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Thoughts on mental illness and self-esteem

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I think it goes without saying that a symptom of mental illness can be a lack of self-esteem. That’s not to say the two are always linked; you can have low self-esteem without being mentally ill, and you can be mentally ill without low self-esteem. Most of the time, I have pretty great self-esteem. Like, 80% of the time. But that other 20% is still there, like it probably is for anybody. You have moments of self-doubt, and moments when you really don’t like yourself, or think yourself worthy of anything.

When I’m in that 20%, it’s like my OCD, anxiety, and depression combine into a perfect storm of self-loathing, self-hatred, and shame.

Let me give you an example of how this process works:

  1. I get a little down.
  2. I start thinking about how much I suck.
  3. I think of someone who I believe doesn’t suck, or does suck but is in some way less sucky than me.
  4. Obsessive comparison making time!
  5. I tell myself that I don’t deserve to be as thin/rich/successful/happy/cool as the person I’m comparing myself to.
  6. I make a list of all the bad things I’ve ever done.
  7. I remind myself of how often I think rude/cruel/uncharitable thoughts about others.
  8. I decide that obviously I’m a terrible person, convince myself that nobody loves me, and agree with them on all the reasons I made up for them to not like me.

Steps one through five are fairly self-explanatory, right? Numbers three and four are usually about other authors or people in my industry, but sometimes I mix it up with figures from my lost Broadway dreams, just to remind myself that I failed at something I once loved.

I am my own toxic best friend.

But I digress, and it’s time to take a trip to six town, which is convoluted as fuck. I think about the time I was four years old  and I considered stealing a sticker. I didn’t actually steal the sticker, but my mental state doesn’t care. I considered stealing. That makes me a monster. The fact that I was only a child doesn’t even enter into the picture, except to prove that I was born a conniving, thieving little shit. And even though I clearly remember thinking, “I shouldn’t steal, because it’s wrong,” I convince myself that the only reason I didn’t steal the sticker was because I was afraid of being caught.

Number six goes completely off the rails. I think of all the times I’ve ever thought anything mean. That means every time I’ve ever been mad enough to think, “I could murder that person.” Every time I’ve ever thought something stupid in my youth, like when I was strongly Pro-Life in my teens and early twenties. Things I have fantasized about sexually and later was totally ashamed of. And I tell myself, “These are all reasons that you’re a bad person, and that’s why you don’t deserve anything good in your life.”

The fact that there really are awesome things in my life? That evidence is blocked by the aggressive young prosecutor from the district attorney’s office, the one who has everything to prove and who is my combined Frankenstein’s monster of mental illness.

Number eight does what it says on the tin: after hours of mentally assaulting myself, I decide that I suck and I’m never going to not suck. I should skip my run or quit my job or never get on twitter again. I should binge eat like crazy, or drink a dangerous amount. And at my very lowest? This combination of mental illness and low self-esteem has lead to thoughts of suicide. It all kind of comes out in this big jumble of:

Ugh, Jenny, why are you so awful? Look at Anne Hathaway! You could have been Anne Hathaway, but nope, you had to cheat on a spelling test in second grade and you secretly thought your coworker was faking a miscarriage and that’s why you’re lazy and stupid and you will never, ever be truly happy because you don’t deserve it. You should kill yourself.

Today, though, I got to number six and I realized… nobody in the world knows that I threw a tantrum in the post office when I was seven, and anyone who claims they’ve never had a single embarrassingly horrible thought about another human being is a fucking liar. The only person who is using all of that to form an opinion about me? Is myself.

That one realization stopped me in my tracks. I couldn’t go on to the other steps. I couldn’t get to “you should kill yourself,” because the level of denial I had to reach, the jumping through hoops I would have to achieve in order to make myself go through the whole process was just exhausting. This time, it went like:

  1. I get a little down.
  2. I start thinking about how much I suck.
  3. I remind myself that pretty much everybody sucks.
  4. I remember that not only can no one can change the past, but hardly anyone remembers it, anyway.
  5. I compare my present day actions with my thoughts, and decide that no matter how mean my thoughts might be, if I’m not acting on them or letting them influence my behavior, I’m probably not worse than anyone else.
  6. I watch dolphin videos on YouTube.

