Appearing here Wednesdays, Turning The Screw provides existential crisis counseling for the faint of heart. “Worthless knick-knacks for emotional kleptomaniacs!”
I have bored all my friends and therapist with this issue, so I guess it’s your turn now. I am a happily (you know, mainly) married female in my late 30s — with two small kids. Life is pretty ducky — I love and like my husband, like my job, and find my kids totally adorable, amazing, and exhausting/exasperating in equal parts. I have the same problems as everyone else in my demo: aging parents; financial woes (live in a major city where the livin’ ain’t cheap), although not a lack of security by any means; never enough downtime; and… I don’t know, a bathroom that won’t clean itself? Nothing too dramatic. Recently, though, I found out that my ex-boyfriend died suddenly and unexpectedly. We had not been in touch in about eight years, since we broke up, right before I met my husband. The relationship was… well, it was one of those drama-filled doozies that involve HOURS of phone calls with girlfriends describing the pain and heartbreak and arguments and utter terribleness of it all. I am happy and relieved and grateful not to be with him (or any of my other former maniacs) — and to be in a stable relationship with a man who really knows and loves me — in a way that my ex(es) never did or probably could. However! There is something emotionally compelling (and yes, I admit, also totally crippling) about dating a maniac. Mainly, you are pretty miserable but when you are happy… God, you are really high. So, I’m having this bit of existential angst — that is somewhat about the fact that I never had any closure (and I know, closure is kind of a made-up thing) with my ex but also about the fact that I will never again have those dramatic, romantic highs — or do any of the crazy, fun, ultimately destructive crap I did in my youth. Do I just need to be slapped and reminded that I am extremely lucky to have the life I have? Go ahead, slap me.
Can’t Go Back
You know how incredible water tastes when you’re dehydrated? That’s a little bit like the youthful high you’re talking about. Sure, you remember this incredible rush of good feeling, but you don’t remember how dependent that feeling was on dying of thirst the rest of the time. Dramatic, romantic highs tend to come when a) you’re falling in love but you’re not sure if the other person loves you as much as you love him/her yet, or b) you’re in a relationship with someone who’s ambivalent or merely biding his/her time until something better comes along, or c) you’re with a maniac. Unfortunately, b) and c) tend to mimic a in a way that can get confusing.
So you focus on that one magical night, in the middle of a sea of terrible nights, where he held your hand and treated you like a person and you drank too much and that awesome song was playing and you imagined, in that moment, that you two were destined to be together forever, and your whole life might be this good. Lucky for you, your whole life turned out even better than that, it just doesn’t feel like it because you’ve become acclimated to love the way you used to be acclimated to suffering. Those highs you miss are the sorts of highs that occur in a life mostly made up of lows.
That said, I’m not going to berate you for being an ingrate. We all hear about how spoiled we are all the fucking time, without any consideration for the fact that our economy (and our culture) are constructed around instilling discontent. We are encouraged from a young age to update and upgrade every aspect of our lives constantly. We navigate a world in which satisfaction with what you already have is encountered as something akin to madness. Not being able to appreciate what you have isn’t some rare affliction, it’s our shared cultural sickness.
You shouldn’t feel ashamed or guilty over any of this. Your ex died, and now that chapter of your life feels lost to you. What you miss isn’t the highs, exactly, it’s the feeling of possibility you once had. Now you know how your story ends up, and maybe it feels like you’re going to spend the rest of your life doing exactly what you’re doing now.
Without knowing much about how you spend your time, the best I can do is tell you to take the nostalgic drama you’ve generated around this guy’s death and refocus it somewhere else. As real as this phase may feel to you, you’re sort of kicking up dust into a storm when you could just as easily use your energy to improve your life in some way. Something inside you isn’t being served very well by your current, comfortable habits. Describing your life as “pretty ducky” hints at a kind of flaccid, toothless, Ned Flanders way of thinking about yourself. Maybe even your imagination is being crippled by these chumpy, harried-parent ways of thinking. Maybe you’ve fallen into the habit of only talking to your husband about concrete tasks, instead of describing some of the free-floating longing that haunts you.
One of the really stupid things about getting older and having a family is that you get pegged as this kind of non-person that’s incapable of the wildness or the vulnerability that’s so celebrated in young maniacs. It’s dehumanizing, really, to be typecast as a supporting character, an extra, when in fact your body is still (relatively) young and your soul is still hungry and your mind is still crowded with lush, wicked insanity. It’s a pity to fall into a life that doesn’t do justice to the incredible richness and variability and beauty of your interior world. Something about this guy’s death taps into that world, which is fine and understandable. Now it’s time to put that event (and the past that goes with it) behind you, and find other ways to access and express the breadth and depth of your psyche. As your very small kids get slightly bigger, this will get much easier, but in the meantime, consider making some changes. Read better books, go out without your kids more, reconnect with old friends, go see a movie alone, and generally give yourself more permission to dress and act the way you want, rather than always acting loyal and grateful and circumspect the way mothers of small children ought to (because if they don’t, who the fuck else will?).
