Today I had one job.
I had to write about why I loved myself.
I spent the entire day doing anything but. I avoided that task like my life depended on it. I I did laundry, I drank coffee, I cleaned my utiility room FFS. I got a buzz – briefly – out of finally clearing the dust off the ice-cream maker, and throwing out the half bottle of vermouth from the back of the cupboard. I sat down again and tried to focus on what I love about myself. I googled ‘how to love yourself’ and watched 24 year olds on YouTube giving out wisdom I didn’t feel capable of. I watched a lot of TED talks.
So I’m sitting here at nearly midnight, with an almost blank page. Bear with me.
Notice that I didn’t say Dear Helen. I don’t think I love you enough for endearments. Or perhaps I love you so much that I won’t patronise you with a standardised, yet meaningless address…
We’ve been through a lot, right?
I’m not talking about the usual stuff. The ‘can’t get a boyfriend, got a boyfriend, couldn’t believe your luck, luck didn’t last, heart is broken’ kind of crap. That stuff is shit, and it forms us, but it happens to all of us unless we’re very lucky. No, I mean much bigger things than that, giant as it always seems at the time.
First, you’ve suffered with anxiety for longer than you know. You thought it began with PND, didn’t you? When you realised that the most precious life in the world depended entirely on you, and that you might not be enough to sustain it. When that screaming newborn who vomited bucket-loads daily, choked and turned blue in your arms. When they told you it was reflux and sent you home with infant antacids. And you sat up every night in case she choked again when you weren’t looking.
Anxiety dawned on you that night, but it started years before, when you took Pro-Plus and a flask of coffee to bed every night to ensure you knew enough facts to get through your exams. (Thank God they were the only drugs available at the time – I hate to think what you’d have done today). You made yourself ill both times getting your grades, but you nailed it. I look at you now though, with the benefit of hindsight, and the disadvantage of having children who may try the same, and want to scoop you up in a hug, and tell you that you have always been enough.
That anxiety has fuelled you though. You kept that baby safe, and when your second child showed the same signs you fought the doctor’s knowing sigh and made him listen. Not for you the paranoia label. You used your gut, and demanded the attention for your baby that he needed. You are so smart, so strong. And feisty when needed.
Then there was the time when someone put an axe into the counter of one of your businesses. You were 23, running 20 pubs in the east end of London. To his credit the pub manager – your employee – didn’t call you till Monday. He was ready to walk out. “Don’t worry,” you told him, “we’ll sort it.” And you did. It scared the shit out of you, and you alternated mainlining wine and coffee for weeks, as you waited for the fallout. We laugh about it now, whenever it’s mentioned; we brush it off as something formative – the ‘toughening up’ that everyone needs before they can be part of the real world. But how many young women – how many men, come to that – have to deal with that level of trauma before they can enter a place where they’re respected for their work, their tenacity, their worth? You have guts, lady.
And then diabetes. If you thought you were strong – and I know that you did – diabetes was a revelation, testament to how just how much you can handle. It very nearly broke you. Having your child diagnosed with a life-threatening and incurable illness is devastating. There are things I remember from those early months that are hard to think about now. The amount of times you had to go the pharmacy for even more alien things that you needed to keep your daughter alive. How you were so overwhelmed that you left it all on the kitchen table overnight and had to go back and replace the refrigerated items the next day. How you got so upset at the injustice of it that you made a dent in the wall kicking it in frustration. And yet you nail that too. You – and she – achieve the target demanded of you, no matter how much lost sleep it costs you both. You are the most determined person I know.
And yet, that’s just achievements, isn’t it? Things I can recognise you for. It’s not really love.
So I step outside of myself for a bit and try to look inwards, be less objective, less.. professional. What would I say if I were my mum – the mum I’d like to be to the girl that I am?
You are enough. You’ve doubted yourself so many times in your life. You’re so easily influenced. Like that time you watched Supernanny and wouldn’t let your 2 year old eat yoghurt for two hours while you made her face down her fish pie phobia. God you beat yourself up for that afterwards. But she didn’t die, she still tells you she loves you every day, and yes – she still eats yoghurt and fish pie. And who isn’t easily influenced when faced with a child vs. fish pie dilemma and so many bloody opinions?! You have always been enough.
You’re a really good person. Everything you’ve done – except that time you stole a bubble gum from the post office because you were 5, and you’d never had one, and they just looked so cool – has been well-motivated. You’ve always behaved well, you’ve usually done the right thing, but more importantly, you’ve always thought about how other people would feel about your actions. You consider others before you dive in, you worry about the impact your words might have, and you’re at pains to make sure everyone is ok. You say sorry. For a girl who never heard that growing up, that’s one heck of a big deal. You’re teaching your kids that it’s ok to get stuff wrong, that parents aren’t perfect, and that sorry plus a hug is the best cure there is to most things.
You’re an inspiration. Steady on now, is this getting a bit narcissistic? People don’t say it very often, but just occasionally there will be a message – usually from someone you don’t know – saying thank you. Thank you for giving hope when a new child joins the type 1 diabetes community; thank you for giving confidence to a woman feeling floored by her fifties; thank you for the reassurance that a feisty 7 year old is going to turn into an amazing teenager, not a terminal hooligan. Those messages are wonderful. But they’re not a patch on what your own teenager told you last week. That she’d known there was no Father Christmas since she was 8, when she saw you creep into her room with presents. “Were you disappointed?” you asked her. “No! I just thought Isn’t my mum amazing?!” she told you. You see, you don’t have to be better than everyone else to be inspiring. You’re amazing every day.
There. It’s done. I don’t think I’m finished. I don’t nurture myself as I would my own child, with good food and exercise, lovely books and sleep. Instead I prop myself up with things that I think will get me through each day, but which invariably leave me exhausted. I don’t invest in myself. Instead, I give of myself until I’m depleted, because I don’t see another way. But would I let someone I love do that? I’m a work in progress, and it’s time to change.
I’ll let you know how I get on.
Do you find it difficult to love yourself?