I Had Accolades, But I Wasn’t Filling My Own Cup

This story originally ran on Medium.

by Marcus Harrison Green

As someone whose profession makes constant demands to traffic in reality, I can tell you that too often this world and our society is repulsed by the very notion of the truth.

It’s more convenient to live in belief of a world inherently fair and just, than it is to confront one where patriarchy and racism might lose a round or two but whose record ultimately stands undefeated.

It’s easier to believe in a life where everything you’ve received has solely been the product of your own labor, than it being just one in a multitude of variables such as luck and privilege adding to your equation.

It’s easier to believe that you are who others advertise you to be, as opposed to who you are when there is no one watching. It’s so much easier to prefer smoke over the flame.

Delusion… delusion is the most powerful intoxicant in the world, and it has no more powerful variant than self-delusion.

I found this out myself the primary way many people learn: The hard way.

It was on a day not so far in the past, when I had hit my darkest point in life, ironically, at a moment when, career-wise, I couldn’t have flown higher.

I had accolades, awards and acclaim for my writing. I had a sterling reputation to people outside my tight-knit circle and a photogenic smile that defrosted the most stoic curmudgeons. I was called a future leader destined for big things in life.

But beneath the surface was a hollowness. Beneath, there was a numbness that no amount of social justice treatises I wrote, speeches I gave, or stories I covered could fill.

And so I attempted to fill that with anything and anyone that made me feel alive… made me feel anything at all.

An over-reliance on alcohol and other people to provide me with wholeness, soon turned into a dependence on them.

And that dependency gradually led to a series of days when I hurt someone I loved… someone I love. Thankfully, the hurt wasn’t physical… but the pain from a betrayal of trust and of constant emotional exploitation can wound deeply.

Emotionally exhausted, she finally asked that I never speak to her again in life.

Yet again, I had hurt someone I cared for. Yet again, I had tried to explain away my behavior and actions as problems with the other person.

But something was different this time, after so many years I couldn’t easily dismiss these things away. I couldn’t sit with myself without shaking to the core with pain. In fact I couldn’t sit with myself at all. I was terrified of any invitation for introspection.

Instead, I engaged in self-hatred: I’m always going to be destined to repeat this; I’m always going to hurt the people I care about most; my closest relationships will always unravel.

For years I had battled deep depression. For years I had not accepted my diagnosis of bipolar disorder. For years I thought the best treatment for such things I knew, but didn’t want to believe I had, was to self-medicate with them away with alcohol and the grace other people loaned me.

Neither worked anymore though. And there was only one way out of this nightmare for me.

My mother will tell you that it was God who told her to come back to the house that day. I’m still not quite sure if he exists or not, but if he does, it had to be him who gave her the speed to run up and cut the power cord I had attached to my neck … to end my life.

At the hospital she cupped my hand in hers for what seemed like forever at the time, before she finally said: I love you with all my hurt. I love you unconditionally with all your flaws, and all your pain, but I can’t love you as much as you can love yourself. No one can.

Can you love yourself? She asked.

My response: I don’t know. I’ve never tried before.

You see I had become conditioned by life to derive my value and worth vicariously through external mediums.

It’s an easy trap to fall into when you survive a rich, predominantly white educational institutions and a profession where you’ll never be white enough or rich enough to fully be accepted. And so you learn early on to don a personality that will steer you as proximate as possible to those things.

It’s easy to be snared into that mindset when you grow up in a poor area of the city, and because of your different social experience due to the private schools and music you listen to, you’re never considered black enough… and so everyday the school bus drops you a mile away from your home, you have to fight, because another teen thinks you are better than them.

And so you grow tired of fighting, you code switch your language, replicate troublesome behavior and do whatever it takes to be fully absorbed into crowd.

Different circumstances, but always the same message: you as you are not deserving of acceptance. You as you are are not deserving of love.

And to deserve those things, you must be anything other than what you are in your rawest and most honest form.

The habit of seeking outside validation, and value proves a heavy chain to break as you get older.

You learn how much simpler is to adapt to your surroundings, to repeal any didactic discomfort, to disengage from any challenges to your sacred self-image that has been crafted by the consensus of external actors.

To do anything else would spark an internal civil war, an inner mutiny too painful to undertake.

And so what we do becomes who we are. Our status becomes who we are. Our accomplishments become who we are. Our performative “wokeness” becomes who we are. Our profession becomes who we are.

So much so that we would be lost and forget who we are without those flimsy tags marking us.

My badge read “person who wanted to make the world a better place. Who saw all this suffering, all the pain, all the oppression, all the hopelessness, and wanted to swoop in with my cape and elevate as much of it as I could.

I still believe wholeheartedly in the nobleness of those goals, and continue to dedicate a good chunk of my life to that work.

