“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” This is the first sentence of Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. I finished the book today and realized I could write a book about myself with a very similar beginning: “I was born twice: first, as a sick child with a congenital heart defect; and then again, as a relatively healthy teenager.” I thought by this point, now almost 20 years out from surgery, I wouldn’t be thinking about that time, but what I’m realizing more and more is how much our past shapes us to be who we are, especially those traumatic times that are locked in to our memories. The moments where our adrenaline and cortisol levels are high during immense stress are known to be set in our minds even better than other memories, and hence those years of struggle early on have continued to be dragged along behind me all these years.
I only realized its effects in the last few days while reading Middlesex. The main character Calliope/Cal is a biological XY male but has a genetic condition leading to her appearing very female until puberty. When puberty hits, it becomes apparent she is different and is brought to a doctor specializing in hermaphroditism. At this time, the doctors treat her as an interesting case study, evaluating every bit of her psychosexual development and determining Calliope would be best suited to “staying the way she is,” so to speak, which in this case means genital surgery and hormones to bring her femininity back. The doctors go about making this very secretive and hide the underlying reasons for the intended procedures and explain only the very basic motivations to her parents without explaining risks or providing her enough information to make a choice for herself. This section of the book seemed oh-so-familiar to me.
It isn’t that I don’t like doctors. I absolutely adore and respect the doctors who make a difference, who listen, who care, and who are competent. And in fact, I owe my life to them- the ones who bothered to stop pointing fingers at my mother’s motherly fears and started putting the puzzle together about my medical problems. Unfortunately, I find the vast majority of doctors lacking in the above qualities, especially when the patient in front of them is a child (and even more a child just on the verge of being able to understand adult concepts). And in my case, at eight years old, I had already become quite knowledgeable about medical procedures, about my health, and had already begun considering the ramifications of my illness continuing in its inevitable path (death). Similar to Calliope’s doctors, I remember being paternally patted on the head by many a doctor, being kept in the dark about what had developed inside of me, and looking for answers on my own, which scared me more than having accurate knowledge to begin with.
Having something inside of us that either makes us sick or leads to different development of any sort ages us, even children. It grows fears like festering wounds. Paternalism and secrecy is never the answer. And I see now how true that statement is. Because it took me fifteen years to ask enough questions about what was wrong with me to get real answers. And even though it is all almost entirely a null issue, I realize that those fifteen years were enough to change my entire identity – to make me feel broken, sick *even with plenty of evidence to the contrary.* I realize that even though I have become stronger, faster, more adept at almost everything, my self-image is still based on an old template. I realize that even though I have tried to shed the old “me,” integration hasn’t occurred. Just like Calliope deciding to become a male but still feeling like a fake, I have been going full steam ahead in my efforts to be healthy while feeling like everyone else can tell that I am really still very sick.
A friend casually mentioned that I was “in shape” the other day, and I laughed. It sounded funny, out of place. I’m what? In shape? You are mistaken, I wanted to say. The muscle I build is being built atop a faulty structure – I’ve always felt that was obvious. Sick people can only get less sick, not cured…right? Shedding fat is easy compared to shedding this inaccurate self-image grown from fear and false information. I’ve realized that in order to put the past behind me, I need to shed the attitudes and bad habits and embrace the lessons learned from it instead.
Do you have an old template you are still living by that needs to be updated and integrated with current knowledge and feelings about yourself? Have you been successful in doing this in the past? Please share below.