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Ask Polly: I Tried to Tell My Friend She’s a Bad Drunk!

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Dear Polly,

I am someone who struggles at expressing my emotions and tends to avoid addressing conflicts. For years, my mouth would clamp shut when it came to feelings. But I’ve crawled out of that, and lately I’ve made friends with people who are enthusiastic about talking about emotions and relationships.

Rebecca Solnit recently articulated a valuable lesson that I’ve had to learn: “The opposite of people who drag you down isn’t people who build you up and butter you up. It’s equals who are generous but keep you accountable, true mirrors who reflect back who you are and what you are doing.” I’ve had tough conversations in which friends have questioned my behavior or choices, and though I haven’t always enjoyed them, I’ve learned a lot and became better friends with these people. And now I’ve slowly started to broach these conversations on my own.

You might guess where this is going. I confronted a friend, and it did not go well. I tried to tell my friend that her recent behavior while drunk was raising some eyebrows — that various people had mentioned this to me. This is something I’d want to know if I were in my friend’s position. Mutual friends have been backing away from this friend, and even though I think my friend is great, I can also see why some people might take offense at her harsh personality. My friend sometimes worries about being disliked but never connects the dots.

I put off talking to my friend about the drunken incident, but then I received a pretty passive-aggressive message about it from her, so I asked to talk. After we talked, my friend sent inflammatory texts to all of those involved. I was accused of using this as a platform to vent my own hurt. And roll out that dramarama … the detailed agony is extensive and still ongoing. Immediate lesson learned? As nice as “true mirrors” sound, maybe not everyone is ready for them.

I felt I was doing the right thing with someone I was very close to. I still feel this incident needed to be addressed, but I also feel my lesson here is that I should have kept my mouth shut and distanced myself from this friend, taking a clue from others around me. The end result of this has been exponentially more cataclysmic than keeping my mouth shut.

Befuddled Sad Sop

Dear BSS,

Opening your mouth is complicated. This is why most people don’t do it. It often causes more trouble than it’s worth. Once you speak up, you become a target. Mutual friends — even the ones who complain about the same person to you — wonder what made you scold your friend like that: “Why can’t you mind your own business? What is wrong with you, that you had to bust in and fuck shit up? Who does that?”

Even though telling people shit about their blind spots is my fucking thing — I mean, I live for it, it’s one of my greatest passions, and it’s mostly done out of the purest of intentions (and it brings me joy and I’m good at it and I believe in it!) — I don’t know that I’ve ever confronted a friend about one of their “problems” unless other big issues of my own were muddying the water first. That’s part of why I love writing this column: I have the opportunity to decode and read the tea leaves and also, yes, make informed guesses and take great big leaps of faith and get a little weird and cross boundaries with someone I DON’T KNOW. That’s also why people come to me, a stranger, with their problems. They don’t know me and I don’t know them and that helps. And they like the way I did this bizarre, long-distance interpretative dance for someone else, and they want a dance of their own, even if it hurts a little to watch it.

But when I try to tell friends about their blind spots, it’s not so long-distance or so pure-intentioned. I can think my intentions are the very best ones, but there’s almost always something else in the mix that I don’t want to acknowledge. Maybe I feel a little bit disregarded or powerless in the friendship. Maybe I think that when I talk to my friend, she has a way of waving it off like ENOUGH, WHATEVER, MOVING RIGHT ALONG. But there are other layers here, too. I like people who wave me off, at some level, even when they’re doing it because we’re incompatible and I’m refusing to admit it. And I like people who live in their own bubbles. I like the amazing weird unique ideas that can only be nurtured in the fucked-up terrarium of my defensive, self-protective friend’s invention. I applaud that way of living. Maybe I live that way myself sometimes.

I like people with big, weird ideas who sometimes put their ideas above other people on their priority lists. I like people who live by their own twisted principles, even if they sometimes care too much about status, or keep a bat wrapped in barbed wire in the closet, or lay themselves on the train tracks for their principles. Sometimes people who lay on the train tracks have a bat in the closet, too. But even when people have no ideas and no principles at all, when they’re floating loose from the world and they hurt people by accident all the time but never, ever, clean it up, I like that, too. I admire the lack of neurotic apologizing in the mix there. They’re doing something I could never do. I want to clean up EVERYTHING.

