This photo was taken when I was 22. I’d just finished at Oxford University and was about to head off to Italy to drive minibuses across Tuscany for a high-end travel company. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with my life but I knew it had something to do with languages, travel and adventure. Driving minibuses and planning champagne picnics for well-to-do British ramblers in the Italian countryside seemed like a good place to start.
Sometimes I look at this picture and I don’t think I look too different to how I do today. On other occasions, I really notice the few extra stone in weight I was carrying and the baggy shirt that I used to cover up the parts of me (which was pretty much all of me) I didn’t like.
The smile is still there, though. It always was – whether I felt it on the inside or not. But as I wrote in my last post – Food is my friend – it often disguised a deep sense of shame, pain, chronic self-consciousness, low self-esteem and disgust with my appearance. It also masked a pretty much constant mental obsession with my weight. I wonder how I ever had time to think of anything or anybody else – maybe I didn’t – when all my thoughts were taken up with what I had eaten or not eaten and how to avoid eating anything else.
That extra weight was an outward manifestation of the turmoil going on inside. It also acted as a layer of cushioning that I hoped would keep me safe from the world, safe from having to engage with people at a level that involved the potential to get hurt. And the mental obsession distracted me from feelings I didn’t want to feel.
That photo is also a reminder to me that our lives rarely turn out as planned. We take unexpected detours or we’re thrust onto a path that we don’t think is ours. Sometimes we find our way back, sometimes we don’t.
And sometimes we find that the detour leads us to a place that’s far better than anything we could have possibly imagined.
If you’d have told me, when I was 10, 12 or 14, where I’d be and how I’d look at 22, I’d have struggled to believe you. Up to that age, my life was all about being thin and staying thin by avoiding food and running fast.
And if you’d have told me, at 22, that it would take years but I’d eventually find my way back, make peace with food and end up looking not too dissimilar to how I looked at the age of eight – give or take some wrinkles and curves – I wouldn’t have believed you either. I may have hoped that you’d be right. Or perhaps I’d have wondered what you were talking about, perhaps I’d have been stuck in denial, somehow thinking I was happy. (Which isn’t to say we have to be slim to be content – it’s just in my case the overeating was a form of self-harm).
But I did find my way back. It was a circuitous, often painful route, full of difficult lessons. But it was a route dotted with amazing adventures and people I’ll never forget.
Maybe my path was never going to be a straightforward one – neither in the past, nor going forward. Because if you’d have told me I’d be approaching 43, be single and living on my own in a London flat, I’m sure I wouldn’t have believed you either.
But somehow, today, that all seems OK – more than OK. The past, though it saddens me at times, is simply that – the past. And the future? Well, from where I’m sitting right now, that feels bright.
Seems my dress sense hasn’t changed too much over the decades and the broad smile is the same. But these days, I’m pleased to say a lot of the time I’m smiling on the inside too. And although I’m a work in progress, I’m delighted to be on the road to becoming the person God intended me to be.