The Man in the (Funhouse) Mirror

Tony walking funhouse

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. 

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16 thoughts on “The Man in the (Funhouse) Mirror

  1. I think in our day and age there are a lot of distortions. Like an anorexic looks in a mirror and they see a fat person. Or a model that go in for cosmetic surgery. I don’t think it is vanity, just distorted perceptions of self. You wish you can show them what you see, but unfortunately you just can’t.

    • You’re so right, Jovi. It was never vanity with Tony, ever. It was the opposite. I just wish he could have seen what I saw. He had so many great qualities.

  2. It’s not failure on your part, love. You haven’t failed when you can’t reverse the tide or stop the sun from setting. Those are things too powerful, and too beyond your purview, for you to change them one way or the other. How your Tony saw himself was an immoveable force, and you couldn’t have changed it, no matter how well you loved him- and you loved him well, Aimee. You did. I love you, Sister. xo

  3. Thank you for this. As I’m reading your words and Joni’s comment, I can’t help but think of my own funhouse mirror. When I look in my mirror, when I see my flaws that are SO GLARINGLY OBVIOUS (how do people NOT judge me by them when they are all I see!?!), I always minimize my husband’s compliments. I have always assumed that he just didn’t get it, he just doesn’t understand why my flaw is SUCH an issue, my you have helped me realize that maybe *I* don’t understand how much it ISN’T an issue. Thank you for helping me step away from my warped mirror.

  4. Dear Aimee…I am finding you and caring for you, and sending you whatever prayers you need, because I know and love your dear sister. I don’t know why I hadn’t truly connected you in my mind, but I’m glad to send support directly to you now. I can’t begin to understand depression, that unexplainable fixation on the negative things that most others either don’t see, or don’t think could be a big deal. I can’t imagine the guilt – grief combination you may feel, although as an outsider, I don’t see any fault in the way you loved Tony. Clearly the world lost a good man. For his family, I wish he could have seen all the good. Blessings and Grace to you in your grief, thank you for sharing your husband with us, and I am so sorry for your loss.

  5. Hi Aimee, Once again wonderful post. Sharing your heart and soul so eloquently! Curious as to who were some of the men that Tony admired?

    • Hi Mitch, what a great question. He admired a lot of writers, perhaps not surprisingly. If you had asked him this question and he had to narrow it down to one, he probably would have mentioned Robert Smith from The Cure. His lyrics are so beautiful, and if you’ve heard him in interviews, he’s an intelligent, quirky, passionate person. He also had a lot of admiration for George Clooney, as an actor, writer and director, but also as a humanitarian. Charlie Kaufman was probably his screenwriting idol, because he had such an original voice and has held so true to it in the face of pressure to conform. I’m sure there are others I’m not thinking about now, but I think this would be a great topic for a future post. Thank you so much for reading, and participating in the conversation.

  6. I’m thinking about Don in the context of your post…more insight into understanding him…Don was short and from things he told me his mother saw his fraternal twin as the golden boy…the twin was a little taller, had curly blond hair and blue eyes and apparently could do no wrong (in his mother’s eyes). I like short men…I loved Don…I don’t believe he ever believed how much I loved him.

    • I think I was much more aware of the pressures on women to look a certain way, but after being with Tony and loving him for so long, I realized that there’s a lot of pressure on men too — it’s just different. It’s less about being handsome, and more about physical strength and size, and power (whether financial, physical, etc).

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