The thought arose that the woman in front of me needed to hug the cactus, to find and embrace her beauty. I recalled the old novel The Thorn Birds and the legend of the bird that pierces itself on the thorns of a flowering tree in Australia, as it tries to drink the nectar of the beckoning bloom. In her case I thought that the cactus spine of truth would lance the poisonous septic lies in her tormented heart. “I can’t stand to look at myself in the mirror. I hurry through brushing my teeth so I don’t have to see myself.”
My leathery heart wept its oils and resins that keep me supple. I understood her hurt and felt it indirectly, like indirect sunlight. It’s not nearly as potent or blinding as the original. But it’s a fair judge of how intense the real thing is. I hurt in her shade. Let’s call her Lisa, Sad Lisa.
I recalled another woman, Robin, who told me that as a kid she wrapped herself in a blanket and rolled on the floor to simulate a hug, something her alcoholic mother and abusive father never gave her. Later in her life she found that opiates gave her a similar warm rolling feeling that could be depended on. They also helped numb her father’s incest. Like her poor surrogate-parent blanket, a tragic, epic sadness wraps this memory and brings a tear to me every time I think of her nightmare life. She had been a student of the violin as a kid, but just a rotten tooth junkie in jail. Turn that into a concerto, if you can, and bleed.
In the same section of my memory I found yet another heartbreaker story– of the girl who played Barbies while hiding in her closet. Her half brothers acted like hyenas, chasing and hurting her. Not directly, no. Instead they violated and executed her favorite Barbies while she shuddered helplessly. They called her “monkey face” and she believed them. They had a father and some twisted authority that she lacked. “Barbie” went on to replicate another tribe of unfathered children who made messes. Her life was tragi-comedy, though, as she learned to defend herself with a wicked wit. “Poof! It’s all gone now.” And who can blame her?
All of these women were repulsed at their image in the mirror, though I found each one beautiful in very specific ways– how their smiles broke or their eyes lit up. I could not say, “Hey, you are beautiful.” It would have complicated an already complicated business, a business of raw vulnerability and tenuous trust. Wounded women show me their scars and open gashes, hoping that together we can heal them. I get quietly overwhelmed with reverence for their courage. I have to dig deep into my compassion cistern when the pain gets too intense.
Physical beauty is not the goal, although how you keep your outside is a pretty good indicator of how you feel inside. Grooming and styling and hygiene, and jewelry and make up can help accent joyous eyes, a radiant smile, a gentle voice, a soft touch. Her children tell Lisa she is beautiful and she cries. Her husband says it too. She laughs and mocks his taste. When strange men look her way, she cringes in fear, knowing that hers is overreaction. “What beauty? I’m a trash heap inside. I don’t want anyone looking at me cuz I’m afraid they’ll see into the garbage dumpster.” The voices of her adolescent abusers still ring in the recesses of her skull. They put the garbage there twenty years ago, but they are nowhere to be found now.
I’ve known other women with this sort of shame, which is the worst emotion out there. They know that they are fatally flawed, unredeemable rejects. Nevermind the evidence! This emotionally driven “fact” is like a tick that sucks their lifeblood while simultaneously infecting them with Lyme’s Disease. And what to do? I say, “Hug the cactus. Lance the psychic boil.”
It makes no sense to them to believe in a place they have never seen. It might as well be Tibet, but I continue to prepare them for the thin air of freedom. It’s a place of unbearable lightness that lifts the dumpster, cures the shame, and transforms the mirror image into an oil painting. It’s no more mythical than their self imposed prisons.