‘My Friends Keep Bringing Up My Sordid Past in Mixed Company!’

Photo-Illustration: Stevie Remsberg/Getty Images

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Dear Polly,

I’m a 32-year-old gay man who had an “adventurous” period from my late teens to early 20s. These wilder years weren’t particularly salacious: just some garden-variety sluttiness, flakiness at early jobs, ill-advised Facebook posts, and embarrassing drunken behavior … all stuff I can look back on and laugh about, which I frequently do. In fact, this past has served me well — in my mid-20s, I got my act together and used my misspent youth as fodder for a career as a writer, and now I make a great living and work my dream job as a TV comedy writer, essayist, and journalist. Now I’m basically a semi-boring adult with a Manhattan mortgage and a team of writers I manage.

I’m not ashamed of my wild-ish past, and I know the people closest to me are proud of my growth since then, but lately I’m noticing that many of my best friends are bringing up incidents from my past in ways that feel aggressive and mean-spirited. A recent dinner to celebrate my 32nd birthday turned into a disaster — I ended up skipping the “after-party” to go home alone, because I was tired of the friends who’d known me the longest telling the same four or five embarrassing stories about my past, basically painting me as an STD-riddled, blackout-drunk lunatic. Not only did I not want to dwell on those stories, but my friends didn’t even tell them accurately — a story about a time I had a hot hookup and life-changing conversation with a trucker when I was 19 was warped into my spending a month tricking in a truck-stop bathroom in rural Georgia, complete with wholly fabricated details to make me sound as disgusting as possible. This was in front of newer friends who look up to me professionally and a guy I’m interested in perhaps dating. I made it absolutely clear that I was bored by the topic and kept trying to change it, but two of my best friends in particular — D and J — wouldn’t let things drop. I can’t help but suspect that part of them enjoys watching me squirm in front of other people.

This is happening more and more lately. I’m often the person among my friends who’s organizing parties and game nights, bringing different groups together, and introducing new people — lately, though, I’ve stepped back. I end up feeling alienated and embarrassed. I know D and J love me and appreciate me, but I suspect that because they’re both more introverted than I am and don’t have broad social groups, they lean on me as their only interesting topic of conversation and the easiest way to get a quick laugh. My resentment about this has become preoccupying lately … a lot of these stories I told them in confidence, and many of the funnier/crazier ones are rooted in the pain and aimlessness I felt in my late teens and early 20s — they understand this better than anyone, which makes their ridicule feel even more like a betrayal.

I’m fully aware that if all my oldest friends are suddenly making me feel terrible, the common factor is me, and I must be doing something wrong, or I’ve become more sensitive with age. I’m a self-deprecating person who enjoys nothing more than telling honest, sad, hilarious stories about my own life and listening as friends share their own. For all my flaws, it would never occur to me to try to use my friends’ intimate stories against them as shame-weapons. When I’ve confronted J and D about this, they seem surprised that I’m being so sensitive because I’m usually such an open person who loves to laugh at myself — they assure me that they adore me and aren’t mad at me, but they’ll do the exact same thing the next time I invite them to something.

They assure me that our interactions have always been like this and I’m the one who’s suddenly becoming uptight about my past. Maybe this is true. Do I find new friends, or should I just not share my past so freely if I don’t want it used against me? I don’t want to lose my honesty and openness, but I also don’t want to lose my oldest friends.

Covered in Detritus

Dear Detritus,

You don’t have to lose either. But you do have to tell your friends, once again, that you expect them to pull back on these embarrassing stories in mixed company. If the three of you are hanging out together, then it’s natural for you to talk about the things you’ve shared, even if that sometimes includes a little mutual mocking. But when there are other people around, your friends need to know that these stories aren’t appropriate. “I understand that you think I’m the one who’s changed,” I would tell them. “And maybe I have changed. But I still want you to respect my wishes about this and keep your mouths shut.”

This is how adult relationships work. If a friend politely asks you for something that’s easy enough to fix, it really doesn’t matter if you think that friend is being oversensitive or not. If you care about that person, you comply. This is how intimacy and trust work. This is how knowing someone very well for years works. Every now and then, you can ask each other for something that might be seen as a little bit irrational. This happens in close friendships and marriages all the time. Respecting the fact that a close personal friend or partner has very specific, not always logical needs — WHICH SOMETIMES CHANGE UNEXPECTEDLY — is a crucial dimension to cultivating close adult relationships.

