Ask Polly: I Survived a Hard Life, But I Never Learned How to Be Normal


Hello Polly!

I’m 23 and I feel like I’ve come a pretty long way already. I grew up in an abusive and poor-as-hell home; went to live on my own when I was fifteen; struggled with depression and a terrible relationship; and made (and paid off) a huge amount of debt. All the terrible things happened. ALL OF THEM.

However, I think I did a lot of cool things as well: I raised my sister to be a happy, normal person, and I finished school with really good grades even though I did not know at the time where food would come from and I had to sleep on the smelly couch of the local pot dealer. When the schizophrenic father from hell returned (he had been missing for years) I told him to fuck off. I made peace with my tired, overworked, shy mum and we glued the family back together and we’re all pretty damn happy about it. Since I was kind of a stoner, I pretty much got along with everybody and I made some cool friends who made my hard life way easier and who I loved very much. So, that was my teens, basically.

After I finished school, I moved to a new city to be with my cynical asshole boyfriend who somehow had realized that I was smart and funny and routinely used lines I said in his shitty standup comedy act. I started training to be a nurse. All of my coworkers were boring, or way older then me — plus, asshole boyfriend pretty much scared away anyone I tried to make a connection with — so I went friendless in a big city with a really hard job that I hated. My old friends all moved to new cities and started university, moved in with friends, threw giant insane parties — I couldn’t relate at all. I felt boring, grey, poor. Every time one of them asked me, “So, what’s happening?” I could only say “hard work, stupid boyfriend,” so I stopped saying much and eventually the calls stopped. This part of my life lasted almost three years.

I decided to blow up the whole damn thing because I was super unhappy and found myself staring at the wall in my bedroom smoking cigarettes and crying one too many times.

During all of this, I had been drawing things whenever I could. I drew and I painted and I glued things together, and even though asshole boyfriend told me all the things that could be improved, I mostly loved the things I made. I got pretty good at it. One day in spring, I told the boyfriend he had to go; he told me that he had wanted to break up anyway, since I was just a sad shadow of a person and also I never did the dishes.

I got a tiny, cheap apartment, stopped going to the hospital to wash sick people and instead started working behind the bar at a cool club. I drew all the time, every day. I got so good I finally decided to do the thing I never thought I could do: I packed together my best work and applied to Very Prestigious Art School for its Very Famous and Good Costume Design Program, which has been my dream since I was 15 years old. They get bazillions of applicants and you have to go there and do two days of creative tests and studio time and intense talks and stuff and I never thought I could do it but I did and they chose me.

I talked to a lot of cool people who are all starting with me this September. I live in Germany, so it’s not unusual to start university at 23 or 24; I clicked with a lot of the other applicants. Now I’m not a poor dirty stoner or an overworked sad nurse’s assistant anymore, but a cool bartender who can draw better than most people, with good taste in movies and music and style and a nice apartment where the dishes are always done and I look fine and — well I don’t know how to be a friend anymore?

It seems since everything has always been on fire, now that things are good I don’t know how to be normal? I have a lot of people I talk to casually once a week or something, but how do I get from that to developing a friendship? I’ve been so busy with saving myself over and over again that I never learned how to be there for friends. I want to be the kind of person that, you know, throws parties and is just a friend, but I feel so different from everybody else. I feel like the dirt of everything is still on me. And people seem to notice that? I sometimes say things that weirds people out and I notice it too late, so most of the time I’m still really quiet. I know I have a lot to give, but I’m so very lonely and I just want someone I can call once in a while just to chat about stuff. But it feels like there is a giant chasm between me and “normal people.” How can I bridge that? How can I feel not dirty and unworthy when talking with people?

I’m sorry if this sounds like the ramblings of a crazy person and I apologize if my English sounds weird or something, English is not my first language. I just feel so lost, which is weird because I’m also the most happy I’ve ever been. It would be the coolest if you had some sort of advice for me. I know you must get a ton of letters. Your writing has really helped me through a lot, so thank you a million times for that.

I wish you the very best.

Friendless Dirty Artist

Dear Friendless Dirty Artist,

If you take just one thing away from my letter and believe it, let it be this: No giant chasm exists between you and other people. The “dirt of everything” is not on you. You are not unworthy. It is very common — more common than you can possibly imagine — for a youngish human being to feel this way, no matter what strange, tumultuous sea of freakjuice that particular human arose from, like a bedraggled Venus on a half-assed halfshell.

