I don’t seem to want anything all that badly. Well, I do and I don’t… You talk about having a compelling vision for your life. Well, I can’t seem to come up with much of one. At best everything is fuzzy. I’ve always wanted one of those careers where you’re paid to be yourself—one where you can be funny and show off on a stage and make people laugh and be entertained. To be someone’s muse and inspiration rather than the service lackey I am now. Except I took acting classes and auditioned for plays and never got in. I’m not stereotypically good looking and female, plus in the end, I can’t really pull off portraying anyone but me. I suck at musical instruments, my voice is flat, and I have no flexibility so I can’t dance. The closest thing I can come up with to be a stage showoff is being one of those storytelling folks, like on The Moth or NPR. This sounds very nice to me and I am entertaining at it, though I used to be more excited at the idea than I’m feeling these days. On the very few occasions when I’ve gotten to talk at people or show off, I’ve felt like THIS IS MY THING. But I have maybe one opportunity a year to do that (teaching a class or having to do a speech at work), and this year’s opportunities to do that have come and gone and somehow I didn’t get as much buzz from it as I remember having in the past.
But then I start thinking of the practicalities. How I sucked at trying to run my own business in the past, plus it was boring as fuck and I like having a regular paycheck and health insurance that someone else takes care of. I don’t seem to be much of a self-starter/freelancer and I don’t get excited by having my work published by other people. It seems like a giant “who cares” to me now because back when I did that, nobody did care much. I don’t like social media and I don’t want to have to whore myself up on it. I have looked into the local theater opportunities in my small town and the programs here are either for kids or for the musical theater company. I can whine all day and tell you my stupid reasons why not that pretty much go on to infinity, but it boils down to, every time I think of the load of shit I’d have to do to start working on this, I lose all interest and feel inadequate to the task. I don’t have a compelling, burning desire or vision or goal to chase after to get me where I want to go and motivate me to do things, no matter how scary or boring. I don’t have folks I can rely on for much help in these things. My friends have lives and families and whatnot and you can only ask for so much from anyone anyway, plus it’s not like I know anyone who’s done or doing what I want to. I feel at sea as to how to do this thing. I can’t do it alone, but I have to do it alone, or else it won’t get done. But it’s not getting done anyway.
I may be technically depressed. I don’t know, I’ve felt pretty neutral my whole life and I’m never freaking incapacitated by sad, can’t get out of bed, I can always function no matter what, etc. (Plus I’m beyond terrified of taking the scary drugs and having all the scary side effects—I don’t feel bad enough to think that the side effects and trying on drugs for a year to see how they fit is worth that hell just to see if I feel a perky that I’ve never experienced. I really, really hope that meds for life is not the only answer to this problem.) I used to want love, but that desire has burned out and gone with age and maybe that’s all for the best given my personality. I am far more suited to being single, and other humans needing me to take care of them fries me, which is why I’m not super thrilled about my current job.
I used to think someday I’d move to LA and have a career and some awesome destiny. I deluded myself very nicely for a couple of years that my awesome future was only a year or two and a move away—then I realized this year that I’m never going to make it and you can’t just move without a plan and a goal, hoping for a change. The practicality kicks in and I always realize that this is all I’ve got and this is all I’m ever going to be—a boring clerical who’s getting way too old (mid-30’s) to have dreams of being an attention whore. I want so much more than this provincial life, but I haven’t the faintest idea how to get it. Everyone is tired of hearing me whine, including me, and folks (including my mom and shrink) are now saying, “Can’t you just be happy with things as they are?” I see their point, since I’m clearly not going to do jack shit anyway and I might as well enjoy that my life is okay. I really like the town I live in, I have a job I’m unlikely to get laid off from because god knows everyone needs someone to work at a front counter and take the drama, I have my own apartment and a car and spend my free time doing my fifty billion hobbies instead of wiping bums and screaming at my family. If not for the inner whine to be a shiny star, I’d be fine. So why isn’t that enough? Why won’t the whining wanker within me stop wanting attention and just shut up? Except I’m starting to think what with the losing interest in the few things I did feel like were calling me, maybe it is shutting up, because I’m too inadequate to answer that call. I didn’t answer in time and now the call is dying.
