A life-threatening illness, major loss, or any tragedy for that matter, forces us to examine our own history. I have spent countless hours replaying scenes from my life and the choices I have made in an effort to discover why leukemia chose me to be its bedfellow. I’ve devoured books explaining the “biology of biography”—how our past shapes and influences our tendency toward health or illness, how old hurts and grudges can cause sickness, cancer, and even death, how poor health habits contribute to disease (or “dis-ease,” as the experts call it), and how de-valuing ourselves destroys our spirit and self-assurance. In essence, I’ve become an excavator partaking in a personal archeological dig that I hope will provide enlightenment.
Enlightenment, though, is a long, arduous process—at least it has been for me. Until my illness reared its ugly head, I took for granted my body, mind, and abilities. I have always been athletic, kicking butt since fifth grade at track meets and garnering “Most Valuable Runner” awards for four straight years during high school track. Not only was I athletic, but I was also consistently an honor student and generally well liked by both my teachers and my peers. The title of Basketball Homecoming Queen was bestowed upon me by the student body my senior year. In spite of numerous accomplishments, I’ve always had an overwhelming need to prove myself. The following is a story of early achievement that should have assured me an abundance of confidence, and yet, that confidence was never quite realized.
One example of early success occurred one sunny, spring Sunday afternoon during my sixth grade year. Every spring the American Legion sponsored the Junior Olympics in my hometown, and students at the local grade schools were invited to participate. There were events such as soft ball throw, running races, high jump, long jump, etc. At the end of the competition, there was an awards ceremony where gold, silver, and bronze medals were presented to the winners of each event. It was an exciting day at Legion Field. I was in the 5th to 6th grade age group and had just won my heat in the 50-yard dash. There were several heats of the 50-yard dash, and once the heats were completed, we were informed there had to be a run-off for first place. My opponent, for the gold, was a girl who stood about a head taller than me and was from a rival grade school.
My father, who served as my coach, walked with me across the grassy field to the starting line. The girl racing me was already there with her older brother. I overheard him say, “Look how little she is.”
I was furious! Just because I was small didn’t mean I wasn’t fast. Dad told me not to pay attention to his comment and then gently nudged me toward the starting line.
Angela and I were the sole runners at the starting line. Waiting for the official’s gun to go off was nerve-wracking. Nervous energy coursed through my veins, and I so longed to gnaw on my fingernails (a terrible habit I didn’t break until I was thirteen). I stood there frozen, ready to sprint at the sound of the gun. The gun exploded, and we were off. It was unbelievable! I soared past this giant of a girl like a hot knife slicing through butter. It was effortless and I crossed the finish line well ahead of her. It was at that moment I decided size was never going to be a deterrent to any goal. I took home the gold that day along with a confidence I had not possessed previously. However, in the following years that self-esteem began to dwindle.
Twenty years later, I still hold high school track records in the 100 and 200 meter sprints. The times were good, but not so good that twenty years later they should still be standing. I believe this athleticism simultaneously helped and hindered me. It helped me to find the courage to take risks, to try new experiences, to expand my capabilities, and yet because this athleticism came so easily, it contributed to a presumptuous attitude toward my health and my mortality. I felt that nothing could ever go wrong; I was charmed. Yet this statement is contradictory because I also developed an unhealthy obsession with my appearance and self-image.
Actually, I am a bundle of contradictions. An example of this is that I’m a calculated risk taker. People are always telling me that I am so courageous, that they could never do the things I do—act, sing, or move to the New York City area. My response to them is, “If you really wanted to, you could and you would.”
It’s not that I’m so audacious, it’s that I’m terrified of having regrets, and so I force myself into situations I may not be comfortable with because I am compelled (almost neurotically so) to at least try. Fear, more than courage, is the impetus for many of my actions. I’ve been afraid of everything my entire life, even success. I’ve shunned money as a means of defining myself. I reject being defined by an occupation or a financial status. Though this may sound admirable, unfortunately, I’ve substituted other destructive ways of defining myself.
For me, success, or the perception of it, was linked to my physical appearance and my image—that I was seen as a pulled-together, driven, confident, goal-oriented woman. Who I believed myself to be was intrinsically linked to illusions and unrealistic expectations I had created. To use a computer metaphor, self-loathing is an insidious little virus that invades your unconscious, infects your self-esteem, screws with your hard-wiring, and interferes with the functioning of your true self. That’s what I found happening to me.
