They Do It With Mirrors

How do you get into someone’s head?

Easy. You do it with mirrors.

I went to a Christian boarding school for my last two years of high school, an experience about which I have mixed emotions.  On the one hand, I was a mess and no denying it, and the religious community the students had there combined with the stability of institutional life was really good for my socially isolated, obsessive compulsive little teenage self. The overall experience was one that I don’t think I’d trade for anything. On the other hand, some of my experiences with the administration and staff was not necessarily so fabulous and has left indelible, negative marks on my worldview.

I was bulimic as a teenager, not so severely that I ever had to be hospitalized but bad enough that residential treatment options were seriously discussed and at least one doctor refused to believe that I was merely bulimic and not anorexic. I was also a Really Good Kid. I was polite to others. I got good grades. I didn’t steal, swear, drink or do drugs. When it didn’t have to do with concealing my bulimia and self injury habits, I didn’t lie. I was compliant and tried to please those around me, especially those in authority. I was serious about my religion and spirituality and I didn’t break rules. It was part of my whole being-obsessive-compulsive thing.

At my home church in California, everybody knew me and what kind of kid I was. They knew that I was trustworthy and they treated me like I was trustworthy. They had faith in me, even with my evident issues. When I left California for boarding school in Michigan, however, I quickly discovered that I’d left a healthy share of that good faith behind me. Mostly what the boarding school staff knew about me was that I had an eating disorder, which seemed to be interpreted by some of them as meaning that regardless of anything else I did or was, I was untrustworthy.

The school had a default doctor to whom they took students. Because of the bulimia I had my initial visit tout de suite once the school year began, to be followed up on on a weekly and then an every-other-weekly basis. It was one of the great shocks of my life up to that point when she told me near the end of that first appointment and at the tail end of a longer monologue that definitely breached the line of medical professionalism that I needed to, “drop the attitude.”  I looked over to see the principal of the school, who had accompanied me to the appointment, nod in agreement.

I didn’t know what to say. I had never in my life been accused of having “an attitude.”  I wasn’t even sure what she meant. I had just undergone an examination that–speaking as an adult half my life away from the situation–was not entirely appropriate. (Not that anything even remotely criminal had occurred, but definitely not appropriate, either.) I was sixteen and a thousand miles from home, with a disorder closely linked to a sense of personal powerlessness, without a parental advocate, feeling violated and vulnerable and knowing that I had to control the negative emotions I was feeling because to give vent to them might mean getting sent home, back to the isolation and other circumstances that had led me to make the decisions that led to the eating disorder in the first place.  Perhaps this grim holding in was what she interpreted as some kind of defiant attitude, because I had answered her questions and complied with her orders and hadn’t said anything that I’d intended to be rude.  Perhaps the fact that I was bulimic was all it took to mean I had an attitude. Either way, the principal clearly agreed with the doctor.

I was clearly not in California anymore, and good faith was not something these people were willing to extend to me.

Boarding school is an innately dysfunctional environment.  Even those that do some kids good–like mine did for me–can’t help the fact that they are an institution doing what healthy families are better designed to accomplish and are, therefore, relationally and psychologically just a little off from the get-go. This is especially true when it’s as closed off from outside interaction as this one was and affiliated with a traditionally isolationist religious sect. Under those circumstances it becomes a small, tight world unto itself, and to those living there its rules and norms began to seem like Truth, even if they were actually arbitrary or artificial. Instead of looking directly at the world, the group holds up mirrors that frame what’s out there and what’s in here in particular ways, and that is what you look at. And that’s what you get used to believing in.

I arrived at boarding school already in the possession of the cognitive dysfunction typical of bulimics. I looked in the mirror and I saw fat where there was none. Internally, all I could see of myself was the worst, swollen to epic proportions. I neither can nor would try to say that that was because of the school or any party there.  But the distorting lenses through which I saw myself were lent credence through how some members of staff reacted to me–not like I was a good kid with problems, but like I was a problem.

I did some wrong things.  I told–to my memory, and my OCD conscience is highly attuned to remembering such incidents–exactly two lies to staff to cover up eating-disorder-related behavior.  On both occasions I went directly to those staff members within a few days and confessed and asked forgiveness.  A wild attempt at concealing a bulimic incident led to some property damage (which, if you’re into dark comedy, is actually a really funny story that I’ll save for another day).  But I was honestly trying, and outside of bulimia (and not wearing a uniform belt under my sweater for the first half of the school year until my conscience pricked and I got a belt even if no one could see I was wearing it), I was among the most well-behaved students at the school, one of maybe five out of a hundred who never got even a single disciplinary write-up.

I’m amazed looking back at the amount of pressure I put on myself.  I expected perfection in every arena and when I couldn’t deliver I responded with hate.  I wanted to destroy myself to make up for all the things I couldn’t do or be. It was way too much to demand of myself, and I’m not surprised that I couldn’t hack it and ended up turning to bulimia to deal with the overwhelmingly negative emotions that resulted. I wasn’t out for attention. I wasn’t trying to make trouble. I wasn’t intentionally misbehaving or being disobedient or acting defiantly.

I was just trying to cope with things I couldn’t cope with.

At least, that’s one version of the story.

The problem with living in an environment where authority figures–or even a subset of authority figures with direct power over you but no affectionate, parental relationship with you–persistently reflect you back to yourself using mirrors of their choosing is that your own vision becomes fractured. You see the situation as it is to you, but also as it is to them. You start to lose your confidence that your experience of your own life and self is accurate.  Even years later, part of me wonders if any of my memories about what I was like–who I was, how I was, what I did–were really how things happened.  Part of me always wonders . . .

Were they right about me?

Which means that they were very good at getting in my head. Fifteen years later, they’re still in there. Fifteen years later, I still don’t trust many Christian institutions or authorities. Fifteen years later, the sense of rejection and of being unfairly judged still stings. Fifteen years later, I’m still trying to judge them fairly for the way they hurt me without meaning to, or meaning to but honestly thinking it was what I needed to help me get better.  Fifteen years later, I’m still trying to arrive at some solid conclusion about what really happened, whether I was the person I thought I was or the person they treated me like.

I’m still trying to understand and still finding that I can’t see clearly through my own eyes.

Only through a mirror, darkly, as it were.

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