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'I'm Sixty And I Wasted My Whole Life!'
Those so-called wasted years cleared you a path to magic.
Fig (1923) by Georgia O’Keeffe
I’m British. I couldn’t write this letter to an agony aunt in the UK. They just don’t respond in the way that you do. It's just not ‘British.’ Many of your letter writers appear to be a good bit younger than me. I’m sixty. But I still need a good talking-to, Polly.
I grew up with a narcissistic mother, and that’s being kind to her. Yes, my childhood was every bit as shitty as it could be — my needs were not met, my feelings were ignored, and I was emotionally and physically abused by her on a daily basis.
I made it to the grand old age of 39 and being a mother myself before I was finally able to extricate myself from that toxic relationship. It was the right thing to do, and I have no regrets. But the damage was already done.
In my twenties one friend described me as a having a ‘fuck off face.’ That wasn’t my intention. I was actually going for a neutral look. I had spent my entire life being neutral, hiding everything about myself. Being neutral, a ‘nothing person’ had kept me safe as a child. Now, as an adult I was perceived as standoffish, difficult to get to know, a closed book. I don’t doubt any of it. I had zero trust in people, preferred to keep them at arm’s length. It was like I was performing a risk assessment each time I met an unfamiliar person. The only person I could truly trust was myself. Thanks to my toxic mother, I had also evolved into a bona fide people pleaser.
I met my husband when I was sixteen (first boyfriend), married when I was twenty- one. What a cliché! I fell into the arms of the first chap who was non-threatening and showed me a modicum of affection. He was what I can only term as ‘nice.’ So, what if there wasn’t really any passion, or communication, support or understanding? He didn’t drink excessively, abuse me, or do much of anything, really. When you’ve been conditioned to believe that you’re worthless, it’s amazing how little you can get by on. I didn’t expect my needs to be met. Fuck! I didn’t even know what my needs were. I managed to please him for 27 years before he found someone better.
Twelve months after the marriage ended, I allowed another narcissist into my life. FFS, I may as well have had a neon sign flashing above my head: abuse me any way you want! He said it was like finding a ‘half-eaten packet of biscuits’ (cookies in your world). You’d think I’d know better, that after fifty years surviving in this fucked-up world, I would have learned something!!! Red flags were everywhere, but still I allowed him to feast on the broken biscuits until every last crumb was gone. It took him six years. His abuse nearly drove me to suicide.
I finally got rid of the bastard in 2020 and spent the lockdown months practicing self-reflection. How and why had I arrived at this point? Then I tried some self-healing by being kind to myself, reading self-help books, listening to various podcasts… the usual. For a while I told myself I was okay. Then my brain engaged properly and said What a crock! Who the fuck are you kidding??? More recently I tried therapy. I lasted one session. Spilling my guts and raking over my pathetic little life felt humiliating. Writing this letter is humiliating. And yet I have written it and sent it to you. No pressure, Polly
The overwhelming feeling is that my life has been wasted. I’ve wasted it. And I’ve only got myself to blame. At sixty, it feels like it’s just too late for me. I’ve missed the ‘being who you really are’ boat. I could trip over my needs and not even know they were mine. With more years behind me than in front I have given up on finding who I really am and living a satisfying and fulfilling life. What’s the point, Polly???
Sixty & Wasted
Dear Sixty & Wasted,
First of all, thank you for writing to me, for thinking of my vainglorious and absurdly smug and just flat out ridiculous American face, floating among the more sensible agony aunts of the UK. Today I feel honored that you’d choose me. But yesterday I was sporting my own Fuck Off Face, so I might’ve passed your letter by, telling myself “This one is too hard. I can’t handle hard today!”
Today I can handle hard, though. I woke up at six a.m. and ran for an hour on the beach. I’m not technically a runner at this moment in my life, but since I got to the beach a few days ago, I’ve been trying to become one. I’m trying in part because my siblings are runners and they’re doing a half marathon in October and I need a challenge that doesn’t involve, I don’t know, daydreaming? Thinking too much? Freaking out about what comes next? If I’m going to daydream and freak out, I at least need to be sweating while I do it.
Daydreaming can be a vice, honestly. Right now it feels like a necessary motor for creating prose and songs and fiction, but it can also take over my whole day, warp reality, and make me feel less grounded. I mention this because daydreaming is also a motor for finding who I really am and living a satisfying and fulfilling life. I’m using your words here because I have the same goals as you do. Even though I know who I am and I’m living a great life in so many ways, there are things I’ve never let myself be or do, and I’m trying to figure out how many of those things I can enjoy right now, immediately, and still support myself and feel relatively sane.
