The Last Time I Looked in the Mirror.
When was the last time you looked in the mirror? Not just a quick look to make sure that there’s nothing on your face or in your teeth or that your hair is in place before you run out the door, but really stopped and looked at yourself. Do you recognize the person that’s looking back at you? Do you like what you see?
I’ve been avoiding mirrors for a while now because I don’t recognize that woman anymore and don’t like what I see.
When I was really sick, about five years ago, I lost 30 pounds in a month. I was only eating soup and protein shakes at the time and often couldn’t even keep those down. When I started getting better and physically healthier again, I gained a little of the weight back, but not enough to really matter much. I didn’t like my body at the time, but I was okay enough with it to not be obsessed with my weight and how I looked because of it.
When we moved to the Santa Barbara area, I was struggling severely with my mental health and during a manic episode that lasted for months, I dove head first into power yoga, obsessively so. I didn’t know that I was manic at the time, I only knew that I felt good, had lots of energy, and wasn’t depressed. And I was positive that if I stopped, even for a day, I would relapse into a severe, suicidal depression and I wasn’t about to go there again. Despite the fact that my body couldn’t handle it in the long run, I kept pushing myself. Mania tends to hide the pain that I normally feel on a daily basis, much like taking pain pills for a knee injury and continuing to run on it. I even enrolled in yoga teacher training where I often took several classes a day in addition to practicing at home. I looked physically healthier and stronger than I had been in a really long time (as others also told me when they saw me or saw pictures of me), and I was, but I couldn’t see it myself and my mind was a mess.
When the pandemic hit and we were at home all the time, I obviously couldn’t go to yoga classes anymore. I practiced some with online classes and finished my yoga teacher training by the skin of my teeth, but then the mania abruptly stopped and with the depression that came next I stopped doing yoga altogether.
I gained about fifteen pounds of pandemic weight, but in my eyes, I saw way more than that when I looked in the mirror. Once I saw this I just stopped looking.
Despite all the precautions that I was taking as someone with a chronic illness and autoimmune conditions I still managed to get COVID last January, from one of two doctors’ offices that I visited and had to take my mask off at (I know this because I didn’t go anywhere else at the time and no one else in my family had it). I was sick for about a month. I didn’t eat much and almost had to be hospitalized. I lost some weight again.
I got better, started eating again and gained the weight back. Then somehow caught a stomach virus and again, I was somehow the only person in my family who had it (maybe because my fucking body can’t fight off anything???). That knocked me out for another month, so I lost some more weight. Then I gained it back when I started eating again.
Last September there was a pretty big rupture in my newly reconciled marriage that almost shut the whole thing down overnight. Needless to say, my body and mind didn’t react well at all. I had to make an emergency medication change to stay out of the hospital and without any other changes to my diet or exercise habits, I gained 18 pounds in less than a month and haven’t been able to lose it since.
I currently weigh 238 pounds. I weigh more now than I’ve ever weighed in my life. More than when I was pregnant with either of my kids. And now that bloated body and face are all that I can see when I look in the mirror.
I try to convince myself and my therapist and my partner even, that it’s not my appearance that bothers me, that it’s how my body feels. And this is true to a point, my body feels awful. It’s harder to do everything like this, picking things up, washing my legs and feet in the shower, just moving at all takes so much more effort and maybe if my body felt better I wouldn’t be bothered so much by my appearance.
For a while I followed all the body positive celebrities and influencers on Instagram. I try to be grateful to my body for what she has gotten me through to this point. The beautiful babies that she brought into the world. The illness and trauma that she has survived. I try to reclaim the word fat as just being what it is and not something shameful. I try to refer to my bulging stomach as my big, beautiful belly. I try. But when I look in the mirror, all I can see is a fat slob.
I know that the pandemic aged all of us and a lot of us gained weight. But I haven’t moved past that. At all.
