BlogHer recently had a writing initiative called “Letters to My Body” that yielded hundreds of journal entries from a diverse group of women, who wrote beautifully and from their hearts on everything from disability to self-acceptance .
A few months ago, when I was doing the research for a different article, I came across the statistic that approximately 25% of American adults, a third of women and a fifth of men, have no interest in sex, and that up to 33% of our population has gone a year or longer without a sexual partner.
I wasn’t that surprised. While waning activity may be caused by many things, including hormonal changes, stress, and fatigue, there’s another cause that’s rarely mentioned, or mentioned only in passing, and even then more as a psychological matter than a physical one.
What I’m talking about is the turn a body can take from being a thing of integrity — that’s healthy, intact, and consistent — into something that’s marred by disease, beset with problems, and unreliable.
Throughout my late twenties and into my mid-thirties — which some say is the prime of life — I was plagued by psoriasis, and not just a little bit. My skin was ravaged from scalp to ankles, with thick plaques that shed, and skin cells that grew at a hyperactive rate. Psoriasis is a devastating auto-immune disease with many treatments, and no known cure.
For a little over ten years, I lived the life of a modern-day leper. People stared at me with repulsion, and would-be employers turned me away at the door. Socially and personally, it was an extremely difficult time. As a parent, I felt bad that my children had to explain my disease to their friends. As a woman, I felt my prospects slipping away from me, and not just on the career-front. All the work I had done to find myself, heal my past, and understand my own sexuality seemed like a wasted effort — no fitness of mind or surety of spirit can make up for a body that’s covered in scales.
I remember an older friend in my teenage years named Debby who had alopecia, a disease that left her with no hair anywhere on her body. I would watch her get ready for work in the morning, carefully filling in her eyebrows with pencil, gluing on eyelashes, and brushing out her wig. Debby, who was in elementary school when the disease hit, was comfortable with her baldness, but went through the paces of covering it for those who were not. It was easier, she said, than always having to explain.
Debby didn’t go on her first date until she was in her early twenties, and by then she felt so anxious about ever finding love, that she married the first man who asked, and it was not a good match. He wanted a doormat, and maybe even chose her in part because he felt her condition would leave her feeling inferior. She might then need him more, and needing him, be more willing to accept his abuse.
I couldn’t fully appreciate Debby’s experience until my own encounter with a disfiguring disease years later. However, unlike Debby, I had a time in life preceding my disease where I truly felt the power of my body, and learned to love it, after unlearning all the shame that had been heaped on it since childhood.
Without those sunlit years, I don’t know how I would have survived the darker ones that followed. As it was, I ate myself into plumpness, taking solace in food. I busied myself with my children, and became downright obsessive about whatever work I was doing. I smoked way too much, refused to look into a mirror, and ceased to care what I looked like at all.
And then — poof — the psoriasis went away. Not just a short remission, but one that remains, with only a few scars left as a reminder. No miracle cure, no special reason, it just disappeared.
The Job-like curses that can effect life and sexuality are many. Skin, hair, teeth, muscles, bones…. the overall state of physical health can be fragile, and a sense of well-being can be elusive.
I didn’t participate in BlogHer’s letter initiative, but my letter would have been simple. “Dear Body,” I would have said,
“I am sorry that while you were trying to deal with skin issues, I decided to give up on you. I was really mad that you got a disease in the first place, and that you wouldn’t heal yourself quickly no matter how many UV treatments, shots, and tubes of medicine I gave you. I didn’t want to be your friend anymore. I didn’t even want to be see in public with you, so I distanced myself as much as I could, and treated you as if you didn’t have real needs, and didn’t exist. I promise that from now on, whatever life throws our way, I will not put you in the camp of an enemy, but treat you as the ally you are.”
I learned, during my decade as a leper, that more painful than any physical loss that’s experienced as part of a disease, is the loss of potential — some of which, at least, which is avoidable.
Disease or dysfunction can make you want to shut yourself out or off, especially when rejection is not just a fear, but a reality. To avoid the pain of being rejected or stigmatized, we can invent new ways to hide — and we can invite a whole new set of problems. One condition becomes two, becomes three, becomes a whole set of circumstances.
It is not easy to love a body that has betrayed us, but without that love — without nourishing and nurturing our bodies even when they fail us — we rob ourselves not only of healing, but of our own life potential.