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‘I Feel Empty’

Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg/Photo Getty.

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Dear Polly,

I’m writing to you from Paris, precisely from my kitchen table, full of empty coffee mugs I haven’t cleaned for like a week, unpacked useless goodies that I received for my job (I’m a lifestyle journalist, or what’s left of her), opened notebooks with unfinished logos for a hypothetical brand I might want to launch one day and probably won’t, and vaping juices I bought with my boyfriend so I can do exactly like him (which I don’t, since I continue smoking cigs when he’s not there). And to be fair, it’s not even MY kitchen table but my mum’s, because I sold my apartment so I could finally leave this city I sincerely hate, this job I sincerely hate, and those supposed friends I kept seeing for no other reason than passing time while my successive boyfriends were busy. The truth is, I couldn’t care less about my own life. I just turned 28, the age when women, I’ve been told, think about marrying and having children, when I can’t even unpack my suitcase, now lying wide open in the middle of the living room, or get my agonizing toenails done, or tell my selfish boyfriend to fuck off somehow.

I used to be that promising writer, passionate about food, travel, and literature, living in a cool area of Paris with a promising photographer boyfriend. I dumped everything last October because I felt like all of this was wrong, my ex-boyfriend first (only to run away with someone else), then the biggest magazine I was working for. Now I can’t even write a single article without forcing myself like it’s torture. I’m not even happy when it’s done, I don’t get that satisfaction when I see my name printed on 150,000 issues. I don’t care about my name anymore, I even want to change it.

I’ve been looking for reasons for a while now, spending my time in therapy or with energy healers. I’ve been emotionally and physically abused by my narcissist dad (not sexually) from a very young age and until I was 13, when he sent me to the hospital and finally stopped for good. And at the same time I’ve been spoiled by him when he wanted to be forgiven. I know my sense of self is fragile, if not absent, because of that, but I feel like I can’t change it now. I’m feeling trapped in an endless circle of self-sabotaging, leading the guys I’m dating to take advantage of me, including the one I’m dating at the moment.

My mom and therapists keep telling me to clean my life up and “take care of myself.” But how am I supposed to do that? Take a warm bath, read a book, go shopping, get a massage, or all that bullshit? I can’t even eat normally when I’m alone, I don’t enjoy food when I’m alone. The only thing I know is that I want to leave this country and get a fresh start somewhere else, but I know I’m not capable of it right now. I feel terribly stranded, even though I have a boyfriend, caring friends, and a close family. I’m codependent and don’t really enjoy anything by myself. Who is “myself” anyway? I read your advice to a girl who felt dull without her boyfriend, and it helped me a lot. But the boyfriend himself is not even the problem, he could be perfect and I’d feel exactly the same or I’d lose myself in him even more, if that’s possible.
I feel like an empty glass with a small crack in the bottom, as if every attempt to fill myself up would never, ever work. Please help me.

Sincerely,

A Self-less Self

Dear ASS,

I’m sure you didn’t intend for me to address you by that acronym. As a writer, you would’ve wanted to change your pseudonym so that it wouldn’t boil down to a deluded fool, not just an empty self but an empty punch line. Some foresight and some careful image management might’ve prevented this, but you’re exhausted by years of careful image management. Your sense of self has been warped by your narcissist father, who inflicted tolls on your dignity and pride. Narcissists force you to live in their world and serve their interests; you’ve used the same charms to win over men and friends and colleagues, and you’ve used the same willful amnesia to ignore their abuses. It’s not surprising that all that you’ve gained with your charms now feels worthless.

You have no connection to your success because you don’t know why you do what you do, beyond the recognition you get for it. Because the seduction and the charms feel like a lie, the recognition and admiration feel like a lie, too. Friends don’t matter because they don’t know the real you, outside of the shiny, bulletproof shell you’ve presented for years. Your dad taught you that it was better to be admired and envied than it was to be loved for your real, fractured, fearful, confused self.

