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‘I’m a Struggling Writer Whose Life Is Falling Apart!’

Illustration: Stevie Remsberg. Photo: Getty Images

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Dear Polly,

I’m a writer in my early 20s. I’m from a lower-middle-class family from a farm town on the East Coast. I worked really hard to get to the top of my class in high school to get a scholarship so I could go to a competitive college in an East Coast city. Then, I worked really hard to land a spot in a competitive writing M.F.A. program in Los Angeles. So I moved cross-country straight out of college — away from my family and friends — and jumped into this incredibly intense graduate school full of incredibly intense and competitive (and rich) students.

Graduate school was kind of like being in a hospital where everyone’s sick and coughing all over each other, pulling you close and pushing you away at the same time. My classmates would fiercely compete with each other about who was having the best time or hardest time or accomplishing the most things, getting what internships or jobs, meeting the most people, etc. I was in this program for two years. And worked and worked until I was on the edge of breaking, but I fucking did it. I don’t mind working really hard, and I like working really hard to get things, especially shiny-gold-star-like things that make me look “impressive” or unbreakable. And while school was hard, I’m used to things being hard and I know how to pull myself back up from the edge. I have a history of depression and anxiety. I’m from a really dysfunctional, abusive family. Emotionally abusive … and physically abusive. Everything I’ve done in my life so far has been in this desperate attempt to run away from my family and to simultaneously make them proud. Make them incapable of hurting me. And there have been moments when it worked and I felt safe.

But recently things have been harder than usual. I just graduated from this M.F.A. writing program. I was able to get a job sooner than many of my friends from grad school, but I’m an assistant. Which is kind of the norm for my industry but it means I have to do things that feel a little degrading. And my bosses are kind but are very rich and privileged, and can at times treat me like the hired help … which I guess I am. But it’s hard when you’ve worked so hard to get somewhere professionally and you end up lying to your parents and friends at home about what you do on a daily basis so that they don’t know you’re spending your days getting coffee and researching dog nannies for your boss’s epileptic dog. The good thing is that this job allows me some time to write and draw, but I don’t know if writing and drawing are going to work out or make me substantial money. And I know I sound spoiled … but I feel like a big failure here. I’m so fucking poor. Every day I wake up in a sweat over bills and rent money. And I apply to new jobs, but sometimes I can’t apply because I feel so down and lost, I end up swimming in my depression for the day. I don’t know what job would be better. The other jobs in my industry are intense, 12-hours-a-day jobs where I wouldn’t have room for creative things. It would be all getting coffee and all errands. But my job makes me miserable and I can’t afford anything. I just feel trapped. And this is what the next decade or two will be like, right? Rejection, trials, getting coffee, trying to write even when you’re depressed.

And then just recently I’ve had to break up with my closest friend here. It was sudden and incredibly painful. We would text each other jokes and how we were feeling and our hopes and fears. But recently it became clear to me that she depended on me more than I could depend on her. And things got really painful. She was emotionally unstable in some ways and always had a crisis going on. So I found myself being there for her a lot and answering all her frantic texts and giving her a lot of my attention. I did this to be a “good friend” and not seem selfish or rude. But slowly, I stopped telling her about when I felt down or if I was going through a hard time. Because I know she wouldn’t be able to handle it, and in the past, she was never very good at cheering me up or really being there. So I pushed my feelings down. And because of my job and depression lately, I just couldn’t take being friends with her anymore. This devastated me. Why did I work so hard to land here if I’m just in this crappy job and hurting? Why can’t I just suck it up and be positive and competitive and driven and ambitious like everyone else, like how I used to be? I feel like such a loser for being this broken about all this.

I feel like I’ve hit some kind of wall. Like I can’t take one more thing. I have a wonderful partner who’s been at my side since we were 20. He really knows me and knows how much I’m hurting and he’s been helping. But it’s still so fucking hard. Some days I don’t know how to get out of bed. I do get up, though. I pull myself out of bed and go to work every day and tell myself that I can do this and even if bad things happen, I will survive. But how can I make this better? How do you find joy or peace when you feel like your life is out of your hands and falling apart around you? How do you write when you feel like such a mess? How do you feel better when you’re sad and sick from disappointment in others and in yourself? How do put on a game face and charge into the world, into your job, into anything ready to succeed and believe in yourself when you just feel like crumbling?

