03/11/2015 11:44 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

My Mental Collection

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I'll tell you something.

I collect a lot things:

T-shirts, in towering soft stacks in my closet.

Nature's hearts -- rocks, leaves, tiny sea shells-which I keep in a small bowl by my kitchen sink.

Quotes that stun me, stop me, inspire me-written on whatever I can record them on or in.

New words, written diagonally on scraps of paper to Look Up and Remember, tucked in notebooks, library books, surrounding my desk.

Slights, negative words, sentences and thoughts -- anything negative about me. This last collection is vast, kept in the daily dredge of my mind.

The Dinner, 1993.

My senior year of college. I'm out to a Really Nice Dinner (not pizza, not cafeteria food, not... pizza.) The restaurant's rich wood paneling reflecting the soft candlelight on our table, which wore a bonafide white linen table cloth. I sat with three men -- two men I adored (one, my first love and the other, a dear friend) and my boyfriend's father. Laughter trickled from our table, our bodies titled toward each other. The wine and the candle light plumed together and pinked my cheeks. I felt-lit up. Pretty. We ate steak and decadent twice-baked potatoes. My boyfriend's father delivered the news from their hometown and family. We learned that his little brother now had a girlfriend. We're all listening to Mr. Smith, (not his real name) describe Tom's (not HIS real name) girlfriend and suddenly, his eyes fell on me.

"She's actually a lot like you, Denise."

I start to fluff up my feathers a bit. I beamed. Then he said,

"She's kind and nice and not drop-dead-gorgeous." (Now, in Mr. Smith's defense, I know my memory has torqued this event, his words. Maybe it was, "She's lovely and nice and sorta pretty, kinda like you, Denise." So while I write this as a quote, it most certainly isn't. But we get his gist: not exceptional, not gorgeous, NOT PRETTY.)

Middle School, 1983.

Really, I could just end this one here. These two little words stir up such collective angst. I tell two of my friends that I have the biggest crush on Adam (not his real name, either). Ooooo, they gush and Ohhh, we promise we won't tell. I swear I can still see his ridiculously long eye lashes revealing his piercing blue eyes. His dimples-OH! his dimples, slices of heaven revealed when he smiled.

One warm spring morning, I walk toward my school. Dewy sunlight spills all around. I realize Adam is walking toward me. ME. My stomach flops and flips and a rush of flush floods my face. He looks into my eyes with his impossibly blue ones and says,


"...Hi," I reply.

He smiles.

I smile.

"Do you want to go out with me?"

The sun is now neon bright, all colors are electric and sounds are so loud.

"Yes!" I say. I can feel my smile broaden, lips making that last effort to rise up and over my braces.

A lovely pause, a moment when it's all true and then,

"Just kidding," he smiles. He turns away.

Distant giggles escape from behind a cement pillar. The giggles bound off the sidewalk and pavement and hit me like grenades. Adam walks toward that pillar. Two familiar heads pop out from behind the pillar, heads thrown back in laughter. Apparently, the success of their evil plan and my misery are hysterical.

I just stood there. Stunned that the pain was so piercing, yes, but also that this kind of meanness existed.

I've even collected negative thoughts that I think people may have thought about me. You may not have known this about me, but I'm a collector of made-up-thoughts-for-other-people.

The Beach, Summer of 2014.

I walk along my beloved ocean's edge. Hot sun sears my shoulders. I look down and see flabby thighs and a pouchy stomach. I see pasty skin and think If I Stand Up Straight I'll look so much better. Who the f*ck am I to actually wear a bikini at 42? My feet hit the wet sand, I dodge fishermen and pint-sized body surfers. My muffin top jiggles a bit with each step. The air holds salty sea water and Coppertone. A lifeguard stand gets closer; the giant red, wooden structure holds two amazingly golden, gorgeous lifeguards. Brawny. Cool. Indifferent. I walk a bit taller. Maybe they'll think I'm gorgeous and then BAM, My GOD, they think you're a frumpy 42-year-old who should really run JUST A BIT more than the mile it takes you to get the family-owned bakery to eat warm donuts covered in powered sugar with buttercream filling. They see your Picasso-esque face, your deep furrowed brow, wrinkles in stone.

I walk past other innocent pawns, sitting enjoying the shore's bounty, towels spread languidly on white hot sand. I recruit them into my negative diatribe: the teenage girls, the fathers of toddlers, the middle-aged mothers. Because I'm an amazing mind-reader of imaginary thoughts, they all have an imagined insult to add.


And then, there are the times when I feel beautiful. Confident. Sparkly. I may be out with friends and someone snaps a photo. Or, I may pass a store front and glimpse my reflection in its window. In either case, I peer at the image hopefully and instantly wish I hadn't. Evidence proves, once again, that feeling beautiful and looking beautiful are two very different events. Stupid, I think. Beautiful? Ha. THIS is how you really look. The beauty a mirage, a hoax, pluming away into the air with no way to pull it back.

As I plumb the origins and depths of this habit, I wonder how it began. Of course, life's events form each of us. But how much? Did these and countless other events, some of which still lie buried in the dark, create this? Did I hoard each negative event, creating this toxic collection? Or, did my anxiety and depression provide the soft, fertile ground for these thoughts to flourish? Which is the chicken? Which is the egg? Somewhere, it all intersects for me and it yields my current reality. A subtle mental fog which alters the way I see my own terrain.

The Discount.

I've unwittingly discounted so many lovely sentiments over the years. I brushed them off. Such a disservice, as one wise friend recently told me, to those who took the time to say something kind. I didn't mean to be ungrateful or rude. Truly. It's just that my truth lays buried under my collection. I've gotten the truth wrong. The negative voice became so ingrained that it impacted how I processed everything. It WAS the process and the filter.

When I passed by a mirror. As I walked down the steps. When meeting someone new. When talking to my children. Or scrubbing dishes. When I glanced at the rows of pants that I haven't been able to wear comfortably for several months. When I see myself as I step out of the shower, the foggy mirror reflecting an image back to me. Do I know her? Can I see her? Is she me?

I'm slowly clearing the collection and rubble. The dismantling has begun to undermine its authority and power. I'm stepping back and examining each objectively. I stop, shake my head and hold them up to the light.

Hmmmm. Interesting.



Windows revealed the wintry night sky. I sat in my flannel-clad bed, duvets cozily tucked all around. My wild curly hair was perched atop my head in a wild bun. I wore my kelly green SANTA'S LITTLE HELPER t-shirt and HoHoHo flannel bottoms. Big, floppy socks kept my feet warm and happy. My husband walked into our room and over to my side of the bed. He looked at me. The light from my bedside table light illuminated him, warm eyes settled on mine. The thoughts tried to begin, at-the-ready with some mud to sling. Shhhhhh. I refocused. I looked at my husband and then, his eyes. I chose the love I saw there. I locked my own with his.

And I smiled.

"I take a deep breath and sidestep my fear and begin speaking from the place where beauty and bravery meet-within the chambers of a quivering heart."

― Terry Tempest Williams


This post originally appeared on Denise's blog, Universal Grit. You can follow Denise on Twitter at @UniversalGrit.