In my long journey, I have encountered many bumps in the road. I can say now, as I’ve said in previous articles, that my upbringing, like many of us, was not very easy. I confronted anti-gay sentiments very early in my life - the kind that left a mark on my general mood and self-esteem.
I grew up in Ponce, Puerto Rico in the 60s; a very homophobic environment permeated the entire island.
Raising five kids, very close in age turned out to be a major chore, so I was sent to live with my maternal grandmother at an early age. She raised me and made me a man. Maybe not the kind of man that she would have expected but nevertheless a man that she could be very proud of.
From my earliest childhood, I remember my father being armed with a camera from day one. He documented our lives growing up very thoroughly. We have boxes and boxes of family photos of all of us immortalizing every important event of our childhood. I remember when many of them were taken like it was yesterday.
After my parents’ divorce about 15 years ago, my mother became the custodian of the enormous family photo archive. Lately, my mother, now 80 years old, has been sending me many of these photographs from the past.
Looking at old photos is like being able to travel back in time. Handling and looking at these static old images ushers in many memories that can be emotionally overwhelming.
As I looked at these pictures last night, I realized that each picture created its own dent in my memory.
I often post these old photographs on Facebook. Facebook has a tradition called “Throwback Thursday” that encourages members to post old photos.
I always found interesting that when those pictures were taken, I was never particularly impressed with them. I thought to myself, “I look too skinny, my hair looks stupid, I look too faggy" - you get the idea. I felt ugly and inadequate at that point in my life, so it was no surprise that my view of myself was going to be reflected in my opinion about these old images.
After many years of living in Puerto Rico, I moved to NYC. Here I managed, for the first time, to cultivate an image that I was comfortable with. Yet the phenomenon of not finding myself attractive at the time the pictures were taken persisted.
In order to make my point, I must tell a short story.
25 years ago, in a time that I was testing the boundaries of everything in American society, I was invited to an orgy. In those days, drugs were an important component of successful orgies. As a young man, I was very excited by the experience. I arrived around 2 a.m. to a dark small apartment located in The Lower East Side of Manhattan. There, after the compulsory “clothes check”, I joined the crowd.
To my surprise, I found myself very comfortable there. My sexuality issues from the past were not present and an overall feeling of liberty and self-confidence took over my persona that morning. I had sex, tried drugs, and overall I have to admit that the entire episode was a very pleasurable way of celebrating life that day.
After “playing” for a couple of hours and enjoying myself, I decided to have a shower in order to take a break and feel more comfortable. When I opened the shower curtain, in a bathroom full of steam, I saw a very handsome man staring at me. I immediately assumed he must be interested in taking a shower together with me. Immediately, with a very flirtatious overtone, I invited him to join me.
The steam began to dissipate and I realized that the “shower GOD” I had admired and sought after was my own image in an enormous mirror inside the shower. That incident was very revealing. I realized that for the first time in my life, I was able to look at my own image and not only accept it but admire and LOVE the way I looked.
Now, “fast forward” to the present day.
I’m currently experiencing several physical and emotional manifestations that I can attribute to my chronic health issues that include HIV, Bipolarity, and the generative muscle condition that has put me in a wheelchair full time. I am, in fact, the sickest I have ever been in my entire life. These physical and emotional issues have prompted the emergence of that old issue of reacting negatively to my own self-image that I thought I had resolved at the intoxicating orgy experience so many years ago.
I have always wondered why I needed to be impaired on drugs and tricked by the steam during a shower to fall in love with a person that ended up being a mirror image of myself.
It’s my opinion that is never too late to address issues that we all have been carrying for decades due to trauma. Many sick people obsess with their condition and they define themselves by their illness. Many stop living and start dying day by day, wasting precious time and burying themselves in self-pity. That is not for me.
I have already wasted too much time in my life worrying about my negative physical, emotional, and spiritual attitudes towards life. Even now, when life seems the toughest due to illness, I challenged myself to conquer those fears that have stopped me for so long from enjoying life to the fullest. I have been successful in many instances, I don’t obsess about the opinion of others, the judgment thrown upon me because of my homosexuality or the cultural and social pressure to believe in a deity that was in control of everything. I couldn’t wait for the world to change or that “god” to save me from myself.
I decided many years ago, against all odds, to conquer as many fears as I could on my own before my time on this Earth was over. I believe we all have that choice in life. It’s up to us if we want to act on it or not. The fact that many of us are dealing with illness, shouldn’t be used as an excuse to stop growing. Those who stop growing start dying and I was in no hurry to leave this “party” early.
I would like to talk specifically about one fear that I conquered. Now, in my mid-fifties, when many people start giving up on many things in life, I have decided to take life by the horns and resolve my self-esteem issues once and for all. The process has been long and I have thought about giving up many times and use my illnesses as an excuse to NOT try anymore but slowly but surely, I have reached my goal.
All I wanted to do was synchronize and embrace the personal judgment thrown upon my looks at the present. Yes, I’m in a wheelchair, my left arm is paralyzed, my legs are extremely weak and my right arm is starting to show signs of weakness due to the severe muscle inflammation caused by my Inclusion Body Myositis. All of those facts were not going to STOP me from achieving my goal.
Every day I strive to love my image, to find it pleasant and at the same time I try to project it to the world in a positive way. I started by challenging myself to repeat that feeling of admiration I felt while intoxicated when I confused my mirror image with someone else in that steamy bathroom 25 years ago. I started by building up my personal confidence through self-love. I decided to feel special. I decided to feed an adult and mature ME to the world with personal pride and the sense that I was a beautiful human being deserving of being admired and loved back even by strangers.
As I achieved those goals, I realized that I wasn’t worried about other people’s opinions anymore.
Every day, I choose to discipline myself. My daily ritual includes grooming myself, and dressing up in a way that makes me happy. I choose bright colors, to celebrate the beauty of nature. I strive for a classic, romantic, vintage fashion sense that perfectly matches my style. I enjoy presenting my 54 year old self to the outside world armed with a smile, pride, and style.
I am delighted and surprised that my friends and neighbours, my family, my doctors don’t merely notice my efforts but genuinely admire and compliment me. My transformation is complete. How do I know that? Because these days I manage to feel personal pride, accept compliments from others and look at a current picture of myself and finally love the image I’m facing.
I shattered the pattern of self-pity and insecurity. I broke the chains of being governed by other people’s opinions. For the first time, without drugs, in peace with myself and armed with the self-confidence, I have grown up to the point where even though my health is compromised, I manage to get past that and concentrate on, admire and enjoy being ME.
It is possible to triumphantly resolve my issues of self- esteem. It’s never too late to blossom. If this is the autumn of my life, so be it. AUTUMN is now my favorite season.