text and artwork by BRAD PHILLIPS
1 I have seen many therapists over the course of my adult life. Here are some of the modalities I have explored:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Behavioral Activation Therapy
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
One thing that came up in each modality (except DBT, which is the only therapy that has ever worked for me) was the idea of self-love. I have to love myself before I can love anyone else.
Brad, do you love yourself?
The answer I always give them is no. I don’t. I don’t love myself.
Part of my reasoning is the second part of the compound word “my- self.” To love “myself” means that I ascribe first and foremost to the idea of a “self,” which philosophically I do not. It might sound absurd to some people, but millions of smiling Asian monks for thousands of years would say, “Right on, Brad,” or some equivalent.
Blathering about the linguistics of the self and esoterica, however, is ultimately boring. In truth, I’m an abstraction to myself, as is “love” — an ineffable thing that language is insufficient to define with any measure of accuracy. When I look in the mirror, I do not see a person so much as I see a construction composed of billions of particles, thousands of projections, and my own highly selective memories (which are often inaccurate, as memory is imperfect and manipulable). My putative “self” is a tall, quickly aging biped named Brad, who has told himself a certain narrative over 40-plus years that he calls “Brad.” An example of the unreality of self is that I do not relate to the name “Brad,” a word that describes me but feels like an ill-fitting suit. I had no choice in the name I was given, and that name to a large extent dictates how others view me, as “Brad” is a rather jock- like, date-rapey name.
Nothing in my narrative tells me to love myself. It often tells me to do otherwise, but I can ignore that feeling as it is also unreal — my occasional self-loathing is another construct initiated by projections and curated memories.
This is a paradox.
While I can say with absolute certainty that I do not love myself, I can say with equal certainty that I do not hate myself. When considering “Brad,” I feel complete neutrality. I feel about myself exactly the same as I feel about the stack of four books facing me while I type this; I recognize their existence, their function, their texture, color, weight, and overall composition. I do not imbue these objects with emotions. I may have feelings about what’s contained in those books, as I do about what’s contained in me, but would not say those feelings amount to love.
I call “bullshit” on the idea that to love someone else, I must first love myself. My wife Cristine can attest to the fact that I love her very much (for proof that my wife feels overwhelmingly loved by me, she can be contacted at c____h1@gmail. com), that she feels it deeply and does not question it — that, in fact, she’s never felt so loved in her life. How can I do that if I don’t love myself? I think in part I can do it by my rejection of self-love because when I love my wife, I don’t think about myself. I don’t love my wife as a reflection of my own ego.
People have tried to convince me that I do love myself, despite my being the primary expert on the topic. Here are some of the reasons I am told that I’m mistaken in insisting that I do not love the rental vehicle I experience this life in, a vehicle which is named “Brad”:
I decided eight years ago to get sober, as I was rapidly dying.
I exercise six days a week, and I eat healthy food.
I take my psychiatric medication without fail, knowing that it assists me in navigating life, a life that was, by the way, foisted on me without my permission.
I take multiple vitamins every day. I attend therapy so as to feel better, behave better, and experience more joy during my time on earth.
I do not engage in any behaviors that would cause me harm. I no longer engage in physical fights. I do not participate in dangerous sports such as BASE jumping or free climbing (both of which I would very much like to try and only avoid because I don’t want Cristine to have to go through the experience of finding out I’ve suddenly died in a gruesome manner).
I don’t rob banks, steal cars, or do anything else that would antagonize the police.
They say that if I do these healthy things, it means I love myself because I am caring for myself.
But the above examples are not proof of self-love. Instead, they represent ways in which I try to extend my lifespan because I (presently) enjoy living, and the longer I’m alive, the more I can love others.
I have an infinite capacity for love and feel it deeply, to the point that I cry watching a ladybug drink a raindrop from the leaf of a magnolia tree.
I love Olivier Zahm, who commissioned this article, although we’ve only hung out a handful of times.
I love Henri Matisse, whom I never met, because he increased the amount of beauty in the world.
I love the man, whose name I do not know, who has been selling me cigarettes daily for the past four years because he smiles at me, appears to be a decent and friendly man, and is kind to me, sometimes suggesting I quit smoking, even though were I to do so, it would negatively affect his income.
2 All things in this life are abstractions, which people whittle down to the point that they feel like absolute truths. Time itself is a construct, one that, were we to reject it, would decrease our suffering immeasurably, as we would worry less about the appearance of aging (or, in relation to our careers, “I should be more accomplished for my age”), as well as the innate fear most people experience in relation to their own mortality. Time is the cruelest imposition human beings are forced to live under.
I have been married twice before. I felt loved in those relationships because I did not know what love was. I did not feel loved as a child. A woman wanted to have sex with me, she laughed at my jokes and enjoyed my company, therefore she must love me, therefore I must marry her.
What was different in those relationships versus what is different in my current (and last) marriage is that I was a narcissistically self-obsessed addict. I demanded that my spouses tolerate my endless intolerability. They saw me as a “project” that could be “fixed,” and while I knew that I could not be fixed, I allowed them to believe I could because I enjoyed their company, their jokes, their attention, and the sexual pleasure I experienced with them.
That was not love — that was an enormous engagement with my ego, laziness, and disingenuousness. People love a rescue puppy because they see it has suffered and want to help it. They do not love the dog per se, so much as they love the idea of fixing the dog because fixing the dog will help them feel like “good” people, so again, this primarily comes down to love as a self- serving notion.
Being sober when I met Cristine, I was an entirely different person. Whereas in the past, I would latch onto the first woman who showed interest in me, when I met Cristine, she was living in China. I did not get to smell her, see her in person, or many of the other things that in the past would lead me to immediately latch onto a woman. Cristine was the first person I got to know, and through getting to know her, and her not having to deal with my spending my money on dope or her worrying about whether I’d be dead one morning, I could devote more and more time to listening to her, with a genuine interest in getting to know who she was as an individual also dealing with the experience of being alive.
There was nothing within me to hate because I was focused on another person. Coming to love Cristine was akin to taking a vacation from myself. She does not reflect back to me what I treasure most — sympathy, patience in the face of things that one should not be expected to have patience for … the list is endless.
So, while I still cannot define what “love” is, I can say that I now recognize my past experiences of love to be nothing more than simulacra. I do not ask Cristine to change, and she does not ask me to change. Acceptance is the answer to all of our problems, Narcotics Anonymous tells me.
The process of loving someone is the process of allowing yourself to be dismantled, to enjoy seeing the thing called “self” you’ve been brutally encased in become so much dust and fly away. I don’t feel proud of myself for loving Cristine — I feel grateful for the opportunity to love her. That I want to live and am healthy now is not an example, as I’ve been told, that I love myself. Instead, it means that I want to be the best version of the horribly named “Brad” that I can be, so that the woman who appeared in my life out of the blue can experience as much love as I am able to rain down on her.
And it is always raining down on her.