Ask Polly: How Can I Stop Being a Shut In Once and for All?

shutin Dear Polly,

I don’t really know what my real problem is. I can name an array of problems that I have, but I don’t know if they are symptomatic, causal, imaginary or just plain over-analyzing. I don’t have childhood traumas from which I can say everything started. I only know that these issues manifested themselves when I started university. I’ve kept diaries on and off for long periods of time and am seeing a therapist regularly for the last 1.5 years. Self-help books gather dust because I don’t know if they actually address a problem I have. Or I lose motivation. Ultimately, I feel like I am in stasis. 

On the surface, I’ve spent the last eight years in two different universities and I’ve yet to graduate. If that were the only issue, I wouldn’t engage in a self-perpetuating cycle of self-pity, self-hate/destruction and apathy. I’m bad at relationships generally, and I don’t just mean romantically. It wasn’t as much of a problem when I lived a rather sheltered existence as an expat with my family. We had a wide circle of family friends, and my academic ability at the time gave me a confidence to secure good friendships, some of which have been able to last to this day. And all this despite due negligence on my part. It doesn’t help that I’m introverted, self-conscious and have insecurities.

I managed to maintain a bit of this at my first university—joined societies and what with being agreeable and trying to please people. I had friends, very good ones too. But, I have a habit of associating my self esteem with academic ability. When I started withdrawing academically, I became even more of a social recluse than I already was. It became difficult to confront people and my family. On the outside, I mustered up a happy exterior to the world. Otherwise, I fled from reality into an online world of internet friendships, TV shows and movies. This removal doubtless compounded my academic failures and frayed my already strained relationships with my peers. 

I know that it is best to be honest about my situation, but I never felt like I was in the position where I could afford to lose the friendships, superficial or not, that I had. I just didn’t have that luxury. It was in the anonymity of the web that I found I could better express myself, more as a listener than a speaker. Helping people made me feel better about myself. It relieved the guilt and shame that would gnaw inside me. And however moot some might think these online relationships are, among the few that flourished, I actually found love with a girl after years of contact. We actually met, but despite her being one of the most wonderful people I have met and being very much in love with me, I ruined it with my neglect. I hurt her a lot. 

I thought I’d be honest, in order to make the relationship built on honesty. I told her about how I’d failed year after year at my old university, and now in a different country and uni, was trying a new lease of life on the same degree. But, she then became part of the reality from which I kept running. I never mean to upset her, but I would continually renege on commitments. I went through the same cycles as before. The only difference was that awareness of my relative advancing age gave an added urgency and desperation that things work out. I wanted to make a clean break, and in a foreign country where I’m trying to carve a niche of friends anew, I mentioned my past to as few people as possible. And even then, tried to sanitize it to make myself palatable.

Nothing has really changed. I’ve only become more withdrawn and reclusive. I don’t have any genuinely close friends here, unlike the uni before. And often enough, I sabotage many of my relationships through my self-destructive tendencies. There’s never an outburst; I just become a shut in. It’s not atypical for me to stay days on end within the confines of my dormitory trying to drown myself from reality. Poor dieting, lack of exercise and being trapped in a virtual world are the typical themes of the day. I know they perpetuate my misery, but it’s got to such a stage that I’m slowly growing indifferent to it. 

It’s not that I don’t try to get out of this rut. Every semester, I usually begin anew. I force myself to engage with other people, keep up with academics, and go for social/ sport activities, some of which do stick even through the depression. But somewhere, I invariably fall short again. And it’s not that I can’t do the subject material. I know I can because there are times when I really have. But, with every failure and cyclical repetition, it becomes harder and harder to believe in myself, maintain motivation or to live life. I also don’t get much inspiration when I imagine what might await me in the future after so much time in academic/social limbo. 
  
The worst part is, I don’t even know if I have a real excuse for being what and where I am. Sometimes I wish there was a medical condition to which I could attribute everything. My parents always do their best, and have (esp. my father) never made an issue of the expense I am incurring. They’ve even tried to grow more understanding as time goes by. Besides, even if I have issues that stem from childhood, surely I should have been able to move past them in eight years.

I’m sorry if this sounds like a stiff life anthology. I wrote everything because I don’t know where it comes from or what to do. 

Polly, do you have any suggestions or pointers?

Lost & Plaintive

Dear L & P,

You do have a medical condition. You’re depressed, pure and simple. There’s no real cause for it beyond your physical make-up and the fact that your parents are footing the bill for whatever you want to do without the slightest complaint—which, while totally generous and loving of them, isn’t actually a hundred percent good for you. When you’re depressed and you can hide in entertainments and games and online relationships and you have no real reason to strive for anything? Well, that adds up to a pretty dire self-perpetuating picture.

