Fragile means many things to me, but I’ll pick that which sits squarely in my space right now, something I am working on at this very moment, with a schedule, goals and ambitions to defeat it, absorb it and move on.
The problem started before I had any conscious control, and I’m ashamed, even though it’s not entirely my fault.
The evidence is there in the old family photo albums; the labeling started when I was about one. In this album are pictures of Boo and of me, both in pale pink dresses embroidered with rosebuds, sitting on the green wrought iron garden chair against a backdrop of creamy white camellias. The pictures look beautiful. Boo, naturally, is perfect, always perfect, smiling engagingly for the camera, the right blend of lovely and shy, coy and ethereal. And then there’s me. I’m one. Short dark hair, huge blue eyes, long dark eyelashes. I am a baby and have the blank look of neutrality not uncommon in kids that age. I look sleepy. I am not smiling. Below it is a handwritten caption in white ink on the black scrapbook paper, and it reads, “Tonia’s idea of a smile.”
It started that early. By age one.
Throughout my childhood, family photos were a source of distress for me. My dad would have us kids lined up somewhere with Mom in the background barking orders to perfect the photographic composition. What started out as impromptu and fun immediately became a source of tension until I could feel the pressure skyrocketing through the roof. I can think of nothing that more quickly kills an earnest smile than instructions on when, where and how long you should do it. No sooner would I smile than she would say my smile was dopey and utter the words, “Come on, Miss Mary Sunshine,” delivered with a sneer and spite, readily producing my genuine scowl. I grew to hate photographs and being seen.
Nowadays, a pediatrician might have questioned if I were on the autism spectrum somewhere or, if not that, a baby improperly socialized by its mother (bingo), but back in the olden days when babies trudged two miles through the snows and assaults of everyday American family life, I was just weird, and the question was: how weird was I going to become?
By the time I was seven, my mom had created a great game to alleviate boredom on family car rides. It usually started as a way to end some genuinely fun game we girls had devised, such as pinching each other when Mom said to be quiet and then trying not to laugh and get in trouble. Whatever the case, the purpose of her game was group control, and it revealed to me, then and forever, much about people, manipulation and harm as I learned to be invisible and burnished those skills with pumice and care.
She would start saying, “Miss Mary Sunshine.” It would start quietly, yet she’d persist until she got my sisters reluctantly chanting it, too, so afraid were they to oppose her or become the target. No matter how hard I would try not to let it bother me, I would always, eventually, dissolve into tears of silent humiliation. My humiliation was her aim all along.
To this day, I grow tense at the words “miss” or “Mary” or “sunshine,” am terrified when people want to see me or take my picture. My chest gets tight and I have trouble breathing. I’m okay(ish) with impromptu views of me, but posed pictures are impossible for me and send me into waves of nausea, fear, fight-or-flight and anxiety, none of which produces a natural smile. The problem has grown to where I don’t like to Skype, look in mirrors or even see my reflection in windows. I work on it. I fail at it. It humbles me again and again.
Someday I hope to be an author, and my plan to hire a photographic stand-in conflicts with the need to be recognizable when out promoting a book. Thus, I’m in a self-inflicted training regimen attempting progressive desensitization by taking selfies and forcing myself to look at them while breathing. A friend asked if she could take my picture next month and I told her she is four months ahead of schedule, that at Oxbridge I would have my picture taken, but not before.
That’s me: fragile. Hate having my picture taken. Hate mirrors. Hate being seen.