One day a few years ago I woke up and I could no longer see myself. When I looked into the mirror, I wasn’t there.
I can still see my hands and my body when I look down at it and I still have the sense of touch, but I haven’t seen my face or my full self in a mirror or photo in three years.
Since it happened, I’ve adapted to not being able to do the normal things that people do in a mirror. It’s actually relatively straightforward—there’s not a huge amount of life that requires a reflection.
Every week I go to the barbers and get my beard trimmed (shaving was the first thing to go) and every fortnight I go to the hairdressers and get my hair cut, choosing a style that simply requires a squirt of gel and a vigorous ruffle to give it that just out of bed look. I get complemented on it quite often.
The trips to the hairdressers were weird at first. On my first visit after it happened, I pretended to be in a rush to avoid the whole checking the back of the head bit at the end because I was so afraid of being ‘found out’. That was awkward. Since then, I’ve gotten pretty good at faking it. I’m now well practiced at sensing the position of the hairdresser’s body and nodding in roughly the right direction. She hasn’t noticed—or, at least, hasn’t said anything—and we’ve become pretty good friends.
In fact, that’s the weirdest thing of all—my friends have multiplied to such a degree that I have trouble keeping up with all of them. I haven’t told any of them that I can’t see myself not only because it’s a really strange thing to say to someone but also because the subject of seeing yourself very rarely comes up. People never say things like “I love my new shoes because my reflection looks great in them.” Just doesn’t happen.
I think part of the reason for my new extra large social circle comes from the fact that I’m forever complementing people on their appearance. Not having one of my own I’m acutely aware of everyone else’s. I feel like it’s my duty to try to make them appreciate theirs, lest it also disappears, much like the unfaithful divorcee lamenting the loss of his kids to a bored barkeeper.
Yes, I’m one of those annoying “you’re lucky to have it” types but, unlike jobs or children, people actually don’t mind being reminded at how lucky they are to have a nice looking appearance.
Anyhow, my constant and sincere compliments have earned me the confidence of a great many people and invitations to the beds of a great many women. I’m not saying that was the only reason of course—I was doing OK before—but it certainly hasn’t hurt any.
I won’t pretend that this unforeseen development isn’t an upside but despite having greater choice I am a lot less picky than I used to be. My focus on the appreciation of people’s appearance has literally made me see them differently. It’s not like I was shallow to begin with, but I am a lot less interested in breast size than I used to be and have spent many a happy morning waking up with women whom I may not have given a second look beforehand.
The day it happened (it was a Wednesday in September), I was on the way to the shower when I glanced at the mirror doing a double take when I noticed I wasn’t there. I spent a good few minutes bobbing and weaving in front of it wondering if it was some weird trick of the light before running to the bedroom in nothing but my towel to check the full length mirror. Growing more panicky, I started checking any reflective surface I could, including the oven door and the back of a spoon.
My heart was racing and my mouth was dry. In desperation, I took a photo of myself in the kitchen with my phone—still in nothing but my towel. All I saw was an empty kitchen.
The next thing I did was stupid—I posted it on Instagram and asked people if they could see me. Looking back, I probably should have IM’d a close friend but panic makes people do weird things.
The comments were inevitable:
“Yes, you’re very handsome. Quit fishing.”
“Dude, WTF? Don’t be a douche.”
“Let’s see the rest of it then!”
I did at least learn that other people could see me, which means that I was in the photograph. Where was the information for the empty kitchen behind where I should have been coming from in the photograph? It’s not like the camera could see through me.
After experimenting a bit, I guessed that it was my brain filling in the details. It did a pretty decent job—especially with well know places like my kitchen—but in new places often the background I saw where I should have been in the photo wasn’t consistent with what was actually there in reality.
It’s an odd sensation, seeing through yourself like that and knowing that the picture you’re looking at is being Photoshopped by your own brain. Makes you question the reality of everything if you think about it too hard, so I try not to.
I phoned in sick to work and spent the rest of the day trying to figure out what to do. A good few hours on the couch thinking were punctuated with regular visits to the downstairs toilet’s mirror to see if I’d “come back”.
I’ll admit: I cried a few times. I’m not really sure what over. It was true that I had always wanted to own an expensive, tailored suit and now I would never be able to see myself in one but that hardly seems a worthwhile thing to get upset about. There I was though, weeping over these hypothetical clothes that I would never be able to look at myself in.
I considered going to the doctors—even made an appointment for the following week (I told the receptionist it was for a “very personal matter”, which I imagine caused her to write down “penis issues”)—then I ran through likely conversation scenarios.
There was no way I couldn’t sound crazy, and the more I tried to convince the Fake Doctor in my Head of my predicament, the more like a lunatic I sounded. The visit would most likely earn me nothing more than an instant section under the Mental Health Act. Maybe I was crazy and this was some weird ongoing hallucination but I still didn’t want to find myself locked up.
So I decided not to go, which left me with one option: Get used to it and hope it fixes itself.
After that, it was all business. Focusing on the practical aspects calmed me down. How does one function in the world without being able to see themselves?
Relatively easily, it turns out.
It was the middle of the afternoon by this point and I was hungry. I decided a trip to the local shop would be a good test run in preparation for returning to work the next day. I was still in my towel—had been the whole day—so I went and put on some jeans and a t-shirt, instinctively checking the mirror after dressing and being frustrated that I wasn’t there.
I live on a fairly typical Manchester street, in an early 20th century terraced house that looks exactly the same as every other house in the row.
Stepping outside into the cool air, my head swam as if I might faint but at the same time I was fully alert. In fact, it was the most alert I’d felt leaving my house in a long time. Everything seemed to move in slow motion. I felt invisible, which was a very primal sensation. Someone saying to you “I see you” is not nearly as powerful as seeing your absence in a reflective surface or photograph. The first is relatively abstract, the other is very real.
Across the street, my neighbour was returning from picking up her children. She had opened her front door before returning to the car. I actually considered running across there and into the house while she gathered up her kids, just to see if I could. It was only when she waved at me that it broke this spell.
This feeling remains a constant struggle.
At the bottom of the street was a small corner shop. I knew the owner—Mahmoud—and, although I really didn’t feel like facing him, I thought some sort of interaction was important. I was nervous. I felt like I might get ‘found out’ at any point, or that I might let it slip. I felt tense and froze my face into a thin smile that, thinking about it now, probably just made me look like I had bad constipation.
The bell tinkled as I opened the door and I nodded woodenly towards Mahmoud who, I was relieved to see, nodded back with a big grin through his bushy white beard. I still remember what he was wearing: brown cords and a pastel blue shirt. He also had a thin gold chain around his neck, which I’d never noticed before. On his left hand was a gold wedding band.
I grabbed a Coke, a Pot Noodle and a bag of Monster Munch and headed to the counter.
“My friend! How are you today?” Said the ever-cheery shopkeeper as he rung up the items.
“I’ve been better.” I replied, honestly.
“I am sorry to hear that,” he said.
“Yeah, hopefully it’s not too major. Or lasts too long.”
“Oh, now, I’m sure it isn’t. Don’t worry—you’ll be fine again soon. £2.60 please”
“Thanks. See you.”
I left feeling ridiculously elated for the little I had just accomplished but in that small interaction something had clicked. Talking to Mahmoud, I had felt instantly relaxed. I had forgotten the whole thing. I could see him and he could see me and and that moment that was all that mattered.
That night, I called up an old friend and went to the pub, then headed into work the next day and I now try to avoid being alone when I can.