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‘No One Understands Me!’

Photo: Maxime Riendeau/Getty Images/500px Prime


Good evening. I’m a 17-year-old mess of a boy from India, and I mostly repent not living the life I envision to live, perhaps wasting my life behind being so triggered and emotional spelunking, for the past 5 years.

I am quite different from others, becoming more so day-by-day since 2013. Not just in terms of the muscular dystrophy I’m condemned to be born with, but also, my musical tastes, worldview, desire for naturism, what I love doing on the Internet, etc. My thought process begins from where others’ thought processes usually end.

Strangely enough, 2014 was the year that I started feeling socially awkward, especially around girls. Back then, I mostly attributed it to puberty and tried justifying my ‘preference’ of having more female friends through gender-stereotyped concepts like ‘Girls are more caring and compassionate than boys’ etc.

Okay, back then, my journey of self-discovery was just at its fledgling stage. And I was pretty hopeful about letting people know how ‘unique’ I am. Especially having just given up on a manipulative friendship.

Since then, any attempts at emotional vulnerability (mostly over social media) with my classmates have backfired. I feel uncomfortable with self-expression and being myself outside my family (later on discovered as the actual cause of my social anxiety) and lack of close friends (loneliness), and afraid of hearing the same old suppress-unpleasant-feelings-and-be-(forcefully)-happy statements: “Don’t worry, everything will be fine,” “Loosen up and stop overcomplicating life, it’s meant to be lived, not analyzed, made perfect and taken so seriously!” etc.

Now I’m in college, and I discover another feather in the I’m-different-from-others cap: Intersectional feminism (first introduced to me by Everyday Feminism). So now comes newfangled (yet again repressed) desire to speak out against sexist jokes, diet culture, rape culture and microaggressions, insist on consent before even a hug (I ended up impulsively using profanity against my father to force him to ask for my permission, and made an already-not-so-cordial bond turn sour). And the subsequent amplification of crap I resent hearing such as “Cheer up, why have you become so cranky, finicky and politically correct all the time?,” “The world isn’t so bad a place either, so no need to argue and debate the hell outta everything,” “C’mon, a bit of spontaneous affection hurt nobody,” “Friendships and family need to have fun, banter, and light moments, too!”

I feel as if my desire for deep conversation is being looked down upon, as if I’m some aristocrat who can’t keep conversations light-hearted. (I still remember when one of my friends told me on my birthday to “just enjoy the McDonald’s burger” the moment I tried talking about Food CIA’s episode on cheese slices.) I’m always picking out a hint of possible debate (especially when I smell a whiff of feminist discussion, given the pervasiveness of subtle sexism), or I’m a boring jerk who hypocritically claims to be cheerful and happy-go-lucky (I don’t agree to living a morose life either, and I find myself attracted to fun-loving personalities). I usually don’t care about what others think about me, but then how would one call out, say, unsolicited fashion advice from others (‘suggestions’), non-body-positive statements, microsexism, and misogyny? Feeling the need to call them out does imply that I’m taking others’ words too seriously, right?

Among other things, I enjoy analyzing all sorts of random shit, have a propensity to overthink, sometimes make hypothetical statements like ‘I want to be a civilian torpedoed down by the Navy.’ And a lot of your advices routinely emphasize just being who you are (Cueing one of your posts, “I enjoy filling up bowls of snacks and subsequently being let down by my invitees”), though I sometimes feel that accepting others just as they are prevents us from making accountable whoever lets microaggressions prevail (even after being enlightened about the same), and not trying to fix yourself sometimes comes in the way of self-improvement.

Now the logical thing is to get over your old failed social life in high school and make better friends in the present, but being on bedrest last year for a fracture pushed a reset button in me (since then I’ve halted all progress to a better social life in college, realizing that my older friends were my better friends). I have very few older friends, though, since I wasn’t friendly enough with most of them and blowing off steam about my awkwardness led me to make huge mistakes that cost me friendships. Nonetheless, some of them want to meet me in a few months, but I’m scared to death that I will lose these friends if they discover my true self, which was masked by my social awkwardness all these years. While having people exit your life is pretty normal, let me add that one of the above people likes one of my favorite songs (somebody liking my non-mainstream tastes being a metonymy of acceptance of my uncommon personality, thus celebrating said person’s existence via that song). My parents (some of the most supportive parents in this world, and they actually listen) and teachers are at their wit’s end when it comes to helping me out, and you already know why I can’t open up my universe to my own generation.

Everybody’s advice seems too mundane and suppressive. I sometimes feel utterly hopeless and lost but the beauty of this world (music, my talents, sexuality, world cuisine, etc.) pulls me through somehow. I hate that only my parents (2nd person) and psychotherapist (3rd person) know the full extent of this issue. No amount of crying it out helps, and now I honestly feel that getting arrested, rehabilitated, and reintegrated is the only way, for that’ll introduce me to a COMPLETELY NEW WORLD post-release to be my truest self in.

