Wednesday, July 16th, 2014

Ask Polly: You Are Not Uniquely Fucked

allaloneHi Polly,

I’m 29 and have been through an enormous amount of shit that is both situation-specific and universal; I am not unproud that I’ve made it this far, considering. I’m in therapy and have been off and on since I was eight, looking for a way to beat back some severe depression and find good reasons to keep doing normal people things that actually feel excruciating. I’m on some meds now that make me not feel like I’m walking around without any skin, but I know that’s just about getting level and now I’ve got actual work to do. I just have no idea where to go or what to do next.

I’m committed to not being a sadsack asshole anymore, and I’ve learned so much. I’m trying to stay away from both tepid and unhelpfully intense relationships that remind me of my fucked up childhood. I’m looking for ways to dive deep and be okay with metaphorical heat and darkness and actual solitude and uncertainty. I want so much to hold on to what I like about myself—my bravery, my depth of feeling, my brutal, nasty intelligence—while also learning to be an actual regular person who can do things like enjoy basic times of friends without boozing myself into maudlin unbearableness, or getting so discouraged at my job that everyone wonders what I’m even doing there until I get fired. It’s like I keep figuring this shit out, and then forgetting it immediately.

I guess, I just can’t find a good middle ground about anything? When I imagine what my “best life” is, it’s only possible through a time machine. I don’t want to write, or be a writer, I want to have already published a barnstorming first novel at seventeen that made me universally adored and celebrated. I don’t daydream about meeting a good dude and making it work, I lose hours imagining having never met the asshole abusers or lukewarm Mr. All Wrongs. I’m so lonely, because I’m never as kind or gracious to myself as I am to my friends, but every chance I get to make a connection, I cock up with try-hard nonsense or totally losing my shit. I try to make plans, try to remember that good people with good lives have to work for them, but I almost always feel like I have missed the boat for any of the normal stuff people do or enjoy. I want to want things for myself, but can’t follow through on anything, like I already think that I’ve failed and should just bow out, or second guess if I really want those things or can make them work until opportunities have sailed right on past.

This attitude made more sense, I guess, when my dreams were so big they were laughable. I’m barreling down the road towards middle age, the time to become a child prodigy or set myself on the path to run the world or start an epic hundred-year romance are gone. I’ve tried to lower my expectations for myself, to accept that my big dreams, or even normal-sized ones, aren’t in the cards, but I can’t shake the sense that what I want and what I can achieve are so far apart that even tiny things feel beyond reach. 

Writing to you feels like a cop out, because it seems like you’ve addressed all of these things before. But seriously, how do you love yourself? How do you accept your flaws and strengths and offer your best to others while trusting they will make allowances for your worst? How do you be a person? I’m struggling here to make any reasonable plan, or even take a simple positive step, to being happy and whole.

I know there’s no secret, and I don’t really want to live in a Jules Verne novel, but seriously, how does someone actually get to a place where they can combine and use all the good advice they’ve been given, and just live a life?


I Need A Meaning I Can Memorize


It's funny that I should stumble on your letter today, because I'm sitting down for the fiftieth time to write an introduction to a potential Ask Polly book, and I'm pretty sure that I'm going to fail, yet again, to come up with a clear, coherent message, a MEANING TO MEMORIZE.

Because you can't sell a book today without a short, snappy, memorizable meaning. I'm not sure you can sell anything without a zippy message attached to it. Literary agents, publishers, publicists, talent bookers, lifestyle magazine gurus, opinion page honchos, network executives, TV producers, studio heads, investment analysts, local politicians, world leaders, archangels, God, Yoda, Darth Vader? They all want a concise, coherent, provocative, urgent, necessary, salty-sweet message-nugget, and they want it delivered from the head of the Great and Powerful Oz, flanked by flamethrowers aimed at the sky.

At the very least, they'd like you to smile a little more often, and flat-iron your hair.

Helpful, regular people might say to someone like me (or you!), someone with enormous expectations and weak follow-through and brutal, nasty intelligence and a tendency to dive into maudlin unbearableness, "So, smile more and flat-iron your hair, for fuck's sake. What's the big deal?"

What do we say to that? Because "Smile and flat-iron your hair" is a meaning we can memorize, right? Just hide your wishy-washy self behind the fucking curtain, aim the flamethrowers at the sky, and speak into the Mr. Microphone with the All-Powerful Deity effect turned on. This is what our skin-deep, tl;dr culture appears to want from us: distilled three-second tidings. Slap your long-winded ass in a saucepan on medium heat until the confusion and the second-guessing burn off, but so do the complexity and the unanswerable philosophical questions and the soaring but somewhat vague epiphanies.

