Two Calla Lilies Together (1923) by Georgia O’Keeffe
I've been wanting to write this letter for a while now, so I figured I'd sit down and actually do it. I'm not even sure how to begin, so I'm just going to dive straight in and hope you can derive some logic from this emotional spiel of mine.
I'm 24, but I feel about 40. From the moment I exited the womb, my life has been in one constant state of traumatic flux. Born into a family riddled with generational trauma and inertia (a product of horrible, dark circumstances that nobody should ever have to see), the world-weary nature of my family manifested itself through abusive relationships, explosive and violent environments, suicide, chronic and volatile mental health, displacement, alcohol abuse, drug addiction and paralysis. I've seen more stagnancy and decay in my 24 years on this planet than I hope anyone ever has to see in their entire life.
Growing up in a single-parent home (not including my mother's series of unstable, vituperative partners), my dad was always a distant figure — living his own life, creating his own family. I sat at the sidelines like a faraway voyager, peeking through the windows of his life from the outside in. A young girl, desperately lonely, I lost myself in words and books. Since the day I became aware of my surroundings, I’ve craved meaning with an ardent thirst: Why are we here? What is the point? Why are we suffering? I still very much do not have an answer, but it was this disposition that had me clawing for the works of Nietzsche, Carl Jung, Sartre, Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus. These people seemed to suffer from the same ailment as me: an awareness of the stark injustice that appears to plague this world.
I don't think I've ever felt accepted, and this feeling was only exacerbated at school, where I was bullied for not fitting in. Withdrawn, sad and often self-deprecating, the only friendships I've ever really managed to forge have been set on a foundation of self-betrayal and chronic people-pleasing. As I've gotten older, this has weedled its way into my romantic relationships, where I've cast my own needs aside and tried to morph into a caricature of what I believed the other person wanted me to be, meaning they've all been ultimately unfulfilling and often built upon a lie.
About two years ago, at the end of my first relationship (a four-year toxic relationship, during which I became a shell of a human being), the change in life circumstances meant I had to start walking to work. I didn't think much of anything at the time, but I woke up, and I walked. Starting on the shorter route, I built up to about ten miles a day (the location was very remote, as I live in the middle of Buttfuck Oklahoma, aka rural Midlands). Over the course of seven months, I lost over 100 lbs. I wish this could be the beginning and end of a wonderful transformation journey, but it actually spiraled into a pretty serious eating disorder.
However, little ol' me thought it was great, because people finally started to accept me. They wanted to speak to me, hang out with me, sleep with me. Starved of acceptance for my whole life prior, I thought it was the bee’s knees, and fought tooth and nail to keep abusing my body so that I could feel awash with praise. I fell into a pattern of weekly starvation and weekend binge-drinking, thinking I'd finally cracked the social code. I was the life of the party, though!
After a while, the novelty wore off. The weird thing about my penchant for self sabotage is that I often counteract it with conflicting self-development habits. During the darkest time of my alcohol reliance, I was reading books on blacking out and how to rise up from the bottom of the barrel, desperate to make a change while immersed in an environment that embodied everything but said change. It felt a bit like the pot calling the kettle black -- except I was both the pot and the kettle.
After a series of really bad drunken experiences, which I'll spare you the details of, I decided to uproot from the houseshare I was living in at the time and move into another. A fresh start, or so I thought. I ended up falling in love with a boy that lived there. We shared the same love of music, had the same humor, and he was beautiful and kind. I knew I wasn't ready, but I fell for him hard. The trouble was that he came at the tail end of my breaking point, and he loved to party and do drugs just as much as me. However, I ignored my intuition and tried to shut it up, and so commenced 2 years of a relationship that was great in some ways, but hollow in others. I wanted to strive for change -- to create a better future for myself and focus on my health and development -- but he didn't. Growing up in a lovely, caring middle class family with a solid financial foundation, he didn't share my perspective, and this eventually began to grind me down. I didn't feel like I could connect with him on any meaningful level, and he couldn't understand my random bouts of sadness. This only worsened when I got a DUI and lost my job at the end of the second lockdown.
During that time, I also had three abortions. My body wasn't responding well to hormonal birth control, and it took ages for my GP to take my complaints seriously. The first time was awful, but I muddled through; the second time I was isolating with Covid in a houseshare on my own, while he went away for a 10-day 'lad's holiday,' a reality that still pains me to this day.
