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Is That Really Me Staring At Myself

Do you remember the first time you looked in the mirror and realized the person on the other side was slightly out of phase with your own self image?  Was there a time when you were checking out how bloodshot your eyes felt or attempting to determine how you once again missed that spot shaving only to realize the eyes staring back at you carried more malevolence, more intent, more anger than you were feeling at the moment?

I’m not talking delusions.  I’m not talking about the reflection of guilt from scratching that car in the parking lot or the result of saying something that hurt someone’s feelings.  I’m not talking about what happens when you look in a mirror after a night of drinking or during an acid trip or even after an all-nighter.  I’m talking about those moments when you least expect it, when you feel content or happy or during those effervescent moments of peace when you glance into the mirror and something causes you to pause.  Something isn’t quite right.

It’s not a monster or ghoul, not a traumatic memory or phobia, but one of those moments when you look into the eyes in the mirror trying to isolate just one element of the subtle difference, trying to rationalize what you are seeing and you realize the person staring back at you is a reflection of a self you don’t want to admit is there.


For me the first time I experienced this was college, freshman year…the cornfields of central Illinois surrounded the campus in an eternal wave of golden emptiness.  (I might be tempted to argue this had occurred before, but honestly, I’m not sure anyone in high school has the capacity necessary for true self reflection.)  I had just returned to the dorm from a night out and was brushing my teeth.  I don’t remember being anything other than a little tired.  No drinking, no drugs.  Just a night walking around campus with a girl I don’t remember.

But if I close my eyes I can still smell the aroma of bleach and body odor and deodorant and toilet disinfectant that screams “Many men live here.”  I can see the fluorescent lights bouncing playfully across the white tile, skipping the random blue tiles placed in strange places.  I can see the tube of Crest crumpled and beaten resting on the stainless steel tray just under the mirror.  And I can see…a stranger looking back at me.

Even though I consider myself a writer, I am not certain I can capture in words this type of event.  Of course that won’t keep me from trying, but chances are I will just sound a little more crazy than normal.  But I swear, when I leaned towards the mirror, the porcelain sink suggesting a cold searing across my abdomen, the eyes staring back into me sparkled with a sense of mayhem I wasn’t feeling and hadn’t felt for some time. The body looked right, the face familiar, the hair perhaps slightly more askew than mine, but despite these differences, I felt no connection to the person I was staring at.

And no, I’m not talking about a psychotic break or a delusion – I can’t stress that enough.  I’m talking about being confronted by something not quite aligned with my own perception of my reflection.


I knew, without question, this person in the glass had a capacity for darkness far beyond my own, yet he looked so much like me it was disconcerting.  The circles under the eyes might have been slightly darker than my own.  The furrowed brow projecting more anger than curiosity.  But it was the eyes themselves I couldn’t look away from.

There was an electricity in the eyes, not bright or flashing; not jagged and piercing but whimsical perhaps, as if inspired to move by the distorted sound of circus music or the gritty tune of an outdated ice cream truck.  This light, this current…seemed to be looking through me and if I blinked a second too long, it was as if I could feel his gaze projecting out the back of my head.  I felt like a piece of meat for a rabid dog, a toy for a psychotic clown.  The sensation was not pleasant. Unnerving comes to mind.

Yet I knew I was being warned.  There was no question of the intent.  I said nothing, he said nothing…but the message was clear.  If only I had that kind of clarity in relationships, but this clarity was born of intensity and intent.  Conscious thought or subconscious reaction it didn’t really matter.  The eyes seemed to pull up the corner of the mouth just enough to suggest a menacing smile reminiscent of comic book characters like The Joker.

And then, as I blinked, wondering what was going on…he disappeared and left me with a marionette reflection with the strings cut and no sense of life.  A flat image and oh so boring.


I didn’t sleep much that first night, working diligently to convince myself it was the girl rather than the mirror that kept me awake.  But it didn’t work.  When I closed my eyes the image of my reflection would fade just beyond recognition leaving me even more confused.  Eventually I fell asleep and the sensations were replaced by the day-to-day life of college once again…party, drugs, girls, party, drugs, girls…oh, and some level of education of course.

Years later, it happened again…standing in the bathroom at the office.  Again, no drinking, no drugs…just the feeling of lethargy that comes from too frequent meetings in rooms with far too much florescence.  And there he was again.  The same electricity in the eyes..subtle naturally, but I would have bet money the guy next to me would have seen it if he looked into the mirror.  The shadow smile hinting at something I apparently didn’t understand.  The tilt of the head kicked slightly back as if to catch what I was missing. Then he was gone…but the echos of his presence remained.

Over the years, I’ve seen him from time to time.  Always when I least expect it.  Never when I am depressed or hypo-manic.  Only when I am somewhere in between…that purgatory so many rely on as some kind of awkward baseline.  He seems to go where I go…Europe, China, North Carolina, Austin, Alaska.  And his smile changes only less often than the look in his eyes that makes me believe he could step out of the glass if he wanted to and unleash on the world…destruction?  Mayhem?  Chaos?  Death?  Honestly, even now, after having seen him for years, I don’t know what he would do.


I’ve often wondered who this person is and what exactly I am to make of him.  Some days, I shake his stare off with a quick twist of the neck.  Others, the erie sensation and general level of discomfort linger longer.  If I had to guess, I would say this isn’t really related to being bipolar, although my interpretation of it is obviously filtered through my illness.  Perhaps it is a glimpse into the darkness I feel inside, a way for me to turn the void into something I can relate to.  I mean really, who actually can comprehend an eternity of nothing, oblivion?

Perhaps it is a way to keep my ego in check, to remind myself that even when “level” or operating near “normal” there is something not quite right inside me. I’ve been told I have an extremely long fuse, but when it goes…it goes big.  Not violent, just loud.  I have a voice that projects apparently.  But nothing like what I see in the mirror, nothing like the power and endless possibility and fear which reach out from the glass and float through my carefully organized world view.

I’ve never found a way to be comfortable with these instances.  They are, as I said, unnerving.  Not enough to make me question my sanity (then again, they say if you can question your sanity then you can’t be insane), not enough to make me run to the shrink for a med adjustment.  But they do make me slow down, take stock and wonder…if he ever steps out of the glass, if he ever realizes that he can, would I be able to stop him?  Or would I end up fetal in the corner watching as he stepped into my life and I learned to exist two-dimensionally?  And should I find it odd that I do believe he could step out of the glass if he wanted to?

Even more important, I find myself wondering what he thinks of me.  Or if he thinks of me at all.  Which in the end I know is irrelevant and it is all just mental masturbation where all of my creativity is just foreplay.  But if you see him or someone in your mirror that you believe could be in the same place and the same type of person…tell them hi for me and let them know I’m not really looking forward to seeing him again, but know I will.

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