When self-hatred is elevated to a way of life

Coming out of twenty years of self-hatred culminating in a nervous breakdown and burnout is quite the experience. Exhilarating. Uplifting. Sure, there’s some sadness there–all that lost time! I could have been happy instead of losing two decades in misery! But how can you not revel in the new realisations?

Can life really be like this? you ask yourself. Is it really, really possible I can exist without putting myself down every single second of my existence? Can I just discuss with people without second-guessing my every word; without thinking I’m offensive and everyone will hate me because no matter what I say, I always put my foot in my mouth, I blabber too much, I’m annoying or uninteresting? Can I eat at a restaurant without being ashamed, without obsessing about ruining the other guests’ meal–they’ll be seeing little disgusting, flabby me biting into that burger and thinking, “Why is that unattractive fat woman eating? How does she dare show herself here?”

And how about romantic attraction, friendship, sexual desire? Can I exist without thinking anyone who’s close to me is doing me a favor? Can I be in my relationship without thinking my husband’s here out of laziness, and the reason he still sleeps with me is that he’s an extreme introvert, and it’s too much of a bother to find someone who’s not flabby, disgusting, fat? Can I have sexual fantasies without feeling guilty–not guilty because of religion, repression, or any sort of ethical reasons, but because, honestly, how do I even dare think anyone would desire this utterly unworthy, unfuckable creature that’s me?

When I started writing A Natural, I only told my best friend and my husband. I was convinced the world would ridicule me in the way described above. Where does she get off writing erotic stuff, people would say. The book still turned out to be pretty good as a novel, so I thought, to hell with it! Why not publish–under a pen name, of course. Maybe people would actually see the plot and won’t dwell on the fact that an utterly unbangable disgusting woman has the audacity to write sexy stuff.

Strangely, and to my utter surprise, putting sexual content on the page, and furthermore giving my female protagonist many of my own traits, didn’t put readers off. One male reader told me he imagined me in the place of my heroine, whom he fantasized about. This brought the spontaneous thought to my head: he doesn’t know me or what my body looks like! He’d surely change his mind if he saw me.

Are you marvelling yet at the level of self-hatred I was steeped in for two decades? It gets worse.

What about falling in love? Romantic attraction has always been hard for me. The same thoughts as above dominated the narrative in my head: how dare I feel anything towards a smart/attractive/desirable man? Surely, I’m not just under his league, I’m practically non-existent in his world. And non-existent would still be okay, but my brain went into high-school-movie mentality: I was the awkward nerd in the corner, ogling the attractive, popular football player. The whole school (the metaphorical school, in my mind) would point fingers at me and mock me: Look at that disgusting being! She even thinks she counts as a woman! She even wants love! How dare she? Doesn’t she know she’s a worm at the bottom of a pile of shit, unworthy of serious consideration?

Surely, all I deserved was scorn and ridicule. Now, if I could be thinner, if I could cure my trichotillomania so my face would look okay-ish instead of a ravaged eyebrow-less landscape, if I could stop binge eating, if I looked different…or if I wasn’t abrasive, aggressive, brash! Maybe then I’d be a proper human, worthy of others’ admirartion instead of scorn and rejection. I mean, sure, I’d never really be attractive, but I wouldn’t be disgusting anymore.

Yet still somewhere inside, my strong and assertive inner self was striving to free me from all those misconceptions.

After publishing my book, something changed. Not only had I found my calling–writing, as you might imagine, and dramatic, psychology-laden writing at that–but I’d also dared to put myself out there. And as a result I received not ridicule and contempt, but applause and admiration. People were asking for my opinion on their writing. I had to start refusing beta reading and editing, which I did for free for a time, because I just didn’t have the time to help everybody.

Moreover, strangers on social media thought I was pretty. Not disgusting, but actually attractive. Not random creeps looking for a victim, either; people whom I developed relationships and became friends with.

