Last year, I decided to love myself.
In the years I’ve struggled with depression, I’ve battled a lot of self-loathing. I’ve gone long periods of my life scrutinizing and criticizing every single thing I say or do, wondering how it was all perceived by others, as if other people actually paid that much attention to me and as if, even if they did, their opinion mattered.
I’ve set plenty of goals for myself, telling myself “If I can just… then I’ll be happy.” If I could just make a little bit more money, then life would be easier. If I could just live in my own apartment away from my parents, then I would feel calm. If my dog would just settle down, if I could just train him to be something different than he inherently was, then life would be grand. If I could just get six pack abs, then I would feel hot. If I could just play this one role in this one play at this one theatre, then I would know pursuing acting was worthwhile, that I was “good enough.” If I could just lose 10 pounds, I would think I was attractive. If I could just get rid of this one scar, this one freckle, this one stretch mark, this little bit of cellulite, this one zit that will go away on its own if I just stop messing with it, then I’ll be happy with my body. If I can just go to a foreign country and explore it on my own, then I’ll be a brave person. If I can just find a guy who loves me so much he wants to marry me, then I’ll know I am a worthwhile person. If I could just sing really well, then I could just impress people all the time. If I could just wear that super tight dress and fit into it the way the catalog model does, then I’ll get hit on in bars. If I can just get hit on in bars, then I’ll know I’m attractive. If I can just know I’m attractive, then I’ll know life will be okay.
If people would just like me, then I can like myself.
Thanksgiving weekend of 2012, I hit rock bottom. I was teetering on the edge of picking myself up after a heartbreaking, long year. One pebble hit me and I soared off the cliff. I was so angry. So, so angry, and I let it rip on the pebble-thrower. I was so angry about so many things and at so many people, from my best friends to a nameless, faceless “society.” And in the moment I received a text message that said “You are a terrible human being and I look forward to never seeing you again,” I was most angry at myself. Because I believed it, and I believed I deserved to hear it. I was a loathsome person, and I deserved to be seen by no one. I deserved no love. I deserved no life.
It wasn’t the text message that made me believe it. I already believed it. I had believed it for some time. Years.
My dog saved my life that night. He scratched at my bedroom door because he needed to pee, and I had to take him out.
My dog didn’t care that I weighed almost 190 pounds. My dog didn’t care, when I first picked him up out of his cage when he was 8 weeks old, that I weighed 175 pounds. He didn’t care the summer before when on a rolling weeks-long panic attack I dropped down to 160 pounds. He didn’t care that I didn’t have a boyfriend. That I ate crappy food. That I had a college degree. That I was almost failing a graduate course. That I had been accepted to graduate school. That I had pretty blond hair. That I had acne all over my chin. That I had just said really mean things. That I had said really nice things to other people earlier in the day. He didn’t care whether or not my job was impressive on a resume or a LinkedIn profile. He didn’t care whether I looked cute in my Facebook picture. He didn’t care whether I had 100 best friends or none. He didn’t care why I gave up acting. He didn’t care why I was crying. He just knew, when I bent down to put his leash on, that I was crying, and like he always did, he kissed my tears away. And then he waited for me to take him out to pee. He didn’t really care I had not the emotional energy to leave my apartment. He had to pee, damn it, and he was too damn dignified to do it on the carpet.
It was that moment I decided to love myself.
I had found a reason to love myself. Not an obligation to stay alive, but a reason to cherish my life.
I had found my “why.”
It was small, but in some way, it was huge. I needed to be alive to take my dog out to pee. If no one took him out to pee he could develop bladder stones and an infection and be in a lot of pain and not understand why, all he’d been doing was trying to hold it like he’d been taught. I needed to stay alive to be around to keep taking him out to pee.
I started finding other little reasons I was needed on Earth. The Pepco bill for our apartment was billed to my email and only I knew the password. It would be a confusing nightmare for my roommate to get a hold of the account to pay the energy bill if I wasn’t around.
I had to put in the data into the CRM at work so the sales executives could focus on making sales than understanding internet applications, so they could make sales and bring home money so their families could eat. I knew if I was gone they could find someone else to do it and nobody would starve, but I thought of my boss and how good and kind and patient he was and I decided I did not want to put him through the trouble, and I’d keep showing up to work.
