Let’s start this off originally, to match the unique snowflake that I am: I’m an extremely socially handicapped lady, 25 years of age, with just a handful (maybe 3 at best) of friends, and in a lonely place in my life.
To paint a bit of background: I have always been very shy, introverted, and fucking terrible at connecting with others. I was comfortable with my alone-ness, though. I’ve always been a bit (of a lot) of a closet romantic, so I can’t really remember any long period of time since the fourth grade when I didn’t have a crush on someone. But mostly, those were either boys I never even talked to, and just obsessed with from a distance. (When I was 18, I once waited for an hour in the evening, in the dead of winter, because I knew my crush would eventually wait for the bus at the same bus stop, so I’d get to look at him from a distance for about 6 minutes.) Or celebrities — musicians, actors, any kind of face to put to my ridiculous, constant fantasies of romantic love, and keep a safe, peaceful emotional outlet for my feelings. I was ridiculously delusional, and pathetic, but I was happy.
I seriously would give anything to be able to do that again. But my first [and only] serious boyfriend kinda had the effect of the first taste of blood for a lion cub on me. It didn’t work out — and it didn’t work out on a magnificent scale, with our relationship and the pressure from it leading to me developing a full-blown eating disorder in the span of a year and a half. (I was vehemently against the idea that perfect, one-and-only him had anything to do with it at the time; and really, he was a nice guy; but now, after tons of therapy and self-analysis, it’s obvious that it was him — or more accurately, my extreme insecurity in relation to him — that basically drove me crazy.)
I was entered in a hospital, and after a pretty rough period of severe depression, managed to get over that — with the help of a six-month stay at a clinic for the treatment of addictions.
After I got out, I slowly got back on my feet; I’m living alone for the first time in my life, and holding down a steady job. And yes, I have very few friends, but I’m actually happy with them. I’ve always strongly preferred quality to quantity when it comes to friendships. But I’m also very, very lonely. For the first time in my life, just sighing dreamily and watching from afar really doesn’t cut it. It’s an agonizing feeling of longing to be in a loving relationship, made all the worse by the facts that:
1. I barely know anybody, literally. When I got out of the clinic, almost a year ago, I had lost contact with whatever few close acquaintances I’d had before, and managed to keep only the aforementioned 2–3 close friends, which makes it extremely hard to even have a basis to start meeting new people and find a possible romantic interest. My work colleagues are 3 elderly ladies, with which I’m on polite, but extremely distant terms. There are very few clubs / forums / etc. for people my age around, and they’re all related to interests I really don’t share. I suck so bad at communication and social interaction that I barely talked to 5 people when I was at my university, and that’s when I was constantly surrounded by hundreds of other people my age. I’m not even sure I want that many friends; but how am I ever going to find anybody [as in, a romantic partner] if I speak to literally 7 people in my life?
2. One of those 7 people is a guy who struck up conversation with me over half a year ago online. In the beginning, I wasn’t interested, especially not romantically; but he was nice and talkative, and well, he was there. Since then, oh boy, have times changed. Over time, I grew more and more interested in him. He seemed to grow less and less interested in me. I find it ridiculous that we haven’t (almost… bear with me, I’ll explain) even seen each other live, even though we’ve been chatting constantly for so long and we live in the same damn city. We even have mutual acquaintances.
Once, he invited me over to his place in the middle of the night. Yes, I know. And I went. Yes, I know. We just talked for a bit in the dark, and then cuddled, silently, for half an hour, and then I left. It was weird, and we don’t mention it often, but oh God, I was so happy in that tiny moment of meaningless affection! (Or maybe it meant something to him too, he’s just shy? Insecure, like me? Oh the mastery with which I make up excuses for him in my head!)
Since then, not only has he not made any attempt to see me; he’s extremely ambivalent about agreeing to my invites to hang out (and I invite him rarely, and overly casually, and back up easily, because I may be obsessed, but I’m also proud, and with a damn fragile ego, I admit that).
So I know it’s ridiculous, and I know it’s hurting me, and I’ve even reached my boiling point and told him once, explicitly, that he either has to see me and hang out like a normal person sometime, or just stop writing me altogether. He didn’t seem to take it too seriously. We stopped communicating for a month or so, and then mutual acquaintances, Facebook, one thing lead to another, I convinced myself it’s okay cause I don’t even care anymore, or maybe I was too harsh in the first place, yadda yadda, and we started talking again.
Yes, I’m an idiot.
