I AM LYING TO YOU
I write the words boldly across my bathroom mirror in primary colored window markers. It’s a futile effort and I know this. I know that at some point between my first and five hundredth chance past the looking-glass, the words will no longer have meaning. No longer have spirit or substance. Soon they will disappear altogether. Fold into themselves and slide seamlessly into the kaleidoscope of eating disorder distortion.
The phenomenon of the fun-house mirror is one that baffles and frustrates the professionals who treat those suffering from ED’s, as well as those who love them. There are theories. Chief among them include chemical imbalance and nutritional deprivation of the brain. Science might not have a substantive explanation in 2011, but I can tell you from my own experience, that the torment is absolute.
When I was in treatment for anorexia, this became a big sticking point with me. The idea that what I viewed was nothing like what everyone else saw was unthinkable. I could not be convinced otherwise . My primary therapist made an appointment for me to have a “Body Image 1:1” session. Whatever that meant. What it meant…would change everything. The room I entered was sparse. A chair. A spool of ribbon. A pair of scissors. The therapist explained my simple task. I was to estimate the circumference of my waist and then cut a piece of ribbon to size. I would lay it on the chair in a circle and then the therapist would use another ribbon to actually measure my waist, and place her circle next to or inside (I smirk here) mine. We’d compare. We’d see how solid my perception was. I got it. The assumption. That I’d guess too big, see that I’m smaller, and have a revelation. But my reservation was palpable. “What if I guess too small?”, I agitated. I couldn’t imagine anything more horrific at the time than finding out that I’m actually bigger than I’d imagined. The therapist calmly responded,”In all of my years doing this exercise, that has never happened. You would be the first.” She was resolute, but I couldn’t help thinking that I would be the first. I’d mistakenly amplify my own abundance and ruin her perfect record, effectively ending her career.
I took my time handling that ribbon. I even laid it down a few times and wrapped my hands snugly around my middle to ensure accuracy. Eventually, I placed my ribbon on the chair. I was certain that, had I wanted, I could use that ribbon for a belt, so faultless were its proportions. I nodded to the therapist. Her turn. I stood very still and prayed for a natural disaster as I felt the ribbon wind around me. She ended up doing this a few times. In the end,within my original globe, she was able to fit three of her measurements. I was inexplicably angry. I snatched up one of the smaller strips to measure myself, determined to catch her in a lie. Not a lie. There it was. I had been super-sizing myself. Times three. Here was the manifestation of my illness that I couldn’t deny any longer. So I knew I had better not.
Here’s what I still don’t understand. Why me? And WHY, when I know it’s a lie, can I not see the truth? Will I ever? It’s a desperate question that nobody is able to answer me with any certainty. Two full years out of inpatient treatment and I must battle the reflective beast daily never knowing what I might be up against. I might have expanded two sizes overnight. Or during the course of a day. Or an hour. My long-suffering husband, my patient dietitian, even the scale (yes, I have one and no, I absolutely should not) are powerless to convince me that nothing has changed. Because I know what I SEE. I tell myself not to lose sight of what I learned with the ribbons.
I caught my young son eyeballing my bathroom artwork one afternoon, his little face screwed up in consternation. “LYING,” he informed me, ” is a bad word.” Natch. Now he decided to start listening to me. As I’m sponging off the offensive graffiti, I am surprised by a visit from my thirteen year old daughter who usually has a powerful aversion to even the slightest scent of anything clean. On this occasion, I suppose her curiosity overrode her trepidation of household chores. “What did it mean, Mom?” I’m shamefully dismissive. “Just an Ed thing.” She chews on that for a moment. “Is it like..when people look in the mirror and see themselves one way..when they’re really not that way at all?” Succinct. And as sound a gloss as I’ve ever heard from any pretentious PhD. “It’s exactly like that, honey.” “But why did you need it? Are you okay?” “Of course I am. Sometimes I just need the reminder, that’s all.” We leave the conversation there. I feel that she probably understands far more than a girl of her age should.
The next morning , as I’m preparing to castigate and condemn my reflected image, I see a new message printed across the streaky remnants of its predecessor. In young teen scrawl, the cheerful paint assures me :
NO MATTER WHAT I TELL YOU YOU’RE BEAUTIFUL
…….I’ve probably lost myself in hundreds of mirrors throughout my life. They’ve screamed obscenities at me, aimed their sharpest barbs at my innermost insecurities. Whether I was broken by the message in the mirror, or left temporarily weakened, an injurious message of any kind was inevitable. Until now. My own daughter was able to defang my lifelong adversary. I’ll probably always see a lie when it comes to my body image in the mirror. But I do know the truth. That the mirror thinks I’m beautiful no matter what. It told me so. That’s the message I take with me. That’s the one I keep.