Self Portrait #1


Drawing this self portrait was a fascinating experience.

Before I ever start a drawing, I spend a lot of time analyzing the face in the reference photo, observing the technical aspects of facial proportions and composition and contrast, and figuring out how to capture the emotion in their expression. It’s an intellectual and artistic analysis done from a detached, non-judgmental, keenly observant, and empathetic perspective. This process has completely changed the way I see my own face in the mirror. Now I see my face with so much more interest – what’s unique about her face? how would I capture her expression there? – now I see my face with so much more compassion.

Drawing my self portrait (titled #1 because I think there will be more!) was very strange at first, like an out-of-body experience, similar to my mirror experiments but more prolonged and more precise. I deliberately drew all the facial imperfections that have long been a source of self-consciousness for me: acne scars on my left cheek, the vein that so prominently traverses my left temple, right iris heterochromia.

After I finished the sketch, I realized that I actually like my eyes – they are very big, very expressive, and asymmetrically colourful. I also like my collarbones and the upper pectoral definition on my chest, the hard-earned result of thousands of pushups. And I’ve always loved my short, messy hair.

I never thought I would be capable of drawing my own face. My self portrait took six hours to complete… six hours staring at my face, after six years of showering in the dark and avoiding mirrors with pathological self-loathing.


Materials: ballpoint pen (black) + black fine-point Sharpie marker + Staedtler colored pencils

Time: 6  hours

Reference: photo of myself taken July 16, 2016 on the stairs at a city train station. I chose that photo because the lighting provided good contrast and the cautious, wary facial expression is characteristic of my chronic skepticism.

Comments: I sign most of my drawings as TM. But I have as many names as I do clothes, so when I started drawing again, I was initially unsure what my signature should be. Most commonly I go by Thomas or by my given name (which starts with J), so I decided to sign with a provisional TM. I can turn the T into a capital J with a single curved stroke of the pen if I want. I signed this self portrait with JM because my given name and the face I drew have been mine my whole life. Thomas is a newer addition.


Irene Adler: Do you know the big problem with a disguise, Mr. Holmes? However hard you try, it’s always a self-portrait.
Sherlock Holmes: You think I’m a vicar with a bleeding face?
Irene Adler: No, I think you’re damaged, delusional and believe in a higher power. In your case, it’s yourself. And somebody loves you.
– BBC Sherlock (S02, E01 – A Scandal in Belgravia)

Portrait: P!nk


Materials: ballpoint pen (black, green) + black fine-point Sharpie marker + Staedtler colored pencils

Time: 5 hours

Reference: P!nk, pop/R&B singer, songwriter, actress. I love her androgynous appearance. I also wanted to try another smile (first smile Tom Hardy).

Comments: I was very upset about external circumstances while completing this drawing, so I did not enjoy the process but I forced myself to continue drawing anyway. I am not happy with this sketch – her hairline is too low on her forehead, and the shading is poorly done. But I do like her smile, and I’m glad I was able to finish the drawing.


So raise your glass if you are wrong
In all the right ways, all my underdogs
We will never be, never be anything but loud
And nitty gritty, dirty little freaks
Won’t you come on and come on and raise your glass!
Just come on and come on and raise your glass!
– P!nk (Raise Your Glass, 2010)

He Who Fights With Monsters


I have not been posting much writing lately.

I was hospitalized (for the second time) on a psychiatric unit from May 9 to August 12, 2016. As I alluded to in previous posts, my time on the psychiatric unit was incredibly valuable with so many radical improvements physically and psychologically. I was allowed to use my laptop during off-unit privileges and I wrote extensively – in notes to myself and messages to friends – about the changes and insights that developed during my hospitalization. I occasionally posted on this blog during that time, but most of my writing remained unposted because there was simply too much to process so quickly. I had expected to maintain my positive trajectory following discharge so I had planned to revise and post my writing here shortly after leaving the hospital.

But now, trying to retrospectively capture the enthusiasm and excitement in my old writing feels forced and hollow. Over the past few months, most of the major improvements have deteriorated as rapidly and radically as they arose, and I have been left to watch my mind disintegrate once again. As this decline has progressed, my despair has been considerably amplified by the knife-sharp awareness of just how much I had gained in hospital and how much I am in the process of losing.