Sincerely,

Crumbling

Dear Crumbling,

The short answer is that you develop good habits that help you get through the day, even when you’re crumbling. As I read your letter, in fact, I am also walking on a treadmill, listening to Mozart’s Symphony No. 39, and rubbing passion-fruit-seed oil under my chin. Yes, I am a motherfucking parody of middle-aged-lady horrors. I have yielded my dignity to a series of finely tuned routines that, from the outside, look like high-strung bourgie madness, Goop without the glossy blonde hair and the perfectly renovated, steamed, porous-rock-stuffed vagina.

But what you’re witnessing is not some quest to reach the next tier of fabulousness. You’re witnessing someone who spent years plagued by low-level depression and anxiety, trying to write a few paragraphs without succumbing to neck pain, discouragement, distraction, despair, and dry skin. I’m just trying to replicate the forward motion I see around me, and keep up with the naturally perky motherfuckers in my midst. Or that’s how it feels on some days. On other days, I’m reaching higher than that. I’m not just muddling through. I’m trying to embrace joy and savor every minute I’ve got left. I’m a very hardworking human being like you are, and I’m applying that overachiever energy to feeling good, really good, every single day.

Here’s the rough part: When you’re a writer from a dysfunctional background, it is exceedingly difficult NOT TO CRUMBLE. Making a living and maintaining long-lasting friendships are two of the hardest things for people like you and me to do. As friends, we can be a tiny bit narcissistic ourselves, though we mostly keep it in check. But we’re also attracted to narcissists, and when our narcissist friends start acting like full-blown, unaware, reckless narcissists, we fade into the background. That’s how we survived life among abusive or narcissistic parents as kids, right? It feels relaxing to do it, even. We stop showing up and start silently judging instead. We don’t ask for what we want. Why bother? Serious, full-blown narcissists and abusers don’t change. We’ve seen that firsthand. Better to just be half-invisible and keep the peace and eat a lot of shit. This is survival.

But it doesn’t help. It makes our narcissist friends even more narcissistic. They call us and talk for hours and never ask how we are. They assume that we’re into that, since we don’t put our own needs front and center. When we do call and try to lean on them, we’re a tiny bit hesitant or even hostile in the way we do it, and they feel uncomfortable and get off the phone quickly. They start to feel suspicious of us. Can they really trust us? We act so weird and don’t really tell them the truth anymore. All of the things that brought us together — shared issues, shared confusion, shared narcissism, shared longing, our angry sensitive artistic temperaments — now create a terrible knot of needs and issues and distrust that is very difficult to unravel. And not that many people who fit this profile are patient enough and invested enough and have high enough self-esteem to bother to sort through it all together.

The answer here is not to just suck it up and be positive, though. That’s what got you into this shit in the first place. The answer is to ask for what you want directly. Ask your friend if you can lean on her. Don’t blame, just say, “I need a friend I can call when I’m down. If I don’t trust that I can do that, I lose my faith in our friendship.” She will either show up or disappear. She will either agree to your very simple, non-blaming request, or she will make excuses and counterattack. Don’t get drawn into a debate. Don’t engage without a good-faith effort on her part to tell you directly that she values your friendship and she understands that asking for what you want doesn’t make you weak or needy. STAND UP FOR YOUR NEEDS.

At your job, a similar dynamic is unfolding. People like you and me work very hard and earn gold stars, but we never learn how to say no. We are valued by the charismatic narcissists we work for (okay, fine, they’re everywhere, but we also tend to appeal to other people with narcissistic streaks, so they hire us and love us). But we resent them. We don’t speak up for ourselves and then we randomly explode or just quit mysteriously. Or our employers start to feel suspicious of us. Can they really trust us? We act so weird, and we don’t really tell them the truth anymore.

The answer here, again, is not to just suck it up and be positive. You don’t have to feel like you have no choices, like you have no control. But you do have to be realistic: You are an assistant. Your boss treats you like hired help because you are hired help. That said, if you really feel that some change to your job might make you feel a little better about it, then ask for that change. Pick something concrete that you think will change your experience of the job a lot.  Don’t blame your boss or make it complicated. Stay calm and keep it simple: “Can I do X instead? It would really increase my job satisfaction.” Don’t apologize for asking. Don’t get mad. You’re a human being. You can ask for whatever you want. Maybe your boss will say no. Even if you get a no and you decide to stay anyway, it will help you to learn how it feels to stand up for yourself without apologizing for it.

