A few weeks before my wedding, I was throwing hundreds of pages from the journals I had kept in my late teens and early 20s into the fire pit my not-yet-husband had set ablaze in our yard. My younger self would have seen it as blasphemy to part ways with my memories, but the new me I had been slowly growing into saw it as a tremendous display of self-love. Self-love I had been gently led into, by someone who saw my strength sooner than I had. We had spent hours combing through page after page of a text that told some of the saddest parts of my tale, dear diaries of desperation and pleading for the sort of happiness and trust that felt mythical to me. It was my love who wiped a tear away from his cheek after another entry detailing the lows of my past, touched and yet furious, who had a glint in his eye while he asked: "Want to burn them?"
Yes, honey, I do.
And so we did.
I think there are a handful of sayings everyone hears from time to time about love and relationships, and it just so happens that one of the most prevalent sayings is one that just simply doesn’t apply to my experience. It couldn’t have applied to me, not in the generalized brushstroke it is painted in, and I see that now after a lot of life, wisdom, and clarity.
“You have to love yourself before you can love anybody else.”
In a put-together life and stable upbringing, I think that is an invaluable commentary, especially for young people. For those of us who bloomed late in life, after a challenging childhood, or a traumatic young adulthood, the saying seems almost divisive. The task to love myself has been a monumental one, a slow burn into bright flame, and while there is no single definable moment where I started to soften my view and opinion of myself... it wasn’t possible for me until I was shown just how worthy and lovable I was by someone else.
This isn’t everyone’s story, but it is mine.
I did not have the knowledge and understanding of the tools I already possessed for my self-love journey to begin with until I befriended a kindhearted, cute, funny guy that moved into the apartment above mine. I was getting closer, it’s true— months after a messy breakup with someone who was only good at making me feel like I couldn’t possibly come anywhere but last, losing empty friendships with people who did nothing to sway me from that mindset, I was on a lonely road of Just Existing and Surviving each day. That time in my life has become a weird blur for me, but I persisted because it was all I knew I could do. I had to detach into the relative safety of denial and dissociation because confronting my life, the whole of it and not just the recent disruptions, was just too heavy and too much at the time.
So I drank, I partied, I flirted, I made plans, I did things, but I felt shallow and hollow. I experienced the creeping sensation of knowing there was more for me, that there was more to me, but lacked the confidence and ability to achieve that. When you've never been given the nourishment of how to conjure that in yourself, really, where the hell do you pull that from? Asking me to love myself wholly as I was in that time was like asking me to wake up on a Thursday fully fluent in a language I had no experience or practice with while forgetting my native tongue.
In the mix of nightly beer pong games in the musty basement of a three-decker, I got closer to that bright light of a person who had just moved in. In a handful of months, we were spending nights sitting close on his couch, just talking and enjoying each other’s company, and I felt a lifetime of protective emotional armor unwinding itself from me. I was exposed, so blatantly to a friend, and I was terrified and yet thrilled. I trusted someone. They trusted me back. It opened so many doors for me, doors hidden within myself that I have always had the key to, but absolutely no idea where to begin with opening them.
He rejected me at first, though we laugh when we tell the story because it didn’t even last 24 hours. I felt the blood rush to my face during our first kiss and was convinced he could tell and maybe even feel it, and I felt my very essence seemingly unfold in ways I wasn’t aware were possible. In the coming years, I had to remind myself repeatedly, that if someone of this man’s caliber thought the universe of me — clearly, he had to be right about something. It strengthened me and changed me. His love helped me to lift myself from the kinds of depths I was so familiar with being left to drown in. I was growing and loving myself, consistently and authentically. It was and still is so refreshing in its relative newness over the scope of my entire life.
I was encouraged lovingly and openly to pursue therapy. I was encouraged lovingly and openly to see my worth beyond the material. I was encouraged lovingly and openly to do whatever it was I felt would give me purpose and joy. I simply had never experienced this on a consistent basis in my formative years, and I spent so much of my life alongside others while retreating and hiding within myself. It was safer there. I just didn’t know how else I could be.
This person, who came out of nowhere at a time I spent most of my days in spiritual isolation, was just so willing and proud to help change how I saw myself. He told me once, over a few martinis and a lot of reflection, that I was always worthwhile. He thought it was criminal that it took as long for me to see as it did, but understood why well before I did. “Everyone who hurt you really just didn’t know what to do with you. You were like an upside down glass, and I turned you upright, and you filled yourself back up as soon as I did.” He has helped me see that in myself, each and every day.
I’m a late bloomer in self-love. I think it’s a mighty task to advise those of us who have a troubled start to this world that we’ve gotta just pull it out of our pockets, and that’s the only way we can bring positives to a healthy relationship. My bad experiences were a big part to play in how grateful I am to have stayed in seven years with this person, and have given me a glorious boost of perspective in my own fortitude and strength. I just needed the help to utilize these tools in my possession, and somehow it was exactly what I received. I think I’m lucky every day, but I know I couldn’t have listened to him or trusted him if I wasn’t already doing the slow work to face in the right direction for myself. I had to be ready to take it all in.
My secret garden was always there, hidden in a thick fog, just after a seemingly endless maze lined with thorns and pitfalls. My husband, before he even asked for that title, gently led me there by hand. He only pointed at the watering can, the gardening sheers, and let me know I could do it. He believed in me. He believes in me still. The blooming has been late, and not without struggle, but the pride, love, and wholeness I feel when I see petals opening and strong roots take place has never been more welcome in my life.
It would be nice to love yourself before you love someone else. If you, like me, needed a gentle tug in the right direction, your first act of self-love is allowing that to happen. Open your eyes and heart and face it bravely. You are capable... and it is worth letting someone lead you there if you need that.
Amy Jutras is an artist and writer living in Rhode Island with her husband, wizard father, and cute dog. As a sufferer of chronic pain and illness, she hopes to spread awareness and insight into the lives of disabled creatives with experience and focus on mental health issues as well. She is passionate about sharing life through art and listening to learn.