Eternity Gazing at Itself

We see what we think others see; we see what the mirror sees. And yet, I prefer to see what Kahlil Gibran sees:  Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror. But you are eternity and you are the mirror.

Body image is such a mutable thing. So mood-dependent, so soul-laden, it sometimes seems to defeat all words and define us -despite our pleas for mercy, our hope for acceptance in a world gone mad with self. And beauty is what satisfies the fickleness of the group. There is no objectiveness to allure, no criteria to fulfil; it is a feather that flutters briefly through the landscape like a butterfly in the wind. “You are that vast thing that you see far, far off with great telescopes,” says Alan Watts. You are the magic that is you –unique, and special.

But for some of us, the strangeness of our difference is hard to bear. It is something to be hidden, not celebrated. A BBC article I found a while ago told the story of a woman’s courage to change –she couldn’t alter the permanent damage from a previous life-threatening accident, so, instead, she decided to change who she’d become in the intervening years. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-40862546

‘Sylvia had spent ‘most of her life trying to conceal the extensive scars which cover her body –the legacy of a childhood accident. […] at the age of 48, she decided it was time to stop hiding and come out into the open. […] My mum was boiling water in saucepans for our bath. She would pour the water into bowls and she put the bowls on the bathroom floor. We were just playing around, me and my siblings, and I ran into the bathroom and shut the door. We were told not to go in there. I went in there and my sister pushed the door, and that’s when I fell backwards into the bowl of boiling water, causing very bad burns.’

The scars from her third and fourth degree burns were extensive: ‘“There’s not actually any part of my body apart from my face that is normal. My burns start from the top of my neck all the way down to the top of my bottom, and then around the front of my stomach and down my left leg. And then on the rest of my body I’ve got lots of little pinprick holes all down my arms and my legs from where they took skin. […]I went into shock and was having fits. Then the ambulance arrived. They gathered my family together and told them that I wasn’t going to make it through the night. They baptised me and I had my last rites.

‘“When I was growing up a lot of people used to tell my mum, “Oh, she’s beautiful, she’s pretty.” But in my head I always thought, “Why are they saying, ‘You’re pretty’? I’m not. Underneath my clothes I’m burned.

‘I always felt ugly, so it’s affected me mentally as well as physically. Children would call me different names like “witch” and “snakeskin”, and they were really nasty. I was told that I would never have boyfriends, never get married, never have children. Showing my back was always going to be a negative thing.

‘I loved swimming – once I was in the water I was in a different world, it was great – but I was terrified about people seeing my body. When everybody got out of the water I’d wait until they went to change and be the last one to sneak out.

‘I got to a point where I was attacking everybody around me and it was the only way that I could deal with my emotions. I’d literally call people up, like my sisters, and be really nasty to them, a really vile, nasty, horrible person.”’

But Sylvia did eventually find a loving partner, and yet her fear of others seeing her scars persisted. One day, after being photographed at the swimming pool with her mother like an animal at the zoo, they decided to leave and go to the beach instead. But her mother seemed so upset, Sylvia decided to do something she’d always been afraid to do.

‘At that moment something just clicked in my brain and I decided that I was going to draw a line and make her happy. I took my dress off and I walked down to the edge. People were looking at me and I looked at my mum and I smiled, and I went, “Mum! Look! Look at me!”

And she started to smile. I put my hands on my hips and I started to pose on the water’s edge and she was so happy. I went over to her and I said, “From now on I’m going to let people take pictures, and every time they do I’m going to smile and I’m going to pose.”

‘I think that moment on the beach was just a turning point where I realised that no counselling, nothing on Google, was going to help me. It was time for me to help myself. I went out and bought a swimming costume – it had a big hole in the back – and then I set up my swimming classes at my local pool in Highbury, north London. I invite people with disfigurements to come and swim. When I’m in the water and I’m swimming I just feel at peace, I feel calm, and I can think of lots of wonderful things. […]

‘It’s been such a long journey. It’s like taking off a coat and saying, “This is me now, and I don’t care what people think.” I’ve noticed a big change in my life and I’ve been able to accept the way I look.’

