'I'm a White, Middle American, Middle-Aged Loser!'
What you call realism is actually depression and shame.
Deer’s Skull with White Pedernal (1936) by Georgia O’Keeffe
I am thirty-three years old and I’m a mess, but not a particularly interesting mess. I’m a garden variety, white, middle American, middle-aged loser. I feel like I've been given a lot in life, but don't really have any purpose.
In the last month, my closest friend got married, another friend had her second baby, a third friend was offered an amazing job, and I… got a mild case of covid. This is how everything feels, over and over again. I have nothing worthy of celebration.
I think that my friends love me — I’m funny and a good conversationalist, low-maintenance and appreciative — but I'm not important in my friendships. I’m an object of pity, maybe comic relief, and I don't add much to the narrative. I have no responsibilities and few connections, and when I try to establish more of either, I usually make things worse.
My career is a patched-together exhibit of middling talent and slow, reluctant effort. My boss finds me lazy, prone to errors, and carelessness. I tend to argue against the organization's mission and for what I hope to be a better one. This job is better than my past unskilled jobs that aren’t worth mentioning. But I’m not exactly changing the world here, and any new skills I learn are summarily dismissed. I want a job that’s bigger, that makes more of an impact, but what have I done to deserve that? I make a middling salary, enough not to be fearful about necessities, but not enough to travel or pick up expensive hobbies.
A serial monogamist, I’ve been in four longterm relationships over the past fifteen years. In college, I dated my best friend and became so obsessed with proving myself as an equal partner that I basically Single White Femaled my way into his career path, friendships, even his manner of speaking. The last two were toxic for reasons that were, while not totally my fault, at least fifty percent my fault. I hate being alone, scratching and clawing my partners with desperation for affection, which, it turns out, isn’t great. I was engaged once, to a man who used mockery and manipulation as day-to-day time management tools, and I quickly learned that I was actually also good at abuse. When that imploded, I packed up my new skills and took them to my next relationship. It didn’t end well, either. That boyfriend told me, the day he asked me to move out, that being around me made him want to die. “You are an ocean of need,” he said. “And I am drowning.”
I’ve been to every kind of therapist. I feel less angry now, less prone to violent outbursts of asserting my own value when it wasn’t in question. But I don’t trust myself to emote appropriately, when I historically have not. I’ll just hurt someone else. I’m in a relationship now with a hyper-high-achieving man, a sweet guy who will eventually move away for work. I see him twice a week, and it’s pleasant. He’s friendly and unbothered, a boyfriend who doesn’t love me enough for me to hurt him.
I’m never going to have the relationship I want, one where you grow along with someone else and improve together. I’m grown, twisted and damaged and scarred over into the weedy and ugly shape that I am. I feel old as balls. Too old to have kids, too old to be different than I am. I was, at one point, creative and outgoing and bright. Now my body and mind feel flabby from desk work. Sun-damaged. Not spent-up, just past expiration date.
The world is beautiful. I have kind friends, great parents, the opportunity to marvel at waterfalls and blades of grass and whatever. I have a beloved cat. But I feel like a waste. I should at least live a life of quiet adequacy instead of bleeding all over everyone constantly. I don’t think I’m depressed. I think I’m just honestly assessing my personality and assets. What do I do with the rest of my life?
An Energy Vampire
Dear Energy Vampire,
You know how some people have body dysmorphia? You have life dysmorphia. You’re very depressed and your current warped view of how awful you are and how pointless your life is has been formed from that depression. It’s time to take your depression seriously and treat it. It’s time to decide, once and for all, that you deserve happiness.
You’re so convinced that you’re a drain on other people that you can’t take in the fact that people really like you and want you around. You describe people and situations that sound like normal rights of passage through a lens of “I did this because I’m literally the worst.” It’s time to figure out how to accept who you are, so you can slowly learn to romanticize and enjoy that person, flaws and all.
Right now, you reject who you are every single morning. You reject your life and you reject your own joy, even. You tell the story that it’s all pathetic and embarrassing. You’re seeing the world through a lens of shame. It’s time to throw out that lens and start over.
First, consider medication. Embrace a strict exercise regimen if possible. Do these things as an experiment. And put an embargo on this dusty story about how broken and disgusting you are. Open your mind just wide enough to consider that your story has been warped since the day you were born.
You’re depressed. You’ve been depressed for a while. You’re also anxious - about who you are, about what people think of you. The fact that no therapist has made both of these things crystal clear to you by now is making me doubt the intelligence of your therapists. Can you find a new therapist who’s paying close attention, who cares, who’s not just going through the motions? This is an emergency. You need to take the sounds you’re making seriously and do something new. There’s no reason under the sun why you shouldn’t feel good right now. You deserve to feel good. You deserve to want things. You deserve joy.
