My first memory is from when I was six years old. I was wearing a pretty dress, white ruffled bobby socks, and Mary Jane shoes. My hair was up in three big plaits. I was happy because I felt pretty. I’d gotten all dressed up. It was going to be a perfect day.
We were going to spend the whole day together. I had imagined her taking me out to lunch, and afterward we might go to getice cream.
But it didn’t really matter what we did, because the important thing was that I’d be spending time with my mother. Just the two of us. And because I’d dressed up for the day and was looking and feeling so pretty.
Spending time with my mother alone was always a special occasion.
She buttoned me into my coat and we left for the day. But we didn’t go downtown to a restaurant, or any place that served ice cream. Instead, we drove to the hospital.
I don’t remember riding in an elevator, or being greeted by a receptionist. I do remember sitting on a bench with my mother in the hospital corridor. I was excited, but also anxious—what were we waiting for? I didn’t know why we were there, and I didn’t ask. I remember bright lights, too, in the long hallway where my mother and I waited, and doctors and nurses passing by, walking very quickly. It was all new to me, and I took it in with the curiosity of a child. At that time, I had no idea how often I’d be seeing the insides of hospitals, and how much I’d get used to how doctors and nurses operated.
I heard a man call my mother’s name. It was the doctor. My mother got up to go with him and I began to follow, but he suggested that I stay outside and wait, so I did. I wasn’t worried that I couldn’t go with my mother because I had no clue there was anything to be worried about. I certainly didn’t think the hospital or the doctor had anything to do with me. I don’t even remember whether or not I was evaluated before the doctor walked off with my mother.
I don’t know how long I remained sitting on that bench in the bright hallway, my feet in their ruffled socks and Mary Janes swinging. At some point my stomach began to growl, and I wished I could have one of the candy bars from the vending machine I’d seen at the end of the hall. Finally, my mother came back.
I could tell that she had been crying. But she acted as if nothing was wrong, smiling warmly at me and making me feel calm.
The next thing that I remember is lying in a hospital bed talking to a nurse who had asked me to choose a flavor of anesthesia. Strawberry and bubble gum were the choices. I always chose bubble gum. To this day I can still taste the too-sweet flavor of that bubble gum anesthesia. It never fails to bring back thoughts of those terrible trips to the hospital.
The first operation didn’t happen that day. It might have been days later, weeks, even months afterward. The months blur together in my mind. I would not realize until much later what the doctor had told my mother on that day that had made her cry. I did not know that they had been talking about me, or that he’d told her I had been born with a gigantic congenital nevomelanocytic nevus (CNN), better known as the congenital hairy nevus.
A CNN is a pigmented surface lesion that is present at birth. In my case, it stretched from the top of my shoulders all the way down to my rear end. A CNN is not just a birthmark or a blemish. It possesses a significant potential to become malignant, so the treatment is to remove it, grafting skin onto the surface to replace the skin that has been scraped off.
Though I had no way of knowing it, my life changed on that day. The path that my life would take, for better and for worse, was set.
Most people look back on their lives and pick out the happy memories. The celebrations, the family reunions, the moments when they felt close to other people, or felt happy, safe, and comfortable.
But when I think of my childhood, I see my life as a series of sad times. Painful times. When I tell people this, they think I’m being pessimistic. But I’m not a pessimistic person. I’m just realistic and honest. The painful experiences are the only ones I can remember. And the truth is that I wouldn’t change anything about my childhood, from being taunted as a child to having moles scraped off my back in a series of operations from the time I was eight until I turned twenty-one.
Those experiences make me who I am. They make me love the way I love, and they make me passionate about what I’m passionate about. I would not be the person I am today, as a mother, a friend, a mentor and community leader, and a businesswoman, succeeding in a field dominated by white men, if I had not had to overcome these challenges as a child.
When I see that day in my mind’s eye—the bright lights of the hospital hallway and the rustle of my dress as I swung my legs from the bench, there are four feelings, four words, that come to mind.