One sign that a relationship is not very mature is that both parties feel like they have to justify their needs constantly, instead of just encountering each other as peculiar freaks whose needs should be respected, even when they’re not completely understood. After all, what good is trust and intimacy and a long history of friendship, if you can’t ask for exactly what you want?

So the solution here is pretty simple: Ask them, again, for exactly what you want. Ask them to stop talking about your past entirely, if that sounds more relaxing to you. Ask them to find something else to talk about instead.

Asking for exactly what you want is very, very hard when you haven’t done it that much in the past. I suspect you’re going to have to confront your own reluctance to be the kind of guy who speaks up about his needs, especially when it’s a little bit embarrassing to do so. But if you really want other people to honor your wishes, you can’t be ashamed of what you want.

When you’re ashamed of what you want, you scold other people. You tell them, over and over again, how terrible they made you feel. You want to make them feel bad the way you feel bad. But when you’re not ashamed of having needs and desires, when you know that you HAVE A RIGHT to those specific needs and desires, then you tend to avoid scolding. You respect your friends’ choice to mock you, since, admittedly, it was how you used to operate as friends. You can tell them, “I get why you want to tell crazy stories about me. I hear you when you say that this is how we were together, in the old days. But moving forward, I need for you to know that this will not be okay with me. And if you think you’ll get too drunk to remember this request when we’re together, then just take my name out of your mouth entirely, because this is VERY VERY IMPORTANT TO ME.”

One of the hardest things about being a funny, self-deprecating, self-shaming social dynamo for decades is that when you finally grow out of it, it takes your friends a long time to catch up. You probably spent years believing that you had to have social value for other people to give you their love: You had to entertain them. You couldn’t just be neutral or passive or have an off night. And your friends, I’m sure, feed into this illusion. When you’re the life of the party and also THROW the party for years, everyone looks at you for fun. If you’re quieter than usual, they say, “What’s wrong?” Everyone else gets to be lazy, but when you clam up, no one can tolerate it.

You’re the one who has to tolerate it the most. You have to tolerate other people’s disappointment in you. The fact that you’re considering dumping these two old friends tells me that you feel very vulnerable about the situation. You’re worried that they won’t like you if they can’t tease you and you don’t keep throwing parties for them. It feels more comfortable to just blow them off first. But you should be brave and tell them what you want from them instead. This is your path to a more satisfying future in general, even if it leads to some rejection or disappointment.

It’s hard. Believe me, I know. I was a drunk and a slut for a long time, and I often find myself being dragged into conversations where people want me to know what a house-on-fire I was for years. I also throw a lot of parties, and I’ve also sometimes found myself questioning the flavor of condescension that seems to spring up a few hours into the night. Did I seek out friends who loved the fact that I was a trainwreck who made jokes at her own expense? Is it wrong that I want to be treated with more respect now? Is it gross that I have a little pride and self-worth for a change, or is it just that a sudden surge of pride and self-worth doesn’t pair that nicely with success and happiness, at least not for old friends who would actually prefer that I continue to be falling-down-drunk at all parties until the end of time?

I don’t really fault my friends for wanting me to play the self-destructive clown forever. I mean, it was fun, and I was, at least sometimes, the life of the party. Most parties could use a little life, to be honest. Most parties are populated by adults trussed up in sensible shoes and washable fabrics, making sensible comments about sensible subjects in sensible tones until it’s time to drop their second beer bottle into the recycling bin and return home. The politeness, the early bed times, the inability to cackle loudly or roll the eyes or snort derisively, the total unwillingness to flirt or dance or make oneself look like a fucking rube, it all makes me want to rip off my clothes and gyrate on top of the nearest coffee table with an enormous Statement Lampshade on my head. Some part of me would rather be the eternal trainwreck lady than surrender to the stultifying tedium of mature, reasonable socializing.

But it’s also true that when I’m in a bad mood, I encounter the pressure to BE THAT CRAZY MOTHERFUCKER WE KNEW AND LOVED a tiny bit insulting.

A few months ago, I was standing in my own kitchen at a large party I’d thrown for a close friend, and I was hearing the same tone from everyone around me. The tone was “Here she is, our plucky little unserious drunk buddy.” And even though I love to talk about myself (yeah, big surprise), all these people were saying, “Remember when you …,” and “Oh, that’s because you think …,” and “Ha ha, sure thing, since you always …,” and on and on, and instead of being in on the joke, I felt like A Big Joke of a person, one who was destined to continue cleaning my house and mixing up giant batches of alcohol just so people could stand around me in a circle and remind me what a crazy, impossible-to-take-seriously tool I remain.