I even want to apologize for this digression! You’re indulging me today because it’s my birthday. I’m 47 years old today, and I still have totally demented ideas and feelings about what’s appealing in a friend. And the bottom line is this: No matter how much I think I want to be a person who is healthy and who only knows healthy people (sidestepping the question of who gets to define what “healthy” is), deep in my heart, I know I don’t always want that. No matter how healthy I’d like to appear, as some fucking advice-giver, I am not and will never be totally clean and pure and healthy in the way of the modern guru. Because there are layers of madness that I can’t expunge. My sight will get clearer, but the mud that I wallow through will simply look more textured, more nuanced, more complex. I will still be in the mud.

And I love a bitch. I love a cunty complainer who’ll have a drink and complain with me. I’ve always hated the word cunt, but I love it lately, because who fucking cares anymore? But I also want to clean it up. Say “cunt,” clean it up, say “cunt,” clean it up. I’m like a fireman who’s also an arsonist. I feel more confident and grateful than ever, but I’m also such a dick and I need some twisted friends in my life who get it, ALL of it. My husband gets it, my mom even gets it. But I need close friends who are generous and dismissive and loving and meaner than mean, and sometimes I want the friends who are reckless just as much as I want the friends who are considerate.

And even though I’m much more content than ever, I need to tell the whole truth. I need to talk about the mud. And not everybody likes that.

So now let’s talk about you (FINALLY) (happy birthday, me!): You love your friend partially because your friend is a wreck, not in spite of your friend being a wreck. You love wrecks, but you want someone to put them in their places. You used to wish quietly for this, but now you’re trying to speak up more. This phase is common among people who just started therapy: “It’s my duty to tell everyone what I’ve learned and what they’re doing wrong!” You figure you’ll do it with love! You have the best intentions. Everyone agrees! You’ll tell your friend “EVERYONE AGREES THAT YOU’RE A TOTAL WRECK.”

Okay, record scratch: Never, ever, do that. Don’t bring the opinions of the mob into a tough conversation with a close friend. It hurts too much, particularly for the harsh drunk you’re describing. Unless you’re mostly trying to get this friend to face their drinking problem and you’ve accepted that your friendship might die as a result, you don’t say, “Everyone agrees with me.” Because everyone also agrees that YOU can be a real nut job, too (trust), and the only reason you haven’t heard that yet is because no one has had the gall to say that to your face.

In fact, everyone agrees that everyone else can be a real nut job. (TRUTH! SPEAKING TRUTH ON MY BIRTHDAY!) So never say that. That was a mistake.

You made other mistakes in talking to this friend, too. For sure you did. There are issues here, your issues. This isn’t just about you trying to help. But I don’t want you to believe for a millisecond that this means that you truly should never have said a word, or that this means that you are bad and fucked up in a million and one ways, and you are for sure JUST AS FUCKED UP as your friend. Because, even though everyone has their problems, it can feel terrible when all of the passive say-nothing, nod-along friends say shit like “You and your friend have a thing.” Even if your friend literally took a baseball bat to your face, it would be: “You guys have always been like this.” Like you both took the bat and hit you in the face with it.

Even when you know we’re all just muddling through, it sucks to try to fix something, with good intentions, and then be blamed for it. I’ve been there so many times. All I can say is that you need to forgive yourself for saying something, because it was understandable. And you need to see a therapist to sort out how your friendships work, which ones serve you, who is truly on your side, and how you function as a friend.

Examining your patterns shouldn’t always have to mean pathologizing those patterns, though. Remember how I said I admire people with big ideas, who live in fucked-up terrariums, who hurt people by accident, and people who float loose from the world of ideas but who still live by their own strange measurement systems? The truth is that I want to find strange, charming, original, beyond-reproach types and I want to BE BETTER FOR THEM. I want to serve them, dance for them, make them feel good. I want to work hard around these people. And even though I say they hurt people “by accident,” am I right about that? Or do I want to get hurt by accident? Am I lying across the train tracks? Am I handing them the bat and telling them to take a swing? Or am I just fucking around, because this is who I am and I’m brave and I can afford to experiment with ever-so-slightly careless people if I feel like it?

This is what I want you to know, on my fucking birthday: I am doing lots of these things, and I’ll bet you are, too. But it’s our choice whether or not we want to lie across the tracks. Is your friend a speeding train? Does she secretly want to smear you across three blocks, so this situation only brought that to a head? Were you picking up on that energy without knowing it? Or does she feel needlessly attacked by you, and you were sloppy as fuck in how you went about “informing” her that she was a wreck?