Even though I went through a similar process of deconstructing my shiny, invented self around your age, I don’t have easy answers to guide you in that process. I don’t feel up to that task at this particular moment. Four weeks ago, my 14-year-old dog died. Two weeks ago, I adopted a puppy. Yesterday, the puppy died in an expensive specialty hospital that the rescue organization was paying for. The puppy seemed sick the day we picked her up, but the rescue lady kept telling me she wasn’t. And obviously, all of this is insignificant, compared to the suffering happening all over the globe. But it was still hard. I did my best to keep the puppy alive. On the way to the vet and later, on the way to the specialty hospital, I sang her a song I made up; the only words were, “All you can do is your best,” over and over again.

The song was for me as much as it was for the puppy. I was becoming more and more anxious, because I blamed myself for not preventing the puppy from getting sicker. I also blamed myself for adopting the puppy in the first place: I had a bad feeling from the start, but I didn’t trust my instincts the way I used to, because I’ve fallen into the habit of seeing myself as a tiny bit neurotic. Lots of mothers stigmatize themselves this way, even when we’ve accumulated years of proof that our instincts AND our neuroticism do a damn fine job of keeping the small dependent organisms around us alive.

Even admitting that I’m sad about the puppy and also sad about my old dog feels embarrassing. I tried to stay detached from the puppy as she was doing worse, even as I spent all of my time warming up new foods and hand-feeding her and letting her sleep on top of me when she felt terrible. I tried to tell myself and my kids that we shouldn’t get too maudlin over the puppy. We just met the puppy. The puppy left open a slot for some other lucky rescue dog that will badly need a good home.

But I woke up at 3:30 a.m. and thought about the puppy and realized I did care much more than I wanted to, in spite of myself. Then I thought about my old dog, Potus, how she saw me through a very low point in my life 14 years ago, when I was newly single and there was a rat scratching around in my house in the middle of the night. I explained to my dog, just six months old at the time, that the scratching sound we heard was A RAT, but that I couldn’t do anything about it at this hour. It was her job to get that rat. She cocked her head when I said that, like she understood the solemn responsibility she had been given.

When people said “It’s hard to lose your baby” after she died, it didn’t feel quite right. Potus was more like my neurotic guardian. She always noticed I was crying before anyone else in the room did. Even if I was only quietly sniffling, she would put her startled face right up next to my face as if to say, “Are you okay? Do you want to talk about it?” She followed her very good instincts to keep me safe.

Telling you about my dog makes me feel like an ass. But this is how it feels to have a connection to small, sick animals and old, dying animals and also people: You care more than you want to care. You care too much.

And even though I know some people are reading this and thinking, “Get to the point, you fucking sentimental dog lady,” I need to tell you that it hurts to care. I woke up and I was mad at myself for playing a short reel of the puppy and then my old dog in my head. And now, at 4:35 a.m., I am on a machine that literally forces me to walk forward. I am walking and typing even though I feel heartsick, because it’s the only way I know to locate myself in a sea of sadness without drowning. It’s 88 degrees outside, and I can hear the freeway from this upstairs room, cars speeding through the inky hot night. It will be 101 degrees today, and as my daughter said last night, the heat feels oppressive and strange and scary. “I almost wish I were in school,” she said, “because summer feels weird and bad.” That was always how I felt about summer, too, at her age. I didn’t have enough to do, and my neurotic brain took over and drove me crazy. The heat was stifling and lonely.

Last night, I told my daughter that when I felt that way, the only thing that made me feel better was setting a few goals and getting those things done. Choose a few arbitrary things that you can put on a list and then cross the things off the list. It sounds stupid, I said, but it always makes me feel a tiny bit better when I’m forced into forward motion. You don’t have to feel good about what you’re doing while you’re doing it, either. You probably can’t feel good about it at first. You just have to start. After my dad died, I pulled kudzu out of my mother’s backyard for hours every day, then I ran and walked for hours, crying. Today, I’ll clean my absurd mess of a closet and my stupidly messy desk, after avoiding those tasks for months. I can walk forward. You can walk forward. Sometimes, when you care the least, when everything feels weird and bad, that’s the best time to do something hard.