I pushed further. I took full-body images of myself in my ballet clothing and posted them with the hashtags “mombod” and “bodypositivity.” Surely, I have flaws–many, many of them! Most of the pictures showed a slightly chubby woman, which made me cringe, but by that point I had began to understand that much of it is in my mind. The reactions of strangers told me nobody thought I shouldn’t be happy, or I shouldn’t enjoy life, love, sex. I pushed further, posting a photo of the most horrific part of my body–my stretch-mark ravaged belly. Now, people call them “tiger stripes,” but I have no stripes anymore; the whole skin is a tangle of plastic deformation (sorry, once a physicist, always a physicist!). Even that photo elicited one single negative response: “Ugh, why would I wanna see something so disgusting?” the young man said, echoing my own thoughts of mere days prior. By that point, though, I was rapidly getting over it. It was obvious that most of my beliefs up to that point had been mere misconceptions, and I had, moreover, misunderstood how others see me. It was time to free myself of all that self-deprecation and hatred.

I won’t go into the other factors that helped me heal. Suffice it to say, there are certain people, who, knowingly or not, made me challenge my beliefs and realise just how ridiculous I was being. Just as an example, once, while we discussed all of this, my best friend asked me, “Surely, you don’t think your partner of sixteen years stays with you because of laziness and inertia?”

I mean, yes, that’s exactly what I thought. A borderline borderline brain is expert at making everything look like rejection.

How do I feel now? I feel I am allowed to have emotions. You might think it’s a small thing, but it truly isn’t. Walking to my therapist today, I contemplated how inconceivable it was only a year ago for me to admit openly I am attracted to someone. Or, how Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria made it nearly impossible for me to say, “I can’t help you right now because I’m busy.” Or how hard it was to change in my ballet school locker room without feeling mortified about my body among the other students, women my age or older, but thin and flat-bellied and looking wonderful in underwear (Mothers all! How do they do it?).

Once, at ballet, we were discussing our bodies, as women sometimes do in such environments. I pushed my leggings down and showed my teacher the horror of my belly. She gasped and said, “Do you want to have it fixed?”

Well, I don’t really care anymore. Even if I had the money for plastic surgery, I’d rather give it for an awesome trip, or something I’ll enjoy more than a flat belly. Also, it doesn’t matter. I’m the best in my ballet class, though chubby and booby and all things contrary to the traditional picture of a ballerina. I’d rather be that than have a flawless body.

Flawless is boring, after all.

After the decades of struggling, the best one can hope for is the realisation that none of it matters. At all. Nobody will love you for your outside. And if they do, that’s not a person you want to be with anyway.

Available on Kindle Unlimited!

“That, my friends, is a great book.”Rebecca Hefner, author

16. Reassessing two decades

<< 15. Don’t be a superhero / 17. Confirmation, contradiction, confusion >>

Things have changed. Not just the little things my doctor expected, like less stress, more calmness, better interactions and fewer fights in our family. Yes, these aspects of life are improving, but they’re not what I want to talk about today. The more surprising changes are the ones I didn’t expect, the big ones, the ones regarding those ever-present problems in life I thought were solid parts of me and my mental state.

Turns out, my brain has been tricking me for the past two and a half decades.

They told me the SSRI would take about three weeks to reach its full effect, and they were absolutely right. First of all, it took three weeks for the tinnitus to stop. Now the buzzing’s completely gone. And one or two of the chronic high-pitched components are gone, too. If this isn’t an advertisement for this drug, I don’t know what is.

On Thursday, I went to my psychologist with a list of all the changes I’ve noticed after these first three weeks. If I’m honest, their magnitude has shocked me. It’s not because I didn’t know that I was troubled, but rather because I hadn’t realized just how much and for how long. Trying to think back to the last time I was in my current state of mental calmness brought me back to my early childhood, and that’s certainly a shocking statement.

Just think about it: we’re talking about a whole lifetime of anxiety. Which is one thing, sure; but the most painful aspect of this is that I had no fuckin clue. I didn’t know this wasn’t normal—if anything in life can be said to be normal or abnormal—I had no idea I was living in a constant mist of anxiety which intruded into and corroded every joint holding the parts of my being together.

At my psychologist’s office, I took out my list and started enumerating all the changes I’m noticing.

“I can fall asleep,” I told her.

“Couldn’t you fall asleep before?” she asked.

Duh. Of course I couldn’t. Ask my parents: it started when I was eleven or whereabouts, and falling asleep has been a difficult business ever since.

“Is that not normal?” I asked her. She shook her head. Apparently, most people can fall asleep.

“I don’t binge eat anymore,” I continued.