Now, there’s no saying that this same healthy thing will happen every time I go down that destructive path. But now that I know there’s a fork in the path, one that isn’t covered with brambles and thorns and is instead evenly paved and blessedly free of goose shit, I might be able to choose which way I want to go.

30 Comments

  1. Hey, it may be just today, but it’s a small step forward. It’s kind of like how when my boyfriend mentioned to me that I focus on things in my day that got me down that I started actively cataloging the things that went well in my day. It doesn’t change my thinking patterns, but it helps me find pleasure instead of just unhappiness.

    September 29, 2013
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  2. Rachel
    Rachel

    Jenny, your words sound so true! Been battling a bit with myself lately, and frankly been in denial about it, but reading what you have to say, I thought, “Yes…yes it’s true.” I try to blog when I’m feeling low, to get my thoughts out of my head, I try to listen to music to get me out of my blip (doesn’t always work…thought I’d be okay listening to The Killers, and then I was transported back in time to a happy place where I’m not at the moment!), but above all, I find it hard to struggle how to put into words to others how I’m feeling, and as one of my friends know (if they read this – I know they follow you on Twitter – they’ll know who they are), I’m struggling to connect with others and it’s been so much easier to avoid them at all costs. I’m truely my own worst enemy. I know that all of a sudden I’ll be feeling brighter and I’ll be doing better in myself, in fact I manage to make a effort in connecting with another friend this morning when I’ve avoided her for the last two weeks because I didn’t know what I wanted to say, or how I wanted to say anything. I suppose deep down somewhere I know I need to connect with my friends to help keep me up above board, but at the same time I don’t want to get them down.

    On a side note to myself; I may not be in the best of places at the moment, but I’m truely not running away. I’m not at my lowest ebb ever, and hopefully I can start climbing my rock mountain again very soon. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and therefore it’s perfectly okay not to be feeling “me” every day, either.

    September 29, 2013
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  3. The fact that someone as incredibly awesome as yourself has considered suicide makes me sad, because, as I will say repetitively, you are incredibly awesome. Your blog is one of the reasons I’m getting through college without sinking into depression myself. So thank you. I know depression has no logic, but I’m glad that this time it imitated some.

    September 29, 2013
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  4. Violet
    Violet

    As someone who has suffered from OCD for a long time, I can say that the only thing that truly works for me is to let the questions sit. I see OCD as a person poking at your brain, trying to get a reaction. The hours I have spent thinking of mean things I have said, mean things I have thought, mean things that maybe I have done and thought but just can’t remember clearly.
    OCD is like an internet troll. The more you feed it and treat it’s irrational questions as if they were rational, the more it gets to you.
    I realize that you probably know all of this already, and that it is a lot easier said than done. Anyway, you are a good person, have an awesome blog and are a very talented writer.

    September 29, 2013
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    • Serenity
      Serenity

      I love your description of OCD as an internet troll, I am going to steal that from now on when I try to explain OCD to people.

      October 1, 2013
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  5. Been reading your recaps from the start. I have depression too and I hate it. When I’m down, I can’t write, and I have to write. It’s in my blood (even though I haven’t published anything yet). I did recaps on 50 Shades on my blog as well, and I know logically that I write better than she does (not a high compliment there) but when I’m down I think I’m just as bad. Ideas vanish out of my head. It’s miserable.

    I’m glad you were able to stop yourself early on the list. I may go watch some freaking dolphin videos.

    September 29, 2013
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  6. Small steps 🙂 I love that you made a new less self-destructive list. Although watching dolphin videos should be #2. I love how you are trying to get a handle on this.

    September 29, 2013
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  7. Stupid as it is, I think I don’t get as far down the list because I have a selectively good memory. I’m sure there *were* times I threw a fit in the post office when I was a kid, but darned if I can remember them. I also didn’t have parents who liked to remind me of my failings, though, and I know that’s an issue some people deal with – and the bigger issue, of course, of chemical imbalance which has nothing to do with how good or bad of a person you are.

    The nice thing is that there are several high(ish)-profile internet celebrities out there who have been public about their struggles with mental illness (The Bloggess and Jen, the lady behind Cakewrecks.com, being two of them). They make it a lot easier for those of us who have never personally had to fight clinical depression to know what to say and how to react when our friends are hurting.

