Mind Games

Eat Yourself Alive (Or Die Trying)

All she wanted was to be pretty. Her body had other plans.

Author pictured with chronic urticaria (hives)

YYou haven’t had hives in a decade. Barely even remember what it was like to live with a body fighting against you, every inch raised in rebellion.

One night you go to sleep smooth, exfoliated and more exhausted than you realized was possible, and the next morning wake with your face tight and eyes swollen shut. Everything protests as you wrestle yourself free of the covers, alarm blaring, bones weighing you down.

Deep in your gut you know something is wrong. Your first instinct is to run to the mirror to assess the damage. Face, neck, shoulders. Even the palms of your hands. When you lift your hoodie they are there too, and pulling down your pajama pants reveals more of them slowly marching toward your feet. You run your fingers over the bumps, feel the valleys between them, their raised surfaces red and stark against paper-white skin. Disgusting.

You are nothing other than disgusting.

“Steroids,” the first doctor says.

“Look, they aren’t good for you, but your hives are likely caused by stress. These will help them go down.”

“Oh, thank god,” You reply, laughing. “I don’t know what I’d do if I had to go on stage looking like this!”

He laughs like you want him to. You’ve always been good at downplaying what hurts you the most.

You want to ask him what to do when being pretty is one of the few things that gives you value. How to cope when your body is screaming for you to slow down, when there is nothing left but what you’ve been chasing.

The hives come and go like the tide, here one moment and gone the next. Never when you expect, and always when it’s least convenient.

You know you’re burnt out, though you refuse to admit it. You know you’ve pushed yourself so far that this is your body’s way of forcing you to stop. After all, you’ve been working and going to school full-time, planning talks at industry conferences, and desperately seeking normalcy after leaving your partner of six years. A month ago, you were diagnosed with ADHD, and you’re now learning how easy it is to push past your limits when you’re subsisting entirely on Dexedrine and dreams.

You really shouldn’t be surprised at this betrayal, this sabotage. After all, you’ve always been your own worst enemy.

You apply layer after layer of makeup in a futile attempt at hiding your imperfections. Foundation, concealer, powder. Not just on your face but on the entirety of your neck, the stretch of your forearms. Any part of your skin exposed to a stranger’s gaze painted like a doll. You give your talks and network every evening, you drag yourself to work after hitting four parties the night before. You flirt with a man you’ve just met and send him a photo of you in just your underwear with your hives on full display — a test to see if he’s still interested. You work and work and work until you faint walking home, until your friends threaten to intervene. You work until you forget what your skin was like when you were healthy.

You’re ruining yourself because you’re more afraid of being unattractive than the medication’s severe side effects.

“We need to take a lot of blood,” the second doctor explains offhandedly. “There are a lot of tests to run.”

Your pick at your hand and itch the lines of red disappearing beneath your coat.

“Okay, which tests do you need?”

“All of them, preferably. We need to rule out as much as possible.”

He continues typing while you choose your words.

“I understand that,” you start. Pause. “But what are you testing for?”

He turns away from the computer, glow reflected in his glasses. “What do you know about autoimmune diseases?”

The tests come back negative, and you’re not sure if you’re relieved or frustrated. There are no answers or solutions outside of being told to stress less and sleep more.

You swallow steroids every day in your quest to be beautiful, body straining under their effects. You’re always hungry, your mood fluctuates wildly, and you realize you’re ruining yourself because you’re more afraid of being unattractive than the medication’s severe side effects.

You can’t take the steroids forever, but the doctor trusts you enough to give you a script for an entire year. You finish them in two months. You’re always weak but never have an appetite. Hollow. An empty stomach and an empty mind. You haven’t had a beautiful thought in so long.

It takes months, but the hives finally leave. Your skin is once again pale and parchment-thin, the kind that bruises easily if someone holds you a little too tightly. You sleep more, but can’t seem to worry less. Over time, it’s enough. You return to the body you remember and never really liked to begin with.

