Looking Beyond The Mirror

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The black sports shoes—the only pair of shoes I have—weren’t in a condition to grace my feet for any outing without being washed first. There was nothing I could do as I noticed that late, right before steppin out to meet a friend after a long time. I subtly judged myself for living an unorganized life. Then, my self-esteem made a comeback, saying that it’s the pandemic effect. It has put me out of touch with the MO for going out of the house: clean clothes and shoes. (also, taking a bath) I was meeting my friend after three months. These three months I’d stayed at home, in my bed, and in my mind. I observed one thing about myself during this stillness, that I have this obsession of being productive all the time, even when I’m taking a break from being productive. (let’s read a few essays while taking a smoke break) I was rummaging through my small almirah looking for a shirt when the power went out. Ironing seemed quite an ambitious goal so, I put on a crumpled brown–checked shirt from a heap of clothes lying on the floor. Usually I do my hair in front of the mirror, making sure my man bun creates an illusion of high hair volume. But without the lights I could only slide my fingers across the cold and grimy surface of the mirror. Relying on intuition, I did my hair, put on the shirt, black trackpants, shoes, grabbed the keys and stepped out of the house after ages for a non–essential outing. I’d just got in the car when it began to rain, beginning my journey on a plesant note. I put on radio.

The cafe where we were meeting was about 30 minutes away. It was a pre-monsoon shower of July so I knew it wouldn’t last long. Ten minutes later it started pouring heavily and the traffic was forced to dawdle down the road. Sidelights blinking discordantly, highlighting the periphery of the vehicle. Visibility was low. I almost hit a motorist when he’d suddenly slowed down. A pole which had speed cams mounted on top of it was uprooted by the stormy winds; it was resembling a mitre arch. People were left with no choice but to pass under it, hoping to get across before it collapses. A game of luck began. I slowly drove closer to it and then pressed hard on the accelerator. Completed the mission unharmed. Heart was racing.

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Radio signals were slogging away to play me some songs while I smoked a cigarette. The windows were rolled up; it got smoggy inside the cabin. A familiar tune was playing and my hands reached for the volume knob. With every increased level of sound, my heart slipped into deep dejection; a tear coursed down my left cheek as if doing a duet with the raindrop on the window. I let out a cavernous sigh and a nicotine laden puff. I’d first heard this song lying naked in the arms of a woman. It was the most memorable night of my life. The night that eventually commissioned my steepest downfall. It was a song about the high you achieve when you get drunk in your lover’s presence. All the healing I had achieved in the past 18 months seemed to have disappeared, lost, like other frequencies on the radio. I was in a long–distance relationship with a woman that I’d met on my solo trip to the mountains. I had just finished directing a play for primary school kids and headed for the himalayas to wind down. She had a beautiful smile, golden brown hair, and a petite build; seemed so welcoming and interested that my generally–low self–esteem catapulted into the exosphere. The euphoric state lasted for about two months. In the following days, I was narcissistically abused by her, lost both of my parents and all of my savings, and gave up my only passion—music.

The romantic manipulations hadn’t paused even when both of my parents were battling for their lives in the hospital. Not even when I, along with my elder sister, was grappling hard with a corrupt hospital administration that only saw my parents as ideal candidates for their ventilator machines. She discarded me on my birthday, announcing her marriage to a man who’d agreed to support her financially. Humiliated and abandoned, dysphoria became my new normal. Three months later, the pandemic showed up with its heavy suitcases and an intent to stay for long. It landed an ugly blow to all of my dealing mechanisms—working, travelling, or dating. I was homebound, grieving for my parents, a broken heart (or rather shattered), my hard–earned savings, and a sense of self. The human brain always wants to find answers, striving on solving problems. Mine, during the lockdown, went on to explore psychology to understand how the hell I’d gotten myself into this situation. Why was I still attracted to the facade and why did I allow myself to be walked over? I stumbled upon the concept of validation and how evident the aftermath is, when a child is deprived of it during the initial years of his character development. It was an epiphany. I was experiencing an aftermath.

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I’d stepped into adulthood as a timid person. Just the thought of a confrontation would send shivers down my spine. People–pleasing became my MO as it made me feel safe—servility meant survival. As a result, all of the bonds that I formed reflected inequality. I was always providing for others; exhausting myself to the point of breaking down. For me, self–worth was something that others rewarded you with for your labor. I was always seeking the validation and love that I didn’t receive in my childhood, and this pursuit frequently led me to toxic relationships because they seemed familiar. My heart became habitual to yearning for love and appreciation, hence I was always drawn toward emotionally unavailable people. Friends, band mates, lovers; all were totally opposite to me in nature. I sucked up to frontmen of all the bands that I played guitars with, as it was only their approval which would allow me to freely express my creativity. Then I realised that my friends were my friends because I was accommodating. An ‘assertive’ version of myself wouldn’t have gone down well with them since we all have a tendency to resist change.