So the big question is: where did all these insecurities originate? I suppose they started with family, and as my world expanded, continued with classmates, teachers, and society. Then as I so valiantly tried to maneuver through adolescence into adulthood, with each successive indignity or insult heaped upon me, my self-esteem was buried deeper and deeper beneath the muck of insecurities. My past needs to be explored in order to understand and alleviate my neuroses. As an adult, I can view familial, peer, and societal influences rationally and decide how they shaped me, why I allowed them to affect me in negative ways, and what steps need to be taken to ensure that they no longer interfere with my quality of life and mental well-being.
Propriety has ruled my life—that sense of having to be a “good girl,” abiding by the rules and never doing anything to bring shame upon the family. My mother, one of the sweetest, most loving, selfless, giving women I know, has been plagued over her lifetime with caring too much about how society views her and her family. Our good reputation had to remain in tact. There was to be no blight on the Ludwig name. My mother has led a life (or so it seemed to me) seeking perfection and worrying too much about finances and her children. Mom’s fears and concerns, conscious or unconscious, definitely influenced and shaped my behavior. There was always an unspoken pressure to conduct myself appropriately, make good grades, and excel at whatever endeavor I was pursuing. I recall that forgetting a homework assignment would set me into an emotional tailspin.
I was a little girl who was well-behaved, smart, and likable. As stated above, forgetting to bring home an assignment would generate much anxiety. If I could not get back into the school to retrieve my homework, I was beside myself with worry because I knew the next day I would be humiliated by receiving a punch hole in my conduct card for not having completed the assignment.
I think about that little girl who tried to do everything right, and it breaks my heart that she felt such anxiety over some insignificant homework assignment. It’s not that either of my parents punished me for this because they did not. Rather, it was the fear of humiliation, which resulted from the teacher’s berating or punishing a student in front of the entire class. To cause such shame and embarrassment is a dreadful thing to do to a child. I know there need to be consequences for not completing one’s homework, but the circumstances surrounding why this happened needs to be taken into account. Plus, a child’s dignity should be considered when meting out an appropriate punishment. In the scheme of life, missed homework assignments are pretty inconsequential, but, for me, this established a lifetime of experiencing anxiety when deadlines were, or potentially could be missed, or I was running a bit late for a meeting. We are all human and we make mistakes, and because homework is forgotten or a deadline is missed does not a bad person make. I’ve always pressured myself to be perfect. I don’t have to, nor do I want to be perfect; perfection is overrated. My conclusion is this: alleviate the need for perfection and you alleviate much anxiety.
I have recently realized that I have lived with a low level of anxiety my whole life. As mentioned previously, throughout my childhood, appearances were a big issue with my mom, though not in the physical or monetary sense, but rather in the realm of conduct. Within the immediate context of the family, Barbara, Karen, and I pretty much did and said what we felt, and if we misbehaved, so be it. But in the public sphere, heaven forbid should we have gotten in trouble at school or with the law, or worse, gotten pregnant. Of course, no one wants their children to get into trouble, but Mom seemed to care too much. My fear was that I would lose my parents’ love and respect.
The bottom line is that I was a really good kid. I’ve always been a “play-by-the-rules” kind of gal. Even to this day I don’t break a lot of rules. I spent my life trying to please others, and in pleasing others, I tried to be the best at whatever I was doing. If I wasn’t the best was it worth doing? If I hadn’t been the fastest runner on the track team would I have stayed on it? I liked being the best because it strengthened my fragile ego.
How did this ego become so fragile? The following four events seem to have had the greatest impact: 1.) the rejection of friendship after my best friend, Kay*, became a cheerleader in the seventh grade, and I was no longer considered popular enough to hang out with her; 2.) the life-long obsession and loathing of my nose, which began at age fourteen, originating from an insensitive comment from Tom* about my nose being big; 3.) the rude, backhanded compliment by Jane’s* grandmother about how attractive I was at fifteen in spite of my “having been such a homely child;” and 4.) the narcissistic need for the world to see me as beautiful, thin, smart, confident, and fearless.
The transition from grade school to high school fueled my desire to be seen as beautiful, especially in the eyes of my peers. I began focusing more on my appearance. Reading fashion magazines and watching glamorous celebrities parading around on television made me achingly aware of what was lacking in my life. I longed to be one of the beautiful people, and thus began a two-decade quest for the perfect makeover.
