What Do You See in the Mirror When You’re Depressed?

It’s hard to look in a mirror when you know you will your lost self in depression. Quite a while back, there was a TV series about a group of nurses in the Vietnam War called China Beach. In one episode of this powerful drama, a soldier who had lost a leg from the knee down is back home, feeling lost and depressed about his life. Desperate for a loving human bond, he drives a great distance to find the home of one of the nurses who’d taken care of him “in country.”

He finds her and talks stumblingly about his hopes to be with her, and it’s clear he feels like an ugly reject whom no one will have anything to do with. She sees at once that what he’s looking for is an emotional crutch, not a real relationship and gently explains that she can’t be with him. Then she does something amazing. Understanding what he feels about himself, she wants to give him the one message above all that he needs to hear and believe.

Taking him into a room with a full-length mirror, she tells him to stand in front of it and to take off all his clothes. He does that numbly, mechanically, revealing what’s left of his leg, and she tells him to really look at himself, not just the leg. Then she says, in so heartfelt a way:

“You are beautiful.”

Whenever lost in deep depression, I could never even hear, let alone accept a statement like that. I felt ugly inside and out, certain that everyone could see that obvious fact. I winced if anyone pointed a camera at me, especially if they asked me to do the impossible and smile. What I wanted to do was disappear. I couldn’t bear to look at a picture of myself – if I did, I just saw this ugly, overweight mess and wanted to rip it up.

I remember the story of another depressed Vietnam veteran whose struggle with PTSD was featured in a documentary film. In one scene, he was showing the interviewer around his small apartment and stopped by his bed. He said that he often needed to get into it during the day (acting this out as he spoke), reach down for the blanket, and “pull it up – over – my – head. Now, I’m invisible.” That was exactly what I felt so often, and here I could see how terrible it was – to hide your spirit away when you need it most.

It gets that bad when the voice of depression seems like your own, and the beliefs it puts into you are as real as anything in life. I never limited that conviction just to me, but I projected the ugliness onto the physical things I owned – especially around my home. I could only see the shortcomings, the disorder, the mess, and I had to clean it up, improve it with a furious energy to keep it all – and myself – from complete disintegration.

Once in a group therapy session, sitting in a circle of people, all of us in different ways ashamed of who we were, someone mentioned in passing, quite matter-of-factly, that I was handsome. I literally turned around to see who he could be talking about. Then I asked him, “Are you talking about me?” – as if to say, “Man, you really and truly need an eye exam.” Others tried to reassure me, and it was clear that they weren’t just talking about looks – it was about an inner quality they could see that I could never imagine – a kind of beauty. I just thought – OK, this is a group and everyone affirms everyone else so we’ll all feel better. New Age BS! Nevertheless, I felt close to tears and couldn’t get another word out.

Looking back, I think that was the first time I started to question all those depressed beliefs about being a mess, inside and out – doing everything wrong, judged by all the people around me, and on and on. Gradually, I started thinking – Well, maybe all that stuff I keep repeating about how bad I am in every conceivable way is partly depressive thinking – at least a little bit of it.

It took many years for me to see how pervasive depressed thinking was and how convincingly it twisted my mental self-portrait. A lot more of those years went by before a recovery I could hardly imagine finally happened – though I can’t say exactly why or how

These days, I can go outside in the sun and see how beautiful everything around me is. And I can think, I am a part of all this, and I don’t have to listen to what depression is saying. That voice used to be the loudest sound in my mind, but now it’s an occasional nuisance that I know how to get rid of.

Getting better started with that glimmer of doubt about all the negative beliefs and a reminder that there was something still there that others could see, even if I couldn’t.

So I’ll say it to you, even if you can’t believe it, because it’s true, really true.

You are so beautiful.

Photo credit:Some Rights Reserved by Atiqah Aekman W. at Flickr

This post originally appeared at Health Central. There are a couple of China Beach stories I keep coming back to, and I hope this one is as helpful to you as it has been to me.

