I'm really, really good at loving myself.
I'm absolutely terrible at letting myself be loved.
When I was 24 I left a seemingly perfect relationship. He treated me well. He took care of me while I was sick. He celebrated my successes and was empathetic towards my depression. He watched me spiral out of control with alcohol and stayed by my side. We dated for nearly two years and were on track to getting married and having children.
When I left him my father said to me, "Nobody will ever love you the way that he did."
Even though the relationship seemed perfect, that's exactly why I ended it.
I didn't feel that I deserved that love. I didn't love myself. I needed to learn to love myself the way that he did, so I knew that I was capable and deserving.
Learning to love myself took strength, courage, and yes, sobriety. I learned to value myself and put myself first. To take myself on dates, buy myself flowers, and call myself beautiful.
I've been a serial dater since I was 14. The longest I spent single was perhaps a month. Why? Simple. I had horribly low self-esteem. I had always needed a partner to hold my hand, to call me pretty, to be proud of me. I relied on it so much growing up because I was never taught to be proud of myself. To this day I still struggle with accomplishments. Some may call it being humble but I internalize my pride instead of properly celebrating it. That's part of why I've started actively using this blog. I need to share my pride, and to show others that it is important and okay to be proud of yourself.
The time for myself to grow was what I needed. I had never had that. When we split I realized that I had no identity of my own - I'd become half of a relationship. I had been recently diagnosed with having a bipolar disorder and I had no idea how to tackle that diagnosis and re-define myself. It was after the breakup that I started learning the difference between being lonely, and being alone. I loved the feeling of being alone, of being accountable for my actions, emotions and living space. I had never truly lived on my own and it was just me and my cat. I started feeling that creeping loneliness. I had to learn to separate the loneliness, and simply being alone.
The loneliness took over and I found myself repeating old habits - hello, Tinder! I met a handful of people from Tinder - some to this day have become incredible platonic friends who have supported and encouraged me every step of the way. I used Tinder to break free, to push myself and my anxiety, and force myself into new social scenarios and opened up to a plethora of new experiences. I also ended up in another relationship - whoops.
Within two months I was dating again, and I was in a casual relationship for a few months, after demanding this time to myself to grow. He was an addict and tried over and over again to get clean and sober - compromising my values, integrity, and recovery. I started to feel entirely differently than I ever had in a relationship - I didn't feel like a girlfriend. I felt like a sponsor. During this quasi-relationship I maintained my independence and let it grow. I ended that relationship relieved and ready to be on my own.
So I decided to date myself.
I woke up every morning and found something to take pride in, to myself. I looked in the mirror and started every day by saying to myself, "Good morning, beautiful." I truly relished the time and space that I had to myself. I pursued my art. I wrote a book, I pushed and grew my business, I played guitar constantly. I lived by my own accord and went out with my (new) friends when I chose to. I pushed myself to do things I thought 'scary', activities that would make me anxious. I went to bed every night in my bed and curled up with my cat, content with my life.
Did I feel bad about ending that relationship? Absolutely. I still do. There's a conflict of emotion regarding the break-up. I hurt another person, and I hurt myself. That's something I will always have to live with. We don't speak anymore. As time went on I began to realize things about myself that would have been completely incompatible - I've known forever that I don't want children, and he did, badly. One of us would have ended up compromising to keep the other happy. We had different values, different expectations and goals from life. Mind you, these are things I didn't even discover about myself until I was on my own and allowed myself the chance to breathe, and to get to know myself.
I learned something interesting about myself. I learned that I love myself too much to allow myself to be loved. That doesn't seem to make much sense. When I start to feel loved, I start to feel trapped and scared, as though that person's emotions will overtake the love that I have for myself. I feel compromised and needed. I feel like they will expect more out of me than I have to give to myself. I've created a barrier, for the first time in my life, I have standards. I thought I did when I was younger, but I've come to realize I value myself and rely on myself for my own happiness.
"No one will ever love you the way that he did."