Mess of a Boy

p.s. The level of intensity of some of my emotions are such that I’ll need to send you a list of songs in a Word Document for you to understand me better (provided you like them).

Dear Mess of a Boy,

I just woke up from a nightmare about a nasty affliction — well, it was more like an infestation. In my dream, my husband had this skin infection that formed iridescent  rectangular tiles across his forehead, with a little S-shaped design on each rectangle. I had the same infection, but I had hexagonal tiles with a more intricate design on them (probably because I’m a genius and he’s not). But as the tiles spread down toward our faces, they stuck out like a patchwork of triangular tents with tiny colorful dots all over them. So I pulled one of the tents off my husband’s face and … I can’t write any more without feeling ill. I’ve probably triggered a lot of people just by going that far.

Anyway. It was not a good dream. But when I woke up, instead of wading through my dread and wondering about what an infestation in a dream might symbolize, I thought about how natural it is to fear infestations. I read some books about microbes a few years ago, and apparently some animals are fixated on cleanliness for adaptive reasons. Not only that, but many animals are afraid of other members of their species from a different location. We feel jittery about The Other, not just because we’re weak and neurotic like that, but because animals from other places sometimes have exotic diseases we haven’t developed immunity to yet. Many of us also, apparently, have a major fear of teensy, tiny holes (trypophobia!), which seems at once absurd and utterly rational. Tiny holes suggest an infestation of tiny organisms, get it? DOES YOUR SCALP ITCH YET OR IS IT JUST ME?

So there I was, alone, wide awake, grossed out, and also … intrigued. Why did I dream that? I wondered. My husband is out of town, but I didn’t have an urge to call him in the middle of the night, to reassure me that he didn’t have little tents growing out of his face. (Ooof, I could barely type that.) Instead of feeling freaked out, I started musing about how these things can be wired into our onboard circuitry as organisms (SCIENCE!), but they also dovetail with Carl Jung’s ideas about the collective unconscious — the idea that all humans carry around the same sweeping concepts and emotional shapes in their unconscious minds.

And that’s when I picked up my phone to check the time (4 a.m., motherfucker!) and I saw your letter.

Now I’m listening to some variety of electronica from your list that, quite honestly, feels almost as triggering as tiny tents full of living organisms stuck to my face. I’m doing this because a 17-year-old mess of a boy in India sent me a long, detailed letter that I happened to read in the wee hours before dawn. It’s almost like your worries and my nightmares are part of the collective unconscious, and we both happened to access them at the same time.

Or that’s how I felt until I started to listen to your song list. Now that I’m on the fifth song with the exact same tempo (tachycardissimo, I think it’s called) and the same vocals (Madonna-adjacent) and the same rising, climactic chords, over and over and over again, I do not feel connected.

This is my animal reaction: You are not the same as me.

You are younger and you live in another country. You listen to music that makes me feel like the walls are closing in. Honestly, I could write a novella-length work about why I hate the kind of music that you love. I’m a critic, after all. I love ripping cultural artifacts to little shreds. You can probably respect that, even if we don’t happen to agree about which artifacts deserve evisceration.

Respect serves as a consolation when you’re disappointed to discover that no two people are exactly the same. These 58 songs are a test that I can’t pass. So even though I would probably support most of your thoughts and inconvenient opinions about intersectional feminism and industrial farming and microaggressions, even though I am also a haunted human being who goes to bed at night wondering why every single column I write isn’t about income inequality and racism and the impending ravages of climate change, there’s no way it can be enough. You might’ve been open to my opinions if I had pretended to like your music, but now that I’ve admitted that I don’t like it, you’re unlikely to listen to what I have to say. My advice will make some sense to you at first, but then you’ll remember that I don’t like “Without You,” by Dogzilla, or “Take Me Away,” by 4 Strings. I am nothing like you. So how helpful or understanding could I possibly be?

We all want to feel understood. We want to know who’s in our tribe. And while it’s the mark of a true romantic (hurray!) to send a long playlist to a total stranger, it’s undeniably a mark of emotional immaturity to let that stranger know that if she doesn’t like those 58 “non-mainstream” songs, then forget the whole thing. Oh well, whatever, nevermind, in the words of that truly hopeless romantic, Kurt Cobain.

Which is a little bit like distrusting animals from the same species who just happen to live a few miles away from you. It’s preemptively defensive, like your letter. You’re vulnerable enough to mention that you dislike getting unsolicited fashion advice, but not vulnerable enough to say why. You’re vulnerable enough to demand that your dad ask consent before he touches you, but not vulnerable enough to calmly tell him why that matters so much to you. You’re vulnerable enough to notice that you take everyone’s words and their actions and everything else under the sun a tiny bit too seriously, but not vulnerable enough to admit that this means that you care deeply what other people think of you.

