Friday, April 18, 2003

I met a tortured soul today.

It was in the bathroom at the Barnes and Noble where I work. I had just clocked out for lunch, gone into the bathroom and barely noticed the young woman standing at the sink looking at herself in the mirror. After I finished my business, I came out to wash my hands.

She was still there.

Not grooming, not washing her hands, just staring in the mirror. I finished washing, then walked over to the towel dispenser and pulled out a paper towel. As I dried my hands, she turned toward me and walked toward me rapidly, stopping a half foot from me and said, "Excuse me, can I ask your opinion on something?"

"Sure," I said, feeling my hair prickle on the back of my neck from the sudden rise of adrenaline. We were the only two in there, and though she looked completely normal, her sudden action startled me.

She then pulled the neck of her shirt down to expose her neckline and chest area and said breathing rapidly between sentences, "I had acne, and I'm wondering if you can see scars all over my chest."

I studied her skin, and said, "No, not at all." And it was true. I couldn't.

She walked back to the mirror and pulled her shirt aside and said, "All I see are scars here, see all these white dots?"
"Only if you point to them," I said, which caused her more worry.
She turned back toward me and said, "I used all this exfoliating stuff and I think that I did more damage. Are they really noticeable? Does it look really bad?"
"No," I said, "not at all. In fact you have a very even skin tone."
She began to shake and get teary, and said, "All I see are scars when I look at myself. I gave myself a rash with the exfoliating lotion. Can you see the rash?" she said, and pointed at the nape of her neck.

There was no rash to be seen.

"No, I said, "there is no rash."
"You really can't see anything?" she said.
"Nothing."
"So you think that I could wear something that showed my neck and chest?"
"Absolutely," I reassured her.

Let me pause here, by saying this was a very attractive woman, who had beautiful skin, beautiful long blonde hair, and a beautiful face. She couldn't be more than in her early twenties. She went back to study herself in the mirror, and became more teary. She continued to point at her skin and ask me if I saw her scars, to which I assured her I did not.

This went on for a good five minutes, to which I asked her why she was concentrating so hard on imperfections that were not there. She broke into tears, and said that she couldn't stop, that she didn't know why she was like this because she wasn't like this before, that she was intelligent, but had lost her last job as a nurse due to this obsessiveness. I told her that I was no expert, but it sounded to me like she was suffering from body dysmorphic disorder, and that she needed to get help.

She knew what the condition was, and asked me if she should just ignore these feelings. I said that was the last thing that she should do, because they had obviously gotten the better of her and would come back. I said that a psychiatrist could help her, and that they can prescribe medication. She went back to focusing on her complexion, holding her arms out, almost as if she was trying to separate herself from her skin. Then, she chastised herself for doing that, and I said, "This thing is bigger than you are right now, and you need help to get through it. You are not crazy, it's just that your brain is misfiring information and being mean to you. It's no way to live, because really, it isn't you. It's your brain making you think it is. So much that it's debilitating."

On that part, I was an expert.

I stayed and talked with this woman for twenty minutes. I could see that she was terrified and felt very alone, and that there was a rational woman inside who was frustrated at her erratic behavior. She was so afraid, that she turned to a stranger to ask if what she was seeing was real. She broke into tears again, saying she hated herself so much and wanted to stop. I told her that she was not crazy, that it probably felt that way right now, but that she wasn't. I said that she would talk to many people who wouldn't know what to do or say to her, which is why she needed a professional. But I reiterated, that just because these people may not know what to say, that it did not mean that she was crazy. When she asked me what I saw when I looked at her, I said that I saw a beautiful young woman, and that was true. I told her that getting over this was going to be a process of therapy and possibly medication, and shared with her my own experiences with depression and anxiety attacks. That seemed to calm her, that this "normal" person that she had turned to was not so "normal" after all. And, that those who may seem to be living a carefree existence while you are in a personal hell, may just have walked down the road you are traveling and be able to lead you to a short cut.

I tried to give her that shortcut, but only she can decide to take it. I left her by telling her that I'd come from the fashion and film industry, and that so many of these people who are so called perfect are far from that. I said that Cameron Diaz had bad skin, but one would never know from her pictures or movies, and that Brad Pitt had acne scars. She was surprised at both of those facts, and that seemed to bring her back to some sort of calm and functioning level. Lastly I said, as soon as you leave the store, to make it priority one to call a doctor for a referral.

For her sake, I hope she does. However, at least that day she learned that not everyone, even a total stranger, would recoil away from her startling behavior, but instead offer a connection between her and reality. And that some of us will stop to hoist someone who is frightened and in need, one step higher out of the hole.