When I look in the mirror I see myself. Sometimes when I’m anxious and unmedicated the psychosis comes back. But mostly when I look in the mirror I see myself.
My therapist asks me, again and again, ‘What do you see? What’s there?’
I tell her it’s bad. All bad. My hips are too narrow. My thighs too close. My shoulders too wide. My arms too flabby. Everything is too something.
‘I could go on forever,’ I tell her. And she makes me stop.
I tell one psychologist that I spend too long looking in the mirror. It holds me up in the morning. It makes me late.
‘How long?’ she asks.
I guess and tell her twenty minutes, but the truth is it could be hours. Days. Weeks. Time doesn’t work the same in front of the mirror. Time doesn’t exist.
‘How long did you spend this morning?’
‘Ten minutes,’ I guess.
She makes me stand and she stands too. She sets a timer on her phone for ten minutes and looks ahead of her at the wall.
I look around the room. It has a general dusty feeling which, for some reason, makes it more comfortable. Makes me mind less that I sit on the same seat as hundreds of others already have. On the window sill are a few rocks, a clock stuck on 10.20 and a framed picture of a shoreline. The walls are painted a peach colour that’s been faded by the sun. There are two pieces of abstract art that are bright and full of strange, angular shapes. On the wall to my left, a large, double sheet hangs loosely over what I can only guess are the harsh edges of a full-length mirror. I wish she’d just pull the sheet off. Let’s do this for real.
I know it never leads to anything good but I want so badly to watch myself. The same way people go looking for scabs to pick or pimples to pop. They know it’ll make it worse but there’s something cathartic about it. We squeeze and pick and jab at the bad parts. That’s what we do.
When the timer goes, she lets me sit.
‘Do you really spend that long?’
‘I think so,’ I say.
‘It’s a long time,’ she says. Like I didn’t already know that. Like it’s not why I’m here.
I talk to a girl who is also sick. It’s easier to say sick than anorexic. Fewer people turn red at the word sick. Fewer people walk away. The girl and I receive treatment at the same place.
‘Apparently,’ she tells me, ‘it’s a change in the receiving images part of your brain.’
Neither of us are nourished enough to have functioning memories but we fill in the gaps with any words we can find.
She continues: ‘So what you see in the mirror isn’t actually what’s there. And the more you starve yourself, the more your brain gets it wrong. Because the food isn’t helping your brain function. That’s why you’re not happy with it. That’s why you always want to look smaller even when you get there.’
We decide that it’s strange and creepy and definitely impossible that what we see isn’t real. How could our own brain lie about the facts?
‘But how does it start?’ I ask her, pretending to believe, just for a little.
If at one point in our lives we’re eating well then how does your brain tell you the first lie? Why?
Neither of us has the answer so we decide this proves the theory wrong.
When I get bad enough, when my temperature starts to drop and my heart starts to fail, I go into in-patient treatment for the first time. There are only six beds and a few day-patient slots but it seems as though the room is filled with millions of people who are thinner than me. Everywhere I look there is a more delicate wrist. More prominent cheek bones. Smaller thighs. There are no full-length mirrors but I don’t need one to know how I look.
In group therapy, everyone talks about how they’re the fattest one in the room and everyone else gets mad that no one can see it’s actually them. I mostly stay quiet and try not to let anyone see me cry. I look down and see my thighs and look up and see theirs. Half the size of mine. There is no lie. There is what I see because that is what is there.
Now, years later and a whole 19 months without in-patient treatment or hospital, I am well. My heart passes all the tests. I eat my dinner every night. And I still look in the mirror. I removed the full-length one from my room but there are three others in the house. It’s a short walk from my room to any of them.
Sometimes when I’m home alone I’ll stand in my underwear, like I used to, in front of the mirror in my mother’s room. Time puddles around me and all there is is me. And my thighs. My arms. My shoulders. My hips. I pull and push and prod at the parts I don’t like – at all of it. I shift my weight, change my posture, turn this way and that. I always see the same. Because the same is always there.
When I look in the mirror I see myself.