Quiet Revolutionary Spencer Wells’s Story
It was a bright and cloudless August afternoon of cross country practice, and I was anxiously sweating as the sweltering heat seemed to grow more and more intense by the minute. Everything should have been fine; I had been hydrating well all week, and the coaching staff were always very cautious not to push us too hard in the hotter temperatures. As I scanned the grassy warm-up field though, my anxiety intensified as I saw some of my teammates taking off their shirts to cool down. Ordinarily, this should’ve been something that somebody in my position would have quickly joined in on. Unfortunately for me, there was a big catch that changed the notion of going shirtless at cross country practice from a convenience to a nightmare.
Since birth, I have been afflicted with a chest condition known as Pectus Excavatum, commonly dubbed the “funnel chest” syndrome. Simply put, while a normal chest wall is flat, mine is sunken in, creating the appearance of a hole in my torso. I assumed that such a deformity would draw shock, ridicule, and even disgust from those who saw it. As an introvert who cannot bear the idea of being singled out, the sort of attention I would have drawn to myself by exposing my chest in public was absolutely horrifying.
So, that day at cross country practice, I endured the scorching hot run as one of the only guys on the team who kept a shirt on while running. The teasing I received for being “self-conscious” (the assumed explanation for why I remained fully clothed) was depressing, but I endured it to avoid the exhausting explanations and stunned expressions I would have had to deal with if my secret was let out.
My whole life I have been continually dealing with this struggle. At the pool, l would always wear a shirt and use not wanting to get sunburnt as my excuse. In the locker room, I would hide in the corner, turned away from everyone as I frantically changed. On some days, I would even wear the clothes I was going to change into under the outfit I wore to school. In my introversion, I kept closing in and isolating myself from others to avoid the embarrassment that seemed like the end of the world.
That day in August, I went home and spent the evening loathing myself because I believed my chest made me unable to ever fit in with other guys. At one point, these thoughts drove me to think that quitting the team was the only solution. I was submitting to my condition, letting it take control of my emotions and actions, and I went to bed with a deep sense of despair.
A few weeks later, I was sitting in speech class. And although my chest was not at the front of my mind, the weight of all the cross country practices I had endured that season was heavy. As one of my classmates loaded a PowerPoint presentation to accompany his speech, my heart immediately started to race. I was stunned to see my chest condition projected in bold white letters across the front of the room. For the next ten minutes, this classmate described how he has dealt with the deformity that has been backing me into a corner most of my life—in front of an entire room of people. The entire time, I kept thinking to myself, “Wow, somebody else in my own grade has the same condition as me!” And then, “There is no way I could be doing this… This is incredible.”
The presentation took a long time for me to fully appreciate, but the lessons I learned from it were very important. I realized I am not alone in my struggle. Part of me had convinced myself I was the only person I knew dealing with this. My introverted nature had made the prospect of talking to other people to solve my problems seem impossible. My classmate proved me wrong on both of these points. He not only showed me there were others with the same affliction but seemed to be at ease with it. I think this was because he reached out to others for help instead of closing in on himself out of fear.
After his presentation, nobody in the class seemed grossed out or repulsed, and some people even talked to him afterwards in support. This made me finally believe that instead of seclusion and ridicule, I could receive support from people I opened up to.
I cannot say I totally overcame my discomfort and started going shirtless at cross country practice, but I finally realized that making sacrifices to my happiness to avoid potential embarrassment was hurting me more than protecting me. I stopped feeling that my chest would embarrass me or that I could not deal with the reaction people might have to my chest. I regained some control of my actions, and suddenly my chest did not generate the despair it once did.
Finally, I could stand on the cross country warm-up field with a confidence I never had before and realize that I was going to be fine, really.
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