I know that you’re reading all kinds of judgment into what I just wrote. You assume that what I mean is, “You’re bad and lazy and your parents are wasting their money on you.” That is NOT what I mean. What I actually mean is: Most people with your biochemical profile are going to struggle with a situation that’s a) amorphous, b) fully-funded and c) offers plenty of escapist options.

When I was 28 years old, I had a dream job writing cartoons that took about two days a week to complete. I worked from home. I made much more money than I could possibly spend as a single person with non-extravagant tastes. I had recently moved to LA and I had a boyfriend but almost no friends in town. Now, for a while, like you, I savored my situation. I painted my entire apartment, trained for a marathon, read great books, wrote lots of songs, started and didn’t finish a few screenplays, etc. I went into therapy. I dumped my boyfriend.

But then I was VERY isolated. I stopped wanting to work out. I had tons of time and money, and I was very isolated and my life had no structure. IT WAS VERY DIFFICULT. Every single day, I had to pull myself out of bed and force myself to make good choices. I often failed. I developed some magical thinking, and I had trouble understanding which relationships in my life deserved my focus. I tended to overvalue weird random friendships and looked at long-term, intimate friendships with suspicion, because they demanded more from me.

Today I was watering the plants in my back yard and thinking back to how terrible I felt back then. Every single day was a struggle to make the right choices. Half of the stuff I did socially was mildly disheartening, if not downright depressing. I didn’t have close friends around me, so I was hanging out with people who didn’t make sense to me. One night, an acquaintance insisted that we go to one of those “cool” clubs with a velvet rope, where the doorman assesses whether or not you’re hot enough to go inside. I remember turning to this acquaintance and saying something along the lines of, “Are we seriously going to the front of this line to let this fucking slice of ass cheese tell us whether or not we’re hot enough to hang out with a room full of spray-tanned fucks?” She just looked at me like I had a shitty attitude. Everyone thought I had a shitty attitude back then.

I did have a shitty attitude. I wanted to move away. I wanted new friends. I wanted my old friends back. I felt like I had to act and mouth the right lines just to keep people from running in the other direction. I couldn’t tell anyone the truth about who I was, not even the dude at the corner store or the woman at the coffee place.

I drank too much and I was narcissistic and self-involved and I was probably horribly boring to be around.

But it’s pretty hard not to be self-involved when you’re incredibly lonely and you don’t have anyone to lean on. It’s also really hard to make good choices when you feel that way. When you’re depressed and aimless, you really do have to pay close attention to what works and what doesn’t work, because the more you hurt yourself and isolate yourself, the harder it becomes to connect with other people.

So you need to accept this basic fact about yourself right now: You’re young and you’re depressed and you have to commit to taking better care of yourself from now on. There needs to be some baseline of self-care that you commit to.

That’s not a temporary thing, either. You’ll have to make really good choices almost every goddamn day from now until the end of your life in order to feel happy. Trust me on that, because it’s true for me, too. If you or I slack off, there’s trouble. If we hide in Twitter or Candy Crush or random sex or even the wrong sort of codependent relationship, there’s trouble. If we sleep badly, or skip our caffeine supplement, or eat four macaroons for breakfast, there’s trouble. We have to remain ever-vigilant about escapist urges. We can watch Game of Thrones, but we can’t play Assassin’s Creed for 10 hours straight. We can have three beers, but not seven beers. We can engage in social media, but we have to set clear limits. We must disable Wi-Fi, early and often. We must sleep eight hours a night. We must eat green leafy shit. We can eat other stuff, but the green leafy stuff has to be the autopilot default.

If you don’t feel like you’re uncovering new ground or understanding a lot about yourself when you see your therapist, you should address that in therapy and consider finding a new therapist. You also need to get on the phone to your parents and tell them you’re depressed. I think your parents need to understand where you are in your life right now. I think you have to come out of the closet and be the complicated person you are, out there in the world, where other people can see you. People like us are EVERYWHERE. It’s not actually that big of a deal to admit that you’re PHYSICALLY depressive. I get that it feels like it is, but trust me. At least half of the smart people you know are either mildly depressed or anxious right now, or they have been in the past. And for most people in the world—MOST PEOPLE—it takes a lot of work and good habits and structure to be happy. When you take work and good habits and structure away? Boom, you’re unhappy.

Some people like us take psychotropic drugs. Many, many people will tell you that’s the way to go. I have LOTS of smart friends who take something. Personally, I favor vigorous exercise five days a week. Anything less than that and I start to falter. Any kind of structure is your friend. Getting out of your cave is good.

Mostly, though, I think you have to accept that you have a certain kind of avoidant/depressive profile that requires care. Your struggle—like mine—stems from your being unforgiving and unkind to yourself. You’re either SUCCEEDING (kicking ass academically, making friends and keeping them entertained and happy, doing all the stuff you’re supposed to do) or you’re FAILING (hiding out, haunting comments sections, watching three seasons of Battlestar Galactica in a row). You are way too hard on yourself, so you reward yourself excessively to make up for it. When someone says “Take care of yourself,” you associate that with drinking a bottle of wine alone, in bed, while watching Mad Men, even though it should mean dragging yourself out of your room to get a little sunlight, to be around people WITHOUT TRYING TO PLEASE THEM ALL OF THE TIME.