I’m sick of trying to solve this problem. What am I supposed to do, Polly? Look for another “thing,” because maybe I was wrong? Realize that I have ambition without ambition (or just no ambition at all) and accept that this is as good as it gets? Take medication that scares the shit out of me and hope that somehow “fixes” me? (Again, I really really hope that’s not the only answer.) I already exercise regularly, so that’s not it. Is it that I have been wanting the wrong thing, or that I just don’t have it in me to care all that much? What the hell is wrong with me and what do I do about it?
The Whining Wanker
Your initials are the same as Walter White’s (and Walt Whitman’s!). Everyone’s favorite high school chemistry teacher also felt uninspired and disappointed in the face of his mediocre life, but once he found his true calling (cooking drugs!) he felt far more inspired and excited by the possibilities the world had to offer. He also felt more anxious, more afraid, more depressed, more isolated, more aggressive, and more in the mood for setting shit on fire and running people over with his car.
The standard advice here is that you should drop everything and pursue your dream. Unfortunately, your worldview and/or your current chemical state don’t support this agenda. If you moved to LA right now, you’d very likely find the entire show-off culture off-putting, if not faintly repugnant, and instead of getting out of bed in the morning and paying your rent in a timely fashion, you might encounter that incapacitating sadness that’s so far eluded you. Right now, you’re probably propped up by your family, your routines, and your bullshit job and your various hobbies, however unfulfilling many of those things might be.
But here’s what might happen if you moved to LA and lost all your props and tumbled into incapacitating sadness: You might have the kind of breakdown that could push you out of your current, mildly depressed state. You might feel more anxious, more afraid, more depressed, more isolated, more aggressive, and more in the mood for setting shit on fire and running people over with your car. You also might feel more inspired and excited by the possibilities the world had to offer.
The central question is not whether or not you should pursue a career as a professional show-off. The central question is what will snap you out of this mildly depressed state. Success or failure in the entertainment world may at least force the issue, but you’ll still have to address the underlying problem, which is that you’re mildly depressed, you’ve been mildly depressed for years, and your entire mindset around yourself and your life is warped because it was formed in this mildly depressed state. It’s like your whole life is off-key, and you’re walking around wondering why everything sounds wrong.
I bet you dislike that characterization—that you’re not completely sure what’s acting on you, when someone else can see it clearly. Back when I was in love with music and songwriting and was also mildly depressed, I was never embarrassed to play my songs for people, but I WAS totally ashamed of any suggestion that I had a big dream of playing music for other people in any official capacity. I was happy to paint myself as a mess, but I was not ok with someone else observing some flaw that I hadn’t pointed out already, especially if that flaw was related to naïve optimism and hope.
This is the terrible curse of the pessimistic cools and the skeptical know-it-alls and the more-jaded-than-thous. We must anticipate every angle, every criticism, every pitfall—how this story goes, how pathetic it is, how it will end badly. Being ambitious, wanting something we might never have, feeling hopeful about something grandiose and inspired that relies at least 80% on magic—that’s like having food stuck to your face. Being eager and earnest and slightly self-deluded is, to the cool and the hip, the ultimate nightmare. It’s like that dream where you’re in school and you look down and realize you have no pants and no underwear on. Suddenly you can feel the cold press of the plastic chair on your tenders. That’s the physical sensation of realizing you’re a joke to the rest of the world. I bet self-protective hipsters have that dream a lot.
But that’s what happens when anxious or depressed or just needy kids are left to their own devices, to tell bad stories about themselves and the world. We mine the disappointments of our childhood, and the disappointments of our chemistry, and we craft them into self-protective armor that keeps us safe from needing other people, from needing our dreams, from needing anything. We are really fucking safe, and nothing adds up to anything, and nothing is worth doing.
You will do your thing, whatever that is, when you’re capable of doing your thing. Right now, you are not capable of it. You don’t really WANT to do your thing. Hell, you don’t even want to WANT to do your thing. And if you magically landed in a space where you could do your thing, you might feel marginally more useful and proud, but the layers and layers of armor would still be there. Happiness would still elude you.
Trust me that you are under water right now. You can’t smell anything, you have no real desire. I remember that state well. When I was young, I only wanted love, and everything else seemed stupid. But sometimes having a shitty attitude about possible side effects of following your dreams can block you from your dreams. Some people are geniuses at what they do, but they’ll never expose their work to anyone because that might mean that they have to let other people into their world, people who aren’t trusted and safe. Why would strangers have the power to keep great art from seeing the light of day? Because many great artists are also fragile chickenshits. Many great comedians and show-offs are also mildly depressed. They know how to sort out the bits that are truly entertaining, because most stuff doesn’t entertain them at all. People who are a little negative and sullen and therefore bored by most writing are often the best writers.
