I spent the better part of this past weekend debating whether or not I should go see The Fault in Our Stars. I did a little “hmm, can I actually handle this?” research and the aggregate mass of the fact that my friend Meg sobbed through an entire roll of paper towels while watching it combined with the inundation of this is my crumbled Kleenex collection but oh it was so beautiful Instagram posts, I decided against it. For now. (But according to my friend Stephanie, the newest viewer, for actually forever because I, who am predisposed to melancholy, will cry for about the next 17 years).
I have very thin skin.
This is not a secret.
For a long while, I’ve walked around thinking that this is something that I need to fix or attend to or even take more medication because of.
My thin-skinned-ness was especially amplified during this past season of my life, in which I spent my days as a school counselor at a high school about twice the size of Wofford. Luckily, this correlated with my personal war against insecurity, in which I decided I wanted to really dig deep and uproot the things in my life that were causing me to be as unsure of myself as I’ve been lately.
My advice is to definitely never ever ever do this while you’re working in a high school.
Because high schools are the Disney Worlds of insecurity.
This isn’t something I’ve been super open about, but a couple of years ago, I was diagnosed with a condition called PCOS. This means a lot of things, which are very serious, but for the purposes of this story you just need to know that it affects my hormone levels and as of late, has caused some lovely hair growth on my chin and neck. (Read: little bit of a man beard.)
I didn’t really think it was all that noticeable, but one of my delightful precious angel sixteen-year-olds pointed out that it very much is, and that “people allllll over the building” talked about me “for allllll sorts of reasons, including that.”
(We’ve worked on tact a lot more since then. Baby steps.)
Luckily, this one particular firecracker precious angel happens to be one who nestled her way into my heart and absolutely changed my life forever and I would adopt her in a heartbeat if that was as much of a good idea as I romanticize it to be (I am nothing if not a very dramatic human) except for the part where I’m single and 23 and also I think she’d set my house on fire just to see if I’d get mad.
Anyway. Firecracker dropped the bomb about the man beard comments and I just internally lost it. And I think she saw this happening, mostly because I froze and my eyes got real big and I think I stopped breathing, and she chimed back in to let me know that she still thought I was cool and that she defended my honor and stuff, and “hey, it’s whatever, remember what you told me about not letting the haters get to you?” (oh good, it stuck). It was like this fresh, new vulnerable spot that I didn’t even know was vulnerable until someone hit and we figured out that OH, IT WAS VULNERABLE, ALRIGHT.
So I tried to give myself an internal pep talk, you know, what would I say to someone else in this situation right now? -- but instead, this came out:
“I do not feel okay right now. Deep down inside, I sorta kinda know that I’m okay, and I have all of these things that people and, you know, God, have said to me before that I should be able to recall right now and get that ‘feelin’ okay’ feeling to come back, but right now in this moment I do not FEEL okay.”
Every time I go visit my parents back home, the very first thing I do is pull my car around to the backyard and come in through the patio door that leads into the kitchen because I know that’s where Smudge will be waiting for me. Smudge is my 13-year-old salt-and-pepper-grey-and-black mess of an Irish Wolfhound who I love more than I love most humans.
(There was this hometown visit episode of The Bachelor several years ago where one of the girls more or less ignored the camera crews the whole time because she was running around in the backyard with her dog. That would absolutely have been me. I love Smudge.)
I open the heavy sliding glass door and immediately put my stuff on the floor and then crawl underneath the kitchen table to her pile of seventeen giant orthopedic dog beds where she’s always lounging, beating her tail against the ground, so happy that I’ve come home. And she always makes this awful crying whining noise, because she’s so excited that she can’t handle it (and is probably already thinking about the fact that I’ll leave again soon – my parents report that she mopes around the house for days) and I lay down on the floor with her and pet her and get real close and kiss her head on the little spot between her eyes and say, “You’re okay, you’re okay, you’re okay,” over and over and over again until she calms down.
I walked around the school for the rest of the day definitely not FEELING okay. I popped into an upstairs hallway to visit some of my teacher friends, who noted that I was under some duress. I didn’t tell them the specifics (BECAUSE, HELLO, I WAS HORRIFIED and didn’t even stand too close in case they were some of the “people who talked allllll about” the man beard). Only that a kid had made a comment that had hurt my feelings. (Am very diplomatic.) And I know they were trying to give me perspective, but their wisdom about how you just can’t let it get to you, and what do they know they’re just kids wasn’t really bringing me a ton of comfort in that moment. I knew it was true, but it wasn’t really addressing the part where I was in an insecure panicky internal freakout anyway. And it was class change and there were kids everywhere and I wished I had been wearing a turtleneck and fourteen scarves (because that wouldn’t have been made fun of) and for a second I was back in high school, remembering every single little thing another kid said about me and how it cut right through me no matter how good of a day I was having. The time someone called me a “wide load” in the hallway or made fun of me for being the slowest at sprint drills during soccer practice or the day I literally quit the swim team in 8th grade because of some comments about my body, or whatever. I held onto every single one of those things and kept them quiet, because they made me feel like I wasn’t okay, and let them eat away at me until the point where they literally pushed me into disordered eating, because in my sixteen-year-old mind, if you didn’t feel okay, you definitely were not allowed to talk about it, and the quickest way to try and fix it was take very dramatic measures to fit into Abercrombie jeans as quickly as possible. So that’s what I did.