As Jean Cocteau said, ‘Mirrors should reflect a little before throwing back images.’ And so should people. It seems to me that there are at least two types of courage. The first, and most obvious, is the type that risks bodily harm –soldiers in combat, firefighters, and so on. It’s the one we can all see, the one that makes newspaper headlines, and wins awards. Medals. Accolades… And yet perhaps that’s really just the outward trappings of the other type –the inward struggle to overcome the fear that we are not who we want to be –need to be, with whatever hand Fate has dealt. Both require bravery –and while one may confront an external challenge, the other, no less brave, defies far more nebulous and malicious ghosts.

But the triumph over unseen odds, however unfortunate they may have been to the recipient, is seldom met with applause, or acknowledged with praise. It is an inner contest, a silent war that few can see, let alone appreciate. It is an unrecognized philanthropy of self to self, and so perhaps its rewards are even greater, although they may pass, unnoticed in the larger scheme of things. The determination to act, and the bravery to succeed, need no commendation really. It is enough to have succeeded in accepting oneself, and reveling in the affirmation of all around. It is no small thing, although it may seem so.

Sylvia may never receive a decoration, nor mention on the local evening news, but in a way, she already has her medal –she can wear herself on her lapel at last.

To measure you by the smallest deed is to reckon the power of the ocean by the frailty of its foam – Khalil Gibran again.

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The Grief that does not Speak

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world!

Like Hamlet, we all recognize this mood: the black dog lying in the noonday sun, the cloud that even hides the moon. It is the tear that defeats the wavering smile –and yet… And yet, there is often something more behind the grief, something that is hidden beneath the first impression. Shakespeare, again, understood this over four hundred years ago: ‘Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak whispers the o’erfraught heart and bids it break.’

I suppose we all impose our own reality; we all see the world through our own experience. But, sometimes we see through that glass darkly. Things are not always what they seem.

Alethea looked calm and happy as she sat in my waiting room. In fact, she was smiling and talking with a little child who’d toddled over to her in his diapers with a toy. She was bending over in her seat, her long black hair almost reaching the little boy, as she tried to make him laugh. Her full-length black, cotton skirt and her blue silk blouse contrasted sharply with his bulky white diapers –a chiaroscuro worthy of a picture, but he waddled off to another woman as quickly as he’d arrived. The waiting room is like that here: a work in progress; an evanescent scene of fleeting beauty.

Alethea smiled again when I greeted her, and examined me with friendly eyes. I had anticipated avoidance, or at least timidity from a woman referred to me with recalcitrant depression. A woman, according to a rather extensive explanatory note, who seemed refractory to multiple attempts at treatment. But I’m a gynaecologist, and although we’re sometimes involved on the edges of depressive illnesses, most of us lay no claim to the territory. We’re adjuncts –often last-minute guests- invited to the therapy just in case; we’re seldom primaries.

But in my office, she seemed less at ease, her eyes flitting from the plants in their pots to the eclectic pictures hanging on the walls. They spent some time inspecting a terra cotta sculpture of a woman begging with a bowl that I’d positioned on a little oak table.

“You certainly have wide-ranging tastes, doctor.” I don’t think she meant it as a criticism, so I took it as the long missing compliment I have yet to hear from my staff.

I smiled, and opened up the computer.

“I’m afraid my GP wrote a rather long note justifying the referral to you; she seems quite worried –or maybe frustrated with me.” Alethea rested her eyes on me for a few seconds. “I asked to see you rather than a psychiatrist.” And then she chuckled. “She was not happy about that, I’m afraid.”

I pushed the computer to one side and sat back in my chair. “Do you mind if I hear your version, first?” I asked.

“Thought you’d never ask,” she said as she made herself more comfortable in the sturdy, old wooden captain’s chair that I insisted on keeping across from my desk, her eyes twinkling with amusement at my suggestion, but still cautious.

“Well,” she started, obviously trying to place the events in their proper order, “A few months ago, I went to see my GP because of some problems I was having –you know, coping stuff,” she added when I wrinkled my forehead. “Anyway, I was in tears when I sat down in her office and had trouble even talking to her without crying.

