ask polly

‘I Am Rich and Worthless’

Photo: Mohamed FOURALI / 500px/Getty Images/500px

Dear Polly,

I am an emotionally and financially abusive person. Or at the very least, I think I am. And those thoughts are getting worse.

I am 26 years old and living with my parents, near broke (according to my bank statement), and a lazy sack of shit. Or again, so I feel. Most of what I have in my life is provided for and paid for by my parents. I work for my father. I can’t help but feel I have been deeply enabled, but that is because I am deeply incapable. Of everything and anything, really.

If you met me, you might feel a different way. You’d probably hate me, or you’d really like me at first … and then you’d figure me out. You’d find out I was toxic and broken. A liar. (Which, yes, I am, admittedly, and I hate this.) An addict. (Probably? I’m not sure.) A general loser, codependent.

I have been given everything in life, every advantage on earth, and I still cannot make it work. I chronically attract negative people, even at my best and brightest. I am catnip for predators. Even at my least vulnerable, my most assertive. Or my most vulnerable and least assertive. Doesn’t matter.

I attract a type, and I can always feel myself being manipulated. I am hypervisible at all the wrong moments. I am told, more often than not, that this is because I am extremely beautiful, that I come across as extremely intelligent, witty, and charismatic. (I mean, I occasionally like myself after a couple of drinks but then hate myself in the morning.) And that those qualities, paired with my deep privilege to boot, ensure that people are always going to be noticing, watching, and expecting something from me. Essentially, I am always going to be treated as less-than, or given less-than, under the notion that I already have enough.

Just existing is a waste of my potential, a clear sign of laziness, or mental instability. I should be famous. I should be stellar. I should be successful. Just being me isn’t enough. I am not fucking with you. I have been told this shit in multiple therapists’ offices and dorm rooms alike. I’m too unique, and my appearance doesn’t match my personality or style. So I have to be understanding because people react or project. Women in particular, I am told, are always going to be one way to my face and another way behind my back. They will both pity me and envy me because of my nature. (Seriously. This is all actual shit a therapist told me in her office. What the wild hell?)

I believed all of this for a long time, and it willed me to self-destructive behavior. I was an awful person, and I hung out with awful people. I felt like I had to, because that’s all I deserved. I just felt like, if I am going to be chronically undermined, and considered the worst no matter what, I might as well live up to my own reputation. I let the beliefs lead me into a self-taught narcissism that railroaded my life and my relationship with my family.

Then I had a mental breakdown, and everything changed. I got on new medication. I got a new therapist, who taught me genuinely constructive behavioral techniques, and I slowly waded my way out of narcissism and into humanity. Or so I thought. Right now, I am back to where I was years ago. Just as narcissistic. Just as self-destructive. Just as batshit crazy.

It all started with my former best friend stealing my medication. I have a highly prized substance at my disposal, and she took the entire thing. Then she pretended like nothing happened and it was my fault for leaving it in the car. Addiction destroys your character, yes, but I’m not even sure she took it as an addict. She just took it because she could. And she wanted me to know that she took it.

She was angry that I confronted her about it. I know I’m not entitled to a perfect life or a perfect best friend. But this triggered the past: I couldn’t be angry at her. She should be allowed to take what she wanted from me. Anyone should. I had more, so I had to give it all away.

I was in therapy so I was able to work through the insanity of my thought process. But the experience set off an onslaught of memories, revaluations, and realizations that made my heart twist and my body sink back into old behavior: It made me realize that my roommate had indeed assaulted me, brutally, in college, and I had not just “fallen off my bed” when I was blackout drunk. Which caused a million bruises on my face and body. It made me realize that my nickname in college was cruel, and no one told me. I found out about “Crazy (Insert My Name Here)” via an accidental text my junior year.

No one from that time was really my friend at all. And my sister had been quite cruel to me for the past few years, exploiting my personal life for her gain. And my family also saw me as less than, which is why they didn’t kick me out of the house or give up on me. Yes, they loved me, but they also thought I would never be capable of anything on my own.

This idea that I’m incapable and I deserve nothing has been imposed upon me as a means of validating other people’s behavior. As means to cover up abuses deep in my childhood that my family didn’t want to deal with and that I’m still not ready to talk about. Facing these truths became too much to bear. I am weak, fragile, and incapable of the greatness required to overcome them. I know my family loves me, and that they do want what is best for me, regardless of their dim view of my abilities and their inability to recognize what happened to me when I was little.