As far as your life dysmorphia goes, let’s start here: You’re not middle-aged. 33 is only five years away from 28, which is “I was just a teenager a second ago and now I’m trying to pay my electric bill!” When I was 33, I was sad and unemployed and I had a boyfriend who set an alarm so he could wake up in the middle of the night to get stoned and watch the Tour de France. I wanted to get married and have kids. He was never going to marry me and he almost seemed to relish that fact. Right after my 34th birthday, he flew to New York and told all of his friends that I wanted an engagement ring for my birthday. I know this because he told me all about it when he got back — casually, over an expensive dinner I paid for. Apparently he didn’t tell his friends that instead of getting me an engagement ring, he ran out and got me a copy of Finding Nemo at the drugstore instead.
Some relationships are just demeaning. But in retrospect, this guy was on his own joyful path. That’s what I loved about him. Sure, he was careless. But that made sense because he was a puppy dog, bounding forward, licking the world’s face whenever he could. He didn’t see me clearly and he didn’t love what he could see, either — the blurry outlines of a faintly depressed, sometimes ebullient, uncertain woman. A woman who was not a puppy dog. A woman who was a vulture or a gutter rat or bunny rabbit or a dragon, depending on the day.
The only thing I had back then that you don’t have right now is an ability to romanticize my (theoretical!) *best* self and to almost, sort of, sometimes accept my *worst* self. Even though my vision of my life was clouded by fear and anxiety and shame and depression, just like yours is now, I was still romantic about my charms and romantic about my future. My romantic side refused to take my ex-boyfriend’s indifference seriously. I refused to internalize his view of me. I refused to do more than laugh when he told me I dressed like a lesbian. I didn’t start wearing lipstick and skirts. Instead, I reflected on how little he liked me for who I was. I kept dressing like a ranch hand and I kept believing that someone, somewhere was preparing to love me like crazy. Magical thinking or not, I wasn’t wrong about that.
Hope is romantic. One of your problems right now is that you’re so ashamed of not recognizing that you were a mess before that you’ve chosen what you see as “realism” (but it’s not real, it’s warped!) over optimism. You want to point out that you’re the problem before anyone else picks up on your flaws You want to anticipate rejection until your entire personality takes the shape of rejection. Even your neediness is aggressive, because you don’t believe that you deserve what you’re demanding. You can’t admit that you really, really want more. You can’t accept that you DESERVE more. You were a puppy once and you’re determined to never be a puppy again.
That’s the kind of “ocean of need” that can drown someone: the determination to be anything but what you really are. But let’s also look more closely at the man who called you an “ocean of need.” My guess is that he wasn’t a strong swimmer. You need someone who goes out and swims the English Channel just for kicks. People like that exist. Believe it. You deserve to be loved by someone like that. You deserve to be your own strong swimmer, smoothly and gracefully cutting through your most violent waves of emotion and longing and desire.
(Someone recently observed that I use too many metaphors in a row. THIS IS MY LIFESTYLE OF CHOICE, MOTHERFUCKERS. If you want a simple houseplant, by all means go find one. I’m an overgrown jungle, half of it on fire. Now onward, to even more metaphors!)
You’re not an energy vampire. Sure, you’re ravenous, but you don’t take anything from anyone else. That’s part of your problem. You exert all of your energy just to keep from showing your hunger, to defend yourself, to remain responsible and beyond reproach. Your worldview is an elaborate, expensive, high-tech defense system. You can shoot missiles out of the sky, sure, but you also shoot down all of the birds. You have a sniper in a high tower who can cut down invaders creeping toward your fort, but you also cut down foxes and wildflowers and strangers bearing gifts.
What you call pragmatic and responsible and realistic is actually more like looking at everything through night-vision goggles instead of letting things be what they are. When I dismantled my own high-tech defense system and took off my protective eyewear, what I saw wasn’t a middle-aged loser with middling talents dressed like a ranch hand. What I saw was a vulture, a gutter rat, a bunny rabbit, a dragon. I decided to love my vulture and my dragon. I decided to put out a bowl of fresh water for my gutter rat and cuddle up with my bunny rabbit.
Now I’m a gutter rat out in the open. It’s incredibly satisfying. I am not that lovable. It’s fucking sublime. Sometimes I still violently assert my value, which I agree is a flaw. But you know what? I’m still a person who, every now and then, questions her own value. When I defend myself, I’m talking to myself, mostly. I’m telling myself: HEY REMEMBER THAT YOU’RE A FUCKING DRAGON, YOU’RE A WORM, YOU’RE A HOUSE FINCH. DON’T PRETEND YOU’RE SOMETHING CLEANER AND SIMPLER AND MORE SAINTLY THAN THAT. DON’T TRY TO BE BETTER BY BEING EMPTIER AND QUIETER AND SMALLER.
BE EXACTLY WHAT YOU ARE.
You say you see yourself clearly but you’ve taken your shame and your mistakes and your depression and formed them into this warped view of your life. Inside your head, you’re a dumb loser who’s old as fuck. You need to notice that this is depression. You need to understand that this is shame.
You are not old and gross and pointless. You’re young and pretty and your life is just beginning. The fact that you can’t see that or feel it isn’t your fault, though. You’ve eaten every mistake you ever made. Every morning you eat all of those mistakes all over again. You think that being low-maintenance is an asset. It’s not. It’s a way of hiding in plain sight. It’s not honest and as long as you’re living that way, some fluffy, soft, delicious part of you will feel ignored and cheated. Be kinder to that soft part of who you are instead. You think the only responsible thing to do is to announce to yourself and the world that, stripped free of illusions, you barely have a right to exist.
