My journey to self-love only started a few years ago. I can remember the exact moment, the phone call, like it was yesterday. I was at work- as a waitress- on a split shift prepping for the evening dinner rush. What should have been a usual catch up became 22 years old me listening to my 18-year-old sister cry and plead that she needed help because she had developed anorexia. And while I didn't know it then, that's the exact moment the journey started, because in having to teach Natalie to love herself, I had to teach myself how to love me.
The next few weeks, as one might imagine, were an absolute heartbreak. My parents couldn't understand where they'd gone wrong. My dad blamed his own addictions for manifesting like this in his daughter, his baby; he should be able to protect her. We believed that if we came together close enough, worked with the right therapists and doctors; they could fix Natalie. We could fight the fight for her. With a family as close as ours, it was believable enough. As the eldest of three girls, Natalie seemed at times almost as much my baby as she is my parents'. We would have to advocate for and protect her when she wasn't strong enough. The three of us knew the inevitable, like a hushed reality only discussed behind closed doors. It was advised Natalie was at risk of stroke or cardiac arrest if we took the journey on our own. She would have to be checked into a rehabilitation clinic for those suffering from eating disorders.
Going to visit Natalie twice a week, once for family therapy, once for visiting hours, we were welcomed into a regimented world, yet a world overflowing with love. A love exuded by the staff managing the center and therapists, but even more so, the patients. The laughs, smiles and affectionate touches exchanged between the group, girls younger than Natalie and women older than my mom would inspire optimism in anyone lucky enough to witness. In hearing patients share their stories in center-wide group sessions, it became clear that the love they could give each other, they could not find to give themselves. Imprisoned by past traumas, addictions, mental health struggles, gendered expectations, they had lost the strength to build themselves up and put themselves out every day. The group would look to their neighbors with bright eyes and sincerity, to list things they loved about each other. Each onlooker wishing that, through some transitive property, the listener would soon start to believe the words shared.
In family therapy, the counsellor told us that Natalie's voice, the one that propped her up with good things and aspirations and dreams, was slowly being muted by "Ed's voice", the "eating disorder's voice". As the disease became stronger and Natalie became weaker due to its running course on her body and mind, it would be harder for her to hear the good things and even more so to believe them. Harder to find her self-love. Her voice only seemed loud when she extended her love to others, which was something she never ceased to do. We would sit together in our sessions, our conversations and growth aided by the counsellor; it was a space for us all to realize that our own voices needed to be stronger than that of our self-doubt. But also to realize that in restoring Natalie's voice, we would need to look in the mirror and love what we saw. When we entered our minds we would have to embrace the light and the dark. In helping Natalie to love herself, we all learned to love ourselves.
That summer Natalie walked away from the center with more spring in her step. Though, to say she was healed would take away from the complexities of her disease. And would diminish the fight she still had to face head-on; outpatient therapy, sticking to regimented eating, starting back up at school, continuing life as a 19-year-old. But her voice was stronger and while "Ed's voice" may never go away, its presence slowly deteriorated. It would be something to look back on, a memory. That Summer, Natalie and the group of patients around her taught us more about self-love than we could ever teach them. We were the lucky ones, cheering on the sidelines loud enough to sometimes deafen all self-doubt, helping to bring the person to victory, to that safety that self-love brings. We didn't have to fight every day to love ourselves inside and out. But we now understand that loving ourselves inside and out is crucial for survival.
Self-love is the voice that tells us we are enough as we are, that we are deserving of good things, that keeps us afloat when we feel like sinking. It's like a little fire that burns inside all of us. Some might call it joy. It's that twinkle in your eye when you feel tenacious, the burning in your muscles when you feel stronger, a laugh that won't be silenced or made small. It's something that can burn bright in us once we learn how to fuel it. It's something that can withstand strong winds and rain once we know how to reignite it, time and time again. And oftentimes, it takes someone else loving you and teaching you how to keep the flame burning bright. Natalie might say I did that for her, but I'd say that she did that for me, ten times more.
A journey to self-love is not an easy one, nor is it one that has an easy end, a definitive final point. It changes course daily. The ease of the journey is something that we have always been denied, stripped off of it by whatever idea that restricts the uniqueness that is bursting inside us all. Through this struggle, the discovery is that one of the greatest things about self-love is that it can be contagious. The flame inside you warms everyone that you touch.
Now, an ocean apart and almost six years to the date of that 2015 phone call, Natalie and I continue on our individual journeys to self-love, ones that we didn't realize at the time were so intertwined. We rely on each other's love and strength to build the other up. She's 24 now, with her last relapse years behind her. She has interned for the very center that laid the groundwork that allowed her self-loving voice to make its first shouts. The voice that became louder than before and conquered "Ed's voice", which was the only one she could hear for so long. She moves independently from me now, but in parallel. This year she will enter her first post-graduate role providing comprehensive support to patients with eating disorders.
Our dad always used to say, "let your light shine". Your flame. Your joy. Your self-love. Natalie lost that light for a little bit, but now I see it shining brighter than ever before. It beams on every corner of every room. Those around her bask in it. As for me, I'll continue to wake up every day and try my very best to love myself - inside and out. I will speak to myself kindly and embrace the uniqueness that is my own, even when it's pouring down rain. I will do my best to love everyone around me, to speak kindly and encourage them to embrace the beauty that is their own. I hope to spark that flame, one that they deserve to have ignited and to know well.