Story 16

When you don’t recognize yourself in the mirror, where do you look?

Hi, I’m Ilinca, the human behind this issue of Upstairs. I’m a sweet, colorful, and shiny human – this chain of words will make sense later in the story. I work as a Digital Designer in London, but I always found myself in the middle of many interests: illustration, textiles, planning my escape from capitalism, the usual for a creative!

The intro started to paint a very cheerful image of me, but in my usual fashion (at least for me), I’ll go on a darker path because I’m not here to talk about my wins – I’m not really good at that either.

I rather have a negative internal vocabulary, especially when I look in hindsight to my former years: “I’ll fail this subject” (I was harshly criticized for B marks), “I can’t find a job that excites me” (triggered by an episode when I quit a three-month unpaid internship), “I’m just a lousy artsy person that calls herself an illustrator” (still sticks to me), “I won’t find someone that truly likes me” (in high school mostly, I was more of a that-girl-boys-can-hang-out-with rather than that-girl-boys-send-nice-texts-to).

This internal language built up an unstable structure for me, something that I started seeing crumble some years ago. The following story is a timeline of my journey about understanding the moon’s dark side, even if that meant starting from quite a blank page – or in my case, a mirror.

Where went that billion dollar smile?

I had it quite well: a job in my early 20s which matched my career ambitions, studying a lucrative subject (Computer Science), still lived with my parents so saving money was easy and spending it even more. Glass Animals was coming to Summer Well in Bucharest, so I bought tickets to go with my best friend, Larissa, my partner in the intricacies of life for half of my existence until now.

The concert was a blast, and I got pretty emotional about Agnes’s lyrics (as you do). The song was about depression and how it lead to the departure of the signer’s friend. There was this particular line that hit hard: “Where went that cheeky friend of mine? / Where went that billion dollar smile?” – it spoke so much about how many people had this cheerful view of me and all their high hopes, but I was just a wreck who couldn’t understand what they’re talking about – I’m not anything like that.

I was imagining Larissa telling me those exact words, and I couldn’t bear the idea that I can’t understand what she’s talking about – that’s not me, I’m not a cheeky, billion-dollar-smile human.

The next day a switch went off inside me: I couldn’t stop crying. I couldn’t even make eye contact with my colleagues at work without starting to gag on my tears. I couldn’t even tell people why I was crying; it just stayed with me for about a week. Nevertheless, I didn’t listen to Glass Animals for a while. 

Mirror, mirror on the wall, what’s happening?

I decided to move out from my parents, to get some space and quiet time. The move had its shock wave – anger, disappointment, broken expectations, but I was gasping for silence when the noise was all around me.

One day, my dad brought me a mirror for the new place. I placed it up on the wall and used it to get ready every morning. All this routine of looking in the mirror made me realize that I didn’t understand my features and materiality: “Why is that nose like that? These eyes look different. I don’t understand why that face looks like that. I’ve never seen this face like this. I don’t recognize this face.”

It wasn’t only this mirror, I’m not calling magic here, it happened in every mirror, but this strange thought emerged while I was looking into this specific one.

The memory of this realization still haunts me – not for being scary, as I didn’t find it scary at all, but for the hollowness it yielded. It was the deepest hole, I just had a glimpse inside it, and I felt nothing because I was next to nothing in my own eyes.

Sweet, colorful, bright

I was lucky enough to have support and be in the mindset to accept it: I started therapy. I had to do this piece of homework: set a mantra that will define how I want myself to be in the world and repeat it every morning I wake up. I chose three words: sweet, colorful, and shiny. I kept this daily routine just like athletes don’t skip their morning run.

Later that year, I met my current partner. On one of our dates, we had this cheesy game of “describe me in three words.” You know where this is going: he used those exact three words for me.

It’s no voodoo here; he had quite high chances of picking those considering we knew each other for a long time anyway, but it wasn’t about us only – the planets were aligning in some mysterious way with my mantra. I was putting the first pieces of “me” back.

Piccadilly Circus Underground station 

Skipping through the timeline: I left my job, moved to London with my partner, and started looking for another job. This means a lot of defining, knowing how to sell yourself, all in all, just knowing who you are. I wouldn’t say I was in my prime for that. I was getting ghosted a lot at the beginning, so my morale was three feet under. 

I was getting back home from one of my strolls in the city. Somehow I vividly remember I was in Piccadilly Circus Underground station. The train rushed into the station. I get in, sit down. I was looking around and had this feeling that I’m everyone in the carriage, but not myself: I was the lady in the front with long burgundy nails, the guy with the dog in his backpack, the girl with long braided hair holding her iPhone.

I looked at my hands: just like a smokes and mirrors show, my mind was overlapping any other image over my hands so that I couldn’t recognize them. It was a bit like a bounce-back of the mirror episode.

Ranting about my first job offer

I finally had a job offer: Visual Designer at a big shopping mall. It was promising, fair pay, but God, I hated the idea of working for a mall. I went back to the recruiter and let him know I’m not interested “due to conflicting principles.” It was a bit shocking how he tried to shame me that I shouldn’t refuse such an offer over “moral compass,” which made my decision even more definitive.

In my quest to still find a job, I joined a meet-up event. I somehow ended up chatting with the organizer, Mark. Credits to the beer, I started ranting about this job offer, and the recruiter’s nerve to shame me into not accepting it. “How could I work for a shopping mall? People are already buying too much useless stuff. I don’t want to work for something that at its core is about making people buy mindlessly.”

Next thing, Mark invites me for a chat at the agency he’s been working for. The rest is history – this is how I landed my current job in a company that mainly works with UK charities.

That was another “Aha!” moment – I dared to say what I believed in and for what I stand. My contour was starting to define, and it felt good, real, authentic. With time, an explanation for my mirror depersonalization began to surface: I perceived myself as estranged because I was a blank canvas in which I didn’t invest – I was so focused on external standards, pressures, and demands, I hardly put any effort in doing things for me and being an advocate for myself first.

Where do I look now?

The mirror image is much clearer now, not because I lost weight or use different makeup. Some steps helped along the journey: being aware when a knot would build up in my neck when I tried to speak about myself, taking the risk of being confronted for my views, and talk about feminism and fast-fashion through my illustrations (basically hitting the “Publish” button at least), putting myself out there and see what happens, good or bad.

At this point, I think it’s a lot about the courage to show up as I am and being brave in showing the internal picture of myself, be it cheeky, ambitious, awkward, shy, snappy. There’s a place for me in the world, even if sometimes my pieces seem too stubborn to fit.

So, where do I look now? To be fair, still in a mirror, but now I know why my nose is straight, my eyes are green, and my canine tooth is a bit crooked: it’s just who I am, which aligns with my inner portrait a bit more.

Take care of your inner self,

Contributors of this story: Ilinca Roman wrote this story, Oana Filip edited it, Andrei Ungurianu put it all together, George Olaru designed it, Răzvan Onofrei was in charge with the development.

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