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‘I Want to Find True Love, But I’m Afraid!’

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Dear Polly,

It’s quite the task to explain my current situation, but I’ll try. I was raised in a strict religious household as one of nine children. My parents were emotionally unavailable. I’ve actually stumbled into research on adult children of alcoholic parents, and the similarities in my personality and worldview are striking. The biggest difference is that my parents were present much of the time, but mainly as authority figures. Do this and don’t do that, or you’re not good enough.

It’s crippling growing up with parents whose only interest in you is how you contribute to their righteousness. Unfortunately, I was blissfully unaware of all of it. I was happy because I was good enough. I did all the right things. I attended a church university, married young to an equally religious and emotionally unavailable man, had four kids in six years, became a stay-at-home mom, and basically checked every to-do off my “good enough” list with rigid precision.

But after my fourth baby, I fell into a deep dark depression. The couch became my refuge. I stopped doing dishes and laundry. I fed and dressed my kids, got them where they needed to be, and occasionally picked up things from the floor. That’s it. I was even less interested in my family than my parents were in me.

My husband didn’t handle it well. He picked up my slack, but he resented me for it. I remember the night before Mother’s Day when our baby was 9 months old, he sat me down and told me what a horrible wife and mother I was … for two hours. I didn’t defend myself at all. I soaked it up and held it close.

After more than a year of being told I wasn’t good enough, I broke down in the biggest, loudest way I knew how. I put on very public shows of self-harm, hysteria, panic, and despair. I threatened suicide, ran away, overdosed on medications, cut myself, and ended up in too many ERs, ICUs, and psych wards to count. In retrospect, I know I was begging the world to love me. I thought if I hurt myself enough, someone would save me.

My husband divorced me. Naturally, right? Like, who wouldn’t? I upped my level of commitment and put myself in a coma. A few weeks after I was released from the hospital, I put myself in jail.

Jail was a turning point, the degree of torture that it was. My searing terror of ever going back to jail moderated my actions, and it led me to find a therapist who knows her shit. I never thought I’d get to the point where death/escape doesn’t rule my every thought. I’m learning that I am good enough, I am worthy of love right here, right now, and always.

I got a job working with at-risk youth. I got my own apartment. I’m making actual friends for the first time. I’m working with my ex to spend more time with my kids, and I’m parenting them better than I ever have. Even though my time with them is limited, I’m busting my butt to be the parent I never had. I tell them every day how valuable they are and that I love them forever for one reason: THEY ARE MINE. I look at them, I listen to them, and I’m trying to love them with my whole heart.

I’m not grateful for my experiences, but I’m grateful for what I’m learning from them. And frankly, I feel like a major badass for having conquered so much.

But with all of that, I find myself fighting a constant internal battle: I want to experience authentic romantic love, but I’m too paralyzed to do anything about it. I want to find a man who sees me — all the sparkly badass parts along with the steaming dungheap parts — and chooses me. A man who would find me sobbing on the couch and connect with me instead of criticizing me. A man I could have sex with because I want to, instead of doing it because I’m supposed to.

I’ve got time. I’m only 31 years old! But I am scared out of my fucking mind. I’m too petrified to pursue something I crave to my core. Can you use all your best words to give me whatever boost you think I need?

Sincerely,

I’m Still Here

Dear I’m Still Here,

I’m so glad you’re still here. You have a such a harrowing story, and I love that you have so much clarity about what you’ve been through and why there was no escaping that time of reckoning. So much suffering in this world arises from resisting the lessons offered by a crisis. And it seems like we’re all destined to experience a private, intoxicating natural disaster that can usher us to the next level of happiness and understanding. But to get there, you have to bear witness to the disaster with every cell of your being. You have to let your emotions and your truest desires into the room instead of burying them deeper. Sometimes that feels a little bit like letting a monster loose.

But now your monster has transformed into a gorgeous being of wisdom and light, one that’s anxious to share that light and that joy with others. Even though you feel fearful, I don’t think you have much to fear from love, because you’re resilient, you know your own heart, and you trust yourself. As long as you know that the steaming dung-heap parts of you are all tangled up with the sparkly badass parts, as long as you understand that you are that rare and precious species of angel-monster that has the power to inspire and give generously to others, you have nothing to worry about.

Think about how you are with your kids now. You might feel guilty, and your kids might get mad or disappointed with you sometimes, but you still show up. You have so much love to give them, and you can finally see them clearly and listen to them, and you’re grateful to be here, no matter how hard it might be. You have to bring that belief system into the center of your life and apply it to your future love life.

In other words, recognize your gifts and be grateful for them, every day. For example: You know how to honor another person’s happiness. You figured this out the hard way, by learning to honor your own happiness for the first time (instead of playing a role and being “good” and being rewarded for it). The ability to make room for another complex person (without giving too much or too little along the way) is a skill that’s hard to master until you have to (very dramatically sometimes) learn to do it for yourself, in spite of great flaws and difficulties.

