Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Mirror Fast Redux

Mirror MeAnnika Connor

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while may remember last year’s month without mirrors, a project that brought on a monthlong wash of serenity. So serene was I during that time, in fact, that I decided I’d make it an annual event for myself—going a month each year sans mirror, a yearly retreat from self-surveillance. I hadn’t intended on writing here about revisiting the mirror fast, since I thought it would basically be rerun of what happened last time. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

To be painfully honest, the past few months have been difficult for me. I’ve had some health problems, enough to interfere with my work both on this blog and elsewhere. I lost someone I loved, my maternal grandfather. I’ve been under general work stress, and have been showered with a variety of personal stresses. And, of course, being in a funk makes one’s relationships suffer—and it also leads some of us to isolate ourselves from those we probably need to spend time with the most. My life was hardly falling apart, but suffice to say that in life’s highs and lows, the past few months have been parked firmly in the latter.

In fact, the last time I’d remembered feeling like I was on one of life’s distinct highs was May of last year—the month I did my first “mirror fast.” I felt like I was in this philosophical playground of self-discovery; my thinking was clear, my senses were heightened, my awareness was keen. So how better to wriggle my way out of a dark space than to mimic where I was when I was feeling on top of the world? Surely going cold-turkey from the mirror would bring the same rewards this time, right?

You know the punch line here: This time around going mirror-free was excruciating. I had more urges to look in the mirror the first two days than I did the entire month last go-round. Instead of feeling gently “unmoored,” I felt like the ground had been snatched out from underneath me. I found it difficult to focus on conversation; for that matter, I began to find it difficult to look people in the eye. The playful curiosity I felt last time about how I looked was replaced by a certainty that I looked horrible. When a friend complimented me on how I looked at a party I was nervous about attending, I got teary-eyed, so thankful was I to have some affirmation that my face hadn’t morphed into some grotesque bizarro-world version of myself.

The mirror, as it turned out, had been crucial to me during the previous difficult months, doling out assurance along with bouts of anxiety. On particularly bad days I’d sometimes look in the mirror and see that I looked the same as ever, providing a momentary stability. (There were also plenty of days when my blargh feeling was matched by how I interpreted my reflection, of course.) On better days I might take an admittedly vain pleasure in watching myself—not because I actually like the self-consciousness that sort of autosurveillance fosters, but because I was feeling so cruddy that having something positive, even if it took the form of vanity, was a relief.

The past few weeks have driven home a point I danced around last time but could never get to the heart of: The mirror is a reflection of how we feel, not how we look. Last time I focused more on how we can never really understand what we look like to those around us—or even to ourselves—but I stopped short of admitting exactly how much a temporary state of affairs can fracture our relationship with the mirror. At my lowest point in the past few weeks, I felt like everything I was feeling about myself and the world was written all over me, visible to everybody—and without the ability to verify that everything was status quo, I was nearly paralyzed with vulnerability.

A week and a half in, things started to lift. The timing coincided—actually, it’s hardly a coincidence—with a conscious effort to take care of myself. Really take care of myself, not the stay-up-too-late-watching-movies-and-procrastinating-whilst-eating-graham-crackers-because-I-deserve-it-goddammit method of “taking care of myself” that I’d slumped into as of late. I slept eight and a half hours a night. I cut back on the excessive sugar that had crept its way into my daily diet. I finally listened to the whole “alcohol is a depressant” business. I took dance classes, I reached out to friends, I wrote letters, I cleaned my apartment. I cried for my grandfather when I wanted to and didn’t when I didn’t, I put a stressful project on hold, I said yes to social invitations and no to extra work. I people-watched on the subway instead of forcing myself to do the “eat your vegetables” type of reading that I rarely leave the house without. I researched every stupid stress-related nutritional supplement out there and spent an absurd amount of money getting the ones that actually seemed to do something, and every day I swallow seven stupid vitamins, and every day I’m reminded that it’s one small thing I’m doing to feel better.

And somewhere along there, the intense vulnerability of looking how I look without knowing exactly how I looked—it lifted. There was no moment of clarity, no wash of sage wisdom. Instead, there was space. Space created by my own conscious efforts; space carved out by what I’m not doing this month. It was only when I realized I’d stopped feeling desperate for July 15 to arrive—the last day of my fast—that I saw I’d let go of the anxiety that plagued me the first week and a half of the experiment.