About 3 weeks ago, I cracked. Facing financial difficulty after losing my job unexpectedly combined with the emotional culmination of these events, I was genuinely at my wits' end. To be frank, I thought I was going to die. I sent him a message on my way to work saying that I couldn't do this anymore. I couldn't pretend to be happy and keep getting drunk after everything that had happened. I needed time to get my life back on track and focus on other things. He said he understood; that he'd been upset by how nights out were ending. He also said that he thought I could learn to love life when I learned to manage all of the internal pain he knew I felt all the time. These words still haunt me every day.
Now I'm doing better, I think. I'm living back at home (not ideal), but I've not drank for about 3 weeks (bar a single cider here and there), and I've been hiking and reading as frequently as I can. I've been offered a new job, and I've started therapy. Might I trepidatiously declare that things are looking up?
But god, Polly, I feel so lonely. So cut off and misunderstood. It feels like I've been wielding an axe my whole life, chopping down a dense blockage of trees that's been obscuring my way. My list of friends doesn't even warrant bullet points, and I struggle to connect with anyone my age. People always call me amazing, brave or 'wise beyond my years' — or even strong, a word that evokes nothing more than a wince for me.
I'm tired of being strong. I'm tired of being brave. I wish things had been different so that I could just be a normal 24-year-old girl. I know there's no going back, and that there's only forward from here, but why does healing have to feel so lonely?
Oh So Lonely
Dear Oh So Lonely,
I spent this morning re-reading the first few chapters of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a book I’ve been fixated on for a while. Here’s the part that really got me by the throat:
I have no friend, Margaret: when I am glowing with the enthusiasm of success, there will be none to participate my joy; if I am assailed by disappointment, no one will endeavour to sustain me in dejection. I shall commit my thoughts to paper, it is true, but that is a poor medium for the communication of feeling. I desire the company of a man who could sympathise with me; whose eyes would reply to mine. You may deem me romantic, my dear sister, but I bitterly feel the want of a friend. I have no one near me, gentle yet courageous, possessed of a cultivated as well as of a capacious mind, whose tastes are like my own, to approve or amend my plan. How would such a friend repair the faults of your poor brother!
I’ve been reflecting a lot on friendship over the past few weeks. Last week, an old friend of mine came to visit and brought along a woman he’s in love with. There’s something particularly dynamic and touching about spending time with a a friend who’s in love (or in crisis, or in some state of flux). Maybe you’ve known them for years, and you like to think that you understand them, but at times you’ve sort of dismissed or categorized them because they looked half-accessible or half-closed to you. When my friend was getting divorced years ago, he would call me from thousands of miles away to talk, but even then, I felt wary that what he really wanted was a free therapist. That’s just how I was for a few years: wary. I wanted close friendships but I didn’t know how to be vulnerable and connect, so I’d tell stories about how they were incapable of true emotional reciprocity.
And look, a lot of my friends *are* pretty avoidant! But for years, I said I wanted more but held them at arm’s length. I wasn’t invested in trusting other people. I wasn’t committed to knowing my friends deeply, even when they disappointed me. I wasn’t open to speaking my mind gently, asserting my values and my boundaries without worrying that I’d break something in the process. I rarely insisted on describing my own emotional reality in those days — which is a crucial part of friendship! My attitude was “I’m doing fine, so we don’t have to talk about me. I’m just here to help!” — which is a good way to write off anyone who opens up to you as looking for a mother or a therapist instead of looking for a true friend.
I was also afraid of caring too much about someone I wasn’t sleeping with, honestly. I fully trusted one person, my husband. I didn’t know how to trust anyone else.
So anyway, my old friend drove a long way to bring his new partner to meet me, which confused me because I think of him as someone who doesn’t do things like that. But I really felt the significance and weight of his visit once he and his insanely lovable partner arrived. We had a flat-out incredible time together. Somehow it was impossible not to either be catching each other up on our lives, making obscene jokes, laughing our asses off, or speaking in absurdly heartfelt tones about what mattered the most to us. The two of them were madly in love and wide open, and maybe that made the good energy more possible.
Suddenly I could see my friend much more clearly. I could see how aligned our ideas and fixations and passions were. I could recognize that this person I’d written off as just one of a group of people I loved but couldn’t quite reach was actually meant to be included in my closest circle of friends, near my heart. When we said goodbye, I could really feel how much I loved him and I was already starting to miss him as they walked away.
“I miss you both already!” I shouted after them, like a big dork.