Pain. Ugly. Not fitting in. Lonely.
These are the impressions that color my first memory as a child.
My experience with CNN involved lots of physical pain. The resection procedures, of which I had over a dozen between the ages of eight and twenty-one, involved a surgeon scraping moles from my back. That was the first part of the operation. Then, to replace the skin that had been scraped away, the surgeon would remove skin from my legs and graft it onto my back. It was one of the hardest and most painful things I’ve ever had to endure.
But when I think back to that day, that first operation, the pain that most resonates is the pain of heartache. The pain of disappointment.
I’d dressed up for this day, because I was so certain it would be special. I’d slept badly the night before, the same way most children sleep badly the night before Christmas, in anticipation of what was to come. I thought we would finally have a big day out together, just my mother and me. Instead we’d gone to a hospital. Instead of being happy, my mother had cried.
She was given the burden of my diagnosis that day. But I knew nothing but the heavy dejection of realizing we were not going to spend the day hanging out together.
I was always sensitive about the mole that covered my back. It covered my entire back, and it was hairy and dark. It was impossible for anyone not to notice it, and other children rarely resisted the impulse to point and make comments. Even being asked something as innocent as what was on my back stung me. I learned early on that I was different, and it didn’t take me long to get the message that my moles made me ugly. I sometimes felt like a walking leopard. There was no mistaking them for anything else, anything that was healthy and natural.
I hated taking baths, especially when other members of my family were around. Even taking baths with my brother and sister, both of whom I loved, was unpleasant because of the ugly, self-conscious feelings that bubbled up inside me whenever the moles were exposed. Even when no one said anything, I could feel them looking at the moles, and it seemed I could almost feel how disgusted they were.
Dressing up was one of the few ways I had to feel pretty. When I wore pretty clothes, the moles were hidden. A stranger walking down the street would never guess there was anything different about me. I was just like anyone else.
If, on that day of our big trip, my mother had taken me to see an eye doctor or a dentist, I wouldn’t have been as upset as I was that day. But when she took me to the doctor’s office and talked to the doctor about my moles, it was just as if I’d been stripped naked and examined by a team of specialists. All the attention was on me—and not my pretty smile, my pigtails, my pretty dress or ruffled socks, either. It was as if everyone were somehow staring at my moles through my clothes.
Here was my secret, the part of myself I had learned—even as a little girl—to lock away and cover up, and this stranger was talking about it. I felt so ugly. As if all of me, my thoughts and feelings and personality, didn’t matter. All that mattered was the ugliest, most shameful part of me.
Not fitting in
It was many years before I understood that my sister and brother, both younger than me, had different fathers. And it wouldn’t be until I was eighteen years old that I would meet my father.
But from a very young age, I understood very clearly that I was different somehow from my brother and sister, and not in a good way. I can recall my siblings’ father visiting, picking up my sister and not me. At that time I did not yet realize that he was not my biological father, and so I didn’t understand what it was about me that made him not want to take me home with them.
Naturally, I looked around for reasons why. And it wasn’t hard to find something that made me different from my siblings, different from everyone. Children always settle on the most logical solution, even if it may not be correct. I couldn’t help wondering if my siblings’ father didn’t want me because of the moles that covered my back.
Not fitting in kept me from forming close relationships with my siblings. I’m very grateful that I eventually did become closer with my siblings—it would have been natural for us never to really connect.
But it was also very clear that I was a burden to a single mother trying to raise children on her own. Although my healthcare was mostly paid for because my mother worked for the federal government, it seemed there were always problems that cropped up, small expenses that accumulated. My mother’s car often broke down and had to be repaired by a mechanic. Little things like gauze and bandages, or the ointment doctors told me to rub on the raw skin on the back of my legs, were not covered by my mother’s insurance. For a child who was especially sensitive to feelings of not fitting in, it was not a difficult leap to pick up on the feeling of being a burden to my family.