I haven’t seen a lot of friends for several years. Yes, because of the pandemic, yes there are components of my mental and physical health that have played a big part in that too, but I’m also ashamed of how I look. I don’t want people that previously saw me in a physically healthier state, even people that I know love me and don’t care about how I look, to see how overweight I am now. I’m ashamed. I feel like a failure and I just want to hide myself and my body from the world.
I’m convinced though that obesity in and of itself is a mental illness. Or at the very least is caused by a mental illness. There are contributors like physical illness, medication and genetics of course. But it has absolutely nothing to do with willpower in any way shape or form. And I’m tired of beating myself up about it and having others, including my own, world-renowned UCLA doctors put me down as if I’m just too weak and lazy to change my diet and lifestyle habits for the betterment of my body and health. Firstly, I do follow those dietary guidelines (I have a lot going on with my body and am on a pretty strict regimen because of it), but when I’m sick exercise is just not within my realm of control. Secondly, while I don’t expect sympathy, some compassion and empathy would be much more helpful than the constant reminders of how high my BMI is and the suggestions that I should get weight loss surgery.
A couple nights ago, I saw the film The Whale. I don’t think I really have the words to describe how powerful it really was. If you haven’t seen it, the main character, Charlie, lived alone and cut off from the world because he was too hurt to live with the reality of his partners loss, the guilt of leaving his daughter, the shame of having let himself go and the fear of anyone finding out how he looked and lived.
It was a somewhat familiar story to me because I had a neighbor for a several years who was in a very similar situation to Charlie. She didn’t live alone, she had her husband, but she did cut herself off from the world for reasons that she never shared with me. Eventually the shame of having let herself go and the fear of anyone finding out how she looked and lived kept her from engaging in the world at all too. At the time, we were the only people who set foot inside of their house and even that was only because of an emergency that she let us in to begin with.
I didn’t understand at the time how a person could get to that place. I had compassion and empathy for her, but I still couldn’t wrap my head around it. I can now though.
In Charlie and in my old neighbor, I see myself. The hurt, the guilt, the fear, the shame. I feel that. I can’t deal with the hurt that certain people in the world have caused me. I feel guilty for not being a better mother to my children. I am ashamed to let people see me as I am now. I understand completely their being where they are/were. And their lived realities and deaths are my fear. I’m afraid that the rest of my life and my death will be much like that. Alone and afraid for the world to see me.
But I’m wasting my life.
It’s true that I can’t control how often I get sick or what my mind does. I can’t control how my body looks, but this is my only body. And this body is just a shell after all. All that I have control over is learning how to live in this body, not being ashamed of it and learning to love it just as it is. I just have to get that through my head.
The words that come to me after reading your incredibly open and revealing article might sound a little like cliches. But I mean them. You are loved. You deserve love. You are accepted by all the people who matter. You are a beautiful human being. And you are a conscientious, resourceful, and loving mom and a devoted and inspiring writer. None of these wonderful qualities depend on a particular number on the scale.
Beyond these affirmations, I would add that whenever thin people, be they doctors or others, act like it's a straightforward matter to lose weight, well, they don't know what they are talking about. They are smug and callous. This condescending, hurtful attitude reminds me of how many affluent people talk about folks who are struggling to make ends meet. Deep down, many of the affluent feel that their good fortune has not come to them by the grace of God but rather strictly from their own virtue. It is not fashionable to admit outright to this kind of self-righteousness, but so many well-off individuals--along with notably thin and fit people--communicate arrogance implicitly.
In any case, you are a person of great dignity. I hope you can allow yourself to hold your head up high and receive the respect and love that is your due.
All my best wishes,
Raw truth. Thank you for sharing. Have you read Hilary Mantell’s (author of the amazing historical Wolf Hall trilogy) memoir Giving up the Ghost? It’s not long, but so beautifully written about her dysfunctional family background and the terrible distress of losing control of her body to the ravages of illness and medications.
Sending love while you tenderly nurture yourself.