Self-compassion—the ability to have self-empathy, self-directed kindness and understanding. Apparently something I lack in spades. My new (and fabulous) psychiatrist, Dr. D., has me working on self-compassion exercises, and even had me take a test measuring my self-compassion. The result? One of the lowest scores possible.When I think of a kind, encouraging voice—or at least my kind encouraging voice offering Hallmark variety affirmations? I want to walk across hot coals. Beat myself with a stick. I remember once, on a Catholic weekend retreat in High School, we were given buttons that said, “God don’t make junk.” I cringed, not only at the grammar lapse, but at the sweet-sickly sentiment of it. I didn’t want something that could fit on a button—I wanted to be convinced by route of hard-earned, persuasive argument. Not the soft shoulder pat.
But I also know that all I tend to given myself are jarring shoulder smacks. I don’t know any in-between. I don’t know the gray. I only live in the black or the white. The land of exteremes. The highs and the lows. Which is what lands me in trouble. Maybe it’s time to begin to practice self-compassion. One way in which I’m constantly berating myself all day long is over the fact that I am Bipolar—or mentally ill, about being what other people sometimes label “crazy” because this is the label that echoes in me, that reverberates in me, that makes me question whether it was the ethical to allow myself to fall in love, to get married, to have children—to pass on my particularly destabilizing genetic flaws. “Why did you? How could you?”—this is the background white noise that plays all day—or at least is part of it, anyway. Nothing compassionate about that.See why it’s so hard for me to be compassionate? I try to say the word and the anti-compassionate backlash begins.
But I will try. So. Maybe a separate, friendlier font will help. And maybe a separate friendlier me, a “you” addressing me will help, too:Do you remember a few months ago when you were looking for a new psychiatrist and you called the one recommended by your old doctor and before he would meet with you, he asked to see your records? And then he finally called you back. Do you remember what he said? He said he couldn’t see you because you were too much of an “extreme case,” that you were too “mentally ill,” for him to treat. And maybe if someone only read your records, only saw the objective line notes in a case file, an unattached observer might state that you are “beyond help,” or as another previous doctor told you to your face, “beyond hope.” But don’t you see how the life you are living proves that you are not only able to be helped by others and able to help yourself, but that you are also living out hope? You tried to die several times over but you are still alive, so there must be some greater reason for you still being here. And maybe your mission has shifted from what you had hoped it would be, but that’s okay. Did you ever really care what anyone thought of you?
Do you remember your nickname as a kid? “Crazy Kerry” Kids called you that because you acted crazy—amped up—unable to pull back—unable to calm down. Probably the early signs of bipolar hypomania. But perhaps a telling nickname, one that might have been cutting then, one that might have stung, but one that you could use now as the way into anchoring your identity for good—for GOOD. You didn’t DO ANYTHING bad to deserve this diagnosis. You didn’t do anything to deserve becoming bipolar. You didn’t do anything to deserve getting traumatized and sexually assaulted. You didn’t do anything to have the genetic predisposition for alcoholism. You didn’t do anything to have to genetic predisposition to become anorexic. You aren’t inherently wrong or defective. You aren’t meant to be taken out of commission because you are not operating at perfection. Or your idea of perfection.
“Crazy Kerry”—things haven’t been “right” from the get go. You didn’t make some devastatingly wrong turn or decision at some crucial juncture—i.e., if only you could go back and right the wrongs. This disease doesn’t work like that. It works inside the brain from the start, incrementally. It has always been. In preschool you have always been. In first grade, you have always been. In sixth grade, you have always been. Just at varying degrees. “Crazy Kerry.” NOT Oh, all was perfect, until one afternoon, at fourteen, you had a bad depressing, manic moment and cut your arm and that was that and if only you could do it all over again your life could be perfect.
The only thing wrong? The people around you who responded—or failed to respond—who ignored, who didn’t recognize—or pretended it was not happening—who insisted that you lie about what you were experiencing—who demanded that hospital records be expunged—who created a façade for you to live inside. Thus, your “real” experience, your “real” feelings weren’t to be trusted, weren’t acknowledged even by you. It’s why the only thing that feels safe is the outside façade. If everything looks perfect--the outside self, the outside life—then the inside self can be tricked into going on for just one more day. The delay-suicide-pact that works for a bit.
But everything doesn’t have to be so breathlessly scary anymore. You don’t have to hide beneath perfection anymore. You don’t have to keep suicide at bay anymore by running down the clock. It is okay. It’s going to be okay. I know you don’t believe me. But you don’t have to take care of yourself on your own anymore. There might be people who truly care about you who want to help you that you can trust. The kind of falling backwards with your eyes closed into their arms kind of trust. The hardest thing for you to do. But you can do this because you are loved.