“Where’d you go?” Kelsey asked me, bringing my awareness back to the present moment. I was staring off into space in the general direction of her computer screen.
Kelsey, the art therapist and my aftercare coordinator, had just hung up the phone after speaking to my new nutritionist and therapist that I would meet with in Oxford, Mississippi. They all had thick southern accents, dripping with sweetness and concern. We set up appointments for the following week, only days away. I say, “we,” but thankfully Kelsey did all of the talking for me.
Physically I was sitting in a chair next to her desk, only inches from the black office landline, but mentally I was miles away. Years away, really, in either direction. My brain constantly, simultaneously imprisoned in both the reality of my past and the potential hyperbolized dangers of my future. In only days I’d be seated on another stranger’s overly plush couch, trying to explain my story.
“Where’d you go? I can tell I lost you.” She sat back in her chair.
I apologized, my habitual response to basically any statement spoken in my general direction. “I’m just really tired. I haven’t slept much.”
Kelsey nodded, giving me a look straight in the eyes that somehow told me that she completely understood. I didn’t need to explain. As if she could read my mind.
“I haven’t slept in my bed since Wednesday.” It was Tuesday. Again, she nodded, somehow on my wavelength. She did not ask me “Why?” or ask me to explain. She understood. I didn’t have to explain my ridiculous, irrational, insanely panicked brain to her. She got it. She heard me loud and clear, though I barely said anything at all.
“Do you want to come to art today?” She offered me. A gift.
Oftentimes when I have the courage to be vulnerable and share a struggle with someone, I am met with unwanted and unmerited feedback or advice. I am met with statements like, “Think positively, things could be worse.”
I am told, “Don’t be sad. Don’t be anxious. Don’t think like that.” Of course it is in my best interest, but friends and family want to fix my circumstances or offer solutions. However, most of the time, all I really need is someone to look straight into my eyes and say, “I see you. I hear you. I can’t change anything. I can’t fix anything. But I will sit right here with you so you are not facing this alone.”
When Kelsey met my obvious anxiety with, “Do you want to come to art today?” I could have cried in relief. Instead of talking through it, trying and failing to explain, or breaking down, she offered me a gift. An opportunity. A space to create. To get lost. To take care of myself in a way I knew best. She offered to let me attend art therapy group today, on a day my group doesn’t normally meet. She didn’t try to fix anything. She didn’t try to change what I was feeling. She saw me. She heard me. She understood. And she provided a safe environment to sit in.
I nodded. Yes, I would love to go to art today.
That afternoon, I walked to art with the blue team. I belonged on the red team with the other half of the girls residing at Renfrew. The twenty-so women at the facility were separated into red and blue teams for group scheduling and staffing purposes.
I sat across from Savannah, my roommate that first day of treatment. Kelsey handed us all paper, pens and pencils. She began to explain the concept of contour lines.
I remember my art teacher, Mrs. Lawrence, explaining contour drawing to our art class in the eighth grade. A contour drawing is composed of one singular line. The pen or pencil is never lifted from the paper until the drawing is complete.
A blind contour drawing is done without looking at the paper at all. A regular contour drawing can look very abstract, so blind contour drawings usually look exceptionally surreal.
With the first ten minutes or so, we all practiced contour drawings of our own hands. I tried to copy down each wrinkle in my knuckles onto the paper without lifting my pencil. As someone so keen on exact tiny details and shading, I never really enjoyed contour drawing. However, this project is easy to get lost in, focusing on each curve of the hand as one continuous line with no end.
Following this short practice, Kelsey drew our attention to the small standing cosmetic mirrors placed on the table. I had successfully pretended not even to notice the mirror placed nearest to my seat. My entire body was angled away, my back almost completely to it on the edge of the table.
Kelsey instructed us to study the lines of our faces in the mirror and copy them down onto the paper as one continuous contour line. At first, i remained angled away from the small mirror.
I felt as if the mirror and I were a set of magnets with the same pole, repelling one another the second we got close enough to line up. I couldn’t make eye contact with my reflection. Tears came to my eyes. I couldn’t look at myself.
I tried to continue drawing my hand and focus on the lines of my knuckles, but the usual internal messages began to berate me as I saw glimpses of my reflection. Even as I tried harder and harder to ignore the mirror, the messages grew louder.
“Gross. Nasty. Different.
I felt physically disgusted, my skin crawling. I jumped up from the seat and handed Kelsey my pencil. “I don’t feel well. I’m going to go lay down,” I told her as I placed the paper in the trash and rushed out the door with tears in my eyes. She nodded and told me that she was going to come check on me later.
The next day, Wednesday, Sarah and I walked together to our T-Stage group. This group was led by the Red Team Leader, Alissa, and was only composed of Sarah, Roseanne, and I.
The group was labeled “Mirror Exposure” on our schedules. As it was so rare for girls to make it all the way to T-Stage before discharge, I didn’t know what to expect from this group.
Sarah was to go first. Her assignment was to stand directly in front of the long mirror, about 5 inches away, and describe her reflection with neutrality. Roseanne, Alissa, and I sat on the couch a few feet behind the floor-length mirror as Sarah studied herself.
