Why I Stopped Checking my Own Boxes

by Courtney Lowry
December 20, 2019

This article, about the power and joy of love in strong friendships, was written by Courtney Lowry.

A photographer, activist, and poet, Courtney Lowry’s work speaks for the people. Discussing the topics of gender, racial, and disability descrimination faced by the marginalized, Lowry’s work showcases the voices of the silenced, including her own. She is a recipient of the 2019 VSA Emerging Artist grant presented by the Kennedy Center. Lowry has exhibited work in New York, Atlanta, Washington D.C., and Athens, Greece and has been featured in a variety of online publications. When she’s not writing or photographing, Lowry can be found at your local Tyler, The Creator concert awkwardly dancing.

Love is still feeling the imprint of a warm hug on my shoulders months after I’ve seen him. It’s my best friend driving 200 miles from Alabama to Atlanta in her dad’s paint-splattered truck that’s falling apart just for one night so we could go museum hopping in the afternoon. It’s a surprise text message that reminds that my support system is beyond the crippling walls of my household. Love is also handwritten letters to all of my friends and standing in long post office lines, teary-eyed, because I spent a week on these letters and now I have to let them go.

I used to think that love was reserved for two people staring into each others’ eyes at a dinner table, while I’d be on-looking as a plate of food for one grew cold in front of me. But in the last two years, I realized that true love is not that concrete. It’s not just about romance between partners. Long-term acceptance with no terms and conditions…that’s love. Getting excited over your favorite music with a stranger is love too. Having someone listen to your story without judgement, fully without interruption, is also love.

In the past two years, I’ve gained more friends than lost, at a time when I felt the world was crashing at my feet. People showed up for me in ways I could have never imagined. For that, I’m forever grateful. Before receiving my diagnosis of fibromyalgia this year, from 2017-2018, I felt as if I was walking in an endless, dark abyss. My mental health quickly deteriorated, and it was reflected in my physical health. Basic tasks like opening doors or placing my feet on the floor to get out of bed went from a little painful to hard to nearly impossible in the span of a year. Because I didn’t understand what was happening to my body, I used negative self-talk as a way to punish myself for the cause of my health issues. If I was having trouble at work that day, I’d compare my ability to perform my best to my ability as an artist, causing myself to not only doubt myself, but as a result, push myself to my ultimate limits and thus destroying my body more. 

At my lowest point, I had chemical burns on my hands from working in the photography lab at my school. On the last day of the semester, after I was appointed to close the darkroom for the semester, I’d dropped the chemicals all over the floor because my wrists had suddenly gone weak. My back was aching. My knees were tender and burning. I could barely stand. I could barely breathe. I couldn’t tell if I was genuinely having a heart attack, a panic attack, or if this was a result of early psoriasis that I’d developed from stress. But, I called my best friend Jemma who saved the day like Superwoman, cleaning the chemicals off the floor, rushing me back to my apartment to pack an overnight bag, and letting me crash on her floor at her house, where I tossed and turned on an old mattress with my skin red and peeling, but at least I was safe. That’s love. 

Love is also my friend Jazz sneaking me into the dorms this past fall semester when my credit card got declined at the hotel I was supposed to stay at in Atlanta. I slept on three poorly designed yellow chairs that was standard for the new dorms at the college I’d graduated from. Love is also my two best guy friends Solomon and Noah running across downtown Atlanta with blisters on their feet in ninety-degree heat, with two minutes to spare until graduation, and a selfie sent by my mom to let me know they’d made it. Love is a racing heart from feeling so alive as I ride in a car, blasting music, then hearing that same song live in concert, knowing that everything has fallen into place for me…finally. Love is sitting on the floor with another best friend, Noble (at the time, basically a stranger) and he tells me about every past love he’s ever experienced, sharing a vulnerability that I hold sacred because love first begins with trust. Love is calling my best friend Aleyna while she’s living the dream in Wales to talk about boys and to reminisce on the night we watched “UP” on her drawing tablet in her apartment. 

When I stopped comparing love to what I’d seen in the movies, I began to come to terms that I’d been fooling myself into thinking that I wasn’t capable of loving or being loved. Simply because I wasn’t in a relationship. My eyes had been closed for years, as I tried to search for something that was right in front of me the entire time. I’d been so battered by trauma, anxiety, and self-deprecation, I couldn’t distinguish whether I was twisting words and overanalyzing actions to convince myself that the wrong person could love me or if someone was actually authentic in expressing their friendship or love. I attended a school built on the foundation of silencing the students of color, covering up tragedy, and medicating pain by denying it existed. Because of that, it has left me with scars I probably can’t get rid of. Although, now that I am out of that environment, I now know what love is. 

Love is your friends, the people that hold your hand during the stormy nights when you didn’t think you’d be able to find shelter. Love is the rainbow that comes after that. Love is also acknowledging yourself, after shrinking who you were for so many years. Love is not how it is always presented online. It is your version of feeling comfortable without having to check off any boxes, including the ones your write for yourself.