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What It's Like Growing Up Feeling 'Wrong'

Dysphoria is a strange, cruel thing.

People have told me that it’s hard to imagine for someone like me. I think they see “thin” and “strong” and think “better,” or maybe the word is closer to “easier.”

What they don’t see is the childhood bare bones; the raw wounds that can only ever scab over with time. Ready to bleed anew should the feelings stir up.

They fail to understand how a brain may develop around the concept of “wrong.”

The wrong eyes, hair color, interests.

Wrong and strange enough that no one figured out I needed glasses until second grade. With my affinity to watch and draw, everyone assumed the problem wasn’t visual. But in truth, I’d accommodated for a deficit I didn’t know I had by using negative space. As with art, I used what I couldn’t see to shape what was there. Shadows, light, color.

Wrong bones, too, though this one was more difficult to comprehend. I remember being proud of how fast I could run at school. It took me a while to realize laughing probably wasn’t the appropriate response to a race, and it wasn’t normal for the other kids to tell me to run and then have fits of hysterics. One day someone finally explained to me that my feet looked “broken.” They weren’t watching my speed, they were getting entertainment. I was just never in on the joke.

Femoral anteversion is the proper terminology, but it was never explained to me like that. Instead they used broken down language like “not right” and needs to be “fixed”.

Maybe a pattern is becoming clear?

Wrong.

Broken.

Not right.

Weird.

Being different had its own world of problems. But being weird, “four-eyes”, unable to smell, and having twisted bones? It shouldn’t be much of a stretch to imagine the thoughts that bloomed.

My mind had more of a voice than I ever did as a child. It whispered softly, “If you were a boy, would your dad still visit you at night?” or “Maybe everything would be better if I didn’t exist.” I hated my scraggly, dirty blond hair. I hated my green eyes. My big face and large jaw had me convinced I’d never be someone worth looking at, compared to the oval faces and blue eyes of my older sister and mom. I stuck to my paintings and books.

At 10 I underwent surgery for my legs. They broke the femur, placed a steal rod inside, and screwed it in place at my knee and hip. I had to relearn how to walk. After a year, my body rejected the screws and they tried to push out of the skin. Another thing “wrong”, but no one wanted to listen. Besides the large scars from the original surgery, I also have one for the “exploratory excision” to remove the screws. I didn’t get comfortable wearing shorts for over a decade after that.

At 12, I was diagnosed with nasal polyps that blocked an entire side of my nose. They didn’t understand how I could breathe. I didn’t grow up making memories around smells, but my past is still vividly clear.

When my period finally came at 14-15, it was also “wrong.” The cramps were excruciating, and I bled through multiple layers of clothing each hour. Sometimes there were chunks of tissue. It gave me an immense fear of not layering up enough to avoid staining a seat and having someone see. Surely, this couldn’t be normal, could it? But my mom told me all women dealt with it, and the one time I tried to ask my older sister, she just said “gross!” and dismissed me. When the doctor finally ran tests and put me on birth control to manage the severe anemia and cysts, my mother had nothing to say. If she could no longer accuse me of faking, there was nothing to discuss. At 29, it would turn out to be endometriosis. But it took that many years for a doctor to actually look.

Paranoia isn’t a word kids tend to understand early on. I was 22 when my mom finally told me my dad never thought I was his. And about getting tested for autism. She said it with a laugh, as if the words meant nothing at all. And to her, maybe they didn’t. Maybe she was finally ready to include me in a joke she’d been keeping to herself all those years.

But for me, the world tilted. The missing puzzle pieces found their spaces. The gaps clicked. Suddenly I had the ability to form a “why.” Why was I treated differently, why was I neglected. Why did I never quite fit into, well, anything. Why did I internalize the sense that I was “wrong.” Why, indeed.

As children, we typically internalize beliefs that are reinforced by our environments. It didn’t make any sense to me when I got a stalker as a barista, or when a creepy boss harassed me for years at the diner. I had coworkers treat me like a slut even though I’d never had a boyfriend and worked really hard. I always did my sidework. I never called off. But they had already decided who and what I was.

I just didn’t understand that when you grow up being convinced you’re ugly in an abusive home, not everyone else will see you that way in the outside world. It took years into my marriage for my partner to tell me I was beautiful and for me to believe him. I assumed it was his job to say it; not necessarily true. He also explained it was why some women immediately hated me, even without ever talking to me.

I didn’t take it well. I still don’t totally understand. And many days the mirror continues to be a nemesis, not a friend. But at 31, I finally received confirmation I’ve been autistic all along. Interestingly enough, it didn’t confirm a feeling of wrongness. Instead, I feel whole.

I have nothing to be ashamed of or apologize for. Not anymore.

Photo credit: Jorm Sangsorn/Getty Images