“I have black hair that reaches down to my shoulders. I have dark eyebrows above two eyes. My eyes are hazel..” she continued to describe her entire appearance from the top of her head to the tip of her toes. Alissa asked her to describe her legs a little more. Sarah squirmed as she focused in on her legs, trying to describe the size and shape with complete neutrality, which she glossed over on the first try.
Sarah sat down next to me, “I’m sweating,” she said.
I was sweating too. And shaking. I stood from the couch and walked a few steps over to the mirror for my turn. I let my eyes fall on my reflection, the first time I truly focused on myself in a mirror in I don’t even know how long.
A shock hit me as a voice in my head snarled, “Gross. I look like I haven’t showered or brushed my hair in days.” I looked worse than I thought I would. My unconcealed acne and scars looked angry. The strong Florida humidity, though it was late November, caused a layer of moisture to accumulate on my forehead, my upper lip, and my chin. The same words that surfaced from the momentary glimpse of my reflection in art group returned. Except now they were focused in, magnified, screaming at you.
DISGUSTING. GROSS. NASTY. DIFFERENT. HUGE.
I immediately wanted to look away. To turn around. To cover my face. To shield my appearance from the other women in the room. But I tried to remain neutral. “I have brown hair that um.. has a lot of volume.” I began, trying to describe the damaged, frizzy, unwashed, unbrushed hair that framed my face.
“I have two almond-shaped eyes that are blue.” I struggled to find words of unbiased, factual neutrality. No insults or opinions. I made it down to my shoulders, turned around, and sat back down on the couch next to Sarah. There was a heavy beat of silence as I choked for air and wiped the tears cascading down my cheeks.
“I’m sorry,” I offer to the silence.
“For what? What are you sorry for?” Alissa asked me.
Apologies are the only things I can choke out in the midst of tears, panic attacks, and break downs. “I don’t know.”
“Are you apologizing because you didn’t finish the exposure? Or think that you didn’t do it right or good enough?” She asked me. I’m sure that my apologies originated from these explanations. But I wasn’t at a place emotionally where I could calmly contemplate this.
“I guess. I don’t know,” I said again as I continued to cry and gasp for air as if I was breathing through a thin coffee straw.
“When is the last time you looked in the mirror for that long?” Alissa asked me.
I paused for another beat. I shook my head.
“So a pretty long time?” she asked.
During shifts at the HPER working as a student manager, I was required to do regular, hourly building walk throughs to ensure everyone was being safe, the facility was clean, and everything was in an orderly manner. My last semester working there, I can remember stopping into each and every women’s restroom to check my reflection. I’d stand there staring at myself for up to ten minutes, analyzing every angle of my reflection trying to see if I looked smaller. If I looked like I lost weight. I’d stop in front of the floor-to-ceiling glass windows, checking every curve, my stomach, my legs, the tightness of my pants. Compulsively obsessing over my body. Memorizing. Trying to shrink, to hide, to tuck away any imperfection. Not small enough. Huge. Disgusting. Do more. Weigh Less. Too much. Not enough. I repeated these things in my mind. Over. And over. And over.
Until I didn’t even recognize the reflection any more. No longer did I look into a mirror and see Olivia. I saw shame and guilt and fat and judgement and torment. I saw the criticisms I heard in my mind, that I heard on tv, that I heard from others. I compared and contrasted until my reflection had no human resemblance. I saw the girl people pushed around and manipulated. The girl who made mistakes and failed. The face staring back at me in the mirror was a foreign entity that I had classically conditioned myself to despise and to torture.
Why do we need a mirror? What is it able to tell us that we don’t already know?
It’s not the mirror’s fault. This silent surveyor offers no judgement, just a reflection. It’s our minds that turn this flat, inanimate object into a judge presiding over us. Our minds, dragged along in the swift cultural current of beauty standards and thin ideal, believing the programming: it’s the shape of us that determines how we fit into this world/it’s the size of us that defines our impact and worth.
What do we need from this reflection of ourselves? What secret message is lodged in that glass we work so diligently to extract? Calling us to ever-constant glancing, checking, peering. Preoccupation!
How did the mirror become the enemy? Simply offering a colorful image is no crime.
What is the source of the sinister voice that sometimes whispers but often shouts: ” What you see is black and white, good or bad, worthy or unworthy, right or wrong, failure or success.” Always two extremes, never a middle ground.
– @lizbrinkman_rd on Instagram
Simply offering a colorful image is no crime. There was a point in time, dating back to my sophomore year in college, that I could describe to you the biological processes that involved an eyeball registering a reflection in a mirror. The neurons firing and sending images to the brain, other neurons firing in return, comprehending, sending more messages. Light, color, image, all the things. Science. Whatever. I definitely cannot explain it to you now. Honestly I probably couldn’t explain it back then either, reflecting on the grade of a C on my transcript sitting next to Human Physiology.
It’s complicated science. But I’ve made it even more complicated by associating this image of myself, reflected in an inanimate object, a glass surface, as having any definition of myself as a human being.