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Ask Polly: Help, I Feel Like I’m Drowning!

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Dear Polly, 

For the past few months, your column has been one of the only things I can concentrate on, and whether or not you ever read this letter, it finally occurred to me that at least writing it out might do me good. So here goes: I’m 26 and should have only gratitude for the circumstances of my life, but right now — and in a few other dark times like this that I can remember — I’m struggling to get through the days. I don’t feel okay in my own skin and every little thing is a battle. It feels like I’ll never get better and though there are moments of relief here and there, I often just wish I could melt into the earth.

Here are the non-complaint-worthy facts of my life: Since graduating from a good college, I have been living with roommates in a small, comfy apartment in Manhattan. I’ve been working at a good publishing house, and I do fairly well at my job. It’s a mixed bag but I am in the world of books, and I really do love books. Occasionally, I even get to work on projects that are stimulating and fulfilling and of which I can be proud. I have a handful of good, nice friends, though more and more they’re starting to settle down and I don’t see them as often as I’d like to, nor is my social network as extensive as I’d want it to be.

My anchor in this world has always been my family— they are my everything. My mom and three older siblings are the people who make me feel like I exist. They are the people I feel most comfortable around, who I want to spend time with and who fill me up with their unconditional love and support, which I do my best to return.

Unfortunately, they (with the exception of my brother, thank God) live on the West Coast, and ever since I left the nest I’ve often found it cripplingly hard to just be on my own. Freshman year of college was when I first freaked out about my new reality — when I first sank to depths I never thought would end, when I first became a regular therapy client, when I first went on anti-depressants and started (conservatively) using anti-anxiety meds for periods that seem unbearable.

Yes, there have been easier times than others, but overall it seems that my friends and whatever it is I’m supposed to be busy with — school, work, hobbies — are just not enough. I need that constant, every-day, loving connection. The only time I’ve ever felt anything similar to what I have with my family is with serious boyfriends, of which I’ve had two.

Which brings me to my current dark period. A few months ago, I had a really hard breakup with my boyfriend of almost three years, the person I was hoping I’d end up marrying. Until we broke up, he had filled that essential role in my life. He was my person, my blessed default, my certainty — the no-boundaries relationship I seem to need to exist. I felt safe and good and so loved; I love him very much, too, and still value him as a human more than I can describe here, but like so many people who write to you, I was plagued with doubt, and it was unfair to him, and so we had to end. Part of that doubt had to do with my generalized anxiety, which during the best of times takes the form of nagging, obsessive thoughts, dissatisfaction, quick descents into depression because of disappointment with moments and conversations and days that are just okay, nothing special. With my ex, I was always wondering: Is this what it means to be in love? Is this enough? Are our conversations enough? Can I marry him? I’ve never been good at just accepting things for what they are, being in the moment, looking at the bright side …

I’m still not ready to face the fact that he’s not the one, even though I know you’ll tell me he’s not. But the fact is that without him, I am drowning. Without constant yoga, running, meditation, CBT therapy, occasional Klonopin, and lots of scheduling/attending events that I don’t actually want to go to, I fall apart. I wake up each morning with intense dread in the pit of my stomach, and at night it’s not uncommon for me to weep in bed, grieving the loss of my ex and all of his qualities, grieving my single state, grieving this unbearable life without someone at my side to ground me.

I become so sad and scared I want to crawl out of my skin, so panicky I can’t even concentrate on a simple TV show. Every morning, it’s a huge struggle to get myself to work. When I’m there, sometimes I can focus, other times I am just crying at my desk or need to go hide in an office somewhere to fall apart. Sometimes I feel scared to lose my job, and sometimes I’m so lost I don’t even care if I do. Any obligations I have feel completely impossible and I can’t access the parts of myself that are worthy of love and admiration (though they do exist, and in better moments I can remember what they are). It’s all really embarrassing and really painful.

Most of my dark thoughts are fixated on my ex and inability to let him go. However, given that I’ve been struggling with anxiety and depression and the inability to move around with ease in this world alone before that relationship began, I have to assume there is more here that needs to be addressed. Is the biggest blessing in my life — my family — also my biggest curse? How do I get out of this scary hole, and what will it take for me to be able to live the rest of my adult life without so much pain and suffering?