Very thin skin.
It’s different now. It’s not as severe, thanks to some very good and timely counseling and a willingness to be honest and get help and perspective when I need it. When twenty-three-year-old me doesn’t feel okay, I talk about it and eat pizza and go for a run. Twenty-three-year-old me works really hard on building her self-esteem and goes to a lot of counseling because she wants to be her best self because she knows that can’t really help these sixteen-year-olds deal with their own crap if she’s sitting around letting hers eat away at her. Twenty-three-year-old likes running and also likes pizza and buys jeans that fit and doesn’t really get torn up about what size they need to be, because whatever, honestly. I really wish that twenty-three-year-old me could go back in time and be sixteen-year-old me’s person.
But the thing is that I can, and I am.
There are lots of sixteen-year-old me’s walking around that high school, and around every high school, and the world, and some of them are in their forties and some of them are the mamas I know and the people at my gym. Sixteen-year-old me is sort of all over the place.
That day was a very timely reminder for me that people can be vicious. All along, I’d heard things that kids say about other teachers and just sort of thought I was in the clear mostly because of the time a senior boy made a tiger growl noise at me in the hallway, which was yes, appalling and made me want to wear a spacesuit to work from then on. That day reminded me that most of the time, I see kids on their best behavior when they’re coming into guidance for scholarship applications and I totally forget that it is like World War Freaking III out there in the hallways and the cafeteria and the classrooms and the practice fields with the whispering and the comments and God love us all, social media.
I went out to trivia that night with some teacher friends, still reeling a little, because that’s what I do. And I was hearing a lot of, “if every little thing a kid says is gonna get to you like this, then you don’t need to work in a high school.” And I know it was all out of love and protection and experience because I’m fresh out of school with optimism and a Masters degree and all the feelings that I feel about every single thing lead people to believe that I’m gonna get real burnt out real, real fast.
But listen. Maybe it means that I absolutely do need to be working in a high school. Maybe that’s exactly where I need to be with my thin skin.
Because here's the thing. I love my thin skin. I'm gonna own that. I love that it gets rubbed raw sometimes. Because now, that happens and I can pull over and say, “Alright, what’s this really saying?” instead of “HOLY GOODNESS I AM BLEEDING AND NOT OKAY AND MAY NOT EVER BE SO WHAT DO I NEED TO CHANGE?” I know how to get past that and take care of myself now. I think that life is a contact sport, and that school counseling FOR SURE is one, too. I love that my thin skin makes me a little neurotic at times, because I think that means I’m paying attention. A lot of attention. Sometimes too much attention. Am a very good attention-payer. I love that I let a comment from Firecracker knock me off my professional pedestal and take a walk in the Disney World of insecurity as one of them for a hot second, rather than in my cute little office in my cute little pencil skirt where nobody hurts my feelings. I obviously don’t want to be in that state all the time, but it was a beautiful little nudge. It was a beautiful little, “Hey. Remember how that felt? What did you need when this was you? Feel that right now. What did you need? What do they need? How can you help them get that?”
And that's sort of my dream job.
I think that Jesus had pretty thin skin. I find great comfort in that. I don’t think Jesus was neurotic; he had a lot of swag, you know? But he took care of people and he paid attention to what they needed and he walked around in their skin and felt what they were feeling.
So since that day, I am Greenville’s newest laser hair removal client, but mostly because I found a Groupon for it and advertising works really well on me. But I’m also excited to have the job that I have. And I’m excited to know that when a sixteen-year-old comes into my office and doesn’t feel okay, I know that maybe they don’t need to hear that actually you are okay, because I know, and I have all this perspective and wisdom and trust me, I have a degree in reminding you that you are okay, little short one.
Perspective can wait, and comes with time. I can start with, “Hey. You don’t feel okay. Me, too, sometimes. I hear ya. Let’s hang with that for a minute. What’s underneath that? What do you need?” And then we’ll pull out the positives and go back to class.
It’s not just the sixteen-year-olds that need that. It’s the twenty-three-year olds and the ones starting new jobs and the mamas and the scared ones and the ones on top of the world, and the everybodies. It’s the everybodies.
So I'll keep letting my skin be thin, and I'll keep paying attention.
Not everyone can pull of this much neurotic all at once, you know?
Thin skin forever.