Appearing here Wednesdays, Turning The Screw provides existential crisis counseling for the faint of heart. "Spare change for when your stock hits a 52-week low."
I hope that I can get this out in a coherent manner because I am a jumble of emotions right now and it's hard to sort it all out.
Some background: I'm 22 years old and when I was 18, my parents separated. When I was a senior in high school, I was looking for some of my clothes in my mom's dresser and found an envelope of printed-out emails between my mom and—get this—my old middle-school teacher. They were love letters. I felt betrayed—she had volunteered in his classroom for years! But I didn't know what to do, so I kept it to myself. Then I went away to college. Only a few days after I had moved in, my mom called me to say that she had moved out, they were happier this way, we were still a family, etc. This was devastating, to say the least, especially to a girl who always thought she was so lucky to have a normal family and normal life.
I've been sad and confused. I feel like I'm damaged goods. So many family members have had multiple marriages that divorce is practically written in my DNA. And I know that my parents only stayed together so long because of me. Was I so self-absorbed that I couldn't see what was happening right in front of me? Were all those memories of us being a family just a huge lie? And I know I shouldn't think this, but I also wonder if I had anything to do with it. I can be a huge brat sometimes.
When it happened, I just tried to be okay with it. My older brother didn't take the news well and still hasn't spoken to our mom since. I think because he had such a bad reaction, I tried to be the good child for my parents (a role I've felt I had to fill practically my whole life). It also made me so angry that my brother could dismiss my mom, after everything she had done and still does for him.
So, in an attempt at normalcy, I used to spend time with my mom and her—boyfriend? man friend? lover?—at their place (when I'm home from college I stay with my dad in the house I grew up in). She loved when we cooked dinner and watched TV together and I put aside my discomfort because I had never seen my mom so happy. But over winter break, I was evasive and made up excuses to bail on our plans, and when she asked me if something was wrong, I told her that I didn't want to be around him.
Now I feel so guilty. I have never felt so much guilt in my entire life. I burst into tears just thinking about it (I'm crying right now). Because I see how happy my mom is and how much it meant to her when we spent time together. And now I ruined everything. I only come by her place when he's not around, and it is a huge elephant in the room. I hate putting her in this position. But I'm just so uncomfortable being around my old teacher. And I'm tired of pretending that I'm okay with it. I'm tired of pretending that the separation hasn't hurt me.
I guess I'm angry too. Because my parents never asked if I was okay. It's as if because they waited until I moved out that I should be totally fine. My family sort of operates on a "don't ask, don't tell" policy, so I think my parents would be really scared if they knew what went on in my head. Like I would binge-eat to numb the feelings, restrict to compensate for the overeating, and then get stuck in a cycle of self-loathing. I had a lot of really low points where I barely went to class, got bad grades, and isolated myself. (I'm doing better about those things now though.) I never talk about my feelings or problems, so I really shouldn't feel angry that they don't know anything is wrong. I only have myself to blame. I feel like I have invested too much into this façade that I'm well-adjusted, resilient, and untroubled, even though I'm anything but.
I'm old enough to realize that my parents are actual people, not just my parents, and sometimes marriages don't work. I feel like maybe I'm being overdramatic and should suck it up. Because I have the best parents ever. Honestly. They have given me everything I have ever wanted. They still get along. When my dad had surgery, my mom was there at the hospital every day and at home with him while he recovered. They're coming to my graduation together. I should not be complaining. It's about as "good" as a separation/divorce can be.
But I feel like I'm falling apart. I don't see how I will ever be ok again. Do I have to go my whole life feeling all of this? I don't know if I can bear it. Will time really heal all? Because it has been years and I'm more torn up than ever. So what do I do? Do I be an adult about it and push aside my feelings? Do I try to resolve these feelings, even though I hate confrontation and opening up? Where do I even begin?
Too Many Emotions
Do you know what I love more than anything else? Feeling feelings. Oh, how I love to feel feelings!
When I was younger, though, I hated feeling feelings. Feelings meant that I was about to mess something up or hurt someone. Feelings meant I was weak and unacceptable. The second I felt feelings, I wasn't loved anymore.
