How we treat people when they are children can have a long term effect on their self-esteem, self-worth, self-confidence, and ability to love themselves. My whole life, whether it was family, peers, teachers, or someone else I have been told a variety of harmful things, things that have done a huge amount of damage to my ability to love myself. For years, I struggled with emotional problems. I believe my OCD is directly linked to that. It seemed to develop out of a strong desire to control everything I could in my surroundings, often the most mundane things like what order I eat my food in or my obsessive need to scrub my skin until it feels clean enough.

Dominick, as a teenager. A smiling face, wearing glasses, a background baseball cap, and a t-shirt, is visible from the shoulders up. There are picnic benches and grass in the background and only a little part of his wheelchair seat back is visible.

A lot of this was because of my disability. Society devalues individuals with disabilities, and some people were dismissive of any type of accomplishment I visibly made, often chalking it up to pity motivating my selection for an award or a coveted part in a school musical. I spent all my time realizing I had to be perfect – perfect at singing, perfect at school, perfect at acting. Being perfect all of the time, outside of home, was exhausting, and this made my already dysfunctional home life even more problematic.

At home, I could not keep up pretenses. Anything less than perfect at school, at work, at extracurriculars meant I was obviously the failure everyone expected me to be, most especially my peers. I was always angry at home, and my relationship with my family was often strained. I could be cruel, at times, specifically to my older brother or my father. Lashing out was a coping mechanism for all of the stress I felt, and it wasn’t right, but I had no other way to accurately express myself.

Adding on to the pressure was my mother, who was obsessed with me being “beautiful.” She would constantly tell me everything she was doing for me would make me more attractive. This just said to me that I obviously must look disgusting, and this caused many outbursts around other family members, constant anger, and self-hatred. My mother would often put her hands on me, without permission, in her quest to make me better looking – sometimes having others physically restrain me against my will, so she could do whatever to my skin (removing blemishes, etc.). In her mind, this was how I would look “beautiful.” What this actually did to my sense of self, and my mental health may never be repaired.

How we treat people in marginalized communities desperately needs to change. We tell these things to the disability community, the LGBTQ community, people of color (how many little girls grow up who are black and hate how they look, hate their hair because it is not like those who are not black, etc.?! They do this because we tell them they are not pretty enough, they should want different hair, and on and on), women/girls, people who are overweight, and anyone else who might not fit into the mold of what society has to look like. Instead of celebrating our differences, our own unique looks, we castigate everyone who does not or cannot fit in with the status quo.

I spent a lifetime trying to make up for ‘flaws’ that were things I could not change about myself. I wasn’t trying hard enough, when I could not walk. I was not pretty/good looking enough, so I had to change. My honor roll grades were not good enough, and I was still perceived as less than. It is no wonder that when I was 19 years old, I decided I would rather be dead than live with all my perceived imperfections. So many people feel this way, and we have the potential to stop this. I, luckily,did not succeed in harming myself, and today I am grateful, because slowly, with more positive people around me, I have started to learn to love myself. It is a process that will probably take my entire life. I still have days where I look down upon myself. I still have moments where I question my worth. I don’t think that will ever go away.

We need to do better for the next generation. They need to know it is okay to be themselves, and they will be accepted, as they are. They deserve nothing less.