My hands are covered in jam because I just had a breakfast I didn’t want. I’d like to go wash them, but I’m too sad to care enough to make myself actually stand up. I was struggling with anorexia for the last several years, in and out of treatment, and I’m just now figuring out how to eat, but it doesn’t feel very beautiful or interesting. It kind of just feels shitty and sad and banal and like you always have sticky hands from a stupid breakfast you didn’t want to eat.
I can’t really explain to you why I’m writing except to say that I’m starting to suspect that some of the main people I’ve relied on and looked up to in my life don’t really understand how abandoned the world can leave you, and I’m starting to feel like a weird freak who knows the secret (that the world can really fucking leave you) and, in that knowing, I’m marked like motherfucking Cain. I’m trying to love and trust my people and to tell them that I’m sad and angry, but these days I’m wondering if they don’t know how abandoned I feel.
They just keep telling me things that would technically be good for people who haven’t been dreadfully alone to hear, but when you have stared into that abyss of absolute self-reliance, then hearing the people you love say that you need to figure things out in your heart, and then, after, come to them with whatever you’ve realized — well, that sounds a lot like someone walking quietly out of the room and locking the door behind them, shrugging, Figure it out, kid, this will be fun. And I can’t admit to them what I’m looking at — this locked room, this empty coast — because then they’ll start to wonder what must be so wrong with me that I’ve learned what those things look like.
I’ve been on the Polly train of trying to accept being broken, but I think I’m butting up against a wall of what I let myself believe broken meant. I’m realizing that the depth of anger in my heart, the rage and horror and deep sadness, goes way past the wall I always told myself was the boundary of the rational. I had never even been to that wall — I spent all of my time being so loving and careful and compassionate, and now that I’m finally inching toward it, I’m suddenly seeing that where I am is just beyond.
I never got angry, Polly, and I think that’s an easy thing to say, but I profoundly mean it. My family was one of tirelessly fluctuating moods, erratic and violent and then loving and gentle; when they were in the good moods, you felt like they were the most special, extraordinary, private thing in the world, and when they were in the bad moods, you were very convinced that everyone, your mother and your sister and your brother, hated you more than they could say. It was a kind of repulsion. So they hit and they spit and they yelled, until after a while they would calm down, and if you were very, very quiet and very still and very careful, sometimes you could reach out to them at exactly the right moment and squeeze them or joke or reassure them or make fun of yourself and then they would calm down, laugh, shake their heads as though they were waking up out of a trance.
I’ve started believing and trusting people in the last few years, finding friends who I felt really knew things and understood the world and the Real and the Honest Broken Beauty sorts of things. But, Polly, I’m starting to feel like they don’t understand what it’s like to be an abandoned kid in the middle of a packed house, where everyone is yelling at you. I’m starting to feel like they don’t know what it’s like to say, with your legs buckling under you and your face contorted and your body starving, Please help me, I need you, and to get nothing back.
Everyone’s advice seems to amount to something like this — that I need to admit my brokenness, that I need to ask people to come with me in the terrible truth of my weakness. But Polly, I swear I have. And nobody showed. I see my friends freaking out — in real ways, important ways, reflecting honest suffering — and I see their family mobilize around them. They do it in shitty, inadequate ways, but they’re trying, and you can see it. They try and they act and they’re there. But, Polly, when I’ve broken down — when I was starving, when I was in danger — and I admitted how broken and hungry I was, how I couldn’t eat, how I couldn’t move — everyone just kind of sat there and blinked and looked uncomfortable. And nobody showed up. So I pulled myself to treatment, and I tried really hard to be honest, and everyone said what an easy patient I was, and my insurance dropped me when I had gained enough weight. Blink, blink. What was the question?