You’re trying to stay superior, to keep yourself safe. You’re trying to stay separate. You’re making everyone around you inferior, and sometimes you use your woke language as a weapon against them because it’s the best weapon you have. I’m not implying that this is some fundamental trait of liberals, what others call “virtue signaling” because they don’t understand the value of the virtues in question. But I do think that you, in particular, are using the current language of social enlightenment to widen the distance between yourself and others. It’s another litmus test, like the playlist you sent me.

If we want to understand how your friends and family react to you, we should maybe use my honest reaction to your playlist as a guide. Like your friends and family, I want to understand you, and I want to like your music, too. But there’s also a part of me that thinks, “Look, stranger, you don’t understand me either. I want you to listen to Mozart’s last three symphonies, all the way through, 58 times in a row, because that’s where I’m living right now.”

The point is, I’m here, too. That’s my reaction when I’m asked to pass some test straight out of the gate, and that’s the reaction you’re probably getting from other friends and family, too. That doesn’t mean you should hide. It just means you should try not to hold out for perfect understanding and mirrorlike connections. Celebrate the intensity of your world, savor it, value it, and cultivate your curiosity for the other people’s worlds, too.

Parents who listen very well but don’t seem to want to truly understand sometimes raise children who are obsessed with being understood. I know this because I was the same way when I was younger. And when I befriended someone, or started dating someone new, I expected that person to make up for what my parents didn’t give me. I showed up with a truck full of photo albums. I showed up with a box full of mixtapes. I showed up wanting new people to do a full audit of my personality. GET IN HERE AND LOOK AT THIS SHIT! I shouted at my brand-new love, and nine times out of ten he’d start shivering like he’d just caught a very bad virus. My personality was a maze of tiny holes, an infestation in motion. Just the sight of me made the scalps of men itch for miles around.

Here’s the cure for that: Living in reality. Noticing that different people from different places are very different from each other, and respecting that. Once you respect that, THEN you can connect, and access our collective unconscious. It’s a little bit like consent. It’s a little bit like intersectional feminism. It’s a little bit like noticing your own microaggressions. A playlist is a microaggression of sorts. A wordy explanation is a microaggression. My whole job is a microaggression.

I love playlists, and I think it’s a beautiful thing that you sent me one. I was thrilled to discover it at the end of your letter. I knew that we had a lot in common; I didn’t need to listen to a single song to know that. But I still want the option to tell you the truth. So does everyone around you. They don’t want to feel like they have to lie just to be your friend. They want to be honest with you precisely because they already love you a lot.

I’m sure many of your friends recognize how interesting and insightful and passionate you are, and they appreciate it. Other kids your age must seem horrifically boring compared to you. And your parents obviously did a good job of supporting you. They made you confident in your ideas and your charm. My parents were like that, too, and it shows, bitches. It’s a gift that just keeps on giving.

I’m glad your parents are so good at their jobs. But you could use a teensy bit more honesty in your life. I think you’ve been slightly overprotected in some ways.  That would be understandable, given the harsh realities of living with MD — not that I know any of the specifics of your case. But it sounds like people tell you to cheer up, but they don’t always say things like “I love you, but your words are making me a little anxious,” or “I’m interested in what you’re saying, but I feel like I can’t really tell you my honest perspective without having you judge me badly for it.” If you want to get to a place where you don’t push people away and overthink everything, you have to start giving other people more room to be who they are and to say what they say. That means you have to examine your own shame and insecurity and watch for times when you let those jittery feelings prevent you from connecting with others with an open heart.

I’m not saying you have to put up with assholes. And even the non-assholes can be annoying and reductive and dull and repetitive, so repetitive that it’s hard to believe that you could possibly share a collective unconscious with them. I love your letter because you’re just so upfront about your superiority complex. I appreciate and applaud a superiority complex, too. I really do! Particularly in anyone under the age of 25. You’re young. Go ahead and celebrate what you have. Savor it!

You can relish your own intensity without expecting compliance and perfect understanding. It’s not all or nothing. Your shame tells you that any small disagreement is a sign of disapproval, and that’s not accurate. I can be the person who is the most like you in the whole universe and still hate your music. I can appreciate you from thousands of miles away and still not embody the all-seeing, understanding Mommy archetype you might imagine or want me to be. And even if I could feed you positive reinforcement from a great distance, what would that do for you? Give you the illusion that connection is just unconditional positive regard from someone with no needs. That’s about as contrary to the goals of intersectional feminism as it gets.

