I have spent five decades of life denying my needs. I was raised to believe it was selfish to take care of me. As an active alcoholic, I practiced a great deal of self-hatred. Being gay in the family and society and time I was taught me self-loathing. I had little chance to learn to love me.

I have often heard it said that we each have to take care of us. In early sobriety, I was told this was not true for me. I was told I had spent many years drinking in a selfish way. Loving and appreciating my strengths was denied me. It now appears to me this was another Puritanical way to get me to practice more self-hate.

Today, I embrace the idea that I must love me first. I have to open my eyes and recognize my beauty and be happy about it. Anything less than loving me first is a disservice to me and my family and friends.

A long friendship of mine ended recently. Learning to love me first played a role in my realization that this relationship was unhealthy for me. It was a relationship born between two people who were unequal. One was the superior and the other the inferior. Over the years, we made changes to try to equalize us, but I was never able to release my inferiority. The fault of that lay strictly with me.

As I have grown over the last several years beginning to love me, I grew uncomfortable in my inferior role. Recently, I witnessed myself being abused by passive-aggressive behavior and manipulation. For the first time ever, I spoke up and stated firmly that I recognized this abuse and that I rejected it. My friend was misusing me.

I reject abuse. I am worthy of respect. I am lovable.

Those simple words have been foreign to me my whole life. I was acculturated early in life to believe I was vile and subhuman, because I was gay. I turned for solace to alcohol and became its slave. After the psychiatrist told me I had bipolar disorder, I felt the natural shame that accompanies a diagnosis with mental illness.

I lived my whole life hating me.

As I sit writing these words, I turn away from self-hate. I embrace self-love. I give me permission to love me first. My hope is by loving me I will be able to love others more freely and completely.

It has been a week since the end of my long friendship that was based in an old way of self-hate. In this time, I have spent hours ruminating over my part of our relationship and its end. I can say I feel free now. I walk taller. I am lighter.

It’s funny. With my new decision to try life loving me first, I find I look at others differently. I care more. I wish to cause less pain. I want to give love.

Finding Stability

Bipolar illness is — I’m sorry for the cliche — a roller coaster. There are periods of slower ratcheting up to highs that catapult a sufferer into the depths. The rush of the ride provides momentary exhilaration but is always followed by the hollow feeling of the pits that drag the stomach down. What’s more, the person with the illness doesn’t realize it’s possible to live without the constant highs and lows.

When manic, I am exuberant. Colors are brighter. My nose is more sensitive to anything around. I want to hear words of praise for whatever I might be engaged in. I want music, and interestingly, it can be quiet and soothing. It doesn’t have to be raucous and loud. I want to eat. I like spicy food or the flood of good chocolate melting around my mouth or a piece of crisp toast flooded with ever-so-slightly-salty butter. And I want hugs. Touch becomes important. Clothes have weight, and I feel them. I don’t just dress. I adorn myself.

Depression slows the whole organism. Senses become dull. Simple routines are hurdles to overcome. The example for me is brushing my teeth. When I find I neglect that small chore, I know I’m sliding down the slope. Most importantly, my mind turns on itself.

Negative thoughts abound. They are present on awakening. I hear them when I look in the mirror. Turning the corner from the living room into the hallway, they bounce to the front of my mind. It’s not something that can be battled with affirmations. If reciting happy ideas would rid me of these horrendous voices, I would never have had to endure them even once.

In my eleven years since I was diagnosed bipolar type one, I have been hospitalized four times for psychotic breaks, suicide attempts, and suicidal thoughts. A person isn’t admitted to the hospital for biting his nails. I applied for and now receive government benefits that provide me a means to live. I cannot work a normal job. Government benefits for mental illness are notoriously hard to come by and require a long wait. Mine came in a short six months revealing a bit of something about my case.

My distant past was fueled by alcohol, which ceased to be a remedy for me a very long time ago. Once that fog lifted, mental illness rushed to the foreground. Stress on almost any level stops me in my tracks nowadays. If positive thinking is not enough, if prayer is not the answer, if herbal remedies won’t suffice, where then is the fix to the conundrum?

Happily, it’s in a mixture of modern medicine, vigilant self-help, and heavy reliance on a tried and true network of support. I rely on medicine to help regulate the highs and lows of my condition. It works. It’s been proven. I know in my experience that taking medication for bipolar illness far outweighs the alternative. I help me by practicing some simple strategies for coping with the extremes. I try to remain logical when I’m manic. I vociferously question those negative voices that hound me. I exercise, which may be one of the most important components of all. I meditate. It’s not a formal religious ceremony. It’s something that centers me and gives me a safe place to go in a troubled mind.

Then there’s therapy. After 26 years of it, I’m sold on its benefits. I get the advantage of sitting with a professional who is not emotionally attached to my situations and hearing sound words of help and solace and encouragement and even chastisement but never judgement.

