What do you define being vain as?
Conceited. Narcissistic. Self-Admiring. Arrogant. Cocky. Egotistical? No matter the adjective used, chances are, you typically don’t throw around “vain” as a compliment.
But, I am going to make a confession. Even though, I am sure it won’t come as that much of a surprise to a few of you.
I am vain.
The difference is, my definition of vanity does not match the connotation society places upon it.
Vanity is one hundred percent necessary; in my case, it has only been developed and cultivated slowly over the last few years.
However once upon a time, vanity was nonexistent in all aspects of my life. I have been bested by my own insecurities more times than I care to remember.
At times, these insecurities have taken full control of my life and determined many decisions for me.
Honestly, I still struggle with them.
Before my insecurities started… I was just a young towheaded, blue-eyed boy in elementary school strategizing a game plan to dominate dodgeball come recess.
After my insecurities started…I was that same boy, except now I spent all of my time concocting stories and tall tales to hide my secret from the world for just one more day.
Sometimes though, I wonder if what I was really trying to do was hide them from myself…[feature_box style=”23″ only_advanced=”There%20are%20no%20title%20options%20for%20the%20choosen%20style” alignment=”center”]
That redness at the edge of my scalp? That’s just irritation from my football helmet.
Those white flakes nestled in my hair? Just hair gel that I didn’t blend in well enough.
Diving in the pool with my t-shirt still on? I was just so excited, I dove straight in.
All of my childhood creativity was expended to hide this single truth…[headline style=”1″ align=”center” headline_tag=”h2″]
I have psoriasis.
Looking back now, I realize how much easier admitting that truth would have been. In the moment, it just wasn’t that easy for a nine-year-old kid to muster up the courage to do so.
My friends and classmates wouldn’t have understood it anyways. I barely understood it.
The memory of my very first dermatologist appointment is still clear as day.
Sitting on the cold doctor’s table with my mom by my side, I anxiously anticipated the doctor’s arrival. My eyes were immediately drawn to the excessively large magnifying goggles wrapped firmly around the small feeble woman as she entered and slowly closed the door behind her. Already nervous about the rash that had taken my body hostage, my apprehension grew by the second. Surviving the thorough inspection of my back and scalp, my worst nightmare became a reality with one single question.
“Are there any other areas of your body affected?”
My futile attempt to lie was quickly overturned by the integrity of my mother.
Gesturing her hand towards my groin, my mother exposed the final area this sudden outbreak was affecting my body.
My head collapsed with embarrassment. My cheeks flushed with angst. My heart fluttered with fear. My hands clenched tighter than ever before around the waistband of my athletic shorts. With complete certainty, I shook my head in blatant disapproval at the doctor’s request to examine what every child that age considers absolutely private. My mother’s demeanor shifted back and forth from sincere pleads to stern demands, but I continued to hold out the best I could.
The doctor however, committed to finishing her evaluation and providing her diagnosis, eventually defeated my timid and undeveloped courage. Closing my eyes through her examination, I pulled my pants back up as fast as humanly possible and stared blankly at the wall behind her.
Want to know the kicker? After that entire ordeal, she didn’t even diagnosis my condition correctly.
“It’s just eczema.” She said. “Very common in younger children.”
That day was the first time I ever felt violated. Ever felt a lack of control. Ever felt truly ashamed in my own skin.
From there, like two parallel lines, my condition worsened simultaneously with my insecurities. With every ounce of confidence I lost, my condition saw the advantage and continued to attack with all its might. My skin became a reddened battlefield of dry itchy plaques.
Like a weed firmly rooted in the soil amidst a bed of flowers; my insecurities began to suffocate the bright imagination of a boy.
My mind no longer lived free of worry but dwelled with concern. My heart was no longer pure; no longer was I ignorant to the “bad” things the world composed. The beauty and simplicity of childhood slowly started to fade away.