How could I think such a crazy thing? Hmm. Maybe it was the fact that, whenever I cried or got angry or tried to talk about my feelings, my parents acted like I was waving a switchblade in their faces. They'd both been raised by alcoholics, so they both experienced even mild emotions as threats to their personal safety and well-being. Over and over again growing up, I was told that I was "overdramatic," that I was "being ridiculous" that I "always overreacted to everything." And look, I'm sure I was ridiculous about lots of shit—that's how you get when you're afraid to feel feelings. Small stuff happens and big stuff happens and your reaction is super-sized either way, because there's a giant tidal wave waiting behind your tiny little crumbling dam of self-control. You hate the tidal wave, and hating it only makes it bigger.
So I completely understand your reaction to your mom's affair, divorce and realignment with your teacher, particularly in the context of this very forceful message you've received: "This is the best possible outcome. We are very happy with it. Join us here, in happy land! Nothing is messy here! We are cheerful and blameless, and if you are not cheerful, if you cast blame, the problem is you!"
Their approach, however well meaning, didn't allow you any time to catch up. They've had years to adjust to the fact that their marriage wasn't working, and they even had a plan to get divorced the second you were out of the house. But that's not how it worked for you. You just woke up one day and realized that your parents had been ACTING! Your life, that always looked safe and pretty and full of love, was actually messy and ugly and full of shit! That's a traumatic experience, and you're not going to overcome that trauma by willing it away.
Look, I don't believe in fighting—yelling, screaming—in front of kids, because it can be traumatic, and it teaches kids that to solve problems with someone, you have to yell and scream. But quarreling in front of kids is sometimes a good thing. Because then you can show kids how two people express their feelings, talk it out, apologize, and then show love for each other again. It's good for kids to see that anger is an unavoidable aspect of living with other people. Because sometimes people annoy you, particularly when they're wearing those ugly pants again and they never clean out the refrigerator, ever. Sometimes you don't want lazy men in ugly pants living in your house, you just want giant custard-filled doughnuts living there instead. These things aren't entirely rational.
Now obviously, your parents could've thrown lamps at each other's heads. Instead, they sound perfectly nice. Even though this teacher is an unfortunate choice for you, if your mom is as happy as you describe, then over the long haul, that's going to be good for her and good for everyone around her. You couldn't see the corrosion in your parents' marriage, but if they had forced themselves to stay together, you might've been subjected to some ugly shit. Taking the long view, this particular outcome isn't all that terrible. Eventually, you may get to know your former teacher in a new context. In order to do that, though, you have to accept the anger and confusion that come up around him, because the more you accept it and allow it to exist, the easier it'll be to put it into perspective. Yes, I know it's already been years—but you've been playing the Good Child role all those years, which means that you never had a chance to say, "Fuck this, it bothers me." That made your negative feelings more toxic, when actually, if you were allowed a little time and space to adjust, you might like him just fine. At the very least, he won't seem all that important, just a part of the background to be tolerated.
So there's a positive long-term forecast. Remember that, because the stuff you have to do right now is going to be very hard. You have to learn to feel feelings. All of this talk of control, of eating or not eating to maintain control, of hating confrontation and hating opening up? This indicates that the primary problem for you is not the event itself (your parents' separation and your mom's new boyfriend), but your anger and frustration and despair over being unable to control how the event makes you feel.
You can't control how you feel. You have to let your feelings out, at long last, with the help of a therapist. At first this will feel terrible, and you'll believe that you hate your mom's boyfriend more than ever and you hate your parents and most of all you hate yourself, because you are a bad kid and you're weak and you should never have fallen apart over this.
Feel all of those feelings! Don't hold back. In fact, I want you to get a big marker and write that down on a piece of paper and tape it to your wall. FEEL WHAT YOU FEEL. Feelings don't make you weak. Listen to the negative talk bouncing around in your head. Write it down in a journal, so you know what's going on inside you.
The other part of this, though, is acceptance. Try to get in the habit of letting the world see what's inside of you, and watching how expressing these things doesn't make you bad or weird to other people—particularly if you express how conflicted you are, how you are feeling these things but still trying to be an honorable person. When you talk about your feelings, you'll only scare off the kinds of scaredy-cats you don't want in your life anyway.
That said, slowly (with the help of a therapist, mind you), you will experiment with talking to your mom about how you feel. I can't tell if your mom is a scaredy-cat or not, but she's going to be tougher to talk to than friends. This problem involves a ton of guilt for her, too—guilt over having failed you as a mother by leaving your dad. Maybe she hates talking about feelings. Sometimes parents can appear to embrace such talks, but when it comes down to it, they only like to talk when they control the terms of the conversation
Ultimately, you may decide not to talk about feelings with your family. You may find that they don't like it, and maybe you'll even decide that YOU don't like it. I want to tell you, though, that's a tougher path, particularly for a people-pleasing perfectionist like yourself. If you don't learn to feel feelings, you're going to blame yourself for every feeling you feel (just like you have up until now). You're going to run away from your feelings, and run away from other people, the way your brother has.
