My mother threw me a big party for my fortieth birthday on the premise that ‘well, you’re never going to have a wedding’. She could be forgiven for thinking that – at the time I was very vocal about not wanting to be involved with a man ever, ever again and what an pathetic anachronism marriage is. Unlike many people who are driven into relationships by a fear of being alone, I avoided relationships and commitment out of a fear of being stuck with the wrong person. I would have liked to not be alone, but that fear was dwarfed by the fear of being trapped with someone who undermined my confidence or made my life even more difficult than it was already.
Having been diagnosed with schizophrenia didn’t help. I felt as if I must have a mark on my forehead warning the world I was unsuitable for relationships. At first I thought the label was no big deal. Mental illness is no longer a stigma, right? Opening up about it is ‘so brave’ and ‘starts a conversation’ that will liberate others who suffer under the erroneous belief that everyone will reject them if their secret escapes. That may be the case on a TV ad funded by the health department, but in real life it’s still very much a stigma, especially the Big Skitz. A guy I was seeing bolted as soon as he found out. We had one of those altercations like you see on the soap operas that turns into a race to throw someone out of the house before they get the satisfaction of storming out.
After a string of disastrous short-term relationships, I got to a point when I decided that for my own sanity I must simply not get involved with men any more. I didn’t think all men are bastards, I knew there are plenty of decent men out there. The problem was me. I was utterly incapable of choosing an appropriate partner, and it seemed unlikely I would ever learn to do so. There was something faulty within me that was attracted to and excited by people who couldn’t wait to start treating me horribly.
This was partly true. The foundation of all relationships is the one you have with yourself. If you are impatient and frustrated with yourself, if you nag yourself, scare yourself with worry, cripple yourself with fear and anxiety, crush your own dreams before you can even begin to think of fulfilling them, fail to keep your word to yourself, neglect yourself, don’t ensure your own safety, health and comfort – then any relationship will begin to reflect that. You are treated the way you treat yourself.
There is only one person you can truly say you will be with for your entire life until your final moments – you. If you were going to be trapped in an elevator with one person for the rest of your life, you would choose your companion carefully. You are already trapped in a meat suit with nothing but your own company. You can look around and see that other people exist, but ultimately you are the only person in your body and mind. If you want to experience peace and happiness it’s essential you get along with yourself.
That means behaving the same way you would with another person you wanted to get along with. No whining, criticising, blaming or insulting. You wouldn’t point out to your grandmother ‘gee you look old’. Assuming you love your grandmother, you don’t care a jot that she looks old anyway. So when you look in the mirror, don’t insult or pick on yourself. Try to cultivate a harmonious inner environment which is your safe haven from the world. If other people are being less than complementary, you can always pat yourself on the arm and say ‘never mind, I’m here for you. I’ll always be here for you.’ Who else can you say that to in full confidence that it is true?
‘I’ve got this,’ ‘I have as much right to be here as anybody else,’ ‘I am as worthy as anybody else,’ ‘I can handle this,’ ‘I don’t have to justify myself to anyone,’ ‘I can choose to behave in my best interests,’ ‘becoming a peaceful person brings more peace to the world.’ These are just some of the things you can tell yourself to make that inner landscape more comfortable. ‘But what if they’re not true?’ Well who decides if you feel worthy? ‘I am worthy’ is not a statement that can be objectively proven or disproven. If you believe it, it’s true. Seriously, you spend all day, every day inside yourself, make that place soft and comfortable and pleasant to be in. Then you won’t be tempted to run around trying to forget the fact that you live alone in a meat suit.
No matter how much you numb or distract yourself, you wake up every day still trapped alone in your meat suit. Nothing will change that, so stop trying to run, become still, go within, and start making the meat suit somewhere you like to be. You will never turn off the constant chatter, but you can slow it down, and tune it to a more pleasant channel.
This is what I did, over a period of years. I can’t say I developed rockstar confidence in that time, but being me became easier and my inner landscape less hostile. Swearing off men gave me the space I needed to heal and work on my own self esteem. I really did reach a place where I did not need another person as a source of love or approval. Four years later when I was considering entering into a relationship with the man who is my current boyfriend (if you can describe a 58 year old man as a ‘boyfriend’) it was difficult to turn the ship around and imagine life with a partner, I was so resigned to being single. I was hesitant about the old relationship patterns repeating, but early on I could see the pattern had broken. Usually a relationship for me consisted of me tap-dancing around, contorting myself and begging ‘please like me, please like me.’ Because that was what I was used to, I began the old approval-seeking routine, but was swiftly brought unstuck when this man did actually like and approve of me and my efforts to elicit his affection were unnecessary. It felt so puzzling. If he already clearly likes me, then what do I do now? I just wasn’t sure how to be in a relationship where I felt accepted and validated.
This was when I knew I had broken the pattern and all I needed to do now was relax and trust that this was going to be okay. There were so many little forks in the road where I could have stuffed it all up by indulging in self-doubt. I had avoided dating for years because I was too fat, ugly, crazy and un-Instaworthy. Now I was not only all of the above, but also bald and kinda freaky looking with no eyebrows or eyelashes. I also had new scars, a boob with a chunk missing, and a chemo port sticking out of my chest. But here was this guy pursuing me like I was a Victoria’s Secret angel.
There was a time I would have been convinced he was insincere and wanting to scam me and I would have told him to get lost. There is no way he could have been interested in my ugly, beat up self. But I didn’t do that. I chose to suspend disbelief and just accept he found me attractive. I tried not to act awkward and self conscious if he saw me without my wig or little hat; I acted like my body was normal and perfectly acceptable. I was inwardly cringing when he saw me, but I tried to stay casual and light. I figured that if I made a big deal out of everything the day would come when he would break up with me saying ‘your scars never bothered me, but your attitude did.’
Lack of self-confidence in a partner is so tiring to deal with. If someone offers you a compliment, accept it graciously. Even if you can’t possibly see how it can be true, just smile and say thank you. There’s no point wishing for love and then not accepting it when it presents itself. And if you practise accepting love from yourself, then you will find it easier to accept it from others. When you behave lovingly toward yourself, you attract others who love you too.
You don’t have to be thrilled every time you look in the mirror, or particularly amazed at your own abilities. Just stop being mean and unnecessarily judgemental. Imagine comforting a child with a scar on his face. ‘It’s okay sweetie, I still love you. You may have a scar, but that doesn’t matter, you can get through this and I love you no matter what.’ You’re not denying reality, you’re not lying, you’re simply refraining from being nasty and offering some support and nurturing. If you can offer this kind of love and comfort to yourself, then you can offer it to others. And that’s probably why we’re here, trapped in our meat suits, in the first place.