That's okay. It's okay to me if nobody ever does. I've learned to love myself, and better.
I still haven't wrapped my head around accepting love that is given to me - not romantic, anyways. What I have learned is that love exists in all too many forms. Perhaps someday I will learn to accept romantic love again. Until then, I'm going to continue to buy myself flowers, take myself on dates, tell myself I'm beautiful, and love myself bigger and better with each passing day.
Believe it or not, this is still something I struggle with. Just last night I went out to a show and I caught myself looking around, wondering about this question. Everywhere I looked, it seemed like everybody had a drink, starting to loosen up, get giggly, friendly, dancing, and I felt like the same old me.
Don't get me wrong - I love me! I especially love sober me.
When I used to go out I would get drunk to loosen up and have some fun. Which could have been okay if I'd known when to stop. But also I was abusing alcohol and relying on it to come out of my shell. And sometimes, I came out of my shell a wee bit much. Back in the day I remember being at a show and getting wasted, double vodka slimes times 8 wasted. Whoops. After the band finished, a few people jumped up on stage and started jamming, and out-of-my-shell confident me decided to jump up on the microphone and improvise lyrics. Even though I was drunk I soon realized I was making an ass of myself. I jumped off the stage, grabbed my jacket, and caught a cab to McDonalds (ew). I'm happy to say that stuff like this doesn't happen anymore, but I still cringe at this memory.
The first thing I do when I get into a bar is go put $4 into the Keno machine. I have a pretty good Keno rule (I know myself and my tendency to over-indulge) - if I win, I don't put any money back in. If I lose, I don't put any money back in. Simple. It gives me something to do, something to have fun with. Plus, it's a way cheaper habit (especially the way I play) than my old bar tabs (also, yowza).
Next up I grab a ginger ale. I can't remember the last time I got charged for a ginger ale at a bar. Which is rad! My bar budget for the night includes a show ticket (usually around $10), my Keno plays, and always spare change for a ginger ale or the Holy Grail -
$1.25 for a game of pool. Bar tables are usually terrible, and there's rarely chalk, bent cues, a lopsided table with scratch marks in the felt, but pool is a blast. Even if, like me, you're not very good at it. I go throw my $1.25 on the table and claim the next game. Usually it ends up that someone challenges me, or invites me for a game of doubles, and you end up meeting all of the crew who's come out to drink and play pool. And maybe sometimes you'll win a game or two.
Oh, right! You're there for the show! There's always that. Get into the crowd, go listen to the music, watch the band, learn the words, dance, and stop caring what you think people might think. Most of the times in bars people assume I'm sipping on a rye and ginger. Nobody has to know there's no booze in it. In fact, people are usually shocked when they offer me a glass of beer and I turn it down. People think it's cool that I don't drink.
Mingle. Socialize. If you're like me with social anxiety, you don't need to drink to loosen up - everybody else around you is already doing that. The more uninhibited and drunk others get, the easier you'll find it to socialize with strangers.
I always have my fail-safe back-up to ensure that I won't drink in bars - my car. I drive myself everywhere for a few reasons. One, so that I can leave when I'm ready to, and not rely on a taxi, or a ride from anybody else. And so that I don't drink. I will not drink and drive, and I sure as hell won't leave my car parked outside a bar, so if I have my car, I won't drink. Simple! Same rule goes for myself for house parties, or any event.
The first time I went to a bar after I quit drinking was a mere three months into my sobriety and I was terrified, and I learned from it. I didn't have my car, and it freaked me out. I learned to have my car as a back-up. I learned that ginger ales are free! I learned that I could really get into the music and forget that I wasn't drinking. I learned I didn't have to get drunk and make an ass of myself. Most of all, I learned that I could still go to a bar, not drink, and have fun.
It is possible. These days, I do it on a regular basis.
In honor of Mental Health Awareness Week I felt it was appropriate to write this post about my bipolar diagnosis.