You're an emotional person, like it or not. But you have to accept that shit happens, you're not in control. You're sure to go through things that are far worse than your parents' divorce. Even though you think of your family life as a lie, it wasn't. Your parents cooperated, they functioned reasonably well together, even if they weren't interested in staying together forever. By most people's standards, that's a pretty good marriage. Why is it defined as pure shit just because it eventually ended? The only big lie they told was the one about everything being perfect. Nothing is perfect. Go read Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. Yes, it's long, but when you get to those last few pages? Oh, God, what pages! Possibly the best pages ever written, about how surviving sometimes requires leaning, awkwardly, on the people around you. Surviving requires accepting them, accepting the compromises of needing them, even though they're flawed and you're flawed and the whole picture is flawed.
Nothing is perfect. Nothing and no one can even come close. You have to surrender, to accept people for who they are, to let down your guard and give up on your illusions and give in to what's actually here, in front of you. Once you can accept that there is no ideal to live up to, the world will grow bigger and brighter and more beautiful for you than you can even imagine.
I am too young to be writing this letter. I am at an age where I should be psyched about my 20-something life. Or I should at least have a 20-something life, or really a life at all. I don't have one, or anything to be psyched about. Instead, I have an okay-looking facsimile of a life, one that is only a few weeks away from collapse.
I don't have a job. I had a job, but lost it without being given a solid reason or thing I did wrong. Now I can't even get interviews for entry-level or temp work, let alone any more ambitious jobs or anything with a future. Instead, I freelance, an opportunity I am incredibly grateful for and privileged to have, but it takes far more work than I'm getting to pay rent, let alone benefits—and all that assumes you are operating at 110% hustle. I am operating at maybe 5% hustle. I know I haven't done my best work, because it is hard to do your best work while having regular panic attacks you cannot tell anyone about. It is hard to be reliable when you spend hours of every day in tears and wish you could just sleep for the rest of it. You can see how this quickly becomes unsustainable. I am almost literally broke. (Since you'll bring it up probably: even if I was OK with relying on my parents for support, they aren't doing so well financially either.)
I don't have any friends, at least not when it comes down to it. (I never really had friends when I was younger, either.) Some people I know talk to me sometimes (but increasingly infrequently), but they never invite me along when they go out, or make plans with me separately, or even express interest in seeing me at all. (I don't count "let's hang out sometime," because that's usually a lie and everyone knows it; actions speak louder than words.) When I try to make plans, nobody shows up. Some people have hurt me, some of them lie to me regularly, obvious lies that are easy to catch but impossible to call people out on—and yet, those people have lots of friends and I don't have any, and I don't understand why. I'm tired of trying to figure out whether I'm supposed to take a hint; I wish people would either be friends to me or leave me alone entirely, maybe even send me angry hate-filled emails dumping me—because that would make sense at least and be closure and hurt less in the end, but it doesn't happen. I've tried going to meet-up groups and the like, but nobody has taken to me from them. Of course it doesn't do to object to this, not if you want anything resembling friends at all. I've tried telling people how I feel, and it only makes things worse; nobody sees anything wrong with this situation except my lack of cooperation. There's actually nothing it's acceptable to do or feel about this, other than to smile and accept your place. So I pretend to do that. It is a very lonely pretense, and you always know it's fake. As it stands, if I disappeared suddenly I doubt anyone would care or even notice. If anyone feels anything at all the evidence suggests it'd probably be relief or schadenfreude.
I don't have a love life. If you look at my history of dates from the outside, it'd look impressive, and my number is high enough that I should probably consider identifying as sex-positive (though I don't really, and I'm not particularly proud; just, you know, it's a byproduct of enough thirdish dates happening). None of it is impressive at all. Or, rather, it is probably close to my upper limit of impressiveness given how attractive I am (not very) and how wide my social net is (not at all), but it would not rank on any metric of success. For the past two years I've been dumped after a month or two by a series of increasingly perfect-seeming guys and rejected by a series of increasingly banal-seeming dates. I have run out of OKCupid matches. Sometimes I feel like I have dated and/or been rejected by every compatible man in the city. At this point I would be fine with settling for someone, but all the evidence suggests I'm not even good enough for that.
