ask polly

‘How Can I Believe in Anything, After So Many Shitty Things Have Happened?’

Photo: Matthias Makarinus/Getty Images

Dear Polly,

When I was 26, I had a brain tumor. An operation left one side of my face paralyzed. This was a side effect of the surgery and had no further medical implication. After going through this, I needed a fresh start, so I moved to live with my boyfriend of one year. New country, new language, new friends. I studied the language and eventually got a job, made friends, etc. Life was good.

After a few years, when we were both 30, we decided to look for new jobs worldwide. We dreamed of a life in a cool, exotic place. When this idea didn’t work out, I applied for a job in my home country and got an offer. This was not our first choice, but it was the only option. My boyfriend tried to study the language, but he struggled to live there. I cannot blame him. He left me after eight years and returned to his home country.

This breakup ruined me emotionally, and after going through the worst time and dating some insignificant guys, the brain tumor returned. I took the diagnosis well and was just relieved that I didn’t have to go through surgery again, as it was treatable by radiotherapy. A few months after radiotherapy, one side of my face became paralyzed out of the blue. Nobody could tell me the root cause of this paralysis, whether it was the tumor or the radiotherapy. It was hard on me. Facial expressions are so important. If one leg is missing, you could wear a prosthesis and nobody would see it. But talking, smiling, laughing, you don’t feel like yourself and you don’t look like yourself. It’s big shit to deal with.

You might wonder how I felt after the first paralysis, and I can say that that time, it didn’t really impact me as much. I had the best partner on my side, someone who gave me all the love and stability I could have asked for. Even with a paralyzed face, I was able to find a job in a new country and make new friends, and eventually the paralysis went away.

So here I was: ugly from the outside, horrible job, single, hating the city. I decided to get out of my miserable life. I played the “pity card” with my employer and requested a six-month break in order to go on a journey. I traveled around South America and had an amazing time. My paralysis wasn’t the focus; I was sociable and met tons of people and even hooked up with guys. At home, boys had been out of the picture with my sincerely ugly face. For the first time after the paralysis, I felt comfortable and at peace with myself. I was not afraid once along the journey; the only fear I had was to return to my life back home. I kinda felt like Julia Roberts in Eat, Pray, Love. Only I wasn’t brave enough to cut my ties and follow my inner desires. If I didn’t have this medical problem and didn’t have to come back for checkups, I might’ve kept on traveling and sent my company an email saying that I’d never come back.

A little miracle also happened in the middle of the trip: a hint of a tiny movement in the paralyzed side of my face, which gave me hope of not going through another surgery. This slow improvement, I told myself, wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t traveled.

Now here is my dilemma: I am in the same situation as before my trip: de-faced, in a city and a job I want to get away from, friendships that are falling apart, no boyfriend. I’ve been applying to jobs, but I just haven’t gotten any positive feedback. And if I do get an interview and they see my face and realize that I have an issue, then I have no chance, anyway. I mean, who would hire a sick employee who has a theoretically high chance of dropping out? I am totally healthy otherwise: The facial issue is not life threatening, the tumor is totally under control, and I have all the energy you can ask for.

In a life crisis, it’s good to take the moment and embrace it and use it as a chance to turn the page. I don’t have any commitments: no partner, no mortgage to pay, and no job I’m attached to, literally nothing. Theoretically, I could pack my stuff and just go. So why I am too cowardly to be the author of my life? I am too afraid of not having an income and living from my savings. In my head, I know that I will find another stupid job, which probably won’t pay that much, and that life will always goes on. But I can’t. I just can’t do it.

Since I can’t find a job and I’m stuck where I am, my plan is to make the best of it. One possible exit strategy I am trying to pursue is the family project. I want to have a baby soon. I am 36. So I registered at one of the online co-parenting platforms. And if I don’t find the co-father, I’d also consider going to an insemination clinic. Being a mum and not worrying about my crabby professional life anymore as I have a child to take care of is more appealing than being stuck in my current situation forever. My mother raised four kids by herself, so I had the best role model. But if the baby project is also a dead end, I have no way to make a change.

I really don’t know how to deal with my status quo, which I want to escape so badly. How can I trust in the future that everything will turn out okay when I am trying to stay positive for so long and nothing gets better? I read in earlier columns that sometimes you advise people to keep believing in themselves or in love. But I just cannot anymore, after all the shitty things that have happened.

