Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sunday Story - more thoughts on humiliation

Two Fridays ago, I spoke about humiliation and my lack of comprehension of it as a sexual arousal tool. (you can access the post here). It's been playing on my mind since then, or really before then, since my heated response at my last Book Club to a non-sexual form of humiliation.

Why am I so anti-humiliation? That's what I've been asking myself.

You wouldn't think it would take me weeks to work this out, would you? But I've had to dig deep into myself to answer this - and then even deeper to write about it.

From the age of about 11 or 12, humiliation was an every day occurrence for me. It was rarely deliberately said to hurt me, but it had that effect anyway. I had acne, well, that was the first diagnosis. At 19, it was severe cystic acne with rosacea, and at 42, it became Hidradentis supprativa with rosacea. But no matter what they called it, it resulted in not only pimples and blackheads, not only red skin that blushed puce at the slightest thing, but also boils. Huge boils that would come up red, angry and throbbing, rarely to a pus-filled head like a pimple, and then open to a huge deep crater-like wound that took months to heal and left scarring. Anything from 0.5 cm across to 1.5 cm across.

I remember the first day I was aware that I had a problem. I went with dad to the chemist (we went most weeks on a Saturday morning as dad was mates with the guy) and the pharmacist's mother, who worked there, said to my dad, "You have to do something about her skin. It's revolting to see." I was 11 or 12 and until that moment, I don't think I realised I had a problem...but oh boy oh boy, did I know now. I never voluntarily went back inside that shop. The woman became a witch in my eyes...when I'm sure she thought she was being helpful.

So, from then until I went to uni, I lived on antibiotics. They did nothing to help my skin (probably killed my immune system though). At uni, I learned how bad long-term antibiotics are for a I insisted on stopping...which led me to a skin specialist. I had part time work, so I could afford to try my own things now, as well as what the skin specialist suggested. The specialist had me go off hot drinks and oranges because she was sure they were the cause. I tried vitamins and minerals, drank chlorophyll, took extra zinc and magnesium in drinks, used every face wash under the sun, herbs, tonics, herbal washes, diet adjustments. No change.

Another semester at uni (thank god I did biology subjects!) and I heard about hormones and the impact of them on women in particular. My skin eruptions were definitely hormonal, I could predict them. The skin specialist was an older lady almost retiring...she suggested I get pregnant when I discussed the hormonal link. Horrified (because I was at uni looking to have a career in science, not a family. And I didn't have a boyfriend, which was hardly surprising given my facial eruptions), I asked to see another, younger skin specialist. She put me on the pill. This had some effect, but nothing major. Some years later I tried Roaccutane, with the result of my skin beginning to peel, as itchy as anything you can imagine. It was abandoned. Every treatment I could try, I tried. By age 26, and two different skin specialists, I gave up. I'd heard everything anyone could say, tried everything possible, and just had to live with it. Hell, I'd survived my teenage years and early adulthood when looks mattered - I was invincible.

I've had workmates tell me, "You need to do something about your face. It's the first thing people see and it's a terrible impression they get, when you're really a nice person."

I've had kids in the street stop me and say, "Does your face hurt? It looks awful."

I've had people constantly ask me why I didn't do something to fix it.

I've never handled any of these type of comments well. They shrivel me inside. They make tears stand on my eyeballs and spike. But they also made me tougher. I've had so many ask, in so many ways, that I'm now able to stand there and answer someone's question (especially young kids when they're only curious, or trying to be sympathetic) without melting into a puddle of shame.

But it's gut wrenching. Horrifying. Humiliating.

I've never understood why people would assume that you either (a) didn't know what it looked like, or (b) hadn't already tried everything you could to fix it.

Some days I remember looking in the mirror after some horrid comment, relieved when I didn't look as bad as I'd imagined, or as bad as the throbbing from the boil made it feel. It's so much worse from the inside than from the outside.

And that's why I can't handle humiliation - as a sex act, or otherwise.

Now I'm in my 40s and I appreciate when I don't have people ask, or stare. Writers are people who, although naturally curious, have never once asked or commented or made me feel bad, odd or different. It's been weird to be in a group of people (there are 300 at conferences) and not have anyone comment negatively. Writing conferences have been a place where I've received so many positive affirmations I've almost been bowled over by them. Last year I wore a dress to the dinner that I'd been talked into buying by the sales assistant. I wasn't sure that it was me - it was a dress to start with! By the end of the evening I thought my heart would burst. I can't tell you how many people came up and said how good I looked. It might have taken 30 years to happen, but every comment chipped away at a negative one I'd heard before. It was one of the most beautiful nights of my life.

I did have a funny one years ago. I went to an agricultural conference, and they had a formal dinner at the state Government House. It was pretty swish, so I'd bought a new shirt especially to go with my black skirt or trousers or whatever I was wearing. The shirt was this rich jade colour. I wore my hair out (it was always tied up for working) and maybe a bit of mascara. We caught a bus to the venue and I was waiting to get out of my seat when this elder statesman scientist I knew quite well stopped to let me out. I smiled and said, "Thank you, John." He looked at me, puzzled for a few moments, but then his face lit up like a kid at Christmas. "Cate, is that you? Oh, you look stunning." Maybe he didn't have his glasses. Maybe it was the shock of me in good, clean clothes and not filthy from work. But I have never forgotten his face or his words. I loved that man for his kindness that night.

For me, compliments are far more acceptable than humiliation. Humiliation should not be allowed.

And so... my purging is done. I've put my heart up here on my blog, and although I was terrified of doing that at the start, now I'm smiling and it doesn't seem so awful. Thanks for bearing with me, if you got this far.

I write to understand things, including myself. This post was written to understand me and my reactions. Not to garner compliments or sympathy.


  1. Haven't I always said that from your blog, even before I met you at Freo, I always thought of you as bold and brave.
    Well said, lovely Miss Cate.
    Bloody well said.