Tuesday, September 6, 2011

My self-esteem manifesto

This is the course of my self-esteem over my lifetime:

(Discontinuous at 20 because that's the year I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.  I was very confused and unable to assign numbers to anything.  The final value, at 31, is 1.)

And even though I can make an Excel graph of my self-esteem in two minutes, and play the flute like Wonder Woman (who is a secret flutist) after a month away, and draw good, and write good, and topple myself over with my jokes, and drill holes that don't suck, and work at being a good person every day, and get feedback that I am at least not a horrible person, and even though -- and you would think this would be a big one -- I have a handsome boyfriend with big muscles who apparently doesn't find me odious, I still can't stand being me.

Here is Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs:

Note Esteem at Level 4.  First, a few observations about Levels 1-3 (made with a grain of salt as I realize there are many theories of needs):

- Illness is on Level 2 as "security of health."  This is why pelvic pain can make your whole pyramid collapse even though it's not life-threatening.

- Sex can be unthinkable with pelvic pain, and it's on Level 1.  This is why not being able to have sex due to pain can make you feel like you're hardly alive.

- I am underemployed and managing moneywise, but I still feel like if I even glance at a coffee shop I might cease to exist.

- My workplace suffers from chronic bitchfest.  I'd love to write a whole blog post about it and how it is rotting my self-esteem, but that's for later.

According to Maslow, if Levels 1-3 are giving you trouble, Esteem, at Level 4, is going to be tough for you.  So, as I'm sure many of us have experienced, if you have constant coochie pain, you might hate yourself.  At least know that you're not alone in it.

I've designed my own hierarchy of Esteem needs:

When my face is getting smashed into the concrete by bipolar disorder (or anxiety), all other forms of esteem don't matter, even if they exist.  Like it really doesn't matter whether others are spitting on me if my face is sidewalk.  And when my face is sidewalk, it's hard to vacuum.

I have had to quit many things because of mental illness, and I'm afraid I'll never be able to do anything but waitress.  Lately I've been afraid it will dip even further and I will have to rely on someone else to maintain my existence.  This is one form of having your face smashed into concrete.

Another form is when anxiety has more of a say in your daily decisions than you do.

Pelvic pain and vulvodynia can also smash your face into the concrete.  I went through at least three years of that.

There is no way to experience this stuff and not feel weak.  Well, if you were enlightened, you could experience it without feeling weak, but as the pyramid demonstrates, if your face is sidewalk, you're much less likely to accomplish enlightenment.

The other day, lying in bed, I realized that my body knows how to handle bipolar disorder.  The problem is that what my body calls for and what the external world calls for are rarely congruent.

To make the body and the external world more congruent, we could reduce, reduce, reduce our lives until they hardly contain anything.  But when we do that, we also reduce opportunities to feel confident and to accomplish things, which are part of self-esteem.

I can provide no closure here.  All I can do right now is be patient with this self-esteem valley and make sure that any foothold I choose leads up.


  1. These reflections are quite refined, friend. Did that sound creepy? Did that sound Nancy Grace'ish? Apologies.

    I digress.

    I'm always amazed as to how people with bipolar disorder, particularly the more creative types, have a most organized, eloquent ability to describe and/or analyze their illness for others, however, an inherent inability to make sense of it ourselves--or at least find a "happy" medium and function well within that sense-- it just seems so out of reach because the rules of the game plan seem to shift so very often.

    I get it.

    Frankly, I think it's torture to be so self-aware, yet so splintered in self. Does that make sense?

    As one who also suffers with bipolar and chronic illness I'd like to thank you for plotting out what I sometimes find hard to makes sense of myself.

    Also, there should be a level known as "physicians who smash your face into the cement."

    By the way, I made a short film that explores this idea of "self." Perhaps you may find it relatable.



  2. jenji, what an awesome video! Impressive work, and it's so great that you took the time to make something people can relate to. I'm sure watching the video helps a lot.

    I appreciate that you cope with your...challenges? through art. I've been working lately at using creativity to process my own issues. It feels like it comes out through a funnel, so it can be frustrating!

  3. Esther, I'm writing a paper on self-esteem for a master's class and I'd love to include your graph at the top of the page. My professor might complain that it's unscientific but I argue that it's brilliant!