How Does a 50-Something Rocker Guy Learn to Love Himself?

How Does a 50-Something Rocker Guy Learn to Love Himself?


Patrick O'NeilIt was at one of my first NA meetings, when I was newly clean off drugs, feeling really awkward, and all I wanted to do was use. I had just walked down the wheelchair ramp into the large basement meeting room of the church and, recognizing no one, immediately wandered over to the table with the coffee and cookies. There was a large woman setting up the paper cups, stir sticks, little packs of sugar, and that horrible powdered nondairy creamer. I went to grab a cup but before I could, the large woman handed me one.

“Hi I’m Melanie,” she said. “You new?”

“Thanks,” I mumbled as I filled the cup with steaming hot coffee from the metal urn. “Um, yeah, I’m new.”

“Welcome,” said Melanie. “You never have to use drugs again.”

I wanted to tell Melanie to shut the fuck up. I wanted to scream that I loved using drugs, I just didn’t love going to jail, or getting abscesses on my arms, or being homeless, or the million other consequences from using that I couldn’t think of but had lived through too many times over the years. Yet the best snappy retort I could manage was, “Uh huh. Is that so?”

“I know it’s hard right now,” continued Melanie. “But stick around. We’ll love you until you learn to love yourself.”

Her words were so foreign I couldn’t comprehend them. Learn to love myself, I thought, what the hell does that even mean? All I wanted to do was to be left alone, but at the same time I wanted sympathy and understanding. It was the typical conflicting duality of addiction at work in my brain; I need a hug, but don’t touch me.

Still I couldn’t understand why Melanie, a complete stranger, was being so nice. Plus all my relationships with women had been about sex, not love, and any kind of talk about love, self or otherwise, with a member of the opposite sex was really awkward. Feeling incredibly self-conscious, I avoided her attempts at eye contact, grabbed a handful of cookies and ran away without saying another word.

Over the years I would hear about self-love at meetings and my reaction would always be the same: I can love you, I can love the entire universe, my cats, my girlfriend, my family, even my damn car, but when it comes to loving myself…well, that was a deal breaker.

There was something just too foreign about the concept. Like that astral plane one achieves by mediating in an ashram for 20 years, it felt out of my league. I had no idea how to achieve it, and really I didn’t even want to try.

Back when I was a client in rehab, I was required to attend a few sessions with a therapist and when we stumbled onto my lack of self love, she insisted that every morning I do positive affirmations where I was to look in the mirror and tell myself what a great person I was and that I deserved love. The one time I tried it, I balked. It felt so disingenuous that I couldn’t do it. My usual morning mantra consisted of a much different sentiment: “You’re fat, you’re stupid, you’re ugly and nobody loves you.” There was no room in that crowded stanza of negativity for loving myself, so I just gave up and never really dealt with it again.

Yet today, a decade-and-a-half later, I was at a meeting and this scrawny girl who said she was detoxing from Suboxone was reading from Just For Today and there it was again: “We’ll love you until you can learn to love yourself.” Just hearing those words “love yourself” gave me great pause, and after I stopping judging the scrawny girl for not getting herself addicted to a real drug, I thought about what that concept means to me now. Even though listening to it being read out loud is still uncomfortable, it is no longer as confusing or just an ethereal goal that I will possibly obtain at some point in the distant future.

These days, through the principles of recovery, whether I’m conscious of it or not, I actually practice self-love. On a physical level, I take care of my body. I see my doctors and dentist on a regular basis. I work out at a gym and run or ride a bike daily. Twelve years ago, I stopped smoking and became a vegetarian. A few years later I started meditating, and recently I have begun the hard work of addressing my eating disorder and unhealthy obsessions with food.

On a mental level it goes much deeper. When before I was in too much fear to make any internal changes, dismissing them as being wussy or stupid, somewhere in all the step work and meetings, I began to grasp the concepts that made no sense at the time. Practicing small principles such as maintaining boundaries, being of service to others and giving from a place of caring and not ego built up my self-esteem, even when I didn’t realize it. After a while it all became second nature and while I no longer think of myself first and act accordingly, I do take care to not cause more turmoil by grabbing for those meaningless moments of immediate-gratification that two minutes later I’ll be regretting.

Those principals of recovery might seem like small things, but actually they’re huge and it’s what keeps me clean. Of course, I still need to work on my adverse knee-jerk reaction to hearing the words “self love.” When that scrawny girl at the meeting said those two words I actually shuddered, and I know that’s because deep down inside I still do not feel I am worthy. Maybe it’s the negative body image and personal baggage from my eating disorder, or perhaps I’m just not capable of saying that I love myself out loud. But, like taking care of my health and maintaining my self-esteem, I’m working on it.



  1. Learning to love myself was what lead me to sobriety.

    I picked up a book called “The Artist’s Way”, and the author suggested positive daily affirmations. It was so fucking weird I couldn’t do them, but the idea stuck in my head. The idea that I’m a good person who deserved good things happening to me was just alien. My childhood was spent in a home where nothing I did was good enough, and living under the rule of a grandmother whose anger being stuck with three grandkids in her house due to her daughter’s poor judgement meant we were all screw-ups. I grew up expecting to fail. When things were going great in my life I would sabotage myself since I didn’t deserve to be happy.

    That stupid book put the idea in my head and I began to ask what I had done to deserve the punishment I was dishing onto my shoulders. Was I such a bad guy? The honest answer was no, and this hit me like a truck. Three years later I stopped drinking, and then I started making time for myself instead of always working on some pointless project. I went back to college to get my AA, majoring in Geology with a minor in Creative Writing. Things have moved forward from there.

    Loving yourself isn’t all rainbows and puppies. There have been plenty of days where I get angry at myself, but now I’m focused on the problem and not the mythology.

    • Patrick O'Neil on

      Hey Marc, thanks. It’s progress not perfection, right? Frustrating days are just part of the deal. But focusing on the solution is huge. Good work!

  2. Well said, thank you. It’s a very challenging concept for me to grasp as well, 2 years into recovery, but I’m trying.

    • Patrick O'Neil on

      Probably one of the hardest, but at least the most awkward concept, that’s for sure – ha! Thanks, Chris.

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About Author

Patrick O’Neil is the author of the memoir Gun, Needle, Spoon (Dzanc Books). For the past 17 years he has lived and worked in the recovery community as a recovering addict/alcoholic, a drug and alcohol counselor, a college instructor, group facilitator, and a narrative healer. In 2015 the State of California granted him a Certificate of Rehabilitation. In 2016 California Governor Edmund G. Brown awarded him a Governor’s Pardon. He has taught writing workshops in numerous correctional facilities and institutions and continues to be of service to his fellowship and community. O’Neil lives with his wife Jennifer, a rather large Maine Coon, and a squirrel, in Downtown Los Angeles. For more information, please visit: