Self-Made Image

            A song on the radio made a huge impact recently. The premise is that we remake ourselves as we grow, learn and explore. I have definitely done that.

            I was an abused child. Both of my parents beat me, humiliated me, isolated me from my peers. My older brother pinched me, kicked me and called me names. My younger sister mocked me, taunted me and regularly lied to my parents, accusing me of hurting her and then smirking as severe punishment was inflicted upon me.

            If I had been asked to measure my self-esteem, it would have been a big, fat zero. I believed myself to be not just stupid, but an idiot. I was told that I was incapable of succeeding in anything, I am believed it.

            Nevertheless, I was expected to receive the highest marks on all my work. Or be punished.

            It didn’t make sense: if I was stupid, how was I going to get those grades?

            Fear of punishment motivated me to study, study, study.

            Despite being the invisible student in the room, I somehow pleased my teachers. I couldn’t speak in a loud enough voice to be heard, but when called to go up to the board, I excelled.

            I set goals for myself at a young age, goals that my family said were impossible for me to achieve.

            The only place where I felt safe was at school. I was scared of my teachers, afraid I’d disappoint them, but I revered them so much that I yearned to be them.

In high school I tried out for badminton, bowling, basketball and softball. I was the top badminton player in the school. I was good enough to be on the best bowling team.

Despite my short stature, I was a great defender in basketball, primarily due to my sharp eyes and quick hands. Softball was the exception: I was terrified of the huge ball, and even though I could easily send a hardball soaring, I couldn’t get the softball too much beyond the pitcher’s mound.

I had begun changing my self-image from the incapable idiot to a surprisingly good athlete.

My grades were good enough to earn a state scholarship that paid 100% of tuition at any college in California.

This surprised my counselor. She had called me into her office before the scholarships were announced to tell me that I’d never graduate from college and that I should be looking for a job.

I was determined to prove her wrong. At the end of my first semester at the community college, I made an appointment with the counselor to show her my grades. I was gloating. I love watching the surprise on her face.

When I was finally allowed to leave home for college, I now had the opportunity to take charge of my life. I shared a room in the dorm, which was my only restriction. I could eat whenever and whatever I wanted.

I chose my classes and professors. I stayed up late studying. I found people like me who welcomed me.

I dated. Tried to join a sorority, but didn’t like the wealthy, stuck-up girls.

I got contacts at the university’s vision clinic. They hurt and I was terrible at sticking them in my eyes, but for the first time since I got glasses in fourth grade, I didn’t feel like a freak.

I made my skirts and pants in modern lengths and styles.

As best as I could despite being poor, I tried to look like my peers.

I went to football games, I got an on-campus jog watching the desk at a residence hall. I was in charge of others for the first time in my life.

On a walk across campus, I heard music that drew me in. It came from the Neumann Center, during a Catholic Mass. Something about the guitars, drums, piano and other instruments, plus the joyous music spoke to me. I began spending more and more time there, even going on several retreats with them. Religion took on a new meaning. It was no longer about fear and punishment, but love.

The most difficult part of my journey was when I had to return home after graduation. Once again, I was subjected to the emotional and physical abuse of parents and siblings. I was a young woman who was treated as if she was a not-very-bright child.

My goal was freedom.

First I had to get a job. That wasn’t easy. Back in the late 1970s, women were expected to work in offices, teach or be a nurse. I had no office skills and couldn’t stand being around sick people.

I wanted to teach, but had no money to pay for college. And, there was a glut of teachers looking for jobs.

I got a good job with the federal government doing something that I had no interest in and no skills at knocking on doors and demanding back taxes. But, I made a career out of it in order to first, buy my own car.

Having transportation meant that I could escape. As soon as I had enough money, I wanted to buy a car. But…I had no credit history so my dad had to cosign. He wouldn’t let me buy the car I wanted, instead insisting I get a Ford Pinto. I rebelled by choosing the ugliest one on the lot.

Next was an apartment. As I drove about as part of my job, I kept an eye out for available apartments. I visited rental offices. In time, I narrowed down my search to a nice complex in San Bruno. It was close to the freeway, a requirement so that I could drive into San Francisco for work.

Moving into my tiny studio allowed me to be free! My parents no longer had any say over my life. If I did see them and they became abusive, I could leave.

I had reinvented myself as a self-supporting woman, one who was successful enough to have her own car and apartment.

From then on, my self-image morphed almost continuously.

I was a successful government employee. I oved into the teaching component, where I led studies in tax collection.

I met the most marvelous man in the San Mateo office, who is still my husband 49 years later.

I added wife and then mother to my resume. I didn’t know how to mother, and especially didn’t want to be a replica of my own mother. The local recreation department offered classes in parenting. From them, I learned how to teach my own kids, how to come up with activities, how to offer support and encouragement.

It wasn’t always easy and I made mistakes, but I tried to learn from each.