So I have avoided writing altogether, instead posting my drawings and my poems and my photos which have taken on much darker undertones in recent weeks. It would, perhaps, be something of a delusion to think that anyone has noticed the change in the nature of my posts. Very few people visit this blog, and of those that do, I doubt that most of them have the patience or interest to read my writing in its entirety. My closest friends have often criticized my writing in my correspondence to them as being too lengthy, too distressing, or too rigorously academic. I have no reason to believe that my writing here would be perceived any differently by an online audience.

Is sharing these thoughts a desperate self-pitying bid for attention? No. Because any attention granted in response to such a plea would be quite superficial and quite meaningless, so it would be illogical to seek that kind of attention. No. This is simply an honest account of my current experience. I value authenticity above most other personal attributes. To me, authenticity – and her sister trait, vulnerability – represent extraordinary courage: the courage to “endure the sharp pains of self-discovery” in the process of understanding one’s own experience, and the courage to share this experience with others despite the risk of invalidation and rejection that plague every potential human interaction.

One of the most confusing patterns that I’ve noticed as my depression has worsened during recent months has been the withdrawal of many of my closest friends. Formerly close relationships have become strained, distant, and detached. I have been trying very hard to understand what has contributed to this widespread withdrawal. At first I believed that I was the common denominator, and I spent many sleepless nights trying to figure out what is so wrong with me that my friends are no longer willing to engage with me in ways that feel genuine. But now I wonder if it is less a problem with me, and more a problem with them. Perhaps the common denominator is their inability or unwillingness to tolerate the excruciating intensity of the sadness, loneliness, hopelessness, and meaninglessness that dominate my psychological landscape.

Unlike previous episodes of depression, my current experience is also dominated by anger, a towering and terrifying RAGE. Often this rage is directed at myself, rage like drops of blood attracting a predatory frenzy of depressive sharks. Sometimes this rage is directed at the world, rage like hand grenades exploding in the face of societal adherence to oppressive conventions that marginalize so many broken people. And sometimes this rage has no target, rage like a forest fire burning at the whim of wind and weather, the crackling searing heat omnivorous and destructive. But fires are essential for regeneration of forest vegetation. Maybe my rage is the first step towards some kind of psychological reintegration.

Direct feedback from my friends and my own observations during interactions with them suggests that humans are fundamentally distressed by intense emotions, especially anger, in themselves or in others. I am not sure why emotional intensity is so uncomfortable for them, and they have all been unable to coherently articulate the reasons behind their discomfort. But I wonder about several possible contributing factors.

1. I think many people retain a false and judgmental belief that intense emotion is necessarily the result of some kind of distortion or magnification on the part of the person expressing it. This belief may be the internalized result of an affect-phobic culture. This belief may also reflect the fragility of human egos finding comfort in a comparative notion that the absence of such painful intensity in themselves represents their own superior emotional regulation.

2. I think many people also believe that the expression of intense emotion necessarily implies a desire or expectation to reduce that intensity. Almost without exception, people automatically respond to someone else’s pain with advice and suggestions intended to help fix the problem or suppress the emotional intensity. I think this tendency reflects an unwillingness to accept their own powerlesssness. People seem largely unable to understand how their aggressive attempts to be helpful actually eclipse their capacity to empathize.

3. And I think that most people are afraid of truly empathizing with intense pain because doing so would require acknowledging their own innate potential to experience pain beyond their control. Such an acknowledgment would shatter illusions of personal agency. When somebody like me calmly and rationally outlines the meaninglessness and futility of life when all sense of purpose, satisfaction, and self-worth have been stripped away, people are forced to re-evaluate the framework they use to justify their own worth and purpose – they must then confront the threatening truth that these ideas are often built around tenuous and artificial self-delusions.

I have always tried very hard to avoid overwhelming my friends with the negative aspects of my experience. I have shared the fact of my depression with them, but I have intentionally minimized the severity of it, I have openly and deliberately invalidated myself in conversation with them, and I have often completely avoided mentioning my most distressing experiences. These behaviors represent my conflicted and evidently unsuccessful attempts to be authentic yet avoid provoking their discomfort. But as my depression becomes more debilitating and more painful, it becomes increasingly difficult for me to hide it. And as the intensity of my pain becomes more evident to them, the more uncomfortable they become and the more they withdraw from me. I have seen their faces fall, I have felt the cooling of the air between us, I have heard their static silence oozing through the speaker on my phone whenever I allow them to see a fraction of my truth. They cannot face my reality, so they retreat and withdraw. Their silence becomes deafening, and their absence suffocating.