You keep photos as proof that you were so ugly, and parade them in front of friends when you’re drunk or self-destructive. “Look!” you exclaim, wine glass in hand. “See! I was SO UGLY. Look how gross I was!”

A year later the hives strike again. Stress, you remind yourself. You’d found a work-life balance, and so you didn’t realize you’d started to approach burnout again. All your carefully planned downtime felt useless in the wake of sleepless nights and the weight of your anxiety pressing in, reminding you that if you don’t work yourself to death you’ll leave this world a failure.

This time the hives start small. A few here and there, manageable until your wisdom teeth break through. All of a sudden your entire body is declaring red alert. The pain combined with insomnia and an over-scheduled life causes the hives to return like a plague, unfurling across every single part of you.

You live in limbo for weeks. To hide as well as you can, you take the steroids the way you were warned not to. When the ache in your jaw eventually gets so bad you can’t work through it, you book an appointment with the dentist to have it removed. You have to take a day off to do so, and the entire time you aren’t in the office your stomach sours with guilt.

You arrive with hives in tow and desperately apologize to the dentist. “I have hives, that’s why my face looks like this. It’s not contagious, I promise.”

She is soft and gentle with a voice to match when she says, “I wouldn’t have noticed if you didn’t say anything.”

You believe her until you see your reflection in her office. The welts have spread under your thick layer of foundation and concealer, long tendrils traversing the flesh of your cheeks to the bridge of your nose, reaching slowly for your eyebrows. Clearly visible under thick, heavy makeup, your face monstrous as it stares back at you.

She says removing the tooth will be uncomfortable. At least this time she doesn’t lie.

But it’s over quickly. Fifteen minutes from start to finish, the tooth huge and bloody on the tray, your face inflamed and so, so red. She prescribes meds, warns you about the swelling, then sends you on your way. When you leave her office you feel raw, exposed, ripped open to a wishbone you didn’t even know you had. You’d do anything to just be better, just be beautiful, just be home.

You walk down the street to collect your meds. Every glance from a passerby dissects you, worth reduced to the ridges on your face, your neck, your fingers, the slivers of skin that can’t be covered by the turtleneck, the coat and stockings you’re wearing in the summer.

You can’t stop looking at the back of your shaking hands when you pick up your prescription and try to order a ride home. Three rides cancel. A taxi driver slows, rolls down the window, then speeds up when they see you up close. You don’t blame them — you know you look contagious. Still, something hot cuts through your gut — shame and guilt and pure terror.

Your breath is catching in the back of your throat, in a way it hasn’t for years. Unease is pressing itself into the back of your neck, your spine, your rapidly swelling mouth. You force it back, swallow it down again and again, spit and bile rising all the same.

It takes an hour, but eventually, an Uber picks you up. You pile into the backseat, frantically apologizing. You’ve apologized so much for your existence today it’s almost become funny.

“I’m so sorry,” you slur. “I just got a tooth out, I can’t talk. Thank you for asking.”

His worried eyes find yours in the mirror before he quickly looks away. That’s fine, you wouldn’t want to look at yourself right now either.

You make it home, crying quietly in the backseat.

Your partner meets you at the door where he had clearly been waiting. He pulls your bag from your back and ushers you inside, voice soft like he’s trying not to spook a wild animal. “Welcome home.”

“Can I get you anything?”

“What do you need?”

You’re as close to fine as possible for a moment as you let him lead you to the bedroom and peel off your coat. Then you twist, the mirror catching your eye from the corner of the room, and all of a sudden everything closes in. One moment you’re standing, and the next you’re getting acquainted with the floor.

You can’t breathe, can’t think, can’t untangle the mess in your mind. Distantly, you realize you’re crying — the low, wounded kind that barely sounds human. You want to get up, but your body isn’t under your control. Ashamed, you’re so ashamed as sobs push your body to the ground like a bully that refuses to let you stand.

