Transformation Tuesday: My Story Before Herpes

              Everyone always seems to compliment me on my confidence, and the funny thing is, it hasn’t always been there. It’s been very much the opposite. Although content with who I am as a person, I was always very self-conscious of my appearance.
            The first instance that I can vividly remember is when I was seven years old. I was sitting in the bathtub playing with my Guinevere dolls and assorted Disney characters, and I looked down at my stomach touching the water. I asked my mom, “Why do I have this? Why does my belly stick out? None of the other little girls my age have one. Why me?” She assured me it was normal, and even told me she would ask her friend, who was a nurse, just to be sure. Little moments like this remained in my memory for a reason, and came to foreshadow patterns throughout my adolescence.

Middle school is never easy for anyone, but for me, it seemed especially difficult. I attended Catholic school from kindergarten through twelfth grade. My elementary school forbade us from wearing makeup or nail polish. Although there was little room for self-expression, I somehow managed to make my uniform geekier than the rest. In addition to my awkward sense of style, having braces from 6th to 9th grade did not do anything to boost my self-esteem. Like many teenagers*, I wondered if any boy would ever want to kiss me. Whenever boys found out I had a crush on them, it made them cringe. In 7th grade, my classmates and I were given the opportunity to request one person to be in our field trip group to DC. We wrote that person's name down on a piece of paper and folded it so no one could see. Of course, my piece fell. Suddenly, everyone knew I picked my crush. I was mortified, and so was he. Flashback to awkward middle school dances. I knew no one would ask me to dance, so I somehow found the courage to ask…when I was dressed up as Elvis Presley for Halloween. I was denied several times, and I kept asking until someone agreed to dance to Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends.” Elvis and Green Day, how romantic. With a few slow dances under my belt, I still wondered when I would get my first kiss, and finally, at age 14, it happened--braces and all. There is a park behind my parents’ house, and we walked along the path, just far enough into the woods that no one could see us. I never talked to him again after that. 
Kisses seemed to be few and far between, especially since I spent my first year of high school at an all-girls school 40 minutes from my house.  The commute ended up being too much for me, and I just wasn’t happy.  So I transferred to a co-ed school for my sophomore year.  The braces were off and my confidence was starting to blossom. It was also during the end of this year when I began my first “real” relationship.  It was the first time I liked someone who shared the same feelings for me. I remember when I first made the decision to have sex. I didn’t know how to tell my parents, so in true Emily form, I wrote my mom a letter explaining that I needed to get on birth control.  I didn't have a car at the time, so she was still driving me to school. I somehow mustered up the courage to read it to her one morning. She was a bit taken aback, but the honesty method worked. 
The following year, I hit another teenage milestone: I had my wisdom teeth taken out. I don’t remember much about that day except fighting the nurse who insisted I be wheeled out to my parents’ car. My diet was very limited, since I could only eat soft foods. I ate Peeps, pudding, and applesauce for well over a week. I also discovered, that the scale began to reflect this. I was shrinking. Finally. My accumulated self-doubts and imperfections revealed themselves as an eating disorder, not only to myself, but also to those closest to me. Even though my confidence seemed to be growing, I still saw seventh grade Emily. I even saw second grade Emily. I saw the bowl cut. The braces. The crazy headbands. Teasing and taunting. I saw high waisted shorts and a quirky sense of style. I saw all of this when I looked into my reflection. “I’m not pretty,” the mirror told this to me in the morning when I awoke, and every night as I peeled off the layers of makeup that covered my ‘flaws.’ "My nose is too big. The way my dirty brown, un-blue, eyes are set into my head makes me feel unfeminine.  I'm not a blonde bombshell. I feel fat; my stomach looms over my feet when I gaze down; I look away. I do not have perfectly defined abs that all the girls in magazines so effortlessly flaunt. The ever-envied thigh gap is non-existent on me.  Stretch marks take their place. The way my butt hits my thighs is enough to ruin a day, and often, it does." 
I became a runner, and I most definitely ran from myself.  I ran until I could feel my joints throb in 110-degree heat.  I ran until I felt physical pain more than the voices screaming in my head.  But that pain I felt in my body wasn’t enough—I craved more.  I was working out between four-to-five hours every day in addition to limiting my daily caloric intake to less than 700 calories.  I remember the thrill of the day that I only consumed 400 calories; I was so proud of myself.  I fought doctors, nutritionists, and family members until I hit my lowest point of 99 pounds.  There is no excuse for a 5’7” woman to aspire to be skin and bones, yet I wanted it so badly. The more emaciated I became, the more powerful I felt. What I thought was power, ultimately was weakness. My eating disorder also revealed underlying general anxiety disorder. I missed over a month of school from my junior year of high school. Part of me was too tired to do anything, since I was not fueling my body properly. The other half of me was embarrassed to explain where I'd been, or even how I looked. Somewhere inside of me, I knew my state of being wasn't right. 
                 After consuming an exorbitant amount of chocolate in an attempt to gain weight, I was finally back to where I needed to be, or so I thought. I began taking Zoloft to assist with my anxiety, especially since I would be headed off to college in the fall. I chose Salisbury University, where my then-boyfriend was attending. Yes, I was that girl, the one who followed her boyfriend to college. We broke up within two months of me being there, and I did not dive into another relationship until my junior year. I have never been the type to bounce from relationship to relationship.  Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it just isn't my style. My second boyfriend introduced me to weight lifting. Although I had recovered from my eating disorder, I still had misconceptions about proper exercise and nutrition. In addition to adding weight lifting to my routine,  I replaced Zoloft with hot yoga. I was finally beginning to feel a true sense of confidence in myself, physically and mentally. So much so that  even had a photoshoot done to celebrate myself and my newfound self-esteem. 

               Although each of these relationships lasted over a year, I wish I had ended both of them sooner. I always choose to see people for their potential, rather than who they are in the present moment. I often give people more chances than they deserve, especially when it comes to relationships. I have had boyfriends go through my text messages, and even my diary.  I have been labeled as a slut and whore in these situations. Although I knew it wasn't okay then, I still tolerated it. I let it go, and I shouldn't have. It is evident to me now that I was a victim of emotional/verbal abuse.  I sacrificed my identity and my self-worth in stagnant relationships because of the potential I saw in each person. I put my partners above myself. Although I wish I had spent less time in these relationships, I do not regret them. I learned a lot about myself and what I need from a future partner, in addition to what is acceptable and what I need to walk away from regarding any relationship in my life. 
                           During the times when I felt most alone and uncertain, seemed to be the periods which revealed the most about me. They allowed me to face myself for who I really was, to build myself back up and grow from the experiences placed before me.  I lost myself, found myself, and lost myself multiple times on the course of my journey. Looking back, I suppose one could even assert that my eating disorder foreshadowed where I was in July 2015, consumed by the stigma of herpes. I am compelled to share my pre-herpes story because my confidence did not happen overnight. There isn't a switch that turns it on in our heads. It is something that is cultivated over time. It has truly been a lifelong process for me, and I'm still learning. I have a favorite quote from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis that I found during high school, and I find it is applicable to my attitudes about my journey: 

"I have been through a lot and have suffered a great deal. But I have had lots of happy moments, as well. Every moment one lives is different from the other. The good, the bad, hardship, the joy, the tragedy, love, and happiness are all interwoven into one single, indescribable whole that is called life. You cannot separate the good from the bad. And perhaps there is no need to do so, either."





*Written from a heterosexual female's point of view