Encountering the Mirror of Erised

A reflection by Sarah

This is the second of two reflections Lindsey and I are sharing in honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. You can read Lindsey’s reflection here.

“Now, can you think what the Mirror of Erised shows us all?” Harry shook his head. “Let me explain. The happiest man on earth would be able to use the Mirror of Erised like a normal mirror, that is, he would look into it and see himself exactly as he is. Does that help?”

Harry thought. Then he said slowly, “It shows us what we want… whatever we want…”

“Yes and no,” said Dumbledore quietly. “It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts. You, who have never known your family, see them standing around you. Ronald Weasley, who has always been overshadowed by his brothers, sees himself standing alone, the best of all of them. However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge nor truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible.”

—J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Of all the magical objects in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, I’ve always found the Mirror of Erised most fascinating. Invisibility cloaks are interesting, yet don’t serve much purpose unless you want to hide from the world or go snooping around in places you’re not supposed to be. The Marauder’s Map is pretty awesome too; however, it will not do you much good if you aren’t actually at Hogwarts. But a mirror that shows you the deepest desire of your heart…in times of uncertainty, there’s a lot to be said for the utility of such an object, especially if you’re a teenager and have absolutely no idea what you want in life. Upon reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone at age fifteen, I remember wondering, “If I could look into this mirror, what might I see?” I hadn’t given this any thought at the time, but I had caught my first glimpse of the Mirror of Erised three years prior and was already beginning to do exactly what Dumbledore had warned Harry against—wasting away before the Mirror, not knowing whether its reflection was real or even possible.

Over the years, I’ve come to see that managing recovery from an eating disorder can be a lot like gazing into the Mirror of Erised and learning how not to be mesmerized and enticed by the vision it offers. This lesson is a lot more difficult than most people realize. To clarify, I’m not talking about the way I see my body. I’m one of the (possibly) rare people in the eating disorder recovery community who does not experience body image disturbances beyond the occasional bad hair day or frustration with dry skin during winter. Instead, what I mean is that the eating disorder’s voice, if you will, can manifest in eerily convincing ways, holding my greatest needs and deepest desires before my eyes and subtly suggesting that it has the key for opening the door to all of them.

The first time I ever purged, I was twelve. I had just begun to experience a repetitive traumatic event that would continue for a few more years. I grew up in a household that was probably stricter than most, and I wasn’t very confident that disclosure of the trauma would be taken well. I longed for the courage to discuss what was going on and the ability to sense when it would be safe to come forward, but neither ever came to me…until bulimia entered the picture. After eating something that didn’t agree with me and becoming ill during the holidays that year, I discovered that vomiting could function as an emotional release. When I felt well again a couple of days later, I found myself drawn to replicating the sense of relief that had come as a side effect…so I did replicate it. And I saw that with each instance, I felt safer, more courageous, even more powerful. It wasn’t long before I had acquired my own internal Mirror of Erised, readily displaying visions of freedom found exclusively in a box of Oreos and a stimulated gag reflex.

About two years later, I worked up the strength to tell someone about the traumatic occurrences that were still persisting. These revelations were met with disbelief, punishment, and broken trust. Though I cannot remember a single moment in my life when I did not believe in God, in my estimation he seemed absent and disinterested in the pain of a fourteen-year-old kid, so I turned my gaze almost completely to the Mirror of Erised. I had been praying that one day the truth would out, but this didn’t seem likely. I could look into the Mirror and view images of myself as an adult…strong, independent, successful, able to care for myself, never needing to trust, and consequently, never being let down by anyone ever again. Though the truth did eventually burst forth and become undeniable, by this time apologies were too little, too late. I was convinced that the Mirror held all the answers. If only I would keep staring at it intently, it could show me the path to fulfilling my wildest dreams.

I continued along this way through high school, college, and into graduate school. Over time I began experiencing symptoms of what I now know to be post-traumatic stress disorder. Engaging in bulimic behavior became my regular means for ridding myself of anxiety and flashbacks. If I had trouble focusing on a reading assignment that I didn’t enjoy, got stuck with the majority of the work on a group project, or had no idea how I could possibly maintain my grade point average while ensuring that I had enough income to finish a semester in the first place, I didn’t have time to worry about all my “nonsense” from the past…so I numbed it instead. Fixating so strongly on how I envisioned my desires for the future left me unable to see the harm I was causing in the present. “This will only be temporary,” I would tell myself. “I’ll have plenty of time to deal with this mess once I’m finished with school.” But things didn’t work out exactly as planned. Grave medical consequences eventually led me to seek treatment, rather unwillingly at first. That was seven years ago…possibly a story for another time.

I don’t like to measure the amount of recovery I’ve attained solely by my number of behavior-free days, but until this past October, by the grace of God I had been without bulimic behaviors for just over five years. A brief blip on the radar that month served as a needed reminder that the Mirror can change according to my circumstances, and it behooves me to be prepared. My internal Mirror of Erised has been part of my life for seventeen years now, and I imagine it will always be with me at some level. Everyone has to eat. It’s unavoidable. And if I can’t abstain from food, it’s all too easy to misuse it in attempt to alter realities that make me uncomfortable. Maybe that’s why getting a handle on recovery from other addictions has always been much easier for me.

Confronting the Mirror has never been straightforward or simple, and even after years of practice I’m not always sure of how to acknowledge its reflection healthily and realistically. Now when I peer into its glass I try asking myself, “Is this an ordered desire or a disordered desire? Are there healthier ways to manage it?” Sometimes, I can glance at the Mirror’s reflection, accept it as it is, and continue with life as usual. Other times, the gears begin turning inside my head and before I know it, I’m in the midst of a brawl with a voice that whispers, “I can make you feel powerful. I can provide you with safety, calmness, assurance, confidence, anything you want.” Maybe this incessant struggle with the Mirror of Erised is to be expected. But perhaps one day, God will grant me the grace to view its reflection and see only Him.

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