She knew about the binge eating, of course. We’ve discussed it before. What she didn’t know was the disgust and self-loathing that goes with it, the unconquerable compulsion to ingest sugar in any form, the powerlessness to stop even when it makes you physically sick and you’re mortified at your own self-destructive urges. She didn’t know about the constant state of hatred toward your own body, the guilt at every bite—even at healthy bites, at the things you’re supposed to be eating; you shouldn’t be eating anything, after all, you’re fat, repulsive—and she didn’t know about the shame of eating in public, the constant, intrusive thoughts: are people looking at me? Do they know I’m a disgusting pig? Do they think I’m hideous? Do they see me as I see myself? And with that comes the dysphoria, the feeling of being trapped in a body you can’t accept, that nothing else matters, only what others see, and what they see is layers of fat, a revolting being who doesn’t deserve to be desired or to call herself a woman.

But three weeks of antidepressants, and the binge eating just… stopped. Poof! That was it. Twenty years of trying to manage my eating habits, of diets, attempts at mindfulness, at listening to my own body and heeding its needs—mindful eating is the goal, after all—and all it took was 21 pills. And, suddenly, the self-loathing has receded, it barely even registers. My body has its flaws, sure, but it’s mine, and it’s fine.

“I don’t hate my body anymore,” I told her.

“Why would you hate your body?” she asked.

Well, why not? Guys never liked me, and in today’s society, being desirable is pretty much the only widely acceptable measure of a woman’s worth. So, how could I like myself without any affirmation? Where I grew up you were ridiculed for gaining a couple pounds—and oh boy, did the pounds pile on when the binge eating started. In the society that shaped my subconscious, men are misogynist and cruel. Young me wasn’t liked by young men—and it wasn’t just my appearance, they didn’t like my character either—brash, aggressive, troubled, anxious, clingy, phobic, and intelligent and ambitious to boot; altogether too much work for those twenty-something-year-olds who preferred easy booty and had a disinclination to be challenged in any way that put their own perception of their masculinity in danger.

The psychologist let me ramble on about it for a while, then put down her papers and leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. She looked at me with that expression people sometimes get when they think you’ve been greatly deceived and see it as their responsibility to set things straight. “You’re an attractive woman,” she said.

Well, sure, okay. But I’m also a practical person, quite obsessed with problem-solving, and, although her observation made me think about the possibility of her statement being true, it’s not like I’ll ever be able to really internalize it, to actually feel like an attractive woman.

Or will I?

This drug is making me not only see things differently, it’s making me approach things in an emotionally new way. Interestingly, it’s annoying, and my ego is suffering slightly because of it. I battled these problem for years, and now, 21 pills and they’re gone. Was my mind not strong enough? My willpower? My logic? I pride myself on my methodical brain. Why couldn’t I solve this for so long? God knows I tried my best.

“You wouldn’t blame a diabetic for taking insulin,” Tyler says. “They have a condition, and they need to take medication to survive. You have a chemical imbalance in your brain, and you take the medication to get better.” In short, I’m sick, he says. Contrary to what society sometimes tells people with mental health issues, this is definitely not my fault.

I asked my doctor if I could continue the medication for longer than the couple of months she had initially envisioned. I explained to her that this is not just a stressful phase, this has been my life for practically as long as I can remember. She said I don’t necessarily have to discontinue, and a huge weight was lifted off me. Sure, I might want to try to see if I can manage my stress without chemical help, but my doctor understands, my psychologist understands, my family understands, and my friends understand.

What’s more, I don’t think the antidepressants affect my ability to write.

So, Tyler is right. This is what I need, and I won’t beat myself up about not being able to solve everything with sheer willpower anymore.

10. A borderline borderline

<< 9. Middle of the night anxiety / 11. Panic Attack Thursday >>

For months, I’ve been wondering why I get along so well with people with Borderline Personality Disorder. I have several close friends who have been diagnosed with BPD or exhibit most of the traits, and I really, truly get them. When they describe feelings, symptoms, reactions, I feel them, mostly because I’ve had similar emotions and reactions in the past. I relate, not in an intellectual way, but in the we-share-an-experience way.