12 Responses to “What Do You See in the Mirror When You’re Depressed?”

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  1. liz says:

    Hi John — I look forward to seeing your new site. He was just saying that while therapy has been extremely helpful to him over the past year, he wishes that he can have some tangible methods that he can incorporate into his life so that he can feel he has progressed. I know each person’s journey is unique but you sharing your thoughts will be extremely helpful.

    And, please don’t apologize for your late response. You are doing incredible work so that people suffering from depression and their partners understand that they are not alone…

    • John says:

      Thanks so much, Liz – you’re so kind. I’m working hard to pull the new site together and will let you know as soon as I can make it public.

      John

  2. Liz says:

    I am very, very close with a man who suffers from severe depression (as you may remember me when skimming thru your old blog posts dealing with relationships). He has recently begun moving thru a dark depression that has lasted a few months and according to him is the “meanest” it has ever been for him. He has been going thru a medz roller coaster ride which doesn’t make it easier. As I was re-reading this blog, the paragraph stating “It gets that bad when the voice of depression seems like your own…” is almost exactly the words he used when expressing to me how he has been feeling. It’s almost as if he could have written that paragraph himself. I guess what I am trying to say and while it may not provide comfort to know that other people are going thru the same thing, I will forward this to him and let him know that what I have always been telling him is the truth. He is beautiful. Thank you for this…

    • John says:

      Hi, Liz –

      I hope he can not only relate to this post but also get some encouragement and more ideas here on how to silence that voice. The site I’m developing on recovery from depression pulls together the threads running through these posts on methods I’ve found to be effective. Hopefully that may be useful as well.

      I’m sorry to have taken this long to respond – getting a new site underway is incredibly time-consuming.

      My best to you and your friend –

      John

  3. Lynda says:

    John,

    This essay is just what I needed to read this morning. I had a bit of a setback this week and that depression voice is distorting my views of myself + the world. I’ll be back to re-read this a few times more.

    Thanks.

    • John says:

      Hi, Lynda –

      I’m glad it was helpful. Whatever you can do to stifle that deadly voice, keep at it.

      Thanks for coming by and commenting.

      John

  4. Tom says:

    That’s a tough sell. I can’t imagine looking into a mirror and seeing anything I want to see. I’ve shaved in the shower for 40 years to avoid mirrors. That revulsion comes and goes, sometimes in waves, but it never leaves me. The upside is that I’m old and it can’t go on forever.

    • John says:

      Hello, Tom –

      I know it’s tough. I used to wince every time someone took a picture of me – just about doubled up in pain every time I looked at the result. But whether in a snapshot or live in a mirror, that extreme reaction has to be a projection of self-hate. So as I got over depression, that’s one of the tics that went with it.

  5. It took many years for me to see how pervasive depressed thinking was and how convincingly it twisted my mental self-portrait…

    …and I don’t have to listen to what depression is saying. That voice used to be the loudest sound in my mind, but now it’s an occasional nuisance that I know how to get rid of.

    Hear, hear! 🙂

    In the last few years, one of the most important skills I have learned in living with depression is shutting up my ‘dark voice’ – and indeed, if I’m alone and that voice starts nagging me again, I will actually say, “Shut up, damn it!” It’s very cathartic.

    China Beach…now, there’s a trip down memory lane. I’ve never seen it, but hundreds of years ago when I was at university, several girls on my dorm floor made sure that they never missed it. Every now and then, I’ve thought about seeking it out on DVD – and now that you’ve brought it up again, today I will 🙂

    • John says:

      Hi, Black & Blue Man –

      “Shut up” is exactly what I say, too. It tricked me for so long, I don’t want to let it get past one syllable.

      And do have a look at China Beach!

  6. This post made me tear up especially the last part, “You are beautiful.” I want to retreat inside myself because it hurts to hear.

    By the way, I watched China Beach too and remember the episode.

    • John says:

      Hi, CC –

      I know it’s hard to hear and to believe – I guess I wrote this to remind myself. China Beach had so many amazing episodes – there’s another one from that same season (last?) that I’ll write about soon.

      John

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