Dear Susu #12: Beholding the Body
"How do I make peace with changes in my appearance?"
Welcome to the latest installment of Dear Susu, my advice column where I answer your questions about writing and life and everything in between. Today’s question is from “Struggling to Make Peace,” whose chronic illness has caused a growing gap between her mind and her body—and a rift between her and the wider world. Letters are lightly edited for length and clarity.
I have been crumbling around the edges over the past two years. As a caretaker, I have watched three family members pass away. I soldiered through while they were living, but now—and after the death of my beloved dog (she was 13)—I have developed a chronic deficient immune and lymphatic system. I feel my body collapsing to the point where I don’t recognize it. This aching, no-energy being feels far removed from my mind and soul. The face in the mirror is no longer mine either—puffy, mottled with a rash that isn’t responding to treatment. It’s like my contents (“soul”) can’t recognize my vessel (“body”) anymore.
I was never beautiful, but I fit into the world. Now I feel that the huge gap between my own mind and body is manifesting into a gap between me and the world.
Susu, how do you make peace with the changes in your body and appearance? The dissonance between how I see myself internally and what is reflected in the mirror causes me such pain. I have no control over how my body will be each day: achy, bloated, nauseous. I try and keep my mind healthy and strong in faith and good deeds, but the lack of connection with my body taints everything.
Sending you big hugs, well wishes, and much love,
Struggling to Make Peace
Dearest Struggling to Make Peace,
I must be honest from the outset and tell you that I am writing from a humble place, one without tried-and-true advice or hard-and-fast answers. When I got your question all those months ago, I thought, “Yeah, I get it.” I read it again last week, and I thought the same thing again. Your letter resonates so deeply, because it’s exactly what I’m living. The integration you long for and the peace you seek—those are the things I’m also longing for, seeking.
I’ve spent a lot of the last year at home, a near-total recluse, not going to restaurants or parties or concerts, seeing only family and a few close friends. Part of that is because I haven’t been well enough, but it’s also that I haven’t wanted to deal with the gazes of other people. When I’m bald and brow- and lashless, wan from chemo and confinement in fluorescent-lit rooms, it has always felt jarring to go out and notice people staring. When that happens, I can’t help but feel like a freak. Added to that is the stranger reality, and the one that’s maybe more embarrassing to admit: that I can’t even handle my own gaze. Having been in treatment for more than a year now, I don’t recognize myself. I avoid tight clothes and mirrors at all costs. I don’t feel like my body belongs to me.
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