You’re wrong. You’re a red-shouldered hawk. You deserve to glide on an updraft, over the tall pines, and dive toward the ground without fear. You deserve to eat the face off a field mouse. You deserve to feel like *that’s* romantic. You deserve to know what it’s like to just be what you are.
Please take this seriously. Please accept that you’re not objectively or uniquely fucked. Please stop pretending that life inside a bunker is your only option. You have to take these defenses apart, and breathe, and cry, and feel sorry for yourself. It’s not fair what you’ve been through. It’s inhumane, this story you’re telling now. You will not “emote appropriately” until you start to see all of your emotions as appropriate.
Today you will retire these incredibly merciless stories about who you are and what you deserve. You’ll throw a party for your honey badger and your wasp and your dolphin and your hawk. You’ll serve tea in tiny porcelain cups with pink roses on the sides and there will be cucumber sandwiches on a silver tray. The hawk might attack the honey badger over the last cucumber sandwich. Prepare for a fight. Prepare to forgive every strange part of yourself. Try very hard to embrace each one of them, in all of their ragged glory.
After tea has been served, say to your new friends, “I’m sorry for ignoring you. It’s just been so hard. Let’s start over, okay? We’re young and we’re still alive. Let’s figure out how to enjoy this life and enjoy exactly who we are, on our own terms, at long last.”
Sending you love.
Are you trying to be something simpler and emptier than you are? Stop doing that! Ask yourself what you miss about your old, broken, embarrassing self. Love that person, forgive that person, bring them back into the fold. Today is a good day to feel whole again. Send your letters to askpolly at protonmail.com. My book Foreverland is really fucking good and so go get a copy asap. Thank you for reading and supporting Ask Polly.
Thank you Heather. You writing almost always brings tears to my eyes. I am more than twice the age of the LR but much of what you say, and what she says, applies to me at this stage of my life and of the life I have led. I have spent so much time forgiving others, and making excuses for them, but am just now learning to forgive myself, and to honor my needs and desires. I have turned my thinking around in part because I read your words and they resonate with me to the core. I am beginning to see that by hiding my wants and desires I lost many years when I could have been a hawk or a bunny and have found someone who would have loved me for both. I am nurturing the tiny flame of hope that still lives inside and wants to become a blazing fire.
"You think that being low-maintenance is an asset. It’s not. It’s a way of hiding in plain sight. It’s not honest and as long as you’re living that way, some fluffy, soft, delicious part of you will feel ignored and cheated."
those sentences really jumped up and bit me today, beginning as a painful personal evaluation and bleeding out to the broader context of how counter-intuitive being honest about ourselves becomes because of the gas-lit way of life today's society supports, particularly in the united states. specifically (because there are many rabbit holes we could take that one) -- independence and individualism are enshrined as holy traits, but only if we, and especially the "we" who identify as women, don't take them to a level where it in any way makes someone else uncomfortable. the horrors of being seen as "high-maintenance" have been ingrained so deeply in our psyche -- even in the womb before society gets a hold of us! epigenetics! all those generations before us! -- that we neglect to claim literally ANY maintenance for ourselves. fuck aspirations of that maintenance reaching high levels, whatever that's supposed to mean. we go to any extreme to prove to others and ourselves that we need the smallest amount of anything -- in fact, we need nothing, and if our shrinking -- whether physically, mentally, financially, spiritually, or emotionally -- is in detriment to our own happiness it can't matter; we're aiming to inspire and not infringe.
we might not be our great-grandmothers sacrificing any "alone time" to constant tobacco farming/housework/mending/cooking/expert pie baking/child-rearing/ladies' firehouse auxiliary duty doing/grand and great grand baby loving (you get it), but we certainly set our needs and desires aside in other ways we all know far too well (related sidebar - when did desires become completely separate from needs?) to fit definitions that honestly start to seem murky when you look at them. the best girlfriend is the "easy-going" one. the most loved adult child is the one the parents don't have to "worry" about and who "goes along" with whatever the "family consensus" is. the promoted employee is the one who doesn't question how it's "always been done." the best way of life is the minimalist way, "sentimental and impractical" objects be damned. "growing as a person" somehow warps into criticizing who we currently are.
I'm not sure where I'm going with this - except to say that so many of us are in similar boats with you, energy vampire, hiding ourselves in different ways to keep from being "high-maintenance." for what it's worth, I'm glad you stopped hiding for the time it took you to write to polly. sometimes it's fucking hard to even face the work of undoing the poison in our brains that denies us any sort of maintenance at all -- you writing in might have been a hard step to take while seeing yourself as and energy-taker and that deserves acknowledging. I'm always and eternally grateful for polly's words, wit and wisdom and the dual specificity and universality her advice never fails to hold -- but I'm also grateful for the community she's created in her readers and the willingness to be seen of those who write in (of which you are now one!).