One thing I have realized with the benefit of hindsight is how much depression skews a person’s view of the word, and of himself. There’s nothing fun about seeing yourself in a funhouse mirror all the time, but Tony did. He saw the world that way, too. Everything was twisted and the wrong size and shape, and uglier and scarier than it was in real life.
I’ve mentioned before that Tony was not a tall man. He and I were about the same height – I might’ve actually been a little taller than he. He was so insecure about his height. A few times before we met, he had been on some internet dating sites (we actually met on one) and had really internalized the height requirements specified by certain women. Height didn’t matter to me – he knew that it didn’t, because I told him so repeatedly – but he really hated that he was shorter than average. He wanted so much to be tall. I remember shortly after we moved to San Diego he read an article in Men’s Health magazine that talked about a surgery that could add 2-3 inches to a man’s height. It was said to be excruciatingly painful; but he said that if he had the money, he’d have it done in a heartbeat. I never understood that, not really. Looking back now, I can see what I couldn’t see then. He looked at himself in that funhouse mirror because his depression meant he didn’t have any other kind. He looked, and he saw a dwarf. Someone to be pitied, looked down upon, mocked.
The same was true of his skin. He would get a tiny little whitehead, and in his mind, in that mirror, it was Mount Everest. It would become the only thing he could see, and he assumed that it was the only thing other people could see, too. Like most people, he had some bad experiences in school with other kids saying cruel things to him. I don’t know anybody who hasn’t had at least one experience of that kind. Many of us manage to shake those off. I was constantly mocked for my curly hair. Not only do I not worry about that any more, I love my curls. Sure, I’ve recently discovered the thrill of flat-ironing my hair; but I wouldn’t actually trade my curls for straight hair. For Tony, that’s not the way it worked. Those schoolyard and school bus taunts stayed with him. They were all he could see.
I didn’t understand, while he was alive, how pervasively negative his view of himself was. I had myself convinced that it helped when I told him what I saw when I looked at him. He was so handsome, truly. That’s what people saw when they met him. I’m sure people noticed his height, but I know that none of our friends judged him by that. What they saw, what they loved about him, was his quick wit, his sense of humor, his contagious laugh. His passion, his talent, his drive. His affection and his compassion. That’s what mattered. But in the mirror that Tony used, those things were so small as to be invisible. What loomed large were his lack of height, his imperfect skin, that he didn’t work a traditional job or drive a new car or wear nicer clothes. The fact that I wouldn’t want to be friends with anybody who would judge him based on those things, the fact that I am naturally drawn to people who have a different sort of value system than that, never made a real impression on him. That’s not to say that he didn’t love our friends and family. It’s that he didn’t see them for who they truly were, any more than he could see himself accurately. Or me, for that matter.
That’s the one that hurts. I wonder, so often, if he really understood how much I loved him. How much I would have done for him. How much I did actually do, how much of what I needed I gave up so that I could try – and fail, as it turns out – to give him what he needed, so desperately. I do know, intellectually at least, that it’s not my failure. It feels like my failure, though. It still feels that way. I wanted so very much to believe that I could save him. To believe that I could pull him away from that funhouse image of himself and give him a true picture of what he had to offer, of why the world was better with him in it.
What I am struggling to accept is that nobody could have done that. The only one who could have was Tony himself. But how hard, when his whole life he saw only that image of himself, to believe that it wasn’t the true image. How hard, to make yourself believe in even the possibility that you’ve been wrong about yourself for so many years; that maybe you know yourself least of all, certainly less than the people who love you who would give anything to have you back. He thought he did know.
So many of my memories of Tony involve him looking at himself in the mirror. He worried about how he looked, constantly. That sounds like vanity, but it wasn’t. He was looking because I think he was hoping for what he would have considered a miracle. He was hoping he’d look and see a tall man, with clear skin and shining eyes and self-confidence, a man with the keys to a new car in his hand. He was hoping to see what he felt he should be; and instead, he felt shamed by what he was. He had this image of what it meant to be a man that was so at odds with what matters to me, and yet so dictated by societal expectations. I think that on some level, in spite of all my reassurances to the contrary, he thought that I was shamed by what he was. He couldn’t have been more wrong.