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In a black and white picture of three-year-old me you can see the face I spent my entire childhood and a considerable chunk of my teenage years displaying: compact bangs, so thick they seemed to bulge towards the camera. Just beneath them, the gigantic plastic frame of my glasses, with flexible metal legs curling around under my earlobes, and oddly uneven lenses. The right lens is so massive, that it creates circles in the light, as if my eye, looking so small and so far away, were a pebble thrown into a deep puddle of water. The left lens is visibly more delicate and the eye behind it seems to jump at you, twice as big as its brother, all black and inquisitive.
Now, when I just turned 30, I realized a lot of what I added to my portrait in the meanwhile is just a long series of shiny, fragile masks. Behind the successful translator mask, there’s the desire to write, which I wasn’t courageous enough to follow through. Behind the superior intelligence mask, there’s a simple, maybe slightly undignified desire to be pretty and admired. Behind the mask of pride there’s a person who’s petrified by anxiety and who never ceases to compare herself to the people around her. And the mask of the exquisite analyst, able to dissect any idea until there’s nothing left – it was created with the sole purpose of delivering plausible reasons not to do the things I am afraid of.
These are all results of coping mechanisms that I’ve been applying successfully for a very long time and that probably arose out of the failure to trust my own eyes.
It was sometime in 1990 when my parents first took me to see an ophthalmologist. They worried about my constantly frowny gaze. I had started to develop an interest in books and had the odd habit of laying my elbow on the table, hiding my left eye on my arm and bringing the right eye as close to the page as I could. I placed my head carefully on the device’s forehead rest and looked at the little house in the image, listening to the device purr as it did its measuring. Then, Dr. Vintilă, a kind man with curly black hair and a moustache, told my mother: “I really don’t know how to begin telling you this.”
The problem was worrisome not because it was terribly severe, but rather because he couldn’t imagine himself solving it successfully. It was called anisometropia. Usually, a person’s two eyes see similar images which then overlap in the brain, creating a better, more complex image. They help each other help you. But my eyes, they weren’t made for collaborating. The left one was farsighted, so it couldn’t see things close up. The right one was worse off: astigmatic and severely nearsighted. Meaning it couldn’t see things which were far away, and it also deformed everything. If you asked me, I’d tell you I saw “all fog” or “in a blur”. And overlapping the two images was like trying to get a horse by crossing a donkey and a camel.
So, the ophthalmologist wrote me a gutsy prescription, with a difference of about nine diopters between the eyes. Do that to an adult, and there’s a high chance he’ll get dizzy and nauseous. But my child’s brain rolled up its sleeves and got to work. Then came an intense training campaign. I often wore a black rubber cup on the left lens of my glasses, to force the right eye to work harder. A couple of times per week, I took it to a kind of gym for eyes, where I had to stare into a device and force it to watch the same old image for hours: the forgotten little house on the green pasture. You could always find this landscape in my drawings, as well – I’d reproduce the bulky house hidden inside that device. And all the characters I drew had ginormous, uneven eyes. Somewhere, up in the sky, I’d make sure to draw a bird or the line left by a plane, because “just ’cause I wear glasses, it doesn’t mean I can’t see everything!”
When I look at the photos, I’m always struck by how much I changed in those years. When I was 4, I celebrated my birthday with my grandparents in Bucharest and I was still smiling drolly at the camera, sitting in front of a small, white cake with the message “Happy birthday” written on it in chocolate. I was wearing a checkered red overall dress, I had dimples and my uneven eyes were shiny like the letters on the cake. I had my right arm stretched outside the photo, holding on to my sister. At 5, hidden in a dress a little too big, I was already stiff, with no trace of a smile, in front of a strikingly pink cake, twice as big as the former one. I remember precisely what I was feeling, because that emotion has become so very familiar to me: I was afraid. Afraid of the photographer and of my image in the photos. Afraid of blowing the candles, because I didn’t believe I could blow them all out and I thought I’d make a fool out of myself. Finally, I remember I asked my sister to blow together with me, then I was sorry for not even trying.
The fear of trying was fueled by an obsession for superlatives and perfection. Both, ideas that resulted from the expectations which I felt the family had from me, but also from the power of example represented by my wonderful mother: a person who had gotten straight A’s her entire life, including in med school, a very beautiful woman, with exceptional good taste, a blossoming career, the courage to start a new medical specialty at 40 and the undisputed role of head of our family. My supermother, who always knew what to do. What chance did I have to follow this model? I felt like I had fallen short from the very beginning, starting off with a big handicap. I was never going to be perfect. That’s how I began comparing myself. And I kept doing it even more intently during my school years. I didn’t look the same as the others and I sure didn’t act the same as the others, so the others rose up to the occasion, and teased. Since I was a good student, I tried for a long time to compensate for my inferiority complex by looking down on my school mates. That, of course, made them dislike me even more. It was quite obvious I didn’t really believe in my superior intelligence. Where was the shield of my so-called brilliant mind in the seventh grade, when all the boys I liked laughed at Miruna, who – as if the glasses and the bowl haircut weren’t enough – was short and plump? Where was my defense when they said it was better to jump over me, instead of going around me? I was surrounded by jollier, friendlier, fitter children, by prettier, more feminine and thinner girls. By teens who were more curious, more openminded, more courageous, and later on, by adults who were more cultured, stronger, in one word, better. A whole world of models I felt I was miles away from.
I saw myself as insufficient in every way, so I stopped wondering “how do I see the world?”. Two other questions were far more important: “how do the others see me?” and “how can I fit in with the others?”. I learned to adapt my opinions to those around me, so I’d please them, and they’d accept me, without realizing I was going to lose myself completely and that it would be extremely difficult to find myself again.