“Wer mit Ungeheuern kämpft, mag zusehn, dass er nicht dabei zum Ungeheuer wird. Und wenn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst, blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche (Aphorism 146, Beyond Good and Evil, 1886)

[Translation: He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.
And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you].

Depression is a monster. And I feel like an abyss. My existence is intensely painful. This pain is all-consuming, inescapable, and terrifyingly rational. I move from day to day accompanied by more distress than most people have ever known or even have the capacity to imagine. When I stop protecting them from me and allow them to glimpse the true extent of my hopelessness, they are horrified to find themselves gazing into the abyss. And they are even more horrified to find the abyss gazing back at them with a familiar face.

I never knew
I never knew that everything was falling through
That everyone I knew was waiting on a cue
To turn and run when all I needed was the truth
But that’s how it’s got to be
It’s coming down to nothing more than apathy
I’d rather run the other way than stay and see
The smoke and who’s still standing when it clears
Everyone knows I’m in
Over my head
Over my head
– Over My Head (Cable Car) (The Fray, 2005)

Reflection on Reflection #6


I have been one acquainted with the night,
I have walked out in rain – and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

– Robert Frost
(Acquainted with the Night, 1928)

Portrait: Alan Rickman (Severus Snape)


Materials: ballpoint pen (black) + black Bic marker + black fine-point Sharpie marker

Time: 10-12 hours

Reference: Alan Rickman as Severus Snape on the poster for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1 (2010). Continued recent work with black. Different facial angle than previous portraits and wanted to try a cropped composition. Snape is my favorite character in the Harry Potter series!

Comments: my shading has improved and looks a lot smoother now. I also learned more about capturing hair and clothing details in a black background (continued from the Joker). I’m really happy with this one!



“You are here to learn the subtle science and exact art of potion-making. As there is little foolish wand-waving here, many of you will hardly believe this is magic. I don’t expect you will really understand the beauty of the softly simmering cauldron with its shimmering fumes, the delicate power of liquids that creep through human veins, bewitching the mind, ensnaring the senses… I can teach you how to bottle fame, brew glory, even stopper death.”
– Professor Severus Snape (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, 1997)


Reflection on Reflection #5

“All my life I’ve felt on the outside, wherever I am – out of the picture, the conversation, at a distance, as though I were the only one able to hear the sounds or words that others can’t, and deaf to the words that they hear. As if I’m outside the frame, on the other side of a huge, invisible window.”
– Delphine de Vigan (No and Me, 2010)


“I’m a picture without a frame. A poem without a rhyme. A sun without fire. I am a gun without bullets. I am the truth without someone to hear it. I am a feeling without someone to feel it. This is who I am.”
– pleasefindthis (I Wrote This For You, 2011)

Portrait: Rooney Mara (Lisbeth Salander)


Materials: ballpoint pen (black, red) + black fine-point Sharpie marker

Time: 5 hours

Reference: Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011). As I noticed myself choosing only male faces for previous portraits, I kept wanting to try a female face but something kept preventing me from doing so. It wasn’t until I had gained a greater measure of peace with my own mirror image that I could finally draw a woman, especially with her chest partially visible. I also wanted to try a slightly different style with less detailed shading and high contrast.

Comments: really enjoyed this one, especially the dragon! Pencil allowed for outlines of face and body. Eraser allowed only when the drawing was complete. This style is visually striking but not technically challenging. Prep work prior to starting the drawing is increasingly helpful.



“I can be a regular bitch. Just try me.”
– Lisbeth Salander
(Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, 2005)

More Mirror Magic


In my first mirror experiment, I was wearing a fitted tank top and baggy sweatpants, sitting cross-legged on a stainless steel shelf across from the mirror in my hospital bathroom. So my reflection focused on my face and upper body. I had intentionally chosen baggy pants and a cross-legged position to conceal my hips and thighs, which have long been a prominent source of body dysphoria. Perhaps that was cheating, a bit – after all, I had challenged myself to evaluate my mirror image as objectively as possible. Despite a little cheating, that mirror experiment generated so many important insights, allowing me to create a more positive and more realistic current body image as well as a more concrete idea of what my ideal body looks like to help guide transition choices.