When my kids got older, I returned to college to earn an AA degree in Early Childhood Education. I loved the coursework.

Then I transferred to Holy Names College where I completed an Elementary Teaching Certificate.

When I did get hired, I put in long hours on curriculum, bulletin boards, grading. I wanted to be an excellent teacher, for my students, yes, but also to prove to myself that I could.

By the ripe old age of forty, I was an entirely different person from the shy, frightened kid that started elementary school.

I have continued to work on my self-image, even as an older woman.

I do what I want to do when I want to do it. I am in charge of my life. I have a loving, supportive husband who had encouraged me to explore a variety of interests.

I am proud of who I am today.


Going back as far as my memory allows, my vision of myself was as the person I was told I was. If my parents said I was dumb, then I was. When my brother said I was fat, I was that as well. If a teacher placed me in the lowest group, then I was that as well.

I got to thinking about how we let others define ourselves. Sometimes looking back is a good thing, and in this instance, I believe that it allowed me to understand why I had such low self-esteem for much of my life.

As a young child I was called a whiner. I deserved that label for I could throw a whine-fest over just about anything. One of the few photos taken at that age shows me with fists clenched at my sides, head downcast and a huge pout.

 When I entered school, the teachers treated me as if I was stupid, although that wasn’t the term they used. I felt stupid even though there was no way for my teachers to know that no one had ever read to me, that there were no books in our house and that I’d never been to a library? I didn’t know colors, shapes, numbers or letters. I didn’t know how to cut, paste or trace lines.

While my classmates worked on reading I sat alone, tears streaming down my face doing what was probably extremely simple for everyone else.

In early elementary grades I was placed in the lowest reading group. Even there I was so far behind that I was still trying to learn letter sounds while they read out of books. I understood why I was there, but was too embarrassed to be seen with them. When the teacher called my group up, I slid down in my desk and hid.

My paperwork was filled with red. My writing was nothing but chicken scratches, strange combinations of letters that sometimes turned out to be words. I had no idea about capitals or punctuation. The sad thing was that my teacher didn’t help me.

I felt stupid and ashamed, so during recesses I found the darkest parts of campus and hid.

Add to that the unkind words coming from my parents and siblings that solidified that feeling of being dumber than everyone else.

Somewhere along that time continuum fat-shaming began. I accepted that definition even though it hurt. Classmates taunted me. My brother humiliated me. My dad insulted me. My mother fed me.

So now not only was I dumb but I was fat to go along with it.

In fourth grade I took things into my own hands and began teaching myself. I asked the teacher for extra work and night after night I went over the lessons. I’d fill in the blanks, erase, then do it again and again until I mastered the work. I forced myself to read even though it made me cry. I began with small words that I could memorize. I made flash cards with old paper so that I could add more and more words to my reading vocabulary.

My grades improved. My confidence grew. But I was still fat and getting fatter.

When we moved, I scored high enough on a placement test that I was no longer in the lowest groups. That giant step helped me to change my perception of myself.  I knew that I wasn’t stupid because I had taught myself to read, write and do math.

As time passed my academic accomplishments increased. I was placed in more difficult classes which I mastered. By the time I was in high school my entire class load was at the college prep level.

But I was still fat.

I joined the freshman basketball team. Now I was seen as an athlete. I was too short to score, but my hands were fast. I could strip a ball away any player that got near. I was feeling quite proud of myself. When the JV season ended I was moved to Varsity. I never got to play. Game after game I sat on the bench. I no longer felt like an athlete.

It was amazing how quickly my definition of myself changed. Athlete one week, not the next.

My dad told me I was ugly and I believed him. He said that no man would ever marry me and so I grew into an adult who felt unlovable. I was told that men would only want one thing of me and once they had that, they’d dump me.

When I began dating in college I felt somewhat better about myself, but nothing changed at home. My self-esteem was so low that when my brother’s friend attempted to rape me, I believed that I was only good for the one thing my dad had said. Men would only wanted sex from me, nothing more.

The man belonged to my brother’s fraternity. He must have told them what he’d done, for after that I had a date every weekend. I didn’t consider myself promiscuous, but others might have.

When my wonderful husband proposed, I was thrilled and flabbergasted. The unlovable person, the fat, stupid person was going to get married. So the next definition of myself was as a lovable wife.

I knew enough about marriage, from watching my mother, that I was the one who had to cook, clean and perform all those womanly duties. I hated them. I wanted to continue to work, read and write.Even so, I fulfilled the definition as best as I could.

Our house was clean enough. The laundry was done. Meals were cooked.

When children were born, I read magazines to learn how to parent.The knowledge I gained there helped me understand what I should be doing. Babies were not my thing, but once I could teach them things, I reveled in the definition of mother.

