self portrait esme weijun wangOne of the things that I learned at Redfox — the retreat I was at in England — was that my self-esteem had, over the decades, become pummeled beyond recognition. As with all things that happen gradually, and over a long period of time, I was shocked when I realized it, and then shocked that it took me so long to realize. I remembered sneaking a look at my therapist’s notes when I was sixteen; one of the only two things that I remember seeing is that according to the notes, I had “very low self-esteem.”

After an intense night of feeling my heart physically shift in my chest with the possibility of a new way of being, I went into the elaborate Art Deco bathroom that I’d been blessed with, and I stood in front of the gilded mirror. I realized that I hadn’t really looked at my face in almost a year. I’d looked through it when checking my lipstick, or making sure that my lashes weren’t doing something silly, but I hadn’t seen the face as a whole. I had forgotten what I looked like. I was, in fact, afraid of what I looked like; I’d been avoiding reflective surfaces for the duration of my psychotic episode, and the habit continued after the episode faded. If I didn’t deserve to exist, why on earth would I deserve to see my own face? To possess a face to begin with?

I made myself stare in the mirror, and for a time all I could see were the disparate parts — a nose, eyes, things that I recognized as Face and even My Face, but could not, somehow, cohere.

Over the next hour I wandered around the room, feeling the heart shift, and it was later that night, after some barely legible scrawling in my notebook, that I took this picture above.

It’s not anything special, I know, in and of itself. It’s significant because it’s a representation of  seeing myself again. 

You may remember — or you may not — a period in which young, female self-portraits were common online. That was all we took pictures of, really. We were accused of vanity by outsiders, but we understood what we were doing; at least, I understood what I was doing when I took pictures of myself from different angles, in different forms of clothing, in different places. I was affirming my existence. I was curious about who I was and what space I inhabited in the world. I saw photographs of myself and knew that I was someone because I’d been captured by something, and thus, made real, as I am now remembering I am, and as I always was.

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