Five years ago, my mother was diagnosed with Wernicke-Korsakoff’s Syndrom, a form of alcohol-induced dementia.
It had been a long time coming.
My sister and I could see her fading away long before the Williamson Country Sheriff’s Department arrested her, threw her in jail, and deemed her unfit to stand trial. A brain scan revealed the damage done. It wasn’t good.
The county-appointed psychiatrist told me that it was like Alzheimer’s. The mother I had known was gone and wasn’t coming back. There was shock… then apathy. I shrugged my shoulders. The mother I’d needed had never been there anyway.
When Steve Rosenfield asked me to contribute to the What I Be Project, I didn’t hesitate. A couple years ago, I wrote an article about his series for Intent.com. I remember seeing the photos on Facebook—I remember being struck by the rawness and authenticity.
Steve texted me the night before our shoot:
“Do you have an idea for your insecurity?”
“I do!” I texted back with a smiley face. Ha. Smiley face. I had a list of “insecurities” I thought would look awesome as photos…I’m too much. I’m a control freak. I used to have an eating disorder.
I mean, come on… I work with insecurities for a living. I run a nonprofit called Yoga for Eating Disorders—my job is to help people overcome their insecurities. I teach this stuff; I can recite it in my sleep: I’m not my body. I’m not my fears. I don’t let insecurities define me.
Except… I’m human.
There are so many things I could be insecure about, but when we sat down for the shoot… Steve poked holes through every single one of my meager attempts at vulnerability. “If you’re that willing to wear it on your sleeve,” he said, “it’s not an insecurity. What’s the one quality you don’t want anyone to know about? What’s the one thing you don’t want the man you’re dating to believe is true about you?”
Just as he said those words, my phone buzzed on the table. We both looked over, and the contact popped up: Mommy Dearest.
“That.” I said, pointing to my iPhone. “Her.”
Steve gave me a puzzled look, and I hit “ignore” on the phone.
“I miss my mom a lot, but I don’t like to admit it—especially not to myself. It makes me feel needy.”
Steve looked at me, eyes softening.
“My mom has dementia. She calls like 10 times a day. Same voicemail almost every time.”
“That’s gotta be hard,” Steve said.
“Yea. But it’s not her anymore.”
I paused, looked down. There’s the apathy.
“But that… I dono, longing? It never goes away. It affects my relationships. I don’t want to let people know I depend on them because I’m afraid I’m being needy, and they’ll go away. I feel like I crave love, or affection, or something… more than the average person, I think. I dono. It just never feels like enough. It feels like I have this gaping hole inside me that never gets filled.”
Steve looked at me. “That’s it. Neediness.”
“Ugh. That’s so… icky.”
“Yup, that’s it…”
“Well let’s call it something else that makes more sense,” I said. “How about Loss? Or Grief?”
Steve smiled. He wrote the words on the scratch sheet of paper on my desk—grief, loss, neediness.
“Which word would you never want someone to associate with you?”
“Neediness.” I frowned. “But that doesn’t feel right.”
“It doesn’t feel right because it’s an insecurity. Insecurities aren’t supposed to feel good.”
“Here’s the thing, Chelsea,” he said, “We’re all needy. Some of us more so than others. The right person for you is the one who loves you, and sort of… fits with your neediness. Not everyone will be a fit. But trust me—I take a lot of these photos—you’re not the only one who’s afraid to be needy.”
I sighed, then nodded. Steve pulled out the camera, and I took my place on my bed next to the wall. I put my hand to my cheek, pictured my mom in my mind, and looked directly into the camera. Snap.
I am not my neediness.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photos: Steven Rosenfield, author’s own