My mother, being wholeheartedly invested in both of her son’s lives, easily sensed the struggles that were defeating me. Her mission instinctively became finding resolve for her youngest son. Me.
Seventy miles from home, my psoriasis was officially diagnosed at a top medical facility: Yale New Haven Dermatology.
Medically speaking, psoriasis is pretty cut and dry.
“Psoriasis is chronic inflammatory skin disease that is caused by an overactive immune system. This causes the body to grow skin cells up to ten times faster than normal. Instead of shedding, these skin cells pile up on top of each other and form red, raised patches of skin, called plaques.”
It causes no dire health risks, nor does it change the way you can live your life. Medically speaking.
Psychologically speaking on the other hand, psoriasis can alter your life instantly.
Leaving the doctor’s office with a prescription and a handful of sample medication, I felt the first glimpse of hope since feeling that first plaque atop the crown of my head. Actually applying that medication did more harm than good. My new medication entailed liberally applying a thick greasy oil into my hair and scalp. Not to mention, its smell resembled a jar of Skippy peanut butter.
Because the oil was so greasy, the medication also came with a shower cap to wear to avoid ruining anything in your house. Even though the cap was so tight, leaving a bright red mark across my forehead for hours, the oil would still somehow find its way out of the cap and stream down the sides of my face.
In order to watch TV with the family, I had to place bath towels across the couch as a second wall of defense against stains. Before bed, I lined my sheets and pillows with more towels because sometimes the cap would come off and completely ruin them.
This convinced me that I was different. I knew for a fact that none of my friends were at home doing this.
Just me. I must have done something to deserve this.
Slowly, but surely, I started avoiding the medication. I loathed being even more different than I already was.
But, my mother would remind me every day to put it on.
She would even, at times, be waiting with the medication in hand to help me put it on my back.
I resented her even bringing it up. I wish she would just ignore it. Like I tried to do.
You see, rather than focusing my efforts to defeat it, I chose to focus my efforts on pretended it didn’t exist. Her calling attention to it only made it a reality again, and that meant me having to face it.
It became a vicious cycle, with me losing on both sides.
The excuses I was creating to hide my psoriasis, from myself and the world, began to hide the person I truly was deep down. I began to develop a facade. An alter ego.
Outside of my closest friends and family circle, I became an introvert.
Naturally, my personality is lively and gregarious. My closest friends and family would probably tell you that I’m a touch crazy and willing to do anything that involves a dare. Hell, I once even stripped down to a shiny red thong during a family Christmas because I was infatuated with Chris Pontius’ “Party Boy.”
Outside of this comfort zone, no one saw that side of me. My self-consciousness shifted me more towards a newfound shyness and timidness. Especially when it became time to enter middle school.
As the surrounding elementary schools merged into one, middle school was vastly different.
Eager at the chance to make new relationships, my friends’ perspectives did not match those of my own. Making new friends terrified me. I was more content sticking close by my friends from preschool; the ones who already accepted me.
Starting a new friendship had too many unknowns. The obvious; do we have the same interests? The more in depth; do we possess a similar outlook on life? And the infesting thoughts of my insecurities; will the hard scaly red patches covering my body repulse them?
These thoughts overwhelmed my mind, yes, but at the same time I knew that going through three years of middle school without making any new friends was a ridiculous expectation. My friends were social butterflies.
Soon enough our weekly hangouts doubled in size. Our small select group of friends expanded a dozen seemingly over night. The true extrovert inside of me relished in this, the self-conscious introvert; did not. This led to becoming accustomed to changing my lifestyle to hide it.
Wearing jeans as long as possible to cover my shins. Altering my hairstyle. Mastering how to swiftly brush away the “dandruff” I left behind on couches and pillows without anyone seeing. Or never taking off my shoes or socks to hide the psoriasis affecting my toe nails.
