Heavy Metal Body Dysmorphia

While waiting to see the therapist, Gunther makes his way around the room, studying the many paintings which adorn the lobby. There are impressionist watercolors of landscapes juxtaposed clumsily alongside surrealist and abstract impressionist paintings. He guesses that the goal here was to put patients at ease as they await their appointments, but the randomness of the curation has the opposite effect on him. Having a bit of a knack for brushwork himself, he wonders how horrified the artists would be to see their work displayed in such a careless manner.

“Mister Zimmermann,” the receptionist calls out, as if there were multiple patients in the waiting room, and not just him, “Dr. Martense will see you now.”

As the woman points towards a door, he considers just walking out and forgetting this whole business. These feelings will probably pass on their own, and this will just be an undignified waste of time. Just as he works up the nerve to walk out, Dr. Martense opens the door from her office to the reception area and waves him in with a smile. Too late to escape now.

“Come on in, Mister Zimmerman,” she offers welcomingly. “Would you like me to call you by your first or last name?”

“Just call me Gunther,” he answers, as he walks through the door.

The woman has a stately, regal appearance. She looks intelligent and wise, even beyond her advanced age, and is dressed more professionally than his mental image of a therapist has previously allowed. Unlike the lobby, this room is almost entirely bare. There are a few pieces of furniture and some basic office accoutrements, but it is essentially spartan, which comes as a relief after the previous visual assault.

“Would you like something to drink, Gunther?” she asks. “Coffee, tea, water?”

He politely declines and decides not to bring up the art disaster. Not yet, at least.

“Gunther, there are two ways we can go about this. We can spend some time getting to know one another and building comfort and trust, or we can just jump in head first to whatever issues brought you here today. It is entirely up to you.”

“I would prefer to get right down to it,” he answers quickly and confidently. He is not one for small talk, and he thinks building a personal connection would just make it harder for him to reveal his inner struggles.

“As you wish. At any time during this process you may change your mind, regarding a beverage or some idle chatter. Whatever makes you most comfortable, that is what we will do.”

“So you do not recognize me?” he asks, curious.

“You are Gunther Zimmermann, singer of the industrial metal band Hammerstein,” she answers. “I am not personally familiar with your work, but I did Google you this morning, as I do nowadays for all my new patients.”

She does not appear starstruck, nor even really the least bit impressed, which he finds reassuring. Her stoic facade of professionalism is exactly what he needs, since he is usually surrounded by doting fans, lackeys and sycophants. Not that he is ungrateful for those things, but they cannot help him with the problem he has developed.

“The easiest way to put it is this – I feel trapped in the wrong body. Not as a man, but as a small person trapped in a muscular body. And the more powerful my body becomes, the less powerful I feel as a person,” he pauses to absorb the gravity of having admitted this to another human being for the first time.

Dr. Martense waits patiently for him to continue. She is not taking any notes. For some reason he thought she would be writing things in a little pad of paper as he spoke.

“And it’s not just the muscles, but the entire hyper-masculine image that goes along with it. When children and little old ladies who have never heard of me look at me, I can see their fear. I look dangerous. Destructive. Beastly.”

“What do you feel you should look like?” she asks, after it becomes clear he is awaiting some kind of response.

“I am a gentle man. I am frail and tender. I feel I should look more like that, whatever that is, which I am not quite sure of. Skinny, I guess. Wispy, and maybe pale. Something like that.”

Another pause ensues, as Gunther inspects his own body self-consciously.

“But you cannot because…” she knows the answer, and only speaks to prompt him forward.

“Because I am Gunther Zimmermann, front man of Hammersmith. Our entire aesthetic is predicated upon this image of strength and manhood. This is my art. It is in my contract.”

“Do you feel this way while performing, or only in your private time?”

“When I am on stage or at a photo or video shoot I become this body. This character. Not only am I okay with it, I delight in it. But the other times it feels like a cage. Like a big meaty cage that prevents people from seeing the real me. I cannot escape the character I play, which is ultimately a very lonely experience.”

“Why do you think this is, Gunther?” she asks, though he gets a feeling she has already answered it in her head.

“Well, I was reading about something called body dysmorphia, and I was thinking maybe that this feels like it could be from that,” he answers not-quite-confidently.

She stares at him for a minute, like she is sizing him up for some major blow, to estimate how he might respond to whatever she is about to say.

“The good news is that you are not suffering from body dysmorphia, Gunther. I can definitely reassure you of that. The bad news is that this goes with the territory. Art and celebrity come with very high costs, and those are what you are experiencing.”

“Can you fix it?” he asks matter-of-factly, like he is an inoperable Volvo and she is a master mechanic.

“If you mean, can we make the problem go away, then no. We cannot fix it. But can we make it easier to cope with? More comfortable to live with? Yes, Gunther, that we can do. But it will take time and effort, more so on your part. Are you willing to put in the work?”

“What do you want me to do?” he asks, enthusiastically.

“That is something we will have to figure out together over time. Off the top of my head I think we need to work on two key areas. The first will be learning to compartmentalize, so that you can accept the distortion between your exterior image and self-perception. That is the hard part. We also need to work on a way to get you involved in some activities that earn you the response you crave. I once had a client who had played a notorious villain on a popular television show for almost a decade. Wherever he went he was avoided, and regarded with either fear or disdain. Like you, he could not separate the persona from the person in everyday life. He ended up volunteering at a children’s hospital in full clown makeup and costume, and since none of the kids could recognize him, they regarded him closer to the way he felt about himself.”

“Wait, you want me to become a clown?” he begins incredulously but starts to see the humor in it before he finishes the question.

“Not necessarily. That is just an example. But do you understand what I am saying? You have a desire to be seen as gentle and tender and essentially good, and you deserve to have the desire fulfilled. You are just going to have to be creative about how you go about it, but for an accomplished artist like yourself, some good old fashioned creative elbow grease shouldn’t be a problem.”

He does understand what she is saying, and now it seems so obvious that he wonders why he didn’t think of it. Every problem persists due to a lack of sufficient creativity to address it. Frustration was a result of a failure of the imagination. The realization that the same creativity that got him here could also get him out comes as a massive relief.

“Yes, Dr. Martense, I think I do understand,” he beams at her, and she flashes a smile right back.

An hour later he is eating ice cream at a sticky picnic table outside of a Dairy Emperor, thinking about his conversation with the therapist, and feeling more hopeful than he has in several years. He is lost in his thoughts when he is startled by a boy tugging on his shirt.

“Hey, my mom says you are a rock star,” the kids gaze is prodding. “Well are you?”

He laughs, and looks around until he sees the mother, mortified by her child’s behavior. He smiles and waves to her to let her know it’s okay.

“No kid, sorry. I’m just a clown.”

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