MEMOIR: MIRRORS AND VOICES (Huge New Postscript)
Recently, I was at the local aquatic centre, ready to do my laps. It was right around the time my weight seemed desperately out of control, when it seemed as if mere breathing could make me stack on the kilograms. I had gained back about 13 kg off the 51 I’d previously lost. I was close to panic.
After changing into my chlorine-faded swimming trunks, feeling worried and embarrassed, I saw myself in the change room mirror. There I was, Mr Potato Body. Then, worse, a huge roll of pale fat skin bulged over the top of my shorts. It looked like the sort of colourless bloating you associate with corpses.
And a voice in my head said, “You’re disgusting and loathsome!”
It was emphatic about the exclamation. That’s what that voice told me, utterly repulsed at what it saw in the mirror.
Mirrors, how I hate them. Speaking as a mid-career fat guy, I can report that I have been looking at myself in mirrors all my life. I’ve seen the way age has stolen across my features, and seen the way fat at different times in my life has come and gone, like a gruesome toxic tide. What you see in a mirror is true, but all wrong, backwards, sideways. It is how you look, but not remotely so. That’s why photos of you always look so odd. Your mirror self pipes up as if to cast doubt on the photographic evidence.
So there I was, a ghastly fat shambles of a man, fish-belly white and bulbous, ready to take to the pool, freshly informed of my loathsome and disgusting appearance. I felt terrible. That voice has not bothered me in a long time, but there it was, all refreshed and full of bile reserved just for me. I rearranged my attire to conceal the bulge, and went out onto the pool deck, playing that line, that voice, over and over in my head like an earworm, like the rantings of a mad cockatoo, “Loathsome and disgusting! Loathsome and disgusting! Rawwwrk!”
I bashed hell out of my laps that day.
But the voice remained, playing on a loop, round and round in my head. I finally managed to get rid of it by applying a technique I’d learned about in a book, THE HAPPINESS TRAP, by Russ Harris. He suggests, among other ingenious ideas, replaying messages like this one in different, funny voices. I tried it with the voice of Brian’s Mum in Monty Python’s LIFE OF BRIAN, “He’s not the Messiah, he’s just loathsome and disgusting!” Which made me laugh, and that dislodged that specific message from that voice.
But I have other voices. They are often playing in the background of my mental awareness like a TV in a laundromat nobody’s watching. A steady murmur of running commentary, none of it nice or complimentary, a bit like the way Terry Wogan used to comment on the Eurovision Song Contest.
These other voices are all my anxieties eating away at me. They’re a game of Whack-A-Mole–every time you smash one, it or others pop up rudely. I have learned, with the help of that book I mentioned above, to pay less attention to these voices. They are not worth my attention. They are transmissions from the other side of the mirror, from my mirror self, who is me but isn’t. Who occupies a different, less pleasant reality.
Lately, since I started working on this book, my mirror self is telling me I’m a “smug narcissist wanker”. I feel as though I need a Suggestions Box, or Complaints Office to receive messages like this. Like “loathsome and disgusting!” I hear from “smug narcissist wanker!” all the time lately. The more I write here, the more I hear it. I know it’s my mirror self, dyspeptic and bitter, possibly even envious of the fact that I’m writing again for the first time in over a year. Definitely bitter. I know about bitterness. I can smell it miles away, and can definitely smell it from the other side of the mirror.
Still, despite knowing this, despite all the “Jedi Mind Tricks”, as I call them, that I’ve read about and learned from my psychologist, this one continues to sting like a tentacle lash from a bluebottle. Smug narcissistic wanker. Has a certain ring to it, of an old metal rubbish bin lid slamming into place. It has a powerful poison about it, and all the more effective for being from me, on the other side of the mirror, to me on this side.
I worried about this last year, while in hospital. I posted about the experience, the few ups and the many downs, on Facebook. One day, worried about it, I asked one of my doctors straight out, “look, am I just a narcissist?” He laughed, a huge head-back, full-throated laugh. He said no, not at all. “If you were a narcissist I wouldn’t be treating you.” That helped, but the niggle remained. The voice just whispered it instead of yelling at me.
That leaves the suggestion of smugness. This stings because I worry it’s true, and I hate it. I worry that I’m, perhaps, too upbeat about my recovery, that I’m obsessing over it, that I’m “pleased with myself”, perhaps to an unseemly degree. This really stings, this thought. My mirror self knows me well. Brian’s Mum’s Voice is no match for this drop of bitter poison.