I just want to remind you that you can trust your instincts. Even though things might feel frightening and uncertain, you know that you’ll be okay. You’ve been through the fire and you can survive. You have to remind yourself, even as you feel fearful, that it’s thrilling and good to feel vulnerable to love. You’re strong enough to feel fear and still be brave in spite of your fear.

Right now, a friend of mine is in the middle of a fucking disaster of her own. She never learned to value herself, and now she’s finally got the time and space to face it and sit with it and move through it. But she’s tempted to speed through it, find a solution, learn the secret, and get it over with. I keep telling her that won’t work. There are crises that demand efficiency and toughness, and there are other crises that require patience and staying open to the truth of who you are. That includes staying open to your own fears and your biggest flaws.

There’s not a lot of support, in our culture, for slowly and patiently examining our flaws. One of the most revolutionary things for me has been to recognize just how rigid and hermetic and resistant to surprises I can be. I am sometimes a little remote. Covering these things up or getting defensive about them only makes me more fearful and intractable. Ironically, when I admit and accept exactly how unyielding I can be — with myself and others — it makes me much more forgiving of myself and much more flexible with other people, too.

So you need to slow down a little and look at your worries about what makes you unlovable. You don’t have to fix these things, mind you. You just have to see what you fear through clear eyes and embrace what you want in spite of those fears. This is a great moment for you, because you get to ask for exactly what you want for the first time in your life! That’s how I feel, too. I can ask for what I want, even when I think it’s a little much. And I can accept when some people aren’t cut out to give me what I want.

You also need to understand your truest strengths. We’re trained, by half-interested dates and one-night stands and wishy-washy partners, to see our value as a combination of our charms and looks and smarts. But I think it’s even more important to understand the unique, hidden strengths you have that lie in your belief system and in your clear, hard-fought ideas about what it means to be alive and to honor another human being with your love. When I met my husband, I knew that I was moody and demanding. But I also knew what I believed, and how hard I’d fought to have faith in myself and the world around me. I didn’t have to lecture him about how lucky he was to have me (the way I had with boyfriends who seemed ready to dump me). But I did feel moved, early in the relationship, to explain my beliefs about love and what it means to welcome another human being into your life. I was passionate about it, so I wanted to make sure that I could talk openly about it without feeling like some kind of a raving lunatic. I didn’t want to pretend that I was super-chill and low-key about something that important to me. I knew that I was capable of being a great partner to the right person. And I knew that I wasn’t going to settle for anyone who couldn’t see my truest strengths clearly.

I don’t think you have anything to fear from love, given how far you’ve come. But I would try to accept that you’ll probably feel afraid anyway. Even with an amazing belief system and strong sense of yourself, the sensation of fear will be yours, repeatedly. Let the fear in, and let yourself be humbled by it. Don’t run away from it or try to escape it. If you welcome your fear in, it won’t leave you paralyzed.

You know how, in recovery, they talk a lot about staying humble, about not getting too proud of your sobriety? I think the point there is that you shouldn’t walk around thinking you’re bulletproof if you really want to stay connected and stay present. Similarly, even though you’ve tackled your problems courageously and you have a lot to show for that now, I would caution you against SOLVING THIS LOVE THING RIGHT NOW. Because here you are, living an inspired, engaged life that you can really FEEL for the first time. Savor this. Don’t rush past this moment. Don’t let your interest in true love take you out of the enormous joy of this day, and the next. Don’t obsess. Give yourself time and space to figure out how you want to live and what makes you happy.

Take it slow. Your most important job, right now, is learning how to navigate the sweet, uneven, sometimes disappointing bumps of everyday life. Your job is to learn how to feel happy with a slightly ramshackle, patient existence. Your job is to feel like you are enough, every single day. If you use love as an escape, if you force things, if you want to skip straight to your happy ending, you might miss out on the tremendous gift of where you are right now.

That would be a little sad, because where you are right now is truly glorious. If I were you, I would just assume that love will be coming toward you soon enough, and instead of patiently awaiting its arrival, pray that it doesn’t get here too quickly. Slow way down and treasure this. Because even if you discover someone great tomorrow, you’ll still look back wistfully on this time BEFORE you found that person.

Because there’s a special kind of energy that arises from a breakdown. That’s what I keep saying to my friend, as she figures out how to let her monster out of the dark cave it’s been living in for too long. It can feel excruciating sometimes, to see clearly how broken you are. But at those excruciating moments, you come face-to-face with your own quivering, fearful core. Conjuring compassion for that core is the hardest work you can do. Those are the worst moments AND the best moments of your life.

When love comes for you, it will send you back to your dark cave, and you’ll find all of your fears all over again. That moment and this moment are both divine. Find the fear now, and find it again later. Breathe it in every day, the raw anguish of being alive and caring way too much about how your story will unfold. This catastrophe was made for you, and you are uniquely qualified to squeeze every ounce of joy out of each terrifying second.

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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‘I Want to Find True Love, But I’m Afraid!’