Is there anything worse than being offered nice, pat aphorisms instead of actual advice?
For example, when you don’t get into your post-secondary school of choice and suddenly everyone and their mother gives you some variation on the old everything happens for a reason theme.
Or when your high school best friend is a jerk to you again and, instead of sympathizing, your mother reminds you that a leopard never changes its spots. Like, great, Mom, I just wanted a hug and maybe some chocolate, not a biology lesson about large jungle cats.
Or else how, when you were a kid and you were feeling kind of bummed out about the fact that your birthday party or whatever had just ended and all of your friends had to go home, some asshole grownup decided to remind you that all good things must come to an end. Like, no shit, Sherlock, I didn’t think I’d managed to bend the time-space continuum in order to create some kind of eternal birthday party. The fact that I knew that it was going to end didn’t make saying goodbye to my friends any less sucky.
For me, though, the worst saying was always, always, “You can’t love someone until you learn to love yourself.”
Seriously, hearing that is like the auditory equivalent of biting tin foil.
First of all, it always seems to come up whenever one of two things happens:
a) You’re experiencing abnormally high amounts of self-loathing
(slight digression: define “abnormally”)
b) You’ve just had some kind of romantic experience that ended badly
I used to get so irritated when people told me that I couldn’t love anyone else until I loved myself. I mean, first of all, it’s demonstrably untrue. I’m a chronic self-loather, and I fall in love at the drop of a hat. Seriously, a dude just has to say something smart, or be nice to a small child, or stand so that the light is hitting him in just the right way, and I’m done. Gone. Smitten. Head over heels.
Second of all, whenever I would hear this, I would think great, thanks, you’re basically telling me that I’m going to be single for the rest of my life. I mean, sure, it would be nice not to hate myself, but self-love isn’t really something that I see happening for me anytime soon. Don’t get me wrong, my therapist and I are working on it, but let’s be realistic here: Rome wasn’t built in a day, and those Ancient Romans had way more stick-to-itiveness than I do.
And you know what? I would even argue that it’s actually easier, in some cases, to love someone else when you don’t love yourself. Because what else are you going to do with all that pent up love and affection you’ve got stored away somewhere? And if that person doesn’t reciprocate, or treats you badly in any way, that just goes to show you that you weren’t really worth anything in the first place after all. The cycle perpetuates itself, and everybody wins. Except you, of course.
It’s also just kind of a weird, victim-blamey thing to say to someone. Like, maybe you could have love if you would stop feeling so shitty about yourself all the time. Just make a choice to be happy! Bootstraps, people. BOOTSTRAPS.
It wasn’t until I started dating Matt that I suddenly realized what this old saying actually meant. It’s not about being unable to love another person while you hate yourself because; it’s about how hard it is to be loved by someone else while you’re stuck in a deep pit of self-loathing.
Matt started using the L word (no, not lesbians) pretty early on in our relationship. And it made me uncomfortable, but it took me a while for me to figure out why, exactly, that was. I started feeling weird about him, started picking apart his behaviours, looking for something wrong with him. I called my friend Debbie, who had known him slightly longer than I had, and asked,
“What’s his deal? Is he some kind of weirdo or psychopath?”
“No,” she said, “he’s a totally nice guy, as far as I know. Why? Did he do something.”
“He keeps telling me he loves me.”
Debbie just laughed and said,
“Well, that’s nice, isn’t it? I mean, isn’t it?”
It didn’t feel nice, though. It felt weird.
I don’t remember what triggered it, but sometime during our first summer together I had some kind of epiphany. I realized that I was trying to figure out what was wrong with Matt because there was a part of me, a fairly big part of me, that didn’t believe that a sincerely nice, normal human being could actually love me or want to be with me. I figured that anyone who said they loved me and meant it probably had bodies buried in the basement or wanted to have sex with their mother or actually thought that Atlas Shrugged was a good book.
But Matt is nice, and (mostly) normal. He wasn’t the one who was fucked up. I was.
To be depressed is to constantly have his very calm, very rational voice whispering in your ear, telling you how awful and worthless you are. It’s being trapped inside an airless glass room, watching everyone around you pile up success after success while you can barely button your shirt or tie your shoes. It’s knowing that you are not capable of doing anything, not one single thing, of value.
Depression is mistrusting every good thing that happens. Depression is realizing that, when things seem to be going your way for once, this is always the part of the movie when aliens attack and destroy the earth. Depression is the need to constantly be on the lookout for the secret trap door, for the ulterior motive, for whatever the catch might be.
Depression is the certainty that you’ve finally taken off the rose-coloured glasses are seeing yourself quite clearly for the first time.
Depression is being sickened by your own reflection.
So how can you ever trust a person who loves someone like you?
And I’ve been wondering, lately, if it’s ever, at any time, possible to be depressed and love yourself? If you are someone who is clinically, chronically depressed, does that mean that you’re stuck with self-loathing for the rest of your life? Are misery and self-love ever able to co-exist? Or are those states totally, fundamentally contradictory?
I guess what I’m really trying to get at here is this:
Will I ever like, maybe even love, myself?
And I try. I really do.
I make lists. I remind myself of all of the good things in my life. I try to view my successes in their own right, rather than seeing them as opportunities to fail even harder somewhere further on down the road. I give myself pep talks. When all else fails, I call my mom.
Being depressed means that I have a hard time accepting anything positive. Good news makes me feel sick to my stomach. Compliments make me deeply uncomfortable. Smiling makes my cheeks ache.
And, after eight years of being with Matt, accepting the fact that someone else loves me is still a struggle. I ask him, often, if he still loves me. I make him promise that he’ll never leave me. I bury my face in his chest and tell him to wrap his arms around me as tightly as he can.
Other times, when I’m in a real low, I don’t even want him near me. I don’t want to be touched, I don’t want to be held, I don’t want to be loved. His affection for me irritates me, sometimes even angers me. When I’ve reached rock bottom, all I want is to be totally and utterly alone. Preferably forever.
I’m hard to love.
And I have a hard time being loved.
Eight years in and I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop. I’m still waiting for the bodies in the basement to be discovered, or else for the Oedipus complex to be revealed.
I want to ask if this is going to get any easier, but I would guess that the truth is that it’s a process. You learn to stop the negative self-talk, and you learn to let other people get close to you. You learn to accept that good things happen, too, sometimes. You stop balking at the idea of happiness, that elusive state which somehow manages to simultaneously be the goal that you’ve spent the majority of your life chasing and also the thing that terrifies you the most.
You stop giving all of your love away and learn to keep some for yourself.
Maybe that’s the secret to being loved.