    September 29, 2013
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  8. JD
    JD

    Two things:

    1) You’re awesome. The entire Troutnation couldn’t be wrong.

    2) Your list of things you use to beat yourself up with seems… really innocent and sweet. The things I beat myself up with are way worse. Like, way way worse. If that’s all you’ve got, I’m declaring you virtually a saint. Go forth and never worry again what others would think of you for your past. (If it’s not all you’ve got… well, I’m sure the other stuff isn’t as bad as you’re thinking either.)

    September 29, 2013
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  9. Lisa Dollar
    Lisa Dollar

    This entry is made of awesome. For you, but also it really touched a nerve with me. Next time my depression throws me in a shame spiral (like it did 30 minutes ago when I was feeling so sick with pregnancy nausea that I couldn’t be a mom to my son for 30 minutes but instead cried so hard with guilt that I still threw up) I am coming back and reading this. Thank you for sharing because it made a difference for me.

    September 29, 2013
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  10. Oh Wow! I am not alone! Others suffer from mental illness?!? Well, I did actually know that. But it was really rather interesting to see how someone else copes. Especially someone who has a gift such as yours. I was cruising your sites just to find out it there would be more about Neil and Sophie and found this. My coping mechanism is to bury myself in someone else’s world and ignore mine. I loved Neil and Sophie’s world. I loved this. I am so glad you have shared it and that I have found it. I now subscribe. I look forward to reading more.

    September 29, 2013
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  11. What you’re doing sounds like what my family calls “piling on” but to the degree that those of us with depression can reach. When you can sit back and look at it, we do it reeeeally well. It’s almost a talent 🙂 However, I think being able to recognize that you are doing it, and even better, knowing that it can be short-circuited, is a huge step in the right direction. I don’t think there’s a way to stop our brains from going sideways sometimes, but it’s like knowing what to do when your car starts to skid. Breathe, steer, and wait for your tires to get traction again because if you panic, it’s just gonna get worse.

    September 30, 2013
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    • Jordiebelle
      Jordiebelle

      Elle, that is a brilliant analogy!

      September 30, 2013
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  12. I really appreciate your blog and your writing. Like many, I came to you through your 50 Shades Critique. I’ve stuck around because you seem like an amazing person, and I suspect if we ever bumped into each other at a conference, we’d get along really well. It’s such a relief to read a blog that isn’t primarily about mental illness, but is still open and blase about the issue.

    I’ve grown up in a family permeated by mental health issues (but not in the tragic/ abusive way people always think when you say that — I’m just saying mental illness is a fact of life I have dealt with in my otherwise very normal and happy childhood), which is why I strongly believe the best counter to mental illness stereotypes is honestly and openly writing about our experiences.

    I love reading your blog because it’s like a mixed back of treats, I never know whether I’m going to get an introspective on mental health; a political or sociological rant; a scathing review of 50 Shades; or some awesome, sexy, and smart erotica.

    I don’t comment very often, and on blogger it was always anonymous . . . but I realized I’ve been silently enjoying your writing for ages and I haven’t said anything, and I suddenly felt guilty. So. You rock. Thank you.

    September 30, 2013
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  13. Anonymous
    Anonymous

    Hugs to you! It bites- I’m in a down cycle myself at the moment for the first time in years, and it’s astounding how identical the thought processes are every time. Which in itself just leads to more self-flagellation, because damn. When exactly am I going to get past this? (<- Rhetorical question).

    Have you done any Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)? I started seeing a therapist who uses it a few years back and it was amazing the difference it made- first time I've gotten through a down period without needing meds (I think I'd better go back for another visit soon!). It sounds wishy-washy but it's mainstream psychology with elements borrowed from Buddhist mindfulness. And essentially, it recommends *exactly* the course you took today. When you get into one of these cycles, you acknowledge that your thoughts are just thoughts, and they can't hurt you. Your thoughts are not the enemy- it's natural to have both good and bad; normal, in fact. But it doesn't mean you have to listen to the bad ones, or give them any weight.

    The approach I've always tried to take is hitting step 6 and doing the reverse- listing all the stuff that's awesome about me, or all the *good* things I've ever done. The only big risk in that is that I a) don't always believe myself, and b) somehow turn it into an even bigger lashing (because what have I done *lately*, and am I not just letting my formerly awesome self down even more?).

