How I really didn’t hate myself

Credit RKatt 2018, Sausalito CA

“You must really hate yourself.” he said to me.

Little did I know that a random comment from a man I’d met once or twice in real life and spoken with on the phone for a single conversation would become a booming echo in my head for 15 years.

Outwardly, I looked like some sort of success. I had a doctorate, I had a well paying job. But I was never enough for it. I was at the mercy of a large demanding team and stretched over a big territory. I was always in hotels, in my car, in airports waiting for the next flight.

“You must really hate yourself,” I’d whisper like a mantra as I made a bad financial decision, picked yet another alcoholic, was abused by yet another coworker or manager.

“You must really hate yourself,” slamming hands on my thighs until they left bruises in a place nobody would see.

“You must really hate yourself,” telling the therapist she was wrong about me, telling the doctor it wasn’t in my head, telling my brother no more of his lies and using me.

“You must really hate yourself,” walking out of yet another job, leaving behind another yet person who called me difficult or needy or too much.

“You must really hate yourself,” using my life savings to just do… nothing for a while.

“If I curled up and disappeared, would anyone even notice?” I said to my friend on the phone. Across the distance, I felt her horror. “Well, I would,” she said carefully, “how can you even ask that?”

“You must really hate yourself,” as I surveyed the wreckage of my life, and what was left of my career after figuring out how to get well and then going to work for a quirky company that felt kind of like my last stop.

I had no idea I was the boss till my direct report told me, about 2 weeks after I’d taken the job and I asked about the department head that I hadn’t met yet. “Um, you replaced him.” I was suddenly, accidentally, in charge of things.

I was suddenly, accidentally, doing research with one of the top Universities in the world. I was suddenly, accidentally, at the right level in my job. Suddenly, accidentally, I am the boss with a team that adores me.

It’s been 6 months. They would notice if I curled up and disappeared. I’ve forgotten to remind me how much I must really hate myself.

I accidentally shut my hand in my car door a week ago. Not so long ago, I’d have to ask myself sternly if it was really an accident. I’d have to wonder if I hated myself and had to do something to make sure I really knew it. But this was genuinely, truly, an accident.

I had shooting pains in my right arm, and sharp pain in my neck and shoulder. Fortunately, even in the pandemic, you can see a massage therapist with a note from a doctor, and telehealth let me reach a physician without going into an office.

I realized as she touched my bare back with her warm hands that I haven’t let anyone touch me in over year. Since before the pandemic, when I’d decided the last selfish, thoughtless alcoholic was never laying a hand on me again. Since I’d gotten away from that last manager who didn’t understand boundaries.

It was a shock, but it was addictive. To be touched so kindly and feel myself getting better. On our second session a few days later, it soothed me enough to help me think clearly.

All that money and time I’d spent on therapists. On medications. On supplements. The not so funny pointed jokes I made about how rich I would be without these extra fees just to live that healthy people don’t understand.

I wanted to be more than a kid from the trailer park so I left my family and all I knew behind when I got scholarships. I received a fellowship to grad school in a different state. It was worth a lot of money. I was worth it to someone.

I didn’t look back, I didn’t return ‘home’ and I was called selfish. Self-centered. Uppity. Full of myself. Too good for them.

But I wanted to help the world, I wanted to help me. I wanted to build something and I have. I helped build an industry called bioengineering, in part because I wanted answers about why I was sick all the time. And we figured that out. I’m doing well now.

“You’re worth it,” I whispered to myself on the table that night when I thought about the mental health problems I had overcome thanks to all that time and money on therapy. I had worked on my issues and improved.

“You’re worth it,” when I had to choose between paying for my health and buying new televisions or expensive clothes, and I chose my health.

“You’re worth it,” when I was being belittled and overworked and I changed jobs, and made more money.

“You’re worth it,” when it became too much for me to deal with anymore and I quit working and spent all that money I’ve stockpiled for…something, on just me.

I had read an article about a dying woman who said it was weird to die with money in the bank. I decided she was right.

“You’re worth it,” when I finally had the time and did the things I’d always wanted to do, like learn to sail. And go to yoga school. And learn to plot that book I meant to write for 20 years.

I don’t own many things. What do I have to show for it all? I have asked myself this question over and over for 6 months now, what do I have?

I realized, suddenly, as I felt the massage therapist gently smoothing my ribs back into order, I have me. The greatest gift I could buy for myself.

As she carefully picked up my right hand and stretched my fingers, popping my bones into place, I thought about how expensive she was and how I should be saving more money in these troubled times. “You’re worth it,” I told myself firmly. “You are.”

I thought about the money I gave to artists and dancers when I was going broke, how I didn’t want to watch people go homeless when I had something I could share. They’re worth it, too.

For most of my life, I chose me because nobody else did. I didn’t always know how to choose me properly. I’m a victim of abuse and assault. I was a neglected child.

We didn’t have any money so I didn’t learn how to manage it, how to spend it thoughtfully, how to… deal with it. I made a lot money, and I didn’t want to deal with it.

When you come from circumstances like mine, you spend your entire life trying to learn things that ‘normal’ people already know, you’re always behind the curve. Simple, obvious things are terrifying to you.

Like making doctor appointments when you’d last seen a doctor when you were 6 years old. Like going into a high end store and knowing you can afford it, but have no idea how to even start. Like deciding you’re worth those things.

All that investment in me is not the behavior of someone who hates herself. I loved myself, even when nobody else did. Especially when nobody else did. I just didn’t realize it at the time.

I never answered the phone when he called again, because even when I thought he was right about me, deep down, I knew he was wrong.

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