You are very, very afraid. That fear springs out of the depression. There are so many things you DON’T want. That’s how I used to think. Every single path led to things I didn’t want. I was more focused on shit I wanted to avoid than I was on the good things. Good things had no smell, no taste anyway. Only scary things were real to me.
Paradoxically, as scared as you are, you need to lose the distance between you and the rest of the world. Right now, nothing is touching you. You don’t need people needing you? I get that you’re burned out, but there’s something fucked up in the mix here. You are afraid of neediness because you are afraid of needing.
I have to tell you, I don’t hear your story and think, “Oh, here’s another person who wants to do something FUN and CREATIVE for a living—like that’s so fucking easy to do—instead of just appreciating what they have like a normal person.” I hear your story and I think “Here is someone who can’t feel anything. Here is someone with a big problem, but everyone around this person is saying THERE ARE NO PROBLEMS HERE, SILLY!”
Your head and your heart and your psyche and your life need an extreme makeover, to match the unmet demands of your soul. If your therapist can’t see that, then you should push your therapist to dig deeper with you, or find a new therapist who’s more demanding, or understands you better. You need to fucking dig and dig and dig and excavate all of the trouble and worries and scary stuff that are clogging up the works. You need to chip away at your armor until you can breathe again, until you can open up to other people and they can open up to you without making you feel fried. You need to be pushed over a steep cliff, into an abyss. As you’re falling, darkness will form itself into an image of something: Something you do want, passionately, unabashedly.
You might need to try the drugs. You might need to try doing a solid 45 minutes of aerobic exercise every single day. You might need to start your day with a green smoothie. The older you get, the more you have to manage your physical state. I never understood why my dad ran, swam, ate a mango for lunch, and then had an early cocktail. Now I get it. Mood maintenance is everything for the olds.
I feel obligated to mention that I have a good friend who used to sound EXACTLY like you do: Nothing was worth doing. Everything was dripping in hassles and drawbacks and unsavory eventualities. He took a tiny dose of Lexapro and suddenly he was all sunny and bright and engaged to be married. I don’t mean to advocate for that path, I just feel like you shouldn’t write off the possibility that you have a chemical imbalance that could be corrected. Personally, drugs make me feel drugged. So I exercise a lot, and I eat a fuckload of kale. (Here’s an interesting factoid! If you’re over 40 and you want to keep eating the bread AND the cheese AND the beer, you’re going to have to run like someone’s chasing you for a good portion of your day.)
I am a moody motherfucker, even with all of the kale and the running around like The Fugitive. I don’t blame other people for it as much anymore. I sleep 8 hours a night. I drink tea, for fuck’s sake.
I don’t know your physiology. But I want to strongly encourage you to experiment, adjust your levels, cut back on coffee, turn up the volume on the greens and the fish, exercise more, consider drugs, reassess. I also want to encourage you to simply say NO to the “You are a fucking failure” and “This is beneath you” sounds in your head. Bad thoughts used to be my morning habit. I only noticed them once my life was awesome and they were still there, every morning, trying to derail my day before it even started. Don’t underestimate the power of simply saying FUCK YOU to them, pushing them away. You have to listen closely to the way you talk to yourself, the way you tell yourself you’re fucking up every second of every day. Then you have to quiet those voices, repeatedly, until they eventually die out (and they do!).
Your physiology and your head probably need work; I can’t be sure. But one thing is crystal clear: You don’t know how to be vulnerable. Not even a little bit. Passion comes from vulnerability. If you want to know how to transcend this provincial life—and there are lots of ways to do it—you absolutely must start by ripping out these old walls that protect you and prevent you from feeling connected to yourself and to other people. You must learn to make yourself vulnerable and open and sensitive again. You need to feel the cold plastic on your tenders. You need to feel unguarded, fragile, soft, lost. This is not about a career change. It’s about swapping out your head with a new one. This is not about what you actually do, it’s about HOW YOU DO IT.
