This week my mailbox started filling with cute cut-out cards and cupids. Stores are selling red and pink balloons and boxes of chocolates, and roses are suddenly a dime a dozen. Despite temperatures that would lead us to believe we’ve skipped February and headed straight to March, all other signs point to Valentine’s Day.
Many single people would hardly call Valentine’s Day a time of celebration. For them it’s an anti-holiday, a day to hide out and sulk in front of a sad movie, or a day to dress in black and ignore the world. It’s a day to hate on couples.
At times I’ve fallen prey to this bitter thinking, especially during the bedridden years when I wondered who would ever love me in such a sickly state or how I would ever have the energy to be in relationship.
But time has taught me that Valentine’s Day is not just for couples. It’s simply a day about love. And love can take many forms. We love our friends, we love our families, we love our children and, in theory, we love ourselves.
I say in theory because even though this one should be the most obvious, it is often the most overlooked type of love. Or the most spurned. In truth, self-love is the purest form of love, and therefore should be the most celebrated.
This concept is snubbed by many, but it’s an especially tough one for Lymies and patients with other chronic illness to get their heads (or hearts) around. Many of us spent years searching for an accurate diagnosis—some still are—and in that time we heard messages such as, “It’s all in your head.” “You’re a hypochondriac.” “You’re just lazy.” “Don’t you even want to get better?” Scornful words like these can roll off the tongues of doctors, nurses, family and friends without much thought about how they’re interpreted or internalized. Getting barraged by such messages weighs on a vulnerable patient’s psyche until s/he starts to believe, Maybe it is all in my head. Maybe I am just crazy. These thoughts fester into, Everyone is so sick of me being sick. I’m such a burden on everyone. And it’s only a matter of time before that becomes, I hate myself.
For people who have been sick, often without answers, for too long, self-hate doesn’t just stem from exterior messages; we often breed it ourselves, too. It’s so easy to blame ourselves for getting sick. I spent more time than I’d like to admit beating myself up for not catching my symptoms sooner, for not getting to a better doctor sooner, and, most importantly, for not taking better care of myself earlier. I believed for a very long time that my illness was my fault. If only I’d rested more when I had mono; if only I hadn’t run myself ragged in college; if only I hadn’t worked at summer camp that first year I was sick…woulda, shoulda, coulda.
The irony here is, what those messages are actually saying is, If only I’d loved myself more.
As much I hate to admit it, there’s some truth to that. I know now that I didn’t cause my own illness. I didn’t put a tick on me and tell it to bite me. I couldn’t have stopped multiple infections from raging through my body and brain unchecked for almost a decade. But I could have taken better care of myself; I could have been nicer to myself; I could have been more forgiving of myself; and that might have made the journey to wellness just a little easier.
It takes time and practice to shift the messages in your head to ones of self-love, but I can guarantee that when you do, your body will thank you for it. I literally had to switch You’re so stupid, Jen Crystal! to, I love you, Jen Crystal! I’m not suggesting I became a narcissist, but I did start recognizing and rewarding myself for small accomplishments. I’d tell myself things like, You slept for an hour today, Jen Crystal! You’re getting there! Sometimes I complimented myself for surviving an hour. For surviving a minute.
In my high school health class we used to talk about Private Victories—small accomplishments that meant something to us personally. As soon as I started recognizing Private Victories related to my Lyme, rather than berating myself for Private Mistakes, my body started to heal much faster. It started to trust that I would support it on the journey, not beat it up.
Over time, I’ve learned to love myself. Even for my mistakes. Even for not taking care of myself sooner. I’ve learned to love my body, even if it’s riddled with spirochetes. I don’t love the bugs, but I do love my body for working so hard to fight them. I’ve thought about how kind and gentle I would be to a friend in my situation, and I’ve tried (and am still trying) to turn that compassion on myself. It’s not always easy. But when I hear myself start to self-flagellate, I know I can take control of the situation and change the message to one of self-love. And that makes me feel more powerful than even Cupid.