Appearing here Wednesdays, Turning The Screw provides existential crisis counseling for the faint of heart. “Because every time a door closes, a few more close.”
I have a big problem. Actually a multitude of big problems that have coalesced into a giant problem. I am 31, and I cannot figure out what to do with respect to my romantic life. All my friends from college/grad school are married or partnered and I feel really unwanted. I’m attractive and outgoing, which has given me the opportunity to make many, many, MANY mistakes with respect to men. In my early 20s, I dumped every single guy who seemed truly interested in me in favor of college athletes, bros of various shapes and sizes, and I dated my philandering high school crush for a year when I should have known better.
I also did well at some great schools, moved around the country, made some great friends, stopped having an eating disorder, and figured out that I don’t want to be a lawyer for the rest of my life. I figured out that I’m actually really a writer and went about finishing one (really funny) screenplay and starting another. I have my shit fairly together. I do a lot of hot yoga. I throw a kick ass dinner party. People seem to enjoy my company.
The only thing I can’t figure out is how to get myself into a good relationship. I’ve been seeing a therapist for a year, and I think I’ve figured out what my issues are. 1) I’m biracial and I don’t date black men, who seem to be the only men who hit on me — my dad was black and absent/alternatively horrible and a black guy raped me in college. I just can’t do it, which probably makes me a racist. Don’t worry. I beat myself up about it regularly. 2) I don’t do vulnerability well because I was severely bullied in middle school. While I’ve been able to overcome my issues with respect to female friends, I have a hard time opening up to men because I assume that they are going to hurt me terribly and/or try to humiliate me. (It’s so bad that I can’t have an orgasm with anyone else in the room.) 3) My dad abandoned me, then emotionally abused me (via phone and later e-mail) for pretty much my whole life. And then, before he died of a sudden stroke this year, he made it my fault that we didn’t have a relationship because I was so “angry” at him. So, I have a hair trigger when it comes to a guy patronizing me — which men seem to really love doing. 4) I’m incredibly judgmental. If someone doesn’t wow me on the first date, he’s not getting a second. And I have the unique talent for cross-examining a guy until he incriminates himself as an asshole. Or, if a guy is not at least a little attractive, I don’t give him the time of day. Basically, no one really has a shot with me. (Also, my grandmother gave me tons of Harlequin romance novels when I was a young teen, so the whole “someone can grow on you” thing is absolutely ridiculous to me.)
So, I know what my issues are. I’ve talked the shit out of them. I think I’ve become a nicer person to be around. I can even observe my issues without castigating myself… sometimes. I’ve even stopped dating unavailable assholes and can generally stop myself from even mentally fixating on them when I run across them. But I’m still not interested in the guys who are interested. I haven’t been attracted to anyone in two years. This wouldn’t be a problem if I didn’t really want a relationship. I have a full life. But I’ve tried everything, and nothing has worked. Online dating has worked for a couple of my friends, so I tried that several times. Now that I’m over 30, I only get messages from 60-year-olds, functionally illiterate guys, or black men who berate me when I say I’m not interested. At my therapist’s urging, I’ve tried different activities: Argentine Tango classes (I left 5 minutes in when no one wanted to dance with me); running club (I could only get myself to go twice and later I got myself a case of runner’s knee); sitting at bars and coffee shops by myself (because of my aforementioned judgmental nature, I probably don’t seem that approachable).
No one’s interested in me, and I’m not interested in anyone. I haven’t been on a date in over a year and haven’t had sex in a year and a half. I feel like that’s really not normal. I miss human contact, even if I have to lock myself in the bathroom with erotica and Mr. Hitachi afterwards. And it’s not like I became measurably less physically attractive between 29 and 31. If anything, the yoga and not going out as much has made my skin look better. And I know it’s not that, it’s the fact that I’m broken. But I can’t seem to fix myself in this area of my life. I feel like I’m doing the right things, and nothing is working. It’s making me really sad and lonely.
