4 min read
Loving your Self with Mental Illness

On Love, Self, & Mental Illness

CW: mental illness, and sexual violence

Two people who I think are smart and impressive people, who know me and my history with mental illness well enough, asked if I loved myself. I snapped back real quick with a of course I do. Both didn't believe me. It seemed like a ridiculous question to me. Why would I be here living and trying to create the best life for myself if I didn't love me? Who else am I living for?

Not loving yourself to me meant giving up on yourself.The fact that I had chosen life, was living it, and was working to create a better tomorrow meant that I loved myself. FULL STOP.  To them it meant putting yourself first and giving you your best. They saw me failing at that and assumed that was proof I did not love myself. Now we all agree that this definition is as good as any to describe loving yourself, however my best does not look like their best. Sometimes my best does not include changing my clothes because the shirt I am wearing is too comforting (Sorry to anyone who had to smell that). Basically It boils down to capacity.

Let me tell you a bit about my capacity.

I took 30 years to recognize and make peace with the fact that I am a person who lives with mental illness, who has had this condition for a long time (diagnosed or not), and probably will continue to have it for the rest of my life. It is another intersecting identity to add to the list. The list now reads in no particular order: 

  1. Black--Descended from American Slaves 
  2. Female Presenting
  3. GenderQueer 
  4. Non-Binary 
  5. Bisexual 
  6. Femme 
  7. Hyphenated American 
  8. Working Class 
  9. College Educated 
  10. Dark-Skinned 
  11. Mentally Disabled (I prefer non-neurotypical)

Non-binary and Mentally Disabled were added this year.

Before this year, I pretended my breaks from reality were isolated incidents. I treated a bad mental health season like I caught the flu and it would go away with enough time and repression. I ignored my repeated instances of not being able to function in the world to the point of medical intervention to maintain a neurotypical sense of self. 

The last time I had one of these breaks I faced my fears and confessed to myself and my doctors the truth. My mental breaks are not isolated incidents, they are a part of a pattern of continual and regular flare-ups of an underlying condition of depression and anxiety that can be managed but may never go away. When I look back on my life I don't remember a time I was not depressed and anxious, even if I didn't have the words for it. My affect from the beginning trended towards depressed and anxious before:

  • My parents lost their house and then separated over 10 years
  • 7 years of living in an unstable and tultumous household with my mother in and out`
  • 24 years of racist micro-aggressions received from white lovers/abusers, communities, and classrooms 
  • 20 years of trying and failing to live up to white women's beauty standards 
  • many instances of sexual harassment starting at thirteen 
  • multiple sexual assaults that occurred before I was 17 and others afterwards
  • A sexual assault that led to a traumatic 5150 experience and dropping out of undergrad for 6 months

that was dark look at this cute puppy!!!

So not only do I have an affect prone to depression and anxiety, I have some real ass shit to be depressed and anxious about; + I struggle with multiple triggers and PTSD from some of the above traumas.

My capacity is in constant flux. I manage it well most of the time. But when things are bad you would think I had schizophrenia (I was diagnosed with schizophrenia four years ago. They were WRONG). I have developed many coping skills to deal with my past and affect. I want to focus on the negative ones to make a point. I was consistently stoned from age 14 to 20 toward away the blues and to tamp down the voice in my head. I binge drank regularly the first 2 years of undergrad. When I was younger I cut myself off and on. I would stop cleaning and let my space look as wrecked as I felt inside. I would intimately connect myself to people who needed to work on themselves, ignore all red flags, and then when things would end badly, I would blame myself when they pushed me away. I was hypersexual to prove men wanted  me in an effort to show myself I was attractive. Through all of this I never stopped loving myself. 

I tried so hard to push myself to do better and even though I failed I made it out the other side. And anyone who has processed and moved past a heavy trauma knows what I mean. It is an amazing sense of accomplishment. As much as I had when I graduated from high school. A thing my family wasn't sure I was going to do because I failed so many classes. But now I am a PhD student. Nothing but love pulled me from my dark places to where I am now. So when I am in a dark place and I'm not giving myself my best but I am damn sure trying, I still believe that tomorrow I will do better. That to me is love. 

There was no question or doubt in my mind that I loved myself. However the way I loved myself was always and will always be contained by my capacity. Over the years I have come to know that love is a choice you make to become intimate with another. It is an action you take for another not a state of being that you haphazardly fall into. I describe the act of loving another with Gary Chapman's 5 love languages: giving gifts, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, and physical touch + being accountable for your words and actions. I believe loving someone is a unique combination of these languages. But when it comes to loving myself my language is not as developed. 

One thing I never did was fall for the: if you can't love yourself, then you can't love anyone else. I moved away from home when I was 17, been single for all of my teen years and the vast majority of my 20s. I only had myself and a few friends for companionship. And sometimes I didn't even have friends after moving across country three times. I was alone a lot, leaving me no choice but to develop an intimate relationship with me and a strong sense of self. Because of that time getting to know me, I know what I want out of life, what makes me happy, and the life I plan to give myself. 

Once I had that sense of self I started to invest in good coping mechanisms and I felt comfortable with myself even while being anxious. My love for self was made clear the more I worked on my self. But the best I could give me was always hindered on a consistent basis by bad coping skills, patterns, anxiety, and how well I was managing my depression. 

It's hard to be at your best when your assault plays on repeat in your head and you are arguing back and forth between if you could have stopped it and it not being your fault every uninterrupted moment of the day. (How I would define much of 2015) And then when the only thing that will make it stop is to go back to sleep or call up your cuddle buddy who wouldn't say yes to a sustained pause on that playlist. But I also signed up for therapy even though I was scared shitless they would once again arbitrarily put me on a 5150 hold, only this time my parents and grandmother wouldn't be there to advocate for me. This time therapy helped. Showing up week after week and participating in group and individual therapy for three hours a week was hard. But I believed in myself and that I could get better, so I could be at my best and give myself the best. That to me is love of self. 

I read this quote from Lizzo that brought it home for me. She said, "if you can love me as much as you do without knowing me, and without me being like this archetype of modern beauty in media, then you can love yourself." This flips Rupaul's sage but misguided advice on its head. If you can love Lizzo, then you have the capacity for love and you can show yourself. I think what RuPaul's quote gets across is that you may need all your energy for your self-work and giving it to someone else may not serve you, your romantic interest, or any relationship you could make with them.

I will close with a line from Lizzo. 

I'm my own soulmate
I know how to love me
I know that I'm always gonna hold me down

That is all I need in my toolbox to love myself.