The work of becoming yourself never ends, no matter how happy or sad you are. That’s the first thing I want you to remember. My path has been smooth compared to yours but it was bewildering and hard for a long time. And like you, I’ve wasted lots of time on the wrong men, the wrong friends, the wrong jobs. Even once things started to look more solid and more satisfying, even once I learned to feel good in my own skin, to feel grateful and optimistic, I still found myself daydreaming – about what I might make next, about who I might meet next, about how I might live next. I’m just a person who likes new challenges and new daydreams. I have a restless mind and a restless heart. I try to want less, but I always want MORE OF EVERYTHING.
These are things I’ve discovered about myself lately. Every personal discovery is exciting and also humbling and difficult. It points in a new direction, it feels promising, but it also incites a kind of reckoning: Why didn’t I realize this sooner?
Daydreaming and regrets go hand in hand. They’re both motors for change, and they can both be vices if you indulge them too much. Making new discoveries about yourself and taking on new challenges are similarly fraught. It can be thrilling and also devastating to realize exactly what makes you who you are – how you return to these core emotions and behaviors of childhood repeatedly. Sometimes you find compassion for yourself there, and sometimes you locate your imagination, and other times you just feel anxious or sad. Sometimes taking on new challenges is exciting, and other times it becomes an escape or distraction from reality.
I mention all of this because just as the work of becoming yourself never ends, the balancing act of satisfaction never ends, either. We might feel fully satisfied one day and want more the next day. We might say “I’m doing alright, actually” one morning and be hit by a wave of regret by afternoon. We might ground ourselves in reality every night and wake up the next day distracted by some incandescent longing for a new adventure.
Everyone on this planet is in flux at all times. The happiest among us still have to negotiate this balance I’m describing. The most secure among us still have daydreams and regrets to grapple with, and they still find themselves randomly asking, “Am I doing this right? Have I given enough to the people around me? Did I screw everything up? Did I waste my life?”
You’re not that old. You’ve managed to shake off a boring bump on a log and a toxic dickhead and now you’re free. You have a lot to celebrate, whether you know exactly who you are or not. Do you know how many people have a firm grasp on who they are? Not that many. There are people with great jobs and perfect marriages who are reasonably happy and still have little to no clue what they want, what makes them tick. They would have regrets if they dared to take in the full scope of the life they’ve lived so far, but they avoid things like that because it’s too scary and they’d rather motor along in the mundane world, handling whatever is in front of them at any given time.
You aren’t like them. You want to know where you are and WHO you are. You want to feel more. The good thing about having been through a lot of bullshit is that you know where you are better than most other people do. You’re not going to wake up in thirty years and say, “Jesus, I wasted so much of my life!” You’ve been taking stock.
Now your job is to ease off the regrets bottle a little. It’s your vice. You can take a tiny sip of regrets to motivate you to do more, feel more, connect more. But you cannot hit the regrets bottle every day, any more than I can go back for more and more daydreams long after I’ve worked on my song and written some prose and worked on my novel. I might tell myself, “I’m accessing my feelings, here, so it’s important!” You might do the same thing, and you’re not wrong. But once you start telling a twisted narrative about how your whole life is a mess and you never did anything right, that’s when you need to put down that bottle of regrets or daydreams and do something else, something like RUN FOR AN HOUR or SCRUB THE BATHROOM or READ A BOOK.
You need a physical challenge that doesn’t involve your head full of regrets. Or a mental challenge (work a puzzle, read some poems). Or an emotional challenge (listen to podcasts again, restart therapy). You need hard work that takes you away from that bottle of regrets and away from all of your other bad stories about yourself.
You mentioned that therapy was too humiliating for you to tolerate. Listen closely to me: When you’re facing the truth, feeling allllll of your feelings, making discoveries every day, AND trying hard to challenge yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally because you know it’s the only path forward? EVERYTHING IS HUMILIATING.
Everything. Is. Humiliating.
Why? Because you don’t get to hide behind your Fuck Off Face, your defense mechanisms, your self-protective self, your people-pleasing tendencies. You don’t get to withdraw. You have to stay fully engaged with your life. You need to feel everything. Feeling everything is always shameful. It’s always too much. IT. IS. ALWAYS. HUMILIATING.
Humiliation and sadness and shame are palate cleansers. Facing your fears and weaknesses and demons is like sweating profusely. Aiming to feel fully awake and alive and aware of who you are is like getting naked on a crowded beach. You have to be brave to feel fragile and exposed like that. You have to believe in what you’re doing.
And what comes with all of that shame and fear and sadness?