I’ve got a few days left, and I don’t think I’ll be writing about it again on here unless something really strikes me. (I will say that I took a cue from Kjerstin Gruys—who went a whole year without a mirror—and learned how to apply makeup sans looking glass, which makes me feel like a Makeup McGyver. Related: The "smoky eye" look is very forgiving. At least, I hope it is.) There’s not much more to say; the point here wasn’t to write about it, but rather to experience it again and connect with the serene part of myself that flourished last year during my first go-round. That part of myself is still there, it turns out; it never left. It’s just that like anything vital, it needs nourishment.

12 comments:

  1. Beautiful post, as always. I particularly liked your point about the mirror reflecting the way we feel, not the way we actually look. It's relevant to some things I've been thinking about lately as well.

    Glad to hear you're feeling a little bit better after going through so many challenges in your life. Big hugs to you, lady.

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    1. Thanks, Caitlin. I remember talking with a friend of mine who talked about that thing where you feel fine and then catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror midday and you're like, "OMG I LOOK TERRIBLE HOW COULD I HAVE THOUGHT EVERYTHING WAS OKAY." I used to think that seeing a bad glimpse of myself triggered that line of thinking, but now I think it's the other way around. The mirror reveals it, not causes it, you know?

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  2. *HUGS* I'm sorry to hear about your grandfather. I hope this helps you feel better :)

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  3. Love the honesty of this post, and I'm so glad to read you took the time you needed. I hope you are feeling better. It sounds like a great project of self-care and reconnecting---I'm inspired by you to maybe try it myself!

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    1. Christina, I absolutely think everyone who is intrigued by the project to give it a go themselves. Even if it's just for a weekend or something, I guarantee you will learn something about yourself. A month is great too; it takes a while to find your rhythm. Maybe start by covering your mirror at home and just looking at it when you really need to? It's really the incidental glances that got to me.

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  4. I'm sorry to hear about this rough patch you've been through. I have an amulet that I wore for a couple of years. It's a pair of small mirrored discs mounted back to back that I wore on a ribbon. It was a reminder to me, and to those I met, that we were each other's best mirrors.

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    1. Terri, reading that gave me goosebumps. What a perfect charm to have on you. And you're absolutely right—we are indeed each other's best mirrors. I didn't understand what that meant until the people around me became the only mirror I had.

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  5. I'm sorry to hear of your loss. :(

    Congratulations for pulling yourself through it and looking after yourself.

    This was a very engaging post, you write beautifully, and I always lovelovelove reading your blog. Thank you for writing it!

    Maybe you could get someone else to do your make-up? That would be an interesting experiment. You could ask them to photograph it so you could see the result when the month is over.

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    1. Thank you, Lucy. And you're totally prescient—I'm going to a close friend's wedding on the last day of the project, and am taking the excuse to have my hair and makeup done for that. Will be so interesting! I'll post results of that at some point.

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  6. I am sorry to hear about your grandfather :(

    I love your point about the mirror being a reflection of how we feel, not how we look. Because I have a shaved head and don't wear makeup, I look the same every day (barring acne, which usually isn't a problem). I noticed some time ago that some days I'd look in the mirror and be totally unsatisfied with what I saw, yet the next day I'd look at the mirror and be making kissy faces and that "using your hands as guns/pointers to point to your reflection in the mirror appreciatively" thing. I recognised that I looked almost exactly the same both of those days, so it wasn't my appearance that was actually the matter. On those days when the reflection doesn't satisfy me, I've learned that if I just avoid the mirror I am usually pretty happy the whole day. I leave my mirror gazing for days when I am happy with what I see.

    I'm so glad to hear that you were able to put the work in to feel better. I love seeing someone make a conscious decision to take care of themselves and then hear that it's had a good result. It's encouragement for me to take care of myself in the same way.

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  7. So sorry you've been in a 'funk' with everything going on! What an honest, soul-baring post... this blog, is in fact, a type of mirror, a way for yourself to write and take a good look at your feelings, your motivations, etc. Thank you for sharing your 'mirror' with us, so we can use it in our own way to take a look at our feelings as well.

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