Why I Can’t Look In The Mirror
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Why I Can’t Look In The Mirror


This post was originally published on August 21, 2014.

During the first set of Half Moon pose, Courtney caught me staring into the grooves of the carpet that butted up against the edge of my yoga mat. She snarled, “You must pick your head up and look at yourself in the mirror and not at the floor.” To appease her, I quickly squinted at my forehead in the mirror and then buried my gaze back into the frayed loops of carpet while she continued to glide in and out of the other sweaty students in the room.

Courtney wasn’t even supposed to be teaching class that Sunday but at the last minute, she’d jumped in for the owner who’d left to tend to an emergency at another Bikram yoga studio he owned in Manhattan. I’d taken Courtney’s class once before and when it was over, I vowed to never to again. She was one of those militant Bikram instructors that verbally whipped students for blinking in between postures and breathing without her permission. So when I saw her champagne blond ringlets come bouncing into the yoga room at the start of class, I wanted to bolt but given that I’d just lost an hour of my life getting to the studio thanks to weekend maintenance on the R train, I opted to suck it up and deal. Besides, the class was packed with beginners and I reasoned that she’d be pouncing all over them and probably wouldn’t even realize that I was there.

Back in class, Courtney proceeded to bark out instructions for the second set of Half Moon pose.

“Look at yourself in the mirror,” she said again. “Stretch up one more time out of the waist; try to touch the ceiling. Make sure you’re looking at yourself in the mirror.” This time, her voice was sharper and more focused in my direction, like the small, condensed point of a red, hot laser.

I glued my eyes to the floor, completely dodging my reflection again, and bent over. Beads of smooth sweat began to slide down my forearm until they broke open in the hollow of my armpit. My toes gripped at the tiny buds of cotton on the towel underneath my feet; I pressed my heels deeper into the floor as Courtney’s voice grew heavier in the air. “You must look at yourself in the mirror,” she said again.

What Courtney didn’t know was that I hated looking at myself. I hated how the round curves of my face melted into a point at my chin. I hated the chunk of red skin between my eyebrows and how it scrunched up in loose pleats like the bellows of an accordion. I hated how my eyes turned into pencil thin slits when I smiled. I hated the way the corners of my mouth pointed down towards the floor. I hated my neck and my short, stumpy torso. I hated the flesh between my thighs and the bulging bumps of varicose veins that poured past the back of my knees and wrapped around my thick calves. Courtney had no idea how much I hated the mirror. But she, and everyone else in the class, was about to find out.

I shut my eyes for a millisecond, and just as I opened them, Courtney, with her perfectly peach skin, was standing right in front of me. “Look at yourself in the mirror,” she growled again. I ignored the demand and she leaned in closer to my face and repeated, “Look at yourself in the mirror. Now.” She emphasized the word now by stretching her eyes wide until they looked like a pair of light bulbs bursting out of her head.

The next time that she demanded I look at myself in the mirror, I could feel a wild deluge of adrenaline boiling in my joints causing my muscles to twitch spastically. I dropped my Half Moon pose and shouted back, “I can’t!”

Courtney scowled and grabbed at her hips as if we were the only two people in the room. “Why?” she demanded.

Without hesitation, I leaned in and yelled right back at her, “Because, I said I can’t. Now leave it alone!” She paused and I could tell from the part growing between her lips that she had something else to say but instead she backed off and returned to the front of the room, while I, feeling both embarrassed and ashamed, slumped forward in an effort to make myself appear as small as possible.

The reason that I avoided mirrors was a complex and painful one and even if I wanted to explain it to Courtney, I couldn’t imagine that she’d be able to understand. After all, not many people did.

I hated everything about my mom when she was drunk. I hated how her breath went sour. I hated how her fingers slipped against the drips of condensation on her beer can. I hated the smell of the cigarettes she’d chain smoke but more than anything, I hated the belligerent, unstable woman that she’d become with every drop of beer that slipped through her dry, cracked lips.

When mom was drunk, I became her whipping post. Without warning or reason, she’d slam my 70-pound body into the living room walls and pull chunks of my soft, straight hair right out of my scalp. Sometimes she’d chase me around the house with a serrated kitchen knife and if she didn’t have enough energy for that, she would whip me with the sharp edges of her tongue. Sometimes I was a “two-bit whore” and other times I was a “selfish no good bitch” but I was always a burden. It didn’t matter that I had no idea what the words meant because I could feel what they meant and all I knew was that they didn’t feel good.

Mom never apologized for or addressed the things that she did and this made me boil with anger. And I knew better than to confront her; there are just some things that are never safe to do in an alcoholic home and showing emotions and calling the alcoholic out on her most bizarre and hurtful transgressions are just a few of them. So as the years passed, my anger grew stronger and the more she drank, the more I hated her. Somehow, in some twisted psychological misfire, I turned all of my unexpressed anger towards my mother in on myself. It was much safer to hate me than it was to hate her.

This is why, when I look in the mirror, I don’t see Dawn; I see my mother. And just the thought of her, coupled with my reflection, triggers decades worth of dormant rage. This is why I once covered up all the mirrors in my apartment with paper from my printer. This is why I avoid make up counters and this is why I purposely squint when passing full-length mirrors in department stores. It’s also why I avoid getting my picture taken, even with my husband.

Clearly, I have a lot of work to do in this area of my life and even though my progress has been slow, I’ve been able to make some positive changes. Back in October, I decided that it was time for me to take a huge leap out of my comfort zone and have my picture taken. I exchanged a few emails with a photographer and we planned to meet up on a Thursday afternoon. Before the session began, we sat down for some coffee and without going into the details, I warned her about my issues with mirrors. I think I said something crazy like, “If I start crying during our session, please don’t take it personally. It’s just some old issues I’m working through.” Her reaction was sweet and gentle. She just smiled and said, “Don’t worry, we’ll take it slow. If you need a break at any time, you just let me know.”

Less than a week later, she sent me an email with my pictures. I looked at every single one of them and although it was uncomfortable, I proved to myself that it was possible. Amazingly, most of them came out better than I ever expected. Even more importantly, for the first time, I was able to see me and not my mother.

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About Author

Dawn Clancy is the creator of Growing Up Chaotic, a blog and radio program for those determined to survive and thrive despite growing up in toxicity. Her goal is to create a community hell bent on breaking, cracking and demolishing the cycle of dysfunction.