But I’m also crazy about him, and so damn lonely. I feel like a starving rabbit with only a few pieces of horrible, rotting cabbage leaves in its cage. I keep telling myself they’re fucking awful, and I’m better than that, and I deserve at least some normal, not even amazing, just regular good old cabbage. But eventually, hunger always gets the best of me and I give in. I write to him. Or I respond to him. That’s just the way it goes, and I can’t seem to stop it.
Also, what gives?! This guy won’t see me, but he won’t stop talking to me, either. Says he appreciates me talking to him, and that he does want to see me (just never actually makes plans). I basically asked him to put me out of my misery, i.e., let’s do this or just go away forever and stop fucking with me! But he won’t go either way.
Why?! Like most guys our age (seriously, it’s fucking infuriating), he’s commitmentphobic. But it’s not like a coffee means he’s agreeing to our fucking wedding. The only slight clue he’s ever given me is, “I’m trying to be a nice guy and not a douche,” which I interpreted thusly: “So you mean you like me, but you don’t wanna lead me on?” (i.e. fuck me and disappear off the face of the earth). His answer? “Erm, no, it’s not exactly that….” And that was all I got. Analyze that!
I don’t get it. And being lonely and obsessed with him, I actually do care about what the fucking reason behind this lunacy might be. It’s almost like I’d prefer to be the wrong side in this equation, because then I’ll be able to fix it and try to make it work.
Please help me get out of that cage!
Can’t Stop Eating Rotten Cabbage Leaves
The cage is open. You can walk out anytime you want. Why are you still in there?
You’re a young, sensitive romantic and you need to find some new form of self-expression that builds you up instead of knocking you down. You need a consuming project that doesn’t involve dumping out the best parts of yourself for someone who’s using you as an emotional confidant but refuses to be in your life. Engaging in that kind of relationship isn’t just a dead-end, it makes you weaker and prevents you from meeting the kinds of people who will improve your life instead of making you feel frustrated and depressed.
But please be clear about one thing: YOU are the one who wants to stay frustrated and depressed. No one is doing that TO you. You keep asking “Why is he still around?” That’s not the mystery here. He doesn’t want anything more from this situation. He’s getting exactly what he wants: something to occupy his time and make him feel important. The mystery is: WHY ARE YOU STILL AROUND?
Even after the eating disorder, the hospital, the years of therapy, you’re essentially throwing yourself into another destructive, loneliness-inducing obsession, one that leaves you feeling empty, abandoned, and out of control, but that keeps you coming back for more simply because these are the emotions that feel the most familiar to you. You’re addicted to loneliness and desperation. It’s the strongest emotion you’ve ever known, so your subconscious tells you that it’s your destiny.
The short-term answer is very easy. You can choose to be a million times happier than you are right now. All you have to do is say, “I deserve to be happy.” Write it down in big letters with a Sharpie and tape it to the wall. Now write, “I deserve to be deeply loved.” Tape that to the wall. Write, “I will open my eyes and my heart and take in all of the beauty in the world, every day.” Tape it up.
Now go to your computer and write this to him “I can’t do this anymore. You’re a nice guy. I wish you the best in life.” Don’t wait for a response. DO NOT ANSWER HIM IF HE ASKS WHAT’S GOING ON. Now block him. Do not explain anything. That’s you being obsessive. He doesn’t want to see you in the light of day. He doesn’t care what you want. Wondering about how he feels, waiting to see what he says, second-guessing your resolve: all of these things exist on an unhealthy continuum with your tendency to seek solace in self-destructive obsessions. He doesn’t like you romantically. His very existence in your life diminishes you and makes you feel weak. You are not weak. Block his fucking chat ID and his email and resolve to never, ever read a single word from him again. Send him your blessings and be done with it. Write “I am stronger than I realize.” Tape those words to the wall.
Now put on your running shoes and go out into the world. Put on some music and walk for an hour. Bring a watch and, if you’re not in great shape, jog for 1 minute and then walk for 3, and repeat that pattern for the full hour. As you walk, keep your eyes open, keep your heart open, and let the world in. Smell the air. Breathe deeply. You are fully alive in this moment and you never, ever have to feel like someone who’s hiding in the dark, waiting for love, ever again.
Go home and write for an hour. Type out all of your thoughts, feelings, worries, regrets, and hopes for the future. Every single word is OK, because it’s a part of who you are. You are not damaged. You are not socially handicapped. You are young and you are learning how to live. Write that down. I AM VERY YOUNG AND I AM LEARNING HOW TO LIVE. Tape it to the wall by your bed and read it every morning.