Signed,

Drowning

Dear Drowning,

The simple problem is that you’re just three months out of a breakup, and you’re someone who strongly prefers to be part of a couple. The short answer, then, is to be patient with yourself, stay the course, keep doing the good things, and keep the faith that things will get better and the crying and the panic will subside.

But there are more complex mechanisms in play here, contradictory forces and mixed messages that buzz through your head, a tendency to imagine that your locus of control is outside of yourself and depends on other people, and a lurking suspicion that no matter what you do, you can’t be trusted not to ruin everything, to fall down and not be able to get up again. You don’t trust yourself to move forward alone. You don’t see yourself as strong.

So I think the broader challenge for you is that you need to show yourself how strong you are. This is an onerous feat for an anxious, depressed, lonely human being, and obviously you have to see your therapist without fail and adjust your medications as needed. But you also need to work hard every day to change the story you tell yourself about yourself and your life.

Sometimes at the outset of answering a letter like yours, I feel a little bit powerless. I know exactly how it feels to be in your shoes — I broke up with a great guy mostly thanks to the noise in my head when I was 28 years old, and afterward the floor fell out from under me. I had no idea how much I’d been relying on his support and love until it was gone. From within the comfort of the relationship, I imagined myself forging ahead heroically on my own, and instead I had to face that I was depressed, had very few close friends, and didn’t know what shape my life should take. I tried pretty valiantly to make good friends and solidify the ground beneath my feet, but the second I met a guy I was attracted to, I cast him as my savior and cut my progress off at the knees. So I fell into another relationship, one that wasn’t nearly as supportive or comforting as the one I’d just left.

In fact, it took two more failed relationships after that before I finally understood what it might feel like to stand on my own two feet without always scanning the horizon for the next guy. That said, here I am, married! I like moving through the world with someone who understands me, and I don’t think it makes any sense to view that as a weakness. I mean, I’m weak, for sure. Don’t get me wrong. But I’m strong, too.

You are weak and you’re also strong. Maybe you really do want your boyfriend back and you should trust your instincts there. But I think part of the reason you broke up with him had nothing to do with him; it had to do with the fact that you wanted to test yourself, to prove to yourself that you can be strong and be alone and still be happy. And now you just feel weak, and you can’t remember how strong you are at all, so it all seems like a big mistake.

I want to give you something, Drowning. I want to give you something that fucking floats. I want to give you something that’s buoyant and bouncy, but that’s also resilient, something that won’t spring a leak. I want to give you something you’ll own forever. I’ll give it to you and then it’ll be yours, so completely yours that you’ll feel just like you built it with your own hands. I want you to take the inadequate rubber raft I struggle clumsily to make with my flailing, awkward words, and use your creative mind and your strong will to build a gorgeous sailing ship with fluttering white sails that slap and shiver in the wind and shimmer in the sunshine.

What do you have already, to make this ship with? I think you have a lot of pretty specific gifts. I don’t think you need your mother and your siblings to help you with this. You love to be warm and safe and close to them, and that’s good, that’s part of what makes you so loving and so open. But you have a lot of other strengths that you’re in the habit of losing sight of, thanks to a daily tangle of biochemical hurdles and cognitive bad habits. It’s natural to be angry at yourself when you confront those challenges. But don’t let your anger or the challenges themselves obscure your view of all of your particular qualities, the things that got you here.

It’s strange when you urge someone to dig deep and see who they really are, to see what they’re made of. I like myself just fine, but I still couldn’t exactly tell you what I have that’s so goddamn special. A sense of humor? A little hard-earned wisdom, on my good days? An ability to trust myself and hold forth authoritatively on the page? What the fuck are those things worth, exactly? If I’m really pressed to ask myself, “What do I have that’s so important or so worthwhile? What do I have to offer?” (and believe me, I’m pressed to ask myself that every single time I sit down to a blank page), all I can come up with is this: I believe in the magic that comes from just trying very hard to reach you and change your course. I believe in trying. Today, I’m trying awkwardly, clumsily, forming self-conscious words on the page, with a sad heart. But I believe in the magic of trying to reach you by remembering how terrible it felt, to be lost at sea, to wonder how you’ll ever stop sinking. I believe in the magic that comes from reaching deep inside and finding some part of me that’s tenacious and stubbornly loyal, that’s soft and fiercely protective. I believe that even if my words fall like concrete blocks, littering the page, relaying nothing, there is still magic in the moment when I try to reach you.