But I’ve become self-destructive. I’ve been blowing all my money. Showing up to work late or not at all. Going on benders. Avoiding house chores. Watching TV. I don’t want to be this way, but the thought of going back to stability, working hard, and having to see the true light of how I am treated is almost too much to bear. Because I do not have some wildly great talent lurking underneath (that I know of), though I am constantly told that I do. And I am never invited out, but told how much I am liked. And I am never wanted, but told how much I am loved. Once I go back to stability, I will have to see what all of that means. And not validate it anymore.

I should mention that I’m not suicidal. I’m just looking for a reason to do the work. A reason to believe I’m not that important, that I have no effect on the world, and more importantly, that I can just be okay. As is.

Addicted to Villainy

Dear ATV,

No matter what your privileges or disadvantages, no matter how beautiful or ugly or big or small or anxious or relaxed you are, you have a right to be whoever you want to be. You went through some hideous things as a child, and now a lot of people want to tell you that, because you have so many advantages, because you are coddled, because you’re beautiful, because you’re smart, you have to be a saint. Somehow you can’t have needs of your own. You can’t expect anything from anyone else. You have to be grateful for everything you have, for your family that takes care of you but keeps you in a state of learned helplessness, for your friends who are envious and cruel but still want you in their lives for mysterious reasons.

Your so-called villainy is merely acting out, the kind of acting out you’d expect from a teenager who can suddenly recognize her flaws, her parents’ flaws, and the world’s flaws. She recognizes her problems, but she still has no real choices. I’m not demeaning you. I’m saying it’s natural to lash out in every direction when you feel like you have no other options, when you feel like you’re limited to one predetermined path, when you feel like you can’t escape the hell of other people’s perceptions. Even when you’re doing your very best, you’re perceived as doing the bare minimum, almost failing. So now you’re failing spectacularly, on purpose.

You need to wake up and live a real life. You’re like the Velveteen Rabbit: You don’t want to be coddled and imaginary and safe anymore. You want to be real.

But right now, there aren’t many consequences to anything you do. It sounds like no one in your family confronts you, and they’ll never kick you out of the house because, as you said, they don’t think you can survive on your own.

So it’s time for you to survive on your own. Because if you stay in your current situation, in your little veal pen, fed and warm but not really seen or heard, you’ll continue to live inside your current ego prison, where you’re controlled and defined by other people’s perceptions of you. Your landscape is featureless. You keep asking people what they think of you, what you mean to them. You keep feeling misunderstood and manipulated and hated. People seem to tell you what you want to hear and then turn on you without warning.

And do you tell anyone the truth? Do you show up and admit what you’re feeling? Do you enter into relationships that feel real to you, and show other people respect, and listen to their problems and support them? Or do you get bored easily?

The problem with living inside an ego prison is that everything is boring: You’re boring, your cell is boring, everyone you view through the bars of your cell is boring. You don’t know how to connect. You don’t trust anyone. And you don’t trust yourself, because you’re sure that you can’t survive on your own. That belief may have started with your family, but it lives inside of you now.

It’s time to escape that prison and live on your own terms. You need to learn to work very hard just to get by. You need to start a new life and become responsible for your own survival.

Having nothing to fight for is a special kind of hell. At first you fought for other people’s approval, and you sometimes won it. But now you can see clearly that that game is rigged against you. Your advantages are a liability; people have trouble liking you and loving you and accepting you as you are. I know that you’re a little paranoid in your current state — it’s impossible to feel desperate, I think, without being a tiny bit paranoid. But I trust your perception. I’ve seen other people being treated the way you’ve described. Beautiful women are sometimes treated very badly, and I don’t think I was always so fair to them in the past because I thought it was hilarious and absurd to lament your beauty (or your wealth). But I’ve often seen how twisted and stunted women can become when they constantly get attention that they don’t want or trust, from people who are doing cold math instead of loving them for exactly who they are. These experiences hollow out your understanding of yourself. You can’t see what you’re worth, so you scan other people’s faces for some sign of your value instead.

There are things you don’t see clearly until you get old enough that some of your ego gets out of the way. I think you need something to fight for, for you and you alone, something that means nothing to your family, maybe, something that only matters to you. I think you need to cast off a lot of what you have and what you’ve depended on for your whole life, and you need to rediscover what you could become in a vacuum. You seem to know this, too. You say you want a reason to do the work. You say you want to know that you can just be okay, by which I think you mean that you just want to be another regular human being in the world.

