside of me slowly started to shift. First, I tossed all the drugs. Then I refused to take any more. Next, I left the doctor that had been shoving them down my throat and sought better care.
I also quietly vowed to do something more about my Diabetes.
For years I was a “bad Diabetic.” It is a term I am not fond of, but a term that gets bandied about when discussing those of us who have to be human wonders: counting carbs, mastering mathematics, constantly monitoring ALL THE NUMBERS, dosing, injecting – essentially we have the full time job, alongside the other responsibilities of life, of being an operational organ in place of the pancreas that skipped town.
My apologies, I fear I digress…
Until I became pregnant with my son, I only half paid attention to my Diabetes. I was too focused on other things, like why my body was a mess and why my head was always so busy, life, my family…literally anything that wasn’t specifically Diabetes. But that pregnancy started a trend towards change for me. Not only did it force me to push my physical health to the foreground (though honestly I didn’t do it for me, I did it for the sweet little soul that hadn’t asked to be placed in this flawed figure) but it also forced me to re-examine my mental health.
I was fortunate (and put in the hard work) to have a healthy baby, who was born without any real issues; he was almost a month early, and had jaundice in the hospital, but other than that (and a milk allergy that developed a couple of months later) he was positively perfect.
Even though I had been well intentioned, that want for positive change did not last. I hadn’t counted on gaining nearly 100 pounds while carrying him. Or dislocating my hip during delivery. Or having my nether region obliterated from a fast delivery. Or not being able to breast feed.
Those extra pounds lingered. And lingered. They weighed me down in more ways than the physical changes they caused. It took me nearly three months to be able to walk properly, without pain, due to the injuries I suffered during labour. My hip is fine, no worse for wear. My vagina, however, was ripped apart and crudely sewn back together. And I had no idea that Type 1s had difficulty producing enough milk to breastfeed, so it was a tremendously frustrating process that resulted in me believing I was destined to be a failure as a mother. A belief that was reinforced (by me only) as we sat in the room at Sick Kids in Toronto and our son was diagnosed with a severe allergy to milk.
That first year was a real struggle. I had very little help and often felt very alone. I was once again in a new body I knew nothing about, and my mind went to some very dark places. More times than I care to remember, I firmly believed that little boy would do better without me. More times than I can count, his bright, beautiful, blue eyes watched as I cried for hours on end. More times than was ever needed I said horribly cruel things to myself and believed them.
But we did make it through that first year. Though I was unable to shed much of the weight I gained, I was able to reach some sort of compromise with myself. I agreed to worry a little less about what I looked and felt like, instead filling that time by wholeheartedly caring for my child.
My Diabetes management improved slightly. It still wasn’t great, and certainly nothing to boast about, but progress is progress. I realized that I needed to reign it in because if I didn’t, I would not be able to drink in all the wonder that is that little boy. Those nagging thoughts of mediocre mothering had all but vanished. There was no way I was going to miss anything, even if I did it all from the grey zone.
Then we moved to a new city. And my health care team changed once again.
I was at a new clinic for my Diabetes and had access to more doctors and therapists than ever before. And that want for improvement was reignited. Though not by me.
We chose to be very blunt and up front with our son about my health issues (ALL OF THEM). He is an incredibly bright young man and has always exhibited a level of high comprehension. Before he reached toddlerdom he could test my blood sugars, and by the age of 5 he understood that Mommy is sometimes sad. He also understood that it was never his fault. And hugs are always welcomed though they may not be the cure (and no amount of fart sounds or dancing can change that).
So, that sweet soul pushed me to do better. To seek better care for myself. And, without realizing it, by making him aware, he in turn held me accountable.
For the first time in my life I had a proper Diabetes Team: a nurse, a dietician, an endocrinologist, a psychologist. I was finally receiving help for my needle phobia and was able to switch back to the pens I had feared for so long.
That time, and my sweet little guy, also encouraged me to explore insulin pump options for the first time since my diagnosis. I did all the government required paperwork, bloodwork and class work. Save one blood test. And that’s when my next round of medical woes surfaced. I had some cancerous cells in my cervix. But when I went in for a routine surgery, I ended up having a significant portion (nearly all) of my cervix removed. The recovery took longer than expected. And in all the chaos, I missed the last required A1C test (and no, the hospital never did one when the pulled bloodwork before my surgery) to qualify for a pump.
Are you still with me? The story is long, I know, but I’ve been around for a while so there’s a lot to include. And I want to share it all so that if there is even one small nugget someone can relate to it is included in here…somewhere…
So, I stuck to the things I knew. Occasionally high glucose levels due to manual management and imperfect science. More “bad” days than “good” days due to wonky chemistry and emotions. Poor self-esteem and a frigged-up self-image due to EVERYTHING. A bit of self-loathing sprinkled with positivity. Then we moved again. And I have yet another new Diabetes Team. And, while this team has been wonderful, this time there is no psychologist. No therapist. No one to talk to. No one to help with the needle phobia and all the other things up in my head.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that certain aspects of my physical health have improved. The cancerous cells did not return, and I finally (after nearly two decades of manual injections) received an insulin pump. And that makes me grateful. And feel better, to a degree.
But in the last year, I have also gained nearly 25(ish) pounds. My clothes no longer fit properly (except my leggings, they always fit – perhaps, there lies part of my problem!). And I feel as though I am once again a stranger in this skin. I feel like I take up so much more space than I used to, that my achievements are outweighed (literally) by this epic and beastly failure.
And I have struggled endlessly. Mentally and physically. I have been looking after myself to the best of my ability. I eat better than I ever have, consciously noshing, counting and weighing everything, and I have made several attempts to improve my activity levels, walking more, yoga-ing more. All those efforts have been overshadowed by the fact that my body is shifting, getting bigger. And not seeing or feeling improvement has led to a constant assault from the voices within.
And that has come as a surprise, because part of me assumed that with age came wisdom, smarts, an improved common sense. Because part of me assumed, that as I got older, the opinions (real or imagined) would mean less. I mean, just look what this body has gone through and what it continues to endure! It has grown (and lost) humans, suffered tremendous traumas, survived countless infections, thwarted off cancer, managed a chronic illness/disease, been poked, pricked and stabbed to stay alive, it has stayed afloat in the heavy waters of mental illness, and continues to show up every day regardless of what is thrown at it. And knowing all of that, you would think the positivity would shine through. You would think the self-loathing would, in the very least, get in the back seat (if not out of the car completely!).
But instead those worries, those constant cruelties, of mine have intensified. And regardless of how much practicality and kindness I throw at them, those nagging and vicious thoughts reign supreme.
How is it that a person can fall so far away from themselves? Come to mistrust themselves? Improperly and unhealthily see themselves? Too easily. Because the brutality of words and thoughts are never erased, especially those we say to and think about ourselves, but mending can come from kindness. Because trust is something that requires work and is flawed without confidence. Because self-image is the picture one paints of themselves, and it must be done so with love. And the good thing about all of it is it is never too late to start being kind to yourself. It is never too late to start having faith in yourself.
And it is never too late to start painting a new picture.
Rebecca Redmond (or Reba, as most people know her) is an artist and blogger. She was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes in 1999 (fun fact: Sir Frederick Banting is her cousin!) amid several other mental and physical health struggles. Because of her age at diagnosis, she was largely isolated from the T1D community during the last two decades. Recently she has become a voice for those with T1D and those struggling with mental illness through her blog A Soul is a Resilient Thing and her social media accounts. She enjoys baking/cooking, gardening and nature, and the guilty pleasures of a good book. She also fills the role of Mom to a most impressive young lad and is married to her best friend; together they reside in London, Ontario.