Birds of a Feather
It wasn’t very far into the Oscar-nominated movie Black Swan that it became apparent something was very wrong with Natalie Portman’s character, Nina. An overachieving ballerina with a mother who is borderline infatuated with her daughter, her beautiful but extremely fragile facade begins to crack almost as soon as we are introduced to her.
She practices her dance, obsessively and frantically, to the point of injury; she sees things that aren’t there; she vomits repeatedly; and she harms herself with picking and scratching. As these things are happening in the movie, the audience in the theater where I am sitting gets a little vocal. They gasp, they murmur, they all seem to share the same opinion of the crazy girl. I nod and murmur, as well. Vigorously. Perhaps a little too vigorously. I pull it back a bit.
But I’m uncomfortable. Some of those “crazy” things that Nina does, I also do. And the gasps feel like stinging judgment.
I live with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, which presents as both Body Dysmorphic Disorder and Dermatillomania. This basically means I am preoccupied with my appearance in an unhealthy way — often having a distorted view of that appearance — and I scratch at myself.
I’ve always known that I was a little bit off. Of course, most teen girls are critical of their own looks, but I was extreme about it. I would become fixated on tiny flaws I would find with myself, mostly on my face.
“I don’t see it,” friends would say.
“Right there!” I’d reply, completely frustrated, “The skin is a different color. It’s disgusting.”
Coming from a family with roots in Scotland, there was no shortage of freckles to point at, be consumed by, and scratch at. “That shouldn’t be there,” I’d think, and try to remove it. I’d stare in the mirror for long periods of time, making me seem vain or insecure. But it was more than that.
When I was in my late teens and early twenties, BDD morphed into bulimia. I spent a few years vomiting, obsessing about imperfections, and scratching. I weighed myself several times every day and misused laxatives, and tiny blemishes (and, sometimes, nothing at all) turned into scars. I lived in a house with giant, sliding mirrors for closet doors and could stand in front of them for hours, nose almost to glass, tormented by every imperfection. I stopped leaving the house except for desperate runs to the grocery store so that I could feed my family and the void in me — food which the void would send back a short time later into the toilet. Plus there was the seven-day a week trek to the gym. Since gyms tend to put mirrors on every flat surface in the building, I could stare at myself while I chased perfection (which I wouldn’t know even if it existed and I had achieved it). While the other gym users would watch TV while they worked out, coming and going around me, time would stand still as I watched a distorted version of myself climb a staircase to nowhere for hours on end. Then I would quickly run home for more up-close inspection and scratching. At some point, the scratching became subconscious, and I could be be doing something as simple as watching TV and end up with blood on my face and hands, not remembering hurting myself. That was one of the hardest things for me to watch in the movie — Nina seeing the damage she’d done without even realizing it, and looking confused. Add a look of disappointment upon realizing she’d been doing it, and that’s the most I have ever looked like Natalie Portman in my life.
Today, I’m healthier. I’ve been through years of therapy and tried several anxiety medications, but I’ve settled on meditation and visualization when my brain starts whirring with destructive thoughts. I only have a few mirrors in my house and limit my time in front of them. On bad days, that means setting an alarm for 15 minutes so that I can apply my makeup and brush my hair but not get lost in my reflection. I still scratch at myself, especially when I am under a lot of stress, but usually realize it before too long and find another way to deal with what’s going on.
So, I related more than some people to Nina as she danced with madness and, ultimately, was consumed by it. It was a month ago, and I’m still having nightmares. Not about the movie, but about the experience of seeing the movie. And the disgust of the audience. Of course, I’m not ripping all the skin off of my hand or pulling feathers from my back and, objectively, I know that the behavior is shocking and their responses were normal. But objectivity has little to do with things when you have my condition. If it did, I wouldn’t have all these scars.