The Half Smile Girl

Dear Half Smile Girl,

You’re facing such a confusing set of choices, under such trying circumstances, that I’m honestly tempted to close your letter and find someone with much more trivial problems instead. After all, there are so many ways for me to mess this up I almost don’t want to try. Should you get a job and look for love in spite of the unavoidable emotional challenges of navigating these things with facial paralysis, or travel with a medical condition that requires regular checkups, or have a baby all by yourself, partially as an exit strategy from having to get a job? Endorsing any one of these choices feels absurd, like doing a high-wire act with my head on fire. And then you tell me that you read earlier columns of mine, looking for some wisdom that’s applicable to your incredible, mounting pile of challenges, and now I’m doing a high-wire act with my head on fire as a crowd of people points and shouts, “Look at this idiot! Why does she think she can pull this off? Who told this fool she had any answers?”

There’s no way for me to answer your letter without sometimes being insensitive or sounding like an idiot, since I’ve never been in your shoes and I have no way of knowing how bad it is for you. But I want to reckon with your letter anyway, precisely because it feels way too hard and makes me feel terrible and vulnerable and stupid. I want to reckon with your letter because I feel (perhaps foolishly!) that if I try, I’ll learn something along the way that might help me in my own life, or help someone else with whatever they’re facing. I don’t want to retreat into my favorite familiar places just because it feels comfortable. I want to choose the most difficult thing.

It seems to me that you’re the kind of person who likes to choose the most difficult thing, too — that is, when you’re not hiding in your favorite, familiar places. That’s the weird irony of people like you and me: When we’re not being bold and brave and working hard, doing things that many people would never dream of doing, we’re hiding. Sometimes it seems like we either refuse to go to the circus at all, or we show up and immediately climb up to the high wire and perform.

We think in all-or-nothing, black-and-white terms. And a lot of magical thinking comes into play when you’re that black-and-white about your choices. “I will never get a job with this medical condition” (black-and-white thinking) becomes “I need to have a baby so I don’t have to get a job” (magical thinking). “I am happy and my condition improves ONLY when I travel” (black-and-white thinking) becomes “I must travel to be happy and see my condition improve” (magical thinking). “I keep believing in myself and love and shitty things keep happening” (black-and-white thinking) becomes “If I keep believing in myself and in love, shitty things will keep happening” (magical thinking).

It makes sense that major life traumas tend to induce a belief in magic. When the stakes are high, trying to navigate your current, disappointing reality is the most terrifying thing of all. Instead, you want magic: A baby will save you. Travel will save you. Love once saved you. Now, quitting your career and giving up on love will save you. I’m not refuting these beliefs, mind you. Babies are amazing. Traveling is fantastic, and it sounds like you’re really good at it. Love can feel nearly impossible under the best of circumstances, and you are understandably challenged by your physical reality right now. Most careers feel like a long, slow trudge to nowhere, and you can’t handle that prospect at the moment.

You don’t want slow progress. You don’t want small steps. You want to look at your current puzzles and SOLVE THEM ALL IN ONE, FELL SWOOP. Climb up that rope ladder, set your hair on fire, and GO!

I love that you want a gigantic challenge instead of a small one. I would be absolutely crushed and hiding like a motherfucker if I were in your shoes. But you have to find a way forward that doesn’t feel like magic or escape or hiding. My feeling is that the hardest thing for you to do right now is to live where you are, to be who you are, and to reckon with the present moment. I understand why you wouldn’t want to do this. But I think this is your moment to do the hardest thing.

The hardest thing for you, right now, is living where you are, finding a job, and facing the outside world without fear. You know that there’s no way that this will go smoothly. You’ll feel terrible and vulnerable and afraid. In my opinion, this is your moment to reckon with that reality and do it anyway.

You see the time you spent traveling as magical, and I believe you, that it was magical. But we need to bring that magic into your life now. You’ve got to find a way to invite that traveling woman, who was brave and sure of herself and focused on the outside world and unconcerned with her face, into the present moment. It might be the hardest thing you’ve ever done, but you CAN get her back. That woman didn’t spring out of your circumstances. She’s with you now.

What does she want? How would she use the things you already have to make your life better? What kind of a friend and listener is she? How does she approach meeting new people? Give her what she needs, and she’ll go to work mending your life and your heart. She’ll send out some résumés, knowing that she’s qualified for plenty of jobs. She’ll call the one or two friends you can trust and meet them to talk. She’ll turn outward in spite of her fears. “I wasn’t that scared,” she’ll tell you after your first interview. “Some kind of magic took over and I didn’t worry about what they thought of me. I focused on my empathy for them, for how uncomfortable they probably were, for how worried they were about hiring me or coming across as unfair jerks.”

Or maybe she’ll say to you, “It was terrible. I felt better in South America.”

Let her stay anyway. Accept her for who she is. The magic is still there. You have to be patient with her. You have to let her show you how strong and resilient you can be.

