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.



mdickson said...

Wow Les- your writing touches the soul❤️

cindy hattersley design said...

Leslie you must right s book. Have you thought about it? For yourself and for others. This to me was one of your best works. Seriously you should do it. This was powerful

La Contessa said...

I recently looked in the MIRROR and MY EYELIDS were sitting on top of my EYES!I was horrified!I had even spoken about it recently on the blog.However, now days later they were ALL THE WAY DOWN!All I could think of was this is 60 years old!
I tried to tell THE ITALIAN but he didn't get it!!I told him YOU WILL NEVER SEE MY EYESHADOW AGAIN!
Not that I am wearing much if any make up these days!!!


I have a video I watched yesterday on a woman in FRANCE she is AMERICAN and her make up routine.......I will send to YOU!
I wrote down EVERY PRODUCT and was surprised I could find HERE IN THE USA!
Some of it is en-route to me NOW!Mostly skincare............I WILL LET YOU KNOW!
THATS what 60 has given me a better SKINCARE ROUTINE.I use a BALM first to cleanse than an oil cleanser........what a difference!

I am ready to JUMP on a PLANE and come take you to dinner!

Unknown said...

I have been a long time follower of your blog. When you wrote about losing your son I thought how I couldn't even imagine the pain and sadness you must be feeling. Now, I do know that pain and sadness. I lost my son in January. Your words could be my words. Most days I just feel overwhelmed trying to accept this new reality. My chest aches and I have trouble breathing. Grief is changing me. I don't know who I am anymore.
Thank you for writing what many are going through.

Nancy St. George said...

So beautifully written as usual. Thank you Gwen for your honesty and emotion.

Dewena said...

I wish we could all have the sensitivity of your dermatologist with someone who is hurting badly. It is important for all of us for you and others to walk us through what life has been like since unspeakable losses. We need to hear it and I hope that it does help for you to have written it down, although my heart breaks for you while reading and thinking of a mother's loss.

Art and Sand said...

My accident doesn't come near to what you experienced with Patrick.

But, this post has helped me. The line about trauma being what happens inside you was exactly what I experienced. Instantly I became a little old lady. I am old, but I looked so much older. And healing was a long slow process.

In June my daughter-in-law gave me her old Apple watch. I started using it to get myself moving again. And by then, I was able to go for a good walk without needing to sit down to rest. With my Pilates gym closed, I looked for YouTube workouts. I have only missed one day of workouts in 6 weeks. I don't do them until about 10:30 pm, but I look forward to them all day. I now feel strong and I am super active once again. I average over 13,000 steps each day.

And I was finally able to get a haircut. I will be 72 in a few months. I March I felt and looked my age. Now I'm feeling fit and having fun.

So thank you for making me reflect on this past year and know that I will be fine and around to enjoy the little girl that is going to be born within the next few hours.

Kim said...

Leslie, every time I read one of your posts, I want to give you a big hug. You are so right about looking for ourselves in a one dimensional mirror. Why do we do that? You are a beautiful soul, and I love that you never even used the cream she gave you.

Elizabeth@ Pine Cones and Acorns said...

Leslie, every time I see a post from your I wish I had known your beautiful Patrick. Your words while painful to read are like a balm for many, not just those who have lost someone but those of us who have suffered a trauma. I second Cindy's comment, you should, no you NEED to write a book. You are an incredible writer, I've always thought so and I think that your grief and healing, and moving forward could help so many.

My friend you are an amazing woman, although you may have wanted to, you did not curl up in a ball and stop living, you put one foot in front of the other and you continued to live, you went to look for your neighbor or friends cats, I cannot remember which, you remodeled your bathroom, you continued to work and to be there for your husband, parents and your son Michael, all the while writing and sharing the life, love and legacy of Patrick. Your words are powerful Leslie and so are you, I know that your posts help someone each and every time you write one.

Take care, sending you a big hug my friend.

Linda @ Itsy Bits And Pieces said...

Leslie, this is such a beautiful insightful, real, and honest. There have been times in my life that trauma (especially physical trauma) have left me unrecognizable to myself. I feel as though in those times, I was so drawn inside myself. I looked so hollow and empty. Now, I feel as though my physical looks are such a roadmap of my journey...and I see the beauty of it. You are a beautiful soul, sweet friend.

Karen said...

This openness from you touches my heart every time I read your words. I cannot imagine the difficult times of your journey and I would think they never end but you sound better and I'm happy about that. You always share something in your story that all of us can learn from and use. What a wonderful doctor to speak the truth and help you realize you didn't need anything done to your beautiful and kind face.
Best to you and your family and keep writing when you feel you want to, I so appreciate your stories (both personal and the more frivolous ones about your home :-))

Melanie said...

Your writing - your sharing of your raw self - always breaks my heart open a little bit more. This is unbelievably beautiful. And so are you.


Melanie said...

PS - I also meant to say, that doctor was one of the most compassionate I've heard of. What a blessing that you found her.

And Gabor Nate...I knew the name rang a bell and when I looked him up, saw he's the author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. It's a book on addiction. I ordered it many years ago, soon after Phil passed away, but I never read it. I had no idea he also specialized in trauma. I need to read more on his website.

brenda murphy said...

Beautiful you are.

Leslie Harris said...

