I didn’t learn to love myself until I learned to be alone with myself on the days I hated myself the most.
The loneliest I’ve ever felt was on Jan. 28, 2016. On this day, I was admitted into a psychiatric hospital after spending the night in the emergency room due to what I can only refer to as a complete mental break. I was left without a phone, stripped of my shoelaces, journal, laptop, schoolwork and everyone that I could reach out to for support. I lay on a bed that felt like cardboard, used my stuffed animal as a pillow and cried for two hours straight. Then I slept for an hour, got up, walked down a completely unfamiliar hallway to unfamiliar people and ran back to my room to cry again. On this day, doctors also told me that there would be 7-10 more days like this in this place. I cried harder. Nobody once asked why I was crying. Nobody once asked if I needed help.
But it doesn’t quite matter where I was or who surrounded me. It doesn’t matter if I had access to my phone to text my friends and tell them I was feeling lonely. It doesn’t matter if my mother was there to comfort me or if I could watch funny videos to make the pain go away. I realized that even with all of these things, I would feel empty in my darkest moments. The true significance of this day is that on Jan. 28, 2016, I decided that if my soul was going to live the rest of my life inside this body, I had to start to love and trust myself. This day prepared me for every lonely day to come.
This experience proved to me what I never wanted to believe all along - that at the end of the day, you’re all you have. Everyone else is external. Everyone else is a variable that can leave or be taken away at any time, but you have the power to stay. I took that power for granted and hoped that other people would give me a reason to want to stay in the first place. I relied on others for liveliness, happiness, meaning and, most importantly, love. I never understood loneliness or why anyone would want to be alone, because often depression consumed me when I was alone, but after a few days around complete strangers who felt just as lonely as I did, I started to feel like being alone was the first step to loving myself. I felt like I was in complete isolation from everything and everyone I had ever known in this small, quiet corner of the world, so I was damn sure getting some self-love out of this experience.
I don’t write about this to claim that mental illness kept me from loving myself (although it often does) or to convince anyone that you need a traumatic experience to learn self-love and acceptance. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I’m writing this to beg you to love yourself before you find yourself in a situation that forces you to learn. I’m begging you to equip yourself with so much love that when it feels like all external love is out of reach, you’re still well endowed.
I know self-love isn’t easy because it took so much more than just realizing I needed it to find it. While I will always hope that you find self-love before you desperately need it to survive, it often builds from those desperate situations. The worst part about this is that I don’t feel that we really know love until we learn to love ourselves. This sounds cliché, but when I compare the way I loved others before I accepted myself to the way I love others now that I actively care for and love myself, I see a huge difference in the meaning of love. Sometimes you have to love yourself to learn to give love. Sometimes you have to love yourself to learn that someone can.
This is not to say that people with insecurities cannot love. This is not to say that you cannot learn love in the presence of another person. But in my case, not until all love had left (even temporarily, or only in my mind) did I understand the meaning of love. Not until I felt so alone that I was forced to trust myself did I understand the meaning of love. I started to feel like I had no idea all along who I was. This kept me up at night. I thought I already knew love and if I didn’t know love, then did I know anything at all?
Not until I was curled up in a ball in my bed humming to the beat of my favorite song to force myself to stop thinking, to stop feeling, did I know. Not until I was alone, until I stared at myself in the mirror for two minutes straight without blinking and then broke down in tears and watched as my face streaked black onto my neck and snot ran onto my upper lip and into my mouth did I fully understand what it is to love. I found that staying alive was loving myself. I realized that letting myself feel and being there for myself was love. I understood that letting go was loving myself. I realized that being alone was loving myself. I found that the only person I could trust to love and love me in return is myself, and I found pleasure in that. And I loved myself to prove to myself that at least someone could.
And I couldn’t give love until I knew love, but once I knew love I tried to give it everywhere I could. I urged other patients in the hospital with me to realize their worth in situations of depression and suicidal thoughts. I found ways to trust love, hiding it away in the nooks and crannies of my college campus, exchanging it in smiles at strangers on the sidewalk, dropping it in the back pocket of old friends, and most importantly investing it in the people I found deserved it. And now when I give and receive love it feels different, because I don’t rely on that love. I no longer feel in the back of my mind that once it is gone, there will be no more left. Because I know that someone can take all of that love away, can drain me of all I have to give them, and I will still have some left to give myself.
I recall a conversation I had with another patient on my last day in the hospital during a group meeting. He spoke about his parents’ divorce, how one day they seemed fine and the next he found that his father was cheating on his mother because he simply didn’t love her anymore. He wondered how that happened, how people could wake up one day and stop loving someone. He wondered what happens when you wake up one day and stop loving yourself.
My answer to him surprised even me, as if my seven days of group therapy and crying myself to sleep had actually taught me something. Your feelings about others can be changed, tainted, manipulated by their actions or your emotions. This is okay though, because your subconscious knows that you don’t need this person to live. This person may give you liveliness, but you can let them go if they aren’t contributing to your happiness, no matter what the reason. This works the other way around; when someone leaves you, you know that their heartbeat does not keep your blood pumping. However you, as an individual human being, have the power to love yourself like nobody else can. You rely only on yourself to live, and this sets you apart from every single person you have ever met. As a friend once told me, your soul has to live inside of your body until you die. You can’t just wake up one day and decide to divorce yourself. And realizing this brings about a kind of love that can’t be overshadowed by anything: the harsh words of others, betrayal of loved ones, depressive episodes, and loneliest hours.
If you can love yourself after years and years of devaluing your worth and convincing yourself that you don’t deserve love, just imagine the kind of love you can give others. I believe fully in gathering strength from loved ones, but our main source of love comes from loving ourselves, even when we feel like nobody else does. And because of this I beg you to love yourself, if not mainly for your own mental health and fulfillment, then for the relationships you form with others and the love that your presence spreads amongst all those around you. Finding ways to love ourselves creates a chain reaction in those around us.
I preach self-love as if I’m experienced in this, but don’t let me fool you. I’m not necessarily a confident person. Sometimes I have what I call “bad face days”, sometimes I find the things I say annoying, sometimes I compare myself to others and find myself jealous of their talents, intellect, or appearance. But in the end of the day, I’m all that I’ve got. In the end of the day, we’re all that we’ve got. There is nobody that can prove our worth to ourselves like we can. There is nobody else that can love ourselves like we can. This makes me feel like I have more control over my thoughts than external voices. This gives me hope.
So we owe ourselves some apologies. I owe myself an apology for believing that love came only from those who validated me. I owe myself an apology for devaluing the life I control. I owe myself an apology for fearing loneliness for so long. I owe myself an apology for not realizing my worth when I needed it most. But after all these apologies, we owe ourselves a promise. We owe ourselves the promise to establish a strong connection between our mind/soul with the body we are forced to inhabit. Above all, we must promise to love and consider ourselves first. That is love.