I’d love to be able to say that the hero in this story is me. That I took these less-than-perfect circumstances and twisted them around in a way that motivated me to emerge triumphant from the whole experience. But the real heroes seem to be my eyes. Nowadays, they still baffle ophthalmologists with what they can do. The left does its part at a distance, the right works its magic close up, working separately but doing their absolute best. However, I am certain that part of my lack of self-esteem started from the mistrust in what I saw, from the feeling that I simply could not rely on my eyes alone, so I needed permanent external guidance. Even now, if you were to ask my husband what is the most annoying thing about his wife, he’d tell you it’s the fact that I desperately look for his eyes, to support me whenever I have a decision to make. Whether we’re talking about buying cheese in a shop, dealing with financial problems or deciding to apply for a job or not, I need a push from the outside, so I can take that first step. An impulse, no bigger than a glance, to hang on to.
Just like I did when I was faced with those candles on the cake, I often chose to take a step back and disqualify myself, and I still sometimes do. Play tennis? Impossible, the ball would jump and surely shatter my glasses. Drive a car? Nonsense, there is no way I could possibly follow everything that happens on the street – cars, pedestrians, traffic signs, that’s way too much for me. But, also: I can’t apply for the school of journalism, because I’d never pass the interview exam, where I have to be alone in front of so many pairs of functional eyes.
I changed my glasses twice in the last two years. In 2015, when my eyes were getting very tired, I went to see a doctor for the first time since I’d been living in Bucharest. I started off with great expectations: maybe I’d be eligible for an operation, maybe I’d be able to correct my sight better if I tried contacts. Instead, all the doctors I saw told me I could no longer count on my right eye’s capacities. If they tested it in the evening, when it was tired, it could only read 4 out of the 10 rows of letters. “What more could you possibly hope to achieve with that eye?”, they said. I was recommended to drastically reduce the correction for that eye. And, because I tend to believe what authority figures tell me, I did. I was hoping the change would help my head rest.
In 2016 I went back to the doctor with headaches and a pressing feeling of disorientation. I was seated in front of a new lady doctor’s desk, looking her in the eye as I was trying to explain what was bothering me. Behind her, a little to the right, less than half a meter away from me, was this poster that looked like a reddish blur to me, dotted here and there by what experience told me were letters. Even farther to the right was the optical shop, filled with people. One of those people was my husband, but, from this position, I could not make out his face at all. That’s exactly what I told the doctor: it was just peripheral vision, I knew, but it would help if it were just a bit clearer. I wanted to go back to the high diopters I had before, the ones I’d been told were an aberration I shouldn’t have been able to cope with. The woman told me it was my choice and that she did not recommend it. She made me sign to confirm I was assuming full responsibility for the results and she sent me home with the prescription I had changed just a few months before. In total, these two changes cost me about the Romanian average income for a month. It’s not at all the kind of choice I’m comfortable making. I never could tell what was best for myself. I desperately wanted to rely on someone else’s opinion. But I had to count on myself this time, despite all my fears and insecurities.
I’m 30 years old and my whole life I’ve been wishing with all my might to be the same as the others. Now, I finally want to be me. Even if “me” is that impossible cross between my two mismatched eyes, my new mission is to discover and love that hybrid, imperfect image. Because that is what I am. A combination between left-hand Miruna, who sees things right, judges rationally and harshly, but doesn’t quite know how to approach people, make friends or understand others all the way. And right-hand Miruna, who sees all shapes a bit unclearly, so she questions everything twice, relies on instinct to find her bearings and ends up being very clingy with those who come close enough to emerge from the blur.
I now understand that my mind is so well-trained in the art of building perfectly valid explanations around each new decision to retreat, instead of advancing, that I sometimes don’t even have time to really feel the horrible fear, before the retreat mechanism kicks in. Fear seems to have gotten bored with me and left me all alone in my labyrinth of cowardice. All I have to do now is to leave the circular path I’ve been following for so long and find a new way. But it’s one thing to understand your mistakes, and a wholly other thing, to succeed in giving up on rules you’ve been desperately clinging to.
Another thing I’ve learned is that people are, in fact, the best medicine against fear, if you try hard enough to understand them. To do this, I needed to meet a boy coming from a world entirely different from my own, who would nevertheless see me and love me, with or without glasses. I also needed to get close enough to my mother to see the vulnerability beyond her superhuman traits.
I started doing things that would have once terrified me. I participated in several writing classes and I even read my texts aloud, in front of the others. I didn’t always find the courage to do so, and one time I was so hurt by the tutor’s comments that I was unable to write at all for more than a year. But here I am writing again, today. I started doing exercise, doing the easiest classes first, then adding up more effort, and I ended up learning more important lessons. First, it turns out it isn’t impossible to change. Second, when you’re at the gym you have to concentrate so hard on holding that leg up without letting it tremble like jelly, that there’s no more time to look around and judge the others. And the same rule most probably applies to everyone else, too.
My Pilates instructor just posted a video of last evening’s class on Facebook. In a couple of frames, you can see me in the farthest corner, somewhere between the mirror and the window. I’m struggling to maintain a decent plank while I’m lifting my arms alternately. I’m missing my glasses, because they’d fall off my nose during such poses, and my position is not quite right. My butt is too high and I’m hunching a bit. The pose makes me look like I’m falling into myself, like I’m smaller than I really am. And it’s obvious I’m still not at home in this place, especially amongst the stringy girls around, in their matching tights and trainers. Normally, I’d feel my heart crumble, seeing myself exposed in this way. But now, as I’m watching, I realize I’ve started to feel a little sympathy for this person working out there, all focused, almost ready to give up, but still hanging on.