Oh So Lonely, after just one paragraph of your letter, I thought, “This letter is exactly like the letter at the start of Frankenstein!” I could immediately tell that you were a sensitive, open-hearted person with an exceptional mind and curious spirit. Thankfully for me, most Ask Polly readers are a lot like you! That’s why people always think I make up letters (which OF COURSE I DON’T, I’m too lazy for that level of invention, do you even know me at all?!!)/ The people who read Ask Polly and send me great letters are a lot like me and you. We’re thoughtful and sensitive and we care way too much about things that a lot of the people around us couldn’t give a flying fuck about.
By the time I got to the list of books you’ve been reading, tears were streaming down my face, which is actually a (touching and lovely, damn it!) re-enactment of what happens early on in Frankenstein when our narrator, who wants a true friend, finally meets someone who stirs some passion in him:
My affection to my guest increases every day. He excites at once my admiration and my pity to an astonishing degree. How can I see so noble a creature destroyed by misery, without feeling the most poignant grief? He is so gentle, yet so wise; his mind is so cultivated, and when he speaks, although his words are culled with the choicest art, yet they flow with rapidity and unparalleled eloquence.
That’s how finding a true friend should feel! You should feel full of admiration and awe and also feeling. You should see that you’re each capable of understanding each other at some deeper level. And when you feel that, let it in, invest in it? Suddenly your life feels so completely different.
So this is what I want for you. I want you to open your mind to the idea that there are people on the face of this planet who are so much like you, so open and thoughtful and strong and also broken and disillusioned by what they’ve been through so far in life, that they will be recognizable to you immediately — but only if you open your heart wide enough.
And when you meet these people and you dare to show them the full force of who you are, you won’t need to get drunk just to make them and/or you more interesting. You’ll feel a lot of pain at times over how much you care about them, but that will just be a sign that you’re daring to invest in their well-being without taking responsibility for their well-being. You won’t need to sleep with these friends to prove to yourself that you love each other or that you’re meant to be friends for life. You won’t need to fixate or obsess about them because you’ll trust that they love you and want you in their lives just as much as you love them and want them in your life.
But in order to see and recognize and value these friends — and yourself — you need to stop drinking completely. It’s great that you’re in therapy, and you should commit to continuing with it, but as long as you’re still drinking regularly, you’re always going to be tempted to escape reality in the same ways. The stakes are high. You’ve already had a DUI and you’re lucky that no one was hurt or killed that night. Indirect recklessness like that is a perpetuation of the abuse and violence of your upbringing. Right now you need to commit to treating yourself and others with care and compassion, every single day. You can’t foster deeper connections until you do both.
And I’m convinced that deeper connections are your personal route out of this mess. Your wider focus and purpose on this planet is to make deep connections with like-minded people, so you’ll be committed to not narrowing your world down to one person again. The more you discover people who were built to understand you, the more you’ll view your life through an abundant, open lens that cultivates your faith in deep, sustaining friendships, the kinds rich enough to pull you through the pain and loneliness of being a sensitive soul on a callous planet.
This isn’t a fantasy I’m spelling out for you. It’s the reality of being a person who dares to give herself exactly what she needs in order to not just survive but thrive. What you need to thrive is hard work, great books, exercise (instead of fixating on eating or size/ weight, focus on strength and agility and eating healthy food whenever you’re hungry), creative efforts (you’re obviously a writer, duh!), and a slow, caring process of learning to love and enjoy yourself — DARING to love and enjoy yourself, your brilliant mind, and the wide-open life in front of you.
Healing shouldn’t be as lonely as it is. So in the comments section, I want anyone who also craves deeper friendships to describe what they feel they’re missing, connection-wise, what they dearly want in a friend, and what they feel they have to bring to the table in terms of friendship. We’re not doing this to actually pair up friends — not yet anyway! What we’re doing is making a collective work of art about the enormous importance of deep emotional bonds with others. I want everyone who reads this to understand just how many reflective, curious, open-hearted people out there who are deeply invested in having real, true friends, and in defining those friendships in ways that defy our culture’s dry, flat notions of what a friend can or should be, what’s “appropriate” in friendship vs. love, and how much of a commitment you should make to your close friends.
The idea here is vulnerability. If I were writing one of these myself, I’d probably list my current interest in feeling as much as possible (even when it hurts! of course it’s going to hurt when you feel a ton!) and my obsession with talking about all creative processes — how that process feels for other artists, and how musicians in particular create and enter the zone and become a lightning rod in the moment. (I mention this as an example! I might also mention anxious attachment, avoidance, my enduring love of obnoxiousness, my expanding need to dance as often as possible, and the joy of living in a brand new place for the first time in decades.)