I first learned about bipolar disorder when I was thirteen - when it was called manic depressive disorder. I had a friend who used to sigh and complain, "Ugh, I'm so bipolar." I remember looking up the disorder on Wikipedia and thinking, "Oh my god, this is me."
I don't think back then I even said anything to anybody, but I related to the symptoms entirely. The manic highs coupled with crippling lows, and the sweet bliss of the time in between the crashes. It reminds me sometimes of being tossed on an ocean. I started managing the symptoms on my own. I abused drugs until I almost couldn't anymore, relying on uppers to pull me through depression, and downers to bring me back down to earth. The funniest part is that I couldn't even see that until I cleaned up. I charted my life out with a psychiatrist and we both realized it. I also realized that my swings usually work on roughly a two year basis.
When I was sixteen I hit the wall. I describe it as the 'first time I went crazy'. I fell into a deep despairing depression that even drugs couldn't get me out of. I started cutting myself in places I thought nobody could see. I went for a Pap smear and my doctor noticed a strategically placed cut. I blamed it on a cat scratch. I couldn't sleep, and I slept too much. At night my mind was wandering with thoughts and I would fall asleep around six in the morning and sleep until about six at night. I couldn't go to school, I stopped eating and showering. When I was awake all I did was write and read. I obsessively searched for some sort of Meaning To Life, exploring into religion, something to believe in. I devoured psychology and philosophy books, looking for some sort of sign of my existence. Eventually I was diagnosed as depressed and spent a year on Amitriptyline, Trazodone, and any other pills, which had no positive effect on me. Until that feeling finally went away and - I felt like ME again! Oh, how the sun shined!
Fast forward to twenty years old and four tumultuous years filled with drug abuse and when I quit, alcohol abuse. I was living in a house with no phone, no power, no food, and drinking as much as I could to combat myself and my emotions. One day I snapped. I phoned my mom.
"I'm going up to the hospital to check myself into the psych ward," I explained to her, "I just wanted to call and tell you."
Mom drove out the hour trip into town to come pick me up and take me out to her house on the lake. I went to go see my doctor, again, who diagnosed me with depression, again. I started on Cipralex which seemed to elevate my mood but came with horrible anxiety. I continued to drink. The anxiety got so bad I found it difficult to leave the house. I needed to be drunk to deal with it, so I stayed inside and drank. After a few weeks I got into a cognitive behavioral therapy group and went to go see my first psychiatrist. I filled out so many papers that felt like little games, mapping out my moods and emotions and reactions. He asked me the question I dreaded.
"How often do you drink?"
I lied. I said maybe two-three times a week (which is still a lot, considering I meant getting drunk), and he peered at me over his papers.
"I'd like to give you a proper diagnosis, but I can't do that unless you quit drinking." I nodded. He handed me off a prescription for Ativan, for the anxiety. It was a bottomless prescription. I was on 9 milligrams of Ativan a day. Suddenly I had another addiction. Oh, and you know what? I kept drinking on the Ativan. Drinking on Ativan can stop your heart. Drinking on Ativan, especially that much, can kill you. This was a manic phase. Even during this manic phase, I didn't care if I died. One night I took so much Ativan that I thought to myself, "I don't want to wake up tomorrow."
I was obviously depressed, but obviously much more. I let it go. I didn't get the help I was looking for, because I wasn't willing to help myself.
Skip forward much later to the age of twenty-four. My true descent. I had quit the Ativan and quit the Cipralex and I spiralled down into a madness of anxiety and depression. I lost my job. I was clinically diagnosed as agoraphobic. I ordered groceries to my house. Leaving the backyard made me so anxious I would throw up. I was on a wait list for six weeks to get in to see a therapist and psychiatrist. When I finally got in (after missing the first two appointments from anxiety), I decided to lay it out on the line and be honest for the first time.