I know plenty of successful writers with amazing credits under their belts who are flat-out unhappy. Writers are often fixated on the notion that more success will bring more happiness, but the truth is that success is pretty abstract. It’s hard to bask in success. If you’ve ever seen anyone try, you’d know that. It’s efforted, and typically includes redirecting the conversation toward the current bestseller list, so everyone can marvel over the writer’s success together. If you ever hear someone do this, take pity. This person is not (merely) narcissistic, he or she is having trouble accessing any form of satisfaction, and needs some assistance in feeling the feels.
We imagine glory for people in the spotlight, but if they’re not balanced, what they mostly achieve is an anxious state of perpetual pursuit. Think of Stephen Dorff’s character in Somewhere, gazing blankly at a pair of strippers performing in his hotel room. Hot naked girls should be exciting, sure, but there’s not enough glory in the world to drown out the sound of that boom box, clicking cheaply on and off, or to quiet the girls’ mundane chatter. Glory, even enhanced with high-grade narcotics, never arrives often enough or stays long enough. Glory is a few minutes, an hour, a few days at best. Mostly, bored people who want attention and excitement end up dying in fiery car crashes, or tricking the mailman into looking at stills from 50-year-old photo shoots.
Walter White made plenty of mistakes. But he knew you had to love your craft, no matter how stupid that craft might be. Personally, my salvation has come from learning to appreciate the act of writing itself. It’s a luxury, to sit and write every day. Am I changing the world? Should I have done more by now? Those questions are just needless noise, like the cheap click of that boom box. If I AM a failure, then being a failure fucking rules, because here I am, right now, doing what I love.
If you love to perform and be funny, then you should work on your stories a little every day. Focus on the craft of it, without getting mixed up about the goals, moving to LA or not moving. Read great writers and storytellers. Polish your work. Take pride in perfecting it. Then submit it to This American Life. Don’t fixate on that part of it, but don’t skip that part, either. This isn’t about changing careers, necessarily. It’s just about doing something you’re good at. It’s about getting better at it, and enjoying it. It’s about giving yourself the space to do something you love. It’s about pushing the fear and the avoidance aside, instead of taking that resistance seriously, analyzing, listing reasons for not doing anything. Push it aside and work. Just an hour a day. Not too much.
You work at your craft, money or no money, glory or no glory. You work and work and work. You improve. You feel like you’re making progress. That is all. The joy lies in the process. If you think there’s no joy there, you’re wrong. You need to open yourself up to it. You need to stay open to how much joy it brings you, to work hard at something that feels ever-so-slightly right to you, to work on small projects, to make some teensy bit of progress, day by day.
When you do what you really, really love, good things happen. That part IS magic. You have to follow your love, listen to it, be kind to it. You have to keep working, and never lose sight that the primarily satisfaction of creative life arises from the satisfaction of working hard, creating, slowly. Nothing else touches that, once you cultivate it. No applause or awards or book contracts can compete with simply sitting and working hard and knowing in your heart that YOU ARE FUCKING GOOD AT THIS.
That makes no sense to you right now, because you’re fundamentally indifferent. You’re so indifferent that you have no idea WHAT will be good about NOT being indifferent. So you have to go on blind faith. Please trust me, though. The world will open up to you like a flower. You will walk out the front door feeling naked, feeling like you forgot your fucking pants, and it will change you. You will understand why people work hard, why people fall in love, why people learn to cook, why people build treehouses, why people go on trips to places they know nothing about. Suddenly you will understand why people bother, and why YOU should bother.
You must work harder, though—that’s your new way of being good to yourself. You have to work harder in therapy and start working hard at your craft in your free time. Make the investment now. You need to dig out of this hole and smell and touch and breathe in the world for the first time. You will not believe how fucking good it feels. You will not fucking believe it.
After that, move, get a different job, fall in love? Anything is possible. ANYTHING. Is. Possible. I’m not saying you should cook drugs or set shit on fire. But you should throw out your rusty ideas about yourself. You aren’t too old to do anything. And when you finally leave behind this skeptical, know-it-all, over it, why bother, hiding state of being, you will feel better than you ever have before. Every fucking cell in your body will pulse with gratitude. But you have to cast away a lifetime of bad thoughts rattling through your head, and throw out a lifetime of bad stories about who you are and who you’ll never be. As Walt Whitman put it, “[R]e-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”
You want more than this provincial life. Your very flesh, your bad thoughts, your warped, limited sense of what you’re capable of: That’s where your provincialism lies. You’ve swallowed someone else’s view of what you should and shouldn’t expect.
Your soul wants more. It’s time to listen to your soul.
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 Adam Barham.