58. The Enemy Within

58. The Enemy Within

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Inner Strength

The Enemy Within

What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates his fate.

~Henry David Thoreau

I suffer from a self-diagnosed disease. It’s called self-hatred, and it’s a writhing serpent that has infested my brain since my teenage years, continually attacking me, releasing its venom and paralyzing me. I conspired with this entity to create a stream of propaganda against myself in a twisted pattern of reverse psychology. No one could reject me because I had deemed myself unworthy of love.

I must first present some backstory on the origins of my self-hatred. Shortly after entering high school at age fifteen, my family physician referred me to an endocrinologist. I had complained to my parents that the other kids were sprouting while I had remained the same height as the year before.

The endocrinologist ordered a battery of tests, including a skull X-ray to determine my biological age. The scan showed a gray spot that was later diagnosed as a craniopharyngioma, a benign brain tumor near the pituitary gland. This type of tumor can cause headaches, hormonal imbalances and vision problems if left untreated.

Surgeons at Upstate University Hospital in Syracuse, New York removed the tumor in 1984. The surgery was successful, but it left me with panhypopituitarism, a deficiency of all of the hormones the pituitary gland produces. Puberty was delayed. While my friends continued to grow and mature as we headed for college, I remained physically unchanged.

I looked like a fourteen-year-old boy when I began my freshman year at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, New York; some of my classmates mistook me for an academic prodigy. I had to explain to them I was of normal intelligence — only scoring 970 on the SAT — but appeared young for my age due to an illness.

No female at the school took me seriously as a potential boyfriend, as I was considered cute in the way a teddy bear is cute — soft and safe — the antithesis of sexy.

My self-hatred festered during this period.

Without testosterone and growth hormone, my body was a soft shapeless mass and I loathed my round baby face with peach fuzz on the upper lip. My feminine features and a high-pitched voice meant people would sometimes confuse me for a girl.

While waiting to order a drink at a college bar near campus one night, I drew the attention of two mustached men, dressed in jeans and Carhartt jackets, who were sitting at the bar, nursing draft beers. One of the men looked at me and then turned to his friend and asked, “Is this a guy or a chick?” I caught the second man gazing at me, and he whispered to his friend, “I’m not sure.” I left the bar right away. I walked back to campus in the cold night air with hot tears stinging my face.

I retreated into a world of shame, unable to control the revulsion I felt when a mirror or photograph reflected my image back at me.

And I could do nothing to shed my child-like exterior.

But the endocrinologist prescribed growth hormone and testosterone shots. In time, my body grew and my face matured, if only slightly.

I graduated from college, earned my master’s degree and began working in the journalism field. My self-hatred simmered, but I was able to keep it under control.

A series of health crises then altered my perspective. One of the most memorable happened while I was living in Phoenix in 2004. Over the course of a Sunday afternoon I began vomiting and my legs became heavy and weak. I still intended to go to work that night at my job as a copy editor. But as I got ready to take a shower, I fell in the bathtub and struggled to climb back out. I called in sick and my roommate drove me to the hospital.

Blood tests revealed dangerously low sodium levels. Doctors in Scottsdale determined my blood had become diluted because the dosage of desmopressin I had been taking to replace vasopressin, a hormone that controls urine production, was too high while the dosage of cortisone was too low.

I spent a week at the hospital with IV fluids pumping through my veins. My sodium levels rose and I left the hospital on a bright sunny afternoon with clear blue skies overhead. Woody, a volunteer with white hair, a white mustache and muscular forearms, wheeled me outside to the curb; the sun felt warm and the desert smelled clean, with hints of sage and wildflowers wafting in the air.

As I waited for my roommate to bring the car around, I talked with Woody, and his positive attitude and the joy he expressed in helping people made an impression on me. I felt thankful for being restored to full health. I was alive. I could walk and I didn’t have a serious disease that required surgery or further treatment.

And I made the decision then to stop hating myself, to turn off the negative thoughts I had allowed to flow into my brain. The futility of my self-defeating philosophy became clear to me. I asked myself, what good had all this self-hatred brought me? How had it served me?

It had controlled my existence but produced nothing of value, while robbing me of energy and time, time I lost and could never recover.

My parents’ deaths from lung cancer — my father in 2007 and my mother in 2011 — solidified my thinking. Seeing them wither as the cancer spread made me realize that our bodies are only finite machines. They hold no power besides the functions they are able to carry out.

I have tried to put aside my obsessions with the self. I’ve come to the conclusion I can’t rearrange the molecules of my being and construct a new face, a new body or a new voice. This is who I am, and I need to stop rejecting myself or wishing for a better version.

In 2011 my craniopharyngioma returned, only this time with greater intensity. The tumor pressed against my optic nerve, causing headaches, a drooping right eye and double vision. Surgeons at Upstate performed a transsphenoidal (through the nose) decompression of the tumor and my vision was restored. I could see again and gratitude swelled inside me.

And although I would never claim victory over my self-hatred, gratitude cancels it out; the two cannot share the same space. You can’t hate yourself if you feel lucky to be alive, if you celebrate the gift of life, breath, body and mind.

The bad thoughts about myself are still stored inside, archived for future use, and they can be accessed anytime.

In order to dispel negativity I often repeat a silly slogan in my head. It’s a variation of Popeye’s mantra of “I yam what I yam and that’s all what I yam.”

An adapted version I started using in 2004 goes, “I am who I am and I can’t hate this man.” I have since revised it to: “I am who I am and I must love this man.”

I don’t always succeed at taking this advice, but I also don’t condemn myself when I fail.

~Francis DiClemente

More stories from our partners