Other things: I used to be in therapy, but I stopped going because I can't afford it anymore, and considering all the above things in my life fell apart while I was in therapy, I doubt it helped. I don't do drugs, but I most likely have a drinking problem. I don't know whether I'm generally healthy or not because I don't have insurance. (I'm under 26, but my parents don't have insurance either. Thank you, economy.) Most of the time, I feel like a barely more high-functioning version of Laura Wingfield. Is there any way out of this? Or is this the kind of letter people write before they slip off the radar completely?
Your problems—depression, anxiety, making enough money to survive—aren't that different from most people's problems at your age. Your description of those problems, though, offers us some hint of why you're struggling. First of all, you are suffering from extreme low self-esteem. From your subject line ("probably the most pathetic email you will ever receive for your column") to your description of yourself (you are "not very" attractive and "not good enough" to settle for some random guy), your anger at yourself comes through loud and clear.
You don't just blame yourself for this state of affairs, though. You also blame 1) potential friends (who uniformly dislike you and want you to leave them alone), 2) your former employer (who didn't tell you why you were being fired), 3) a lack of hustle (which you feel is unavoidable since you're depressed), 4) a possible poor state of health (which is undiagnosable because you can't afford it) 5) a possible need for therapy (which you can't afford), 6) a bad economy, 7) a lack of monetary support from your parents (which is also the economy's fault).
You don't lack friends and boyfriends because you're unattractive or unlovable. You are extremely angry at yourself for having landed here, but you're taking that anger and projecting it on everyone and everything around you, thereby attributing every single problem in your life to an external cause. You're too full of anger and blame to make friends (or keep them). You aren't romantic about your life or your future. You are flat, and when you're not flat you're despairing. Even when you express your emotions, you're much too conflicted to be able to form any kind of coherent narrative. Most letters I received from very depressed people include details about what life was like growing up, what kinds of traumas occurred, what sorts of natural barriers to a normal life presented themselves. Your letter lacks these details. Instead of explaining your full story to me, you spend your time and energy trying to convince me that there is no possible way to solve a single one of your problems. You don't want solutions, in fact: You want me to agree that you are pretty much hopeless.
The truth is, though, you're exactly the kind of person who has hope. You're just afraid of knowing yourself. You can't take responsibility for a single thing that's going wrong, because to do so, you feel, would open the floodgates and reveal you as the abject loser you already believe yourself to be.
But this is a state of emergency. You must take some concrete action to improve your emotional health. 1. Get health insurance immediately. Put it on a credit card. 2. Find a therapist who takes health insurance, and see that person once a week. Put the difference on a credit card. 3. Exercise every single morning for at least one hour. Start by just walking. 4. Force yourself to eat fresh fruits and vegetables for every meal. 5. Separate your day into hard work hours and reward hours. Work very hard for 3-hour stretches, then reward yourself with an hour-long walk, or by reading a book or watching TV. This will give you a break from the around-the-clock, shapeless despair of your current schedule. (Keep looking for a full-time job, too, because someone in your state could really use that structure.) 6. Every night, write down how you feel, what ways you self-sabotaged each day, how you might overcome those moments next time, and what you're thankful for that day. If you can't think of anything you're thankful for, write "oxygen."
I'm so sorry that you're feeling this terrible. But right now, people aren't helping you because you're presenting as someone who doesn't really want help. They don't want to be your friend because you always seem angry and resentful, and they don't want to walk into that kind of a trap. Right now, you're a limp rag that doesn't want to get up and face what's happening. That's completely understandable.
But you just have to get up. You don't have any other choice. You have to get up and move your ass out the door, even when you don't want to. You have to pick up the phone and call a therapist. You must make yourself do this. You have to walk around outside and breathe some fresh air and learn to like who you are, even though that feels impossible. You have to let go of this feeling that people are unkind and indifferent. Your world will be filled with love and acceptance and understanding—trust me when I tell you that. You have to work very, very hard to get there. Do what I'm telling you to do, and things will start looking up. You'll feel more forgiving of others. You'll be in a better physical state, and that will help to make your world seem less desperate and sad. Don't drop off the radar. You deserve to be happy, to have friends, to find love. Dig deep and find that hustle.
Previously: Ask Polly: I'm In Love But My Best Friend Is Slipping Away!
Is kale really the answer, or are those the projections of a doughnut-eater? Write to Polly and find out!
Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl's existential advice columnist. She's also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses. Photo by The Shopping Sherpa.