But even as you move forward, you have to admit how much you care. This is where I sometimes get it wrong: You can’t stay detached. That’s not a solution. You don’t get to float above the bad feelings. Are you hearing me, ASS? You can’t believe the lie that nothing and no one matters to you at all. That’s an illusion created by the dance you did to win over your dad and your friends and your boyfriends. That’s an illusion created by your fear that the real you is disgusting and unlovable.

The real solution, in other words, is to be an ASS, a deluded fool, a grandiose romantic, out in the open, not just in embarrassingly maudlin letters to advice ladies a continent away. The solution is to admit that there IS a self there, inside of you. It’s a self that cares way too much. It’s a self that cries about sick puppies and old friends you lost and that boyfriend from a long time ago, the one who was nothing like your dad, the one who cared so much that it embarrassed you, so you got rid of him. It’s a self that could torpedo every lifestyle brand under the sun, because it’s a self that tells the ugly truth and then ugly-cries about it. It’s a self that can’t feel the magic in magazine pages and shiny images, but one that can sense the magic in the jagged moments in between, when things don’t look pretty, when the world shows its broken ass and it’s beautiful somehow.

You have to abandon the empty, successful, shiny shell of a person you became in order to please your father, to win your selfish boyfriends, to gain your glamorous magazine jobs, and you have to look into the inky hot abyss of your soul and pull out this wretched, messy self that you fear. You have to wipe the goop out of this self’s sad eyes like it’s your sick puppy. You have to cradle this self until it can stand and then walk forward. The very thought of this probably disgusts you. You’re sure that this pathetic self, who cares too much, is unworthy of love. That is the center of your malady. If you stare at that, without looking away, you will discover magic where you thought there was only a void.

There are things you want to do. You want these things with all of your heart. Your indifference is a self-protective shield. It’s supposed to make you less pathetic, more attractive. It’s a mirror image of your father. It tells you that only by moving to a country far away can you be strong and special and victorious. It is grandiose and superior. It brings you friendships that dissolve like sand when you reach for them. It brings you men who think you’d pair nicely with their lifestyle brands. It weighs you down with shame, like a lead blanket you wear everywhere, until the only way not to feel the shame is to feel nothing at all.

Let go of being better than everyone else. Put down the lead blanket. You will feel weak and broken and ugly and suddenly, you will find yourself wanting things so much that it breaks your heart. Write down what you want. But know that you don’t need a country far away. You need to be uncool and broken in the cool, smooth, unbroken place where you live right now. You need to show your ass. You need to notice that you care too much, more than you can stand. You need to let the world see your big, frightened heart.

Once you get really good at doing something that you were never sure you valued in the first place, it can be very hard to care. It’s like charming the coolest people or tricking everyone into thinking your life is amazing on Instagram or convincing your dad that you’re perfect and special in the ways that perfectly complement his ego. You’re good at what you do, so even though it doesn’t bring you much satisfaction, it’s hard to stop trying.

And yet, here you are. You have stopped trying. Inside of you, the self that cares too much is staging a revolution. You intend to quell it with your indifference. But this is not a revolution that will end with you giving up. This is a revolution that leads to genuine connection, to your REAL, fragile self, to other real fragile selves in the world outside your door. Your charms are not needed anymore. Your fears are needed. Your sadness is needed. They lead to things you dearly want. They lead to things that won’t feel empty. You will care for your real self like it’s your anxious, overwhelmed child. This is real self-care. Not massages or bubble baths, but talking softly to your real, broken self, this jittery, broken girl who deserves your love. You will coax this girl forward gently, patiently. You will see that your overprotective, overinvested, neurotic self and the broken girl she cares for make up the very best parts of you. This is how you find your path. This is how you relocate your heart.

Soon, you’ll see yourself clearly for the first time, and it will feel like inhaling sunshine. You’ll care more than you ever intended to care, and it will feel like waking up from a long sleep. Then you’ll know what to do. You won’t change your name. You won’t move. You’ll dare to be exactly who you are, where you are. You are broken but you’re not empty. You are full. That doesn’t mean you can predict the future or keep all danger at bay or float above your sadness or mend your cracks. All you can do is show up and notice that your heart is breaking but you’re brave underneath your fear. All you can do is your best.

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 Feel Empty’