Instead of reading like a cry for help, though, your letter sounds almost like a mission statement. Because, even though you feel isolated and lonely, even though you've drawn circles around your so-called "bad" behaviors and said, "I need to do less of this," even though you're ready to get on the "right" track and start feeling happy and "whole," you also paint a pretty compelling portrait of how it feels to be a complex person in a world that embraces forced smiles and simpleton wisdom and bulletproof solutions, a world that kicks the wishy-washy and the maudlin to the curb. In some ways, your letter sounds less like "Here are my many fucking problems" and more like a kind of rallying cry for complicated, sensitive, brutally smart human beings who crave a meaning they can memorize but who are also severely allergic to memorizable meanings.

Likewise, I think I'm struggling to write a general-purpose introduction that encapsulates the kind of snappy, three-second messages that signal a saleable product for the same reason I struggled to tolerate annoying jobs and half-assed relationships and passive-aggressive friendships when I was your age. I got all weird and wishy-washy or I cocked up with try-hard nonsense or I totally lost my shit. I knew that I should smile more and flat-iron my hair, but even thinking about these things made me want to show up unshowered and ramble incoherently about all of the reasons everything in the world was bewildering and wrong. Somehow KNOWING that there was ONE right answer only made me want to offer up five hundred wrong answers instead.

Right now, you are the living, breathing manifestation of five hundred wrong answers. Your letter, if you reread it with the right spirit of appreciation, is a paean to wrong answers.

But listen, I'm not sure you have a big problem with follow-through, or long-term commitment, or wholeness. I think your problem is about introductions, literal and figurative. Regular life was excruciating up until not so long ago, right? You are just starting out on a smooth path. You clearly don't love your career, and maybe you suspect that your friends, what few friends you might have, are incapable of understanding you. You haven't really dated a man who's healthy yet. Give yourself a break, because you're only twenty-nine years old, and YOU JUST GOT HERE, to a place where you're not an unhinged, severely depressed, unstable human attracting other unhinged, severely depressed, unstable humans. Also, beginnings are not easy, precisely BECAUSE they demand that we get behind the goddamn curtain and act like we're simpler and less conflicted than we are.

Just as you believe that you should somehow retool yourself to be more resilient and optimistic and tenacious and THEN life might be ok (but you are still, somehow, resistant to being retooled), I imagine that any Ask Polly introduction I write will get flat-ironed until I don't recognize it anymore. I might start with something dark and digressive on the outside with a chewy optimistic center, but eventually it will be hammered into a less dark and digressive state.

That's a problem. Because the real value of this column and the reason it could only thrive on the weirdo terrain of The Awl, is that it's exactly as unwieldy and rambling and flawed as it needs to be in order to kick up some tiny speck of redemption. Maybe there are coherent messages along the way (DARE TO BE "THAT WOMAN." KICK TEPID MEN TO THE CURB. Or my personal favorite: COME ON HIS HAMPTON BLOUSE AND MOVE ON), but if you cut straight to that message, why would you even care? I wouldn't. Who wants to sound just like every other little digestible square of upbeat text in the world, the text of cereal boxes and lifestyle magazines and yoga retreat pamphlets and TEDx talk summaries and organic tea bags?

Although I do think that we're stumbling half-blind into an era of newfound indifference to memorizable messages and the Great and Powerful in general, it's hard to know what we should put in place of the simpleton wisdom and the well-styled gurus. For example, I just watched five new TV comedies and dramas that will air soon, and every last pseudo-subversive one of them either features blood and gore and worms crawling out of eyeballs, or nasty people who insult each other and talk about masturbation and what's going to get them off around the clock like overgrown, angry teenagers (see also: a real-life version of that TV show "Just 'Batin'" from Idiocracy.) Even when culture rejects the zippy, Live Your Best Life, self-improvement-as-extreme-overachiever-sport messages out there, the results aren't all that appealing or meaningful. A few minutes in, someone smashes someone's head in with a tire iron or makes some casual joke about anal sex, and the carnival's over before it even started.

So this is what I have to say to you: Forget easy slogans. Your tendency to think of yourself as a damaged, sad misfit who might never fit in or be happy, who needs to be fixed? It's understandable, but it needs to change. Even though you had to identify the extreme duress of your past and locate the ways in which these traumas formed you; even though you STILL need to be wary of tepid men and intense overbearing people who will use your scars to bend you to their will; even though you will probably ALWAYS, in some tiny corner of your brain, suspect that you're too fucked by your circumstances and chemistry and nature to ever be a regular person in the world with an equal shot at happiness as everyone else, you also have to, simultaneously, try to let that stuff go. You have to learn to take all of these ways you bungle your introductions, with darkness and digressions, and embrace them a little.

Because it's pretty fucking hard to follow through with things that start with forced smiles and flat-ironed hair. You have no way of knowing how good or bad you are at sallying forth from a point that feels authentic and gratifying and real, whether it's a job or a friendship or a love affair. Personally, I've been amazed at how easy I find it to be married to someone who's actually interested in me, insane rambling wishy-washiness and all, and I've been surprised at how hard I'm willing to work at a career that feels meaningful (occasionally!) and offers chances for me to delve into complex subjects without glossing or reducing or oversimplifying (sometimes!).

