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.