I’m so scared that this is my fault, that I’m overly dependent on people, or that it’s manipulative and sick of me to want people to check in on me and talk to me and take care of me in small ways. But at the same time, I don’t feel overly dependent. I work two part-time jobs and I’m a student and I live alone and buy food and clean my kitchen and call old friends. I know that much of this life is about getting good with ourselves, but, Polly, I don’t feel like anyone can do that on their own. I feel like we all need to be loved and cherished and supported, maybe even every day, and yet when I say that, I feel like everyone’s telling me I’m crazy and co-dependent and I need to stop yelling at them. Even the wise people seem to be saying that.
There’s a lot more I could tell you about what produced this; I could talk about specific moments, stories of loss, but honestly, Polly, I’m tired, and I feel like you’re going to read every sentence of this judging me for being melodramatic or empty or stupid, for not having the grace to accept my life as a beautiful broken thing. I do feel like my life is beautiful, but right now I feel amputated, Polly, you know? And when I hear you, or my dear friends, or my therapist say things like, Accept how broken you are, accept that no one can help you except for you, all I hear is how dreadfully, terribly, depressingly alone I am.
Please don’t tell me I just need to accept this. Please don’t tell me my sadness is a result of my broken neurons or my shitty ways of handling things or my suppressed anger. Please, please don’t tell me that I just need to freak out and admit that I’m a wreck, because when I hear you say that, it only confirms how sad things are and how ugly I must be, because I have, Polly, I’ve cried, I’ve fallen apart, and nobody shows. All of the things you say will come, they don’t come. It’s just me, standing at the entrance of an enormous tunnel, and it’s dark and muggy and smells like shit, and I don’t know how I got there, and I feel like any second someone is going to round the corner and hurt me, so I scream, and all I get back a few moments later is the echo of my voice. It sounds so fucking scared, Polly, and still nobody shows.
Thank you for listening, Polly.
I hear you, loud and clear. Sometimes I think that no one has it worse than the one who never gets angry, the one who listens, the one who waits for the right moment, the one who is supposed to pull everyone else together, the one who is always good, good, good. When that’s how you’re trained to behave at a young age, you learn at some deep level that being a human with needs is not just a moral failure but a deadly sin.
It takes a long, long time to get over that, to be a person, to want things, to say that you want things out loud. Right now, you’ve reached that crucial turning point where what you thought was an average, moderate, manageable amount of damage turned out to be an unfathomable chasm of pain. Over the past few years, it sounds like you’ve traveled from “Maybe I had anorexia because my family was a little screwed up” to “My family is massively disordered” to “Everyone else got to flip out, but I was the one who had to hold it together!” to “That wasn’t fair, but I’m doing better now!” But you’re not better now. Even though you were such a good student, even though you resolved to tackle your eating disorder quickly and efficiently, even though you were the strong one, the responsible one, the one who could rise above it all, the one who could own how broken she was, that’s not how it feels now. It feels like a big lie.
For a while, this optimistic lie worked. “Sure, I’d prefer more help and love and support, but haven’t I always settled for less? I’ve got this,” you told yourself. You were so good at being gracious and patient. You were so good at wanting less. You were so good at expecting less and getting less and accepting less.
What happened to change all of that?
You woke up one morning and you realized that your family wasn’t merely dysfunctional or unfair or unkind or unable. You woke up and realized that you said, very clearly, I HAVE NOTHING I AM STARVING I AM DYING and they didn’t do a thing. You said I NEED YOU and no one mobilized. No one did a thing.
How could that be true? It’s hard to believe. And now you’re looking around at all of your friends, and you’re asking, “Are these people the same? Do they really understand? Would they help if I asked for help? What if I were starving? What if I couldn’t get up?”
You’re starting to get angry. Maybe you’re starting to yell. You’re starting to say things like “I am not okay!” These are things no one wants to hear. You’re starting to say things like “I can’t do this. I need help.” And instead of helping you, people are getting uncomfortable. They’re clamming up, just like your family. They can’t handle it, because you were supposed to be the strong one, the responsible one, the one who could rise above it all, the one who could own how broken she was, the one who could see that being broken was beautiful. You told them that was who you were, and now you’re making very different sounds.
