A friend of mine took me to Gay's the word today, a gay bookshop near Kings Cross, and I bought a book.
It's called Straight Jacket: How to be happy and gay, by Matthew Todd, former editor of Attitude magazine. Before you worry, what compelled me wasn't a personal battle with mental health. I've done all of that, I'm absolutely happy. But only thanks to Kristin Neff's Self-compassion, which got me through the end of an emotionally abusive long-term relationship I somehow found the strength to end in 2013 and begin the three-year process of repairing the damage.
That relationship was the catalyst that severed so much of my life. It isolated me from all but my most loyal friend, left my social life barren, my burgeoning journalism career in pieces and my confidence and self-esteem even weaker.
But the reason I even found my way into that relationship in the first place, and stayed there for so long, was an issue that began long before I met him. He was confident and dangerous, he represented every playground bully ever and if he loved me, I must be good enough after all. Because that's the issue here - feeling good enough.
"It seems such a fleeting thing - feeling good - especially as we need to feel special and above average to feel worthy. Anything less seems like a failure." - Kristin Neff
After a brief honeymoon period, the never-ending battle to win his approval began as he dangled it in my face, then snatched it away again. He'd get angry over the most trivial things, like leaving my shoes in the wrong place or making him dinner to be told 'this food is shit', followed by two hours of hearing about what a mess my life is. But it was never really that trivial thing he was angry about. I realised later he was constantly waiting for an excuse to vent all his pent up anger, the trivial thing was just the first reasonable excuse (in his mind) to vent. I can't speak for the reasons for his anger, maybe it was pure disappointment at life. But because it was my action that apparently triggered the anger, I blamed myself and desperately needed to persuade him it wasn't my fault or that I could do better, neither of which interested him.
My exit from that situation is another story. Matthew Todd is spot on in Straight Jacket:
"At the core of this problem is a shame that has been inflicted upon us so powerfully that those of us whom it affects often do not even realise it. It is a shame with which we were saddled as children, to which we continue to be culturally subjected, and which is magnified by the pinball-machine gay scene and culture that sends some of us spinning from one extreme experience to the next…
"It is the damage done to us by growing up strapped inside a cultural straitjacket, a tight-fitting, one-size restraint imposed on us at birth that leaves no room to grow outside its narrow confines. It makes no allowances for the fact that, yes, indeed, some people are different and we deserve - and need - to be supported and loved for who we are too.
"The time to address these problems is now."
Todd lists the high number of public gay figures that have ended their lives, which include Kevin McGee, Alexander McQueen and Kristian Digby. He cites numerous more who have battled with depression, anxiety and addiction, then of course there's George Michael. The reality is stark.
"Continually feeding our need for positive self-evaluation is a bit like stuffing ourselves with candy. We get a brief sugar high, then a crash." - Neff
Todd talks about addiction in various forms - sex, drugs, relationships, drinking, partying. It's much the same as positive-evaluation. Some addictions temporarily get rid of uncomfortable emotions, others convince us we're worthy, however briefly before our internal critic sabotages it again. But there's always a crash - the come down, the break up, the morning after - and it's in those moments we're most vulnerable. It's those moments that open the door to pain and suicide.
So what's the solution? I can't prescribe what worked for me as a one-size fits all, but it's a good start. Neff taught me the importance that I stop beating myself up with my own thoughts. Eat Pray Love taught me to begin a path of mindfulness, to treat myself well and enjoy what I'm doing with my fullest attention. But mostly what worked for me was running through my mind all the things in my life that are valuable to me, and the opportunities I have. I was lucky enough to have a home that I love, a home that's provided for me through Airbnb when I needed it most. It's a safe place for me where I can lock the door and feel reassured that no one can disrupt me here. I can come home from work with the guarantee that my happiness doesn't depend on another person not being angry at me.
That's a great habit to get into. I now have a long list that I frequently run through, most if it revolves around people and the work I do, but I'm still mostly just happy about my freedom.
It's no exaggeration when I say the changes I describe there transformed my life. I read several books after that which were instrumental in getting me to the career I'm now in. Those include The Power of Habit, Presence, Getting Things Done and Creativity Inc. And of course Trello for tracking those things I was now getting done.
I created the environment and focus I needed to learn a lot of programming skills in a very short time, which I still do now, and that lead to a career I love more than anything, earning double what I made in my work with autistic children, which was both physically and emotionally exhausting. I started and get to facilitate a successful meetup that's getting people jobs doing what they love.
The message here is that it really does get better. It takes some time, some work, some self-evaluation and some reading. But most of all, it takes self-compassion. You have to put the effort in to love and respect yourself, and as Amy Cuddy says, "Fake it til you make it", because it works with self-respect. Forbid yourself the derogatory thoughts, focus on the positive and eventually your self-esteem will flourish.
"So what's the answer? To stop judging and evaluating ourselves altogether. To stop trying to label ourselves as "good" or "bad" and simply accept ourselves with an open heart. To treat ourselves with the same kindness, caring, and compassion we would show to a good friend, or even a stranger for that matter. Sadly, however, there's almost no one whom we treat as badly as ourselves." - Neff