Think of an occasion when you felt like you weren't quite good enough. This feeling of wishing you were taller, thinner, more attractive or [fill in the blank] can occur several times in life. Caring friends may remind you that "you are perfect just the way you are." After rolling your eyes, stop for a minute and let that sink in. What does it mean to be perfect? Is it the made-up, pumped-up, plumped-up, Hollywood version of perfection? Is it the ability to know just what to say to impress people? Is it some magical charisma that other people are gifted with? Or is it realizing that being a unique individual is the true answer?
I know this to be true, but when I quiet my mind, I can almost feel the various layers of my being resisting the idea. How can I be perfect? Clearly, the universe has not seen the junk drawer in my kitchen.
It is easy for me to deliver this kind of universal truth to clients, friends, and loved ones. As with so many lessons in life, however, it is much easier to accept love within other people than to acknowledge it within ourselves. It has been an ongoing process for me to embrace the idea of unconditional love within myself.
I have been considered thin by the outside world for most of my adult life. Yet, to this day, if someone snaps a photo of me with their phone and shows me the image, my immediate concern is that I will look fat. Settling down in Los Angeles as an adult has not helped that negative voice. L.A. is the city of pretty people. I can't finish a workout at the gym without bumping into a contestant from America's Next Top Model. It would not be a shock to rub shoulders with Heidi Klum while selecting a melon at Whole Foods. The entire city encourages and rewards outward beauty, often at the expense of actually being healthy.
My weight issues are rooted in my history. Both my parents struggle with their weight. I was almost 100 pounds overweight as an adolescent. I have family members who are so obese that they can barely walk. Because of this, weight is a frequent topic on my mind. At one point in my life, my body-image issues were so rampant that I was willing to risk my own physical safety.
It was a crisp fall day in Dallas, and I was 21 years old. My friend Eric and I hopped into my black Volkswagen Cabriolet convertible for an afternoon of lunch and shopping. Eric was enchanting to me; he was witty, stylish, and attractive. With blond hair and blue eyes, he was the epitome of the Hollywood gay best friend. Whether we were picking up tacos or dining at a fine restaurant, he always looked like he had just finished a Ralph Lauren photo shoot. I simultaneously loved and hated him for that.
We had become fast friends after a night of too many margaritas, and I marveled that wherever we went, he knew someone. I became his adoring "mini-me" (figuratively speaking, of course, considering my 6-foot-6 frame to his slightly fudged 5-foot-10). He was a part of gay Dallas culture that intimidated me. Eric attended fabulous parties hosted by Ken dolls in perfectly decorated loft spaces, and everyone loved him.
We were on our way to shop at SYMS, the discount department store. (Obviously this was before I knew about Loehmann's and their incredible designer discounts.) This shopping trip was a perfect representation of Eric: His real life was not at all what he made it out to be. He had champagne tastes and a Burger-King-dollar-menu budget.
"Look at this Calvin Klein shirt!" he said. "It's only $39.99. And the best part is that the original price was $150!"
"It's cute!" I replied. "You should get it."
Later, at lunch, we ran into his friend Amy.
"Hi, Eric," she cooed. "I love your shirt!"
"Thank you," he said casually. "I'm not sure it was worth $150, but hey, it's Calvin Klein."
He glanced over at me and winked discreetly. It was such an easy and simple lie. Eric told a glamorous version of our two hours shopping. It was rooted in some truth, but somehow the version he told Amy seemed way more glamorous and exciting. As he wove this tale, I kept staring at the shirt he had purchased. It fit his body differently than mine. The crisp, white sleeves hugged his arms like they were delighted to be rescued from the discount bin at SYMS. The buttons pulled just a touch against his chest, which accentuated his physique. He was clearly more muscular than I was, and admittedly, I was envious.
"How often do you work out?" I asked.
"Ugh, I haven't worked out in at least a month!" he moaned, pinching his completely flat abdomen.
"A month! Really, I work out five days a week for an hour and a half with a trainer, and you're in much better shape than I am."
"Oh, that's because I've done steroids."
I practically spit out my wasabi tuna salad when he said that. It was all so cavalier. It was as if we were discussing how his teeth were so white. Oh, you like my pearly whites? It's so easy: Just smoke some crack!
"Dougall," he continued, "I can name at least five people that you know of who have done steroids. Last night, did you notice that Chris wasn't drinking?"
"That's because he is currently doing them."
Eric spent the next hour or so telling me who was allegedly taking or had taken steroids. All those he mentioned were people I looked up to physically, or, rather, people I felt were more disciplined and simply better than I. By the end of lunch, I couldn't believe what I was about to say.
"Can you get me some?" I asked.
I had spent two solid years losing weight the natural way. I'd changed my eating habits. (It turns out that eating egg rolls every day is not a great idea.) I'd grounded a healthier identity into my body by exercising and weightlifting regularly. The truth is that I looked great and was in the best shape of my life. But I was lean and skinny-looking compared to the fit guys I met through Eric. Rather than congratulate myself on getting healthy, I could only focus on why I was not fit enough. So, after one short conversation with a friend, I was suddenly willing to inject myself with steroids in the hope that it would make me feel confident and lovable.
