Moving from self-shame to self-love
There was a time not so long ago when I thought I might be consumed by my mind. The part of me that longed to fade from this world. Disapparate. It was my mind that told me I was worthless. That I deserved to be abandoned and alone. It was my mind that told me I was helpless and hopeless. That I must cling to others in order to survive. That I could not manage my life on my own.
These thoughts did not just come from thin air. They were instilled in me by family. Reinforced by society. Then embraced by my mind. I was surrounded. Immersed. And I internalized everything. Until the dissonance between my personal experience and the messages I received from the world eroded. And was eventually erased. I absorbed all of it. Their messages became my thoughts. And my thoughts became my actions. And my actions became my character. Until all that was left of me was an array of false beliefs and fear-based perceptions. Missed opportunities and a broken spirit. Stories of deprivation and scarcity, mingled with denial. Such that I might never know the light of love or the call of being claimed. And my world might melt into nothingness.
Those times when I attempted to engage with others, I had no supporting foundation or framework. No context or continuity. I lacked any spectrum of relatedness, from family to friends, to overlay on the template of my life. In fact my family never even wrote the template! So I was simultaneously writing my own and living my life. Which involved lots of guesswork, trial, and error.
In social situations my brain received stimuli of fear and anxiety, which drove my mind to grasp for control. To over-engineer interpersonal relationships. Create pre-determined outcomes. Rationalizing and over-intellectualizing everything. Which might have worked, but for my equally desperate need to be seen and known. My mind created a personality of fear and self-loathing. An identity written in water, based on nothing.
I was caught in the middle of two competing extremes: the irresistible force of validation (interdependence) and the immovable object of fear (my mind). So it’s no wonder I became paralyzed and confused. Naturally, it was my mind that won (it always does). It locked me away. Hid me for years, in a misguided attempt to keep me safe. But the universe has a way of forcing us out of our cages. Thrusting us into relatedness, whether we are ready or not. And I was not.
With no wisdom or experience, I lacked perspective and proportionality. Re-playing each interaction with a sense of dysphoric recall and recrimination. Cringing at each moment in which I inadvertently revealed myself. Not realizing that the magic of interrelatedness lies in mutual vulnerability. Which requires letting go. Holding hands and just jumping in.
Clawing my way out of the shadows took years of hard work. I invested tens of thousands of hours and dollars in my own personal growth and development. My case might be extreme, but on some level I realized that the only thing more painful than making this investment would be not making this investment. And that even though I had no idea where all that time and money would come from, in the end I had no choice.
My mind was spiraling out of control. And it was clear I did not have the skills, education, or experience to save myself. I would have to hire a team of experts and just trust that the means would come. And somehow, at each step of the journey, I found a way. Through a combination of grace, luck, privilege, hard work, and the generosity of loved ones, everything seemed to fall into place. So I gathered myself, mustered all my resources, and dove right in. I turned off my mind, and put everything I had into this project of recovery. And while the cost was high, I shudder to think where I might otherwise be had I made different choices.
I first started this process in talk therapy. Over the course of fifteen years, I worked with several different therapists. I would pick up the process for a few years, and then set it down again once I was full. As I required rest. And time to implement all I had learned.
I was fortunate to find therapists I trusted and adored, and I encourage you to be pragmatic about picking a therapist. There are so many types of therapy out there, and so many different types of therapists. Don’t settle for good enough! Find someone who inspires you. Whom you want to emulate. Whose life is part of your goal. Each therapist I hired spent months on the intake process, learning about my life. Documenting my version of my story, so we could work together to re-write it.
It turns out I had to re-write my story in order to create an identity. Based on my truth, rather than the accumulated messages I absorbed along the way. I used to dwell in the past, mired in a morass of regret. But once my therapists helped me thoughtfully examine the actual events and real context of my experience, I was able to craft a personal narrative. One that had a beginning and an ending. What once seemed insurmountable turned out to be rather mild, or at least not so all-encompassing. Even the horrible events I experienced and the awful choices I made were finite. Could not eclipse the vastness of my spirit, or preclude my redemption. But it was my mind that wanted to keep me stuck. Wallow in the safe and familiar.
I wrote my story in order to build new neurological connections in my brain. To recontextualize everything I thought I knew about myself. I mean this literally: I actually wrote words to reclaim my life, and these words became the medicine that healed my brain. Over the years, I’ve come to see the brain as an anxiety-inducing organ of flight or flight. Determined to avoid conflict and protect our bodies. Help negotiate our way through the world.
Our brains are also organs of thought. They receive stimulus from the outside world, so that they might control the body and project the mind. While the brain is a physical organ, the mind transcends the body into the realm of thought and imagination. The mind associates and categorizes information, and uses language to create stories, all in the name of survival. These stories form the basis of personality (our likes, dislikes, aptitudes, and affinities) and identity (our values, ideals, and guiding principles). Put together, these facets of mind comprise our worldview. And become an entry point into connecting with others. And connecting with others is what it’s all about. Is fundamental to human design. Such that there is no health without mental health. And the new stories we tell ourselves about ourselves become our medicine. And the best way to protect our minds.