I’ve come a very long way when I look back over the years. I’ve survived self-hatred and self-loathing that have come close to killing me on a number of occasions. I’ve rid myself of fears that spotted the inside of my eyelids with angry points of lights. I’m continuing to work on filling my life with substance and meaning.

I am an active participant in my own existence today.

A New World

I’m turning over a new leaf. I’m starting fresh. I’m dusting off my dancing shoes. I’m starting over.

“It’s a new dawn. It’s a new day. It’s a new life for me, and I’m feelin’ good.”

Wait. Those are cliches and the lyrics of a song.

And they are exactly how I feel. I did something life-altering today. I cleaned out a little corner of my Internet. I deleted all my accounts on dating sites. They were bringing me nothing but worry. I was using them as a way to reach out and getting nothing in return but confusion and heartache.

There is a man I started emailing more than 8 months ago. We then began talking on the phone. We met for coffee. We had a meal together at a restaurant. We’ve been taking things very slowly. We have not yet visited each others’ houses. I have no idea where this will lead.

I told him after we’d known each other for about 2 months that I was a recovered alcoholic. He took it in stride.

After another month, I let it be known that I was bipolar. He did not run screaming from the room.

Is he a good mate for me? Only time will tell the answer to that question.

I’ve been talking to my therapist about sex a lot lately. We’ve also talked about my dating habits and men I’ve been attracted to. In the past, I’ve felt lust strongly for men who were unavailable either by marriage or emotionally. I’ve also fallen heavily for men with some kind of defect, especially emotional ones.

This new man is healthy physically, mentally, and emotionally, which scares me to death. A friend and I laughed about that last bit. We are both in the throes of potentially healthy relationships, and we’re both scared by it. It’s exhilarating to know that I’m not alone.

It’s also good to know I have the assistance of friends to talk to. I can open my closets to them, and they can dust out the cobwebs and the skeletons. I’ve spoken to my caseworker about my budding relationship, and he’s asked pointed questions and is supportive. My best friend knows and is happy for me. My therapist steers me in healthy directions.

As far as having a relationship is concerned, I’m a youngster. I’m new at it. Yes, I was married, but I was drunk. Without the veil of alcohol, I’m growing up and experiencing things that most gay men do in their teens. In some ways, I feel like I haven’t had my first kiss yet. The anticipation is electric.

Life Changes

I recently celebrated a milestone and have had some time to think about my life before and after.

Before sobriety, diagnosis, and treatment:

• I dreamt of suicide and thought of it daily.

• I had self-loathing down to a tee. I’m gay, and I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian household, which taught me deep hatred.

• My relationships were not longstanding. I had fiery, quick friendships that lasted as long as the interest was fresh whether it was physical or about some mutual subject.

• I quit two high-paying jobs that had real potential to take me to greater heights of accomplishment and high status.

• I used money foolishly to attract people.

• I abused alcohol passionately.

After sobriety, diagnosis, and treatment:

• I just celebrated 13 years of sobriety. I have learned in that time to find peace and serenity by living day-to-day and concentrating on the present.

• I live frugally on disability and am quite happy with it. The money I have is little, and I don’t begrudge my desires for small luxuries like ice cream or a new shirt off eBay.

• While I don’t presently work because of my disability, I serve on the board of directors of a small theater group and am intimately active in it. I act, direct, and manage productions. I am a stalwart member of the group.

• I have great relationships with my children from my marriage that I thought would make me straight. I even have a really good relationship with my ex-wife. I have true friends I can turn to in times of need.

• I no longer hate my homosexuality. I embrace it. I’m fabulous. I am a proud, out gay man, and I take part in activities that support equality in my community and my country.

• I don’t have suicidal ideation today. I was hospitalized for it recently, and that was during a mixed episode of severe mania. I went to the hospital voluntarily to stabilize my medications.

I am lucky. I have never doubted my mental illness. When I was diagnosed in 2001, it was something of a relief to me. I finally had a name for the pain that I was feeling, and I knew there was treatment for it. I began to take the medication right away and have never faltered.

I also believe wholeheartedly in talk therapy. I’ve been seeing the same therapist since 1997. She knows me inside and out and can quickly point out where I need work. She makes me do the work, too. She sugarcoats nothing.

My life continues to improve day by day. I’m happy to be here today, and regular readers of this blog know that’s another milestone.

Bipolar Dating

All persons seek intimacy and romantic connection. I came out late in life at 35, and I spent a lot of time chasing men for sexual gratification. I’m now 48 and ready to date. It’s complicated, because I live in a rural, remote area. The available gay men are few and far between.

I’m being disingenuous. I’ve dated in those years between 35 and now. There has always been a question about when to reveal the unpleasant truths. I’m a recovered alcoholic. I’m bipolar. I dated one man for nine months before telling him. This was a period when I was completely stable, too. I told him. He vanished. It hurt.

