Growing Up Monster
A recent article in The Arizona Republic newspaper discussed the subject of Body Dysmorphic Disorder, a type of mental illness where a person believes and obsesses that their face and features are somewhere between flawed and hideous.
Reading the article was Deja Vu Time for me. If the teenaged me from forty years ago were brought to the present, he'd probably -- almost certainly -- be diagnosed with BDD.
One difference from some of the patients mentioned in the article is that they are described as obsessively looking at themselves in mirrors or reflective surfaces, focused on their "flaws". I wasn't that way; I could not -- literally NOT -- look fully at myself in a mirror.
(So how did I groom myself? By never looking at more than a part of my face: When I shaved, I'd look only at the right cheek and shave there, then shift focus to the left cheek and shave that, then to the chin. Likewise with combing my hair, or washing my face, or brushing my teeth.)
But when I did on occasion try to take a full look at myself in the mirror... I could tell myself, intellectually, that this was really just a rather average-looking guy, about twenty pounds overweight, but nothing, really, nothing that bad or that horrendous.
But emotionally... emotionally when I looked in the mirror, I would see someone like this guy. Or this guy. Or this guy.
Where did this conviction, this certainty, this absolute unyielding visceral sureness that I was hideous and repulsive, come from? I honestly have no idea. It was just... there... one day. And then there every day. And then always there. Always.
Did this neurotic obsession affect my social life? Oh, yeah, you could say that.
Though not completely. I wasn't so disturbed, so unbalanced, that I wasn't aware, on a thinking level, that this was a neurotic/unhinged way to think of myself. (This is actually something I think might be worse than being fully insane: To be aware enough to recognize that you're unbalanced, you're neurotic, you're nutso, but you still can't stop the nutso thoughts from thinking themselves... that's a tough place to be in. The idea of turning totally, completely delusional actually starts to look attractive.)
So sometimes, a few times, I'd work up the courage (a lot of courage) to try asking a few girls for dates. With, umm, mixed success. (This attempt set me back on my heels for -- literally -- several years, until I was in college.)
Somehow, I managed a semblance, a weak imitation, of a normal life. (Though, considering how infrequently I dated or even flirted with any women, I suspect there was probably speculation among my social acquaintances about my sexual orientation.) Always with this deep, visceral certainty that I was, at best, unattractive ranging up to hideous.
And then came Hilde. Getting involved with her, taking a friendship into the next step, and then the next, and the next... was the bravest thing I've ever done. (And I almost... almost... turned away, kept quiet, backed off like I'd done with so many women, with almost every woman.)
So, did my neurotic view of myself suddenly vanish in the irresistible light of love? Ummm... no. I just thought that Hilde was the wonderful exception, the one person who couldn't see what I was really like. And I still looked at my face one section at a time in the mirror.
I can tell you, though, when the breakthrough was:
I actually had a genuine flaw on my face. One of my front teeth had a discolored brownish spot on one corner, about the size of the head of a pin. Wasn't a cavity or a chip in the enamel, just that particular tooth had grown out that way. I had never gotten it fixed; I'm not sure why.
I was brushing my teeth one morning, and suddenly noticed, in the mirror, that the discolored tooth was no longer discolored. I stood there, stunned, for a long moment.
I had been to the dentist recently, and I realized that the dentist (Dr. Lundgren, retired now. Best. Dentist. Ever.), while working on a neighboring tooth, must have gone ahead and patched the discolored tooth without bothering to tell me.
That dental appointment had been three weeks before. It had taken me that long to look closely enough at myself to notice the difference.
I stood there at the bathroom sink for several moments, staring at the all-white tooth. And then I looked up a bit, and drew back a bit... and I looked at my entire face, as a whole, for the first time in a long, long time.
And the face in the mirror... wasn't bad-looking. Certainly not strikingly handsome, not movie-star handsome. But a decent-looking guy. Not bad. Not bad.
It was August 18th, 1990. I was thirty-seven years old.
Postscript: I know that in one of the boxes up in the attic, there are some of the wallet-size photos from my high-school yearbook portrait. Writing this, I thought I might go up there, rout out one of the photos, scan it, and include it in this post. But thinking about that photo... and even though I know, KNOW, that it shows nothing except an average-looking, slightly chunky teenager in a coat and tie... I found my chest growing tight and my shoulders starting to draw themselves up. So, yeah, there still is a monster in my mind. It's an old monster, and a weak monster... nowadays, at times when my weight's where I want it to be, and I have my beard properly trimmed, I can even look at myself in the mirror and think "He's kinda...dashing, y'know?"... but it's not a dead monster.