So move out. Stop working for your dad, don’t drink or smoke or use drugs, take your prescribed pharmaceuticals like clockwork (unless they’re actually sedatives or something else that makes you dopey), get exercise every single day, move into your own place, get a job somewhere, accept a paltry paycheck, and maybe do something odd with your hair or clothes. Be an outward freak who reflects the freak you are on the inside. Write down everything in your spare time. Make simple connections with people. Savor the awkwardness of these connections. Learn to tune out how you’re being assessed and, instead, do some assessing: Is this person pure of heart? What does this person care about? What does this person believe in?

Find people who believe in something. Believe in those people as much as you can. Prepare to be disappointed again, occasionally. It happens. Prepare to feel inferior. This is inescapable. Prepare to fall in love with ordinary people. Prepare to become ordinary. It feels better than you might think.

My personal belief — and you can take this with a grain of salt if you like — is that you’re an artist. That’s your temperament. I don’t give a fuck about your talent, and neither should you. No one has ever written me a letter as long and as strange as yours before. (Readers: It was like an epic poem that I changed into paragraphs because it was too long and difficult to read otherwise.) I’ve received maybe 22,000 letters, probably more, in the six years I’ve been doing this. I’ve never received a letter quite like yours.

You might believe that your writing is a mess, but it’s actually very clear. You see all of the contradictions and absurdity in what you’re experiencing. You might be afraid of the truth right now, but you’re also obsessed with the truth. That’s part of what makes people dislike you: They’re afraid of your intensity. But fuck them. The truth is your thing. Stay intense and celebrate that.

That said, it’s time for you to turn away from THE TRUTH ABOUT YOURSELF and train your eyes on THE TRUTH ABOUT THE WORLD. Crawl outside of your prison and watch other people and take notes. They want things, too. They’re more interesting than you think they are. And they’re more broken than you think they are, too.

I don’t care what you create. You were meant to create something. And you have the ability to do it. Talent is a story we tell ourselves. You don’t know what you’ll be good at until you work very hard for a long time. You find your purpose and a path by blindly doing what you can for years, paying attention to what you enjoy, surviving, and keeping your heart open. Work creates more work, and ideally, the work becomes more satisfying as the years go by.

You’re bored because you don’t know how to work. It’s very hard to thrive when you don’t understand how to work or how hard work (that you choose for yourself) can function in your life or what purpose it serves. It doesn’t reflect that well on your parents that they haven’t taught you a thing about work, possibly because, like many hard-working people who built something, they’re controlling and would rather keep you as a safe pet than push you to grow on your own in a scary world they can only remember from the days before they were swimming in cash.

But lots of people forget about how important work is. Work is crucial. Work gives a day some shape. When you start to do work that you value (and you learn how to savor the work itself in addition to savoring the Being Done With Work), joy becomes possible. The world lights up. You understand that survival itself is worth celebrating, and that it brings with it all kinds of incandescent gifts.

One of the side effects of past abuse is that you start to feel like you aren’t allowed to have any meaning in your life that’s internally created. When you’re a child, you naturally express your own meanings, your own bursts of joy. And other people have a way of snatching those meanings out of your hands and telling you to STOP. Abuse does this swiftly and efficiently: You are a vessel. You are something we use up and throw away. You might feel cherished, but it’s an illusion. You are easily erased. We tell you that you’re special, and we tell you, later, that you are nothing at all.

This past treatment opens you up to new abusers. It’s natural that nothing holds weight, nothing has flavor or color. You were erased. You weren’t allowed to have your own meaning or emotion. You were cared for the way a fish in a tank is cared for: Stay there. Be what we think you are. Do not transcend our understanding of you. But beyond that, practically speaking, your existence doesn’t have boundaries to it. Watching TV and working at your dad’s company and interacting with your family doesn’t do anything for you right now. You don’t enjoy your leisure time. You don’t gain meaning from your job — again, you’re just coloring within the lines, meeting the bare-minimum requirements. You are safe and sleepwalking.

But once you do real work, in the real world, you’ll feel what it means to be alive.

It will be hard. You’ll be afraid to try. You’ll consider yourself a failure when you read this, because you’ll say to yourself NO WAY AM I EVER DOING THESE THINGS, NO ONE WHO’S SANE WOULD LEAVE ALL THE THINGS I HAVE BEHIND. But trust me, I’ve watched people propped up by their parents tread water for decades. It’s no way to live. Somehow, they always saw themselves the way their parents saw them. If their parents thought they were helpless and lazy and silly, that’s how they defined themselves. They were always addressing this assumption about them, even when it wasn’t coming from the outside world.

