The Stranger in the Mirror

By Thomas R. Barnett, LCDC-III

What if I told you that I see something every day that no one else can see and that it haunts me all of the time. What if I swore that the thing I am seeing everyday were as real as the sky is blue or the grass is green TO ME. No, I am not crazy but I am talking about body dysmorphic disorder. The Mayo Clinic defines body dysmorphic disorder as a mental disorder in which you can’t stop thinking about one or more perceived defects or flaws in your appearance-a flaw that, to others, is either minor or not observable. But you feel so ashamed and anxious that you may avoid many social situations. I was first diagnosed with BDD when I was 13 years old. In the height of my anorexia I had this crippling fear that every time I look in the mirror, I saw myself as an obese person. It was so paralyzing that I locked myself in my house for months because I was too ashamed of being seen. Throughout my childhood I was a victim to bullying. I had a learning disability and a speech impediment and everyone used to make fun of me. When I got older, I was picked on for being overweight. It got so bad, that I would pretend I was sick so I didn’t have to go to school. It got so bad that I began to have symptoms of depression and anxiety. I remember looking in the mirror and screaming at myself “I hate you and I wish I wasn’t you.” I would fantasize how my life would be different if I were not overweight. One day I snapped and tried to kill myself because I didn’t want to go on living like this anymore. I ended up in the care of a child psychiatrist. He diagnosed me with major depression and started me on a cycle of Zoloft. I was only 13 years old when this happened and I remember the next day going into school trying to pretend I didn’t try to kill myself the day before. Flash forward 7 years.

About a year abstinent from anorexia and bulimia my body dysmorphia crept back into my life. At one point during a photo shoot, someone made a comment that my skin was red. The way it came out of his mouth made me feel vulnerable and ashamed. It sounded to me that it was going to keep me from being successful. Successful in my eyes was acceptance. I based my self-worth upon acceptance from my peers. If I didn’t feel accepted, I felt alone and ashamed. My only way of coping with shame at the time was through self-hate. Out of fear, I spent the next six months researching on why my skin was red and finally got a diagnosis of Rosacea. I remember hiding my self by wearing a ball cap below my eyes and big sunglasses to cover half of my face. I didn’t want to be seen and it was my only way of hiding when I had to go out of the house. My dermatologist gave me some antibiotics for my skin and suggested laser surgery to get rid of my condition. I believe I spent somewhere around $15,000 on skin surgery and $300 per month on antibiotics and creams. The sad part was that I felt nothing worked because all I could see was my red skin. It became an obsession, and the only way to ease the anxiety was by checking in the mirror to see if my skin was clear. Every time I saw red, I was quick to call my dermatologist for another laser treatment. The laser treatment is basically like getting a tattoo. I remember the feeling like someone was snapping a rubber band on my face as hard as they could. The pain didn’t compare to the shame and that helped me get through it. At one point my dermatologist cut me off because he said there was nothing else they could do. In his eyes my skin was all cleared up, but I didn’t see it. I was so depressed and self-obsessed I isolated away in my own home. At one point I had to take down all of my mirrors because I couldn’t stand seeing myself. I would pray and then curse God for giving me this skin condition.

I am not entirely sure when I got over this obsession. I do remember there being a moment when I was looking in the mirror and saying to myself, “Tommy you need to accept yourself, as you are in this moment, as if you chose it.” For some reason, saying this to myself gave me the courage to face the world. I knew the only way for me to get over my fear of being judged was to surrender the person that I thought I was over to something greater. Over the next few weeks, and with this new state of mind, my redness disappeared.

Body dysmorphia is a crippling condition. My hope for you is that you become aware of who you are and become content with that. You cannot build your self-worth on a foundation of shame, hate, and fear. I know this to be true because I lived it for so long. An easy but very challenging exercise it to look at your self in the mirror, as you are, and say, “I love and truly accept you. You are loved, wanted and safe. I will always take care of you because you are worth it. Not only do you deserve to be happy and free, but it is your birthright.” If that’s not enough, treatment options are there.