You write, "It’s like I keep figuring this shit out, and then forgetting it immediately." That's not your strange little personal problem. That's not what makes you uniquely fucked. That's a universal truth, a fundamental dimension of the human condition. You know who feels that way? You, me and everyone we know. Fucking OPRAH feels that way, or she'd have fallen asleep while interviewing Deepak Chopra a long, long time ago.

So: We can all continue to be controlled by the ILLUSION that this is not how it is for everybody else. We can decide that we hate our jobs because we are SINGULARLY stubborn and lazy and bored. We can decide that we quit things because we are UNUSUALLY unable to deal. We can get angry at ourselves, over and over again, because we are uncertain and full of longing. Or we can wake up and notice that this is a common thread of human existence, easily traceable through history (although perhaps less true of people who had to, say, wake at dawn and plow the fields, which is why Viktor Frankl always advocated structuring a depressed person's day with lots of hard labor and very little time to reflect).

Did I mention that we're in conflict with ourselves? We're in conflict with ourselves because we want A MEANING WE CAN MEMORIZE, but we also DISTRUST ALL MEANINGS, memorizable or otherwise. In other words, we are like Goths in black leather with pretty highlighted, flat-ironed hair. We are huffing spray paint and watching Oprah. We are Hannah Montana, skipping and chewing bubble gum, and we're also Miley Cyrus, fondling Alan Thicke with a giant foam hand. We are Julie, cruise director of "The Love Boat," smiling and gushing about bingo on the Lido Deck, and we're also Khaleesi, Mother of Dragons, growling, "I will answer injustice with justice!"

We are angry and hopeful and disappointed and we want more. We also blame ourselves for wanting more, as if we should've been stronger inside than to be molded by a culture that trains us, from the moment we're conscious, to want more, more, more. As if we could simply shut out decades of snappy three-second messages that remind us, over and over again, of our hunger and our thirst. As if we could endure a non-stop media barrage of sexy Amazonian humans with flat-ironed hair who never age, repeatedly saving the day on our big screens and saving orphaned children in our magazines and speaking in snappy messages and trading in a five-million-dollar beach house for a twenty-million-dollar mansion on the Italian Riviera every few milliseconds. As if we could encounter these frothy, airbrushed fairy tales for most of our lives and emerge feeling peaceful and satisfied with our frizzy hair and our imperfect love lives and our mountains of debt.

Of course you don't want to write. Who wants to sit and try at something and rarely get paid for it and possibly fail at it? I don't want to do it a lot of the time. We all wish we'd published a barnstorming first novel at seventeen that made us universally adored and celebrated. OK, I would've been fine with that happening at age thirty-seven, actually. Age forty-seven would be ok with me, too.

But I also know that I wouldn't be completely satisfied with that. Even if I were to publish a brilliant bestselling novel, I'd be halfway through the book tour (hating it, like the fucking ingrate I am), and I'd already be wondering if I'd ever publish anything half as brilliant as my first novel. I'd already be plagued by worry over whether I could pull it off all over again.

And even though there are some people reading this who are thinking, "OH FUCK YOU PEOPLE, I WOULDN'T BE LIKE THAT AT ALL, I'D FUCKING ENJOY EVERY MINUTE OF UNEXPECTED LITERARY SUCCESS!" most of those people would be running in some other form of tiny circle, worrying about something else, like we all do.

The only thing you gain as you get older is the ability to look around you and say, "This is pretty much what I get, and I'm not going to have this forever. I'd better really enjoy it." But don't get me wrong, I'm not all peaceful and satisfied. I'm just thrilled to be more peaceful and satisfied than I was ten years ago. I can go on vacation without getting twitchy. I can hang out with my kids without playing Candy Crush or impatiently scanning the news, sometimes.

What I'm trying to tell you is that life is fucking hard and messy for everyone, and there is no quick way to memorize a little motto or jingle that will see you through the messiness and the melancholy. No one will save you. No one will make you feel whole. I personally knew a guy who published a barnstorming first novel at seventeen that made him universally adored and celebrated, and his life has been a rollercoaster of highs and lows since then, just like the rest of us. I don't know if he's happy or sad, but he definitely never wrote another novel. (That might mean he's very happy, mind you. I don't know. But that first celebrated novel certainly didn't solve everything.)

Success at writing rarely adds up to anything you can touch. You either write because you enjoy writing or (more commonly) you like how it feels to have written something. These are merely things you do with yourself. Even if, by some miracle, you become Jennifer Egan overnight, you still have to face the same question: Do I want to practice my craft today or not? Can I find meaning here? Does it feel good to do this, even when I fall short? Can I accept that I will usually fall short, that it takes a ton of work to gently massage a bad thing until it becomes a good one?

Because even though you might think you don't want to work hard at anything, I think you're wrong. You worked very, very hard to get here. Clearly, you enjoy hard work a lot.

