She believed she was worthless, and he said, “You don’t have to believe in you. You just need to believe that I do.” And she did.
“If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.”
–Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
I received a forwarded email the other day from a friend of a friend in Baja, California. The missive contained two photos, a “before” and “after” picture of a dog named “Bones.” When Katie, the original sender of the email, found Bones on her porch, the dog was so starved he could barely lift his head. The sight of his skeleton protruding through stretched skin covered in sores was more than just alarming—it was disgusting. Now, just a few months later, he’s a healthy boy with thick, rounded haunches.
In the “after” picture, now that he’s cleaned up and filled out, it’s easy to see how caring for Bones was so worth everything she did for him, but Katie’s ability to take him in and show him love when he was sick and unsightly is a gift I deeply admire.
Katie’s compassion reminded me of a time in my own life when I, too, was so painful to look at that people either turned away or gazed right through me, as if I were invisible. I spent the first half of my twenties addicted to hard drugs, and after five years of shooting heroin, I looked much like the “before” photo of Bones. Disgusting.
But, like Bones, someone saw my potential. Someone saw the phantom flesh that wasn’t there to love, the penumbra, the shadowy hint of my eclipsed soul.
This someone was David, the Jewish-French father of my long-gone teenage boyfriend. When David first met me, I was a precocious fifteen-year old who parlez-vous’ed francais, played classical piano, and earned straight A’s—all of which I accomplished with neurotic fervor. I thought if I was perfect, I might transcend the bruises and self-loathing that came with being an abused child.
A decade later, when David saw me again, that bright girl—and all the friends, accolades and opportunities that accompanied her—were gone. All that was left were the isolation and marks of abuse — this time self-inflicted.
Homeless, carless, and with only a couple weeks of clean time under my belt, I called David for a ride. I needed to go back to the hospital to get a follow-up antibiotic shot for some festering wounds on my arms and feet. I was embarrassed for him to see me that way, but I didn’t know who else I could call.
As we drove to the hospital, David spoke to me in French with tender ease, as if I hadn’t become the kind of person who might shit herself while feverishly trying to find a vein. At the hospital, however, the doctors and nurses were very clear about what kind of person I was.
The week before, as he was lancing an abscess, the attending doctor told me he was “exhausted” by people like me “coming back over and over” taking up his time when there were “good people” who needed his attention. I wanted to yell at him and scream, “You don’t know me! You’re wrong!” But the truth was I’d kicked drugs and relapsed no less than a hundred times before. Maybe he did know me.
This week’s doctor quickly glanced at my bony body, and told me to take down my pants, my butt being the only place I might have an ounce of flesh to inject. I looked up at David, but he didn’t look away. I could feel my face flush with shame.
As we were walking back to the car, David stopped and said, “You’re still the classiest girl I know.”
Immediately, a knot swelled in my throat. To say I felt the exact opposite of classy is obvious, but the white lie to make me feel better was harder to hear than if he told me I was worthless. It was like putting a band-aid on a hemorrhaging artery: it would never stick, or save the patient, but the gesture was too kind—too humane—for me to bear.
I wouldn’t look at him. So he went on, telling me that the wounds on my arms, and even the ones that ran deeper beneath the skin, couldn’t take away the dignity that was inherent in me; I had a light in me that shone out regardless of what darkness I used to cover it up.
And on and on he went with this utter nonsense. I mean, did he not just see me get a shot in my ass? Did he not realize I was a hopeless junkie who lived in residential hotels, and paid rent by the week? That I had lost teeth, clothes, cars, friends, and everything good and decent about myself?
He gently grabbed my shoulders and turned me to face him: “Listen. You don’t have to believe in you. You just need to believe that I do. D’accord?”
And that — by the grace of something bigger than me — I could do. As crazy and ridiculous as he sounded, prattling on about my “inner light,” I knew he really meant what he said. And although I struggled to see it for myself, I was grateful someone saw a bright spot in me, a small thing the doctor missed, a flicker of divine potential from which I could begin anew.
For years, as I pieced my life back together, I held onto other people’s belief in me until I could muster it within myself again. I got a job, then a better job. I finished the degree in Literature from UCLA that I’d abandoned years before and even graduated with honors. All the while, I kept surrounding myself with other compassionate seers like David — people who could see in me what I couldn’t — people who helped me become who I “ought to be and could be” by simply treating me as if I were my best self all along.
I’ve been recovered for over thirteen years now. I’m happily married, a besotted mother, and my days are filled with love and adventure. Every day I’m grateful for the profound blessing of my life, but more than anything, I’m grateful I have the chance to pay David’s gift forward.
As a daily practice, I look for flesh on bones, light in darkness, and love in despair. I try to appreciate that which is immutable and perfect within people, especially those who are suffering, by offering a ride, a helping hand, a bowl of food — any small gesture to acknowledge and honor their highest self.
And, because of that, I live in a world that manifests beauty in its small triumphs.
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Photo: Flickr/Dee Ashley