Maybe, just maybe, you “weird people out” right now. But that’s only because 1) you’re out of practice in talking lightly with people you don’t know (almost every smart person alive has been there, and will revisit that state repeatedly over the course of a lifetime, thanks to various isolating circumstances) and 2) you are a million times more independent and interesting and tough than most of the people you’re going to run into casually.

I mean, if I were still 23 years old and I found myself talking to a woman who lived independently at age 15 and raised her younger sister? I would be the one who felt unworthy. What could I say? “Yeah, I totally know what you mean about hardship, my hostess shift at Applebee’s was SUPER FUCKING TAXING sometimes, like when the Megaritas were on sale for $4 and I had to remember to mention that AND the Chicken Mexicali special? Whew, that was tough.”

At that age, I might’ve avoided you. But guess what? You would’ve really benefitted from me avoiding you. Because I would’ve been a TERRIBLE fucking friend to someone as tough and talented and interesting as you are. I would’ve half-listened to your troubles (while scanning the room for hot dudes) and waved off your worries (while chugging my sixth pint of beer) and then vomited all over your shoes (without apparent remorse, unnervingly enough).

So thank your lucky stars that some people are going to self-select themselves out of your life right now. DO NOT view these “weirded out” people as people who see clearly that you’re dirty and unworthy and are rejecting you because of it. View them as people who can’t handle real life or real people yet. They have a long, long road to travel. And also? Try to be patient and forgiving of them, if you can. Allow them a light, easygoing place in your life if you have room for casual acquaintances. But don’t tell them everything. Don’t blurt out big truths or dark passages from the past or heavy asides or self-doubting confessions to these people, who don’t want that stuff clogging up their distraction-focused lives, because they can barely grapple with their own twisted, confused, vague “it’s all good” shit yet.

I can personally guarantee you that at ART SCHOOL (cue Hallelujah Chorus!) you will find plenty of people who don’t think you’re TOO WEIRD AND DIRTY AND UNWORTHY for them. I just taught at an art school, and fuck, art school is awesome! It’s filled with weirdos who feel dirty and unworthy in the best possible way. If anything, feeling weird and dirty and unworthy is a wonderful ticket to a fun and exciting social life! I met some of the nicest, smartest, most interesting people at that job. Those were the grad students. I bet the undergrads are a little less tamed and polite, and some of them are probably vicious, freaky, awful, one-uppy hell, just like they were to Claire on “Six Feet Under.” (Best show ever, BTW. Watch it. First season not the greatest, sort of awkward, but then? It is good good good.) I bet some of those student artists walk around and wear that “I’m more punk or more EVS or more YOLO or more whatever the BRAND NEW (but really old) way of being stylishly indifferent is” on their tattoo sleeves.

All you need to do is be nice and keep your eyes wide open and listen and believe in yourself and your talent, no matter what. You will prevail. You will have friends. All of these people are also about to make their first lifelong friends, trust me. They will want to see if you match them. Some of them will be shy and awkward. Some of them will be outgoing and arrogant. Try to give the pretentious children some time to show their true selves to you. Try not to worry about how they’re judging you. We all feel like unworthy dirt, deep down inside.

In fact, it’s very common — BELIEVE IT! — for full-grown, adult-ass human beings who should know better to feel this way. I have felt like a mutant every other day for most of my life. I have often felt that the dirt of everything was crusted onto me, a layer of crazy that would never come clean. Even when I am winning and win-winning and never, ever failing, some grime lingers. Even at the exact moment when it seems I’m finally in step with the other Earthlings (at last!), I fall out of step again. The terrible, beautiful irony of my writing an advice column at all is that I do NOT FEEL all that evolved on most days, or at least some days. Who can tell, really, how many days are RIGHT ON and how many days we enter the self-hating oven and broil in our own juices? Sometimes I think that’s exactly what makes this advice column THE FUCKING BOMB, MOTHERFUCKER! And other times I feel a little ashamed at how I tell innocent humans what to do, and then I can’t even do those things myself, because I fucking suck.

But look, I’m smart and I have good intentions, just like you. I write this stuff because I really love to do it. It makes me feel good, it helps me to revisit what I believe, it reminds me that hope and optimism and connection do make sense, if you can manage to get there organically — if you can open up to what’s around you and accept it and embrace it for what it is, instead of shoving it away and hiding hiding hiding. Writing is part of my practice, if you want to put it in pretentious terms — and who doesn’t? You have a craft, too. You love to draw and make things and you just keep getting better and better. It connects you with something good and real and it reacquaints you with the fact that hard work really does build on itself, and there is a way out of hell, if you work hard enough. I mean GODDAMN YOU’RE IMPRESSIVE, WOMAN!