Go watch that documentary about Jerry Seinfeld returning to stand-up comedy after making something like eight hundred million dollars from his sitcom. Because in the end, even for a megarich megastar, it's all about craft. And WHAT is harder than trying to make a joke funny enough to make a room full of people—PEOPLE SKEPTICAL ABOUT MILLIONAIRES—laugh? Why would Seinfeld try to do something THAT DIFFICULT, that embarrassing and possibly catastrophic? Because the alternative was to retreat to Neverland and hire a doctor with a fondness for propofol.

If you're not dodging chemical bombs or walking five miles through the desert heat to find potable water, you have to wake up and shut off your bad brain and work. When your work is done, you have to figure out how to shut off your bad brain and relax. You have to recognize and accept, in your bones, that accomplishing everything you've ever dreamed of (like Seinfeld) feels a little bit like never having accomplished anything. You will still have to inject meaning into your life every day, somehow, some way.

Speaking of "celebrity" profiles, the other day I saw a teaser for a TV special about that guy who says "Let's get ready to rrrrrrumble!" at big events. In the teaser, Rumble Guy describes that fateful day when he tried out a bunch of different stupid catchphrases, and landed on the one that was stupid enough that stupid people might get all frothed up every time they heard it. Then Rumble Guy's brother, who is or was his manager, talked about how they were extremely strategic about building a gigantic fortune around this one stupid catchphrase. I assume they made sure that NO ONE ELSE COULD EVER SAY this stupid catchphrase, except for Rumble Guy. That way Rumble Guy could spend the rest of his life flying around the country, uttering this one stupid catchphrase, and then taking home a giant bag of cash.

In contrast to the Seinfeld documentary, this story epitomizes the absurd Dr. Seuss-like world we inhabit today. Because not only did Rumble Guy have the gall to trademark his shitty catchphrase, not only did he have the gall to charge millions for it, but he also had the gall to sit around in front of the camera and smugly discuss what a fucking genius he was for coming up with that one enchantingly idiotic idea—not even an idea, really, but a string of five pointless words. I don't mean Rumble Guy is a bad guy. Of course not. But can you FUCKING IMAGINE being that guy, and happily riding the fumes of something that stupid for the rest of your life?

It takes a special kind of a person to do that. And honestly, when you present me with your string of difficult questions, this is what I think about. I think about hard work and the ability to suspend your disbelief, how those two things are really what constitute follow-through—with love, with your career, with your friends. You ask me, "How do you love yourself? How do you accept your flaws and strengths and offer your best to others while trusting they will make allowances for your worst? How do you be a person? I’m struggling here to make any reasonable plan, or even take a simple positive step, to being happy and whole.” All of these things mostly boil down to hard work and suspending your disbelief. You have to be a little bit like Jerry Seinfeld and you have to be a little bit like the Rumble Guy. Because even though one guy gets up in the morning and does something really challenging and maybe even embarrassing (and then, yes, eats delicious fucking meals and flies places in his private jet) and the other guy just mutters five empty words (and also, yes, eats delicious fucking meals and flies places in his private jet), both of those guys know how to do something very important: They know how to shut off the part of their brains that say things like "Oh my god, I made the world's best sitcom and maybe I'll never create anything that good for the rest of my life!" and also "Oh my god, I'm just a cheesy dude with a spraytan and a growly voice!"

It goes without saying that these people have their problems. We all do. Do they love themselves? Do they offer their best to others? Can they make plans? Are they happy and whole? Who the fuck knows? What the fuck is "whole"? What does happiness look like, exactly? They do what they do and they don't question it. Or, they mute the questions for just long enough to get 'er done.

THAT SAID, my guess is that you won't be able to suspend your disbelief and shut off your bad brain until you let your disbelief and your bad brain have their time to shine. Again, you are grappling with introductions, with trying to appear smooth and kind and not-maudlin and never-brutal. What you really need is space to be maudlin but not unbearable, brutal but not nasty, dark and digressive but not self-destructive, rambling and vague but not impossibly self-involved. You are a good writer and you should write more, because it will allow you the time and space you need to let everything out. In my opinion, when you're complicated and smart and damaged and sensitive and self-conscious, you can't just "accept" your flaws, you have to embrace them.

Embracing your flaws is, paradoxically, closely related to suspending your disbelief. It's about rejecting the snappy message that the world wants snappy messages. It's about daring to be fucking "tl;dr" in order to also access "win" and "yaaasss" and the "omg."

You will never be the polished, one-dimensional person this world desires. Let the world have their airbrushed, frothy sloganeers. You need to make messes and embarrass yourself. When you stick your neck out and open up and embarrass yourself, lots of people will find you intolerable, because lots of people don't like half-formed, wishy-washy, scattered introductions. The more you accept that and let your hair down anyway, the less you'll compulsively try too hard, hide, drink too much, hate yourself, cock it all up, etc.