Even though I have all these issues, I think I would be great at a relationship once I got myself into one. I’m warm, caring, and open with my friends and family. I’m super health conscious, so I probably won’t ever get too fat and my plan is to drink so much kale juice that people start questioning whether I’m actually a vampire at 40. I’m honest, funny, responsible, and engaging. There’s no reason I wouldn’t make a great girlfriend/wife/mother/what have you.
So what should I do? Force myself to date the guys who are interested even if I find them repulsive, marry the least awful one so that I can have a baby, and divorce him at 40 when I no longer need logistical assistance with an infant? Resign myself to being alone because I’m irreparably broken and get a sperm donor at 35? Have sex with an asshole I’m at least attracted to just to have someone touch me? Or how do I open myself up so I meet someone who suits me? I’m kind of at a loss here.
Sad, Lonely, and Stuck
When you’re walking down the street, you can sort of tell that some people are happy and engaged and open, and others are in a state of retrenchment, contraction, withdrawal. Some have tea on the stove and cookies in the oven, others have barbed wire and sand bags, followed by a lone spire of cigarette smoke drifting above a muddy trench.
I know you’ve been through a war, and you should feel great that you survived and now you’re building yourself a great life. But… you’re still wearing your army fatigues and firing random shots into the air. You’re still having trouble distinguishing between harmless strangers and child-murdering Nazis. And it’s almost like this angry soldier thing is part of your identity. You’re damaged, and you have scars, and you’re a little bit proud of the tenacity and the boldness that saw you through that dark time.
I don’t blame you for that. No one would. You should be grateful that you’re tough, you’re confrontational when you need to be, you’re a survivor. If you weren’t, you might be sitting around in a dark apartment, feeling sorry for yourself, instead of throwing dinner parties with your friends and writing screenplays and doing all the stuff you do.
You can’t scrape off all of your defenses overnight. You can’t just open up and accept people when your safety seems to depend on not accepting, not trusting, not letting them in. Your first priority is to keep creepy, overly critical men away from you. But instead of giving men the space to be themselves, you’re lobbing grenades at them from behind a bunker. You’re assuming the worst — which is a pretty good way to get the worst, to turn perfectly reasonable men into defensive, dismissive jerks. That doesn’t prove that they’re bad to the core, it just proves that they aren’t going to roll over and play dead just because it suits your personal preferences. (And I’d be more afraid of the men who do roll over, honestly.)
Everyone has their physical preferences, stated or unstated, and I don’t really want to give you a hard time about that. But I can’t help feeling like you won’t understand the difference between your emotionally abusive father, your rapist, and other, lovable, thoughtful, intelligent, sensitive black men in the world if you don’t get to know a few of them better. I’m not asking you to do anything you don’t feel, but I am asking you to make an effort to deconstruct your prejudices and loosen their hold on you as much as you can, in part because they relate directly to your identity as a biracial woman. Rejecting black men may feel to you like saying no to your father and your rapist. Another part of it, though, is about rejecting yourself, labeling yourself bad and unacceptable. How do you think it feels to a black man, to have this beautiful biracial woman tell him she doesn’t date black men? Even if you don’t openly say this to other people, I can’t help feeling that your narrative is all messed up. You’re handing out your hatred — your rage at your dad and your self-hatred — to other human beings. I understand and sympathize with the pain and agony that’s in the mix. But you’ve got to change how you think about this.
That doesn’t mean you have to date anyone you’re not attracted to. It just means that this story you’re telling yourself about black men isn’t good — and more specifically, it isn’t good for you. Your newish therapist is not going to tell you that, because he or she needs to win your trust (particularly because you present as a strong, opinionated person who will drop a therapist who challenges you too directly). He or she wants you to gain trust, feel safe, open up to him/her as a way to model a trusting, honest relationship with other people. But listen to me: Stop using that story to keep you safe. You are safe. You can date and marry anyone you damn please. That’s a bad, oversimplified story, and it’s making you sick.
Likewise with the cross-examining, the snap judgments, the perversely stubborn belief that people can’t grow on you over time. Marriage would not be possible, not sustainable, if people didn’t grow on you over time. Even the way you describe these afflictions — and they are afflictions, make no mistake — indicates that you take a kind of pride in them, like they make you a bad ass at some level. You can say you hate yourself for your racism, but I think you also cling to it, like it’s part of your identity. As long as you’re not open to dating black men, that means that your dad doesn’t have any power in your life. By blocking so many good, innocent, loving men from your life, though, you’re just empowering your father’s ghost.
