A Work in Progress

by Bridget Conway

I’ve never been particularly good at practicing self-love.

Actually, if I’m honest with myself, I’ve never even been good at self-“like”.

Since I was seventeen, I’ve struggled with chronic depression. I suffer from obsessive negative thought spirals, in which either:
(a) my mind generates the worst-case scenario for any given situation and then projects its consequences out years into the future, or
(b) something happens that causes an unkind thought about myself to pop into my head, and my mind then brings to the surface any and every terrible thing I’ve ever thought about myself all at once until I’m suffocating under the weight of my own feelings of inadequacy.

But depression is not where my dislike of myself stems from entirely. To trace the true origins of those feelings, I have to look back six years further, to when I played on a U-12 club soccer team under a very psychologically abusive coach. During practices, games, and tournaments, I was his favorite target–over the course of two years, he utterly obliterated any shred of confidence or self esteem I’d gained in the first decade of my life, leaving behind a shell of the self-assured, Hermione Granger-esque child I’d once been. In my early teen years, I couldn’t make eye contact with anyone I spoke to, and I struggled daily with an obsessive-compulsive apology tic. Thinking back on that time now, I realize that panic attacks I’d once attributed to asthma had actually been triggered by the anxiety I’d developed in his presence, by the crippling fear of disappointing him and being punished for it.

By the time I left the team for good, my mind was thoroughly trained to believe that I was worthless, useless, undeserving of kindness or compassion.

Now fast-forward ten years: at the end of 2016, I decided to take a leave of absence from university during the coming spring semester. I was a senior, an honors student, with only one semester’s worth of credits left to complete before graduation. But by early December, my depression had gotten so bad that I was rarely leaving my bedroom before 4:30 in the afternoon.

Everything came to a head when I received an email from one of my professors informing me that I had failed her course. Having always been a straight-A student and a perfectionist by nature, this triggered a complete mental breakdown, a breakdown so colossal that my father cut a business trip short to rush to my side out of fear that I might do something dangerous if I were left alone. I had to finish the semester, but after that day, it was clear that I needed to spend some time at home (several states away from my school) to get help.

In January 2017, I started going to therapy. At first, it was incredibly difficult to fully open up, to dismantle the smiley, “I’m great, how are you?” persona I’d put on in front of everyone for so long. I didn’t want to burden anyone else with the darkness lurking in my mind. I didn’t want anyone I cared about to feel an ounce of the pain my sick brain was putting me through.

But my therapist finally got me to tear the walls down in front of her, to expose the broken, self-loathing creature I’d become on the inside.

And the healing began.

Over the last nine months, she and I have been taking a long, slow journey down the road to self-love. She’s taught me a number of ways to break myself out of my negative thought spirals, how to remind myself that I have worth when I’m feeling worthless, how to be kind to myself. And it’s all finally starting to sink in.

I definitely still have a long way to go, but I feel better about myself now than I have since I was a preteen. I’m learning that it’s okay to not be okay sometimes, that it’s okay to ask for help. I’m learning to ignore my brain when it tells me things about myself that I know to be false. I’m learning to like–and hopefully someday love–the things about myself that I’ve always hated, to accept my flaws as part of what makes me who I am, and that that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’m learning to admit to myself that I am deserving of love, that I deserve to have someone help me carry the burden my brain has placed on my shoulders, that no one deserves to suffer through mental illness alone. I’m learning to use the resources I’ve been blessed with, to open up to the people in my life who’ve offered themselves up as confidantes, consolers, emotional supporters.

I’m learning that self-love isn’t selfish—I’m just a work in progress.

Check out more of Bridget’s writing here.

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