You must stop trying to fix things, and start trying to love what's not completely fixed. You must be flawed and scattered, in as active a way as possible. Your work is to find some place for flaws and maudlin scatteredness. Find your own craft, and maybe even find your own messy fucking catchphrase, too.

In fact, maybe snappy messages and catchphrases aren't so bad after all. Maybe we hate them because most of them feel so willfully blind to how it feels to be a person in the world. But maybe you can cobble together a message that you really believe in. Maybe you can look at what you fear the most in yourself, and love that part of you instead. You may not feel love, but you will be resolved to show yourself love anyway. You will stop using harsh terms to summarize your glory — your unique, off-kilter glory. Or maybe you'll still use harsh terms but you'll imbue them with glory, somehow. You'll appropriate the most soul-sucking messages that were ever used against you: YOU WILL COME ON THEIR HAMPTON BLOUSE AND MOVE ON.

Let yourself ramble. Let out the full scope of who you are. Find your own meaning, and memorize it. Let your meaning be scrappy and misshapen enough that you can feel love for it. Get up in the morning and open the window and say:


Say it like you mean it, until you mean it. Suspend your disbelief. Then get to work. Let your flaws lead you past the awkward beginnings, past the skin-deep introductions, past the clumsy trying-too-hard greetings, to the good part, to the bad part, to the real thing. Just keep moving forward, breathing in and out, trusting that darkness and digressions will lead you to love, bright and pure and real. Follow your best intentions and your worst fears and feel how excruciating it can be, to simply endure the beating of your tender heart. It hurts, and you're exhausted. Look around you: Everything is beautiful, right now. Smudgy and melancholy and incomplete and unbearably beautiful.


Are you a three-second memorizable message and want to be tl;dr? 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 Jay Aremac

35 Comments / Post A Comment

katastic (#101,081)

Polly, I just want to say again how very very close this hit to home for me. Thank you.

Lcanon (#240,865)

I just want to say that every single time I have had a crisis in my life (and quite often the crisis is over something that no one else would see as critical), I have said to God, "OK, I'm just going to lie down on the floor now and die and when I open my eyes, you're going to have fixed everything, OK?" And it never works. Not because God doesn't exist, but because it doesn't work that way in life. You have to put in the effort to get what you want or to get through something.
Another thing to consider is that (as Buddhism teaches) detaching yourself from wanting will bring some internal peace. It will allow you to enjoy the world without necessarily relying on it for happiness. You will be less angry, less demanding, of it and of you.

themegnapkin (#201,538)

@Lcanon not necessarily a question for you, but generally, how do you practice detachment without becoming disengaged?

RobotsNeedLove (#236,743)

@themegnapkin praaaactice. Haha.

But actually, yeah, just practice. Not that I'm super good at it, or anything, but from my super limited wisdom, just practice. It's like loving someone well, or playing the violin. It feels fucking impossible at first, but you just keep chipping away it, and eventually it makes a bit of sense.

In little ways, just noticing how you're feeling and what you're thinking helps so much in detachment. Notice, keep noticing, be curious, watch the feelings, watch them shift and change. Eventually they seem a bit less powerful. But keep working on engaging, at the same time. Working on really really noticing the person you are with at any one moment is a good exercise.

Lcanon (#240,865)

@themegnapkin The metaphor I use is like a pick-up volleyball game. You enjoy it, you play your heart out for your side. But you know just the same that's a game, that in 20 minutes you'll be done and then what seemed so important won't be any longer…and that's the way it's meant to be.

14136262@twitter (#282,561)

I needed this right now. I can feel myself withdrawing, because I feel like I've embarrassed myself or something worse. I feel like I fucked up something bad. But I didn't. I'm just more than 140 characters.

THECLEANSER (#282,562)

Dear Polly, I have loved your column for a long time, but I have stopped finding it at all helpful. Today's column, like seemingly 85% of your columns, deals with a very damaged, depressed individual struggling with accepting themselves. I am not sure why you have stopped taking letters from people who are simply confused, upset, or angry and need advice. What about the rest of us? I never recognize myself — or any of my close friends or family, frankly — in these letters anymore, or in your replies. Maybe all the letters you get are now like this, but it feels to me like you've stopped taking letters from people who don't hate themselves.
I in no way want to insult you or your writing, which I have long enjoyed, or the people who write in. But I would like to see you use your column to respond to the breadth of human experience, not only the parts of it that are the most tragic and troubled. I'd really like to see you answer an existential question that doesn't at heart come from a person with low self-esteem or clinical depression. Many of us out here are pretty average, normal people who still want and need a piece of your wisdom.
xA fan

14136262@twitter (#282,561)

@THECLEANSER go find a different advice column to read?

Regina Small (#2,468)

@THECLEANSER What is "normal"? What is "average"? Everyone has some degree of pain and trauma, some more than others. And every person has days where it's a struggle to accept the darker, more flawed aspects of who she is. Some people have very specific problems and Polly has addressed a lot of those — the man who didn't want to visit Mom for Christmas, the woman struggling with her boyfriend's relationship with his ex — but this has always been billed as an "existential advice column." People who are depressed aren't just depressed. They're sometimes filled with joy and hope and optimism and sometimes they are "confused, upset, or angry and need advice."

