I was asked recently, ‘Do you value your own life?’ It’s a strange question, one I don’t think people often ask themselves. Even those of us with depression and anxiety I reckon still feel the knee jerk reaction to respond automatically with, ‘What?! Of course! What a thing to ask!’
And I felt that too- this instinct to just blurt out yes. I’d been in the hospital and outpatient treatments multiple times in a matter of months—clearly I am trying to work towards health. Right!?
Yet then again, I bite back my tongue, as how often have I thought of my life as entirely expendable? How often have I considered going to bed and never waking up again with utter ambivalence? How often do I imagine losing my life in a car wreck and sit with the scenario in my mind—secretly enjoying the poetic simplicity of it? How often have I indulged in more reckless fantasies—of leaping over a cliff or stepping deliberately onto a minefield?
In treatment I was familiar with hearing that I must learn to accept and love myself as I am. I imagine the sentiment that we should accept and love our life was probably implicit in all that—but I never heard it directly specified. I don’t believe that radical self acceptance and having value for our life is interchangeable for everybody. Sometimes we can accept ourselves as people, as a mosaic of emotions, experiences, traits, and qualities, yet not necessarily value our life. Some people carry huge egos—yet not much regard for their life. Other’s uphold LIFE as miraculous, as a gift not to be wasted, yet hold themselves personally in little to no regard.
I am often prisoner to the belief that my life is a hopeless venture, that it floats and exists without aim or purpose, will or luck. Thinking that my life has no real raison d’être and that I’m just waiting for it to end—makes believing in myself, loving and accepting myself as I am, seem entirely pointless.
And I fall prey to thinking that my life is simply something to be endured. For a while, drinks made the time go by easier. For a while, benzodiazepines made the time go by easier. For the time being, my medication regiment seems to be working as it should… I have for the first time I can remember, a semblance of calm in the face of my life—despite being convinced its a fucking mess. I am able to will myself upright for a couple hours a day to write or draw or do something that could count as an investment in myself. And though I used to often tell myself that I yearn for the day where I can live my life without the buffer of a medication… Im not sure that’s realistic. And I’ve wrestled with accepting that and what that all means about me.
I both am and am not my life. We inhabit our lives, and the choices we make while we live it have consequences. And the burdens that come along with our lives are ours to bear—time, circumstance, relationships, world events, poverty or luxury, sickness or health, privilege or struggle act upon our lives and leave us to do with it all what we can. What we must. What we want. What we will.
We can feel #blessed about our lives. We can feel resentful of our lives. Overwhelmed by our lives. We can have a superstitious relationship with our lives. We can believe things about our lives like ‘everything is as it should be,’ or ‘God has a reason for this,’ ect. We can feel empowered in the face of our lives, or utterly powerless. These factors, and many others affect how and if we value them at all.
So. Love. It’s hard to connect to loving your life when you’ve been depressed and anxious for as long as you can remember. Whenever someone tells me that ‘all I gotta do is love myself,’ I stare blankly at them. For how can one simply summon love out of thin air? For most of my life self-love has been a bewildering concept. Where do you materialize love out of nothing? For your life? For yourself?
Love, like happiness, I’ve always held to be a welcome side-effect of other factors and can’t simply be conjured out of thin air. Can you just decide to love yourself? Well. Can you force yourself to love someone you don’t? What does it even mean to love something, or someone?
For our purposes here, I’m going to refer to the good old dictionary and keep it simple. The expression of love is one of deep affection for and devotion towards something. Love is having a great interest and pleasure in. To love is to be attached to, to be besotted with, to have passion for. Love can be romantic, sexual, but love also encompasses powerful feelings of fondness, tenderness, endearment. Love will have its way with you—love is uncooperative when one attempts to restrain or control it. Love very often cannot be dealt with rationally—love will continue to love as love does even when you attempt to persuade it to love otherwise.
It is because love is such an unquantifiable, irrational, and unpredictable force that I find it quite naive to believe that a person can wake up one day and decide arbitrarily to love himself. We can act to foster respect for ourselves—because respect is an expression of admiration elicited by abilities, qualities, and achievements which we can concretely, act to improve in a way that we can tangibly observe.
But. I do continue to ask myself—is there a mode of action I can take that will make it more likely that I can one day come to love myself? And if I do come to love myself—will that mean by extension that I value myself? And that I value my life as well? When I say that holding a person or a thing to be of extremely high value to me is equivalent to loving the person or thing—that does sound true to my ears and my insides to say. So is there anywhere I can look then, where I may see love in action by its continually, perpetually, actively working to honor its object as being of extraordinary value? Where can I look to see that kind of love in a way that I might actually benefit or learn from.
I know I’m becoming weirdly lofty here. But I felt this question quite deeply. One day I was using the stove, and I was rather distracted, only half watching what I was doing. I accidentally burned my index finger, and I leapt back and my right hand flew to the rescue of my left finger, wrapping deftly around it and squeezing to relieve some pain. Without any conscious action on my own part, my body had flung to its own defense. This observation really struck me. And I began to pay attention, both detached but also kinda amazed, at the many ways the body acts, even at its most basic, biological levels, in continuing, unquestioning, perpetual affection and regard for itself.
