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Man in the Mirror

“For this week’s WordPromptWednesday, write about the reflection in the mirror being different than reality.”

I read that and chuckled, then cried on the inside. Why is my life always ironic? And why does God have a warped sense of humor?

I don’t often read or comment on patient-based AE threads, but right before I saw the Word Prompt from my local writing group, one caught my eye. A woman asked if anyone had any before and after pictures of being on steroids, as she thought her face was swollen.

I scrolled through the comments and realized that I was never alone with how I looked and felt when I took more roids than were ever uncovered in MLB. I also told that lady not to worry, that she looked great, and that with her reduction in pills would come loss of fluid.

I don’t need to use my creative fiction brain (great, because I don’t have one) to write about seeing someone in the mirror who isn’t you. I lived it. To be honest, there’s still a tiny part of me that continues to stare in the mirror with that vague uncertainty of whom it is looking back.

I’ll never look at my photograph the same again. There’s an invisible line demarcating prior to May, 2018, and after. It’s the first thing I notice (that and my youth, how rested I was, why Mom allowed me a perm in 4th grade, and how blissfully naïve I was to encephalitis).

As early as July, 2018, I noticed that my face was swelling. In my daughter’s first day of Kindergarten photos in August, it was very apparent, and someone actually laughed at me. By the end of September, I cursed a friend for giving me a size Med shirt that was “defective,” because it was skin tight. That same day, my little brother asked me if my face hurt (it did) and said it looked like it would pop to a touch (I agree). About two days later, my whole body just spilled over, and by Halloween, a lawyer I knew introduced himself to me.

I shaved my entire face twice. The first time, I only shaved my moustache. My boobs shrunk. I had a pregnancy belly and a hunchback. My stretch marks were deep and purple, and my skin broke. After a foot of my hair was cut and donated, it quit growing and fell out.

The first two comments I remember, from people who truly took pity on my state, were from my aunt and uncle. My aunt watched me hobble to try to carve pumpkins with my kids, and cried. My renegade uncle saw me in a picture, didn’t recognize me, and then nearly cried.

I looked awful, and I knew it.

It wasn’t because of my weight or bad hair, that’s shallow and I knew (really hoped) it was temporary. It was awful because it wasn’t me. I had become a mutated version of myself.

I met new people at the tail end of the year-long recovery and desperately wanted to say, “My name’s Jackie. I don’t look like this.” But I didn’t. I just went along with it. I realized that not everyone could know my story, so I sucked it up.

When my colleague Dianna saw me in the airport on my third or twentieth trip to Mayo, she pulled me aside. She said that she was so proud of me for allowing my photo to be taken and shared. It was the first time anyone told me that. Living in my (clueless) Jackie-world, I hadn’t even considered a No Photograph policy. My illness was my reality, and that reality gave way to a changed appearance.

I hated it, but I never wanted to run from it. Truly, I just found a way to look through the mirror that reflected a morphed-Jackie. She wasn’t me. I remembered me, and reminded the crying lady in my conscious that it was only a state.

To everyone out there who is on steroids (or chemo, or other cocktails) (especially my ladies), I’m sorry. I get it. The good news is, a lot of the icky hair, fluid, acne, and other things you don’t see inside a Glamour magazine, do go away with your taper.

And the stuff that remains – like the broken skin in my armpit that looks like a burn scar – wear it like a badge of armor.

Just keep being you. You’re still you, no matter who you see looking back at you. Don’t judge yourself for it, and act with grace and compassion, just as you would to a friend. Tell yourself you’re still pretty (smart, lovable, cute, attractive, worthy, fun, hot to your husband, a catch [you get my drift]) because you are.

The pictures might be rough for a while, but there’s no need to shy away. Chronic illness takes on a life of its own and by you sharing yourself, you’re promoting empathy and kindness all around you.

At least that was my hope when I showed the world mutant-Jackie.

Thanks for loving me in sickness and in health (mostly you, Sean).

We continue to swim, together.


I’m gonna make a change

For once in my life

It’s gonna feel real good

Gonna make a difference

Gonna make it right

I’m starting with the man in the mirror

I’m asking him to change his ways

And no message could have been any clearer

If you want to make the world a better place

Take a look at yourself, and then make a change ~ Man in the Mirror by Michael Jackson


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