How do we live with all of these contradictions? All we can do is examine them closely and resolve to trust ourselves, to honor our feelings, and to respect that the world is filled with a stunningly diverse range of human beings, and it’s ours to explore. We don’t have to rule anything out. Even if you’re stuck in a pattern of crawling back to your deepest, most basic feelings of hurt, re-creating something so you can try to “fix” it, once and for all, maybe that will always serve you in some way, too. You get to decide.

There are people in your life who stand for something from the past, and who hold more weight than they should because of this. It’s a pretty basic concept that you hear about all the time, but noticing when a SYMBOL enters your life is important, because you can notice that your hurt and disappointment and feelings of rejection (or whatever else bubbles up around that person) are not proportionate to the actual relationship. They’re piped in from somewhere else, like a corrupt Dakota Pipeline of feeling.

But on this birthday, on which I am feeling extra fragile (not just because of my age! Birthdays are about so much more than age!), I am also feeling oddly robust and aggressively fucked up and thrilled with the absurdity of it all. I will always want to break things and then apologize and clean them up, and I will always want to tell people that they’re fucked and then say, “What the hell do I know, though?” and then declare that they’re far less fucked than I am. Some shit does not change.

A friend with gray hair on Facebook posted recently about how some random stranger on the street yelled at her “Fuck you, you old whore!” She has a nice figure and was dressed in totally nondescript clothing, nothing flashy or tight. So she wrote some stuff about Trump’s America and how hostile and sick it is, and then all of these other friends chimed in and said, “I’m so sorry, that sounds terrible.” But all I could think was, “I wish someone would yell FUCK YOU, YOU OLD WHORE at me. That would make my fucking day.”

This is a part of me that I’m starting to enjoy again, after years of working so hard to be better and nicer: I don’t mind being hated and I don’t mind being called old or being called a whore and I love the idea of being hated AND being called an old whore. I am an old whore, such an old whore. I love an old whore like you wouldn’t believe, and I’m so over being anything but old and anything but a whore. I’m not talking about sex workers right now. This is about words and about being a woman and about being hated just because you refuse to apologize for yourself constantly and about finally having the clearest sight, and then using that clear sight to stare at MUD, the filthy disgusting mud that you’re swimming through every goddamn day.

This old whore loves the mud.

What do you love? Dive in and wallow in it. This world is unkind and people are passive. Grab what you love and be the old whore you want to see in the world. You’re just going to get older from here, and there will be more drama. If this friend of yours is out for blood for reasons that are only partially related to you, if she has a wide, vast Dakota Pipeline of feeling and needs booze and enemies and must also poison the land around her? Forgive her for that and let her go. Or, ask her to build her pipeline across your most sacred lands, if that’s what you truly want. Maybe you like big trouble every day, not just on your birthday or when you’re feeling a little bit feistier and more fragile than usual.

Treat yourself with more care, but extend that care to the people around you, too. Choose your words more carefully. Think about how they would sound to you, particularly if you really were a drunk. It’s not fun being a reckless drunk. You know that you’re the laughingstock, deep down inside. But also? Some part of you actually wants to be the laughingstock. Maybe you admire this about your friend, and you want some of it for yourself, somewhere down deep in the mud. So make more room for your queasiest truth. Learn to keep your mouth shut more, but speak up more, too. You can do both. But you can only be a mirror to those who trust you, who’ve said so many times. You can only be a mirror if the mirror takes extreme care, is extremely loving and gentle, and doesn’t secretly want to whisper, “Snow White is the fairest of them all, you self-deluded twit.”

But we all want to whisper that sometimes. Own that shit. It’s fine. And know that, even though I might say to you “Bite your tongue next time!” you might just be like me, an old whore who’s mostly unable to shut the fuck up. I always plan to keep quiet, but every now and then, the words fall out. Because I want to be safe and I also want to fuck shit up.

You were a little merciless with your friend because you’re too merciless with yourself. Forgive yourself and you’ll be more forgiving of others. Make some room for who you really are. You’ve been nodding along too much while imagining yourself as superior. But we’re all down here in the mud together. ENJOY IT, for fuck’s sake. Own your goddamn mud.

Polly

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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Ask Polly: I Tried to Tell My Friend She’s a Bad Drunk!