So I’ve talked a lot about events in my own life and how they’ve effected my struggles with mental illness. And one of the things I’ve learned is not to get caught up in the past and what could have been. But there is one thing I want to look back on here. It’s something I’ve only found out through lots of self-care and help from others.
So there’s this book I read in school. It’s called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and it tells the autobiographical tale of a man trying to recover from a mental break he had. I identified with this book when I started reading it because this guy was a former philosophy professor who dealt with mental illness and a significant loss in his life that seemed to send his life in a tailspin.
But first, I want to talk about something else. I’ve talked a fair bit about the fact that I was engaged to this one woman and what had happened there. And in that post, I talked about how I wasn’t able to grasp what caused this person to do what she did. Her actions came as a shock to myself and my family since she had demonstrated a caring heart, a sensitive spirit, and a strong devotion to Christ. Of course none of those things guarantee someone won’t make mistakes, but the severity of things was still surprising nonetheless.
But in all honesty, only after a lot of reconciling things about myself and my past have I started to realize something crucial: this person was unkind to me from the start. Now, I need to stress (for my own sake, most of all) that I’m not just talking about this to complain about something that’s already past. What is important here is what I’ve realized about myself recently and what that means for my future.
OK, let’s go back to the book. So I was really enjoying that book because the author described how his mental illness ruined his ability to appreciate the beauty of the world around him, the love and care of his family and friends, and even find solace in his passions (such as Zen and maintaining motorcycles, as hinted at in the title). He’s on a search for “value,” in both a philosophical sense as well as personal. I identified with this so clearly since my own bouts of depression and anxiety made it so I couldn’t enjoy times of peace and quiet, the concerns of my friends and family, or even be able to feel better with the books, movies, and activities I loved. I sense like what I was feeling was inescapable and this book really communicated those feelings in a way I hadn’t been able to do at the time. I too wanted to find value in my life and to be able to enjoy it when I found it.
But then the climax of the book came and I had never been so frustrated with a book in my life (that includes that one time I read The Da Vinci Code). See, the main character goes on a soul-searching motorcycle trip to try and find his zen again (there’s that title again). And he finds it by… deciding he’s over whatever his problems were. He climbs to the top of this mountain and is suddenly… cured. All his grief and mental illness and inability to feel things just disappear because… he decides they’re gone.
As someone who had spent years struggling with my own thoughts, trying desperately to be able to feel happy again, spent nights in tears just trying not to feel alone and afraid—all of course only to find that no, I needed to spend a good long while finding the right medication, the right routine, and the right counselling to be able to slowly and surely sort out what is wrong with my mind—and this guy just turns it on and off like a light switch?! FRICK!
I felt frustrated because he was able to do what I couldn’t, so I felt like either there must be something so wrong with me that I was incapable of fixing my own problems unlike this other guy, or he was full of crap and mental illness doesn’t work like that. But I also need to point something out here: the author emphasizes a significant event triggered his descent into depression and grief. And while I had identified with his story, I had not had any particular event that had thrown me into my own struggles. At least… I didn’t think so.
I actually finished this book something like a month before I got engaged. So I was planning on marrying this person while also freaking out about my own inability to emerge from the depths of my mental state. What I didn’t realize then, or acknowledge for quite a few years, was that there were a few reasons I wasn’t making any headway in getting well.
Obviously getting mentally well isn’t like flicking a light switch. It’s not like if I were able to find a specific thing that was affecting me negatively I would miraculously be right as rain. But one thing I have realized is that sometimes there are incredibly unhealthy things in your life that you keep around and try to justify having because you fear what will happen when you lose it. You assume your worth, your being, or your happiness is permanently tied to this thing, so to ever admit it could be causing more damage than good, or that you would be better off without it feels like saying you have to abandon part of yourself or one of the few things that actually makes you feel good.
This is how I felt about my fiancé. I had such low self-esteem and such a low sense of my own worth that when I met someone who showed any sort of interest in me, I went along with what she said and did because I felt like she was one of the few sources of happiness in my life. But the truth is she wasn’t a source of happiness. Or rather, the happiness did not outweigh the negativity. She would withhold affection or encouragement so that I felt I had to prove myself to her anytime I wanted to feel loved. Whenever I felt hurt by her actions and would cite an example, she would tell me I had “selective memory,” like it was my fault I was unhappy because I would forget about how good she had been to me. She would devalue my experiences, my passions, and my feelings for the sake of her own, making me feel not worthy of her.
And I have to emphasize I don’t think she did this consciously. This was just how she acted and I was in such a position that I accepted this all as normal. So while I had been seeing a counsellor and taking medication while we were dating, I refused to admit that maybe the way she treated me was affecting my overall sense of self and my ability to recognize my own value, allowing the depression, anxiety, and overall unhealthy state to continue.
Again, I want to emphasize that this person was not the cause of my mental illness, only that being with her didn’t help things. And I think had I the ability to see that at the time and had I the confidence in myself to admit continuing to be with her would only make things worse over time, maybe I could have ended our relationship earlier. But I don’t like hypotheticals. In fact, in this particular case, I am… well maybe not glad, but OK with what happened and wouldn’t change it because then I would lose everything that happened as a result; everything that helped me become more of who I am today.
And this is the crux of what I’m getting at here. I have gotten better. I haven’t written anything on this space for a while and since my last piece was pretty heavy, it must look like things haven’t improved. But they have. Significantly.
Things are better and they continue to get better. And I don’t want to do what the Zen guy did to me by just saying, “And now I’m better and everything’s fine!” It hasn’t been a sudden revelation on top of a mountain, or turing on a light to fix everything. I’ve been working for a long time to unravel the tangled mess of me; all the untruths I’ve believed about myself and all the false things I’ve accepted as reality no matter how much pain they’ve caused me.
I have learned to love myself, to truly love myself. And not in a Reggie-from-Archie-comics-staring-at-myself-in-a-mirror-all-day kind of way. In fact, that was something I’ve always been afraid of. I know a few egomaniacs and people who love to walk all over other people in order to get what they want. I’ve always been afraid to become that some day, so for as long as I can remember, I’ve overcorrected for the faults I saw in others. I apologized for saying things I stood by, I let others dictate how I felt about things that mattered to me, and I lessened myself in my own mind hoping that would somehow magically reduce other people’s egos.
But that’s not the way to treat yourself, in the same way you don’t treat someone you love as a secondary person. They are a human being, crafted, understood, and beloved by a God who is not just loving, but the source and very definition of pure love. He loves you with a ferocity and a passion even the Reggies-from-Archie-comics can’t muster. And He wants you to experience that love for yourself and then give it out in abundance to all his other beloved children. For your sake, for His sake, and for the sake of all those who continue to suffer in the world, who are persecuted, who are dehumanized: Do not let anyone stand in the way of your value or theirs. You matter, so very, very much.
I’ve been able to once again appreciate the beauty of the world around me, to see what it’s like when I love myself and when others show love to me, and to find joy and solace in my passions. I love writing, sure, but I also love encouraging people. Please, know you are loved. I love you, God loves you, and you can love you, too.