Five words that often become our internal mantra early on in life.
I clearly remember the day I became aware that somehow I was different. It was a sunny day after school, and my friends and I were running around on the playground. All of a sudden one of my friends turned to me and made a comment about how fat I was. It was as if a magic wand had been pointed at me. Time stood still. Clouds covered the sun. Suddenly Hannah wasn’t just Hannah.
Hannah middle row center, 1987.
Much of my childhood was spent being bigger than everyone else. At first I was proud of this. It was exciting to go to the doctor and find out my hight was in the 85th percentile! I felt like that meant I was winning! Eventually as I progressed towards adolescence I also began to put on some weight in preparation for puberty, but suddenly being in that 85th percentile didn’t feel good. It felt downright terrible.
I looked different and those around me let me know it. Prior to starting 3rd grade my family moved within Worthington and while it was a small move I changed elementary schools. After the move it was hard to make friends. I would reach out to others, but most of my attempts were met with rejection. I believe that nobody wanted to be friends with the new fat girl, and as cliche as it sounds my brown hair, brown eyes, and Jewish background didn’t help with fitting in with the “norm”. Recess was spent making friendship bracelets and playing imaginary games, trying to block out my loneliness and longing for a friend. I became an avid reader plowing through books at warp speed, but even that was different. My 4th grade teacher jokingly pointed out to the whole class that i had bought the biggest stack of books at the book sale. I thought she was making fun of me. Last time I checked reading was a good thing.
Third grade class photo, 1990
My best friend at the time, Jamie, lived in my new neighborhood and during after-school hours we were inseparable. We played for hours on end, elaborate games with Barbie that took over entire basements and build huge forts to sleep in. She eventually moved across town, but our parents indulged us driving us to each other and letting us spend days together in the summer. When we were together I felt accepted and normal. The filter of judgement didn’t hang over me and it was those days and hours that still allowed me to live outside of the label of “different.” The ironic there here is that physically we were quite different. Jamie was tiny and I well, wasn’t.
Hilton Head vacation with Jamie, 1992. Dad on the side.
However, as it often happens, over time and distance our friendship faded and I was again thrown into my fat world. I changed schools during middle school to a private school and while it was a step up from my public torture I still was teased. I began to prepare for my Bat Mitzvah and had to attend Hebrew School twice a week as well as Sunday school. I was again put together with the kids from public school and teased mercilessly. Sometimes the teacher even had to stop class to yell at kids to leave me alone. It is no wonder that my early teen years were spent imagining a better life if only I could lose weight. I really believed that being thin was the key to the world. Boy was I wrong.
As eighth grade rolled around I began to fantasize about returning to public high school and “showing” all those people who I really was. I wasn’t some worthless fat and awkward girl. I was worthwhile and as the weight came off friends started to appear out of the woodwork, at least for a short time until the tables flipped the other way and life became consumed by the anorexia. Was I thin? Yes. But still there was something wrong with me. My extreme thinness set me apart. And friends? I was too busy losing weight for that.
May 1996. Children’s Hospital. Admitted for one week with a resting pulse rate of 36 BPM. Freezing cold, blue and cruising down the famous river of de-Nile. I didn’t think there was something wrong with me. One week and 10 pounds later they let me out. This inpatient experience only reinforced my idea that something was wrong with me, forced to eat in the doorway 1000 calories per meal, 4 times per day. I lay in a bed, gaining privileges such a showers, family visits, and my own clothing as I gained weight. Nights I listened to screaming children and was dehydrated because they wouldn’t give me any water. They didn’t want me to fill up on it. Psychotherapy? None. Incentive to stay out of the hospital? Thrice weekly weight in visits to my doctor. If I lost weight under my goal immediately back to the hospital for me. Healthy? No. Weight was restored and I was out of immediate physical danger, but I was more messed up than ever. Fearful of my freedom, anxious, and confused. This was the dark ages of eating disorder treatment.
While many years and treatments have filled the space between then and now that experience scarred me forever.
“There’s something wrong with you.”
As the years went by this mantra was a part of daily life. I always felt the skin prick sensation of those around me talking about me, laughing, or judging and in my mind it was all about me. I was still little, fat, Hannah. Perhaps it was the people on my dorm room floor at Bucknell writing a list of all the odd eating behaviors I had, the guy I had gone on a few dates with telling me there was something really wrong with me, someone telling me I was a failure as yoga instructor since I didn’t know about marketing, or even the telling stare of the mother of my new boyfriend as she sized me up.
We waste time judging, ridiculing, bullying, classifying, and demeaning others while the truth is that we aren’t so different inside. People don’t talk about their real thoughts, fears, or wants; instead, they focus on the superficial such as what is on TV, sports, or appearances. We avoid the things that connect us together as humans beings, as animals. As two people pass by on the street, the bodybuilder, the video gamer, the college student, they may look different, perhaps we judge them by what we see, but if you listened inside you might hear an internal dialogue that isn’t so different. If you looked into their eyes, maybe you would see kindred souls.
If you are reading this, a teenager, college student, or adult, next time you go to pass judgement, ridicule or bully take a moment to pause and look beneath what you see on the outside. Perhaps you will see yourself.
What is your internal mantra? Have you carried the idea that something is wrong with you through your life?
Note: After writing this I sent it to my mom, the forever English teacher to proof, since no matter how many times I edit something myself I still leave typos. After she read it she commented that she doesn’t remember my childhood being this awful. While to the outsider life may not have appeared that terrible this ends up being irrelevant since my childhood experience was in fact, my children experience. The stories I chronicle are what happened to me and how I remember it.
It is my truth.