Learning to Like Myself. A Little Bit More. I Hope?

Once upon a time, I hated myself enough to contemplate suicide; tonight, my therapist and I assessed my progress since then. The question of the day became, How Much Do I Really Like Myself?

Not much, I insist. Much more, therapist and husband argue.

It all came up because we started discussing how much I really hate going outside. I even hate going into the hallway outside my apartment door. I don’t have anything to do, lately. I go to therapy twice a week. That’s it, the total of my scheduled activities. We agreed that I need a schedule, even if I’m just scheduling time to knit myself a new pair of mittens, time to eat lunch, time to listen to my audio book, time to cook healthy meals. And there’s where my heart starts racing. Because cooking means gathering ingredients, which means going to the store. Nathan would probably go for me if I made a list, but he’s going to start school again in a few weeks. He can’t shop and cook for every meal, every day, indefinitely. It’s a problem for me that I am afraid of going to the grocery store. It’s another problem that I am afraid of going to the basement to do laundry, let alone a laundromat with more reliable equipment.

What am I afraid of? I am afraid of the strangers who occupy the space outside my home; more specifically, I am afraid that they will think poorly of me.

Why? Therapists have been asking me for years. The real answer is that I am certain that these strangers, their vision not clouded by any affection for me, will simply see the glaring, unforgivable flaws that I believe must be obvious.

Of course, the next questions is: Why do I believe that? This one is a bit tricky to explain without melodramatic statements like “My parents gave up on me.” That’s not what happened. As a child, I felt abandoned. But what really happened is so complicated, because my parents’ stories, their decisions are so complicated. My father, plagued by mental illness, his condition aggravated by wrong diagnoses, medications; his doctors must have been baffled, but they just kept repeating “Depression,” ignoring my dad’s paranoia and other symptoms. Drowning in what must have been unbearable waves of fear he only admitted to feeling, or perhaps could only find words to describe, years later. My mother was drowning in her marriage to this terrified, often cruel, man. They were both so very miserable. I can see now that I had nothing to do with this. I was caught up in it. I thought it was my fault.

I internalized all that misery and fear and came to believe that something horrific and terribly wrong, a deep and permanent flaw I possessed, was to blame for the way my parents behaved around me. Think about a child’s world for a moment. I couldn’t understand that they were not afraid of me or disgusted with me. I had no perception of them as people separate from me, with lives separate from mine. The problem is that I cannot shake the belief that there is some deep and permanent flaw within me, and that this makes me fundamentally unworthy of love and kindness.

It really isn’t as simple as “blame the parents.” It’s just the only way I know to tell the story of how this feeling came to occupy me.

My project now is to unlearn this deep belief that there is something wrong with me, something wrong enough to deserve hatred. I know this must seem odd from the outside. I don’t come across like someone who could hate anything. Obviously, I have made progress. So much progress that I went from a series of destructive romantic relationships to the most wonderful marriage to the kindest man I’ve ever met. I could never have accepted the kind of love in this marriage of mine without loving myself. It’s a process. It’s not that I hate myself and must learn to not hate myself. It isn’t so black and white, all or nothing. To put it mathematically, I am increasing the percentage of self-love in my life and pushing down the percentage of self-loathing. It might look something like this Pacman-shaped graph:

 

So, the next thing we’re going to try is making a schedule I can follow every day while I’m on this vacation, or unemployment stretch, or whatever it is. I will do more things that people do to take good care of ourselves. I will pray that my behavior, that the act of taking better care of my body and home, will teach me to love myself more. In turn, this self-confidence, self-esteem, whatever it is, will help me feel comfortable in the presence of strangers.

Can someone outside my head even follow this? Well, my project here is to be as honest about my anxiety as possible, to put my story out into the void, so that if someone looks, they might find this and relate to it. Family and friends: please note that my graph up there intentionally has much more self-love than self-loathing. I do not feel this way every day. But when I think hard about the anxieties that impact my daily life, instead of simply darting around and through them, I always seem to end up thinking about this painful history. But now that I’ve put it up there, that graph is helping me feel better. Do you know what helps that purple pie slice up there get bigger? Knowing that I am loved. As my family grows–niece, husband, wonderful in-laws, a deep reconciliation with my mother–the love around me grows. And I can’t help but absorb it. It’s impossible to believe that I am worth hating when I am so obviously well-loved. I thank God for each and every one of you.