If this column has done anything, it's highlighted just how many people in the world feel broken and offers some thoughts about coping with brokenness. If that doesn't hit you on a gut level as a valuable underlying theme, then idk, maybe try a different advice column.

THECLEANSER (#282,562)

@Regina Small In this specific case, which I thought was clear by the context, I meant "average" and "normal" as "not self hating" or "not clinically depressed." You also agree with me, I think, when you say that this column has become almost entirely about brokenness. I can see that is therapeutic and helpful for some people. But not all of us are broken, or in relationships with people who are, and we miss the columns Polly used to write that seemed more universal – about life, love, relationships, parents, loss, etc.

I feel like this change in the column is relatively recent, but it essentially boils down to Polly picking similar questions from people with similar issues that have the same answer. The column used to have more variety; she also used to address more specific situations — now it feels like she specifically picks letters that essentially say "I feel sad and unfulfilled."

I write this as a fan, not to insult Polly, who is a beautiful writer. But I feel the column is doing itself a disservice by not broadening itself, as I said earlier, to the wide, complicated, tumultuous breadth of human experience.

BeenThereDoneThat (#258,177)

@THECLEANSER I agree with recent letters sounded very similar and yes it would be great to see more questions addressing the varied aspect of the human experience. I took no offense in your language since have definately felt broken and very depressed and sometimes revisit these but I am not there now and it's been over a decade sooo Once in a while it would be great to see a letter about a 40 something single mother trying to get laid by a non-tepid motherfuckers, just kidding.

ironhoneybee (#11,033)

This week's column would be a great introduction, Polly.

hopeyglass (#282,577)

@ironhoneybee Agreed (also Maudlin and Brutal and Brave would be a great title.) If not, can you just include that column with "I am very young and I am learning how to live"? With the dog who is going crazy? Because I've had that on my wall for months now and maybe your snappy intro (ugh ugh ugh) could just be "on being very young and learning how to live."

(I signed up for an Awl account just for this. Bless you, Polly.)

NUF (#282,569)

@THECLEANSER your comment upset me. It seems to be telling the letter writers, heather, myself and anyone who identifies with this letter and other recent ones that they (we) are NOT average or normal and that they (we) are "very damaged" and "depressed". In my experience existential questions, almost by definition, come out of situations where people question life, and it's easy honestly for people who are questioning life to be depressed … those two not too far from each other. I am grateful to Polly/Heather for choosing strong examples of doubt and fear, trauma and uncertainty not just because it's easy for those of us who are dealing with a more diluted situation to understand the situation, but also because it's right for her to be using this opportunity to help people that need it the most. And THECLEANSER, I'll ask that you perhaps take the last maybe 6 out of 30 columns as an opportunity to feel grateful about your life instead of complaining that not 100% of things are tailored to you. You may not be able to recognize yourself in these letters of pain, doubt and trauma, and I'm happy that your experience has been good (or your imagination so limited. I have a suspicion that your friends and family may have a different experience but feel that they have to hide it from you due to your attitude) but you are making it harder for the rest of us who can.

garlicmustardweed (#264,986)

Dear LW, first a compliment: you are an excellent writer! I thought your letter was clear, thoughtful, and provocative. I am also someone who writes for my job (nothing literary, but wordsmithing and crafting prose none-the-less). It IS fucking hard. There are lots of days I just sit and stare at my laptop or re-read Dear Polly and newspapers. But if I leave my house and take my laptop to a coffee shop or a library and edit like three or four sentences, then I have succeeded in working for the day. I have all these fantasies about my super productive colleagues pumping out coherent prose while I sit here, drinking my coffee and procrastinating, and it leads to a shitty downward spiral of self-esteem. But I think those are fantasies I create just to motivate myself. Writing (and doing any job worth doing) is opening yourself up to criticism, and is therefore terrifying! But make some baby steps every day and you'll feel good about it. That goes for small gestures of social interaction also– signing up for one dating website, talking to one person in line at the grocery store. I met my husband at a freaking lame-ass work mixer that I did NOT want to go to, but I was invited by a friend and I decided that the lame-ass mixer would be my "try one new social interaction" task for the day. And that one little task payed off.

NUF (#282,569)

@THECLEANSER I'm not sure how to be more clear. Your implication that people who relate to this letter and similar ones are broken is insulting. Please stop using loaded and judgmental language.