Your friends still assume that you can handle this. You’ll get through it. “You’re fine,” they say, and hang up. But something in their tone tells you that they think you’re being self-pitying and hysterical. So now you want to call them back and scream in the phone. You want to lie down on the ground and say, “I can’t do this. I can’t do anything. I’m done.”
And when you finally get mad and ask for help and no one comes? It almost feels like waking up on the moon. Why doesn’t anyone help? HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE?
So this is where you’ve landed: Nobody showed up. Nobody shows. Nobody gets it. Nobody.
The past becomes the present. Your family becomes everybody. Nobody shows. Nobody understands. Nobody cares. Nobody is there.
Once you recognize how utterly incapable of showing up your family is, it’s hard to keep the horror of that from warping your perception of everything else in the world. When your therapist says, “You need to look inward, for strength” you hear, “I can’t show up either, leave me alone.” When your friends say, “I don’t have time this week but maybe next week,” you hear, “Stop being so co-dependent and deal with your own shit.” When I write, “Being broken is beautiful,” you hear, “Stop being so melodramatic about your suffering and build your own private religion! Do it now! What’s taking you so long?!”
But no advice applies to every human being alive. I’m not some all-seeing judge. I’m just another sorry jackass muddling through, trying to do my best and failing half of the time. I don’t think you’re being melodramatic. I hear you. You’re telling me that you’re hurting and nobody shows. I’ve felt that way before, and I know how shitty it feels. Even though you’re blending together the past and the present, your family and your friends and me, it’s still accurate for where you are right now. Right now, it’s obvious that nobody is showing up the way you want them to.
You’ve hit the wall and another wall appeared and now you’re hitting that one, too. You’re tired of trying to move forward. You’re tired of trying to pretend that things are okay. You’re tired of sticky hands from a breakfast that makes you feel ill. You want the right to say THINGS ARE NOT OKAY. You want the right to admit that you’re not as good as you seem. You don’t want to be agreeable and well-behaved anymore.
I hit that wall, too. I stopped being a good, supportive daughter and an agreeable sister and a malleable friend. I just stopped. I stopped pretending that I was great. I made it clear that I was sad and angry and maybe that wouldn’t change. Maybe I would just be a grumpy dick or a weeping pile of bones forever.
But at first, I wasn’t at peace with disappointing people after a lifetime of dancing on tables to please them. So I was inconsistent: I’d stop trying and then I’d try way too hard. I was defensive and ashamed of my moods. I was angry a lot. I yelled. People told me to stop yelling. They wanted the A-student back. They didn’t take me seriously. My life was fine. I was being overdramatic. They were used to me handling things. My mom kept saying, “You’ll be fine. I don’t worry about you.” It felt like another way of saying, “I can’t worry about you. I won’t worry about you. I refuse.”
So I tried to be more direct with my friends. I would call them when I was very upset. My friends weren’t used to this. They didn’t really love it, in part because I’d always taught them to expect something very different from me: an independent, capable, not very touchy-feely person. I didn’t have friends who could stomach this kind of thing, out of the blue. It felt embarrassing to lean on them.
Sometimes leaning on people who you know are incapable of showing up can be a way of revisiting the rejection and abandonment you felt as a kid. At times, I wasn’t looking for comfort, I was looking for trouble. I wanted to prove that no one would ever show up for me, so I chose withholding friends and confronted them with my needs. That was a step in the right direction, though, because it forced me to look at the truth. I needed to admit that rejection and abandonment were the center of everything for me. I saw rejection everywhere.
When I admitted that, all of my complicated problems got very simple. The past was clear: I wanted love and it wasn’t there.
This is your past, in simple terms: Nobody showed. Your letter to me is a step in the right direction. You’re saying: This mess is not my fault. This is how I was raised.
I hear that you feel very lost and alone. Whatever you’ve been doing up to this point isn’t working for you anymore. That’s not some failure on your part. That’s actually a victory: It’s you noticing that conditions have changed. You need more than this. You should bring this up with your therapist. You have to put this on the table: I’ve hit a wall. Make sure she hears you when you say that.