I had always dreamed of being a teacher despite how my instructors treated me. Sharing knowledge with my kids helped me see that I had the skills to be a teacher. I took classes at the community college to learn how to be a preschool teacher. When I was hired for the first job I applied for, my self-esteem shot up. I was a teacher! And I loved it.

But I saw myself as being something more than a snot-wiper and piss-cleaner.

I applied to a credential program, was interviewed and accepted. I was only able to take night and weekend classes, so it took years to finish my credential program. I was hired for the first t full time position that I applied for, a pleasant surprise.

I was a third-grade teacher at a Catholic elementary school. I offered my students the most educational program that I could do while still teaching the required curriculum. My students and parents loved me. I loved that definition of me.

In time, however, my principal’s idea of who I was changed. At first I was innovative and inspiring. But I kept getting older. She saw herself as a beloved principal, surrounded by young, cute teachers. She actually said that at a faculty meeting!

With that in mind, she chased away the older teachers, starting with Yvonne.After she left the principal hounded Marie until she resigned as well. She turned her focus on me, just as she had done them. I was told that my lessons weren’t good enough. She told me how to improve, then wrote negative evaluations when I did as she had said.

I began to believe that she was right, that I wasn’t a good teacher. I left.

It took me two years of working as a substitute to get another job. During that time period I applied for job after job. With each rejection I felt more and more incompetent. I was told that I didn’t know how to teach students of different cultures. They were right, so I enrolled in workshops, at my expense, to learn.

Next I was told I couldn’t teach in public schools because I didn’t know how to teach students who learned differently. They were right. Once again I sought out information on disabilities.

During those years I believed that I couldn’t teach those students even though I had had students like them in my classes at the Catholic school. But, the administrators who rejected me were right, or so I thought, because they knew better than I who I was and what I could do.

My weight soared. I kept buying clothes at larger sizes, then outgrew them. I pretended to diet, but failed at that. In my mind those failures reinforced the earliest definitions of myself: I was dumb. Too dumb to eat less, too dumb to understand dieting.

I didn’t want to be fat and hid it the best way I knew how. No matter where I was going or what I was doing I dressed to hide my body’s faults. I knew that it didn’t work, but my clothes were stylish and clean.

What was interesting is that my husband continued to see me as the slender woman that he married.

During that same time period I was a soccer coach, referee and player. At church I was a reader and singer. At work I was a great teacher, nominated several times for Teacher of the Year.

All these positive definitions were reassuring, but never completely erased the years and years of being told that I was less-than.

When health forced me to change my behavior, I lost the weight. I had to buy smaller and smaller sized clothing. Even when I needed less fabric to cover me, I still saw an obese woman whenever I dared look in a mirror.

Today I know that I look awesome, that I am intelligent, that I am a good wife, friend, mother and grandmother.

I no longer allow others to define me. That power belongs to me and me alone.

Sometimes I slip and cower in self-doubt when another story gets rejected or something goes wrong in a friendship. Back in the early days I would have carried that like a mantle, weighing down my shoulders. Today I brush it off and move on, a smile on my face.

I had to turn sixty-eight before I seized that power. Better late than never, right?

Perhaps someone who reads my story will take charge right now. They’ll say, I get to define myself, not you or you or you.

 What a marvelous thing that would be.

Musings About my Life

Self-doubt is a crippling emotional disease. I know, because I’ve carried it on my shoulders for as long as I can remember.

When I was small, I understood that I wasn’t pretty enough or girly enough for my dad. I liked to play boys’ games: tag, kickball, cowboy, fort-building and trike-riding.

I despised dolls and pretend house and so I was a disappointment to my mom. I wanted to wear pants and go without tops in the summer, like my brother did. I hated dresses, Mary Janes and frilly socks.

As I grew older and I discovered paint-by-number, I worked at it until I thought I could draw. But I never truly believed in myself. I saw myself as a failure, a person without skills, and so nothing I created was ever of value in my eyes.

I loved books and a good story, and imagined myself as a famous writer. In middle school I wrote short stories about things I knew: tornadoes, thunder and lightning storms, harsh discipline. Because I was shy, I never shared them with anyone. Again, I doubted my ability and quickly gave up.

As a student, I felt dumb. It took me longer to learn to read than my older brother. He was better at math and science, while I believed that I had no academic skills whatsoever. I worked for every grade. Studying hours every night and on weekends. Creating flash cards and copying from my textbooks to help me memorize important facts. My grades improved and I obviously learned to read, but I could never let down my guard.

In high school I enrolled in college prep classes, even though my counselor said that I’d never succeed. That I’d be a dropout, get married and have kids before I was twenty. To spite her, I passed all my classes, and then the following year I’d enroll in even more challenging courses. When I got accepted to every university to which I applied, I brought in my acceptance letters and showed her how wrong she was. And then she told me I’d flunk out.

