Say “Cheese” (But I’m Lactose Intolerant)


At school, when it is picture day, kids line up to wait to sit on that special chair in front of the solid color that will mark their year as a student. It will remind them of the time they spent in that particular school, with those children, remembering that special teacher.

Those pictures are often viewed as “recuerdos” or “memories” that are supposed to last us a lifetime. But what if behind that “cheesy” smile is darkness, and pain, and hurt, and confusion?

What if the person smiling after being told to say cheese is really lactose intolerant?

It was the case for me. Each school photo I look at from my youth does not take me back to fun and happy memories. It takes me to real dark places in my mind.

Recently I was looking at a school photo of my now 20-year-old daughter. I was so proud of her. This light, this essence, this beauty that I can’t seem to get enough of. I want to talk to her every day, I want to hear her voice. I want to hug her, and give her nighttime kisses that are only reserved for a mom and daughter right before 8:30pm hits.

Why 8:30pm? Because inside of me I can’t wait to have the break I’ve been craving all day. From 6:30am to about 8:29pm I am on my feet. I worked as a full-time teacher for over 10 years and it really aged me. But teaching did not just age me, having kids aged me-about 10 years.

Our morning routine probably matches most moms out there. 6:30am-Up, breakfast, dressed, teeth brushed, out the door to school, then after school activities, and then home, homework, 6:30pm dinner, dishes, showers, story time, mommy kisses til 8:29:59. At 8:30pm, I pull the sheets (in a hot country we do not use blankets) over their little bodies…give them bunny kisses, double-check they brushed their teeth during the bunny kisses process and then kiss them on the forehead while tucking their most beloved stuffed animal inside and under their arm-ready for bed. As I get up from being on my knees (cuz this is usually done in an awkward position), they turn over and prepare for the world in which I probably am not in.

The dream world. A world that is filled with questions, thoughts, desires, that I can’t answer, know, or understand.

But maybe the desires I can understand. Because I’ve been there, I lived it.

As they slip into an 8+hour world of dreams, some of them smile, and others whimper, grind their teeth, or even cry. It is a world that is so real to them, even though their eyes are closed and their breathing is deep.

Is their sleep peaceful?

And I walk back to my room where I can pretend to be on my own for a little over 2 hours before the universe drags me into a world I have always feared-the unknown. Before I slip into this world though, I hope the children will not wake, I take advantage of the possibilities I have ahead of me, to satisfy myself with a warm bath, or rosy palm, or just a good book. Or on the days I can’t do either of those, I grade papers.

But then my eye-lids get heavy….and I black out.

I can’t predict what will happen in my dreams. Some people say it has to do with your cravings, with what you ate last, and with things you can’t obtain in the present.

Interestingly enough, what I crave, I will never find, what I ate last I frequently can’t remember, and what I can’t obtain is….well. I don’t know. Is the sky really the limit?

But this is not visible when we Say Cheese on picture day. The smile lasts 2.5 seconds. Can’t I fake it for 2.5 seconds….can’t people think I’m happy for 2.5 seconds? Is it really “that” bad that I can’t take 2.5 seconds out of my life and pretend that everything is “ok”?

So I do it. We all do it. Those who grew up with trauma, those who were adopted. Those who live in pain. Those who have been abused by spouses, family members, friends. We allow the 2.5 seconds to take over.

And then our stomach begins to hurt. It gets gassy, painful. It gets difficult to sit in the seat as we begin the next class. The pain rises again. We feel it, we know it is there. But no one sees it. No one questions.

I looked at my 6th grade school photo a few days back. I was cute…skinny-legged, big-ass glasses. There was tape on the side of one of them, holding the one leg in place. Someone had stepped on that pair during a basketball game. The glasses fell off my face, I couldn’t see, and all I remember was eventually finding them and they had broken.

A part of me was broken. I depended on these glasses. They were my safety net. I hid behind them-like I still do at times. And now they were broken but I had to find a way to continue to hide behind them…just like I did for 2.5 seconds when I was told to say “cheese”. I didn’t want people to see the pain, to see my vulnerability. I didn’t even want to see it for myself.

6th grade, 12 years old….sexually abused repeatedly starting in the 4th grade.

But no one would know because for 2.5 seconds, I said “cheese”.

For 2.5 seconds I was free to be someone I was not. I was free to be “normal”.

But those seconds were so short because always after, without fail, I was sick.

Because I am lactose intolerant. Literally, and figuratively.

But at least that 2.5 seconds would appear to last a lifetime for family, friends, and teachers who had no clue what was happening in my life at the time.

They never asked, I don’t know if they ever wondered. They just assumed that because I smiled, everything was “ok.”

They could show that photo to the world. They could pass it on to other friends and extended family. “Here she is….6th grade. Isn’t she lovely?” And inside of me I could feel my stomach churning…..everything was not ok then, and is not ok now.

When I look at my daughter’s school photos…..where she is told to say “cheese” I have to ask myself if she is lactose intolerant.

Since my children are adoptees/Foster Care children, I know for a fact that there are aspects of their life that makes them lactose intolerant. Being adopted and being foster kids is intense, and with it comes this ability to part of the chameleon lifestyle. We learn to fit in, to camouflage. We learn to smile like the rest of the world.

We learn to put away our suffering. We learn to smile and say “cheese” even if we are lactose intolerant.

What if, instead of saying “cheese” the camera man just counts down “1, 2, 3…”

Will we still smile?

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