Two weeks later we were at the Galleria Mall, waiting for our "contact." I had $600 in cash in my pocket, just enough for two cycles of steroids (or about 300 egg rolls from Panda Express). Eric, of course, couldn't afford his half, but his Dolce & Gabbana shoes looked amazing. Nonetheless, it seemed rude for me to do this on my own. I'm sure that if you asked Emily Post for tips on "steroid etiquette," she would agree that it would be most impolite if I didn't front my friend the money for the steroids. Eric saw Jake and waved him over. Jake looked like a menacing bouncer who might throw you out of a bar for misbehaving. He had shiny, slicked-back hair and way too much muscle, in my opinion, but perhaps that was advertising for his unique line of work.
"Here it is," Jake said, holding up a small vial that said "testosterona" in Spanish. I could see the veins in his neck bulging as he spoke.
"It's not from this country?" I asked, my voice a few octaves higher than usual.
"I don't know," he replied. "It's probably Mexican. Who cares?"
"We inject it?" I continued. "Do you by any chance offer a pill package instead? I'm not really a needle sort of person."
"Dude, it's easier and it will work faster for you. Where's the money?"
I handed Jake the $600, and he quickly counted it.
"I'm gonna go get me a Gucci belt," he said, walking away.
I can still hear that sentence as clear as day in my mind. It all seemed so casual. Was I really about to take medical advice from an Arnold Schwarzenegger lookalike who was gonna go get himself a Gucci belt? My intuition was raising red flags all over the place, but I chose to ignore it.
On the car ride home, Eric sounded like a registered nurse. He explained that we were to inject ourselves once a day for two weeks. He touted the importance of not having any air bubbles in the needle but could not explain exactly why. It seemed like wise advice, but I was in a sort of daze. The spiritual person inside me became passive, shaking his head. Ignored, he sulked over to the sofa in my mind and started watching old episodes of The Golden Girls. I felt like I was watching a movie of a young man deciding who he wanted to be in life. Was I going to tell the world that I'd purchased my shirt on sale at a discount shop for $39.99, or would the $150 storyline make me feel good enough to be loved?
When we got back to Eric's apartment, we gathered our tools. Eric picked up a 10cc syringe and needle that he'd bought from the local drug store. And just like in all the after-school specials on TV, he held our bottle of "testosterona" with the cap down. He plunged the needle into the bottle and pulled out on the tip, slowly filling the syringe with clear liquid.
"You really should inject yourself," he said authoritatively.
"I'm a wimp!" I complained. "I can't! I'm closing my eyes!"
And so, without another word, he injected my thigh with steroids. Almost immediately my heart sank. I'm not entirely sure what I thought I would feel, but I wasn't prepared for how sad I felt. I suddenly became very aware of my higher self. As I scanned the room in my mind, this time I saw things from a new perspective. Here were two sweet, healthy, and insanely insecure young men. In a moment of co-dependence and sheer vanity, we had taken a great health risk.
I left Eric's apartment and went straight to the gym. I did my regular routine and stared in the mirror, expecting my own version of the Incredible Hulk transformation. While walking on the treadmill, I would fantasize about my T-shirt ripping open from the metamorphosis that was happening inside me. By the end of my workout, nothing had changed.
When I got back to my apartment, I plopped down on the couch for what I felt was a well-deserved rest. I typically meditate after a workout, so I closed my eyes and took a few deep, cleansing breathes. As my thoughts became still, in the emptiness of my apartment, tears welled up in my eyes.
"What are you doing?" asked a loving, nonjudgmental voice in my head.
What was I doing? I am a professional spiritual advisor. I teach classes and workshops about integrating self-love, and here I was having one of the weakest moments of my life.
There are many moments in meditation where I can literally feel the separation of my spiritual self from my physical self. It is when I'm in that state and my higher self is running the show that I am able to see most clearly. Alone in my apartment, surrounded by only my thoughts and intuition, it all seemed so clear. I am perfect exactly as I am. Sure, I am a work in progress, but in this very moment, I didn't want a single aspect of my being to be altered or changed. I wanted to authentically be me.
In the following days, I didn't meet Eric for our planned "injection" parties. I avoided his calls and spent time thinking about what I had done. I reached out to my soul group -- the friends and family members who supported me no matter what I weighed. They were all patient and kind with me but expressed concern about the fact that I would consider doing something so dangerous. After several good talks with friends (and my dear therapist at the time), I decided that "yo no quiero testosterona."
In the end, this may have been the best $600 I have ever spent on a life lesson. For years I have been quiet about this story, because it seems so opposite to my professional life, and in truth it is embarrassing. But I ultimately realized that therein lies the lesson: Part of recognizing our own divine perfection is realizing and loving all the steps of our learning process. To this day I still struggle with exercise and loving my body as it is. But whether I choose a salad at lunch or a burger and fries, I love myself unconditionally.