Just because you’re no longer a self-destructive maniac doesn’t mean you don’t have any needs at all anymore. Almost every single mother I know could stand to hear this once a day, so I’ll tell you the same thing: The current cultural standard for mothers is absurdly undermining, diminishing and demeaning. Bring your needs into the mix more often. Everyone around you — your kids, your husband, your aging parents, your friends — will benefit from your insistence on serving yourself and honoring the richness of who you are a little more. You don’t have to choose to be either a maniac or a dull parent. There are a million interesting colors in between.
I blame all this on my current (soon to be ex) girlfriend. I volunteer at a local food pantry. One day my girlfriend came to pick me up. On the way home she happened to ask me about a coworker who came looking for me while she was there. My antenna immediately went up, because one thing I know for certain, when my girlfriend talks in that way, she knows the other woman is interested in me. She would make the perfect wingman, you know, if we weren’t already involved.
My normal rule is never mess around with people you’re working with. And in my general cluelessness, I had no idea this woman had me on her radar. Unfortunately for my far too easily influenced mind, I cannot stop thinking about this woman now. All she was before was someone I worked with, now she’s become a major obsession, to the point of a little bit of cyber-stalking. As I’ve gotten to know her more, I’m finding out she’s just about perfect fit for me in ways that my current (soon to be ex) girlfriend is definitely not. I further compounded all this stupidity by scheduling a lunch with this woman. It was supposed to be to celebrate her new promotion, and we were supposed to be chaperoned by another coworker. The other guy ‘forgot’ and I was stuck taking the woman to lunch by my lonesome. Well, three hours later we were still there talking. And everything I’d found out about her was just the tip of the iceberg. She really is my perfect partner. Many of the same interests. Same tastes in music. We could have spent another three hours talking about music alone.
My problem (other than being in a 15-year relationship) is, how much do I tell this woman (she knows I have a girlfriend) about my now enormous and growing feelings for her without coming off as a complete douche?
p.s. Nothing beyond a friendly hug between us, so far.
You will probably come off like a complete douche no matter what you do, since you are, in fact, a complete douche. I mean, come on. Your big fucking question is “How do I tell this new woman how I feel?” Talk about putting the cart before the horse. And what can we possibly make of your disingenuous kvetching over the fact that this new crush is all your (soon to be ex) girlfriend’s fault? Do you seriously think that she’s to blame (or to thank) for this whole stupid mess, a stupid mess that you’re obviously incredibly excited about? Have you been making her solely responsible for your emotional experiences for the past 15 years? Because if that’s the case, it really is time to break up. You’ll be doing her an enormous favor, trust me.
It’s pretty telling that you haven’t described your (soon to be ex) girlfriend at all, beyond the fact that she’s perceptive enough to know when a woman seems interested in you (or, alternately, paranoid enough to think that every attractive woman is into you). You suggest that she’s less of a fit for you than this other woman is. I guess I could surmise that she doesn’t like the same music that you like? And this other woman does, so she’s way better?
It all sounds a little bit shallow, frankly. And it sounds like you’re someone who fears change, hence the 15-year relationship (despite obvious ambivalence) AND the determination to make sure a new relationship is waiting for you before you end the current one. I know, I know. Shit happens. Let’s just take a leap of faith and imagine that your coworker is your true soulmate. Even so, it’s really bad form, leaping from one stone to the next, rather than wading into the deep end, after all these years, to see how well you can swim on your own.
If you find out the new woman doesn’t want you, will you stay with your current girlfriend? And if so: Why the fuck would you do that, when you’re obviously anxious to move on? You’re referring to your 15-year-relationship as a “problem,” and you’re already calling your girlfriend your ex! For fuck’s sake, end it already! Staying with someone primarily out of fear of being alone is a big mistake. It doesn’t save you from loneliness so much as make your life with someone else far lonelier than being alone ever could be.
Your (soon to be ex) girlfriend has had your back for a long time. You owe her a chance to talk this whole thing through without having another woman waiting in the wings.
So, first, break up. Then, see how being alone feels. Mourn the loss of your relationship. As you do this, you can get to know your coworker better, as a friend. Maybe she really is your dream girl. Or maybe she’s just someone with similar interests and musical tastes. Either way, once you know her a little better, this big moment of truth where you reveal your feelings isn’t going to feel quite so dangerous and intense and difficult to navigate. But for that to happen, you have to behave honorably first, and deal with this important, historically significant figure in your life in a way that demonstrates respect for the years you’ve spent together. It’s hard to make a happy beginning in the middle of a haphazard, insensitive ending.
And seriously? Grow up. Stop telling charming, self-deprecating stories about yourself that consistently let you off the hook for acting like an abject fuckwiener. You’re too old to blame other people for your circumstances anymore. Take responsibility for your situation and expect a little more from yourself. You’ll feel a lot better about yourself once you do. Then maybe you won’t feel quite so afraid of being alone anymore. Because it’s much more satisfying to spend time alone with an honorable, thoughtful person than it is with a complete douche.
Do you have a bad head, or just bad habits? Write to Polly and find out!
Previously: Ask Polly: I Can’t Stop Procrastinating!
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 Mike Schmid.