    Anyway! My point is (to myself as much as you), you don't have to be certifiably awesome, nor do you have to think you're horrible. You only have to be you, and you are enough. ACT encourages you to focus on what's most important to you in life (writing, family, whatever), and what you need to do to make your goals happen. You can then work towards those goals and let the rest drop away. If it's not getting you where you want to go, leave it behind.

    I hope you're through this cycle soon, and know that (even though it's not important 😉 ), I've never met you and I *still* think you're awesome.

    September 30, 2013
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  14. Reenie
    Reenie

    As well as the dolphins, check out angry cats too on you tube… hysterical!

    September 30, 2013
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  15. Amber
    Amber

    All of my hate spirals end that way. At some point I get bored and wonder what i’m supposed to do if I give up doing everything because I suck. I mean, even if i’m the worst person in the world, I still have another 50 years or so of life in me and I gotta do something in that time. So I go watch youtube videos until i’m not upset anymore.

    By the way, I think you would enjoy this (very NSFW) commercial: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Suq0FhISbvQ&list=FLknyMnHr0jFGU_S79LOymsg&index=23

    May it give you as many stupid giggles as it gives me when i’m feeling blue.

    September 30, 2013
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  16. Claire
    Claire

    Jenny, I just wanted to tell you that when I was 7, I actually DID steal the sticker(s) from my friend. Beautiful pink, puffy-heart stickers. And you know what happened? As I was leaving her house, they fell out of my pocket! Ha! Caught red-handed.

    September 30, 2013
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  17. Oh my gosh. I think we are twin souls are something.

    I hate how my brain works. Fast racing thoughts in pretty much the same order as yours above. It sucks.

    September 30, 2013
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  18. Whelp, that was timely Jenny! I just got online after staring at my phone for three hours before finally picking the darn thing up and making the call for a mental health appointment. And if I have to explain to one more f’in person that, no I don’t want a “meds check”, I want an actual f’in appointment with someone who will actually listen to my f’in history, I swear I’ll scream!

    Difficulty compounded by the fact that I feel absolutely idiotic because I weaned off my meds (I did let my doc know) in May so I could participate in a medical study of TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) for the treatment of depression. And either I was the placebo group, or in the 30% it doesn’t work on. And telling myself that wasn’t stupid – wouldn’t anyone grasp for the brass ring of a “cure” after 30 years of this crap – isn’t helping.

    September 30, 2013
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  19. ednaz
    ednaz

    Jenny, this is beautiful! You took a different (better) path. So full of win.
    I’m going to keep your (second) list handy ’cause it’s so awesome – like you.
    Thanks for all you do. It means so much.

    September 30, 2013
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  20. Honestly, I think we all feel like this on occasion. I think writing is the only thing that keeps me sane! 🙂

    September 30, 2013
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  21. Frogger
    Frogger

    I’m sorry to hear that you have mental illnesses, but I want to thank you for being able to write about your experiences with them. I have multiple friends who suffer from them (bipolar, anxiety, and a couple with depression). I have always tried to help and be supportive and understanding, but sometimes the leaps their brains make are so illogical to me that it’s almost frustrating trying to follow along. I have heard versions of “I annoyed you that one time two years ago, so obviously you hate me.” I know that what you write isn’t the standard process for everyone, but you write it in a way that I can better understand the jumps my friends make. So for that, thanks.

    And, this may not mean much from a random internet person you don’t know, but you seem like a truly awesome person.

    September 30, 2013
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  22. Cherry
    Cherry

    Thank you for writing this. I sometimes get in those weird self-hate spirals and it’s nice to see it laid out on paper (computer screen?) and see that this happens to other people sometimes too. the worst part, for me, is the feeling that I’m the only one who gets like that and that that’s another reason why I suck. Thanks for making that thought not a thing anymore. 🙂

    September 30, 2013
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  23. Annikki
    Annikki

    Hi. I’m an irregular visitor on your site and I’ve seen you mention your depression several times now. Have you given a thought that you might be suffering from hypothyroidism? It’s something that’s awfully often diagnozed as depression, and if that’s the case with you, your life could be much easier and brighter with much less pills and other shit if you got the right diagnosis. I’d suggest you look it up, and feel free to ask me more about it.