I disagree that the column has become almost entirely about brokenness and feel that it is plenty universal. Perhaps the issue is not that the subjects aren't relatable but that your relating skills are poor.

arc42 (#282,574)

This may sound ridiculously trite, but I was feeling at my lowest going into 2012 and so on the first day of the year (which you can really do any day, let's be real), I just took out a piece of paper, and started writing things on it in marker that I wanted to remember — because I, too, needed a meaning I could memorize, something that would finally stick between my ears and not just fly right out and leave me wandering again. I just wrote whatever came to mind. "Give more. Smile more. Forgive more quickly. Eat chocolate if you want. Sleep 8 hours. Drink water before you go to bed. Exercise, but don't beat yourself up if you don't. Call friends, don't text. Write e-mails. Pray. Meditate. Cook sometimes." and on, and on. I filled up the whole page and then I put it on my fridge. I read those same words day after day after day in 2012, until by the end of the year, the sheet was faded and stained and I had memorized pretty much every line on it. I still repeat to myself, "Give more. Smile more. Forgive more quickly" on days when I'm feeling shitty.

It's nothing brilliant, but it helped me re-focus every damn morning when I walked in my kitchen and I saw that list.

garlicmustardweed (#264,986)

@arc42 This reminds me of that Baz Luhrmann Advice song "Everybody's Free" in which he concluded "Take my advice or don't, but remember the sunscreen!" . . .I pretty much memorized that song, and I go back to certain lines once and a while like you go back to your list. I especially like when he paraphrases Eleanor Roosevelt: "try to do something every day that scares you." Because for really depressed people, just about EVERYTHING is scary, and it reminds you that is dosn't matter if the challenge is big in a universal sense, but that you take on a challenge that is hard and scary for YOU personally.

Fern Reno (#277,053)

Polly columns are the best part of the Awl — which says A LOT — and I'm always excited to read them and bawl.

I cry from recognizing over and over how more alike we are than different.

RobotsNeedLove (#236,743)

LW, you sound like your expectations of yourself are monumental, and you view your failures as catastrophic. Really, my love, you are just regular, like the rest of us, fucking our shit up.

LW, my life got so much better when I stopped worrying about being different or special in either good or bad ways, and started working on just being who I am, doing whatever I'm doing in ways that make sense for me. I'll never be a child prodigy or a prima ballerina or even a super duper high-powered version of my current profession. My depressive episodes just are what they are, they are not a marker of my unique brokenness.

And it's wonderful here. It's totally fine to just be a regular person. In fact, it's a miracle. Life is full of miracles, every day. I have learned to take delight in my dumpy little garden and my small professional successes and the people whom I love. Maybe none of it is impressive or great or perfect, but it's what I've got.

LW, you are missing the boat by worrying about missing the boat. It's ok, you're on the boat, carry on.

Also, consider getting a pet – a cat or a dog. Maybe for you a dog, if you struggle with feeling unloved. Pets are great for making you think about things other than your own failures.

garlicmustardweed (#264,986)

@RobotsNeedLove I like that as a mantra: "Don't worry about missing the boat. You're on the boat"

tnb (#282,582)

Great letter and response. I know that I function better sometimes when I have a "slogan" in mind, a mantra maybe, I'm not sure. But the funny thing is it changes. Different phrases get me through different weeks. I never sit down to purposefully figure out what my mantra will be. But I'll think/read/hear something and find it helpful, then hold onto it and focus on it for several days at a time. Then before I know it I've forgotten the saying and my mental/emotional state is somewhere else entirely. Brains are funny, being a human is weird.

Madly (#276,079)

People who own their brokenness are far and away the most interesting folks around. LW, your LIFE is your barnstorming first novel. Even though you might not believe it right now, coming as far as you have is a great work in itself. And let me tell you, there's something about being 29 that's FRAUGHT with the feeling that things that haven't even begun for you yet are already all over. It's all okay. You'll be amazed down the road at how it all works out, whatever that means for you.

eizverson22 (#277,962)

Failure is not terrible, the most important thing is to get up.

dontannoyme (#24,319)

I once went to an amazing wedding where Lionel Richie was the entertainment. He was, btw, awesome. But the point was that he arrived early in the day and spent the entire day at the piano, practising. I was amazed by this – he's spent the last four decades playing those songs every single solitary day and he still spends hours every day rehearsing. That's my equivalent of the Seinfeld story in case it's not obvious. My memorisable instruction is that you just work hard and keep going. Whether you have become a multimillion selling superstar or you are just trying to find your place in the world. Work hard and keep going. The meaning is in the work, whether it's crappy or not. It's how you build a life, create a structure, put food on the table. It's basically "keep calm and carry on". Sorry to use that phrase but it was useful in the Blitz for a reason.

GTK (#282,641)

LW, I appreciate the Achewood reference in your letter. You have good taste.

xee (#8,831)

"fondling Alan Thicke with a giant foam hand"

I'm so glad about this image – i know it's probably just a brain blip but imagiing Alan Thicke in place of Robin Thicke, bemused and out-of-place but really no less unfitting than his son, is aggressively delightful.

Buffybot 2000 (#234,784)

This made me cry, it rang so true. While not every column has been so close to the pain of my heart, I always find something to learn and keep with me. I am SO grateful for your words each week. Thank you. <3

swivia (#282,745)

I've been reading this column for the past few months and just registered an account that I could comment on this column. Your compassion and empathy really shines through in your responses. Thank you!