You are very, very young. You are learning how to live.
Someone who’s sensitive like you, with your kind of emotional energy, needs to be thoughtful about how she spends her time and where she puts her focus. You naturally work very hard at things. The same trait that makes you obsessive can be harnessed to create art or to help other people or just to cook a truly unforgettable lasagna.
But you MUST break this fixation on love as the cure to all of your ills. If you found love right now, you would run it straight into the ground in seconds. You need an outward focus that has nothing to do with guys or even making new friends (which you currently view as merely a vehicle for meeting guys). Forget some of your assumptions about where your interests lie. Sign up for classes and clubs that are outside of your comfort zone, and see what happens. Observe others without worrying about what to say. Don’t chide yourself for doing it wrong. Just exist, in your awkwardness, without apologizing or explaining yourself, even to yourself. Your ideas and labels about What It Means to be shy (handicapped!) are what stand in your way. The noise in your head when you’re around other people stands in your way. Slowly, you need to practice being more comfortable in the company of other people. Gradually, you may get to know a few people who are different from you, who make no immediate sense and have no immediate value in your life. As you turn your focus outward and begin to create a more positive, creative, accepting spirit around you, you will naturally draw people to you.
But that’s not the central task at hand. The central challenge in your life is not finding people who will support you and love you. The central challenge in your life is you finding a way to give yourself support and love. You need to shift your concentration away from this imaginary hole in your life, and shift it towards bigger projects that will feed and sustain you over the course of a lifetime.
You’re like a working breed of dog that doesn’t have any sheep to herd. Do you know what happens to those dogs? They rip up rugs and chew shoes to tiny shreds, and then pace, and then grow depressed and violent. That’s what you’re doing to yourself with this pointless correspondence. You have so much potential, so much energy, so much sensitivity to the world, and you’re wasting it, and using it to eat yourself alive, using it to tell yourself that you’re worthless.
The old messages need to get thrown out once and for all. Every time you hear a voice that says, “No one will ever love me because I’m fucked up,” shut it up and look at your signs on the wall.
I assume you still have a therapist you see every week. If not, you need to get one immediately. Someone with your background can’t be expected to forge ahead without a sounding board for your challenges.
In the long run, you will find love. Right now, you need to commit to NOT looking for love. You need to sign up for art classes, dance classes, yoga, or cooking classes — or all of the above. You need to be active and be around people, all kinds of different people, young and old. You need to practice accepting yourself, with all of your quirks, in the company of other human beings. You need to be open to the world around you. You need to move through the world by listening to other people, without trying to prove that you’re good enough for them. Just exist and be your shy self. If friendships with men and women come about, so be it. Don’t get involved with anyone. Have lunch, have coffee, and continue to work hard on the things that won’t dry up and blow away: Your health, your career, your little art projects or poems or essays, your odd new half-interests, the complicated folds of your sensitivity and your darkness, and your belief in a world that wants you to be happy.
But you can’t do this halfway. If you choose NOT to block this guy, if you choose to continue obsessing, then you are choosing misery. You’ll never meet anyone or change a thing as long as you’re chatting with this guy. Just because it’s familiar, that doesn’t mean it’s truly comforting or meaningful. Just because you’re putting all of your focus into it doesn’t mean you’re actually in love with him. You’re just not looking at anything else in the world. In searching relentlessly for safety all these years, you have made yourself more and more lonely and unsafe.
I know how tired you must feel. I know that you’ve been working so hard. But these things are hurting you. Everything is about to change, but you have to dare to proceed in a whole new way. You have to wake up in the morning and say, “I will not do the old things that I’ve always done. This is the start of my real life. This is the day I started treating myself like someone who matters.” You have to believe.
When you believe in your raw potential, you are not alone. When you believe in who you are, the whole world rallies around you, and raises you up, higher than you thought you deserved to be. Fuck these dead-end crushes. They’re crushing you. Rip your focus away from this empty obsession, that seems so serious but it’s actually silly, and shift your focus to things that seem silly but are actually serious. Do silly little things for yourself. Write those silly little signs. It will all seem so ridiculous and pathetic, but it’s not. Because slowly but surely, you’ll notice that the tide is turning. You will start to accept yourself, and you’ll stop trying to convince other people that you’re worthy. No one will need to be convinced. You will create things that make you happy. You will give your love freely to the people who deserve it. You have so much to give.
No one out there is going to support and protect and believe in you. Not yet. You have to learn to support and protect and believe in yourself. Nothing could be more romantic than that.
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 of the lonely dog by Les Chatfield.