His image illuminates the screen of my phone. He is smiling, that smile I’d like to believe he reserves just for me. The photo was taken a few years ago, now, but seeing it still elicits the same geyser of emotion. Saddened, I watch until his smile fades to black. I can’t talk to him right now.
I am a monster. Rather, at times I transform into one. Sometimes the spell lasts for only a few minutes, while other episodes persist for hours, or even days. Cumulatively I’ve spent most of my life as the proverbial Mr. Hyde–or Ms. Hyde, I suppose. Lately I’ve been having better days.
Today is not one of them.
Sitting in my car in the mall parking lot, I close my eyes and picture them splashing in the cool water. The pool is a reprieve from the desert-like heat. I can hear their laughter; it is genuine and unabashed, a colorful score that echoes and fades into the sky.
It makes me want to die.
Not really, of course. Death is not a realistic alternative to attending a pool party. I know by now that this is my old friend, suicidal ideation talking, a cognitive coping mechanism that helps my mind deal with the overwhelming surge of anxiety that these imaginings provoke.
My car is like a space capsule. Everything seems far away. I feel weightless, as though I’m floating outside of myself. This is derealisation, I recognize, which came to call when I was still inside the bustling shopping mall. For me it’s a sign that things are about to go badly.
I feel the heavy arms of an anxiety attack wrap around my shoulders.
Under the pressure of the embrace, my breathing becomes sharp, shallow gasps. I force myself to inhale deeply, to reset the switch that’s been tripped on my fight or flight response, and repeat the positive affirmations that are meant to release me from this stronghold.
I should know better. This is what happens when I feel the imminent perceived scrutiny of others, or when I am required to appraise my own appearance. Foolishly, I had thought it would be okay this time.
Only moments ago, inside the mall, I turned to glance in a change room mirror to see how an article of clothing fit. Suddenly, areas of my body began to bulge and twist.
Mountains of fat and bones and skin jutted out at cruel, hard angles. I watched in horror as these distortions continued to take over, until I couldn’t distinguish between what was real and what was imagined. With both hands pressed over my mouth, I stared into hazel eyes brimming with tears, the only part of me that remained recognizable.
I suffer from body dysmorphic disorder, an obsessive compulsive disorder that causes people to have distortions in how they view themselves. Imagined or exaggerated flaws become points of obsession, to the extent that they cause severe emotional distress, and interfere with daily life.
Mornings, I pace from room to room, leaving a trail of discarded clothing in my wake. These are futile endeavors, I know, the attempts to shroud the deformities that I know will rise to the surface if I only stop and look. More times than not, I hastily wrap a long sweater over whatever I’m wearing and rush out the door.
Avoiding mirrors throughout the day, it is all I can do not to poke and prod and pull at my body, desperately searching for any indication that the transformation has begun.
It’s hard for me to maintain close relationships, and often, to be around people at all. Comments or compliments on my appearance send me reeling, regardless of what is said. It is especially difficult, in this technological age.
I spend a lot of time–too much time–sieving for clues that others see what I see, and even though this nary seems to be the case, the notions persevere.
Most of my friends and family don’t know that I have this problem. My ex-husband, to whom I was married for seven years, had no idea. That’s because it’s a very secretive affliction. I hide it from others because I’m ashamed. I am also afraid that people won’t understand, that I’ll seem vain or narcissistic, or that talking about it will make it worse.
He knows, my boyfriend of nearly four years.
We graduated from the same high school, and although we often mixed with the same crowd, we had very limited interactions. I remember him as he was, quiet and introspective. He seemed far-off, right there, but just out of reach. Over a decade after high school graduation, we stumbled back into each other’s lives.
When we first started dating, I squirmed under the force of his gaze. He picked up on my idiosyncrasies almost immediately. It was as though he was the first person to really see me.
When things became serious between us, I tried to push him away. I felt like he was wasting his time with someone so entrenched in turmoil. I wanted to preserve some version of the person I had tried to emulate–confident, together, in control. I didn’t want him to know that it was all a facade.
But it was too late. He had already noticed how I bit my lower lip when my thoughts began to cartwheel out of control, how my tone flattened when I pressed my hands into my sides. He’d already seen how I checked myself repeatedly in the mirror, distressing over something that, to him, wasn’t even there.
He’d been puzzled by the intensity with which I scrutinized photos of myself, before insisting that they be deleted. Many times, he was left bewildered when I inexplicably detached, and all but disappeared.
And so he decoded my vast and various attempts to instigate a breakup, in which I thrashed like a person on fire. Instead of retreating, though, he sat and listened patiently until the fire died down, at which point I slowly sifted words out of the ashes to explain my inner experience.
In the end we’d always wind up back at the same old place: I hated myself.
As a show of solidarity, he waited in the car during the appointments that would follow. On the drive home I could feel his eyes on me as I stared, unseeing, out the window. I had done counseling before, but only half-heartedly. This disorder has a way of seducing you into believing that there is no other way.
With his help, and the help of a trusted professional, I learned that I must be mindful and disciplined.
He helped me to implement a more holistic approach. With his encouragement, I began to eat properly, probably for the first time in my life. I gave up the fixation I’d had for years with the bathroom scale, and eventually removed it from the house altogether. I started taking vitamins and supplements regularly, and alcohol became limited to weekends. We worked out together nearly every day, taking rest days when needed.
The day I hauled the full-length mirror out of our master bedroom, I had to stop halfway down the hall. My hands shook wildly at the prospect of no longer being its prisoner.
For all of these changes, I know that I’m in a better place than I have ever been, but gripping the wheel, I stare down at hands that look strangely alien to me, and I’m painfully aware of how far I still have to go.
I think of the pool I’m supposed to be at–in real life, next week while on vacation.
The women unanimously don bikinis, but what else they have in common, and what makes them infinitely more foreign to me, is that they are so free. Body positive and relaxed, they strut their stuff, seemingly without a care in the world. In spite of my yearning to be like them, the monster bangs against the bars of its cage.
Sitting in my parked car, I blink back tears and think of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Like me, Jekyll had always sensed that there was something sinister inside of him, and he tried to keep his alternate incarnation a secret. He developed an antidote, but eventually it stopped working. It seemed that the harder the good doctor tried to conceal Hyde, the more powerful the monster became.
Over time Jekyll became a slave to his alter ego, and to abolish Hyde, he ultimately ended his own life. I sigh deeply, knowing that this is a sad eventuality for a surprising number of people with body dysmorphic disorder.
I shake my head. I have come too far to give up now.
Noticing a bird stretching its wings in the sky, I contemplate what Jekyll might have done differently. My breath catches in my throat when it occurs to me – Dr. Jekyll’s fatal mistake. I sit still as the notion crystallizes, and suddenly understand what I need to do.
I have to put an end to my dark secret. Stop enabling the monster by giving it a place to hide.
Moreover, if doing so could help even one person, I’d scream it from the rooftops. My heart begins to beat rapidly, and I know that because of him, I can do this small, though monumental thing.
His smile brightens my phone screen once again, and I consider that he is probably worried.
I think of him as he was in high school, an enigma on a skateboard, whose piercing green eyes were a secret beneath the brim of a baseball hat. With a sketchbook perpetually in-hand, it was obvious to anyone who had ever glimpsed within those pages that he was an artist in the making.
Sitting in my car in the mall parking lot, it occurs to me why I gravitated toward him all these years later. I had hoped that he might see beauty where I had failed.
I pick up the phone and answer his call.