“She got very clinical and I could tell she was trying to remain an objective observer.” Alethea rolled her eyes and sighed. “She does that sometimes when all I need is a hug or something.” She risked a quick glance at my expression. “But I realize that’s not what doctors are supposed to do…

“Anyway, she asked me all the usual questions about my work, and my home life…” Alethea blinked and looked away. “I think she felt a bit uncomfortable with that part because my partner also used to go to her.” Suddenly she stared at me and I could feel the anger in her eyes. “I really don’t know why that would matter…”

She quickly snatched a tissue from my desk and wiped her eyes. “I’m sorry, doctor, I guess my GP is not the only one who gets frustrated.” She took a long, deep breath and exhaled it slowly. “She said she’d never seen me like that before, and that whatever might be going on, I was seeing it through the lens of depression.” She glared at the begging lady statue for a moment. “She actually said ‘lens of depression’ for god’s sake! Like no matter what I said, or experienced, it was somehow misinterpreted through that bloody lens, or whatever.”

Alethea seemed uncomfortable and kept readjusting her body on the hard chair so I pointed to a more comfortable one nearby. That got her smiling again, but I could tell she was still angry.

“She insisted I go on one of those new antidepressant medications –you know, the ones that aren’t supposed to make you tired. The ‘no side-effects pill’ she called it. ‘Just try It for a few weeks and let me know if it helps,’ she said and escorted me to the door, all buddy-buddy.”

She brought the comfortable chair close to the desk and helped herself to a handful of tissues. “But it only made things… worse.”

I leaned forward on my chair, detecting something she was implying in the way she said that word. “How do you mean, Alethea?”

A tear rolled down her cheek and she dabbed it with the tissue. “I didn’t feel at all like sex, when I was taking it and…” She hesitated for a moment. “And that really made her mad.”

I was confused. “Made who mad?”

She was staring at her lap, but her eyes wandered up to my face for a brief look before she called them back. “My partner.” She sighed again. “So I decided to go off the antidepressants after a while and went back to the GP. She seemed upset that I had only given them a month, and said I was still acting depressed. At that point she said I needed to see a psychiatrist, but I refused. ‘You have a chemical imbalance,’ she almost screamed at me, and implied that if I didn’t get help soon, there might be dire consequences.” Alethea glanced at me again. “I suppose she thought I might try to off myself or something.” She giggled at the thought and when I looked puzzled, she smiled and continued. “Maybe it’s your birth control pill, Alethea. I don’t know why you insist on taking them anyway.’” Alethea’s face turned mischievous and her eyes twinkled like when she first came in. “Because I’m Bi, you stupid woman!” she said and laughed. “Well, I didn’t actually say that to her, but I felt like it…

“Anyway, I convinced my GP to send me to you.”

I squirmed a little uncomfortably in my own, soft chair. “Why me?”

A playful smile emerged. “My aunt and cousin see you… They said maybe you’d listen.”

I think I blushed. “And what about your partner? Did she think you were… depressed?” I hesitated before using that word. “Did she listen?”

Alethea’s face suddenly tensed. “She was abusive,” she said between gritted teeth, and sent her eyes to scout my face again. “She used to scream at me and throw things around. I hated going home after work.”

“Did you tell that to your GP?”

She shrugged. “I told you, she felt uncomfortable about it. And anyway, she had a diagnosis –and a treatment,” she added, with a wry smile. “That’s what medicine is about nowadays, isn’t it?” The smile disappeared, to be replaced by a sweet grin. “And once you have a treatment, it’s… Next!” she said, rolling her eyes, and we both laughed.

“And so what’s happening now? Are you still with your partner?”

Her face beamed and her eyes sparkled. “Now, I’m back with my old boyfriend -it takes a long time to get in to see you,” she explained with a chuckle. “We’re even planning to have a child soon, maybe.” Her eyes hovered under the ceiling for a second or two. “I guess I wasted your time, doctor, but my aunt was right -it does help to talk about it… And I thought I should meet you anyway,” she added, and decided to make eye contact again. “You delivered my cousin last year…” The twinkle returned. “Care to see me again –in a while?”

I think my smile told her I’d love to see her again.

And as she left, I couldn’t help but think of that wonderful metaphor of Khalil Gibran: ‘Sadness’, he said, ‘is but a wall between two gardens.’

It certainly is.