Considering how tired you are of other people’s assumptions about you, I’m sure you’ll find a lot of misperceptions and unfair judgments in between the lines of this letter. You might use these are rationalizations for not trusting my advice. When I was younger and living in my own prison of other people’s perceptions, I would’ve reacted the same way. I wanted other people to magically understand me and accept the purity of my intentions. But the way I presented myself and what I wanted didn’t come across as pure-hearted, because I was a mess. In spite of my big heart, I still had enormous ego needs, and I still struggled to show my true self. I didn’t really want to be seen clearly. I wanted to entertain and beguile. I wanted other people to buy my story, and ignore what they saw with their own eyes. I expected people to trust me, even as I craved attention and cracked mean jokes and made myself big and made myself small. I was a contortionist who wanted to be encountered as a lovable kitten. I was a lovable kitten who wanted to win and keep winning from my fantastical magic shows.

I expected a lot, too much and not enough. I wanted to be wanted and admired. I wanted to be treated as precious and treated like nothing. I wanted to be distant and I wanted to be very close. I wanted you to help me and I wanted you to fuck off.

Like you, I look back now and I think, “No one really liked me.” But some people did. I didn’t value the people who loved me. I overvalued the people who withheld their love, who weren’t sure, who preferred to judge me, who saw that there was something messed up about me.

But mostly, when I look back now, what I think is, “Who cares?” Why did it matter so much what other people thought? Even when I said “I don’t care what other people think,” I really meant that it was fine to be hated, as long as I wasn’t ignored. My concept of myself was a collection of hints and clues and feedback. I had no steady identity, but I wasn’t even aware of that. My life was a series of confusing events that didn’t add up.

WHY DIDN’T I SERVE MYSELF? Why didn’t I ask myself “Do you want this?” Why didn’t I follow my instincts more? I wrote music, but I was worried no one would like it, so I never played it for anyone. I wrote poetry, and then a teacher told me my poems needed work, and all I heard was that I wasn’t good enough, so I gave up. I was used to being erased.

It’s time for you to stop deciding that you’re not good enough. This is an echo of the abuse you’ve experienced. Stop deciding that everyone dislikes you. This is you disliking yourself. I understand that many people are envious and cruel and hostile to you. All you have to do is pay close attention (as you’ve been doing), and instead of just using what you see AS A WEAPON AGAINST YOURSELF, use what you see AS A GUIDE BEYOND THE BAD PEOPLE, TOWARD THE GOOD PEOPLE.

And also? Use what you see in your art. Because you’re already an artist. The hard part is over, but the good hard part has just begun. This struggle will feel satisfying, because you’re constructing your new life all by yourself.

What is a weirdo? What is an artist? What does it mean to say no to everything around you and build your own life? What would you look like if you were doing these things?

Yes, of course you can fall back on your family money. Yes, of course you’ll still notice that people dislike you for what you have. We are all disliked for reasons that are beyond our control (trust me on this!), and we all have our crutches and weaknesses and escape hatches. The trick is to move past that shit instead of fixating on it. Use what works for you, discard what doesn’t work. Luckily, you’re already someone who has a fluid sense of the world. You’re already creating your own perceptions. Pay attention to how good you are at these things, already. These aren’t talents — concrete, measurable. They’re gifts. Everyone has gifts. The trick is to encounter and honor them as divine, because they are divine. They are just your little things, sure, but they’re what make you the freak that you are. Being a freak is divine. Nothing is more divine than freakishness. It’s what separates you. It’s what defines you. It throws more obstacles in your path, sure, but crawling over them makes you stronger.

You already know how to ask big questions. Answer some big questions for yourself: What is beauty? Who on the face of this planet is worthwhile? What change could you make to the way things are now on earth? Why are you so committed to this story that you’re powerless? Who wants you to stay small, secretly, even as they tell you that you need to get up and DO SOMETHING? Who wants you to stay in the shadows of what they’ve already accomplished?

Who do you trust? Who do you love?

You’re not a villain. I don’t know you, and maybe I wouldn’t like you at all. I’m just a person who feels what she feels. So are you. You are already just a person. Walk out the door and be who you are. Soak in the uneven, unexceptional folds of this moment. Walk outside and feel the chill of the air. Feel that rush of sadness. What does it say? Does it tell you that you’re disgusting? Be disgusting then. Does it tell you that you’re alive, wide awake, capable of so much, capable of nothing?

Make room for that. It’s time to tell the truth. Look at your letter. You’re already in love with the truth. It’s time to manifest that love. It’s time you learned how to survive.

I am sending you my love. You reminded me where I’ve been, how far I’ve come, how close I came to being erased. I want you to know that you’ll find joy. You will. It’s closer than you think.


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

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‘I Am Rich and Worthless’