The monster in the mirror — that’s what I’ve named my eating disorder and the deeply-rooted abyss of self-beratement that drives it.
This particular monster feeds on uncertainty. It can decide to be benevolent or cruel on any given day. It thrives on the knowledge that I never know what to expect when I hesitantly peer, wincing slightly in anticipation and dread, through the looking glass.
Will I get the flat-out lie or the lofty illusion? Or, the truth that exists somewhere in between?
The monster can add a good twenty pounds to my reflection, or subtract the same amount. It can increase or decrease my perception of my age by decades.
It does these things through the sheer force of my imagination and the strength of my fickle mind.
Because of course, the monster in the mirror is me.
Some days I see what I suppose must be the truth of the matter, at least based on what other people tell me — a reasonably average, slightly attractive, not-actually-deformed 47-year-old. I smile at myself during those moments and breathe a sigh of relief.
I can go to work, to the grocery store, out with my husband, after all. Maybe people won’t wonder what he sees in me. I won’t make them laugh or run away screaming.
It sounds extreme, but I know what lurks behind the shadows, around the corners, and I cling like a child to the moments when I can keep the darkness at bay.
Ten minutes later, without warning, I have a different face. Fading, drooping, crumbling with the gravity of time. Each flaw is laser-sharp and oh-so-familiar. The lines, the sags, crooked teeth, thin lips, age spot on my left cheekbone. Double hips, saddlebags, muffin top, bat wings.
I mentally fling the insults toward the mirror, one by one. I only dare to utter them aloud when I’ve had too much to drink, spitting them at myself with a violent hiss behind the closed bathroom door. I don’t have to be drunk to think them, though, to allow their poison to silently saturate me.
When you’re in recovery, particularly the early stages, it’s hard to let your guard down. You ALWAYS feel like you’re working. Constant vigilance is required.
I’ve been toiling at this for just over a year, and I’m getting better. Better, at least, at the eating part of my eating disorder. Binges are few and far between. I rarely make myself vomit.
Exercise, which used to be my purge of choice has been transformed into a truly healthy habit, for the first time ever.
I still have a powerful urge to diet, but that’s to be expected after engaging in disordered eating patterns for almost 40 years. I know I’m happier and healthier learning how to eat intuitively, so I don’t go down the path of restriction much anymore, even when I feel desperate about my weight, which is frequently.
But the body dysmorphia, the self-loathing, whatever’s at the root of the disorder itself? Not such a quick fix. It’s always lurking.
It finds me at my office, at the baseball game, at the rock concert, even at the symphony. Anyplace I might interact with the young, the beautiful, and especially the slender. It threatens every day of my life, every good time I might have. I can’t let my guard down. I know what’s at stake.
Relaxation creates the risk of slipping.
Slips turn into spirals. Spirals turn into vortexes. Vortexes turn into black holes of doom and despair. Too many extra pounds that exercise can’t mitigate, due to mindless eating and middle-aged hormones. A hotel room in Canada, hollowly staring at myself in the mirror around midnight, eyeing my belt and wondering what it would feel like around my neck. Never, never again.
So, constant vigilance.
I had a loving, vibrant and well-rounded childhood. In spite of that, I spent most of my youth and teenage years wishing I were beautiful and trying desperately not to get fat.
The seeds of my eating disorder had been planted by the time I was in high school, so I always felt overweight even when I was actually skinny. I felt perpetually like the ugly duckling.
Suddenly, for a few fleeting years in my twenties, I knew what it was like to feel pretty. It was fake, of course, a facade created by men who wanted me, rather than the kind of secure and solid self-esteem that comes from within. The kind that doesn’t leave when the men do, or when they no longer look at you in quite the same way.
Faux-esteem is a house of sand, and when the natural process of aging begins to erode the foundation, it crumbles into dust. As I watch the last remnants wash out to sea, I become aware that it’s time to build a new house, solid and genuine and secure.
It has taken me years to be ready.
Every now and then, when the monster in the mirror is playing nice, I catch a glimpse of a mirage, a different kind of trickery. I look beautiful, even to myself. Not thin, not these days, but curvy and lush and not the ingenue, but not the crone either, not yet. Something in between, something wise and knowing and rich with the experiences and magic of life.
For now, those glimpses are fleeting, though I want them so desperately. That’s the hard part — learning how to bring them into the foreground, letting them cross the veil into this reality so they no longer feel like an illusion. No matter how much I labor, something is stopping me from achieving this peace.
It boils down to fear, as so many things do. I’m afraid to release the self-hatred because it’s familiar, comfortable in a sick sort of way. I wonder how I’m supposed to fill the leftover space, which has been overflowing with despair for so long.
Ultimately, these things cannot be forced. We can recognize them, strive for them, put them on bucket lists, but sometimes the only thing that will bring us peace is letting go.
Maybe the best recovery gift I can give myself is to ease up a bit. Stop holding on so tightly, stop wanting so desperately. Notice contentment. Embrace satisfaction. Experiment with flexibility.
Be ok with the lack of highs and lows, the absence of drama.
Just stop, and be. And the peace will come naturally.