The more I sit down and write this column — which feels absurdly arrogant to me most of the time, because who the fuck am I to help anyone? — the more I believe that magic happens when you dig deep and you reach as far as you can toward someone else, until your arms hurt. You take whatever fucked-up jumble of confused, grandiose, lost, frightened feelings you have and you serve them up and you say, “This is all I have to give. I want to help. This is what I have, it’s not pretty. I want to help. I want to give you this.”

I’m skeptical about the idea that helping others fixes everything. But writing this column is the one thing I’ve done that always feels worth it. I write all kinds of things, but this is the one thing that always makes me feel stronger and more alive. The strength comes from reaching, and it’s made me a better friend and a better mother and a better partner. It’s easy for my head to be filled with doubts and criticisms, just like yours is. My poison-fucking-head will always reemerge at some point, no matter how much lightness I’ve had for weeks or months. But reaching, with an open heart, brings me back.

What can you give, Drowning? Because you are stronger than you know, and you can reach for the best that’s in you and then help someone else with it. I’m saying this to you because I think you have a gift of extreme sensitivity that’s sometimes covered up by your sharp intellect, and that sensitivity will let you see clearly through the gruff sounds people make, to see right through that noise to their melancholy, beating hearts. If you want to, you can call your family and instead of asking for them to prop you up, you can look clearly into them, and see what they need, what they want, what they’re longing for. You can go to your office and instead of monitoring your emotional and physical state, you can look around you and see the flickering hearts of the people you work with, the way their bluster and barking veils their sadness, their loneliness, their losses.

You need close, intimate friendships with women, Drowning. You need to reach out and pull some worthy women into your inner circle. You need to lean on them and trust them like you trust your family. You need to show them the truth of who you are, the way you did with your ex. There are perfectly lovable, healthy women around you who seem like they don’t need anything at all, but they need your sensitivity and your love. If you shift your focus, you’ll see them clearly. Reach for them. Build yourself the warm, encircling love you want. Build it with lifelong friends. Make your sincere interests known. Stick your fucking neck out. Don’t be cool about it.

Every goddamn day, you and I are predisposed to feel dread and worry and fear. I am secure and surrounded by love in my life, but I still sit down at my desk in the morning and I worry that there’s nothing there.

There is always something there. I have to reach, as far as I can stretch, to find you, but then the magic bubbles up between us and something in the air shifts. My hand never touches yours. I can’t be your friend. But you and I and lots of others just like us are reaching. We can stand together, thousands of miles away and years apart from each other, total strangers, and we can remind ourselves that this world wants us to give as much as we possibly can, to stretch beyond our known limits, to help those who can’t stretch quite as far. It’s not arrogant to believe in that.

You don’t need to be saved. You are the savior in this picture. That’s the paradox that’s blocking you. That’s the puzzle you haven’t been able to solve, the one that makes you anxious and impatient and angry at yourself and everyone else. Everything around you tells you the exact opposite of this, I know. That’s why it’s been so hard to figure it out. But you are not the one who takes and takes and never feels like it’ll be enough. You are the one who listens, the one who helps, the one who gives generously. You can still be vulnerable and lost. You can still edit books and write books and use your mind to create great things. But you need to know that you’re not being dragged along, barely able to stand. You are reaching out, and lifting other people up, and guiding them to higher ground. You are not drowning. You are standing on the shore, building one sailing ship after another, to get a thousand-and-one drowning souls back to dry land.

Polly

Got a question for Polly? Email AskPolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

All letters to askpolly@nymag.com become the property of Ask Polly and New York Media LLC and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.

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Order the new Ask Polly book, How To Be A Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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All letters to askpolly@nymag.com become the property of Ask Polly and New York Media LLC and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.

Ask Polly: Help, I Feel Like I’m Drowning!