    September 30, 2013
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  24. Sophie
    Sophie

    I have had depression for almost as long as I can remember, I can certainly remember having suicidal thoughts when I was ten years old. I have tried to commit suicide multiple times. I have self harmed (I scratch my skin until I bleed), I have panic attacks and obsessive thoughts. I’ve been taking medication on and off for ten years now. Since I’ve started taking medication I’ve been more up than down.

    In fact up from March 08 til December 10 things were as close to perfect as life gets. I was living my dream, had a great boyfriend and was about to finish my degree and start working in my dream job of a children’s nurse. Except my depression came back, I failed my final placement and was too much of a wreak to redo it straight away. Fast forward to the summer of 2011, I’m redoing the placement but I’m experiencing chronic back pain so bad I can barely walk. I’ve experienced chronic pain for a long time but at this point it is worse than it ever had been. I couldn’t finish the placement as I stopped being able to get out of bed. Fast forward again to January this year, I’ve been in a wheelchair and housebound for a year and had two spinal operations that failed to fix the pain and I’ve just been told that I’m unlikely to ever get better.

    So basically I’ve had a shitty three years and aside from being down for a few months around Dec 10, I’ve been ok mentally. This summer I started to spiral down, and last Friday I finally acknowledged that I wasn’t going back up. So I’ve doubled up on my meds (Mirtazapine which I think is a wonder drug seeing as it’s kept me level through all of this) and my GP has referred me for talk therapy. Over the weekend I was feeling really crappy, like I was even more of a burden to my partner now. Never mind my physical disability and the fact that he works full time, does all the cooking, shopping and housework and takes care of me, which includes drying me after a bath/shower and helping me dress, now he has to deal with my crying and whinging. Then I thought of Jenny and her ‘kick depression’s arse’ playlist and I decided I was going to make my own and that made me smile.

    September 30, 2013
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  25. Sophie
    Sophie

    (different, pseudonymous Sophie here)

    Hugs to you Jenny, and thanks for sharing. I know logic doesn’t work on depression, but sounds you’re doing a good job of trying to make the kind of behavioural changes they recommend – interrupting the pattern, questioning it, finding out what happens if you do something different when feeling a familiar feeling.

    I am lucky not to have OCD, but I do have terribly low self esteem and get regularly depressed, self harm, have suicidal thoughts, and so on. Many of the things I always feared would happen actually have happened – I’m convinced in some ways my self-hatred became self fulfilling, I didn’t believe I was good enough to have a happy marriage, so my depression sabotaged me there, etc, etc, etc. I think it’s too late for me, the only thing that could fix me would be a time machine, but I guess the one thing i can do is tell people to not be afraid to go and get help, to not wait and think they can get better by themselves, to believe that you are worth listening to and you do deserve help.

    September 30, 2013
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  26. Hey, I’ve been lurking here (drawn by your 50shades recaps, which are hilarious). Just wanted to say thanks for this post.

    Until about 10 years ago I had very low self esteem and crushing depression, mainly due to the sexual abuse I suffered as a child, and made worse by my out-of-control drinking.

    Although I managed to work my way out of that black hole… I sometimes forget what it’s like, to the point where I lose my patience with my (step)son, who has the same damn problems (although from different causes.)

    Thanks for reminding me just how fucking difficult it is to get out of these negative thought patterns. I’m going to show him your post and hope he can adapt your new patterns in a way that makes sense for him.

    October 8, 2013
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  27. Hey Jenny
    Thanks for the wonderful post. Your first list really resonates, from my own perspective, but also from other people for whom I care. I’ve said it before, but having a place where someone talks so openly and so descriptively about this horrible stuff is genuinely an amazing thing, so cheers 🙂
    And yay for dolphins, and for finding ways out…
    Mike

    October 9, 2013
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  28. Hi, you’re an awesome person even though you sometimes have low self esteem.

    Also, I’m Emma Watson’s age. She’s done all these amazing things and I…survive week to week on food & have trouble finding work. So there’s that. You’re also a highly respected blogger and links to your blog are all over my Facebook. So however down you feel, you have fans, outspoken and anonymous alike, who think you’re pretty awesome and it could be way worse

    April 18, 2015
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