When I reached dating age, I was an old-fashioned, frumpy kid. My clothes were homemade and based on styles my mother wore as a teen. My skirts were too long and my tops too loose. My shoes were brown and white oxfords at a time when girls wore black flats. And let’s not mention my hair! Oh, my, it was awful. Teased up and hair-sprayed into a plasticized shape that only a mother could create.

Because of my looks, which were not only out of sync with the rest of the world, but also because I was fatter than any of my classmates, I was told that I’d never get a boyfriend. My mother was right until Geoffrey moved in during my eighth grade year. He was as old-ball as I was. He wore thick black glasses, button-up-the-front shirts and pleated slacks when guys wore jeans and rolled up the sleeves of their white t-shirts.

But Geoffrey saw something in me and asked me out. We must have been quite an attraction wherever we went. The nerdy guy and the fat girl with plastic hair. While I enjoyed his attention, I never felt as if I deserved to be with him and so broke up with him after only a handful of dates.

My parent’s goal for me was to get married and have kids. Even so, for some reason they allowed me to go to college. Sitting in those desks, surrounded by incredibly smart young people, I felt even dumber than before. My head swam with confusing information. I didn’t understand many of the assignments and didn’t truly understand how to take notes or write a paper. I studied late into the night, often getting little sleep, just to try to keep up.

Once I went away to school, I found friends for the first time in my life. I had people to eat with, go to football games with, study with. I dated, but mostly odd-ball guys who weren’t too different from me.

For example, there was the one who was shorter than me and I’m only five-foot-two. It just didn’t feel right to bend down to kiss him. And then there was the nice Australian man who had a bad back and couldn’t bend over. He walked with an awkward gate, kind of a shuffle combined with a lope. Another rather interesting guy came from Guatemala and spoke broken English. He was sweet and thought I was beautiful, but we had nothing in common. And I can’t forget the man from a Muslim country who was a wealthy prince, but never spoke to me. He wrote me a love letter asking me to marry him, move to his country, and bear his children.

Even though I now had a social life, I never felt as if I fit in. It was more like they accepted me out of pity, not like. That’s how I saw it. And when I went home on breaks and spoke of my friends, I was told that they weren’t good enough, nice enough, smart enough. The implication was that I lacked the skills to find worthwhile people and that my so-called friends were using me.

And then my husband-to-be came into my life, and then, for the first time, I began to believe that there was something good about me. Something that was valued and important. He made me see that I had talents. He was patient and kind and encouraging. He pushed me out into the world and honored those things that I struggled to learn.

For example, I had always wanted to teach, but I graduated from college at a time when unemployed teachers glutted the market. My husband encouraged me to take classes in the evenings and to work toward a credential. He applauded my first teaching job, even though it was a minimum-wage preschool position.

The first day of class, as the parents walked in with their kids, I froze. Doubt wiped my brain clean of cognizant thoughts. I couldn’t remember the words to the songs, the dance moves, the stories or the activities. Thankfully an elementary school teacher stepped in and saved me. Because of her, I came back the next day and the day after that and every day for over thirty-three years. And all along that journey, as I changed the grades and specialties that I taught, my husband was there to support me. When I doubted my abilities, he buoyed me up.

I have always loved music, but as a teen, when I’d sing, my family would ridicule me. So I didn’t. But I wanted to be a singer. To be part of a choir. And so one day, I walked up to the choir director at church and asked to join. She was encouraging, patient and kind. Because of her I developed enough confidence to be a soloist, all the while doubting my ability to sing on key.

And when I decided to return to writing after a fifty year absence, I was terrified. I didn’t believe that I could create story, character, plot. And so I wrote my story. I told of my early years, my teen years, my college years. I spoke of my fears and those things that caused me to have low self-esteem.

One day I shared some of the stories with a college professor. She told me to write some more. To turn my stories into new ones that were linked together, with a character from my imagination in a setting that was very different from my own.

The idea of doing this, of creating something original, was paralyzing. I’d sit before the computer and nothing happened. Words failed me. But one day I typed a paragraph. The next day I added two more. After that I turned it into a multi-page story that made sense. When I reread, I deleted sentence after sentence, ashamed of my poor writing skills and swore that I’d never do it again.

Self-doubt took away my voice. It robbed me of words that were screaming to be let loose. It locked me up in a prison without a key.

But one day I returned to my work, found a story that I could tell, and wrote page after page. Those pages turned into a novel. And that novel encouraged me to write another.

Today I am still the same person whose doubts often prevent her from action. I’ve never forgotten what it felt like to be a disappointment and this colors how I act and the things that I do. Self-doubt blocks me from speaking in crowds of people that I don’t really know. It causes me to dislike the way that I look and prevents me from doing something major about it.

While I have accomplished much over the years, and dream of accomplishing even more, Self-doubt still cripples my thinking. It distorts my vision of myself. It always has and probably always will.