JOY, MOTHERFUCKER. The joy of truly being here on this doomed planet, all cells wide awake, for once in your life. The thrill and the raw charge of refusing to hide. The enormous, deep deep deep happiness – an ocean of satisfaction! – that comes from understanding who you are JUST ENOUGH to replace your Fuck Off Face with an I’m Still Here and I Feel Pretty Goddamn Good Face.
I want you to replace your regret habit with a pride habit. It’s time for you to take some pride in the fact that you’ve been on this brave path to understanding yourself. It’s time for you to commit to being humbled and feeling ashamed YET AGAIN. And it’s time for you to start noticing how your body feels from minute to minute, hour to hour, day to day. Once you notice how good or bad you feel, you’re going to make connections between talking to a therapist and feeling pretty peaceful and less regretful for a few days after that (after the initial wave of shame). And you’re going to notice that your body loves balance. Your body loves an emotional challenge, a mental challenge, a physical challenge. Your body wants to shift gears a lot during the day, in order to feel more, not less.
Your body is hungry for more passion and more joy. Your body DOES NOT MIND SOME HUMBLING. It will put up with some humiliation and some pain. Your body is not afraid of getting hurt the way your mind is.
You need to learn to feel more while also learning to back away from feeling when you’ve had enough. Your strength is going to come from calibrating that, negotiating it, finding a balance between all of that onboard despair that rises up during therapy, and the release and relaxation and peace that set in after you do these hard things for the first time.
Your body wants to do hard things. Sixty is not an old number. Nope. People are so confused about age! Fuck them! Don’t even talk about age or numbers anymore, these things are so boring and irrelevant. Simple children love numbers. We are not simple children, are we? I don’t know about you, but when I give my body, my mind, my imagination, and my heart more challenges — BIG challenges, difficult challenges — what I discover is that I’m a fucking force of nature. The ashamed, simple child inside me dissolves into thin air. The ashamed, simple-child culture around me — which tells us all that we’re rapidly expiring, getting weaker, getting smaller, becoming more afraid — disappears. And it’s replaced by magic and possibility.
You’ll feel the same way. But even when you do, your shame and humiliation will REGULARLY CHECK IN TO REMIND YOU THAT YOU’RE WRONG. Life is not full of magic and possibility, your shame will say. LIFE IS JUST YOU, BEING A DELUDED OLD JACKASS!!!
Listen to your shame and your humiliation say these words. Breathe. Stay calm. Cultivate a detached, amused attitude toward this voice. Then ride your bicycle somewhere new. Remember? Balance! Refuse to build a rich, layered narrative from these bad voices. Cry instead. Sweat. Call someone and talk about THEIR things. Work a puzzle. Go for a drive. Ride the bus to the ocean.
On your bus to the ocean (Maybe it’s a train! I need to come to the UK and find out!), I want you to think about Paul Nash, painting World War I airplanes long after the war was over. Imagine Nash, walking along the shore, daydreaming and also facing his nightmares — his humiliating, wretched, deeply sad nightmares about the war — and listing his regrets and daydreaming about his loves. Think of Nash painting the coast in a smooth curve, and then adding peach and lavender here and there.
Why?!!! Why peach, from a broken soldier? Why lavender, from a broken man?
MAGIC, MOTHERFUCKER. That’s what the broken own. We own magic. It’s our job to work hard enough at everything so we can get to that magic. It’s our job to feel our sharp pangs of hunger for everything, every day, so we can feel that magic. It’s our job to feel as much as we can, even when it fucking hurts and humiliates us, so we can create magic in our connections to other people. It’s our job to dig for passion, to dig for more love, to dig for new discoveries. We were designed to keep digging. We were designed to say NO to tepid bitches who don’t have enough love to offer us. We were designed to set our sights on beauty, and light, and passion.
This is the year you join ranks with the broken, and learn to feel proud of what you are, what we are. We float along on a sea of daydreams and regrets, sweat and tears. We are humiliated and exhausted and then we’re wide awake again, and alive again, and in love again. We feel everything. Because that’s our job. And that’s the point.
Your so-called wasted life brought you here, so it wasn’t wasted after all. Welcome to the hard work of never wasting another day. Welcome to the grueling work of feeling way too much. Welcome to the lovely work of showing up for more everything, every single morning. Welcome to the magic of falling in love with exactly what you have and what you are, right here, right now.
Does it feel lonely? Open your eyes and look around you. You’ll see other people working very, very hard to feel everything. We’re everywhere. Don’t forget that, as you get on the bus. Don’t forget that, as you walk along the coast, imagining peach and lavender, imagining broken planes and broken men, imagining all of the delirious, sad, exhilarating years ahead of you. You’re not alone.