The Gift of Self-Care: How Recovery Taught Me to Love Myself

My issues with self-acceptance go all the way back to my early childhood. Before I was even 10 years old, I remember feeling worthless. This issue worsened during middle school and high school. It continued until my early adulthood when I was forced to confront this feeling of worthlessness during treatment. Today, acceptance, self-love and self-care are the foundation of my recovery.

No outlet for emotion

I’m the middle child. Growing up, I never felt I had a voice. I had no outlet for negative emotions—and I had a lot of those. Most of those negative emotions stemmed from a poor body image.

I was chubby until I went to camp one summer and returned thinner. Everything changed. I got compliments. Boys noticed me. And I loved it. Wanting more of those good feelings, I lost even more weight. In my early teenage years, I was hospitalized for an eating disorder, but I couldn’t stop seeking external validation – I craved any kind of attention, negative or not.

I soon discovered that alcohol boosted my mood and self-esteem. It quickly became a part of my attention-seeking rituals. The first time I drank, I chugged vodka until I was hospitalized. It was the first of the 12 hospitalizations I’d have from alcohol before I went to treatment at 20.

Somehow, though, I managed to get through high school and started college. I held it together - doing school work during the weekdays and binge drinking on the weekends. College also added a more lethal combination to the mix for me: Drugs and men.

By the time I sought treatment at Caron, I hated myself. I had starved myself, practically destroyed my body with alcohol and drugs, and engaged in sexual encounters with people I didn’t really care about -- all to fix something inside me that I didn’t even realize was broken.

Breaking through to self-love
It all became clear during my early days of treatment when I was in a group therapy session. We all had to share a secret. I decided to share trauma I never told anybody about before: I was abused in a toxic relationship. I told the whole story, and with it came all these emotions. I was crying and feeling so vulnerable. It was a beautiful thing. I took a leap and told people I’d only known for a month about a deep, dark secret. That session helped me realize that I needed to continue to address these experiences and feelings in therapy. I realized then that I deserved to love and respect myself and to expect to be treated that way by others. I also understood the role these issues played in my substance use disorder and that addressing them on an ongoing basis would support my overall recovery.

Defining self-love
Practicing self-love isn’t always easy – but it’s a critical component of my recovery. I established a foundation for self-love to support my continued growth. Some examples include:

Being vulnerable. For me, vulnerability was the path to self-acceptance. Sometimes, we look at vulnerability as a weakness; as if showing emotion or crying is weak. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. When someone’s confiding in me, telling me the truth about how they feel, it just shows me how strong they are.

Being accountable. Before treatment, any strong emotion would drive me to want a drink immediately. I need to hold myself accountable to keep from moving backwards, but I must also remember that accountability is positive. Being accountable doesn’t mean punishment. Today, as I work toward my master’s degree, if I don’t get the mark I want, I’m not going to drink over it. Instead, I say, “Okay, what went wrong? How can I move forward?” I acknowledge my mistakes without dwelling on them and I also accept that I’m human and not perfect.

Drawing boundaries. I was often taken advantage of, because I never wanted to hurt anybody else. The problem was, I was the one being hurt because I didn’t know how to draw a boundary. For example, after six months at Caron, I would periodically visit my family in another state. My family and friends wanted to spend time with me, but I also knew I had to make time for my meetings. I didn’t want them to feel rejected, but I was able to recognize that not going to meetings would be detrimental to my recovery. Voicing my needs created healthy boundaries.

Identifying what works best for you. Recovery is all about honesty. So is self-love. You can’t move forward and truly love yourself if you can’t be honest about what best supports your recovery and what makes you vulnerable to relapse. For example, I know I must be mindful about my use of social media. Many social posts are perfectionistic – with a significant focus on women’s bodies – and that can be a relapse trigger for me. I choose to engage with family and loved ones in the ways that are healthiest for me.

Putting self-care into practice Sometimes, remembering to take care of yourself is easier said than done. The four pillars of self-care are: Sleep, nutrition, exercise, and social support. I try to remind myself of this and prioritize the following activities:

  • Hitting the gym. No matter how busy I am, I try to do some type of exercise. I maximize this time by turning off my cell phone entirely and getting into my zone.
  • Repeating positive affirmations. Daily, I look at myself in the mirror and repeat things that I like about myself. This practice helps boost self-esteem and replace negative thoughts with positive feelings of self-love.
  • Helping others. Whether in my 12-step group or through Caron, I try to be present in other people’s lives. Being there for others boosts my self-esteem, self-worth, and self-value. Three and a half years ago, I didn’t know if I was going to live. Today I can help others understand they can recover and lead healthy and productive lives.
  • Maintaining a support network. My treatment program at Caron was rooted in accountability, so it’s critical for me to have an ongoing support system, including friends, my 12-step group and my therapist, who offer feedback in real-time if they have concerns about my behavior.

I’ve come a long way in my recovery journey. I’m alive today because treatment gave me tools to approach life in a healthy and constructive way. I also learned to love myself and invest in my self-care. I know now that I don’t have to accept and react to the critical voices in my head. I can acknowledge them and then take the steps necessary to redirect myself in a positive way. We all deserve to be treated with kindness and respect – by ourselves and others. So, to everyone reading this – I want you to know that you too are worthy, you are lovable.

A man and a woman leaning on each other

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