This strategy worked accordingly. It wasn’t a solution to my problems, rather a band-aid to cover the wound. But it allowed me to temporarily cope with my pain. It wasn’t anywhere near ideal or perfect, but it worked. Unfortunately though, the band-aid didn’t stick for very long.
You are more than familiar with that “young and awkward” phase of your life. Whether you needed to get braces, battled with acne, had a little extra baby fat, or simply just had style that would make even Steve Urkel cringe; we all went through some form of awkwardness.
I was no exception.
Going through puberty later than most; my awkward phase lingered around a few years too long. The result? A perfect storm that stopped me from pursuing girls for a very long time.
Although I started developing the same emotions pertaining to girls as my male compadres; I put myself in the penalty box by my own free will. Better known as, the friend zone. You see, I had self manifested an irrational fear of interacting with a girl in any capacity greater than purely friendship.
Circling back a few years, when I used to argue with my mom over that greasy medicine for my scalp, she would attempt an array of tactics to persuade me to put it on.
Although her intentions were ALWAYS pure and heartfelt, one of her pleas stuck with me.
“C’mon Ry, put on your medicine. What are you going to do when a girl puts her fingers through your hair.”
The thought alone was enough for me never want to experience it. I convinced myself that a girl would never be attracted to me. Truth be told, in my eyes, I was disgusting. Instead, my focus turned solely to sports.
Football became my escape. My sanctuary. A safe haven. Through a helmet and shoulder pads, I found tranquility. Football granted me a sense of clarity, along with an inner peace.
On the field, no one cared about your looks or personal faults. On the field, you were judged solely on your talent. It wasn’t a popularity contest nor a beauty pageant; it was merely a collection of work ethic, determination, drive, and passion.
More importantly, football is the embodiment of a team sport. Together, you are one. Together, you are eleven brothers banding together in an attempt to successfully complete a specific task every play. Win enough plays and your team wins the game.
My team became my identity.
Behind my face mask, I was able to become the truest form of myself. My shoulder pads served as my armor. My uniform declared my allegiance to a greater cause. Strapping up my equipment everyday was my metamorphosis; I became more and more impenetrable with every piece of armor.
Without touching the brake, football carried me directly into high school. As long as I was successful on the field I could ignore the problems I faced off of it.
Walking into the locker room for the first day of freshman football practice, I had high expectations for the season to come. Not only was this now my ninth season playing football, Eric was also the captain of the varsity team. This was the first time we were in the same school since our elementary school days.
His presence and success gave me optimism for the future. I saw a chance to truly build and establish my identity around football, to finally control who I was and my own destiny. More importantly, I gained a sense of protection that I hadn’t had before. It was the first glimpse of my extroverted self in an unfamiliar setting in many many years.
Eric is my brother, my closest friend, and my most trusted confidant. His stature on the team gave me in automatic “in.” By including me with his circle of friends – the varsity squad – I attained a group of big brothers and therefore, was able to walk a little bit taller into that locker room.
Except, things never go according to plan.
My expectations and dreams were shattered quicker than my sprint out on to the dry, grassy, under nourished practice field.
Lining up into our perspective positions, I realized this was no longer Pop Warner Football. Weight limits no longer predetermined your division or team, now it was every man for himself, regardless of size.
My competition for the starting spot was six foot three, two hundred and thirty pounds, and one strong son of a bitch. I, on the other hand, was barely five foot four on a good day, weighed a soft one hundred and fifty pounds, and couldn’t even bench press 135 for a single.
Once again, despite my aspirations and expectations, the situation was beyond my control. Like I mentioned earlier, my puberty happened later than most, my psychical shortcomings weren’t up to me.
Or were they? It was time for me to take my life into my own hands.
Better yet, Tony’s hands…
From as far back as I can remember, Tony was always a part of my life in some context. Sometimes it was as simple as randomly running into him at the local bakery on a Sunday morning. Other times it was him coming over at midnight on a frigid winter night to fix my family’s furnace. And every year, it was our two families in the middle of an evergreen forest searching for the perfect Christmas trees to cut down.
