The Story Behind “Untethered”

Note: this contains descriptions of self-harm and may upset sensitive readers.

In the early 1970’s, my family moved from the town of Park Forest to the town of Flossmoor. Both towns were in the south suburbs of Chicago, a 40-minute drive from the city.

I was 11 and had grown up in Park Forest. I loved living there. It suited me. I had a group of good friends I had lots of fun with. The library, a community pool, and a shopping center were a few blocks away from my house. I could ride my bike just about anywhere I wanted to go. I felt a deep sense a belonging in Park Forest.

My parents wanted to move because they felt Flossmoor schools were better and they could afford a larger home for me and my two younger sisters. I don’t fault their reasons for moving. But I remember when they told us we were going to move, I felt a huge sense of dread in my chest and I begged them not to go through with the move. My parents brought me and my sisters along when they looked at houses and the new neighborhood felt so cold and sterile. In Park Forest there were always people outside; men mowing their lawns, kids playing in in the front yards, women working in gardens. The only people I ever saw outside in Flossmoor were garden services mowing lawns.

But for me, it couldn’t have been a worse time. I had just finished 5th grade and at this time, elementary school went through 6th grade so I’d be the new kid in a class where all the kids knew each other. And of course, at my age my body was changing from the little girl body with which I was very comfortable into a woman’s body. I felt so clumsy and uncomfortable with my larger hips, breasts, and thighs. I felt like I was now occupying this weird, ungainly body and I didn’t like how I looked at all.

On top of this, my mother’s parents, with whom I’d always been close, especially with my maternal grandmother, moved from Chicago to Florida. Until they moved, my grandparents had big casual dinners to which my mom and her sister’s and brother’s families came. My grandmother always made me feel loved for and appreciated for who I was. She would say, “Judy, you’re OK.” When they moved we would talk to them for two minutes at a time because they were so worried about long distance call charges.

When I moved to Flossmoor, it felt that all the familiar things I loved: my friends, my neighborhood, my school, and my extended family had stripped from me without anything I could connect to.

I struggled to make things work. I was a good kid and I didn’t want to be “the problem.” But I was the problem. I didn’t make friends quickly and I never really felt I belonged with the friends I did make. I always felt the other girls were prettier, more adept socially, and on an altogether higher level than me.

As my friends and I began noticing boys, I felt utterly hopeless when it came to having any kind of “boyfriend.” I always felt like I was too fat and clumsy and if my confidence was low when it came to female friends, it was non-existent with boys.

One thing I seemed to have going for me was my sense of humor. I made jokes and observations that made other kids laugh and that was my way of making and keeping friends. But my belonging always felt very conditional. Like these girls were just tolerating me and it wouldn’t take much to get kicked out.

But I did try. I tried to find things that would fill the void inside me.

I had always loved animals especially cats and begged my mom (who did not like any kind of animals especially in her house) until she finally allowed us to adopt a kitten named Missy. Missy was a long haired tuxedo with a big fluffy tail. She was a sweet natured cat but I quickly realized Missy was not the kind of cat who loved to be in my lap and follow me around the house. She wasn’t the kind of friend I wanted and it was unfair to expect this from her.

My mom, in particular, tried to ease the transition by letting me decorate my room. She and I picked out flowery red and white wallpaper, a matching bedspread, and a brass headboard. My parents also bought me a clock radio which absolutely thrilled me because I loved listening to the local top 40 stations. It felt so luxurious to have WLS, Chicago’s top 40 station at the time, on as much as I wanted!

When we moved, my parents immediately began getting calls from neighbors to see if I was available for babysitting. Although I didn’t especially like younger kids finding them boring, I often agreed to babysitting jobs because it meant I had my own money to spend. I didn’t have to ask my mom to buy things for me.

My favorite things to buy were all the foods my mom absolutely forbid in our house. My mom would not allow us to have things like potato chips, cookies, candy, and other delicious, empty calorie items because my dad would eat these and gain weight. As my sisters and I hit puberty and began getting “heavy” (in my moms words) my mom also began worrying about us getting fat as well. So all that “good stuff” was a rarity in our home.

But now that I had my own money, I could buy these treats for myself and I’d regularly walk to the White Hen convenience store, just a few blocks away, to buy snack cakes, candy, and chips. These goodies were a nice new element for me and made my life feel a little better. But again, they didn’t offer what I really wanted. 