That has repeated many times. We get close. I open up. They leave. I hurt. I now tell potential partners early in the dating process about my troubles. It reduces my pain. This happens with all kinds of relationships. Acquaintances. Friends. Lovers. I tell people I’m bipolar, and they leave. I can count on my two hands the number of people I’ve told who haven’t left, and it doesn’t take many fingers on the second hand to complete the list. I’ve become very selective about telling people.

I’m putting myself out into the dating world again in hopes of finding someone intelligent who will look at the actions and not the diagnosis. I’m looking for someone who can see me stable and unstable but managing my disability. It seems that’s hard to find. First, gay men often consider exteriors before looking at interiors, and I’m not the picture of brawny masculinity. I’m pudgy. Some of my medication causes weight gain.

I put an advertisement on a local personals list and got a handful of replies. I didn’t mention bipolar. I was honest and open about many things, including the fact I have children and their needs are important. I put my status as a recovered alcoholic. I also included that I didn’t want to date people who abuse alcohol and drugs, even marijuana. Where I live, that rules out 99% of gay men. Marijuana is quite prevalent.

Of the replies I received, one immediately asked for a picture alerting me to his penchant for brawn over brains. Another tried almost immediately to get me to move to a nearby city even though I clearly stated being near my children was important. He even sent pictures of his large, waterfront home luring me with the idea of luxury. My thought was “Next!” Another very interesting one who lives locally emailed me once and disappeared.

Someone new to the area caught my attention looking for friends. He’s partnered. We’re carrying on a very nice email correspondence. I’ve got another who lives an hour and a half away, and the last one lives nearby, but he’s been slow to reply. We’ll see where it all goes, and we’ll see with each one whether or not I choose to be open and when.

If one of these turns out to be someone special, I’ll have to tell them what the medicine bottles in the cabinet are for. I remain hopeful that he won’t turn and run for the door at that point. I am ever hopeful.

Short and Sweet

Another good thing I learned early in sobriety, when my house was a mess just like my life, was the following:

Sitting in an A.A. meeting, a newly sober person asked – quite seriously – how to clean his house.

A person with many years of sobriety suggested that when he went home, he pause just before entering, take two deep breaths, and then open the door. The suggestion continued that whatever his eyes lighted on first, he should clean. If it was a table piled with junk, clear it. If it was a sink of dishes, wash them. If it was a dirty floor, sweep it.

The idea was to concentrate on doing one thing at a time. I use this technique, too, and it works. I’m not capable of concentrating on cleaning my whole house, but I can clean one spot at a time.

One thing at a time.

More Meditative Dish Washing

When I was newly sober, my concentration was nonexistent. Guess what? Over twelve years later and with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, it is still not good.

Today, Sunday, was a lazy one spent on the computer and catching up with family members on the phone. I made a quick run to the store for milk and tea, and all the pretty things on the shelves kept me sidetracked. On the computer, it was so easy to open eBay and browse the fun things to bid on. I can get lost in the world of books on Amazon, too. Did you know they have over 15,000 free books there? (Check the Kindle free collection.) Project Gutenberg has twice that many, and there’s with a million. There is so much to look at. My mind boggles.

Feeling frenetic, I threw together a sandwich and salad for dinner and wolfed it down. I began clearing the dishes in a frenzy and knocked about the kitchen. I had the kettle on. I had the water on, heating up for washing. I had music coming from the living room. I had my mind racing about things utterly unrelated.

Suddenly, I stopped. I could feel my heart racing, and I was doing nothing strenuous. I had worked myself into a lather.

I took a deep breath and another, in through the nose and out through the mouth. I paused.

I filled the dishpan with hot water, and I began a familiar exercise. Out loud, I said, “I’m picking up the silverware. I’m dumping it in the water. I’m reaching in the water. I’m scrubbing the spoon. I’m rinsing the spoon. I’m putting the spoon in the drainer. I’m reaching in the water. I’m scrubbing the…”  With each motion, I announced the action.

I call this meditation.

Like sitting still and releasing, the act of pronouncing precisely what I’m doing as I’m doing it clears my brain. All I can hold in my mind are the words. I lose the racing thoughts. The rampant desires of shopping are forgotten. The million books lose their place. It’s all replaced by warm, sudsy water engulfing my hands.

My mind becomes filled with the actions, and I am free of turmoil. It seems ridiculous at first. Talking to yourself is frowned upon by most people. When it’s done with a purpose, however, it works wonders.

After the final, “I’m rinsing the plate. I’m placing the plate in the drainer,” I came away calm. Gone was the stress and the racing heart rate.

I’ve used this technique to calm myself down on many occasions, and once when I was particularly distressed, I even took clean dishes out of the cupboard just to have something to wash. I’ve used it performing other tasks, too. It forces focus and clears the mind. It’s wonderful.