I always referred to Tony as my Uncle. At first, it confused me because technically we didn’t share the same bloodline. But now I know, being family is more than just sharing genetic material…
Tony was an intimidating man; sporting a thick mustache, crew cut, and bold tattoos. His crushing handshake and unwavering gaze embodied a strong and serious man. His infectious smile and love for a good ol’ fashion dirty joke embodied a caring and authentic man.
But, it was his physical prowess that caught my attention the most. After knowing him for so many years, I finally realized why I was intimidated by his appearance. Tony was the epitome of muscle…the definition of fitness…and a true representation of strength.
His expertise was exactly what I needed.
Working up the courage to ask him to take me under his wing was one the hardest things I had ever done up until this point. If he denied my request, I would have nowhere else to turn. This was my final chance; my chips were all in.
With a tremble in the back of my throat, I mustered the words just faintly enough for him to hear me.
“Hey Tony, I want to get bigger for football so I could start varsity next year. Can you help me?”
Tony was reluctant, he had been asked this countless times before, he took his training sessions seriously and wasn’t keen on a yet another young kid wasting his time.
Being such long time friends of my parents however, he agreed to let me train with him if I agreed to his three stipulations…[step_graphics style=”2″ color=”#bfbfbf”][step style=”2″ text=”1″ headline=”Show%20up%20every%20single%20day%20ready%20to%20bust%20my%20ass%2C%20he%20refused%20to%20let%20me%20slow%20him%20down.”][/step][step style=”2″ text=”2″ headline=”Purchase%20a%20brand%20new%20pair%20of%20shoes%20to%20permanently%20take%20residence%20in%20his%20basement.”][/step][step style=”2″ text=”3″ headline=”Smile%20and%20have%20fun.%20In%20order%20to%20be%20successful%2C%20I%20had%20to%20enjoy%20the%20process.”][/step][/step_graphics]
In this moment, the iron officially entered my life.
Determined to live up to Tony’s standards, I showed up ready to give him every single ounce of work ethic I had. Keeping up was certainly going to be no easy task. On my very first day, Tony tossed a plate on each side of the bench press and said “let’s see what ya got.” With a deep inhale, I un-racked the weight, 135 pounds, controlling it down to my chest in one smooth motion, I transitioned the weight and pushed with all my might to complete the rep. One.
The next rep planted firmly against my chest and pinned me between the bar and the bench; Tony had to come to my rescue.
This rep marked the beginning of an entirely new life for me. This was the milestone that permanently altered my existence for the rest of my life. Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time. But now, I proudly wear a tattoo of “135/1” on my right bicep to serve as a reminder every single day.
Standing up from the bench press, defeated, I looked at Tony anticipating his disapproval. Except it never came. Tony patted me on the back and simply said “we’ve got a long way to go, let’s get to work.”
Tony’s reassurance and accepting tone comforted me. I knew, in my heart, I was exactly where I belonged.
Tony stood behind me every step of the way. Every rep, every set, every success, every failure; pushing me. He was a booming voice that told me keep pushing when I was ready to stop. He would push me to my breaking point, but then would offer his hand to pick me up.
All of this was brand new to me, I was working harder than I ever worked in my entire life, but I wasn’t noticing any changes the way I thought I would. I saw the weight on the scale rising, but I still wasn’t seeing that drastic change I was desperately seeking. Disappointed in myself, I would express my frustration to Tony.
Naive frustrations such as, “How come I’m not as big as him yet?” pointing to the cover model on an issue of Muscle and Fitness in the corner.
Tony’s answered never waived, “if it was easy, then everybody would do it.”
The words resonated with me, but secretly I remained frustrated with myself. Again, it was my natural tendency to blame myself and feel as I was lacking something specific.
This was mainly due to the fact that even with every achievement and success in Tony’s basement, I was still always reminded of my psoriasis.