But then there’s the fucking WRITING. Why in the world do people like you and me WRITE? Who lives like this, under the constant press of guilt and self-imposed stress, as if you can’t breathe unless you’re tapping out new words every goddamn second? Why would anyone choose this path of destitution and ruin?

But the answer to that question matches the answer to the questions, “Why befriend narcissists?” and “Why work for wildly successful narcissists?” Let’s also throw in “Why exist on social media?” “Why try to impress other people?” “Why do creative shit at all?” “Why move away from home?” “Why walk on a fucking treadmill?” “Why rub oil under your chin?” ARE YOU FUCKING INSANE?

Here is the answer: Because we like to work hard. We like to work hard and get a pat on the head. We like to be loved deeply, beyond faint affection and vague interest. We like to connect over heavy shit, over strong cocktails, over the course of decades. We want to know very intense people, and we want to be friends forever. We want friends who can cry and laugh and rage together, without fear. We want friends who can ask for what they want from each other without feeling stupid about it. WE CAN HAVE ALL OF THESE THINGS, AS LONG AS WE STAND UP FOR OURSELVES WHILE WE DO IT.

I’m not trying to imply that we’re better or even more passionate than other people. The truth is, we envy other people, who always appear to fit into this world so seamlessly. They are CHEERFUL without the treadmill, goddamn it! They have so many friends, it’s effortless, it works, things are fine! They can do things like join the fucking PTA without murdering everyone there! They can visit Disneyland without questioning their whole existence!

And also? They seem to feel good even when they’re not writing, or sharing their souls with their BFFs. Some of them appear to feel good when they don’t have a partner, when they don’t have a dog, when they don’t love their jobs. Sometimes it seems like these people don’t have to work so hard. It’s like they’re naturally happy (or at least not miserable). Our suspicion that these people are better than us is what makes us refuse to stand up for ourselves in so many different situations.

But there is no value judgment here. Maybe some people are naturally happy, and maybe some people are good at seeming naturally happy. Either way, you and I don’t get to choose to be like that. We are who we are. Being who we are is not a moral failure, though our culture would have you believe that it is. We simply have to work with who we are, using whatever we have.

Here’s what’s good about who we are: We do love a lot of things. We love to work hard. We believe in connection, and we believe in creating art. We have been through some shit, so we’re resilient. (You say you can’t take one more thing, but I feel sure that you can. You need to notice how strong and capable you are, EVEN when you feel weak.) And we’re pretty unique in ways that are apparent to other people. Everyone is unique, of course, but we survived by expressing what makes us unique. We put hard work into finding ways to show ourselves, to share ourselves, and that work is reflected in the weirdo shit we create.

And thanks to all of these troubling traits, we often end up with extremely successful careers. Peel back the curtain on the artists and writers and musicians and even, say, entertainment executives or architects or philosophers you love the most, and this is what you’ll find: People who are a lot like you and me. People who love to work hard. People who are extremely fucking emotional, who have some volatile friendships, who have quit a lot of jobs and relationships, who have experimented with a lot of different ways of living. People who feel a little bit out of place everywhere they go. You’ll usually find people with intense habits, too. People who do CrossFit or hike for two weeks out of the year or talk about the latest freakish meditation they’ve been trying. I’m making them all sound like scary Tim Ferriss types, but that’s not exactly it. The women I know who fit this picture are people who say things like “I need x or I just fall apart.” They are extremely honest about their shortcomings, but they love talking about how to get through it, too, because they love to work hard. They are people who have faced total collapse many times and have pulled themselves out of the fire and come up with solutions. They walk five miles and listen to books on tape every morning. They make resistance posters and keep them in their trunks in case a protest happens and they need to get there. They have disordered thoughts and wild emotions and sometimes they have disabilities and sometimes they’re sick and sometimes they need medication and sometimes they feel unbelievably discouraged, but they muddle the fuck through. They refuse to be ashamed of who they are. They have bad brains and good habits. AND THEY FORGIVE THEMSELVES EVERY GODDAMN DAY, FOR ALL OF IT.

So this is you. Befriend yourself. Accept yourself. Celebrate your raw, fucked-up, lovable nature. I like you a whole hell of a lot, just based on your amazing description of grad school, how it’s “kind of like being in a hospital where everyone’s sick and coughing all over each other, pulling you close and pushing you away at the same time.” And you know, that’s what being a writer is like in general. That’s what being fucked up is like. I had a friend just like your bad friend and I loved her like crazy and I hated her and I just could not let her go and then I finally did. I had shitty jobs that made me feel so small. But anything could make me feel small, because I MADE MYSELF FEEL SMALL every day, because I thought I was so fucking sick. “Come closer, I need you!” I yelled. “Get away from me, I’m too sick!” I screeched.