Five Hilarious Things About Having Anxiety

  1. My heart is racing. So what? Oh, that’s not normal? What do you mean “was it the coffee?” Oh, because caffeine could do that! I get it! You might be right about that.
  2. I have a stomach ache. Oh, well, I must be anxious. What’s that? What about antibiotics? Oh yeah, I am on antibiotics! They do give me stomach aches! You are right, I should eat some yogurt.
  3. I’m so sleepy; I hate how anxiety makes me want to take naps all the time. Huh? Take the nap? Why? Oh, yeah! I’m sick! And antibiotics do make me sleepy.
  4. I’m so sleepy; I hate how anxiety makes me want to go to bed at 9:00 pm. What’s that? Did I work today? Well, yes, I did. So. Oh, working is a good reason to be tired, I suppose.
  5. I need a hug because I’m a freak who freaks out at the tiniest things and I had a hard day at work. What’s that? It’s normal to be upset about a formal reprimand at work? It’s normal to need a hug? Huh… I guess that’s plausible…
Oh, it’s so much fun having an anxiety disorder! I end up thinking that everything I feel is nonsense caused by wacky chemicals. If I didn’t have so many awesome people in my life to set me straight, I’d really be a hot mess thinking about how crazy I am. Most of the time, turns out that what I feel is just normal, even if I am a little sensitive. Why do I keep thinking that being “good enough” means being “perfect” which means never needing anything from anyone? How creepy would I be if I just did everything right the first time and never needed a hug? Very.

Rethinking Sports… “Just Do It” For The Kids.

I have fond memories of playing catch with my dad. I enjoyed softball for awhile. I even had fun on the soccer team for a whole year, thanks to my friend Jessica. But, true to the polarized mind of the teenager who sees only in black and white, if I were the “Smart Girl,” then I most certainly was not going to be athletic. (Kids did actually use “Smart Girl” to taunt me. I still don’t know why that was such a bad thing.) Team sports at my school were dominated by girls who played down their intelligence. I remember one girl who did well in school and in sports, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that she participated in things like running and swimming–teams, but more dependent on individual achievement than basketball and volleyball, the girls’ sports that really drew crowds.

My niece is old enough to participate in sports, already, and it’s really important to me to encourage her in both school and athletics. I think I missed out on a lot of fun, but I also envy people for whom physical activity comes naturally. I want my niece (and nephew!) to want sports to be part of their lives, for all the obvious reasons, but also to keep them safe. Check this out: [quote]Although sports and physical activity are a part of girls’ and boys’ lives in and out of school at varying levels, girls tend to be less active than boys. The sports, education, youth development, and out-of-school time fields can provide opportunity for girls to engage in positive, healthy physical activity.[/quote]

        • In 2005, a much higher percentage of adolescent males participate in vigorous physical activity than do their female peers. Within all racial and ethnic subgroups, activity levels for males are between 13 and 19 percentage points higher than for females. For all grades, activity levels for males are between 10 and 20 percentage points higher than for females. (ChildTrends.org, Child and Youth Indicators Databank: Vigorous Physical Activity by Youth, 2006)
        • In 2005, more high school females (72.2%) than their male counterparts (56.2%) did not meet currently recommended levels of physical activity—doing any kind of physical that increased their heart rate and made them breathe hard for a total of at least 60 minutes per day. (Centers for Disease Control, Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance—United States 2005)
        • The more physically active girls are, the greater their self-esteem and the more satisfied they are with their weight, regardless of how much they weigh. Eighty-three percent of very active girls say that physical activity makes them feel good about themselves. (The Girl Scout Research Institute, The New Normal? What Girls Say About Healthy Living (2006))
        • For girls ages 11-17 it is the perception of being overweight, not just weight alone, that inhibits participation in sports and physical activities. (The Girl Scout Research Institute, The New Normal? What Girls Say About Healthy Living (2006))
        • For teen girls, being both physically active and a team sports participant is associated with a lower prevalence of sexual risk-taking behaviors. (Kulig, K., Brener, N. & McManus, T. Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 2003)
        • A study of school reading texts found that boys were represented in physical activities 65% of the time, while girls were represented 35% of the time. In addition, boys dominated throwing and catching activities, while girls dominated dance and swing-set activities. (Henschel-Pellet, H.A. Research Quarterly, 2001) —Girl Scouts of America

