On sultry August nights I often close my wet-baked eyes and see the old doc and his oval mirror in my mind’s eye. When I taste the sweat pouring down my olive face and inhale the sweltering heat, I remember how this eerie journey began.
I met Dr. Jacob Lightman, the eminent psychiatrist and founder of Mirror Image Therapy more than three decades ago on a dog day afternoon. Hired as the new director of behavioral health at the Grand Concourse Treatment Center in the Bronx, I had the good fortune to work with him and other creative geniuses.
Yet when the CEO of the medical center, my new boss, introduced us, I was somewhat taken aback by his peculiar appearance. A ghostly man, he looked like an ancient scarecrow. Hunched over, the skeletal man possessed a bony face with other-worldly dark blue eyes. A student of the great Professor Dr. Sigmund Freud of Vienna, he grabbed and shook my right hand and handed me an oval pocket mirror with his left.
“Welcome, Dr. Cohen, to the Land of Dreams,” he said exuberantly. “And please, look at my mirror and tell me what you see.”
Of course, when I gazed at his glittering mirror, I found only my youthful face inside.
“What do you see, Dr. Cohen?” he asked with intense curiosity.
“I see myself,” I said dispassionately.
“Yes, doctor, but what do you really see?”
Over the next few months Dr. Lightman discussed his intriguing but controversial therapeutic techniques with me. In addition to using traditional psychiatric treatment modalities, such as talk therapy and medication management, he had developed two new methods for treating psychotic patients-Mirror Image Therapy and Color Light Therapy.
His findings were astonishing, illuminated by half-a-dozen research articles he had recently published. I was particularly intrigued by his Mirror Image Therapy case studies and methodology.
He trained his patients to gaze into the oval mirror in a soothing, non-threatening manner and guided them into a trancelike state. His results tentatively confirmed that patients’ delusions and auditory hallucinations disappeared or diminished, as well as their levels of anxiety, stress, and depression while in this altered state of consciousness. Fascinated by his revolutionary ideas and promising results, I was hooked! I became his student and follower.
The following August, Dr. Lightman and I met once a week in Central Park for long strolls and exciting psychological journeys. We meandered around the park for miles, sometimes stopping along the Mall or by the Bethesda Fountain, in the Shakespeare Garden or Strawberry Fields.
I remember his wizened old face and the lemony smell of the Devil’s walking stick (a.k.a. the Angelica tree). Can’t recall where we found it with its creamy white flowers. The park’s a vast dreamscape.
We inhaled the perfumed odor, spontaneously spewed hypotheses about the unconscious mind, Freud’s id, and speculated about the benefits of Jacob’s innovative therapies. And of course, at some point, he always took out an oval mirror and asked me to gaze at it.
“What do you see, Abraham? What do you really see?” he said softly, his melodious voice as sweet as a sumptuous slice of strawberry shortcake.
When I looked at my mirror image, my mind seemed to open up like the Red Sea. Afterwards, I felt I had returned from a very beautiful place, a haven of peace and joy.
“I feel like a new man, Jacob. You’re a Grand Magus.”
“Thank you, Abraham. Compliments will get you everywhere. And by the way, this is just the beginning of your journey. Over time, the mirror will reveal many secrets.”
With his mirror, he continued to obliterate or reduce his patients’ delusions and auditory hallucinations. Within months, they needed less medication. He also modified the Mirror Image Therapy. Sometimes he instructed his religious patients to pray silently while looking at his oval mirror. And he taught the others to visualize beautiful, tranquil images.
I watched the Grand Magus heal his patients. Yet although I too experienced the healing power of the mirror, my spiritual metamorphosis ended abruptly. I found myself trapped in the labyrinth of my mind.
On sultry August nights I sit in my leather armchair. Alone in my study, I close my heavy eyes, and in the pitch-black darkness, I see the old doc and his oval mirror. Sometimes I smell something lemony. “The Devil’s walking stick,” I mutter and gaze at the ghostly image of my old buddy who passed away long ago. “I’m old now, Jacob, caught up to you.”
In my left hand, I clutch my oval mirror. But I don’t need to turn on the lights and look at the pretty thing. I just open my mind’s eye and look inside. Never found what I was looking for, and I don’t think the mirror holds all the secrets, not the metaphysical and existential ones. Yet it soothes me and points me in the right direction.
And now, in the swirling darkness that engulfs me, I hear Jacob’s sweet voice. It beckons me. I journey to the Land of Dreams, the sweet phantasmagoria. Perhaps this time I’ll find my way out of the labyrinth.