A new personal best on the bench press was humbled by the flakes left behind on the dark leather of the bench. A set of heavy squats would pull and stretch the plaques along my obliques causing an enormous amount of pain. No matter how hard I trained, I was always reminded that my psoriasis still controlled me.
I never expressed any of this to Tony. But, somehow, he still came up with the perfect remedy.
As a little game, Tony had me start wearing hoodies everyday to school. The rationale behind this was simple. Like a caterpillar encases itself in a cocoon, I was going to encase myself inside of the soft cotton of a comfortable hoodie to aide my transformation. By the time next football season came, I would be ready to unveil my hard work.
I never believed it would actually work.
Boy, was I wrong.
As the season approached, team meetings started in order to prepare. Walking down into the locker room for the first time in about a year, I shook the hands of my coaches.
“What in the world did you do?”
Looking around nervously; my mind shot off in a thousand different directions.
With sweaty palms and a racing heartbeat I asked, “what do you mean?”
“You’ve gotten huge. What have you been doing?”
Softly chuckling, I finally swallowed the knot in my throat as my heart rate returned to normally.
“Just training really hard coach, I’m ready for this year.”
The proof was in the pudding. A few weeks later during our preseason performance testing, I blew it out of the water and noticeably put on the most strength during the offseason.
The dice continued to roll in my favor and my hard work continued to pay out dividends in success. That season, as our team ran onto the field for our season opener underneath those immortal Friday Night Lights, I was a starter.
The hard work. The pain… The hoodie. All went according to Tony’s plan.
But, while the success on the field was paramount to me, it was the result that I was least expecting that made all the difference.
You see, when I first started training I was only there for a single purpose: football. To become simply bigger, faster, and stronger. It’s all I needed, or wanted; so I thought.
Taking a big step back and looking at my life as a whole, I realized I was different. Slowly, I was gaining confidence. Slowly, crafting my own identity. I was rediscovering that young outgoing boy in me from many moons ago.
Sure, I still had a long way to go. I was still unwilling to pursue girls romantically. I still avoided being the center of any social gathering. I still struggled with myself when I saw my psoriasis in the mirror. I still got dispirited feeling the hard scaly plaques across my obliques. Psoriasis still sucked. Except now, instead of trying to ignore it, I was learning how to look past it.
Training develops more than just a desirable abdominal wall or an appealing pair of arms; training develops your mind to perceive the things never before thought possible. It teaches you the power your mind truly possesses. Every time you do one more rep than anticipated, you get a touch stronger. Every time you add one more pound to the bar, you break past a mental barrier. Training teaches you that if you want something, you need to go out a fight for every inch of it. Training teaches you to appreciate your body and the ability you have to change it.
This passage from Henry Rollins’ “Iron In The Soul” best describes my undertaking…
“I felt strong. It was the first time I can remember having a sense of myself. I had done something and no one could ever take it away. You couldn’t say sh–t to me.
It took me years to fully appreciate the value of the lessons I have learned from the Iron. I used to think that it was my adversary, that I was trying to lift that which does not want to be lifted. I was wrong. When the Iron doesn’t want to come off the mat, it’s the kindest thing it can do for you. If it flew up and went through the ceiling, it wouldn’t teach you anything. That’s the way the Iron talks to you. It tells you that the material you work with is that which you will come to resemble. That which you work against will always work against you.
It wasn’t until my late twenties that I learned that by working out I had given myself a great gift. I learned that nothing good comes without work and a certain amount of pain. When I finish a set that leaves me shaking, I know more about myself. When something gets bad, I know it can’t be as bad as that workout.
I used to fight the pain, but recently this became clear to me: pain is not my enemy; it is my call to greatness.”
Because of my training, it was the first time in my entire life that people went out of their way to give me a compliment. My coaches, my family, my friends, the other kids at school; they all noticed and acknowledged it. I felt like people finally took a genuine interest in my life. Now, I don’t know if this was actually the case, people probably always genuinely cared about me, but this was the first time I felt positive about myself. For the first time in my life, I was proud. I accomplished something.