Since then, I have repeated the mirror experiment countless times, for shorter periods. I pushed myself to continue stripping away the cognitive and physical illusions I have used for so long to detach myself from every aspect of my body. I pushed myself to look at my reflection wearing tighter pants, like jeans and workout capris. I pushed myself to change my position, sometimes sitting with my legs stretched out or dangling off the shelf, sometimes standing or leaning against the wall, legs apart and legs crossed. And I pushed myself to engage with my own image, not just in bathroom mirrors, but also in all the other reflective surfaces that bounce our selves back to us as we move through this fragmented world: the darkened window of a gift shop after closing, the smudged glass of a framed grad photo, the shiny plastic of a gas-station trashcan, the metallic blade of a new kitchen knife, the sleeping screen of an open laptop, the mysterious blackness of a stranger’s sunglasses or the familiar blue of a close friend’s eyes.

So my reflection has become a dynamic and ever-present companion. Reflection on reflection remains an intriguing process. And as I’ve expanded my mental library of my own reflected images, I have added incremental insights and deeper awareness to the major realizations from that first mirror session. These insights and awareness continue to solidify the growing comfort and gratitude for my body.

But this comfort and gratitude are continually challenged, often unexpectedly. Near the end of stay in hospital, I had finished my morning workout, taken a quick shower, towelled dry, and wrapped the disappointingly tiny hospital towel around my waist. I studiously avoided dropping my gaze low enough to risk seeing my bare chest. I stood with my back to the bathroom mirror and reached down for my stack of clean clothes. And I realized – in a heart-pounding moment of fear and curiosity, shame and acceptance, annoyance and awareness – that I was still cheating. So I straightened up and, in a clumsy bathroom pirouette with a frayed white-towel skirt, I turned around to the face the mirror without a shirt or bra.

I had not been able to tolerate the sight of my bare chest since I was in my early teens. When I turned around that morning, my eyes initially focused only on my face and arms and shoulders – anatomy which was comfortably familiar after previous mirror sessions – dancing deliberately away from the lower half of the mirror.

Still cheating.

So I forced my focus downwards and inwards. And – to my complete astonishment! – I felt only the mildest discomfort. I saw the unwanted female breasts. I felt disappointed by their presence. But behind them, I also saw the power in my pectoral muscles and I saw the gentle rise and fall of breaths moving through my chest.

Certainly, the presence of breasts was uncomfortable and undesirable. And if I could have snapped my fingers and created a flat male chest just like that, I would have done so without hesitation. But I knew that was impossible. And I know that getting a mastectomy will be a long, painful, and potentially expensive process that is also impossible in any short-term timeframe. So that moment of seeing my naked chest in the mirror helped me achieve a radical acceptance of those impossibilities and a neutral peace with my current reality.

I may decide to pursue top surgery in the future, but that choice – previously motivated by disgust and self-loathing – became less urgent and less desperate as I stood in front of the mirror. I am now less convinced that top surgery will ultimately be necessary, but I will be open to that option moving forward. I will also be open to this ongoing process of accepting what’s real and revising what’s ideal. And I will remain open to any further insights that my capricious mirror image chooses to share with me.

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome –
– Derek Walcott
(Love After Love, from Collected Poems 1948-1984)

Portrait: Heath Ledger (The Joker)


Materials: ballpoint pen (black, blue, red) + black Bic marker

Time: 6 hours

Reference: Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight (2008). Wanted to try a very different style with more black and more abstract representation of facial features. Also wanted to try to create a compelling portrait without being able to rely on detailed colorful eyes to draw attention.

Comments: most fun so far!!! Pencil allowed for outer face shape and outline of eyes. Eraser allowed only when the drawing was complete. Did lots of practice work to figure out the best method for black (high-density layering of black pen with marker over top) and the best way to draw hair to against a black background (could not use my previous scribbly style). Really happy with this one!



“Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos.
Oh, and you know the thing about chaos?
It’s fair.”
– The Joker (The Dark Knight, 2008)

Portrait: Tom Hardy


Materials: ballpoint pen (black, blue, red, green)

Time: 6 hours

Reference: Tom Hardy (not in any character role). Chose a face with a happy, smiling expression and a more challenging posture (face slightly angled, head tilted upwards and looking over shoulder).

Comments: definitely the most challenging portrait so far. Pencil allowed for outer face shape and outline of eyes. Eraser allowed only when the drawing was complete (to remove traces of pencil outline). A smile is very difficult to capture, especially with an open mouth and visible teeth. Also very difficult to make his body position look natural. I’m happy with his shirt and necklaces, usually I don’t enjoy drawing clothing. Doing a five minute practice sketch first was helpful.



“You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.”
– Eames (Inception, 2010)