I’d lost everything in last two years, and now I was at the crossroads. One road was the familiar, submissive one that I’ve taken for years and the other one was unknown and foggy, like the one I was driving on. My emotions were abandoned in that relationship, and to survive this apocalyptic phase, I had to please one more person. This person had yearned for my attention for long and I felt it was time; my last chance to tell him that he’s worthy. I had to suck up to myself now. Instead of expecting others to provide me a sense of self-worth, I had to get it from myself because according to all the self-help books I’d gone through, if I didn’t do it now, if I didn’t change now, I’ll continue to attract narcissistic abuse since my brain was too familiar with the push and pull dynamics.

I started by establishing boundaries around what I allow and what I don’t allow into my life. Anything that urged me to pretend started getting my least attention. If someone was calling me and I wasn’t feeling like speaking at that moment, I allowed myself to not pick up the call. Just a few days ago, my friends were planning to meet up and invited me. The ‘old me’ would’ve accepted the invitation despite being uncomfortable with going out yet. But this time, I turned down the invite due to my anxiety around roaming around in public spaces. Covid is still there. Their disapproval was quite evident in their behaviour in the following weeks. One of my close friends said that I am being too selfish as I plan meet-ups only when I feel like doing so. I swear I believed him for a moment as I’d never been assertive about my needs, and it felt alien to me. To even muster the courage to express yourself freely when people are used to you being compliant is quite a task. It’s discomfort for them as it is for you. I found myself sliding back to the old self-defeating behavioural patterns from time to time. But I’d read somewhere that healing is never linear, it happens in a haphazard manner; one day you feel empowered and the next day you’re bending over backwards just to give comfort to someone.

The transition was overwhelming; my body–mind needed all the rest and solitude it could muster. The pandemic opened one of its suitcases and offered me both. Meditation found its way to me as well, to assist my brain in this metamorphoses. Anxiety, hypervigilance, saying yes when you want to say no, being attracted to the potential than the reality—all of my lifelong masters agreed to slacken the leash.

Reducing engagement with friends or family members with whom I couldn’t feel connected, turned out to be the most crucial step. The discomfort that it caused me brought to surface my codependency and it prodded me to choose my people ‘mindfully’. But this phase was too isolating. When you realize that the world has been interacting with the hologram of the frightened child inside you and not the adult you, there’s nothing you can call yours anymore. Dysphoria presented itself overtly. My life seemed like a blank computer disk without any history, emotions, or anything else. I had to build an identity, a character. There was also this persistent urge to be the provider that had to be battled with. It took me some time—28 years precisely—to understand that not everyone will like you. You have to believe that you’re valuable and that there’s no need to prove it. Nowadays, whenever I’m around people, the child inside me, like always, wants to justify his existence by contributing unsolicitedly and I have to remind him that it’s uncalled for. I ask him to stop. I must say that he listens; he’s accommodating.

It was challenging to foster the thought that I am worthy just the way I am, and that I don’t need to always bend to be loved and respected. That’s not entirely true. We all play some role in the lives of others and we have to compromise with our needs sometimes. But for someone who believed people–pleasing was the only means to survive, this was the most appropriate message. I had to learn how to trust myself with protecting, validating, and caring for myself. We’re all here on Mission Earth and we must learn how to survive here with dignity. Here, we’ll meet and form bonds with others who have their own problems and limitations. We must ensure that we don’t build relationships subconsciously to meet an unmet childhood need. Otherwise, codependency will always come to haunt us when we’re least prepared. Waking up with positive affirmations, speaking up for myself, and claiming my space. I was beginning to make peace with the fact that I’m alone and that it’s nobody’s fault. I thought maybe, I’ve been given a clean slate by the universe to rewrite my life.

The rain had stopped well before I reached the cafe. After parking the car, I went for a stroll. It felt liberating as I walked on the wet cemented roads at my own pace instead of catching up to someone. I entered the cafe and saw my friend waving at me. We ordered coffee. She complimented my checked shirt saying that it looked good on me. I smiled. Not because of the praise, but the realization that my transition had happened. Earlier that day when I was getting ready, I couldn’t see myself in the mirror as there was no power. I didn’t wait for the mirror to validate me. I trusted my inner voice for the thumbs up. I had looked beyond the mirror.

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