I felt the eyes of an older gentleman behind me in line at Home Depot staring at the purple splotches on my arms that were peeking out from underneath my long sleeved shirt. As I yanked on my sleeves to cover the imperfections, he looked at me with concern and said,
“My wife had bleeding like that when she wasn’t much older than you. She died a short time later. Are you sick like that?”
I replied with a weak smile and said,
“Gee, I sure hope not.”
He laughed and said he was relieved. He said I reminded him of his wife and that she hated the marks on her arms too. The man said the marks were beautiful because they were a part of her that made her who she was, and that he missed them. He then looked me in the eye and said,
“Listen to me. Whatever is wrong with you, please don’t ever hide it behind smiles or long sleeves. It’s 90 degrees out. Go home, put on a tank top and take care of yourself. Your arms are lovely. You should be proud of them.”
I teared up, nodded, and stumbled off with my flowers and mulch.
On the drive home I thought about what the man had said. I began to realize how much time and energy I have spent in life hiding my imperfections, cowering behind smiles and long sleeves.
There’s the large skin graft on my right inner thigh the size of a baked potato– the one that kept me from trying out for cheerleading because I didn’t want to wear the short skirt. There’s the ten-inch scar from having my gallbladder removed in 1985 that kept me out of a bikini for the past 30 years (thank you, Dr. Waldenburg and your giant, giant man-hands.) I have deep facial scars and rashes from lupus that compel me to slather on foundation and concealer obsessively. I haven’t been seen without makeup since 1986.
The invisible scars in my life have taken more effort to conceal: The after-effects of rape; the loss of my parents; a host of serious illnesses, struggles with depression, the ending of a dysfunctional marriage. For years my Facebook page told my friends that I had it all figured out, while I woke up each day scrambling for new and clever ways to hide.
I concealed my pain by over-extending myself. I was a ‘yes’ girl. Yes, I’m fine. Yes, I’ll be happy to help you. Yes, I would love to go out. Yes, I’ll host that party. Yes, please, one more glass of wine. Yes, let’s go dancing. Yes, I have the perfect life. Yes, I’ll do anything to keep from being still because being quiet and reflecting hurts way too much.
I hid in the open where everyone could find me, but no one could see me. And while I was hiding, no one thought to look for me. It was the perfect ruse. Until it all catches up with you. Until you’re hiding so much you don’t remember who you are. Until you cast a shadow even you don’t recognize.
We all have moments of being fine, stretches of good days, or a even a fine month if we’re lucky. But the truth is, the vast majority of us are not fine. We’re scared. We’re sick. We’re disappointed. We’re lonely. We’re tattered. We’re battered. We’re flailing. We may not want to be here most days. We are all covering up secret parts of us. And some of us are really good at it. And we’re exhausted. And we wake up one day and just can’t do it anymore.
So, why do so many of us wear long sleeves and smiles? Why are we afraid to flaunt our scarred bodies and share our damaged souls?
Here’s what I found when I came out of hiding and started to gently (and sometimes not so gently) speak my truth.
Some people really liked me when I was hiding, and not so much when I started seeking.
Yeah, I know. Ouch, right? But see, the fake me was fun, She was agreeable. She was self-less. She never argued, didn’t complain and never stood up for herself. Everything was always fine. I was the perfect friend. I required no effort. They felt duped when I began to have an opinion, when I started saying no. Unfortunately, they found it impossible to see past the scars. As you can guess, those relationships didn’t survive. And that’s okay. They were never meant to.
But, when I stopped smiling all of the time, and shed the long sleeves, there were family that surprised me. Friends that surrounded me. People that encouraged me to keep stripping off the layers, waiting patiently for me to figure out who I was and what I really wanted. People that said how sorry they were that they didn’t come looking for me. A friend that said, “Holy crap, your arms look like a heroin addict. What’s going on? Can we have dinner next week? ” And when I said “Yes, please,” I truly meant it.
It’s been a few years since the old man changed my life at Home Depot. I have fewer relationships, but the relationships that have held on are richer and deeper…because they’d been hiding too. We’d been together, cowered in different corners of the same house, waiting to be found. We just never knew to look for each other. Sometimes all it takes is for one person to say, “Olly Olly Oxen Free” for all of the good people to come out of hiding, to agree to play a different game.
I made new friendships, and found a boyfriend. He has scars too. I’ve learned to share my imperfections pretty quickly in social situations. (Hi, my name is Katie and I’m kind of f***** up. Here’s how, and here’s what I’m doing about it.) It weeds out the weak of heart and leads me pretty quickly to my kind of people.
I still find myself plastering a smile now and then where it doesn’t belong. And the makeup has been a difficult habit to break (damn you, MAC and your Pro Long Wear foundation.) But, I’ve learned to wear a bikini and shed my long sleeves. And when I smile, it’s a real smile. Feel free to look for me. I’m proud to be standing in plain sight, in the middle of the room, where everyone can find me.