When you’re young and learning about love, people give you a lot of advice. One of these most commonly-repeated tidbits from the wise is that you must love yourself before you can truly love another.
I agree. There is a sacred, intimate relationship that exists within yourself, for which you must care for and carefully prune.
However, I simply cannot love myself before my fiancé.
I have clinical depression, and my ability to love myself often depends upon a delicate balance of diet, exercise, sleep, talk therapy, and psychopharmacology; none of which affect my ability to fully and whole-heartedly adore my fiancé.
My mental illness sticks its dirty little fingers into every corner of my life. My depression is more or less under control, but my periods of blessed normalcy are still punctuated either by manic-type hyperactivity or numbing, drowning sadness. Many times I’ve thought, during both my bad days and good days, that I don’t deserve to be in a serious relationship. My pain, I fear, will bleed over my lines and into my partner.
It’s happened to me before. When you’re depressed, you withdraw. You feel like you’ve suddenly lost your ability to connect with the rest of the population, so you start building a wall to protect yourself from the pain of that disconnection. If someone does manage to connect with you despite those obstacles, like a partner, it’s so tempting and easy to pile all of the hurt you’ve been handling alone onto them. That dependency has poisoned my past relationships.
For this reason, I was pretty terrified to get engaged. Will my need to be on antidepressants interfere with our ability to have children? What if I have a depressed episode during a family vacation? What if my partner just gets tired of dealing with this?
When our relationship was clearly heading towards engagement and these racing thoughts threw me into prolonged periods of depression and anxiety, my partner and I, thankfully, had a conversation about it.
We built a pillow fort, we grabbed some tissues and heated leftover pizza. And this is what we decided.
My mental illness is no different than any other illness. You wouldn’t blame your partner for having cancer; you can’t blame your partner for having depression. Equally true is the fact that you would never attempt to cure your partner of that cancer. My partner will care for me, help me, but never try to fix me. As he always reminds me, I don’t need fixing — I am not broken.
It’s tempting to throw everything at him, my jumbled-up thoughts and knots of anxiety, my tears and tissues and bouts of lethargy, and tell him to organize it. Sift through these pieces, and put together a more whole version of me. My partner is a loving, resourceful man. If I gave him my problems, he would try his best to solve them. But we know that this would hurt both of us.
When we say our vows next summer, I cannot promise to always love myself before I love him, because sometimes he feels like the only reservoir of love and optimism in my life.
But I will promise to take care of myself the best that I can. He will promise to keep building me pillow forts.
I will promise to ask for help when I need it. He will promise to listen for the things I struggle to say.
I will promise to keep trying even when it feels impossible. He will promise to keep trying even when it’s overwhelming.
He will promise to love me when I feel most unlovable, and I will promise not to fear his love.
I may not love all of me today, but tomorrow is a fresh slate. Day by day I will pull together pieces of love, from my partner, friends, family, the air around me, and from myself, to create a small constellation of safety and softness. Loving another person is not a plateaued state of being — it is an act that requires constant attention. Loving yourself should be no different.