A Love Letter to My Illness

Heben “Heaven” Nigatu, November 2012

My Dear Adversarial Friend,

After years of hostile companionship, I’ve finally discovered the courage and resilience to write you this letter.  Since such courage may only be fleeting because of your current absence in my life, I had to finally force myself to pen this note of honesty and pain to you, my friend.

I remember we first met in high school.  My plump, pimple-covered exterior gave you the all-too-easy road into my close circle of critical inner-friends.  Our conversations enriched your attraction to me and mine to you.  For the hurtful, pain-filled words I would utter silently to myself for years were finally heard and repeated back to me.  You will never be good enough. No one will love you. There must be something deeply wrong with you. You, my depression, my anxiety, always understood.  You knew me.

We continued our mutual relationship all throughout high school, although I never knew your name or why you chose me as a friend.  I did not want to ask those questions because at least you were with me, listened to me, and didn’t seem to ever leave me.  We continued like this for a couple more years.  You echoing these lines of self-hatred and perfectionism back to my isolated mind. For we only grew closer the more I saw myself as worthless, out of control and unwanted.  Yet I started to realize the stronger our friendship grew, the lonelier I found myself.  But I told myself, you were all I needed: my depression, my anxiety.

You followed me to college.  I heaved a large sigh of relief as I stepped into my freshman dorm and you were already waiting for me.  A friend, a familiar face.  We stayed together.  Making new friends had never been easy for me, except for with you.  So I enjoyed staying in my room that first year and so did you.  You started whispering to me new thoughts and fears. You don’t belong here.  You will never succeed in softball or class. You are different.  I believed you, but something inside me hoped to one day prove you wrong.  This moment was the beginning of the end.

I did not know that striving, endlessly to prove you wrong would mean bringing my own body, mind, soul to its very breaking point.  But I wasn’t able to stop because in those moments of silence, pause, peace you awaited me.  My college life was filled with a constant battle between trying to control you, my depression, my anxiety, and allowing you to control me.  Softball, something that once brought me pride and confidence, became the one way you could destroy any ounce of self-worth I had left.  You are alone. You must be perfect. You must numb your feelings. You must be someone you are not. You were always there to remind me of the worst parts of me.

But I started realizing you were not the friend I thought you were.  Your listening was no longer innocent but a way to gain more ammunition against me.  Your repetitions always seemed to leave out the hope in which I most desperately believed.  I began seeking ways to numb or silence you because your whispers had become deafening.

I finally needed to know your name, which led me to therapy.  She called you “Generalized Anxiety Disorder” and “Depressive Episodes.” So clinical, so sterile.  You no longer seemed like a friend.  You were simply a disorder, an episode?  But how could your companionship be simplified to only that over all these years?

I finally began to learn more about you.  To learn more about myself.  To understand you as separate from me.  This was difficult for me to believe because, without me realizing it, we had become so intertwined.  I did not know how to distinguish you from me.  I often still don’t.  Medication helps, sure, but I always know that with any unexpected life event or sudden change you will be there, extending a friendly embrace. Through therapy, I have learned that you aren’t me.  I have learned that I can not blame myself for your presence in my life.  I have learned that you can be managed but I have also learned that you will always be my companion throughout this life.

I still call you my friend because of these many years we’ve shared together.  You worked so hard for me, so hard against me and I will never be outside of your constant influence.  Even though we are no longer close, for I know your name, your face, and your patterns, you will always be a part of me, a familiar and dangerous part.

Thank you for showing me the depth of pain and isolation for only in those depths did I learn the love of community.  Thank you for tearing me down because only through that experience was I able to rely and trust others to help me move forward.  Thank you for developing in me a sensitivity for emotion, for struggle, for hurt for only through that have I been able to connect with others.  Thank you for never leaving me because only through your presence have I learned the importance of resilience.  Thank you for knowing me because only through that am I able to see you in others around me and teach them your name.

I hope for a future day that I can pass by you on the street without pausing to entertain your whispers, without being drawn to your enticingly attractive lies, without recognizing your familiar taunts, but I know that we will probably meet again, my friend.  I have changed, though, since our last encounter so maybe you won’t recognize me.