All of this makes sense to me–if you are aware of the amazing things your teenage body can do you’re bound to have a more accurate perception of what it looks like–except the part at the end about school texts. I do not want my niece or nephew or any kids I may have to be reading in their darn textbooks that boys are the real athletes. But even if they do, I figure that the women in their lives can counteract that image. How? Well, I’m not sure it’ll work, but I have two ideas, so far.

One: I’m going to participate in watching sports. Turns out, I actually enjoy it. I always was a competitive person! I’m starting now, so that I know the rules by the time our future children see us watching football together. Nathan did spend about eight hours watching NFL football yesterday, and I’m not sure I want to set that example. I do want them to see us watching his–now our–favorite team. (The Jets. He grew up on Long Island. I grew up watching the Vikings, but I’ll just own up now to not being very loyal… and to liking the Jets cheer better.) I love the ritual, and I still find it adorable that my normally un-superstitious husband has to wear his jersey and eat more or less the same foods every Sunday. To be fair, the Jets almost lost the time he forgot his jersey, and they just barely won after he remembered to put it on. Oh, and remind me to repeat in ten years the fantastic conversation we had about why there are no female kickers in football. There’s no physical disadvantage, unlike in every other position in the game, but it’s still not at all open to women. Court cases have gotten some women onto college teams, but they had a rough time. Brave women, all of them!

Two: I’m going to run around with my kids and throw a ball with accuracy and force. I practice with our dog, although I often use a “ball chucker” so my arm doesn’t feel like it’s going to fall off. Catching a ball might take a little more work. For some reason I’ve always been able to throw any kind of ball, even a football, pretty well, but I now psych myself out of catching things. I will not giggle and run away, though. I will at least try and catch the stupid thing. Hey, it may just show them that you can enjoy doing things even if you’re not good at them! Just don’t blame me for demanding a good game of Scrabble sometimes just to prove I can dominate at something.

My brother-in-law and my husband are both totally awesome about answering my questions when we’re watching a game. And they both watcheverything. World Cup time is particularly awesome. Women’s World Cup games get air time, too. I have awesome memories of watching the NBA finals when the Lakers were great in the late 1990s. My sister and her then boyfriend (now husband) live in Los Angeles. I spent time there every summer as a kid. (She’s eleven years older than I am.) I watched the games with my sister, future brother-in-law and his friends. No one minded answering my questions during commercial breaks, and it was the first time I understood what was happening. It was really cool to hang out with grown-ups, and it was really cool to see my sister enjoying the game as much as ay of the guys. I still feel like an outsider in this weird world of sports, but a game is a game. Like I said, I have always been competitive.

Do you have other ideas about what I can do to show the kids in my life that women belong in sports, too? I can’t change the fact that mens’ professional sports get a lot more attention. But I can make being active a natural part of our family’s life. I can have a sense of humor about the fact that my strengths lie in my intellectual, rather than physical pursuits, without just giving up at everything physical. What else can I do, having spent most of my time reading? Please, more ideas! Oh, and do the commercials that air during sporting events push back against the image of seeing Mom and Dad watching the game? I worry about that. They’re just so awful.

As a matter of fact, please “dislike” this on YouTube. It makes me red-in-the-face angry every time I see it! Why would any reasonable woman demand that “her” man stop doing something he enjoys just because women are not supposed to like it, too? This is just bull crap in so many ways. And this is what I want to fight against just by showing the kids in my life that I can cheer for an awesome catch or recognize an awesome play.