The body, I have come to decide, loves itself. It’s not simply governed by survival or continuation of its species. Bodies do not give up on themselves and their lives without a fight. Even if those bodies are incapable of reproducing or are overwhelmed with a terminal illness, and thereby not of particular ‘value’ in an exclusively Darwinist, evolutionary sense. Our bodies stubbornly, deviantly carry on, even when they can’t technically fulfill their function, even in the face of a death sentence. Even when they are the runt of the litter, sickly, deformed, weak, chronically malfunctioning our bodies take up space, take in air, pump blood, process information and do all the many weird, baffling, miraculous things that bodies do to sustain their life.
We may be used to thinking of our bodies simply as the machinery that carries our mind around, but I find this a simplistic and dismissive relationship to have with our bodies—which work really, really hard to keep us operating on a day to day basis. For those of us who are mentally ill, a mindset of ‘matter over mind’ as opposed to ‘mind over matter’ is curious to consider. Our bodies, despite all our wishes to disappear, despite all our wishes to never wake up and just stop existing— our bodies never yield to mind. They refuse to listen to us. When we try to literally make ourselves smaller by squeezing into the darkest corner and dragging our knees deep into our chest, our bodies still stubbornly refuse to compromise their form. Our bodies are indifferent to our howling criticisms over how unattractive it is, it shrugs and carries on. We can tell ourselves all we want that we are burdens, that we mean nothing to anybody, that we’re better off dead—and truly believe all that. But when we slit our wrists and overdose on pills and hop off bridges we so often fail. Our bodies just don’t buy our shit.
They continue to exist, despite whatever nonsense is going on in our heads. Our bodies lean towards life. Even our defective bodies, even our sick bodies, even our bodies with autoimmune disorders—they work hard, they work so fucking hard, to stay alive. Our bodies cling to life, even in the face of terminal illnesses—if they didn’t, would they not just throw the towel in at the onset of diagnosis? Would they not protest and defy our violent attempts to kill ourselves, often to our great frustration? Our minds may give up, but our bodies do not. In the face of the flu, our bodies fight for our lives—if we are given two months to live, our bodies fight for those two months. It helps me to remind myself how much my body loves the sun, loves to relax, loves to sleep and eat and exercise and make love and be moisturized and clean and move around and just be alive, regardless of its condition.
When we are stung by a bug, our hands fly by instinct to the site of the injury. Without thinking we massage our heads and our necks to relief tension and pain. Our brains, however defective or warped they may be, flood our body with adrenaline and heighten our focus to steel us against a threat. For those of us with anxiety and panic disorders—our brains ability to properly identify potential threats and danger is severely compromised, and we often suffer terribly as a result. However, despite its malfunctioning—and I’m about to get a little corny here—it’s, well, it’s trying the best it can. You know? It’s trying to protect us, it’s just happens to be a colossal fuck up. If our bodies believed as we do that we have no value—and that our life has no value—why would the brain bother to alert us when it has perceived (even if inaccurately) that something is amiss and we need to be prepared? If our old brain and the machinations of our body believed as we do that we have no value—why would it still steel us to brace for an attack? If our body and brain believed that we were nothing worth fighting for, would not it just slump and roll over in submissive defeat?
We have bodies. We have blood and bones and guts and muscles and fat and tendons and nerves and skin. And our bodies, despite the expansive breadth of mysterious illnesses, injuries, complications, and disorders we all suffer from, cling to live-ness.
While our minds, what many of us consider to be the seat of our selves—often grieve, resent, and pity our lives, our bodies do not. We are not necessarily our minds, we are not merely our thoughts—we have thoughts. We also have a body, but we are not merely our body.
Our arms do not resent our legs when we are paraplegic. Our eyes do not resent our ears for going deaf. Our lungs do not resent our stomach aches. Our bones do not resent our IBS. Our blood does not resent our arthritis. Our hearts keep on—stubbornly determined even if our kidneys fail. Our intestines, our ribs, our muscles, solider on even when dementia or tumors or mental illness claim our brains. Our toes still aim to keep us balanced. Our livers still detoxify and metabolizes. Our lungs still breath in oxygen and breath out carbon dioxide.
Listen to Nina Simone’s, “I ain’t got no— I got life,” over and over again until it sinks. One of my favorite songs in the world. Simone proclaiming—despite intolerable racial oppression, despite rampant sexism and discrimination, despite poverty and opposition—that she has her blood and her bones, she has her hair and her boobs, her legs and her lungs, her head and her hands. She has life. Pride because she has her lips. Defiance because she has her nose. Love because she has her hips. Life because she has her body—that she’d be damned before she let someone take away from her.
The love and power and self determination and perseverance that lives in our bodies is a bridge to valuing and loving our own life. The silver lining for those of us with mental and physical illness is that we can learn to love and value our lives in a way that healthy people will never have to—because they’ve never had to fight tooth and nail for that love. They’ve never had to hang on, or hang in there, until they thought that they would break from the psychological or physical pain. And there is hope for those of us who have contemplated, attempted, or committed suicide and failed—who have ever wanted or acted to throw their life away—can come to truly realize the depth and richness of our intrinsic value that our bodies so resolutely uphold without compromise.
Hang in there.