It is your choice who you want to love. But you can be open to dating anyone in the world, you can be vulnerable, you can make a few mistakes, and it’s still your choice who to love after all of that. It doesn’t make you weak to keep an open mind until you know more. It makes you strong.
Do you want to fall in love with someone amazing, or do you want to be a bad ass? Do you want to be vulnerable and open to whatever the world might offer you, or do you want to be shaking your head, disappointed again, having another lonely cigarette behind battle lines? Would you prefer that the men you meet fit the script that you’ve already written for them, or would you like for someone to unexpectedly swerve off script? Would you even notice if he did?
Right now, you’re angrily searching for love. No way that’s ever going to work. It’s like going to the prom with a bomb strapped to your chest.
You need to make some new male friends, that’s all. You should change your online profile to reflect this intention. Don’t go on dates with guys you find “repulsive.” See if you can befriend some reasonably sane-seeming men, black, white, Latino, whatever they happen to be. If the online thing doesn’t seem possible, join some new activity groups. Throw a dinner party, and make each guest bring someone you don’t know, man or woman. Listen to these strangers with an open heart. Give them space.
Don’t go out to bars and speak only to men who hit on you. That’s not really the ideal demographic under any circumstances. Get out into the world and look for nice men who seem respectful but not necessarily over-the-top sexy to you. Have coffee. Make small talk. No heavy shit, no cross examinations, no anger, no flinty remarks. Don’t roll out your grievances with people who have nothing to do with them. Just be there: relaxed, observant, calm. You won’t like it. Do it until you get used to it.
If you want to find love — and honestly, maybe you’re not really ready for that at this moment. Maybe you need another year or two of just staying out of the mix and taking care of yourself and writing great screenplays and seeing close friends only. But if you do want to find love, then you’ve really got to alter your whole way of moving through the world. Because all of this anger isn’t making you safer. In fact, it’s almost like you’re attracting and engaging with the enemy more than you would otherwise, because you’re in a confused, unsettled state. You’ve got to calm down and find your sweet, vulnerable heart, and you’ve got to take care of that part of who you are, so you can show it to the world a little more. You know what you’re made of. No one else does, though. Stop retreating.
Vulnerability is the key. Don’t pretend you can just opt out of that. Real, lasting love isn’t possible without it. Befriend some men, and tell them the truth about who you are and what upsets and scares and hurts you. Hell, start by telling your girlfriends these things, without always retreating to “I won’t stand for this” and “I could never do that.” You’ve got to stop drawing lines in the sand and make a goddamn sand castle once in a while. You’ve got to stop lobbing grenades before you even see who’s coming over the crest of the next hill. Just shut the fuck up and listen for a change. You’re charismatic and engaging and smart and pretty. Try to stop being the best, the most confident, the toughest, the most incredible, and try being just another human being in the room for a change. You’ll be amazed at how the blurry background becomes the gorgeous, colorful foreground when you watch, quietly, for long enough.
OK, so, two things. If you could help me with even one of them, that would be amazing. Basic facts: I’m in my early thirties, I live in a house with my boyfriend and our pets, and I LOVE my job (I’m a teacher).
I’m sad a lot because of the state of the world. Particularly, lately, about animal rights. Factory farming: could it be any worse for these animals? I feel so sad and overwhelmed when I think about factory farming that I just want to lay down under my desk. And I somehow end up thinking about it a lot. I’m already a vegetarian, leaning towards being a vegan, so besides going completely vegan there isn’t any adjustment I can do to my own diet to make me feel better. We have two shelter dogs, so taking in pets to care for isn’t an option besides perhaps one more dog.
There’s so much other sad stuff. I just read something on The Awl that talked about manatees dying, for example. Seeing a dead deer on the road, also overwhelming. I just feel helpless against all the terrible stuff in the world. I should mention I have had problems with depression and anxiety for years. Perhaps that’s relevant.