Dear Unknown,

I have no way to get hold of you but I wanted to
thank you so much for leaving a comment and sharing the loss of your precious son.
I've been thinking about you ever since I read your comment. You mentioned that you are struggling with your grief and I wanted to let you know if you need some extra support that you can email me at
I am so sorry for the pain that you are in.

Kb4given said...

I loved this. You nailed the description of so many things i went through too. I felt invisible but didn't care. No mascara, etc. You're a talented writer and your experience and grief journey is one many can relate to unfortunately, but can be helped to feel they can get through. But this is exactly what helps each other. Coming alongside us. God Bless.

Jeannine said...

Dear Unknown - please know you are not alone in your deep grief. I lost my oldest son 4 years ago - sometimes it seems like yesterday. I hope you have support in your life. Email me if you need an ear from someone who is living the loss of a son -

Loree said...

Very beautifully written, and thank you for reminding us to look beyond the outward appearance. Sometimes we get stuck on our lines and wrinkles but, very often, we have to heal from the inside out.

Mary Ann Pickett said...

Leslie, your writing is so truthful and raw. It seems wisdom is one of your outcomes from this unimaginable tragedy. Sending a hug.

Unknown said...

Nothing I've ever read describes my own trauma as well as what you've written here. Because my 24 yr old daughter survived her 2017 car accident, (with lifelong severe compromises to her health) I can never fully understand everything that you feel. But, thank-you. I so appreciate that you were able to put into words all the churning mess that lived, and maybe still lives inside me. -Elle

Ginger said...

Your writing touches my soul. The journey you’re on is unimaginable yet you describe it with such clarity and grace. Thank you for sharing. Sending you love.

marishanon said...

I just stumbled on your post through another blogger link and your words have certainly touched me. They so hit home to where I am in the grief process right now after losing my husband in April. I really didn't have the words to describe. Thank you for your insight and reminder this is a journey.

kim at northerncalstyle. said...

This is so hard to even read what you are going through. I cannot imagine. I'm so glad that doctor listened to you and understood what you didn't need. I hope you are taking care. Thank you for sharing this. You're in my thoughts and prayers. Kim

Sheepskinsandfairylights said...

Oh my goodness, Leslie, such a raw post, honest and full of emotion, so much love and respect for you and I'm so glad you were treated with such kindness. Love vikki XxXx

Stonecropsister said...

Hi Leslie,
Such hope and empathy in those words “you just need to heal”. I am always so grateful when you reach out to us and share through your writing. Arms around you girl. Xx Nancy

Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction said...

I am so glad that you saw just the right doctor at that time---one who told you what you actually needed to hear, not just how to "fix" your problems. Thanks for sharing your story.

Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

Blondie's Journal said...

I picked up so many small nuances in your recounting of the night out with your friends and your ultimate visit with the dermatologist. And of course, your writings on all of your experiences in the aftermath of losing Patrick are always something I read and feel an ache in my heart each and every time

I could sense a thread, at least from your choice of words. You described your friend in glowing terms, along with the info that she had had cosmetic surgery, as tasteful as it was, you indicated it made you feel that you had let yourself "go" after your loss. And then you give the physical description of the doctor... minimal makeup, some lipstick. There was some sort of message there. I'm not even going to try to dissect what was going on in your head/writing here, but in my own, somewhat relatable experiences, we go through trauma, events, loss, depression, and we wear it on our face, sometimes like a flag that says, "Go ahead and judge me! You have no idea what I've been through." Your kind doctor knew you needed nothing more than something to heal your skin from the irritation the salt of your tears had made. To me, it's a healing time for you rather than a desire bring about a level of maintenance-high or low.

Oh girl, I could talk with you forever about how I am so screwed up with how my outside is in a constant battle with the inside.

If I can say anything, keep healing in all ways. Be kind to yourself. Put on some bright red lipstick once in awhile (even though it will just smear under our masks!). For laughs. And maybe one day do yourself up from that old Playbook to feel familiar in your own skin again. Do you think lipstick sales are down?

Love, love, love😘


mollie's mom said...

Oh, Leslie. First, you share this excruciating event in your life in such an amazing way. A way that makes me think - I do not have the same painful loss to grieve over but we all have loss (on a sliding scale I think) that hollows us out or makes us feel faded or lost.The way that you share your path touches my heart. Second, I am inspired by a doctor who looked past her "specialty" and into the deeper problem. How encouraging and hopeful for all of us.
Stay well friend. Marcie

Unknown said...

Hi Leslie,
sometimes on my ipad, for WHATEVER reason, i have trouble signing in to google in order to leave a comment, so i feel bad that i didn't check back to make sure my comment went through, so you would know that i came, saw, read, and left a virtual hug. my comment is that those simple words of "you just need to heal" -- it was just so powerful, kind, and coming from a doctor, amazing. it was like a blessing, someone saying, allow yourself the time it is going to take to deal, to grieve, to be. It is such a rare thing to hear. Sometimes when life is hard, i picture this BIG bed in an outdoor space, with water running around it, and white bedding, and soft mattress, and a person helping me into it, and covering me up, and all with the knowledge that i can stay there as long as i need to. i hope your days have moments of white bedding (that's so weird, omg, but i do love a soft place when life is just unbearable). love ya. xx Nancy

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