I texted my dad, “I love you Daddy.” He wrote back “I love my lil girl.” I thought of him working 12-14 hours a day. For my family. For me. Because he loved me that much. I decided to love me at least a fraction as much as my dad loves me.
I listened to some of my favorite songs. I saw on the Internet that some of my favorite musicians would be releasing new music soon. I took the joy I felt at hearing the music and decided to stick around long enough for my favorite musicians to keep releasing new music and to find new favorite musicians too.
I walked through a bookstore, and whereas I used to get anxious in bookstores about there being more books than a life would ever have enough time to read, I decided to stay alive as long as possible to read as many of them as possible, because I knew I would never run out of reading material.
I went on a hike and huffed and puffed up a big hill. I looked back at where I’d come from, my legs burning, amazed my body had just done that. Later I looked at my body in the mirror and saw a lot of fat. But it had hauled itself up a giant hill, somewhat of a mountain. Whatever it looked like, my body was capable of something pretty gnarly. I saw people in wheelchairs, car accident victims bed-ridden, torture victims crippled and disabled for life, and when I looked back at the mirror I still saw the fat, but I saw it as evidence that I have access to food, that I’m not burned or torn up, that I have all my limbs and a body on which to store fat in the first place. I decided to love it, and thank it for what it could do for me.
And in some small way, I decided to stick around and love me as a way of metaphorically rolling through the world, the world of a person who told me I was horrible and wanted never to see me again, with both middle fingers high in the air. Just because you told me you never wanted to see me again, is exactly why you’re going to keep hearing my name. And seeing my face.
So I had settled it. I was sticking around. And if I was going to stick around for the long haul, I had better start treating myself the way my mom always taught me to treat things: with care, so they would last a lifetime. I had better start taking care of myself.
If my dog had died six months prior, I’m not sure I would have survived it. But after he taught me that night Thanksgiving weekend that it didn’t matter where I’d been or where I was going, that I did indeed deserve love, I learned how to love myself. I had found all the reasons why I deserved love, from others but more importantly, from myself.
I started going to things on my own, taking little trips to places near and far to explore the world in which I am blessed to exist. Sometimes what I saw, from the safety of my own desk, was ugly, but when I got away from the computer screens, the TV screens, when I looked up from my phone screens, most of what I saw was beautiful.
Pages full of beautiful sentences, art sculpted into beautiful curves and precise edges, mothers holding their superhero t-shirt-clad sons’ hands, daddies trying to suppress surprised laughter hearing their daughters tell them about watching “The Brady Bunch.” Tall, old trees with trunks wider than the length of cars. Tiny little sprouts of spring wildflowers.
I read a bunch of books in a short amount of time, keeping my brain active. I wrote a lot, sometimes digging deep to find the right word, to rearrange the way I said something. I started caring about the health of my brain.
I started running. First I wanted to appreciate that my body could move itself on foot a mile per day. Then I started running outside. I started signing up for races. I didn’t care about coming in first. I wanted to celebrate that my body was capable of huffing it three miles on foot.
After a year of a lot of road trips, I started experiencing the world on foot. I moved my body through the world with the world under my feet. I noticed little yard decorations my neighbors put up, having never noticed them before when I drove by. I discovered an oasis of an open field through an opening in the trees lining my street, angled just so that passing by in a car I’d never seen through it before. I realized just how far a mile is. I began understanding the world the way people understood it before there were cars.
I started setting goals again, only this time. My language was different. Instead of “if I can just run two miles without stopping to walk, then I’ll know I’m fitter than the person who can’t,” in my head, I worded it, “I believe I can run two miles without stopping to walk. Hey body, let’s prove it to us.”
Sometimes it was tough when I was proved wrong. But now it wasn’t “failing.” It wasn’t that I hadn’t just and then I wasn’t. It simply was I hadn’t that day so I’d try again tomorrow. Because there is a tomorrow.
That’s why I run. That’s why I read. That’s why I write.
I write because whether or not anyone is listening to me, I am here, I exist in this world, and no one with a cell phone and text-messaging ability can shut me up.
I read because I don’t always have the money or the time machine to take me to the places I want to go on foot. I don’t read to be the smartest. I read because I have a brain that has more room to learn.
I run because there is so much World to see out there, and I miss it flying by in my car. I run to experience the world on foot. I don’t run to be the fastest. I don’t run to lose weight. I run to be slower than my car. I run to celebrate my body, my life, the world, as it is in this moment, today.