McDonald’s: Sundays Are For Watching Football?

Body Image: Remember the Future

Let’s talk about body image. It’s come up a lot, lately, and I went to the beach yesterday wearing my yellow polka dot bikini and could not help but bask in my own enjoyment of my body. I won’t lie–I did compare my body to the very thin body of the friend next to me and long for smaller thighs. But I smashed that thought like an ant at a picnic. I wouldn’t trade this hour glass for anything! And any kids I end up having will benefit from that hard-won attitude.

Take a look at few things I’ve come across just this morning (I did not google “body image”–this all showed up in my Facebook news feed):

Moms pass on body hatred to daughters: Your kids are listening.

Moms buy a children’s book about going on a diet for their daughters. No, I haven’t come across this in any of the homes I work in. If I do, I’ll be having a conversation with the parents, ASAP.

Yesterday:

Photoshopping Phoniness: Beauty altered out of reality and, often, out of beauty.

Fighting Childhood Obesity: The fight to improve childhood nutrition.

First, one unusually great thing about my childhood: my parents served really healthy food, and I’m now glad that I never won my campaign for white instead of brown rice and/or bread. Partly for financial reasons, we never had soda, sugary cereal or salty snacks just lying around the house. Treats were treats. You know what? I don’t want to spend my money on junk, either. So my body is thin and my skin healthy in part because I have always eaten healthy foods.

I didn’t manage to have a great body image, though. Not even a good one. I didn’t believe that I was pretty, not really, until I was about 19 years old. I was convinced that I was probably fat from the moment my body started changing; growing from a lanky, athletic, into a curvy woman was miserable for me. I didn’t know that there would be an awkward phase. I thought it was all supposed to happen so gracefully. Wearing the clothes that I thought I should fit into instead of clothes that actually fit me meant that I wore a B cup bra when I was already a D–in the eighth grade. To be perfectly honest, I still haven’t forgiven the boy who said, “Anne-Marie? Is she the one with the huge boobs?” I’d really rather never see him again. The point is that I didn’t look in the mirror to see how I looked, I looked at Seventeen magazine to see how I should look. I had days when I felt pretty, and I did not have any type of eating disorder or disordered eating. But I was most definitely hiding.

I directly my compulsive energy towards school. I did homework the way other kids played sports. I talked about colleges like other girls talked about boys; no really, I started researching colleges at age fourteen. Once I chose Barnard College in New York City, I wore my sweatshirt almost every day. It was too big and very comfy. I may have also stopped washing my hair… not entirely, just not every day or even every other day. To put it simply, I was unhappy. With myself, my body, my surroundings, my family, boys–you name it, I was angry at it. I didn’t feel like I could tell anyone, so I hid.

I was still hiding when I got to college, but I made friends. The best friends. They saved me. They helped me knock down some of the walls I had built around my real self. And they pretty much forced me to buy clothes that fit my actual body. Not the one I thought I had–not the overweight body that didn’t actually exist or the tiny, skinny body I had so wanted–but the body that I really had. I also became pretty active and ate less ice cream because, well, I got happy. So I lost a lot of weight. I bought a whole new wardrobe. And please, if you meet my friends from college, don’t mention “polo shirts” or “khakis” because they still enjoy laughing (with me, of course, not at me) about the over-sized polos and khakis I was wearing when I met them.

Here’s the big bad body image trap I sidestepped–I did not ignore my body enough to have sex too young or take too many crazy risks. I knew that there would be emotional fall-out from sex, so I waited. (It helped that, like I said, I hid under a hoodie during high school.) I made mistakes, but I knew they were mistakes while I was making them.

Here’s why I think it’s related to body image and therefore to self-esteem: if young people don’t like themselves, they don’t like their bodies and they don’t think that it matters if they take these risks. I suspect that this is true because when my self-esteem was at its lowest (oh, say, around the time I went to the psych ward), I stopped taking good care of my body. I ate sporadically because I just didn’t care. I stopped doing laundry because I just wore my pajamas. I know it’s gross. I didn’t shower often enough. I really just didn’t feel that it mattered. And my future? That seemed really, impossibly far away.