There are times in your life when you hit the wall, and you can’t scale the wall like a hero. All you can do is keep going back to the wall. For the good student, the quick study, the people pleaser, it’s revolutionary to remain in an uncertain place. In therapy, you should keep going back to this: Nobody shows, and I find that unbearable.
There is nothing embarrassing about how alone you are. There’s nothing manipulative about asking for what you need. The more shame you feel about these things, the more you’ll tend to ask the wrong people for help. You have to find the people who can help, who want to help. They do exist.
Once I stopped asking my family to help, everything changed for the better. And eventually, I stopped asking the wrong friends to help me, too. Yes, it is very disappointing to admit other people’s enormous limitations. But it hurts a lot less once you recognize who can and can’t show up for you.
I also started to notice the things I did when I felt desperate, like sifting around online for reassurance. Doing weird Google searches. Looking for some kind of an ego fix. I started to unravel my ego needs from my emotional needs. But I had to hit the wall emotionally in order to untangle all of the ways I built rejection and abandonment into my everyday life (looking for approval from disapproving people, catering to narcissists, chasing disinterested bystanders, working on uninspiring projects I “should” complete just to feel like an A-student, going to emotionally stunted people for comfort, imagining what other people thought of me, etc.). And I had to hit the wall in order to accept my family for who they were, instead of living inside of a fantasy of who I wanted them to be.
The pain you’re feeling is the pain of recognizing that your family, very specifically, was not there for you. NOBODY SHOWED. The challenge is to recognize that NOBODY SHOWED is your past. It’s factual. NOBODY SHOWS, present tense, is your thing. It’s a reigning feeling, a projection, a broken belief system. That doesn’t mean you should just cast it off, though. The challenge is to look at your thing, own your thing, talk about your thing, and not treat your thing like it’s shitty and disgusting and uninteresting. Don’t pretend your thing doesn’t exist the second you feel stronger. Keep it around. Because the more you acknowledge it, the more you’ll notice how it presses on your life, and twists your perception, and drags you around.
Once you truly own your thing instead of keeping it hidden, you’ll see that some people do show. Some people can listen. Some people not only know that weakness is strong, but they love any opportunity to talk about frightening things. If you want to be one of those people, you have to stop treating yourself like you’re melodramatic and manipulative. You have to change the stories you tell about what it means to be alone and lonely.
Right now, you’re angry at everyone in the world for the crimes of a small few. Focus on the few. Focus on what made them so broken, that they couldn’t and can’t do much for you, that they refuse to see you.
Zoom in. Their crimes are real. Feel that. Their behavior is unfathomable. You will work to understand and accept them, sure. But right now? You want to linger on this. Repeat yourself. Insist. Advocate for your right to stay here. When you start to do that, I’m telling you, it’s like you’re not nearly as alone. Even though you think that your letter is embarrassing and scary and terrible, to me it looks like a new path for you. You’re asking for something very concrete. You want me to admit that NOBODY FUCKING SHOWS.
I hear you. Nobody shows.
Is this grace? Will someone come to save you now? What does it mean to be alive? What does it mean to be understood and seen? What is hunger? What does it mean to eat? What is good? Who is watching?
What if you get to decide for yourself? What if you’re in charge? What if, instead of either downplaying your pain or yelling and crying, you get into the habit of asking for exactly what you want? You’d be surprised at how much this can help. The more calm you are, the more precise you get in your requests, the more often you hear words like, “I can do this. I can help. I hear you. I am with you.”
See how you asked me for exactly what you wanted in your letter to me? See how precise you were? Use that as your guide.
Because you’re right. You do deserve better. You’re right that people need to be loved and supported to feel truly good. You’re right that the world can really fucking leave you. The most important thing to know is that it’s not your fault. It’s really, truly not your fault.
You’re too sad to stand. I know. The world can really fucking leave you. I know it can. I know how that feels. Don’t leave yourself. It’s not your fault.
Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?, here. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.
All letters to firstname.lastname@example.org become the property of Ask Polly and New York Media LLC and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.