When I was about seven, we had our annual school concert coming up. Now, you have to understand, these concerts were HUGE. Our school was big on the performing arts, and had a theatre so large and sophisticated that it was routinely used for community events. Our annual school concert involved performances from every grade, and every parent, grandparent, or associated family figure came to watch.
Anyway, somehow I got it into my head that I needed to dress up as a witch for our performance. To be fair, I think the song was about a witches cauldron, so it is (a vaguely) a plausible conclusion. It may also be that we were told to “dress up”, which presumably meant to look nice, but for me somehow translated to “dress up as a witch”. I was also a bit of a “show off” as my family fondly remind me, who loved to sing, perform and dress up. Once, during a particularly solemn and quiet part of a catholic wedding ceremony, I asked my father whether I should get up and do a dance in the aisle to entertain everyone. So, it is also entirely possible that I just wanted to crack open the costumes.
Luckily for me we lived in a small town in Norway, in a community which, due to the oil industry and resident NATO base, was largely American. In line with American tradition, Halloween was one of the biggest events of the year, and consequently I had every Halloween costume you could imagine. Including (drum roll here) a witch’s costume.
This costume was fairly elaborate. Head to toe in black cloak. A waist length grey streaked black wig. An enormous pointy hat. And the crème de la creme, a prosthetic warty hook nose. As I got dressed on the day of the concert, I looked, if I do say so myself, pretty frigging amazing.
We drove to the school, and to the absolute horror and dismay of my parents every single other child was dressed in their Sunday best. White shirts, black pants, fresh clean faces, polished shoes. And then me. The witch with the prosthetic nose.
My teacher saw me and came over and without batting an eyelid said. “Oh wow! Look at you! You look great!”
Mum, dying inside, hurridly said “I’m so sorry, there must have been a misunderstanding…I’ll take her home get her changed!”
My teacher, being the laid back, chilled American woman she was, waved her hand “Oh no, don’t worry about it. Look at her! She looks awesome!” before breezing off to greet someone else. To be fair. I did look awesome.
So that is how I ended up on stage at the annual concert dressed as a witch.
I sung my little heart out, beaming from ear to ear. I was as happy as a king (or, ya know, a witch) and seemingly completely oblivious to the fact that I was wearing slightly different attire to everyone else. Halfway through the performance, some backstage guy came up to me and told me to take my hat off because they couldn’t see the kids behind me. I was cool with that. I mean, I still had the wig.
For my parents, in the audience, it was slightly different. As my class trooped up on stage there was lots of murmurs and whispers, and then a little girl voiced what everyone else was thinking: “But why is that girl dressed as a witch?” Sadly I don’t have a photo I can show you of my big moment. It is one of the great tragedies of my childhood that my parents didn’t take a photo or video of the event.
On the way home my parents tentatively asked me how I thought it all went. “Oh it went well.” I told them. “But I was the ONLY one who BOTHERED to dress up!”
And that, my friends, is confidence.
A decade later, I lost all confidence completely. An angsty teenager, with a diagnosis of mental illness. I was so concerned with my image, what people thought of me, whether I was “good” enough. I used to call my friends before going out to check what they were wearing. Change my outfit about a million times, and then still feel like crap when I went out. Although I knew the answers, I was afraid to speak in class, purely because I didn’t want to bring attention to myself. I analyzed the behavior of others to a ridiculous degree. Were they talking about me? Do they like me? Have I done something wrong?
This anxiety about life went on for a long time. I strived for perfection, but never seemed to achieve it. Each award I won, opportunity I received, I was sure that it was a mistake and I was some sort of imposter. When I was offered a PhD scholarship, I kept thinking of reasons why the board had made the wrong decision. I got incredibly nervous talking to my academic superiors, and expressing my views and ideas. Because they were talented and had spent decades in the industry doing amazing things. What could I, a lowly research student, possibly add of value? I hated my body. I felt completely inferior to every human being on earth. I was frightened to complain about service, to make phone calls to unknown people. I let others walk over me. It probably didn’t help matters that I was constantly hearing voices that told me I was inadequate and “bad”.
Last year, after being released from hospital, I just kind of gave up on it all. I had been in hospital for five months, I had a serious mental illness, I had had ECT, and EVERYONE AREOUND ME KNEW. I wasn’t perfect. That was well established. One day, like an epiphany, I distinctly remember saying to myself; “Fuck it. I’m ok with who I am. If other people aren’t, that’s their deal. I can’t do this anymore.” And I started to like myself.
Now, I’m completely ok with the fact that I have mental illness. I’m not going to shout it from the rooftops. I don’t let it define me – as I am a bunch of other things aside from “bipolar”. But if someone asks me about it, I will talk to them.
I’m ok with the way I look. Sure we all have off days, but I don’t spend hours scrutinizing myself in the mirror, and I wear what I want to wear.
My relationships have improved. I don’t feel needy or walked over. I am more assertive. I have so much more free time now I am not obsessing over every little detail. I recognize that I will never please some people, and I have made peace with that. That’s their loss.
I’m more assertive when it comes to service. I am not afraid to ask for what I want, and (politely) complain if it is not to standard. I don’t ask Hubster to call people up. I say “excuse me” to people who are standing in my way, instead of awkwardly standing there like some weird stalker, waiting for them to get off the phone and move.
Increased confidence has had an impact on my PhD. I feel comfortable talking to my superiors. I ask lots of questions, because that is what I am supposed to do. I’m not SUPPOSED to know everything yet. It is my JOB to learn. I play like a scientist and look at the evidence; positive feedback, awards, an elite scholarship. I worked hard and have been rewarded. I no longer feel like an imposter.
And I write what I want to in this blog. I tell my story, like it is. I give my opinion, how I see it. I don’t spend hours writing a post, then suddenly feel complete paranoia in posting it in case someone doesn’t like it, or thinks I am stupid. It’s the internet. There’s always going to be strange people. But the way I see it, this is my blog, my story, and I am not forcing anyone to read. The amazing thing is that I have had a huge increase in followers – over 600 on WordPress (you guys are awesome!)!!! What’s more, the wonderful people who read and interact with my blog are so incredibly supportive and kind. Thank you for being you!
I guess what I am trying to say is that I am not perfect – and that’s the whole point. I still have, as I suspect everyone does, days where I lose confidence in myself. And that’s ok. It’s when lack of confidence controls your life that it is an issue. Sometimes when I feel unsure I think about that little girl in the witches costume. After I have finished laughing to the point of weeping, I smile and try and channel her confidence. Because if you can go on stage randomly dressed as a witch in front of 500 or so people and totally own it, you can do pretty much anything.