Obviously I don’t drink enough to find this fun anymore. And honestly, I feel conflicted even writing about it at all, because if you put me in the same situation on any given day, I might just savor it. I don’t want respect that much, on most days. I like aggressive people. I like obnoxious people. And I really do like all the friends in question. I weeded out the bad ones who didn’t really like me a long time ago. Let’s just have a good time! Fuck feelings and manners and anything else that might slow us down!

But I can’t pretend that I haven’t changed, and neither can you. We both have to find a way to show up and ask for what we want from the people around us.

Let’s just admit for a second, though, that it can be challenging to watch someone you treasured as fun and wild and unpredictable transform into someone who’s slightly more reserved. I don’t want to pretend I’m in the mood to entertain everyone (or drink to get in the mood) just to make other people happy. But I do understand why some friends keep pushing my buttons, hoping that an insane drunk lady will pop out of the cake eventually.

My feeling is that this kind of reaction happens more with old friends who don’t see you as often. The Old You dominates their understanding of you. And maybe they haven’t benefitted as much from the qualities of the New You. My closest friends who live in the same town as I do and talk to me often have benefited a lot from the fact that I listen more closely, I’m more supportive and flexible, and I don’t go off the rails anymore. They’re less nostalgic for the friend who was a barrel of monkeys but would drop out of touch for long stretches of time because her priorities were always shifting.

I guess I wonder if these two friends get to see you as often as they’d like. Maybe they haven’t caught up with who you are now and what you truly value. Maybe they feel a little left out of your new fabulous life and creative career. Maybe they secretly want to cut you down to size a little. I think it’s easy enough to forgive them for their resentment. It’s very hard to have a regular old career and sit back and watch while someone does something exciting and lucrative that you might like to do, too, if you weren’t quite as shy. It’s natural for a shy person to shame an adventurous, successful friend in the company of his new glamorous, successful friends. (I say this as a person who is sometimes prone to envy and to shyness in the face of someone’s brand-new, seemingly more glamorous friends.)

Let’s forgive your friends. If you were in recovery, you might end up writing them off as “the detritus of the past.” But I don’t think that fits. These friends sound like reasonably nice people who feel small in your presence sometimes. They might be legitimately confused about the person you’ve become. Don’t underestimate what a big presence you are, in any room.

Ask yourself if you need to give these two friends more of your time. Ask yourself if you share your vulnerabilities with them, in a way that lets them understand that you’re a complex person, one who still feels fragile and embarrassed sometimes. Ask yourself if you really see them as complex individuals with many different layers to their personalities (after all, you claim that you’re the only interesting subject for them to talk about). And keep in mind how brutal you might’ve been to them when you were a drunk. Keep in mind how many times these friends had to bite their tongues and not say, “Hey, you do dangerous shit that scares me,” or “I know you love showing off, but sometimes you really step on my toes.” Because, look, I guarantee you, you were fun, but you were also a big pain in the ass. I was, too. And it can be hard to look closely at that.

I just saw an old friend and she told me that someone we went to college with said she would never hang out with me now because I made her feel like shit once while we were still in college. I barely know this person, but I’m sure I was insulting because back then, I really didn’t believe that other people had feelings at all. I assumed this person was pretty bulletproof. I wasn’t careful around her. I may have believed she needed to be taken down a notch.

But I have to admit, it feels bad and embarrassing to think about how careless I was with other people. And when I start to think about that, I also think about all the scary shit I used to do. I wish I had treated myself with more respect. A lot of shame gets kicked up when I hear about someone else who couldn’t stand me back in the day (particularly when they’re still convinced I suck, 25 years later).

At some point, you do have to reckon with who you were back then, if you don’t want to walk around feeling confused or defensive in social situations. When I threw that party and felt annoyed, I realized I had to look at my past more closely and think about why these people might feel like our friendship doesn’t hold much promise unless I’m dancing on a tabletop. It takes a lot of work to understand that even though you throw parties and host a lot, you still might not be giving people what they really need. Giving too much and talking too much can be a way of hiding in plain sight.