People with reasonably ok social skills who avoid socializing often do so because they’ve fallen into a habit of people pleasing in an inauthentic way. They assume that friends and lovers want a certain version of them, that they can’t be awkward and strange and still be loved. You need to experiment with showing people your true self. You feel like you need to put on a show with real people, but you like listening much more. You can bring that into the real world. You can offer real people your listening skills, and still present your thorny opinions and messiness.

But here’s what you can’t do—and this goes for so many people: You can’t just dig a deeper and deeper hidey hole of DVDs and games and email and bad food and no sleep and darkness and nothingness. Most people suffer when they try this; you are going to suffer EXCESSIVELY under these conditions. Remember how I had a great apartment and loads of time and money, and I got all wan and lifeless and lonely? With total freedom, I not only suffered, but I felt horribly guilty for suffering. My world view got really warped; things seemed tragic all around me. Even so, every bit of suffering I felt was more proof (in my mind) that I was a bad mess of a person who didn’t deserve to live a chipper, productive life like everyone else OUT THERE.

So things won’t be good unless you’re not exerting yourself, feeling some sun on your face, working hard at something that matters to you. THIS WILL ALWAYS BE TRUE FOR YOU. The financial support from your parents really should stop once you’re out of school. I totally get that you don’t know what you want to do, and don’t see the point in doing anything. I GET IT, LORD OH LORD YES. But you must force yourself to look over a few different options and you must tolerate finding things out about career paths, things you don’t want to know. You will feel sick when you find out more about careers you don’t care about. You will think, “Who wants to do anything, ever?” That’s your bad physical state and your biochemistry and your lack of experience talking. That’s your accumulated gray worldview. Right now you’re screwing up because YOU DON’T ACTUALLY WANT TO FINISH SCHOOL. Graduating means having to do something. Having to do something feels terrible.

You have to face the future. Your therapist, or a new one, can help there. So can friends that you have REAL relationships with. That means you have to be consistent, you can’t disappear. You have to be honest about WHY you disappear, about your fears and your hiding. The people who like you less for these weaknesses aren’t your people. Plenty of people will understand, and love you for YOU once they understand you better.

This is a tough spot for you. I’ve been there a few times, so trust me: Your life is going to get better and better. Escaping is not going to help. Rewarding yourself in moderation will. But you absolutely must 1) exercise, 2) write down your feelings for you and no one else, 3) eat good things, 4) sleep regular hours, 5) get up early and do your academic work AT THE LIBRARY, 6) expect more from your therapist 7) tell your parents the truth, 8) focus on graduating AND on potential careers, and 9) remind yourself, over and over and over, that things will get better.

THINGS WILL GET BETTER.

You are not any different than almost every single smart person I know. We all went through this kind of despairing stage. We all fall back into it sometimes, even now, and we have to crawl out again. But look, nothing compares to that feeling of aimlessness that comes from being very young and uncertain about what you want from your life. It almost made me feel sick when I thought about it today. So trust me about this one thing: You may never feel THIS bad again.

But it’s also true that being happy and productive and having authentic relationships and CARING about your career goals and the future takes hard work for smart, depressive people. It takes hard work. Years from now, your life will be beautiful, and you will still have some bad days where you wonder if you’re the kind of person who wants to escape or hurt people or destroy everything you’ve gained.

But you’re not. You can show yourself—your real, vulnerable, shaky, scared, sad, worried self—to real people. You’re a good listener, and a hard worker. You’re not fucking up that badly. You just need to tell people the truth. “Just tell the truth.” JUST. TELL. THE. TRUTH. It’s time to start daring to disappoint people – your parents, your friends, your ex-girlfriend. Call them and explain what’s happening to you. You will crawl out of this hole. Be gentle with yourself, but ask yourself to stop hiding.

The second you decide to show your true self to the world, the whole world shifts. You make the world better, when you’re open and vulnerable and you tell the truth. You make space for other people to tell the truth. When you dare to expose your sadness, your weakness, your longing, you set other people free. You give them hope. You make them love this world, in a way that seemed impossible just a few seconds before.

And maybe that’s not JUST a path out of this dark place you’re in. Maybe it’s also your calling. Maybe it’s part of what you’re here to do.

You can start right now. All you have to do is tell the truth. You don’t have to carry this load. Put it down, and keep walking. You are light, and free, and this crazy world loves you just the way you are.

Polly





Do you feel like the depressed, abusive antihero of a critically acclaimed television show but want to upgrade your life to summer blockbusters? Write to Polly and discuss!

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 Linda Tanner