These compliments generated a positive feedback loop inside of me. Every ounce of praise fed my appetite, every compliment I received drove my desire to become better even deeper. I became consumed with training. It wasn’t just about football anymore, now it was for every single part of me.
Football wasn’t actually the metamorphosis I thought it was, it was just the bridge to something greater. The vessel that connected me to my true calling; training.
Now, I started to specifically train to look a certain way; to turn my body into a work of art. Or as some might call it, to train for vanity.
Vanity was the only thing that allowed me to get outside of my own head.
Instead of using a helmet and shoulder pads as my armor, I was able to build and create my own. An armor that I didn’t have to take off and hand in at the end of every season. It was authentic…it was immortal…it was me. Every new pound of muscle I gained, didn’t just aid me physically, it reinforced my confidence.
Above anything else though, it was Tony who made the biggest impact on me. Every step of the way, he was my biggest supporter. I was his metaphoric David, and he was my metaphoric Michelangelo. Together, we shared every victory. He put me on a pedestal and told others of my accomplishments every chance he got. The pride I felt from him is indescribable.
I know all of this may come off as a bit self-serving and narcissistic, but that is exactly why I wrote this article. To emphasize why vanity is absolutely necessary.
This article is not about my actual psoriasis. Because, deep down I am well aware that psoriasis isn’t remotely close to the worst thing in the world. I didn’t have to battle cancer face to face. I didn’t tragically lose the people close to me in an horrific event. I didn’t suffer a devastating injury fighting for my country. Those people are the real warriors, the true heroes.
This article is about the impact psoriasis had on me. Interchange psoriasis for literally anything else. Bad acne, rosacea, vitiligo, obesity, depression… literally anything.
The fact of the matter is, we all have battled something. Each and every single one of us has had something that has made us feel different. Each and every single one of us has had something that caused us to feel insecure and doubt ourselves. Each and every single one of us has felt the pain of something out of our control.
In the end, it is these differences that make us all truly unique. It’s what builds our character and creates our stories.
This article is about finding solace. It’s about learning to control the things you can, in order to overcome the things you cannot.
For so long, I focused on the wrong things. I was obsessed with finding a cure for my condition. Topical medications, shots underneath my finger and toenails, UV-B tanning beds, holistic medicine, acupuncture, dietary changes, immune suppressant shots. You name it, I tried it.
What I should have been focusing on is the positive things in my life; like I do now. The amazing family I have always had. The genuine friendships I have made, past and present. The love I have shared. The lives I have touched training. The blessings I have received in every aspect of my life.
The truth is, no one is looking at you differently. Nobody was staring at my psoriasis and thinking that I was disgusting. That was only my own insecurities and negativity feeding my brain.
Now, whenever someone curiously asks me, “what’s that redness on your scalp?”
I don’t shrug my shoulders and try to change the subject. I just simply say “Oh, I have psoriasis.”
They then answer somewhere along the lines of “oh I didn’t know, sorry dude” and the conversation is over. They don’t look at me differently or flare their nostrils in disgust.
We just simply move on.
My definition of vanity is a proverbially means to an end. Vanity is a chance at self redemption. Vanity is an opportunity to take control of your life.
I realize now, that without my psoriasis, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. It made me, me. Without the pain or struggle, does victory taste as sweet?
Without my psoriasis, I may have never found football. I may have never ended up in Tony’s basement crafting some of the best years of my life. I may have never gotten to know Tony as well as I did. He may have never became my mentor and the most impactful figure in my life. I may have never found my calling to become an personal trainer.
Psoriasis was my darkness, but it was also my saving grace.
Without the darkness, the light would be blinding. It is because of the darkness that once the light became visible, I could welcome it with open arms.
Psoriasis was responsible for My Hero’s Journey.