With Hesitant and Undetermined Love,

Your Distant Friend

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What I Learned about Love from a One-year-old

ImageChildren can teach you many things about life.  Just from watching my young nephews I have learned: snot is always a good and ever-present snack option, milk cures all woes, Daniel Tiger is a boy’s best friend, nap is a very, very bad word and every trip to the park is an exciting new adventure. All extremely important lessons, if one is to take care of toddlers.

At Georgetown, I took a Childhood Development psychology class where we spent a week on every step or progression in a child’s brain and social development from infancy to adolescence.  While we did not learn about the snot thing or that nap is the worst curse word, many of the concepts we did cover are very evident when observing my nephews.

One of these is the idea that young toddlers, when they see sun rays coming through a window, grasp to touch or hold the sunshine.  What a beautiful idea that shows a hope or longing for the beauty of this world.  Yet after a certain age children develop the knowledge that sunshine is not necessarily tangible.  They feel the welcoming warmth of the sun on their skin but they can’t actually grab or hold onto that sun.  No matter how hard they try to grab those enticing rays, the sun will always elude them. But before their brain’s develop and they learn more about the sun, toddlers will continue to try, reach, and strain for the rays despite constant failure.

Part of this instinct comes from a stage of development known as egocentricism.  If you have ever been around a two year old for longer than ten minutes, then you know what I am referring to.  I like to affectionately refer to it as the “me-monster.”  Actually, many adults seem to have regressed to this stage as well.   But anyway for a young child their wants and needs are the center of their world and they lack the ability to put those needs aside for the sake of a more rational end.  When a toddler sees the sun’s rays coming through his living room window, I wonder if his “me-monster” brain automatically thinks, “that’s pretty and I want to have it.”

Therefore, while at the root of this developmental phenomenon there is an innate human longing for beauty and for warmth, the toddler seems to constantly be striving to own or hold onto such beauty in a possessive and egocentric way.  Okay, okay, I will admit that maybe toddlers are just reaching out and there’s no deeper meaning behind it.  I mean, hell, we probably don’t know a quarter of the crazy shit that goes on in those kids heads (which is probably for the best), but stay with me for a minute longer.

As I watched my youngest nephew leaning against the pane of glass as the sunshine poured in, I wondered if we ever really grow out of that innate reaction or desire to own beauty.  Maybe that’s why all of us are so bad at this whole “love” thing.  We see something or someone that brings us warmth, beauty and comfort.  We can usually pause and recognize such beauty and even marvel in it, but only for a fleeting second, because then our first reaction seems to always be “I want that.”

The reaction is innate, evolutionary, and important to survival, but it’s also the very reaction that we have to curb in order to experience true, genuine unconditional love from another human being.  Like the sun rays, which toddlers try so very hard to capture in their small outstretched hands, when we feel that tingle of human attraction or friendship we often try our hardest to cling to it, hold onto it, possess it for fear that if we don’t we will lose it.  I wonder if the toddler, as he watches the sun rise and set each day, fears that one day the beauty will disappear from his grasp, making his effort to hold onto those rays even more fervent and anxiety-laden.

Love, in its purest form, asks us to forfeit that part of us that is so fearful to lose the other that we try to own the other, to make the other ours, or even better to make it no different than us.  Love asks us to enjoy the one we love, to relish in him, to gaze longingly for him, but to always hold loosely and gently to him.  Love asks us to live a life interdependent on the other, like we are to the sun, without confusing the other with our selves.  Once our grip starts to tighten around our love’s beauty or being, love is no longer present.  Love is replaced by envy, jealousy, and greed.  Like I said, maybe that’s why we struggle so much with this whole “love” thing because we are confusing selfless, life-giving, beautiful love with fear-driven greed.

Beauty and love is always around us.  I see it in my handsome nephews and beautiful nieces.  I see it in the steady rain outside that nourishes the parched land.  I see it in my family’s struggle to love each other and remain together.  I experience it in the taste of strong coffee and exquisite chocolate.  I experience it in the warmth of the sun.  We will remain disappointed and discontented with this beauty if we treat it like the toddlers do with the inviting rays of the sun.

Beauty requires a response, but not one of fear or anxiety.  Beauty requires a gratefulness that is only born from a deep and genuine love.  So if my nephew could actually understand anything I just said, I would tell him to never stop reaching out for the beauty of the sun for a meaningful life must contain a desire for such beauty.  But I would remind him that, instead of grasping with desperation, he should pause in silent reverence and appreciation.  That is where love is found, in those silent moments when we are in awe of something other than ourselves.