It’s also important not to tell black-and-white stories about your past, flawed self. Yes, I was careless. But that doesn’t mean I was 100 percent garbage. That’s too easy. At the same time I insulted that person in college, I was also writing sad poetry and trying very hard to be a lot cooler than I really was. I was tough on the outside and afraid on the inside. I felt lost. I wanted more love. I drank too much and told lots of jokes to cover my tracks.

Maybe you’re afraid to admit how conflicted you are about those years you were “adventurous.” Maybe you’re worried that a lot of people exaggerate, but you’re also worried that a lot of people remember EXACTLY how out of control you were. They might’ve gotten this one story wrong, but they might also remember some things a little more clearly than you do. It’s important to remind yourself that all humans make gigantic mistakes. It’s not that unusual to treat people carelessly when you’re young. The shame that led you to drink more than most and to be a little bit more adventurous than most will also lead you to believe, in your darkest moments, that your past holds some scary secrets that are unspeakably embarrassing and objectively pathetic. Facing this feeling head-on is crucial. Don’t run away from it. Don’t drop old friendships as a way of burying the past, unless you’re sure that these friends refuse to adjust to the present.

You will be a more complete person and a better artist if you face your shame. Your insistence that your past is just a series of mild high jinks doesn’t completely track with me. I think there’s more to excavate there, and digging in will be good for you. Because as an adult, you can’t fear what other people tell you about how they encountered you in the past. As an adult, you should ALWAYS be prepared to look someone in the eye and say, “I’m sorry that I caused you pain.” When you try to explain yourself to someone who’s hurt instead of simply apologizing, or when you run away from a situation instead of standing up and saying, “Okay, that was a hilarious story, but only about 40 percent of what you just heard is true. Feel free to consult me for the nonfiction version,” you’re allowing shame to dictate your path forward.

When I tell you that you need to examine your shame more and reckon with the past more, that doesn’t mean I’m saying “You were and are much worse than you think.” Even if you discover that you were more unkind and reckless than you remember, you still have a right to ask your friends not to speak about your past in mixed company. You should ask your friends for exactly what you want, and they should respect your wishes.

And even if you were a million times more of a dick than you remember, you still have to let it go. Shame has no place in your life now. Because we’re all cobbled together from rusty old screws and clown noses and deeply dirty notions and selfish urges and sloppy impulses and fear and rage and wild, tenacious dreams that won’t die. We want more than we can say. We want to walk on water and drink liquid gold and dance with goat men and shine brighter than anyone else.

Let’s celebrate our pasts as sluts and drunks, and let’s celebrate surviving that time, too. Would we be better off now if we were careful and sensible and polite back then? Would we be sleeping more soundly at night? Would we be less haunted? I don’t know about you, but I feel pretty goddamn good. I can’t choose a different past, and I don’t see it as a moral failure that I don’t want to.

Maybe there was another way forward for me, and I didn’t take it because I was selfish and confused. Nothing can be done to change that now, regardless. Let’s cultivate a little compassion for our selfish, confused former selves. Once, in another lifetime, you had a long talk with a trucker you’d just met, and then maybe some other things happened that were either seedy or amazing, depending on the slant of light that hits them, depending on your mood, depending on your belief in yourself, depending on your fears about the future. Once, in another lifetime, I drank until I felt sick, then I put on a bright-yellow jacket and snorted something I thought was coke (it was meth) and went out to the casino and told everyone I was a reporter from the New York Times and recorded a bunch of conversations on my tape recorder and hit on a stranger and talked shit to a card dealer and someone stole my wallet and when I woke up the next morning, I heard all my “friends” talking about what a fucking stupid sick embarrassment I was, and I knew that none of these friends liked me even a tiny little bit. I endured the long trip home and then I listened to two minutes of my recording, then I ripped out the tape, and I cried, and I broke all the “SLUTS’ DREAMS DO COME TRUE” pencils (that I’d had custom-made a few months earlier!) in half. (I think that might be the saddest part of the whole story.)

I am the detritus of the past. You are a heap of ashes. I am swimming in humiliation. You are painted in longing. We are cobbled together from our sins. We are 32 broken pencil stubs that say “SLUTS” and “SLUTS’ DREAMS” AND “COME TRUE” on them. We have come a long way. We were scary and fragile and we wanted more than just politeness and niceties and expected trajectories. We were delusional. We were beautiful. We were hungry. We were lonely. We were not all bad. We were not all good.

We were beautiful. Look more closely. Let it in. Forgive yourself. You were beautiful.


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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‘My Friends Bring Up My Sordid Past in Mixed Company!’