“Love yourself. You’ll feel so much better if you just love yourself.” I’ve heard these words so often throughout my life that they barely hold any meaning anymore. I’ve heard it from friends, from my parents, from doctors: “You just have to love yourself.” All I could ever think was, “Don’t you people think I’m trying? If I could love myself, I would.” And if only that was the answer. If only loving yourself was enough to take away the depression, the anxiety. If only I could love myself enough to make it all go away.
I’m 21 years old. At 21, I’ve survived a sexual assault, suicide attempts, and hospitalization in an adolescent psychiatric ward. That takes a toll on a person. I suffer from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. I have nightmares almost every night. I rarely sleep more than a few hours at a time. Some days, I use all the energy I have just trying to get out of my bed. I take medication for my depression, but I’ve been told it’s just something I’ll have to deal with for the rest of my life. I was diagnosed with clinical depression at 15, during a 12-day hospitalization following a suicide attempt that was foiled by my sister. Since then, I’ve spent every day of my life trying to manage it. And it’s exhausting.
I hit a low point two summers ago. I had just lost my best friend of nine years, and all I could think was, “If she’s been friends with me for nine years and SHE doesn’t even see a reason to be around me anymore, why should I even be around?” I contemplated suicide for weeks. The only thing that stopped me was knowing that it would kill my mother if I ever hurt myself. To most people, something like that doesn’t seem so bad. “You lost a friend, so what?” But that’s what depression does: it takes everyday situations, such as a friendship ending, and it twists them, it makes them your fault, and it eats away at you until you can’t even stand the thought of yourself anymore.
Depression is like being at the lake watching fireworks, except you’re not on the shore with everyone else–you’re drowning in the lake, and no one else can see it. Depression doesn’t stop you from noticing the beauty of the world, it just stops you from appreciating it. Even the most beautiful of flowers always die, and those pretty, cloudy skies turn to rain. It makes it impossible to be happy, because there’s always something bad around the corner.
Everyone always says that you just have to love yourself, but they don’t see how hard that is. Why should I love myself? I don’t find myself attractive, smart, funny, or see any remotely redeeming qualities in myself. I’ve always been smaller than most people, my nose is too big for my face, and I’m painfully shy in most public situations. I was sexually assaulted, and most days I still blame myself for what happened. I feel broken, on the inside, all the time. I feel wrong. I feel like I’m not worth anything, like I’ll never amount to anything. I feel as if I’m a house that’s constantly falling apart, and people keep trying to fix it with duct tape. It covers up the problems, but underneath, they’re still there. Why would I ever want to love someone like that?
I told myself that if I could just change, it might be possible for me to love myself. So I became more outgoing. I started wearing makeup and dressing differently. And it worked for other people. I made friends more easily and I seemed happier–but I was still convinced I wasn’t enough. I changed my hair color and the way I spoke. I dated so many guys that I can’t even name them all now, just looking for someone to love me the way that I wanted to be loved. I thought that if I could make them love me, I would start to love myself. But I never did. I threw myself into activities, trying my hardest to forget how I was feeling. I ran track, I played soccer, and I joined the debate club and FCA. I threw myself into church activities, hoping it would fill that hole that had been in my heart for so long. But nothing worked.
My breaking point was something so simple that most people wouldn’t have even gotten upset by it. It was my sophomore year of college, and as I was leaving for class, my shoe broke. It was a 99 cent flip flop, not exactly anything to get upset about, but I just collapsed in my dorm room, crying. I was beating myself up inside for, once again, not being the perfect, flawless person I thought I should be. I cried those big, ugly, snotty sobs that leave you feeling empty afterward. I cried for almost an hour about that shoe, about the innocence that I had lost so many years ago, about the complete and utter exhaustion I faced from trying to live this incredible lie. I cried and I thought about how tired I was of pretending to be okay. So I dried my tears, I picked myself up off of that dorm room floor, and I took the first step toward feeling better: I went to the campus health center and asked for an appointment with one of the counselors.
The truth was, I did need to love myself. I just didn’t realize how hard that was going to be for me. I didn’t realize that it would be a constant uphill battle to remember that I have a purpose, that people love me, and that I deserve to be happy. I didn’t realize that every single day, I would have to remind myself that I’m worthy of being loved. I didn’t know that it was something I would have to fight every day, or that sometimes it would be almost as exhausting as living the “I’m okay” lie.
If depression is a fight, so is loving yourself. You have to push yourself every day to remember that you’re worth it. No, it won’t cure anything. It won’t immediately make your depression go away. But it’s like being out in that lake, drowning, and having someone toss you a life preserver. You’ll get to the shore, but it’ll take a while. Everyone will have to struggle to pull you in, but you’ll get there. And when you finally do, you’ll realize that it was you on the other side the entire time, that you were strong enough to pull yourself out of that water. You’ll feel more proud of yourself than you ever have before. There are going to be days when you slip, when you fall back into the lies that depression feeds you, when you listen to that little voice in the back of your mind that says you’ll never make it, that tells you to give up. But every time you push through that, you get a little bit stronger. I like to think of loving yourself in spite of depression as a spiral: even when you fall down, you’re never quite as down as you were the last time. You’re always on your way up. So, the next time you hear, “you just have to love yourself,” remember that it’s true, but it’s also difficult. It’s not a cure, but it’s a first step to healing the damage that depression does to your heart and mind. You’re worth loving, but true love starts within yourself..