At the time of my first hospitalization for depression and suicidal urges, during my junior year in college, I was badly broken by the loss of a relationship, again. The term ‘codependent’ was a hot new thing back then, so both in the hospital and subsequent residential treatment I was required to participate in addiction groups. I had no problems with substance use — I was just supposed to mentally substitute the idea of a boyfriend in the place of alcohol or drugs whenever they were mentioned by the group or in the reading materials. People kept telling me: “You can’t love anyone else until you love yourself.”
As someone who was raised to hate myself, I found that statement a vicious circle, a trap, one of the most depressing things ever. I was a psychology major and I knew enough about unconditional positive regard and secure attachment and so on to know that people don’t develop healthy self-concepts in a vacuum, they do so through loving relationships. What is a person supposed to do, then, if they didn’t receive what they’d need to love themselves, and therefore aren’t equipped to love others but only get addicted to them and hurt by them?
The impossible instructions I got were that I shouldn’t be allowed to become really attached to anyone until I had spent enough time alone to somehow figure out a way to love myself. OK, not entirely alone, because I could still have my therapist, and my addiction group. As if their alienating piles of pamphlets about alcohol and higher powers were going to comfort me, let alone help me feel something for myself that I didn’t know how to feel.
I felt that I was being criticized and blamed for still wanting relationships. I was being seen as leaving too large of a relationship footprint — after all, in my hand, a loving hand became nothing more than a dangerous substance! In this view, my basic need to connect with others was destroying more than it was helping, making me a burden. Seeing myself this way only strengthened my wish to die, and I started fantasizing about ways I could get myself killed and turned into food for homeless cats.
What I did instead was leave residential treatment with another patient, to start a life together – after we signed forms acknowledging that we were going against medical advice by doing so. Our relationship, which didn’t last, was difficult even from the very beginning. But it was a way out and a way forward for both of us.
I fully understand that people with low self-worth are in danger of being mistreated in relationships, and are unlikely to be able to enjoy or give as much healthy love as others without this vulnerability. Treatment should help us to get better at recognizing when we’re at risk and thriving when we’re not. But a treatment that teaches us we’re unfit to be in relationships is not going to improve our self-worth or our relationship skills. I was lucky to escape.