Given my sense of humor you are forgiven if you think this is about masturbation. I may indeed write about that someday; an illustrated guide. Maybe a desk calendar. It’s a worthy subject, to be sure, but not today.
I have struggled with loving myself as long as I can remember. I am not a psychologist, but I assume it has something to so with an unstable childhood. We know that in our early years we learn how to form bonds with family and friends. How others perceive and treat us helps form our self perception and this seems to stick with us, at least it has with me.
I was raised largely by a sometime single mother who was married three times. I have written about her depression and anxiety and whether my depression is the result of nature or a lack of nurture, I cannot say. My mom did the best she could using the tools at her disposal and while she loved me unconditionally, she was imprisoned by her own demons and unable to give me the attention every boy craves.
I therefore spent a lot of time with my maternal grandmother, who gave me plenty of attention but not the unconditional love part. She could be harsh and even mean, likely the result of being sexually abused as a child, a fact I did not learn until long after her death at age 100. One time I told my grandmother (I must have been nine or ten) that I thought it would be fun to learn how to drive a truck. She told me, “that’s right, David. Drive a truck. You’ll never amount to anything.” I have never forgotten that statement and it’s always been a paradox to me, as she believed in me and my academic ability and paid for my college. She had a lot of anger engendered from a tough life of her own. I don’t blame her. Like my mother, she did the best she could with what she had and I am alive and a doctor in large measure because of her. But there is no question in my mind at all that her anger and inability to love unconditionally contribute to my own lack of self love.
My father and mother divorced when I was five. My dad remarried a couple years later, but his second wife was ill for much of their marriage and ultimately passed away during my senior year of high school. While I saw my dad periodically and he was always on time with his child support payments, we did not have a close relationship. In some respects, I still worship my dad, even though I am well aware of his flaws. As we both got older we became adult friends and when he married his third wife, Connie, the woman I now call “mom”, he finally had a stable and normal home life.
Even so, the instability of my pre-teen years was great, as I shuttled back and forth between my mom’s and my grandmother’s. I had few close friends. I was painfully shy and often bullied. I was brainy, too tall, too thin, and having a haircut that looked like the Little Dutch Boy on the paint cans didn’t help a bit. I never wore the cool sneakers, Converse All Stars. My mom couldn’t afford them and my grandmother refused to buy them. When you’re a boy growing up in a working class neighborhood, if you don’t have the right shoes you’re fucked.
By the time I found my tiny parochial high school, I craved a place of safety and acceptance. While I found it there, making life-long friends and mentors in the process, much of the internal damage was done. The wounds healed, scarred over really, and my high school years were generally the most stable and enjoyable times of my childhood. I buried my early years, not knowing they would always affect me, running in the background like a computer program. They had affected my wiring or my DNA and I have spent the rest of my life looking for self acceptance in the acceptance of others, often inappropriately, even tragically.
Telling someone to love himself is great advice, not easily followed. To some extent, it’s well meaning, but silly. It’s like telling the depressed person “don’t be depressed”. Of course, I want to love myself. I want nothing more than to be well adjusted with a healthy self image and respect. But internally, I’m a Calvinist, believing in my own total depravity. I don’t want to be this way and I would do anything to be different. I minimize my successes and maximize my failures, believing I haven’t amounted to enough.
I don’t have any solid answers to the matter. This is a journey and, while I almost chose to end it prematurely, I have vowed to continue. There are no trite or easy answers. No magic prayer or incantation. No drink or drug. So far, the only thing that I have found that helps for any period of time is the loving and patient acceptance of those around me, near and far, who love me for me. Who know my secrets and love me anyway. Who know where the bodies are buried and who aren’t afraid to wrestle my demons with me. People who accept your flaws and still pronounce you “good” are as rare as hen’s teeth, but infinitely more useful.
The journey to self love continues.