ClairenceThomas (#231,716)

"You are not Uniquely Fucked" is not a bad mantra. For the brutally intelligent, life is from the get-go a search for meaning, for understanding, and self-examination that can tear you apart. You had some bad relationships. You sought out the wrong guy, and he in turn made you act in a way that wasn't authentic or unfaithful to your spirit. Don't fault yourself for that and don't view it as a mistake. You don't shy away from complicated dynamics, and whatever the outcome, I'm sure you learned from it.
Prodigies and people who emerge full-speed out of adolescence into the "rest of their lives" have a tremendous advantage, which is confidence and an ability to tune out the second-guesses. But that requires blinders, and there is plenty that they will miss. I don't mean to denigrate one type of person compared to another, but only to point out that there is no right or wrong way. There's no silver lining to our lives or our situations, as if the good can be picked out from the bad. Our lives just are.
And here's where I sound like a hippie, bear with me. I was an anxious child, terrified first of monsters, then diseases, and then as I grew older the fears didn't leave, they just glommed on to more abstract threats like loneliness, professional failure, inability to be a good friend, girlfriend, daughter. Those are nasty fears, because you can't just check under the bed or get a blood test to calm yourself down.
I took mushrooms, several times, over the space of a couple years. Mostly by myself. I cried each time, out of happiness, because I realized "it doesn't matter." That became my mantra. It sounds like a more negative version of "it's OK," but in truth it feels better than that. I can return to that insight and realize that none of this fucking matters. I am a cloud, a temporary conglomeration of molecules that will dissipate back into the larger whole. And the only thing I have to worry about until then is reminding myself that nothing matters. Not these little annoyances, these self-doubts. Those fears about myself are not me. There is a fundamental 'me,' that is so basic and yet miraculous in its improbability, that it is impossible to feel ill-will toward it. Can you criticize a cloud? Yes, I just typed that, wtf. But I stand by it. The last time I tripped I wrote a note to myself. It's in my desk drawer, I'm going to take it out now and relay it to you: "What made me cry, made me so happy, was that this despairing impression of [my name] wasn't real. She's still here, underneath that false story I told about myself." And then a second note, "They don't tell you how hard it is, to claw and scrape and build this soul."
It's hard, but it's a beautiful work, the biggest work of your improbable life.

meni (#244,209)

There's a quote by Arthur Schnabel, a famous pianist, that goes, “The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes — ah, that is where the art resides.”

I appreciated so much of this week's column, but that quote came to mind when I read the line, "Because the real value of this column and the reason it could only thrive on the weirdo terrain of The Awl, is that it's exactly as unwieldy and rambling and flawed as it needs to be in order to kick up some tiny speck of redemption."

Polly, you handle words wonderfully…but I think what you really shine at in this column is handling the pauses, the spaces…and in those spaces, a lot of us find room to breathe a little more freely and exuberantly.

Zoote (#282,766)

This column is probably one of the best thing the internet has produced. I know, this sounds dramatic. But I'm serious – this is such a beautiful place. And this is such a beautiful place because it mixes the strength and depth of written words with the apparent mundanity of our issues and settings and locations and with other words, shortcuts, approximation, slang, idioms we won't be using 20 years from today. That said, LW, I also think you're me, but since you're not, it gives me a huge craving for more and more human contacts. Because the next person I meet could be you, and we'd have so many things to talk about and you would probably give me one of the best advices I've ever received – and maybe I would not remember it but I'd remember you, at least. Or you and I would team up to come up with something, somewhere, our almost solution to part of the problem. And since this won't be you, it will be other people…

chevyvan (#201,691)

I'm a bit late to the party, but I suggest reading/listening to Buddhist teachings. I've listened to several Pema Chodron lectures and books and find it helpful. As cheesy as it sounds, it's about being present in the current moment, and not constantly living your life in the past and the future, which is something I've struggled with myself. I don't consider myself a Buddhist, but if you can put some of these ideas into practice, it feels like a huge weight being lifted off your shoulders.

Also, everything Polly said. Ask Polly book? Yes, please!

CurrerBell (#284,505)

Dear INAMICM, I'm not going to read the other comments here, because I suspect many of them will frustrate and depress me. And I'm not going to tell Polly how much I loved her response, because even though I did, I'm sure plenty of other faceless people have expressed that by now. I don't want to argue or vault an opinion or praise; what I want to do is tell you that your letter to Polly made me feel connected in a rare, deep way. I want to tell you–ugh, this is already falling apart, devolving into posturing, moving away from sincerity. But I wanted to tell you that I love you. I love who you are, I love your life, and I love the way you think about yourself and the world and express yourself. In a way that I'm still struggling to love myself. I identified with your experience so much, and that was, and will remain I suspect, a comfort to me. Thank you for being brave. It will help me to keep being brave, too.

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