I want you to take her out into the world every day, and listen to her telling you that it’s okay. It’s okay to face a world that seems uniquely unforgiving. “These people are the same as the people in South America,” she’ll remind you. “Show them how to honor you the way you did there.” And when it gets too hard, close your eyes and remember this: You have already been so courageous. You can be courageous again.

Once the traveling woman gets comfortable and lives inside your life — in the town you don’t like, with the new job that’s maybe just bleh, with the friends who aren’t always perfect — she’ll help you to see these things through a new lens. The flaws and ugliness and failures and fumbling, the clumsy interactions that surround you, are just as beautiful as the obviously lovely details you prefer, as long as you welcome them in, as long as you say to yourself, “I am here, and I can’t change this, so I need to grow to love it.” Think of the traveling woman, walking down a road in another place, far away, feeling good. Bring her to you.

The traveling woman is like a loyal friend who wants you to see how much beauty and potential are wrapped up in your current circumstances. She knows your enormous strengths and recognizes your bravery. She loves you for exactly who you are. She keeps you focused on the outside world, on the present. She wants you to face your current circumstances the way you navigated South America. She wants you to be brave.

She knows that if you make your way through this bad maze of HERE and NOW, even as you feel overwhelmed by it, you’re going to come out of it stronger than you could ever imagine being. You’re going to learn so much about yourself, but more importantly, you’re going to inspire and reassure and soothe the people around you, who aren’t nearly as strong as you already are, who need your guidance just to get out of bed and face much easier circumstances than yours. You’re a leader. The traveling woman knows that. I know that. You need to know it.

Having a baby before you do these things, or in order to avoid having a job, is not the best idea. Traveling and draining your savings without access to your doctors is also not great. I just don’t think traveling will be as magical this time, and you’ll be constantly dreading returning to your life and your checkups and your imperfect friends. You can travel and have a kid, but you need to do these things after you learn to live right here, right now.

Maybe it’s true that no one will hire you. But that’s just a theory that you haven’t tested yet. After you test it thoroughly, you can draw your own conclusions. But you have to try very hard first. Maybe it’s true that you want to just give up and travel for the next few years, and cobble together work and medical care as you go. Again, my instincts tell me that doing these things AFTER you reckon with your current situation (apply for a job, reach out to others, face the world, patiently consider a child and all that entails, take in reality) is a much better choice.

Because right now you’re trying to reinforce the idea that you only deserve love and respect under very specific circumstances — love from a baby, love from strangers in South America. I want to challenge that magical thinking. I want to suggest that you deserve love and respect (and a job and a life) right here and now, in this disappointing city, in this disappointing moment. Your future is not an all-or-nothing proposition. You aren’t either “taking the moment and embracing it” or giving up and inviting more shitty things to happen. You aren’t either hiding or escaping to victory. You aren’t worthless just because you live in a fucked-up culture that determines value based on looks. You’re about to grow past that poisonous value system, and when you do, you’re going to have a lot to teach the people around you.

I need a little of that growth myself. I think every woman does. We have to overcome our fears of how we’re judged by the world, and decide for ourselves who we are. We have to commit to honoring our courage, manifesting our courage, and becoming our courage so completely that no matter how we look or feel, we know that we bring light and possibility into each and every room.

I know it all feels like too much. It’s like me trying to answer your letter: There are just too many ways to mess this up. But you have to embrace this tangled mess and trust that you’ll find a way forward. There is no way for me to lay out a specific path for you that’s better than the one you’ll decide on yourself. But in order to decide, you have to stop hiding and trying to escape. You have to live where you are and work with what you have. You have to invite the traveling woman back.

When you were traveling, you didn’t need magic. You were just a person, flawed and sad, in a world that was ugly and broken. But that, in itself, was grace. And now, when you step out of your cave, with an intention to accept reality, you’ll experience that grace directly. The trouble and the noise and the bad reactions in other people’s faces will form a pitiable picture that won’t touch you for once. You’ll feel empathy for them and for yourself. You’ll feel love for the crumpled, lost souls around you — strangers and imperfect friends. You’ll see that this scary, sad world belongs to you.

Once you gain that clarity, you’ll realize there’s nothing to fear anymore. You’ll be able to see past other people’s delusions and build a new life for yourself out of the rubble of your old one. Even when you’re lonely or disappointed, the world around you will continue to sparkle. Even when you feel outmatched and exhausted and you’re tempted to hide again, you’ll relocate your gratitude, and trust your heart. How do I know this? It’s all there, in your letter. You’re much stronger than you know. How did this happen? Who gave you this gift?

Who knows? Don’t ask. Just treasure it, and honor it, the way the traveling woman taught you to.


Order Polly’s new book What If This Were Enoughhere. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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‘How Do I Believe in Anything, After So Many Shitty Things?’