When she asked me how much I drank I was honest and I told her nearly daily, to the point of getting drunk. She noted it down but diagnosed me with having a type two bipolar disorder regardless. I cried. Even though I'd recognized the symptoms for over ten years, I still cried. All of a sudden I didn't want to be different, I didn't want this diagnosis. Part of me did, so that I could get the help I needed. The other part of me just wanted to have normal emotions, normal moods.
I started on Seroquel first, which was described to me as a 'blanket drug' that could control my emotions. Seroquel made me drowsy and I felt like a zombie the first few weeks. I couldn't wake up in the mornings and I was dizzy and out of it. I was also still drinking (again, extremely dangerous behavior). When I went to increase my dosage I had night terrors for the first time in my life, vivid hallucinations of being strangled, and three people staring over me. I slipped back down to my nightly dosage and sought out a different drug. This time I started on Lamotrigine, a mood stabilizer.
After the first few weeks of slowly increasing my dosage I allowed my body to get used to the new drug and the nausea and exhaustion faded. I started feeling a bit more normal - sort of. I was still getting drunk nightly, trashed, wasted. When I finally cracked in December 2014 I realized that I wasn't letting the medication take its full effect, because the alcohol was still causing depression. So I quit drinking.
I've been told that medication is simply a stepping stone to recovery, that it can't do all of the work, but it can get you to the point where you can start to work on yourself. This is what Lamotrigine has done for me, and I've been able to work on myself, especially after being sober this whole time.
That was a year and a half ago. In the past year and a half I've felt both a depression and a manic upswing. But they are nothing compared to how they were before. It feels as though my emotions have been muted. I still feel. I had a panicky moment last spring when an event in my life happened where I should have freaked out and lost it. I was still able to feel the sadness, anger and hurt, but I didn't fly off the rails like I would have normally. I went to go see my Dad, in a state of worry.
"Dad, I feel like I almost can't feel. Well I can. I just don't feel as much, you know?"
My dad laughed at me. "Welcome to normal human emotion, kiddo." Once I realized that I was finally reacting to a life challenge with a normal emotion, I calmed down and assessed the situation and assessed myself. I embraced that rational mind. I didn't go out and binge-drunk or use drugs or put myself in a dangerous situation. I was able to rationally handle my emotions and the negative situation.
I've lived with a bipolar diagnosis for a year and a half now and I have accomplished so much in my life since then, including sobriety. I don't think I could have handled the diagnosis with booze. I had to get sober in order to accept and embrace my diagnosis, to allow my medication to work, and to come to terms with it within myself. I have now.
I tell myself, I am not bipolar, I have a bipolar disorder.
Having a bipolar disorder is only one aspect of the human being that I am. I don't identify as bipolar. I identify as an artist, a writer, a clothing designer, a human being, but not bipolar. It is a part of me, but I choose not to let it be the biggest part of me. I take my medication every night and I am aware when my mind and body spike in emotion, and I have enough practice within myself to let myself feel appropriately about every and any situation. I stay sober, for myself, and for my mental health.
This fall will be the two year anniversary of my breakdown, the agoraphobia, anxiety, the crux of my drinking. I mentioned before that my bipolar symptoms tend to work in two year cycles. Around this time two years ago I was already experiencing anxiety nearly crippling me, it's coming up on the two year anniversary of my job loss, when I was fired for having a panic attack at work. If my bipolar disorder wants to work in two year cycles, I should be anxious as all hell right now and letting the depression creep in.
Today I woke up and it's a grey day. I'm drinking my coffee, writing this blog post, and reading inspirational quotes. I woke up happy. I woke up not anxious. I'm not going to let history repeat itself.
Because I now have this diagnosis, I also have the tools at my disposal to combat the symptoms. Without this diagnosis, the medication, the therapy, the sobriety, and all of the work that I put into myself, I very well could be spiralling down into another two year cycle at this moment. But I'm not.
I am thankful for my diagnosis, and my experience. I am blessed to have my diagnosis, because I have gotten to know myself much more than I ever believed possible. I won't let my diagnosis define my life, but I have made room for it, accepted it, and embraced it.