I talked about it with my therapist today—I started therapy again, for stress management, you see—and she confirmed my suspicions. I have several borderline traits, she said, but my condition is probably not severe, and in all likelihood not diagnosable. I grew up in a loving family, I was held and soothed as a child. The only reason I can find for this near-disorder is the one month’s separation from my mother immediately after I was born. I was a preemie, you see: in those days, they left you in an incubator, and nobody touched you for weeks. The therapist says this could well be my early-childhood bonding failure, and I have no reason to doubt her.

I did an online test based on ten yes-or-no questions, and I scored 6/10, where 7/10 can get you a diagnosis. Self-destructive behavior? Check! Binge eating is one of the first items on the list. Emotional dysregulation, outbursts? Check—although with lots of effort, I’ve improved that a lot. Self-harm? I won’t go into that, but let’s say, a tiny bit—enough to make “no” a dishonest answer. Anger outbursts? Towards Urban, mostly, yes. Also, towards some friends, back when I was pregnant, because somehow the hormones exacerbated the paranoia that my friends wanted to undermine me (or, to be more accurate, they caused some paranoia. I never exhibited this kind of thinking before that, and I haven’t since). Unstable relationships or lots of fights within relationships? Oh boy, the times I almost left my husband for dumb reasons. The only thing that saved me is that Urban has the inertia of a freight train. He trudges along, seemingly unfazed, and this saved the relationship. Thank God for that.

What else? Ah, the fear of abandonment. This is my “nobody will like me” mantra, which Urban is tired of hearing, and even more tired of refuting. I’ve had this feeling after every meeting with a new-ish friend since forever—since kindergarten, I swear—that now I finally did behave in an inappropriate way, and they finally saw how I truly am, and they won’t like me anymore.

Every. Single. Time. To this day.

It’s getting better, though. I have a lot of friends—my therapist has pointed this out often enough—and time and experience have proven that people actually don’t abandon me, even if I think my behavior or my personality is horrific. It’s an intellectually approachable result, for which I used the scientific method: observation, data gathering, statistics. Still, it’s not as easily accessible from the emotional side, at least not where new friends and new relationships are concerned. And the lack of boundaries… well, I’m able to regulate it, most of the time. It’s hard. I know it scares some people and drives them away, but my friends seem not to mind too much, and readers sometimes find it refreshing. It’s interesting, after all, to gain some insight into another person’s psyche. We are all relieved to see that we are not alone in our struggles, fears, insecurities. Most people hide themselves behind well-crafted facades. I just can’t—and believe me, I’ve tried.

I don’t experience dissociative states, though, and the above symptoms are mostly mild, and some of them have even subsided with the passing of the years. I can even feel the love of my friends these days, at least of old friends, although it is and will always remain a mystery to me why the majority of them rarely, if ever, initiate contact. “I love you,” they say, and yet they never send a message. It’s one of those great enigmas that have no answer, and my psychologist says I should just call them when I want to talk to them, and that’s pretty much that.

One might think finding out that you almost have a serious disorder when you’re nearing forty is jarring and disturbing, but to me, it’s liberating. I finally know why for thirty-five years I’ve felt wonky around others. Why I couldn’t adjust as well as I’d like in elementary school, why by the age of eleven I was convinced that no boy will ever like me, which continued in adult life as I’ll never find a boyfriend, and to this day continues as, if I ever get divorced, I’ll die alone.

(Evidently, I found a boyfriend. Phew! Hopefully, we won’t get a divorce. I mean, we won’t. Just think of the hassle!)

So, where do I go from here? I don’t think this new knowledge helps with the stress management, except as far as it gives me more insight into my condition, and therefore removes some of its general uncertainty.

One consoling feature of being on the verge of borderline disorder—a borderline borderline, if you’ll excuse the pun—is that you get the superpowers (increased empathy, deep insights into feelings and relationships) while still being able to tackle the debilitating symptoms of the disorder, even if that means approaching them from the intellectual side and not from the emotional one. Those superpowers you can use in multiple ways. I use them for writing deep characters in my books, for example, and my friend Chet, who has BPD, does the same thing. When I started reading his first book, I went Woah! I could have written this! He also gets my characters, and I get his. He even likes my deeply flawed and morally grey John character—whom I love—but I can assure you that few other readers do.

Anyway, I can’t change it, or rather, I can change it a little bit, with lots of effort. No point worrying over what you can’t change, as they say. I have to accept it and move on.

I did find a boyfriend, after all. He’s making pizza as we speak.