Now that I’ve been working as a therapist again part-time, I’ve just been struck by how many people struggle deeply with problems with self esteem–scars they carry since they were very young, voices that once berated them that have turned into their own voice, constantly criticizing them. I work with them on learning to love yourself again, to fight back against that inner critic, but the writer in me wanted to offer a different take on what it’s like to have to fight your own thoughts. It takes a lot of courage to stand up to your own mind, and this vignette is in honor of all those who struggle to beat back that inner critic.
Today just happens to be World Mental Health Day, so I thought it might be fitting to post this. So many struggle with various forms of mental illness but are too afraid to seek help. Low self esteem is often one symptom of a bigger problem, but there’s help! One great place to find more information and get support is through NAMI (National Alliance of the Mentally Ill). They do so much to educate against the stigma of mental illness, and they are an invaluable resource.
You can do it. You can learn to love yourself again.
THE MONSTER WITHIN
You are so ugly.
I try not to listen. I try to keep walking, but I feel this sick need to look. She’s beckoning me—tugging me along as surely as if I have a tether connecting from me to her.
Don’t do this, I tell myself, even as she says, You should take a long look at yourself.
My chest is constricted as tightly as though I tied a belt around my ribs. And still I move inexplicably forward.
I got rid of all the mirrors in my house—even took down the big ones in the bathrooms. But I left this full-length one in my bedroom. It stands sinisterly in one corner.
I move until I am looking directly into it.
I can’t breathe. My chest hurts—am I having a heart attack?
I don’t want to look, but I do anyway.
She’s looking back at me with a sneer. Disgusting, she mouths, and I cringe like a beaten dog. Look at yourself.
And I do.
I think: I’ll never eat again.
She scoffs. You’ll fail. You fail at everything.
The image in the glass changes. I still have a big nose and small eyes, but now I’m just a kid. A second grader. Daddy and his friend fill the living room with smoke. I slink by, but they see me.
“That your kid?” the man asks. “She’s uglier than sin.”
I try to make my body smaller as I race toward my room.
Daddy says nothing, but his silence is louder than words.
Still ugly, she says.
The image blurs. My stomach hurts so badly I double over. It’s an old pain; it’s stuck with me longer than my daddy did.
Now I’m older. Still a little girl, but in fourth grade now. Mama looms over me like a bird of prey.
“You’re such a little idiot.” She looks down at my wet pajamas, her mouth twisted in disgust.
“I had a bad dream,” I whisper.
“No wonder your daddy left us.”
The girl in the mirror bites her lip to keep from crying, and I swallow my own tears.
Just walk away, I tell myself. You don’t have to think about this.
My feet don’t move an inch.
You’re unlovable, she says. That’s why your daddy left. That’s why they all leave.
The image changes again. I’m older now. Sixteen. I’m on my first boyfriend’s couch, and he’s on top of me. I keep trying to pull my hooded sweatshirt down to hide my stomach, but his hand snakes under it anyway.
His hand is light on my stomach, skimming toward my chest. “I don’t know why you try to hide under all those clothes. You’re beautiful.”
It wasn’t enough. He left me, too.
All alone, she says. You’ll always be alone.
The image blurs and it’s me again. On the floor now, tears wet in my greasy hair.
You are so ugly when you cry, she says.
You’re too stupid to have a good job.
You’re too unlovable to have any friends.
You’ll die alone.
I am ugly when I cry.
I am too stupid to have a good job.
I’m too unlovable to have any friends.
There is a demon that lurks in my mind. She sounds like my daddy, my mama, magazines that tell me my body type is all wrong, but most of all, she sounds like
I choke on black sadness. I crumble beneath the words the monster whispers.
I remember, also:
The second grader whispering to herself that night: I am beautiful.
The fourth grader clutching her report card of straight A’s.
The sixteen-year-old thinking for just one moment she was beautiful.
I pick myself up. I go into the kitchen and pull open the junk drawer. I grip the hammer in my clenched fist.
She stares back at me from the mirror. Daring me.
The hammer shatters the glass in great shards down upon my feet. The cuts sting, and I welcome the pain.
Behind the broken glass is another mirror. I stand in front of it with hammer brandished, but I stop when I see her.
An eye for others who are hurting
A woman who has made it her career to help others
A woman who can cook just about anything
Legs that are strong
Hair the color of ink
Someone who truly listens
I may be beaten, but I am not broken. I am resilient. I will take back my life.
I am not stupid.
I am loved.
I am not alone.
I am beautiful.