After working with a therapist for a sustained period of time, you might decide to complement that work with a course of pharmaceutical medications to help balance your brain chemistry. I have never tried this, but know many who have. And it might be right for you.
Your therapist can help point you in the right direction, but I highly encourage you to establish a baseline of health and wellness prior to beginning any new pharmaceutical regimen. This means reducing or removing all alcohol and recreational drug consumption, lowering your caffeine intake, improving your nutrition, ensuring you get enough rest, and implementing a physical fitness program. While it’s important not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, establishing this baseline before adding any new medications to your body will ensure their success.
Also, consult your full team of medical professionals to review all potential side effects of any new medication before you begin a course of treatment. Your body is a complex system, and unique to you. Many of these drugs are powerful agents, and can have side effects and unintended consequences, particularly if you have other health issues or are currently taking other medications.
While a psychiatrist can help you pick the right drug for you, your primary care physician can ensure that medication will not have adverse consequences with any other medications or medical issues. And the rest of your healthcare professionals will have different points of view, based on their areas of expertise. Each will bring a unique piece of information to the table, and will want to know any drugs you introduce into your system, as they continue to monitor your overall health and wellness.
Many of these medications are tough to start and stop quickly. It can take a while to dial in the dosage that is right for you. And if you quit cold turkey, you might experience serious and significant side effects. All the more reason to plan ahead, be mindful about beginning a course of treatment, and thoroughly consult your team of experts. Self-medication (drugs, alcohol, etc.) will only derail your treatment. Medications can be a fantastic way to create a foundation for you to advance your mental health. But they are no quick fix. Once you stabilize your brain chemistry, you are still left with all the issues that got you here in the first place. Continuing your talk therapy is a great strategy to support this process. Your therapist will continue to monitor your modes of thinking and ensure you are tethered to a strong foundation.
After you have maintained a solid baseline and stabilized your brain chemistry, I highly recommend you hire a life coach to round out your team. Your therapist will help hold your story, while your life coach will help you create the life of your dreams. Manifest a new reality. Help you determine who you truly are and where you want to go. And then help you chart a course to get there.
There are so many types of life coaches out there, but my favorite are relentlessly honest and pragmatic. Those that help you plow through any perceived obstacles. Pick someone who can tell you what they did to get what they have. Because that will become your road map. And the vision for the new you, which will be more you than you’ve ever been. Unlike talk therapy, which is typically conducted in-person, most life coaches meet with you over the internet. So the world is your oyster!
My life coach has helped me articulate my mission, vision, and values. He has challenged me to create a more purpose-driven life, rather than just being a passive witness to events that happen to me. The great thing about this modality is the speed at which you will see results. Talk therapy can take years to forge a relationship and build your relationship. But I started to see results with my life coach in just a few weeks! And after a few months, much of my life was unrecognizable. Loved ones were stunned by the quick transformation.
Neither your therapist nor your life coach need to share your sexual orientation, sexual identification, gender identity, or gender expression. But they should either have familiarity with the community, or at least demonstrate a willingness and propensity to learn. My current therapist is a straight, cisgendered, younger man. But I don’t hold that against him! I trust and adore him. It might be that I am the only gay person he has ever known. But that wouldn’t matter! He has demonstrated so much loving kindness and compassion over the years, I know I’m in good hands. He meets me where I am, and treats me as a whole person. I’ve been working with him for four years now, and over time have reduced the frequency of our sessions to a couple of times each month. I look forward to these sessions, and can’t image life without him.
My life coach is a bisexual, cisgendered, younger man who lives halfway around the world! But through the magic of the internet, we are able to maintain daily contact and weekly sessions. Even though both men are much younger than me, I look up to them. I decided long ago that I wasn’t going to let the messenger distract me from the message. The point is, create space for the universe to work its wonders. Don’t let the identities of loved ones stop from helping you, if they are truly willing to meet you where you are.
Many of us need a team to support the stabilizing of our brain chemistry and the healing of our minds. There is absolutely no shame in this. In this day and age, it is incredibly common for people to coordinate their mental health with their primary care physician, therapist, psychiatrist, life coach, and others. Our bodies are complex systems, and many of us require a team of specialists to approach the various structures of our mental health: the brain, the mind, and the ways in which we relate to ourselves and others.
I simply was not able to do this on my own. It was just too easy to be consumed by the day-to-day activities of running my life. Too easy to lose the forest for the trees. Especially when considering the nature of the life story I adopted from the world and my family. The self-destructive sound bites running through my head on a daily basis. Keeping me stuck. Lulling me to sleep. Such that I might lock myself away from the world. Fortified in a bunker of safety and seclusion. And my mind might finally know peace. But this was a false peace. Torpor in lieu of growth. Security at the expense of freedom. The freedom to unleash my mind. Unlock my true potential. Made possible by years of investments and hard work. Supported on the shoulders of experts. And in the arms of loved ones. Who would walk with me. Laugh with me. And let my mind finally run free.