Feeling trapped in my box was a lonely place to be. Staying behind while my mother called for my brother and sister, watching as they got in the car and drove off with their father, was a terribly lonely feeling.
Loneliness would become a frequent sensation during my treatment for CNN. Although the nurses and doctors were very nice to me—I got to know most of them by name, and have kept in touch with some of them even to this day, years later—the operations were painful, and required hospital stays to recuperate.
Sometimes these stays lasted as long as two months. That’s an eternity to be alone when you are a child. I can count on one hand the number of visitors I received during those times. All around me I saw children whose parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles surrounded them, arriving each day with balloons and flowers.
Because my mother worked and was raising two children—one of them, my brother, afflicted with epilepsy—it was very rare that she was able to make it to the hospital to visit me. Looking back, I can see that my mother did her best with what she had, that she did right by me by getting me the appropriate medical treatment. But to a child, lying alone in a hospital room, the feeling of being forgotten, that no one cares enough to visit you, is very powerful, and for me it has left a lasting impression of deep loneliness.
Sad memories or not, I wouldn’t trade any of the experiences, which have molded me and provided me with a lifetime of motivation. Today, when I think of each of those feelings, I’m able to flip each feeling around and identify how I’ve changed, grown, and gotten strong as a result of each part of my experience.
The main thing I’ve learned through all my experience is that with every moment and every choice, I have an influence on the way my life unfolds. I’ve come to see that that’s true for everyone. Instead of being a victim of circumstance, a person can find ways to utilize each circumstance for meaningful, positive purposes. That is the discovery I’ve made as I’ve gone through my life that has allowed me to take all these negatives and make up my mind to turn them into positives.
Pain. I’ve experienced the worst pain—physically and emotionally—that I can imagine. My pain is shocking to others. They don’t understand how I endured it. Today I know that the only pain that can truly hurt me now is the pain of disappointment because of the high expectations of others. And even that pain I am no longer afraid of, because I’ve experienced it already.
Ugly. As I gained confidence and became a woman, I entered into relationships with men and discovered that there were people who would love me because of who I was, the selfthat I projected into the world, and who weren’t put off or repulsed by the scars on my back or legs. Those men loved me regardless of my physical scars, and once I started receiving their love, the word ugly no longer had any power over me.
Fitting in. When I went out on my own, starting my own business, I gave up worrying about whether I fit in or not. By that time in my life I had proven to myself and others that I was strong, independent, and a natural leader. As a successful business owner and mentor, I set the tone and create opportunities for myself. Today, it’s much more common when I take a business meeting for others to fit in with my expectations and requirements. I don’t need to fit in—nor do I want to. I’d rather lead.
Lonely. Today I am surrounded by family, by friends, by people in the community. I’m in constant contact with employees, business partners, and prospective clients, and I hear frequently from people seeking my advice. Rarely am I lonely. But my real strength is in not fearing loneliness. As with pain, I have endured it, and I know it will not hurt me. So I am not afraid of being alone, and even seek out solitude, because I know that I can connect with others when I need to, and that there are many, many people who care about me, too many to ever feel lonely again.
It is fitting that my earliest memory should be one with so many negative elements, so many painful associations. In so many ways, that first memory has set the tone for my entire life. It is the start of a life of obstacles and struggles, of pain suffered, but ultimately overcome.
Ships don’t sink because they are surrounded by water. Ships sink when they let water inside. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my life is not to let the things that happen around me get inside me and weigh me down.
These obstacles and pains have made me who I am. And I am very proud to look back at those negative feelings and reflect on the great confidence and strength I have been able to draw from that experience, many years ago, as a little girl.
One of the things that helped me find my why was putting my thoughts, my emotions on paper—writing it down. I’ll leave space after every chapter so you can do the same.
I encourage you to take this one small step towards finding your own why.