But what if it’s true? Am I embarrassing myself here? Am I horribly self-absorbed? This is an abhorrent thought. I feel as if I’m paying as much attention and care to the rest of the world as I possibly can, and especially to Michelle, who needs me to be there for her, to be her “drummer”. She has no complaints, at least that she’s informed me about.
I don’t want to stop writing about this stuff, now that I’ve started. But the worry is there. Even if loads of people tell me it’s all fine and I shouldn’t worry, I would still worry. I’m a worry-based lifeform. And Mirror Adrian knows me too well to let go as easily as that.
This chapter began life as a journal entry, in the early days of my return to regular writing. I think I kind of was a bit pleased with myself there. A bit, oooh, look at me writing again, look, no hands, I can totally still ride this bicycle just like I used to!
So bear with me. It’s now a long time later. When I wrote the material above it was May of this year. Now it’s November. In May my weight shot back up to 127.1, and I freaked out. But I found ways, highly unorthodox ways, to deal with it. It’s fine now, in November. I’m nearly finished my entire weight-loss project. Where in May I had that bloated corpse-like roll of fat that made my interior voice tell me I was disgusting and loathsome, now I just have crinkly, loose and empty folds of skin.
But I still have voices, and I still don’t like mirrors. Mirror Adrian is still fat. He’s still bitter. If anything he’s even more bitter, seeing me thin. And I am thin now. I’m lanky. My waist measurement is now under 100 centimetres. I’m positively skinny. But I know it’s all out there, just waiting, keen to come back. Mirror Adrian is looking after it, minding it for me. Keeping it warm. He sends me suggestions of things I should eat when I finish my weight-loss project. So many wonderful things I should go and eat, to celebrate the achievement. Because when people celebrate, they eat.
Tonight Mirror Adrian was telling me that Michelle and I should visit San Churro’s Chocolateria, and have a wonderful chocolate blowout. Mmmmmm, that does sound good, for sure, but somehow I don’t know if Mirror Adrian, who back in May told me I looked disgusting and loathsome, has my best interests at heart. My mirror self’s interest is in seeing me crash and burn. In seeing me wind up like him.
The thing is, though, I’d truly love to go to San Churro’s with Michelle. During the course of the five years of the diet project we have been several times, and I’ve managed to lose the bit of weight I’ve gained from it each time. Theoretically it shouldn’t be a problem.
But this suggestion is coming from that voice. It’s coming with a sneer.
It’s plugging into my very intense anxiety about regaining the weight. Back in May, that was a preview of what regaining the weight would be like. Thirteen kilograms piled back on in no time flat. Part was medication effects, bit there was emotional eating, worry about things in the news, and feeling so out of control that I gave up and binged. I was, for a while, lost at sea. It was horrible. I didn’t know what to do. Thirteen kilograms. At that rate, all the weight I’d lost would be back in about a year.
I was loathsome and disgusting, all right. Mirror Adrian was telling the truth.
I feel it, even now, with just over three kilograms still to lose, poised, trembling, ready to pounce, just over there, ready to jump me. It wants to come back. It misses me. It wonders what it did wrong. Didn’t we have some good times together? it says.
I don’t know if I can go through all the rest of my life keeping it at bay like this. I can barely do it now. I don’t know how much thin-time I’ll have. It’s an awful feeling. I’ve read Jon Krakauer’s memoir, INTO THIN AIR, about climbing Mount Everest. He writes about reaching the summit, and how by the time you get there, you’re so fatigued, so oxygen-deprived, so very nearly dead, and so short on time, that it’s all you can do to have a quick look around, maybe take a couple of photos, and then start back down again. It’s underwhelming. It’s not what you would hope the experience would be like.
I am beginning to understand what he means, I think. I worry my time at the weight-loss summit will be short. That the biological and metabolic forces in my body will drive what happens. Will I still be at target weight at Christmas? Next Christmas? I don’t know. I hope so. I’m hoping to get medical help. Up to this point I’ve been making it up as I go. My psychiatrist has supervised to some extent, but he’s a psychiatrist. My GP is just very pleased, and that’s it.
Mirrors and voices. Would it be too much to ask, when in the change room at the pool, or in my bathroom here at home, for a Mirror Self who was helpful and supportive? Who was maybe more like a male Oprah than what I do have? Because Mirror Adrian is a nasty piece of work. I’d much rather look in the mirror and see a sleek and stylish version of me, not only keeping the weight off, but working out at the gym (but not so much as to be obnoxious or vain), in nice clothes, who was nothing if not supportive and encouraging. “Hey, have you lost another half-kilo, dude? Niiiice!” Or even just pointing at me and going, “Phwoar!”