You hate this you hate this you hate this. You haven’t cried like this in years, not when you left an abusive relationship, not when your stepfather killed himself. You don’t like showing strong emotion, and dislike feeling it even more. It feels so silly in the wake of what you’ve been through, that this would be what broke you down to the parts of yourself you’d rather not confront, or look at, that were buried so far down you never had to see the truth in them.

He kneels behind you on the floor, wraps his long arms around your chest, fingers firm on your ribs. He presses kisses to the back of your head, your neck, doesn’t care about the trail of hives he finds there, aggressively red even before his beard scratches against them, too much and not enough all at the same time.

He’s whispering, trying to calm you. “It’s okay, gorgeous.” “I’m so sorry.” “Please, you’re still beautiful, I promise.” “I’m here.”

“What’s the point if I’m not pretty?”

You regret it the moment it spills from your mouth, but that’s not to say you don’t mean it. Nothing means anything if you’re not also pretty, not your love or kindness or drive or passion. It exists within you, but only when you also have this veneer of milky skin and colored hair, lined eyes and contoured cheekbones.

“Gorgeous, I promise, you are still beautiful.”

It isn’t what you want to hear. You aren’t now. You aren’t.

“There’s so much more to you than this. I love you. I love you, Ella.”

He tries to peel back your arms from where they’re wrapped around your head, and you fight back.

“Don’t look at me.”

“I promise you, it’s not as bad as you think it is.”

“Please, I mean it. Please don’t look at me.”

You’ve never begged and meant it this much before.

You are coming undone at the seams and the cage of his body is all that is holding you together.

He helps you pull a scarf over your face, wraps it gently around your neck and shoulders. Covers each inch of skin until you are completely invisible. He removes all the mirrors from the room when you ask him to. Returns to the floor you’re desperately trying to get up from and encloses you in long limbs. He’s so much bigger than you, and you’re shocked by how small you are in the hold of his arms, embrace swallowing you whole. Small, you’re small now, and even though it’s one of the only things you’ve ever wanted, it’s easy to forget.

Your prettiness might be one of the reasons he wanted you, but it isn’t the reason he stays.

After 20 minutes you can’t stand the pity party you’ve thrown for yourself. Your guts curdle with shame. You stand, knees cracking, and relief floods you when you notice the empty spaces the mirrors had been. You don’t have to look at yourself, don’t have to see your greatest fears staring back at you.

You’ve never felt less human.

He fucks you later that night with your swollen jaw and ruined skin. Touch gentle, lips soft. Showing you the only way you’ll understand that he still wants you, that to him you’re still beautiful, even now. His love not conditional, not necessitated by the expanse of your perfectly smooth legs courtesy of laser hair removal, nor the small circle of your waist. Your prettiness might be one of the reasons he wanted you, but it isn’t the reason he stays. Enough. For once you feel like enough, even with your marred complexion and body eating itself alive, you’re enough for him.

The hives overstay their welcome. Your face swelling goes down, jaw returns to normal, but the hives linger.

You refill your script for steroids and the doctor stares you down. “I will write you a script with no repeats. You need to learn to live with this. I can’t in good faith give you more and put you at risk of kidney failure.”

So you swallow your pride the way you do fear and go to work with welts, squint through puffy eyelids to talk to store clerks, red ridges raised along your brow and cheekbones. Your partner kisses you when you return home, runs his fingertips down the bumpy expanse of your legs, whispers praise so adamantly into your ear as you’re falling asleep that you’re afraid you might start to believe him. “You’re so fucking pretty. You’re the love of my life, I promise.”

The hives continue to come and go, unwanted housemates, but you’re used to them now. You stop trying to drown them with steroids, stop arguing with your partner when he tells you that he loves you with them, not in spite of them.

You start to believe him, and that’s scarier than every part of your body fighting itself, scarier than anything you’ve ever known. Sometimes you wonder what it would look like, to believe you are enough for him. Wonder if you’d then turn your gaze on yourself and find what you see satisfactory instead of wanting.

He’s already made a home of you, maybe it’s time you did the same.

29. Short girl with shorter hair. Communications Manager by day, writer and indie game developer by night.

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