A lot of the people who post in the comments are going to want to be friends with the actual letter writer — a common phenomenon, and totally understandable. But what we’re doing here is showing our asses together, essentially, by daring to describe the level of connection that we crave in our day-to-day lives. My personal feeling is that thanks to our broken culture, which isolates us from each other from an early age, even secure, functioning people with zero trauma in their lives struggle mightily just to feel good and experience magic and deep connection in their everyday lives. And we’re living through times that make deeper connections feel like oxygen. We can’t survive without them.
Oh So Lonely, I want you to trust me that cultivating close friendships and deep connections without sex or alcohol is your path forward to a different kind of a life, one that feels rich and full and sustainable. You might find yourself wanting to move away from Oklahoma to discover the sorts of people who you’re capable of making those kinds of connections with. But don’t assume immediately that the big cities are the only place you’ll find thoughtful, sensitive, intense freaks whose minds move in several directions at once. These people live all over the place. The important thing is to notice when you light up in conversations (while sober!) and when you get bored. Take your boredom more seriously, but open your heart wider. Don’t overinvest in people who just don’t crave the same things you crave. Be compassionate, but keep it moving!
Your people are out there, and they will change your whole life. I say this to you and to every single person reading this who wants more connection in their lives, who’s felt lonely and a little anxious for escape and magic for way too long now.
Be ravenous. Own your rapacious need for more. And work hard — through exercise, intellectual pursuits, hard labor, community projects, journaling, and constantly reaching out to try new things and meet new people — to cultivate your faith in yourself and in deeper connections that will pull you through this life.
Dare to be romantic about friendships. Friendships *are* romantic. Life is romantic. Knowing who you are and what you love the most, and being able to say these things out loud, is deeply romantic. Dare to be that person, and your people will find you. Remember Mary Shelley’s words:
I desire the company of a man who could sympathise with me; whose eyes would reply to mine.
Imagine eyes that reply to yours. Imagine really feeling that connection, that love of a friend. And remember that it truly matters how things feel. Drinking a lot is a temporary solution to a loss of feeling. The long-term solution is daring to care enough about what you love the most that you’re willing to set out in search of it.
I would tell you to be brave, but you already are brave, aren’t you? So that’s your project now: Learning to be who you already are, and loving that person enough to give her what she deeply desires.
Ask Polly publishes twice a week for subscribers. Those in need should not use stolen credit cards to purchase a subscription! They should merely ask me for one: askpolly @ protonmail.com. Things are fucked up! Let me give you something for free, already!
So much to relate to LW... and just as Polly said, I feel a desire to be your friend already! I had big relationship upheaval this last year, too, and am around your age. I also am unlearning the belief that to get closer to people means to suffer and that it costs an essential slice of yourself to be in one, whether that's in dating relationships or friendships.
What I am looking for in relationships these days is a feeling of ease; people who are as interested in sharing as much as they are in asking questions about me, people who don't give me such a hard time when I say "no." Instead of feeling like I get a "what's wrong with her?" I hear and feel "I totally get it." People who want to come over and sit on the couch, or in the back yard, and chat or not say anything at all, people who want to do dinner parties and go to the movies, people who you can call and celebrate good news with, and people who I trust because I know they'll set their own boundaries and be honest, too. People who aren't saying "save me," because I know they've taken responsibility for themselves.
The other day, I went on a hike with a guy I was romantically interested in, and felt anxious the whole time. I came back home and cried in my bed, and my friend was there and she laid there and listened to me as I said the worst things about myself-- that I get so frustrated when I don't show up as what I imagined my best self to be, that I alway feel like I fumble everything, that I hate how insecure I feel. Do you know the life saving thing she did? She held my hand and said "Any way you show up is worthy of being cared for and seen." That's love. I want more of that.
Love this invitation. I appreciated what Heather said in another recent column, that friendships in your thirties can be a war zone, with people splintering off and doing all sorts of different things, moving to different places, and leaving the detritus of old friendships in their wake. I am in that place! What I am looking for in friendship now is a certain intensity that isn't about trauma bonding (had too much of that) but is just about an intensity of mind, and of spirit. People who are full of ideas and want to hear mine. Who are concerned with politics, art, spirit, their contribution to this world, the beauty of it. Who are FUNNY! Who love to go to great restaurants, and on road trips. Who will open up their homes, and come to mine. Who have a certain notion of family or community that doesn't just, by default, put ultimate primacy on their own nuclear family life, but is more expansive than that. Who will willingly engage in conversations about clothes, because I have literally no one in my life to talk about that with! And I know this isn't about making friends... but I live in London and Norwich, UK :)