Like most girls my age, I also loved to watch TV and talk about the shows with my friends. We all loved Charles Angels and thought the actresses who played the angels were the coolest. Some of my friends could pull off the 70’s fashions with the tight high waisted jeans, silky shirts, and tight T shirts. I wanted to look like that but I was way too pudgy to ever bare my midriff.

During 7th grade, I began to pull out my hair. It wasn’t a conscious decision. I don’t even remember exactly when I started. I just found myself sitting in front of the TV one afternoon and when I looked at the floor, there was a fluffy pile of my hair next to me. Over time, I developed a bald spot where I parted my hair and by the summer, I was pretty much bald. Although there was always new hair growing, it didn’t keep up with my pulling. I also found I liked to tweeze my eyebrows and reduced them to skinny little lines.

At one point my dad asked me didn’t “hurt like hell” to pull my hair out? And oddly, no, it didn’t. It hurt a little but it was also soothing and comforting for me. I didn’t understand my pulling habit either.

Being bald in middle school made me a target for bullying. I played clarinet in the school band and there were two girls who were also in band, one who was first chair clarinet and her best friend who played the oboe who loved to torment me. Any time they found me alone, the clarinet girl would say “Hey Baldy” in a loud voice and sneer at me. I never expected it and I was always startled. I’m sure I looked like a deer caught in the headlights which probably delighted these two girls. Playing the clarinet was something I genuinely enjoyed and it was horrible having the first chair clarinet bullying me every time she got the chance. 

Being bald also totally ruled out any chance I had when it came to attracting boys. Even if a boy liked me, no way was he going to be seen with a bald girl and risk being mocked by his friends.

You would think the bullying and shame would be enough to make me stop the pulling. I WANTED to stop more than anything. My family thought I was doing this for attention and therefore refused to pay attention to me. And I tried so hard to stop. I bought a tulip hat with my babysitting money and wore the hat as much as possible so I couldn’t just get my hands in my hair. I taped bandages around my fingers to make it hard to grasp hairs. I really tried. 

As an adult still struggling with hair pulling, I learned that there is actually an obsessive compulsive disorder called “Trichotillamania” which a lot of people struggle with. It’s something people do as a way to comfort themselves and deal with stress. I’ve learned to control my hair pulling using meds and cognitive therapy but I still find myself pulling at my hair occasionally when I’m really stressed. When it comes to OCD (obsessive compulsive disorders) humans are surprisingly good at finding ways to practice these behaviors regardless of the downsides.

My early adult years were traumatic for me. I sometimes have a hard time using the word “trauma” because I didn’t experience what most psychiatric professionals define as trauma. I was never physically abused or sexually abused. I didn’t witness an event such as seeing a friend get shot. I was never in anything like a horrific accident or a school shooting.

Another person may have had the same experiences as I did and look back at their young adult years as happy ones.  But trauma is about the way in which our nervous systems experience events regardless of the labels we give those events.

I can’t explain why I wasn’t more resilient but I wasn’t and I’ve carried this with my my entire life.

I now feel a lot of compassion for myself as that young teenager who so desperately wanted to fit in and be liked. I decided to create this image as a way to honor her. I feel sad because I really was a good kid. I was a talented kid. But I was also different and at the time, my parents, well-intentioned didn’t know or understand how to deal with their overly sensitive, talented daughter who seemed to be doing everything in her power to make things difficult. I wasn’t trying to make my family to look bad.

But I do know I wanted to be loved for who I was. I wanted to feel appreciated and fully seen. And I don’t recall any adults in my life at the time being there for me. I’m not blaming anyone. I can say my parents could have, should have done better than they did but they didn’t and I struggled for a long time.

What I can do now and what is helping me is to stop treating my awkward young self as something, someone shameful and give her the appreciation and acknowledgement she couldn’t get at the time. This is how healing works.

Note: One of my inspirations for beginning to revisit my young adult years was the Barb Holland character in Stranger Things. When Barb showed up I immediately recognized myself as a teenager. We so rarely see characters in the media who are anything other than super thin and fit. And when there are overweight characters, they are usually “the funny ones.” It felt so empowering to see an admirable character who wasn’t super thin. A lot of people might call Barb (and the actress who plays her) “fat.” In my observation, there are far more women who look like Barb than who look like her super skinny friend Nancy. I would call Barb “normal” not “fat.” 

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