Childhood Trauma and Skin Cancer

Warning: May contain triggers for survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

It was the fall of 1983. I had just put on my fly blue suit and red tie. I was fit. My hair was on point. I was freshly lathered in Polo aftershave and I WAS TAN. I was at the front door of the Sigma Nu Fraternity house at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). I was a sophomore and I was “rushing” one fraternity. I wanted to be in the best and Sigma Nu was the best. I was not going to drop by any other house on frat row.

Tanning as a priority

This was my time to shine. I wanted the notoriety and the attention and at the time, Sigma Nu/UCLA was all that and a keg of beer. I was offered a bid and for the next few years I majored in fraternity and that meant looking my best. After all, I had to live up to my status and garner all the attention such status deserved. I had blonde hair and a bronzed bod thanks to the California sun, tanning salons, and aerobics classes.

The effects of childhood trauma

That, in a nutshell, describes much of my life, the need for affirmation and acceptance and that led me to scorch my pale skin for the sake of my vanity. It didn’t start in college. I spent most of my childhood seeking attention and affirmation. I owe a lot of that to a male babysitter who sexually abused me and threatened me for years when I was in elementary school. He lived around the block and I remember never riding my Schwinn bike past his home in fear. I felt broken.

Coping mechanisms

So, what does that have to do with affirmation and tanning and anything at all? I am very sure that those traumatic experiences stirred in me an unhealthy desire to be accepted, affirmed, and celebrated. This has propelled me to accomplish some great things, but at a price. When you experience childhood trauma, you find ways to cope. My way of coping was that part of me internalized my stress and the other part wanted to be protected and never ignored.

Higher education and the perfect tan

I wanted to stand out whether through being first, being only, or being something. To fit in at Sigma Nu at UCLA during the Reagan years meant beach parties in Mexico, laying out on the frat house roof, and looking brown in party pics. Oh yeah, college was mixed in their somewhere. I graduated academically and socially. I was the honor pledge of our pledge class and there much about my fraternity life that I loved. I got my diploma. And more importantly, my green eyes always popped against the backdrop of my tan (burnt) skin.

Skin cancer forces evaluation of priorities

Six years later, I was diagnosed with melanoma and I began to re-think my stinkin’ thinkin’. Over time, I realized that my value and self-worth were not tied to others’ opinions or my accomplishments. Oh sure, I still want to win. I still love the limelight, on occasion. But my skin cancer diagnosis began to change the way I viewed myself and others. My value was not tied to tan skin or six-pack abs, but was reflected in my character and service to others.

As a young person, I experienced hard times that affected me and the way that I viewed myself. I’m ok now. I don’t harbor bitterness toward my abuser, although I feel the scars at times. I know that there are a lot of young people who want to feel accepted, childhood abuse or not. Many turn to outward appearance and many tan. I think we can support these young people by helping them find their value in service projects and philanthropy and not in tan lines.

Seek help if needed

If you were taken advantage of as a child, find a trusted friend, a counselor, a therapist with whom to share your hurts. I believe now that if I had been able to do that as a teen, I might have not fallen into the trap of obsessing over peer opinion. I might have stayed out of tanning salons. I probably would have been fine with pale-faced party pics. I would have been content to be in a fraternity that wanted a person BEING their best and not just looking it.

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