All The Colors Of Me Only Some Will See: Relearning to Love Your Body After a Trauma
Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
The mirror has never been my friend. My dislike or, dare I say, hatred of my body is not for superficial reasons, but instead coming from a place of trauma stored inside my body. My reflection reminds me of this deep pain from my past, and while people call me beautiful, the horrors of the abuse I suffered when I was younger manifests as body dysmorphia; my reflection only causes distress. It magnifies the many flaws I see, real or imagined.
My mental health origin story began in early childhood—I experienced ten years of serious trauma at the hands of multiple abusers, out of which sprang a lifelong battle with depression, psychosis, and PTSD. I developed a string of unhealthy coping mechanisms as a way to escape the body I hated. Some left scars, some led to me starving myself, and others left irreparable damage to friendships and relationships. I am by nature a deeply private person, but a wise friend once told me, when it comes to trauma, it’s yours to tell and there is power in that choice, a power that was taken away from you. After many years of struggling alone, I wish to tell my story about the ways I made myself comfortable when I looked at my reflection in an effort to move toward healing and perhaps help others.
I felt hideous and developed a deep fear of being seen, not just for how I looked but also for who I was. Panic would sweep over me when asked to join photos, and I felt so ugly that I would often take the longer and more isolated walk home just to avoid seeing anyone. I developed a penchant for alternative music and aesthetics early on, not as a political statement, but because I had a yearning for more than what was on offer, for what I was told my life path should be or how somebody at thirteen should be like. Ireland in the mid-nineties was far from progressive. Homosexuality and divorce would only be legalised in that decade after a long dark history. Displays of being different under ultra-conservative skies, particularly in small towns such as the ones I grew up in, were met with suspicion. There were unwritten yet heavily abided-by “rules” for how women were to dress—a short skirt or glimpse of cleavage was deemed a lack of virtue. Once women reached a certain age, women rarely deviated from the social norm of cutting their hair short, and alternative dress styles marked you as an outsider, a rebel, not “one of us.” There were rules for children to be seen and not heard, to respect your elders—a sentiment that troubled me in my youth having been abused by older men. I felt respect was to be earned, not an automatic entitlement.
My world changed when I first heard grunge and metal music, sounds and lyrics that people deemed dark and aggressive stirred something up inside that echoed my outlook and emotions. Progressive books, philosophies, and fashion appealed to me and served as my new lens to the world. Ultimately, this allowed me to explore and find my authentic self, despite at times sticking out like a sore thumb. I was blatantly visible even though my want was to not have my true self, someone I hated, exposed.
In truth, I’ve never wanted to be me. As a kid, I was an avid reader and every week I wanted to change my name to that of my favorite character in whatever book I was reading. At thirteen, deep depressive and anxious states took over and became impossible to ignore and I felt an overwhelming urge to escape. This eventually led me to my first psychiatrist hospital admission. That’s where Goth came in, a world and dress-style filled with masquerade and imagination.
My new music and aesthetic had ignited my spirit, brought me comfort, and introduced me to a different world during these times. I didn’t consider myself rebelling as some teenagers did, but rather resisting the social norms and the harsh circumstances of being thrown into adult situations at such a young age. Torn fishnets, corsets, impossibly high heels, and wigs allowed me to be someone with a fluid look to suit my moods and be a different person each week. Many people said at best that I was courageous to be so noticeable, and at worst that I was seeking attention. Neither of those statements held any truth, as the elaborate clothing and intricately detailed accessories were my armor. I felt nobody would want to look past the clothes to notice me, but also they were my second skin that protected me and gave me a sense of power. I felt I was taking my pain and turning it into something beautiful, even if what I wore was “obscene” or not to everyone’s tastes.
In my most extravagant looks, there were times were people I knew could not recognize me. I relished in that idea, there was a degree of control as to who I could let into my space and see me at my most extravagant and wild. While I had an ever-growing amount of piercings starting at fourteen, my tattoos that amassed in later life were hidden. This became a way for only those I chose to see that side of me.
This is not the only part of myself that I conceal. At an early age I realised that I was bisexual, and while I am proudly this way, I still I keep it to myself around family and those I feel I cannot to open with. As a trauma response, I learned some details of my life and identity are not for all to know. Early on in my teens, my body turned against me as I developed fibromyalgia and other debilitating conditions. Sadly due to the pain coupled with sensory issues where noise and crowds send me into an out-of-control mental state, I’ve never been able to join in on the pride parade march. Instead, I have my tradition of putting on extravagant clothes and painting my eyes the rainbow colors that mean so much to me.
