Thursday, August 27, 2020

the face you see in the mirror

In the beginning it felt like I was groping in the dark.

Nights were the worst. I had to take half a blue pill from the over-the-counter-bottle on my nightstand to make sure I was deep in sleep, before the clock crept into the vicinity of Patrick’s car crash. Breaking the blue pill in two was my nightly ritual. It was my protection, in case I happened to wake up anytime near the hour of the accident--- and my mind would become hostage to a relentless cycle of horror-gazing, as I played out the final details of my son’s life, all the while being brutalized by my imagined scenes of the accident.

I consider it the mental version of hell, and depending on my sleepiness, I could be suspended there for hours.

I didn’t get much relief in the mornings either.

In those months I would wake with the pressing weight of an elephant on my chest, struggling to breathe while those first anguished thoughts of the morning, which were always about Patrick, rolled over me like a Mack truck. 

Turns out, when you’re lying in bed staring at the ceiling, and your heart is being pulverized from within, the worst part isn’t even the pain. It’s the realization that there is absolutely no where you can go for relief. Nowhere to escape this new and horrifying reality that cannot be changed.

Did I mumble prayers? Did I drag myself into therapy sessions? Did my survival brain help me with numbness? Yes, yes and yes.

But this was a free-fall into a no-man’s land that I had never encountered before, because I had never felt so deeply traumatized.

I think that’s why I kept writing, too exhausted to open my laptop, I would simply jot down fragments of thoughts into my iPhone at all hours, day or night. If I felt lost and shivering inside a black forest these harried notes to myself were the tiny bread crumbs I left behind, in the hopes that someday I would find my way out of this unbelievable nightmare.
Of course, back then I had never heard of Gabor Mate, the international expert on trauma, who eventually helped me put words to my experience, albeit after the fact.

  • Trauma is not what happens to you.
  • Trauma is what happens inside you as a result of what happens to you. 
  • Trauma results in a disconnection of the Self.

It’s only now can I look back at those post-traumatic months and recognize the ways that this disconnect with my physical body showed up in my life. 
One evening Jim, Michael and I met an old family friend, with his wife and daughters at a loud, crowded pizza joint, and I remember how excited the wife was about the results of her recent plastic surgery. We sat together and talked. And although I had never noticed them before, I complimented her new eyelids.

I smiled and sipped my diet coke and I told her how great she looked because she did. Trim waist, a boob job from years ago, that still looked natural. Cute outfit. She was as sweet as ever but suddenly I remembered I had no mascara on (I’d stopped wearing it because of my crying) and oh yeah, I honestly could give a shit about what I was wearing.  As the evening wore on—amid the laughter and conversation at the table, I began to feel miles away from this kind, pretty wife, who seemed to be living a life I used to have.

I felt sure she noticed this new hollowed-out version of me and later that night in the parking lot saying our goodbyes, I remember it distinctly. That moment I first began to suspect that I was becoming unrecognizable to others. Yes, I mean physically and I know that sounds weird, but now I understand ---it emerged out of this strange disconnect I was feeling with my body. I guess I thought if I didn’t recognize myself, why would anyone else?

Soon after this evening--and only several months after we lost Patrick--I somehow mustered enough energy to make an appointment with a cosmetic dermatologist in Newport Beach. Nagged by the dryness around my eyes and my apathy about my disappearing looks— (shouldn’t I care that people won’t recognize me? Answer: not really)-- I had hopes that this physician would miraculously restore me back to normal. 
While I sat in the waiting room flipping through the pages of beautifully, photoshopped women inside the Vogue magazines, strewn over a glass coffee table, I searched for the dates of each edition. Before September 2018 meant Patrick was still here. And I could close my eyes and pretend I was back in time. After September 2018 signaled tragedy. A shocking turn of events I still couldn’t believe.

Inside the exam room I was pleasantly surprised to meet a fresh-faced dermatologist with little make-up, except for lipstick. When she asked me why I was there, I didn’t see how I could avoid telling her about Patrick, but I dreaded it. In those days my tears would spill out uncontrollably. This was my new normal. One minute I’d be talking mid-sentence—and then crying, then I’d stop, and continue talking.

I was always amazed that the person I was talking to at the time, rarely showed a reaction.
As I told her my story, I watched her move across the room and grab a box of Kleenex, keeping a few for her own tears before handing me the box.

Next, she held the biggest magnifying mirror I had ever seen up to my face and said, 
“Tell me what you see.”
Boom, just like that, it was the mirror and me under the brash lights.
And wow. I didn’t expect to feel so exposed. I lifted my eyes to the mirror in slow motion, afraid that all I would see was my broken heart and this made me feel like crying again. My god, I was so fragile.
She moved the mirror closer to my face, her dark eyes watching me, but once I looked at my reflection it got easier. Focus on the enemy. The puffy lids. The dry patches around my eyes. Oh. What about my lines? Once I got started, I kept going until I finished with a vague accusation of, “I just look so old.” 

She responded instantly.

“No, that’s not what I see. All I see is the natural result of daily tears.” 
She went on to explain about tear ducts, and composition of tears and the effects on skin but I was only half listening. I was waiting for my miracle cream.

“Ok. Now show me where you look so old. What wrinkles are you talking about?” She was waiting.

Whoa. I don’t know what I expected, but this wasn’t it. And this second look into the mirror was much harder. All I saw when I looked at my face was skin, brittle from shock and sorrow— in full display. My eyes were deep pools of grief. Whatever beauty I might have had once, was gone. And at that moment I truly believed that I would never look the same again. 

She watched me point to different parts of my face and then she put the mirror down and shook her head. 

“You don’t even need fillers,” she said, while she opened a white cabinet and began scouring through samples of creams in the drawer. 

“You just need to heal.” 

She handed me a prescription for a cream I never used, gave me a hug and walked out of the room.

Well. That was seventeen months ago. And sometimes you have to look back—to see how far you’ve come. 

I’ve learned a lot about healing since that afternoon appointment in Newport Beach. But when I think about that experience, what stands out to me, was how powerful it felt to look into the mirror in the presence of an observer--and have my reality challenged.

That image of us we see in the mirror? It's always going to be affected by the emotions and thoughts streaming through us at that moment.
But this is what I know. 
We are all beautiful souls living our lives inside these human bodies. 
Aspire to remember this truth when you go looking for yourself inside a one-dimensional mirror.
Surround yourself with people—like this female physician-- who insist on seeing the beautiful and eternal You that’s always there beneath the surface—even during those painful times when you can’t see her.
It will feel like love.


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