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What It's Like to Care Deeply for Everything Except Yourself

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What is it like to care so deeply for everything except myself? It is hard to explain. On the outside, I look together. I work full time, own my own home, pay my bills, dress nicely, have friends and a loving family. Although, my personal perspective is very different.

How do I explain this? Well, I never turn my love, patience or attention inward. I never look at myself. I never consider myself. To me, I am not a priority. I do not say this to incite sympathy, empathy, compassion, sadness or pity. The truth is, no one in my life knows I feel this way. I can best describe it as being an Oscar award winning actress, with all of the physical features of a strong and sturdy woman. The kind of woman who exudes capability and accomplishment. Except, the role I am playing changes and adapts to my environment at a moment’s notice, seeking safety and familiarity in anything I can grasp. I have mastered the art of being what someone needs me to be. Every bit of feeling, love or care I produce radiates away from me. It radiates outwardly. It flows in one direction only — to others. I don’t feel self-pity or hatred. I don’t feel anything about myself. My entire purpose of each day is to keep going. This ability to play these roles is what keeps me going and is what takes care of those I love. It lets me be the friend, the daughter, the colleague, the employee, the patient, the sister, the teacher or the citizen. This has been my ticket to “living” for as long as I can remember. This is what my depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are.

I am matter-of-fact about my absence of self-love because it is all I know. I am an avid reader of mental health articles, blogs and documentaries. I have a degree in Psychology and am very well versed in medications ranging. My days are a series of rehearsed actions fueled by the medication that flows through me. I couldn’t care less if I ever washed my hair. I couldn’t care less if I ever cleaned my house. I couldn’t care less if I stayed in bed for an entire weekend or ate cereal for two weeks. It sounds sad, doesn’t it? I feel sad reading this too. But the truth is, it doesn’t make me feel sad when I live it minute by minute. I focus on caring for others as if this will somehow validate my existence. It will pay for the ride. I try so hard to take care of others because I don’t know how to care for myself.

I read article after article telling me to believe I am worthy, I am lovable and that I matter. The problem is that my depression, anxiety and OCD convince me that this value applies to everyone else except for me. Somehow something went wrong. Somewhere along the line, there was a mix up with the parts. I don’t quite work the way I am supposed to. I am different. I always will be. No matter what any family member, friend or psychologist says. I attribute what they say to them not really knowing the real me. They think I’m someone else, something else. I am a great impersonator. And this is what I am best at. The thing that some people have trouble understanding is that mental illness is all-consuming. It owns every minute of every one of my days. It is in my eyes, my skin, my voice and in my dreams. It is who I am. I see a psychologist once a week for cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and I take medication. My moments of hope and joy are fleeting. I grab them like butterflies in my palm. It’s so light. It’s so temporary. But I can look at it and feel it for a mere moment. I never know when these moments will return to me but I know they are beautiful. I still don’t think I matter to myself in those moments but what matters is that I get to fly around for a little bit. It’s so delicate that I am afraid to make any sudden movements or take any second for granted. I’m afraid that if I lose myself in the moment it will fizzle out like a candle in the rain. We must wait for it to dry before it can burn again.

And so I wait. These days are filled with taking care of others and serving those around me. That’s why I believe I matter and why I am here. That’s the thing about living with mental illness. It’s a careful dance between protecting our insides by disconnecting from ourselves and being vulnerable to constant disappointment. It’s almost as if we show one thread of compassion towards ourselves, it will all unravel. I guess I choose to stay wound up tight to keep the cracks sealed rather than slowly gather myself up over and over again. It’s a difficult choice to an outsider, yet to someone who lives my reality day in and day out it is quite easy. Often I feel that the trade-off has been not knowing myself. Instead, deciding to be whole for others. I long to be someone who can love myself with all of the uncertainty. At the end of the day though, there is love there. I have a love that runs so deep for those around me, my family and friends who have held me up and urged me to go on. For them, I will pay my love forward.

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Thinkstock photo via azur13

Originally published: June 21, 2017
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