So, this morning, I saw a discussion on the Pigtail Pals Facebook page about young women’s attitudes about casual sex and unplanned pregnancy, and I read that Melissa Wardy finds it “Shocking in how cavalier they are towards their bodies, health, and futures.” I felt like I was zooming back through my own sexual experiences and my friends’ stories about their sexual experiences.

Let’s pause for a minute: I have always been shocked at a cavalier attitude toward body, health and future, in my peers, in younger women, in older women, in men of all ages, but the reason for this is odd. You see, I was raised by a puritanical father to believe I could control any and every sexual impulse. He liked to lecture. “What would people think of me if I wore a short skirt! What would people think of me if they knew that I had spent time alone with a boy!” He actually made sure that I knew he would be sleeping on the couch for the few weeks we lived with my stepmother before he married her. I was eighteen at the time. I believe that my reaction to that was “Daaaaaaaddddd! I don’t want to know!” In my house, before I left for college, any conversation about sex was pretty over-the-top. I swallowed, hook, line and sinker, my dad’s line about sex being this peripheral, almost unnecessary thing we don’t really need to talk about. I thought as a teenager that I would become a Self-Realization Fellowship nun so I talked to quite a few. (SRF doesn’t have much in common with the Catholic church, but our nuns do practice celibacy.) For the record, my dad’s craziness is not even similar to anything you would ever come across in any official SRF text or in any conversation with a monk or nun. Fortunately, I did finally realize that all of my dad’s nonsense was, well, nonsense, to put it mildly, partly through talking to actual nuns about why they practice celibacy and why “householders” deserve equal respect to “monastics.” But. Back to the real topic.

Let’s just say that eventually, I got around to exploring my sexuality. The sheer force of sex and my own desire knocked the wind out of me. By that time, though, I was mature enough to handle all those emotions and to take care of my body. I had the bad habit of thinking of my body as something that I couldn’t really trust, but I didn’t have the bad habit of using sex to feel beautiful or valuable. As you might imagine, I am still working through some serious Daddy Issues, and I looked for Daddy’s approval via proxy in plenty of my past relationships. For many reasons, though, I did not go out and look for casual sex in order to feel good about myself. I’m lucky, because the risks I did take never resulted in a sexually transmitted infection or an unplanned pregnancy.

Fast forward: my high school and college classmates and I are going to turn 27 in the course of the next year. More of us are getting married. More of us have kids, or like me, are preparing to have kids. And I can’t help but wonder. So many of us took such poor care of our bodies. So many of us did not really believe that our futures would really, truly, catch up to us. We punished our bodies with alcohol, cigarettes (my vice of choice), unprotected sex, eating disorders. For most of us, it was just for a few years. I quit smoking. I don’t know many friends who still binge drink. For most of the people I’m close to, unprotected sex was not ok, even when casual sex was fun and frequent. But it really is just anecdotal knowledge taken from a small sample of just the people I know well enough to hear such intimate details. Do I know someone whose body is haunted by a mistake she made? Do I know a woman who got an STI when we were young, still has it and must factor that in to current relationships and future plans? Do I know someone who will not be able to become pregnant because she contracted an infection or suffered complications after aborting an unplanned pregnancy? Do I know a man who has become infertile as a result of an early encounter? I don’t know. I don’t know if I want to know. It’s painful to think about consequences actually having stayed with anyone this long after one of our parties or nights out.

It still doesn’t seem real that the cigarettes I smoked could mean cancer later in life. And if I’m honest, that knowledge is not what got me to quit. I quit because I could not be around babies and small children if I smelled like smoke. I don’t just mean that no one would hire me; they wouldn’t. But I couldn’t bring myself to carry that into their worlds. Why could I do it for them, but not for me? The really bad choices–the ones we can only make after silencing the voice that says “Use a condom!” or “You’ll get cancer!”–would anything short of a snapshot of the future stop us from making those mistakes?