by Charise Joy Javonillo
5 years ago I stopped myself from going to an archaeological field school in Peru because I feared I would have a complete nervous breakdown in the Andes. Excavating in a foreign country while every part of my body trembled from obsessive thoughts and unfounded fears spelled imminent disaster. Instead of toiling on a mountain, uncovering and collecting artifacts from a bygone society, I chose to go to therapy. Not the most exciting “How I spent my summer vacation” scenario but a necessary one. I was 24.
Unlike archaeology, therapy was old territory. Depression had dogged me since I was 13 but manifested outwardly as perfectionism, straight A’s, and a bookish sensibility. Obvious cries for help, no? Classmates, family, and teachers praised me for my studiousness and intelligence. Inwardly, I was exhausted and furious.
Therapy from 16 to 19 was sporadic. My perfectionist tendencies saw being healed as all or nothing; thinking I was cured once I felt better, I stopped making appointments. In truth, healing was a gradual, protracted, often uncomfortable process; I will engage with it until the day I die.
As an adolescent and a teenager, depression and anxiety were romantic quirks—Byronic romantic at best. At worst, I believed that I deserved to feel terrible; I was a horrible, selfish person for thinking otherwise. Yet, despite the darkness in my head, there was resistance. Some sense of my worth remained even though my thoughts screamed unworthiness.
At 16, I shared in processing group that I kept razor blades and other sharp objects in a kind of twisted, harmful emergency kit. In case of falling short—of failure—use for punishment. Imperfection warranted a penalty.
Or so I thought.
“I had the razor blade over my arm…I was ready to start slicing…I kept saying, ‘I deserve to be punished, I deserve to be punished,’ but…for some reason…I couldn’t…”
“Why do you think that is?”
“Because…,” impossible words emerging, “I didn’t…deserve it.”
“There’s nothing in this world worth hurting yourself over,” the therapist nodded.
“Nothing. There’s also no one in this world that deserves to be hurt.”
These ideas never occurred to me before that moment. I wish I could say that I followed these maxims perfectly over the years. They were always there though, like guardian angels, guiding and protecting, but ultimately dependent on my actions in the world.
Gradually, I abandoned the “punishment kit” and the mindset that gathered harmful objects and judgments. Over a decade a different kit would take its place, housing an assortment of implements freely given, hard won, mostly intangible, and all merciful.
A very powerful tool in this kit is my identity as an Eastern Orthodox Christian. Seen in light of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—the Church bundles good things in threes. One component cannot exist without the other two. Modeling the Trinity, a beloved priest also summed up our greatest commandment in thirds: love God, love your neighbor, love yourself. I was 21.
We are told that as Christians we will struggle our entire lives following this commandment; expect failure. Even if we were to tackle only one aspect—love God, love neighbor—this alone would still be formidable to grapple with for the rest of your life. To me, “love yourself” proved the most daunting.
The commandment’s original phrasing is “Love your neighbor as yourself.” I didn’t realize that loving God and my neighbor had anything to do with me loving me too; one does not exist without the others after all. Yet if I were to look at my life I could say that yes, I did love God, I did love my neighbor. At least, I loved them as I wished to be loved. How I have been loved. But I cannot say in the way that I have loved myself. You cannot give to others what you don’t have. What I didn’t have.
Presently, I think “love” is too strong for how I feel about myself. Then again, what I think and my actions tend to contradict each other. I may not think so, but I do try to behave as though I matter and should be treated with care. Choosing to go back to therapy in summer 2012 instead of digging in Peru was a step in that direction.
A tiny measure of mercy has permeated my worldview since my teens and early twenties. Perfectionism has been replaced with contentment for doing my best. I take pleasure—and shelter—in things that bring me joy and respite: friends, foreign languages, literature, journaling, sleep, and coconut juice. There are more, I promise. Depression and anxiety remain, so I need a full arsenal.
I continue collecting the means to protect myself from myself.