Yesterday morning, I caught a glimpse of myself in a sliding glass door. I couldn’t see my shoulders or face, just my shorts and legs, and for a brief moment, I didn’t recognize the legs as belonging to me. They were all hard edges and hollows, and the knee caps jutted out, like awkward nubs bifurcating reedy stems. If I had seen those legs on someone else, I would have thought, “oh my god, that poor girl, she must be sick.” I had been thinking I had gained back a bit of the weight I had lost, but now, after seeing that reflection in the glass, I’m not so sure.
I went through my summer clothes later that afternoon. I hadn’t planned to still be so underweight by the time I needed them, so I had been waiting until I was “better” to try them on. But with the warm weather officially here to stay, I couldn’t put it off any longer, and so yesterday, I reluctantly got started. As I tried on item after item, I discovered that all of the clothing – all of it – was several sizes too big. I wound up packing most of it back up for storage (I refuse to give it away), struck by how sad this made me. I really liked the person who fit into those clothes. I miss her. Earlier this week I was scrolling through pictures from last Summer, and in every one of them, I seem vibrant, happy, and carefree, from outings with friends to vacations with family.
As I reflect on it, though, I realize there’s a major storyline missing from those photos. At the time, I had been in the midst of a personal crisis of a different sort. More than halfway through my second bachelor’s degree, I realized that the career path I’d laid out for myself was not a good fit, leaving me with no idea what I was going to do next. I had ended a seven-year relationship with the man I thought I’d be spending the rest of my life with, and I was still coming to terms with the fact that I had just turned forty and there was an increasing likelihood I’d never have children of my own.
But none of that is in the pictures. All that can be seen is a contented, vivacious woman; there’s not a shred of inner turmoil to be found on her smiling face. As I think about it now, and remember the anxiety I felt over my uncertain future, I’m relieved not to be in that head space any more. I’ve since grown comfortable with being single and found a new career that excites me, and in that respect I am quite content.
Crisis has a way of crystallizing the essential parts of ourselves while the others fall away. I am surprised by which turned out to be which; very few of what I considered essential traits have been maintained through this experience, while things that I never gave much thought to have grown into defining characteristics. Many are apparently minor changes, like replacing lifelong pastimes with different ones because of my physical limitations, or going from being a night owl to an early riser for much the same reason. I used to be pretty anal about keeping on top of grown-up, life-skill-type things, but now I don’t pick up my mail every day, I go out in public with dirty hair, my shelves are dusty, and I’m lucky I have patterned rugs.
Some changes, though, are more encompassing. Before last Fall, I thought that I could make myself into an athletic, tireless woman by sheer force of will, despite never having previously fit that description. I don’t why I was so surprised to discover that I have the same, slight frame that I did as an adolescent who couldn’t keep up with the other kids on her swim team, or that I am in the same body as the coed who cut back on sleep to spend more time at the gym and wound up with mono two weeks before finals. In fact, I’m the same person who, a little over a year ago, decided to clean out her storage unit by herself, lugged several boxes and bursting garbage bags down two flights of steps, and in doing so tore the IT band in her right leg. I haven’t been able to go running since.
In truth, I have never, ever, been a physically strong person. But at some point, I decided that I should be, and that if I wasn’t, it was because of something I was doing wrong. The last five years of my life have been a constant cycle of pushing hard, getting sick or injured, recovering, and then trying again. And again, and again. Each time I got more sick or more injured, but I attributed it to a personal failing, and as soon as I started to recover, I would get right back up on that motorcycle and crash it right back into that same wall.
I think – I hope – that I’m starting to come to terms with my fragility. Certainly, I’ve learned that a person’s outsides and a person’s insides are not nearly so related as I had assumed them to be. I was aware that there was some disconnect, of course, but I’d had no idea how wide the chasm or stunning the inaccuracy could be. Last Summer I had seemed happy and well-adjusted while I was inwardly tied up in knots. This Spring, I appear frail but have found the strength to carry an immense burden of pain. And while I don’t look very well put-together lately (and neither does my apartment), my bills are paid and my career plans are firmly in place.
When we look at ourselves in the mirror, we see what we expect to see: the same us we’ve always seen. That person doesn’t change much from day to day, or even year to year; she is always familiar, with the same assets and flaws she’s always had. The size or color may change, but since the overall shape does not, even those changes are largely imperceptible. But that glimpse in the sliding glass door yesterday made me realize that I don’t know what I really look like any more. I have changed so much, inside and out, that there are significant parts of myself and my life that are now unrecognizable. I’m still adjusting to the fact that they actually belong to me and not to someone else, and it is such a strange feeling that I want to imprint it before it passes so I can remember it. I need it; I will use it to be less judgmental in my perceptions of people.
Including myself. Especially myself.