But you see, in my rush to save the burning building called this world, I didn’t recognize until it was almost too late that I myself was on fire.

I had compassion, kindness, and magnanimity but had none left for myself. I allowed myself to be pulled in a thousand different directions, coming to others rescue while endangering myself.

I remember one day, I was surrounded by hundreds of people celebrating the accomplishments of a publication I had started. They greeted me with praise on their tongues, and joy in their hearts. And yet, I had never felt so lonely in my life. I couldn’t stand myself. I hated myself. Better to escape him through heavy drinking then spend any time with him.

But after the experience with my mother, heaven sent as she was or not, I realized I had a long overdue rendezvous with myself that I had been dreading for a decade.

Sitting with myself, alone, from everyone else, was terrifying. It was time of thorough, comprehensive self-examination.

It was a one on one with reality, and I didn’t always like what reality told me. Because you see reality owes us no comfort, no pleasure, and no satisfaction. I think that’s why too many of us choose to rarely deal with it, when it comes to applying a microscope on ourselves.

But the thing about being terrified and afraid, is that it’s an opportunity to cultivate courage and strength.

The only time we can be courageous is when we are scared. The only time we can demonstrate strength is when we face weakness.

It was how I learned to accept myself. To no longer be at war with who I was.

Being BiPolar means everyday is an adventure lived intentionally and deliberately. It’s hard to be captive to a mind that regularly betrays you, when you’re actions at the most inopportune moments feel authored by another person. You ultimately have to surrender to the fact that you can’t willpower your way out of it. You have to do the arduous work of managing it.

When you’re sad, you pour tears. When you’re angry you combust, and when you’re happy you glow.

It takes a special person to love me.

But after 36 years I’ve finally found someone willing to try.

I wake up inside of him everyday.

And the love he gives is clearly defined. You see the love he gives is not harmless, no it is threatening.

Because the love he gives crumbles away all the untruth. It sees through facades and pretenses, and artifices I’ve constructed to get along through life.

The love he gives knows that I will never be perfect but I am seeking improvement. It knows that I will never please everyone but I can still impact who I can. It knows that my knowledge of the lived experiences of others different from me will never be fully complete but I will make up the gap in my education.

It holds me accountable to live life as the best possible version of myself, armed with humility, grace, thoughtfulness, and most of all an immense reverence for honest self-assessment.

It tells me with all my flaws, with all my pain, with all my broken vows, with all my mistakes, abnormalities, and multitude of sins, that I am worthy of love.

It took me so, so long to believe that, to know that. For that to become my reality. But I am so, so glad it is. Because when that’s your reality, you learn to face the day and this world so much differently. You learn to meet it not where it’s at, but for it to meet you where you’re at.

In a state of loving transformation.

It’s love that saved me, that changed me, that propels me this day. Where I was tiny, it’s made me feel huge.

We can not change this world without changing and loving ourselves first. As bad as things may be, this world can wait just a little while longer for you to save yourself.

I wish you true love.

Featured Image: Marcus Harrison Green gave it all, but at the expense of himself. (Image: “Tea Tasting Cups #2” by A Girl With Tea is licensed under CC BY 2.0.)

Marcus Harrison Green is a Seattle journalist who co-founded the South Seattle Emerald. He regularly writes about social movements, juvenile justice and American society.

4 thoughts on “I Had Accolades, But I Wasn’t Filling My Own Cup”

  1. Marcus, thank you so much for sharing your story. It takes real strength to tear down the props and stand, naked and vulnerable, before the world, come what may. But in doing so, you open the floodgates for others to also stand up for themselves, as they are. We are all such intricately made creatures, such a mixture of brilliant and flawed. Your decision to love yourself will change the world–one person at a time. May we each stand up, as we are, and declare: I am lovable and beloved, and so are you!

  2. Dear Marcus, we have your back. We love you, love your commitment to this community, your commitment to justice and I, for one, will keep you, your well-being and the fulfillment of your potential in my prayers starting today. Yes, there is a God, but may not be a “HE”, is surely not a punishing, bearded white man in the sky, but is a force that is real and, it appears to me, is working in your life. I think your charge may be to trust that last part and I suspect your Mom & others have been telling you that for a few years.

    A Prayer

    Refuse to fall down.
    If you cannot refuse to fall down,
    refuse to stay down.
    If you cannot refuse to stay down,
    lift your heart toward heaven,
    and like a hungry beggar,
    ask that it be filled,
    and it will be filled.
    You may be pushed down.
    You may be kept from rising.
    But no one can keep you
    from lifting your heart
    toward heaven —
    only you.
    It is in the middle of misery
    that so much becomes clear.
    The one who says nothing good
    came of this,
    is not yet listening.

    Clarissa Pinkola Estés

    Your Brother,