I wasn’t sick.

You aren’t sick, either. That’s what you have to know, every morning, every night. Wake up, and when bad thoughts flood your brain, say to yourself, “I’m not going to give in to discouraging, depressive thoughts first goddamn thing in the morning, because that is a very bad habit.” Get up and do something to jump-start your Good Brain. Never rule out something that might sound extreme or excessive or bizarre to other people. You know why? Working a little bit harder than most people is what keeps you from crumbling. That doesn’t mean that you have to work yourself into the ground. You already know that, and you’re smart to keep that job that doesn’t last 12 hours a day. What working hard does mean is: You thrive when you’re reaching way beyond what other people see as success. You don’t want to just follow the typical path forward. You want to charge forward, because when you aren’t charging, you collapse and hide in bed. You want to create something that’s truly different and truly exceptional. When you start to make something that’s a little bit like what someone else has already made, you immediately lose interest.

I’m in that spot right now. I’m starting something new, but it reminds me of other shit, so I keep quitting. I have to figure out how to make it much more wild and strange and exciting than anything I can think of, or I don’t want any part of it.

The point is, you have to know yourself and understand what motivates you. I’ll bet you’re blocked because you’re ashamed of your job and you’re not writing about the whole truth anymore. You’re ashamed of how sad you are about your friend. You’re lying to your family. That’s your shame, not anyone else’s. Stop lying and start telling the truth, in real life and on the page, and you’ll find your inspiration again. You are someone who must tell the truth. You need to write (and say) things that embarrass you. That’s where your brilliance lies. But you have to stand up for yourself, calmly, without blame, without confusion, knowing in your heart that you are not sick.

You have to use all of your hardworking, wild, overachiever madness to your advantage. You have to always know that your happiness is very closely tied to that stuff. But you also have to understand that, even though you love the gold stars, the truth is that YOU DO IT FOR YOU. You love the hard work itself. You have to notice that. You have to notice how happy it makes you FEEL to work very hard and to try for things that feel beyond your reach. Because the second you start aiming primarily for external rewards or recognition or money, it actually curdles because it gets twisted in with pleasing your fucked-up family or your fucked-up friends. When you aim for external rewards, you’re aiming for “safe” and for “escape.” You don’t need to be safe or escape. You need to learn to live where you are, feeling what you feel.

Notice how the second you stop understanding WHY you’re doing something, you lose interest. It feels like trying to please an abusive parent. Can you see that? When you aim for safety and escape and gold stars, you actually get locked up, because you are aiming for becoming some impressive, bulletproof perfect person, which is the same thing as aiming for AN ABSENCE OF FEELING. But what you actually liked about working hard was the FEELING of working hard itself, not the gold stars. Notice how those gold stars are so hard to touch and feel these days? It was the work itself that mattered to you and felt good. So this is part of your challenge: You have to please you. To please yourself, you have to recognize that you are not sick, and you deserve to be pleased.

And that leads us to the most crucial, central point of all: You have to learn how to feel pleased. That means that you have to feel that you are worthy of happiness and pleasure. You have to learn how to FEEL, period. You have to embrace reality.

That’s the final piece to the puzzle, and it’s also the main thing that will bring you real joy. I know that survival seems to come first, before joy. But I want you to learn how to occupy your skin NOW, and not wait until you have a decent paycheck and a non-demeaning job and all of the stupid gold stars before you do it. Because ultimately, gold stars don’t add up to shit. Yes, I am saying you can be successful if you want to be. But that won’t change how you feel about yourself. All of the success in the world won’t help if you never learn to serve your own needs and stand up for yourself and be present to what is.

You have to believe, in your heart, that even if you don’t work hard and exercise and think positive thoughts and make new friends and march triumphantly into the future, you are still enough. You will always have bad days. Being broken doesn’t make you a loser. You can crumble, and you will still be enough. Make that your religion moving forward. You are here to feel this moment. You are not here to become someone better. You are not here to impress or compete. You are not here to prove yourself. You are here to savor this life. Let down your guard. You are already enough. Believe it.

Polly

Order the 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’m a Writer Whose Life Is Falling Apart!’