I love my job, I find it incredibly fulfilling, but sometimes I feel like, “here I am, in my nice house, living my nice life, teaching stuff, watching Netflix with my boyfriend at night, and right now there is soooo much suffering in the world, and I’m just driving along, la di da, listening to dance music in my car and bopping around without a care.” I feel like if I were a truly good person I would give all this up, give up all my worldly possessions and whatnot, and dedicate myself full-time 100% to changing things and alleviating suffering as much as absolutely possible.
I’ve gone on long enough, but I’ll also mention my other issue: I’m in my early thirties, as mentioned, and I feel incredibly old and unattractive. Increasingly less culturally relevant, increasingly unappealing, etc. I think about this A LOT. A LOT. I’m also about 10 pounds overweight, so obviously I feel not just old and unattractive but totally fat.
I know how dumb that all sounds, particularly when contrasted with all my concerns about real suffering. But I do think about it a lot and it makes me unhappy.
Also, I’m in therapy, though I keep forgetting to keep up on scheduling appointments so I end up going months without seeing my therapist.
Sad About Stuff
When you’re 65, you’re going to look back on yourself right now and you’re going to say, “God, I wish I would’ve just relaxed and enjoyed myself when I was young and beautiful and in love. I mean, sure, it might’ve soothed me to know that I’d eventually start to integrate volunteering for animal rights groups into my schedule, and I’d write a bestselling book about how to shift our culture’s approach to animals as disposable beings, and maybe if I weren’t so stressed out back then, I never would’ve accomplished those things. But I definitely wasn’t fat. I was fucking sexy. I wish I would’ve known that then.”
Everyone I know is exactly ten pounds overweight, and exactly five years past their prime. WHAT A COINCIDENCE, HUH? I still remember hearing “Sexy and seventeen!” sung on the radio the day I turned eighteen. I thought, “Oh well, I’m not quite as sexy now. How sad!” I WAS A FUCKING TODDLER, BASICALLY, and I was mourning my lost sexiness.
You know what you do when you’re in your forties, though? You say, “OK, I really am aging now. It wasn’t just an illusion. I am, in fact, verifiably past my prime. It’s not all in my head anymore. And so the fuck what?” You recognize that you will be perceived as unattractive sometimes, and you will be seen as culturally irrelevant a lot. Who’s doing the judging, exactly? Instead of worrying about an invisible evil audience, why not just decide that you’re fucking beautiful and you will always be culturally relevant, forever, no matter what some toddler in skinny jeans thinks. You have to commit to it. It becomes less of an “Oh god, what’s happening?” and more of an active choice. Maybe it’s a choice you should start making now.
You need to tune out the bad a little more, and celebrate what you have. Have you seen Sex, Lies and Videotape? Rent it. Trust me. And schedule a regular, weekly time slot for seeing your therapist; don’t leave it up to whenever you happen to remember. Come on, you don’t need me to tell you that! Take a little more responsibility for your own happiness, will you? Stop playing the victim just because that gives you somewhere to put your anger and your guilt and your sadness. You worry because yes, things are shitty out there, and also, because you have a good life that affords you the time and space and support to worry around the clock. If you were less anxious, you might do more to effect change in the world: volunteer, join, help, invent, enlighten. Small things make a difference. Make a vow to yourself that you won’t use these important issues as a tool to torture yourself. Instead, you’ll put in hard work to support your causes, and then shift into relaxy mode at other times.
Not easy to pull off, but you have to try. Part of making the world a better place is daring to be imperfect, daring to grow older without feeling apologetic or embarrassed about it, and daring to be happy without feeling guilty and sick about it. Share that happiness with as many people (and animals!) as possible. Bringing love into the world is not a small fucking thing. You’re on the right track, and you look fucking spectacular. Keep fighting the good fight. But when you’re not fighting? Sit back and relax and enjoy this life. You are just an ordinary, fallible woman, doing your best to make things better. That’s reason enough to feel proud.
Are you tired of trying? Write to Polly and she might make you try even harder.
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.