Following a painful breakup a few years ago, I found myself scrolling through inspirational quote pages on Tumblr after drinking more than a few glasses of cheap boxed wine (hi, nice to meet you, I am a millennial cliché), and I stumbled upon the phrase "You have to learn to love yourself before you can love anyone else." It sounded like the wise words a plucky sidekick might tell a romantic comedy heroine who'd found herself down in the dumps or the kind of thing someone much cooler than me would have artfully tattooed on the inside of her wrist. In other words, I immediately accepted it as an unassailable truth and, in my delicate state, subconsciously decided it was something I should live by.
At first read, the sentiment behind it makes sense: How can you love someone else if you don't already love yourself? How can you afford to give away parts of your soul to someone if you are not already whole? It's simple. It propagates self-love and self-acceptance. Who wouldn't be down with that? As it turns out: me.
In high school, depression was kind enough to descend upon my life and take root in me in ways that I can't fix. I mean, at this point, I have enough invisible scars spiderwebbing out across my psyche I might as well be a shattered windshield. It's fine, and it's manageable, and for the most part, I've learned to live with them, those gaps and scars and bumps and bruises. Still, because of them, there are things that I'll never love or even remotely like about myself. How, then, could I ever expect someone else to?
I honestly believed that I wasn't allowed to love anyone else, and they wouldn't love me, as long as I had depression. Every time I would feel a wave of despair and self-loathing crashing over me, sending my life spinning out of control, I just kept thinking that it was something I needed to face on my own. I reminded myself that it wouldn't be right to involve someone else in my problems. I couldn't force another person to drown with me. I decided to seal myself off from any real relationships and focus on myself.
I started taking my antidepressants regularly. I saw a therapist. I tried to pull myself up by my bootstraps and Eat-Pray-Love my way through my 20s. I endeavored to find passion and meaning in a life that I feel, nine times out of 10, is a stressful slog of misery. I was alone, and I thought it was best.
And then — because of course — I met a guy.
Alarm bells immediately started going off. "You don't fully love yourself yet!" I thought. "You're still a huge f*cking mess!" And it was true. I was (and still am) a walking jigsaw puzzle. Would it be selfish to ask someone else to help me sort out the pieces of my life? Isn't that something I was supposed to do on my own?
But then — because of course — I fell in love with that guy.
If I am one of those flailing balloon men outside of a used-car dealership, soaring this way and that, my boyfriend is the steady rock keeping me firmly on the ground. He's the first guy I've ever dated who didn't shrink away from the fact I suffer from The Depression and sometimes need The Antidepressants. He didn't cower in fear at my reveal, or worse, pretend I'd never told him about it in the first place. He faced it with me, unflinchingly, side by side. He helps me find where each piece goes, a burden that I once thought I had to take on by myself.
I know a relationship can fall apart faster than the stale granola bar buried at the bottom of my purse, and I also know that another person isn't a be-all, end-all fix to a personal problem. Then again, loving yourself all the time is hard. It's nice to have someone helping you out every now and then. At night, when your brain betrays you with the kinds of dark and twisty trains of thought that convince you that you're not good enough and never will be, it's nice to have someone in bed to reach out to. Sometimes you need someone who is an outsider, a person whose soul isn't trapped inside your own skull, to pull you aside and say, "Relax. You're going to be OK. You're worth loving."
He might not be around forever, and there might come a day when I stretch out across the bed only to feel cool, empty sheets, but for now, I can feel the warmth of his skin under my fingertips and know that I don't have to wander the darkness alone.
In a way, loving someone else is helping me to love myself. That, and staying away from boxed wine, of course.