Tonight, my one-year old daughter is tired. She is yawning and concerned as she looks for her mother, but over-joyed when she finds me. I know what she wants. She wants me to hold her, to rock her and stroke her hair until she falls asleep. So, I do. She is so beautiful, so worthy of love— and she knows it. She does not doubt for a minute that she is worthy of these attentions. As I hold her close and listen to her sleepy breathing I am confronted with my own desire to abandon my worries and let someone stroke my hair until I fall to sleep.
“It has been a long time since I have felt worthy,” The thought crosses my mind as I replay a day full of worries. I glance with contempt for a moment at the scars on my arms, the old shame written on my skin. Then for a moment I become my own enemy, mentally berating myself for my continued struggle with anxiety and depression. “If you tried harder you would be over these struggles by now,” the self-criticism is brief and then I let the thought float away.
“Today has been a good day,” I remind myself. Today has been a day where I remembered my medication for depression and anxiety — a day where instead of allowing the anxiety to build inside I talked about my worries with someone who cares about me— a day where I could focus on and care for others. Today was a day where, in the face of the depression and anxiety, I moved forward.
“I can only be as far along as I am,” I tell myself, “I don’t have to be perfect to be worthy.” Then I sat there, holding my sweetly sleeping baby, meditating on that truth, “You don’t have to be perfect to be worthy. So many people love you just the way you are. You can’t rush your recovery. You have to let the truth sink in one day at a time.”
Developing mental health requires developing patience with yourself. Real growth can’t be hurried. It happens one day at a time. Which is why I must surround myself with hope every day because where there is still hope I can be patient. Even when I find myself plagued with familiar fears— the fears I wish would just go away.
I can look back at the scars from where I was 12 years ago, and I can remember how tormented I felt, taking all the pain inside out on my body. I don’t feel that way anymore. Day by day I have walked away from the self-harm, from eating disorders. Slowly, I have come so far.
A memory of something my husband told me last summer drifts into my mind, “It’s not your fault, Sarah. All these insecurities in your head, all this self-rejection that tries to destroy your soul. It is not your fault and it does not make me love you any less. I only wish you could let go of ‘perfect’ and see yourself through my eyes.” I briefly close my eyes and try to consider myself objectively, to see myself as my husband sees me, “worthy and strong”. Gradually I realize that it is true.
Tomorrow I will feel the fear rise before I take my first bite of breakfast and I will take it anyway because the past 12 years have taught me that I am stronger than the fear.
So tonight, as I softly lay my daughter down in bed, I am choosing to focus on that strength I have discovered and the hope that it offers. I can hope for a life where things get better slowly and I have more good days than bad. I can hope for a life free from the tyranny of perfectionism— a life where instead of impatiently criticizing my own weaknesses, I allow my imperfections teach me empathy.
Empathy gives me a voice that can speak worthiness into the lives of others who are affected by mental illness, because I know well that, “this is not your fault. Those who love you will not love you any less because of your mental illness. You don’t have to be perfect.”