That’s what people are going to be saying to you a lot, once they really get to know you. But that won’t happen immediately. One of the big mistakes of being young is that you want to get that pat on the head right after you say “Hello, my name is Wingle Wangle.” You have to be patient and not blurt out dark things. You have to listen and focus on others and TRUST that they don’t think you’re unworthy. You have to take a leap of faith and just be in the moment with others. That is all.

So look. You and I, like most other people, work hard at what we do, and try hard not to slip into darkness, and we feel like mutants a lot, despite our best intentions and our angriest self-recriminations. The only real difference between you and me (uh, aside from the tiny fact that you’ve overcome much, much more hardship than I have and didn’t spend your formative years vomiting on other people’s shoes like I did) is that I CHOOSE to believe my own self-generated hype about sixty-five per cent of the time, just because it makes my life much easier and it makes my writing better and it makes me nicer to be around and that way, I get to pour a vat of margaritas into my throat occasionally. I take my little flaws and I say “YES BUT THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT MAKES ME THE BOMB, MOTHERFUCKER!” And some people dislike this, and some people tolerate it, and a few people sort of like it. I take the dirt and the unworthiness and show that shit off like it’s diamonds and lace and silk and all that trash they coveted on “Dynasty.” My wrongness is my swagger. My baggage is my LUXURY LUGGAGE.

Except when it’s not. Some days, my baggage is just heavy and misshapen and sad and dusty, like actual ugly, cheap baggage that you can’t tell apart from everyone else’s ugly, cheap baggage on the conveyor belt at the airport. It’s important to know this. You can resolve to embrace your flaws, and decide that your awkwardness is also your charm, but you’ll still have days when you feel dirty and unworthy.

Everyone will. So this is what I want you to do: Pay attention. Put your focus on yourself into YOUR CRAFT. Take the big truths and the dark passages from the past and the heavy asides and the self-doubting confessions, and pour those into your art, your costumes, your creations, your drawings. You are an artist, after all! (Cue Hallelujah Chorus, again!) Investigate your bleak history (in therapy if possible, and on your own). Look closely at your fears and your darkness, and use them to fuel your passions. You are so lucky, in some ways, to have a past so rich at such a young age. I know, I know. That sounds totally insensitive and ignorant. So the fuck what? There’s luck in damage, for an artist. Some of those artists you meet are going to be seriously fucking jealous, when they dig for something profound and all they can find is Applebee’s Twice-Baked Cheesy Tater Boats. (But don’t discount those envious privileged boobs, either, because shit happened to them, too, they just don’t realize what they’ve got onboard yet.)

Once you pour the darkness into your work to some extent, and study other great artists who’ve done this, and write down your feelings regularly, and mingle with youngish artists of all stripes, THEN you will have a less Sensitive Alien way of moving through the world. Learning NOT to tell everyone everything immediately is a big step. I think I learned that lesson, hmm, about four years ago? It took FOREVER. I have entire friendships now that are fueled by shared good times and shared interests instead of shared troubles and shared confessions. Sounds shallow, sure, but — little known fact! — some shallowness gives a life balance. Light friendships remind you that you CAN simply engage in small talk and go with the flow, if the rest of your life fills your needs, if you have deep connections and you have ways of expressing the dark emotions that come bubbling out of you without warning. I’ve only recently discovered, for example, that if I’m in a spectacularly shitty mood, I can usually write something pretty funny. SHITTY MOOD ENERGY CREATES COMEDY. Who knew?

Use the rough road behind you for inspiration, and you won’t need to stick it into the middle of every conversation. Use the rough road under your feet on any given day for inspiration, and you’ll grow to appreciate your sensitivity and depth of feeling as a gift rather than a curse. Honor yourself and believe in yourself and listen to other people first, and believe me, you will have more friends than you can handle.

There is no chasm. You are not alone. We are all right there with you, feeling wobbly and uncertain. We muddle through and weird each other out, every single day of our lives. It’s ok. We are dragging our luxury luggage all over the planet, scowling at each other like strangers when, in fact, we all match inside. You’re not alone. You don’t have to feel lonely. You’re with us.


Are you a lonely, tangled vine among flowering perennials? 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 troy mckaskle