This quest included years of exercising, not out of the joy of moving my limbs and generating health, but rather to achieve a svelte, sculpted body. I tried many diets, which never worked, and maybe that was because it was absurd for me to be on a diet in the first place. My weight never exceeded ten pounds over my ideal of 105 (please note that I’m only 5’2” so I’m not emaciated). In 1998, the obsession with my nose finally resulted in a rhinoplasty surgery (nose reconstruction), which led to a septoplasty (septum corrective surgery) in 1999, to correct some asymmetry, which resulted from the rhinoplasty. And still, thousands of dollars later, to this day, my nose remains crooked. I also began scrutinizing every flaw—crows feet, under-eye bags, and cellulite. My sister, Karen, berated me for this behavior, saying that I was not looking at the whole package but instead, picking myself apart in a very destructive manner. This behavior was not only destructive to my self-esteem but also to potential relationships.
In 1999, I found myself in a relationship, or more accurately, a pseudo-relationship. I completely lost any sense of myself. My first mistake was assuming that I knew the type of woman this man wanted. My second mistake was trying to mold myself to fit that imagined woman. I painstakingly transformed myself into someone I knew he would love, and in the process found myself to be unrecognizable. Karen thought I was scary because I was so focused on physically transforming into the perfect woman for him. I gave him no opportunity to know the real me because I didn’t feel that I was good enough for him. I tried to be what I imagined he wanted, and the fact is I had no clue what he wanted. What a waste of both my and his time!
Once the relationship ended, I went into therapy. This was the first and only man to send me into therapy, and it only took two counseling sessions, so I must have been relatively well adjusted, regardless of my lunatic behavior. So, I decided it was time for some changes. A new century was beginning, and so a fresh perspective was in order. I made plans to get on with my life. I beat a bad cop in court, wrote and performed some cabaret shows, recorded a demo CD, and moved to New York City to begin a new adventure. However, after I moved to New York, I still focused too much attention on my appearance. I found myself emotionally and physically drowning even further under the pressure of being an actor in the New York City market. I fought, I worked, I struggled, I played—I did all I could do to make my life into what I’d envisioned. Then leukemia annihilated the dream.
Once diagnosed, and all this self-reflection began, I started to understand what a teacher of mine had been trying to tell me back in the fall. I was enrolled in a Body Dynamics class, and one evening after class I talked to the instructor. I was telling her how I always felt I needed to stand up straight or be pulled together. She responded, “Somewhere along the line someone made you feel that you were not enough.” Those words have haunted me ever since. The truth of her statement really resonated with me, and so I set out to discover how and when this occurred. The blame cannot be attributed to one person, but rather to a slew of people—family, friends, teachers, society in general, and me. I allowed others’ comments and actions to chip away at my self-esteem for nearly thirty years. It took cancer to open my eyes to the value of my life, my body, my mind, and my talents. Now that the decoration of Deborah has been stripped away, I can actually see myself more clearly.
The decoration I refer to is my long red hair. It is gone, my eyelashes have thinned, and I rarely wear make-up these days. But when I look in the mirror, I see clear, blue eyes shining back at me and a pretty smiling mouth with straight teeth. My nose slightly curves to the left, and my eyebrows are asymmetrical, as well. This asymmetry is not unattractive but rather interesting. My skin is smooth. My body is carrying about ten pounds more than normal, in preparation for weight loss during the remaining chemotherapy treatments and then transplant. My body is strong in spite of the toxins pumped into it. My waist remains small, although it is thicker than normal, my legs are strong and muscled from years of running, and my breasts are full and round. I have to admit, I like my breasts! Is this what the perfect woman looks like? No, and that’s okay.
It saddens me to think about the time I’ve wasted trashing my body and my face and not appreciating my talents. I never loved me for me. I always felt I had to be better, I had to be more. Now I know that I am enough and that will have to be good enough for others, as well. Cancer has made me look deep inside, and I’m thankful for that. I’ve had in-depth discussions with my mother about these thoughts, and she agrees that she does worry too much about things she shouldn’t, and so we’re both working to alleviate the need for perfection in our lives. I hope she can free herself as much as I hope to do so. Life is too short.
“I’m enough,” is my new mantra—well, one of my new mantras. We all need to believe we are enough. Honestly looking at emotional and behavioral responses to past hurts will help me to move beyond destructive thought and behavior patterns toward productive ones. Now that I’ve explored my neuroses, it is time to get beyond them. This is a process, which will take time. My healing will not happen overnight, but I will continue to work on self-acceptance and self-love, knowing that I am enough.
* Names have been changed to protect the guilty