Yet this is how we’re told mothers should be: free of independent needs, free of personality, free of opinions. Why are so many parents these days trying to raise miniature kings and queens? My belief is that mothers who pretend to be invisible and free of needs raise children who grow up to be self-involved, angry, confused adults who don’t know how to make room for other equally flawed adults with needs.

It’s time for you to live in reality. I admire your conviction, but you can fight for justice and fight for the globe without seeing every single moment you’re alive through an apocalyptic lens. Hell, we’re going to have to buck up and survive and also have light moments DURING THE ACTUAL APOCALYPSE. Ask yourself: Is this conversational imperative fueled by my anxiety? Is this a product of my shame? Sometimes when you separate the emotions from these impulses, it’s easier to proceed without aggression.

After all, from a certain angle, we’re all just infestations. Here in Southern California, I am one small part of a terrible infestation on desiccated land, land that was not meant to support so many self-satisfied pests like myself. I am living in a colorful tent on the face of the desert, poised to spread my pestilence, trample the ecosystem, and leave a massive carbon footprint. I am so gross that it makes Mother Earth’s scalp itch just thinking about me.

At some point, intelligent minds need to hold back some of their rigorous standards and just exist. Those words will sound like “Hey, drop it, relax, look on the bright side” to you from this great distance between us. So you’re going to really have to pry open your mind now to hear me clearly. And in my own effort to pry open MY mind, I am still listening to your list of 58 songs, each of which is, what, a half-hour long? It should only take me three or four months to finish the whole thing.

I want to celebrate this strange gift, nonetheless. I am focused on enjoying the moment. After all, how did this even happen? What magical world are we living in that I could read the words of a very smart 17-year-old from India at 4 a.m., out of the blue? My animal self has been upstaged by the collective unconscious, which tells us that we are one.

How did that first song go? “You’re half a world away / But in my mind I whisper every single word you say. / And before you sleep at night / You pray to me, your lucky star, your singing satellite.” Okay, I actually like that song now.

Sometimes you have to set aside your reservations and just connect.

Sometimes you have to set aside your litmus tests — musical litmus tests, because they’re too subjective, but also emotional and intellectual litmus tests — and make some space for people to give you whatever they have.

Sometimes you have to push past the pounding beat — oomcha, oomcha, oomcha, oomcha — and listen for the orchestral elements that drive the song forward, out of the giant gay nightclub of your memory from 1996 (where you felt like part of a heterosexual hipster female infestation) into the soaring, dizzying, queasy, imperfect present.

Sometimes you have to look past your own needs to the needs of those around you: Your relationship with your dad doesn’t have to be sour. Take some time to talk to him without mentioning his flaws and blind spots.

Sometimes you have to bite your tongue and just be. That’s part of being a social animal. You don’t have to be at the center. Watching and listening is good for you.

Because you are surrounded by jumpy animals, Mess of a Boy. Many of them are falling behind you, and more will fall behind as you continue to grow and evolve. Imagine that you are a gazelle on an island of birds. There are no other gazelles there. The birds are not very bright. It’s a little dull. You will never teach these birds to talk gazelle, the same way I will never teach you to love Mozart more than 4 Strings. But you can listen to the birds until you start to recognize their songs. And you can celebrate the fact that you are a gazelle.

It’s up to you to celebrate the fact that you are a gazelle, instead of wanting birds to sing about what a great gazelle you are. It’s up to you to savor the delights of being a gazelle. It’s up to you to wake up in the middle of the night and search for inspiration instead of fear and dread. It’s up to you to enter conversations looking for connection instead of superiority. It’s up to you to look at your insecurities without fear. It’s up to you to grow.

You’ve opened your heart to the world, and it shows. You became educated and enlightened about those who have less than you. You should feel proud of that. Now it’s time to take a break. Stop educating everyone around you for a while, and just breathe in the mundane moments of connection that are available to you. When someone says “Enjoy yourself, have some fun,” stop resisting. Have faith that letting go doesn’t mean disappearing.

You’re less of a mess than you think you are. You don’t need to be incarcerated or make some dramatic move just to feel right in the world. As Velvetine puts it, “I know you’re safe wherever you are.” Be where you are and appreciate it.

Your music is growing on me, but I might never love it. If I lied and pretended to love it, that would make this moment less interesting and real. Why would I mess with this magic? I had to tell you the truth about your playlist so I could keep listening to these songs. I had to tell you the truth so I could tolerate the fact that you are very different from me but you’re also a lot like me. I had to tell you the truth in order to treat you with the respect you deserve.

I am an anxious animal among other anxious animals, and so are you. The truth is not an act of aggression. We don’t have to fear each other. Open your eyes wider. We are the same.


Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?here. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

All letters to become the property of Ask Polly and New York Media LLC and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.

‘I’m 17 and No One Understands Me!’