As some of you may have guessed, I’ve had a wee bit too much time on my hands of late. Life is like that sometimes, just when you think you are on a road to somewhere, you end up with a flat tire. Well, that’s OK. I’ve tried to be productive with this time, even if all I produced some days was lunch, some clean laundry, and the ability to tell you what happened to Violet’s baby eight years too late. Mostly, what I’ve produced is some quality introspection, some needed grieving, and some clarity about what I don’t want. I’ve come to realize that knowing what I don’t want is far more important than knowing what I do want. I know my limits far better than I used to, and I will not compromise my integrity for a job or companionship or anything material thing. All I have is my integrity, my self-respect. I am open to anything that doesn’t diminish me. I’d say that’s pretty good insight, wouldn’t you? So now I’m moving forward yet again, embracing my circumstances as an opportunity for new adventures.
Oh sure, to you über-healthy types that entered the world in an enlightened state, I may seem a bit long in the tooth to be discovering these things about myself. That’s fine, judge away. Personal growth is a journey that one has to be ready to take, and many things in our lives prevent us from beginning that journey, or can stall us along the way. If you are at all like me, the most formidable roadblocks to your own journey have come from within. Yes, there have been naysayers around me and likely always will be; that’s life. But they didn’t hold me back, really. It was my own self-loathing that prevented me from moving forward. Those outside voices only agreed with me because negativity is contagious. Once I learned that positivity is equally contagious, and that I could give myself the love and acceptance I so desperately sought from others to no avail, the cycle of despair was broken. No, this realization was not a panacea, and progress was (is) often painfully slow, but there was a definite “aha!” moment.
That moment came a number of years ago when someone told me exactly that: I could love myself unconditionally instead of insisting upon that love from others who are not able to give it. You see, we can’t give others what we ourselves don’t have. The starting point for me was to shift the focus off those others and onto me. It required no forgiveness and no understanding of them or of me. I just had to figure out how to do it. If I were to love myself, what might that look like? What things would I do? Did I need to adopt a mantra? Hug myself? Say nice things to myself while gazing in the mirror? I mean how, exactly, do you love yourself?
Those things might indeed be part of it for some. For me, it was much more basic. First, was the realization that I could do anything I wanted at any time. Full stop. Some things have consequences, and some things are hurtful to others, so I had to be mindful of that stuff. Mostly, I chose simple things that didn’t affect anyone else. I decided I could stay up all night and sleep all day if I wanted. That proved a bit difficult given the innate human tendency to sleep in darkness, but I gave it a try. It felt good to embrace my relative insomnia rather than bemoan it. I also decided I could go to bed at any time that I felt like it, for no particular reason. That felt good, too, and for a while I enjoyed regular afternoon naps. Next, I went outside whenever I wanted. Part of being depressed and feeling alone involved isolating myself, which included depriving myself of sunlight and fresh air and exercise, because when I punish myself I go all the way. Sometimes I could only be out for a brief time; at other times, I would just keep walking. Sometimes I would drive somewhere, like the grocery or the coffee shop, and stay there for a while. At other times, it hurt to be in those places because I was acutely aware of my aloneness. And finally, I had to learn to call friends. I imagined everyone I knew as fabulously busy with their wonderful lives and surrounded by their other friends and not thinking of me at all. In some cases, this was true. But in most cases, this was only my very active imagination having its way with me. This was my depressed mood talking, keeping me stuck. I still suck at this calling people stuff, by the way, because sometimes they don’t call back, and that reinforces that old negativity. Then one day it hit me: Stop calling the ones who don’t call back. They aren’t really your friends.
Recently, one friend has called me repeatedly. Though I did not always answer, as I have been in a bit of a funk from a major setback, just hearing her message and knowing that she cared made me feel less alone. A couple years ago, I did the same for her during a difficult time. It turns out that this is how it works, this whole friendship thing. We all get self-obsessed or down or sick or truly busy at times and don’t connect with our friends for long stretches. Shit happens. Life happens. But the “aha!” moment for me was that it was not just me – others have shit happen, too. My friends may not have abandoned me, they may simply be overwhelmed with their own life circumstances at the moment. The best way to get a call is to make one. They might not answer, and they may not call back right away, but when they do the timing will be perfect. And if they don’t call back, please refer to the preceding paragraph and move on.
Loving myself is sometimes as simple as binge-watching old TV shows while snuggled in a blanket with my dogs. It might be cruising the grocery store for nothing in particular. Last year, when I was finishing my undergraduate work at the rate of 18+ credit hours per semester, I would occasionally give myself a precious day off from my studies, and I programmed each week’s work to allow a little flex time for just that reason. When I was totally overwhelmed, which didn’t happen often but it did happen, I would dispassionately assess which class assignments could be sacrificed with the least impact on my grade and overall GPA, and I would cut out the overwhelming assignment with surgical precision. I graduated with a 3.47, so I probably cut it a little too tight a couple times, narrowly missing that coveted 3.5. Still, I have no regrets. I loved myself enough to embrace the fact that my GPA wasn’t everything and I gave myself a break.
In these last two years, loving myself has also meant allowing myself to feel and to grieve. It’s one of the paradoxes of the human condition to try to avoid our feelings even though they are simply part of being human. They are neither good nor bad, they just are. But feelings needn’t be acted upon; we can simply let them come and wash over us and then let them go. I learned to treat them like a movie. I acknowledge my feelings, I sit with them, sometimes I journal about them, and then they leave me. More feelings are always on the horizon, but I have found that I have less negative feelings and that their duration is shorter when I don’t resist them. Big, wracking sobs never last for long. They are like a good soul cleanse that leave me lighter and brighter. I used to think my feelings would swallow me up, but that’s simply not true.
Did I mention that I’m 53 years old and I look it? This is important only to add the perspective that age and appearance are not a factor. People of any age, background, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity can find themselves lonely, sad, and hopeless. Pretty people and homely people and the vast majority of us who are somewhere on the spectrum between those extremes all feel lonely and sad at times. The solution is always the same. You have to love yourself. Married people, people with children, and people surrounded by other people might loathe themselves and be as sad as the person who has isolated themselves in their bedroom. Depression and sadness do not have a type – they can affect anyone.
A warm cup of tea, a book that transports me to a different place and time, or music – these are some of the things that I enjoy. An afternoon or evening at the library is one of my favorite experiences. Lately, I like walking the beautiful old cemetery across the way with its rolling hills and phallic monuments. Giving myself these things is a gesture of love. I deserve them. Please find a way to show yourself some love today, if only for a few minutes. You deserve it, too.
Maybe make a call or text. Save yourself.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 (24/7)
Alcohol Hotline: (800) 331-2900
Al-Anon for Families of Alcoholics: (800) 344-2666
Alcohol and Drug Helpline: (800) 821-4357
National Domestic Violence Hotline: (800) 799-7233
National US Child Abuse Hotline: (800) 422-4453