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Red for life
Orange for healing
Yellow for sunlight
Green for nature
Blue for serenity
Purple for spirit
There is an inherent code, a visual polari, where couples holding hands and those carrying rainbow flags as I walk around the city on the parade day give me a wink and smile. There is a sense of unity on a day that’s all about love. I celebrate in a way that again gives me a sense of belonging as I walk through the streets being a part of a community. I can express myself with a sense of security, performative, but not for all to be welcomed into my life and identity.
This extravagance found its way into a late-life career change, when I began an exhilarating albeit strenuous job in costuming. It gave me a sense of purpose that freed me from the mundane jobs that sucked my soul. Telling a narrative through the outfits was stimulating and allowed me to be creative and appreciated, while working in harmony with crews. It was an extension of the power I felt in creating my own looks and it was equally as healing.
Time and time again, I would hear the fearful phrase “I can’t wear that!” from others taught to hate their bodies. I would, without making comment, style people in clothing that not only made them feel comfortable, but fierce. I wanted people to look in the mirror and say, “Yes, I can and want to be seen.” I wanted people to reclaim their sense of power and drop the weight of messages that bombard us from all angles, and scream your body is wrong, either through the media, bullying, or in my case, stemming from trauma. Most of all, I wanted people to look in the mirror and not feel the self-loathing and sadness with which I was so familiar.
However, that all came to a grinding halt when my physical health conditions worsened, leaving me barely able to stand or stay awake, never mind doing twelve hour days on a film set. The searing pain only worsened my view of my body. I felt it had completely turned against me at a time when I needed to heal. I spent three years being hidden homeless before finally being housed this year, my life a blur of hopping trains, begging for a place to sleep, and living in abject poverty.
Many times, my life circumstances intensified the look of horror on that face in the mirror. After twenty-six years of being in therapy, I am still nowhere near remission, however my physical disability has forced me to view things differently, to be proud of myself for the little victories. I’d spent much of my life holding myself to impossibly high standards, beating myself up when I could not reach them, and feeling the judgment of others asking why at my age I’m not working, don’t own a home, or have all the other markers of success others believe in. After much struggling, my marker of success is not rooted in material things, but in being happy and stimulated in what I do. When disability strikes and you can’t do the day to day things people take for granted, it’s easy to fall into a trap of despair, to feel useless and unproductive, but there is an opportunity to recognise the achievements in the little things. It used to take me an hour to get dressed or sweep the floor, and I’d lost all spontaneity as my life became a regime of rest-time and medication schedules. The most basic of movement brings on waves of fatigue and searing pain.
Despite being so debilitated, I’ve drawn upon the strength and resilience I developed from my mental health battles in my youth. Fifteen-year-old me was full of aspirations, creativity, and at times I feel I let her down by not realizing all her potential. However, she might be proud that at thirty-eight, I still have piercings, proved Goth was not just a moody teenager phase, didn’t settle for being pigeon-holed, and still live, dress, and think on the alternative side. It has evolved from being a scared teenager who felt she couldn’t even exist in the open to finding a sense of ease with being seen.
I’m no longer seeking something more, and now I focus on being at peace with who I am. I put purple, blue, and green dyes in my hair, sport my docs and skull dresses, and do elaborate makeup although I still have yet to master the eyeliner wings that remain crooked twenty-three years later. I settled at times for less than others would accept, was beat down by life, my mind, my body, and the weight of other’s judgements, but I didn’t live down to their expectations. I walked paths others would have called for an Uber ten steps in, rejected how people said things should be, what a woman should do, what a ‘sensible’ person would do in situations I admittedly was reckless in. My body has ballooned up, shrunk rapidly, sags in some places, shooting pain in others, but I modified it, took control so that if nothing else it looks closer to styles I like.
I couldn’t control what was happening to me in the years of harsh childhood traumas that led to my battles, or my organs failing and leading to mental and physical decline, but I took control of my own beauty ideals and got closer to being comfortable in my own skin. I may not like what I see in the mirror, but I love how I express myself, my sexuality, my identity. I’m not defined by my nose rings and tattoos and rainbow hair and all-black outfits, but by the fact that I made my body an expressive canvas of who I am, who I love, and the life I choose.