I’m 25 years old and have admittedly done a very weird job of guiding my life thus far. I’m working part time, living at home (which I’ve never left), and I’ve been dropped out of university for a year now after six years of trying different majors and either finding the fit wrong or failing to really succeed in a program because it’s difficult in a way I’m not prepared to cope with.
This is not about that, or maybe it is. I have felt stuck for years now, and I’m talking to a therapist again, but it feels like as the disorders and diagnoses have piled up, meds continue to fail, and as I find, with running across threads on social media, that there might be Even More Brain Drama going on (am I on the spectrum? Does it matter?) that I just don’t actually have a will to deal with any of it. I have worked to escape thinking for ages, through hobbies, through friends I meet through those hobbies, but most of this puts goals I have creatively on indefinite hold and, in the meantime, angers my parents, who see nothing happen and assume, in recent words, that I’m planning to die young, diabetic (runs in my family; I am pretty inactive, and heavier by a decent margin than I was in high school, but otherwise have a clean bill of health as of last week), and feeling sorry for myself.
Incidentally, my parents are of mixed levels of dedicated to Protestant Christianity, and are either (a) uncomfortable with my sexuality or (b) refuse to consider my gender identity valid or (c) both. I’m trapped, not quite trans (which would destroy my entire family unit) but not comfortable in my skin, and with no steps I can take towards what I feel is better “in their house,” which is a direct quote. I have been called selfish for wanting to use a different name, and hurtful, and the words have haunted me for months. They say they love me and want my success, and it’s not that I don’t believe them, but I do know that they are almost guaranteed to never accept this part of an identity that I was belated on finding in myself, anyways, and so can be called into question that way, I guess?
I have dreams, mainly of working the job that the graphic-design program I didn’t get into was supposed to get me, or of somehow writing for a living, but I have no idea anymore how to approach them. I feel in a constant backslide towards nothing. I sleep too much and sporadically, spend too much time mindlessly scrolling Twitter, and I don’t have plans or even much hope anymore. I try to meet friends for things, and I talk frequently with the ones I can’t meet in person, but I am increasingly bitter with my family, even and especially when they decide I’m spending too much time alone and want me to do something I don’t enjoy in company I don’t like.
It feels like there’s no way out. I don’t have the money to move, the skills for the job I want. I know everyone is broken in different ways, but I feel irredeemable. I was told I was talented and smart and creative as a child, but any advantage I had from that is long irrelevant. I’m lazy, or so paralyzed by perfectionism and executive dysfunction and fear that I might as well be, and I can’t pursue anything for fear of failure and fear of success. Is there a way out? Is there some stupid or simple thing I’m not seeing? Am I just making a ton of excuses over and over and letting myself spiral? I have thought many times over and over that I have almost had it, that this semester or this entry-level job would be it, almost out of the fray, and have been wrong every time, tripped up by my own shortcomings and failures. I’m told I “light up” talking about things I enjoy, but I don’t have the skills to pursue any of them professionally. Writing this is exhausting emotionally, but in a familiar way that has left me too drained to try out of it for at least as long as I’ve been in and out of therapy and psych offices (six years now). What’s even left?
You don’t have skills yet because you’re 25 years old. You don’t know what’s worth living for because you’re 25 years old. You’re backsliding because you’re surrounded by supportive-seeming unsupportive people and you’re 25 years old and it sounds like you’ve never lived anywhere but your childhood home.
When I was 25 years old, I was living for the dream of falling in love. I was living for the dream of getting drunk again. I was living for the dream of being hot and special and perfect. It wasn’t enough. I hated my job. I was prone to backsliding.
I had three things that you don’t have: (1) a place to live away from my parents, (2) a job I disliked that was very slow and quiet in a home office run by someone who didn’t want to interact with me that much (thank Jesus!), and (3) a belief that I would find a way forward and I would be loved and I would build a life for myself, somehow, some way, and it would all be worth it.
If I had moved back into my mom’s house, that belief would’ve crumbled immediately. If I had taken any comments from my parents implying that I was selfish or lazy personally, I would’ve become much, much more depressed. (I didn’t take them personally for a range of reasons having to do with my parents’ history of saying and doing wild shit when I was a kid; believe me, I’m not blaming you for caring what your parents think!) If my either of my parents had invited me to live with them and then held forth on how I should be living my life, that would’ve fucked me up, big time. And even when I felt shitty back then, I always relied on writing and exercise to pull me out of a deep, dark hole. I would run and cry. I would write and cry. I would wait for the bad feelings to lift. When they didn’t lift, I would write some more. But even all of that writing and exercising and waiting might not have helped my depression if it were severe. And if I were living at home, I feel certain that my depression would’ve become severe, because my childhood home had a lot of anxious and dark associations for me back then that were hard to examine or attack or even address. Even without negative parental commentary, that setting felt tragic to me for decades after I moved out. It doesn’t feel tragic at all now, but then? It was like a sticky tar pit that slowly engulfed me and hardened around me and robbed me of my joy.
None of these differences between us at the age of 25 are my fault or your fault. I wasn’t some hero who determinedly dug myself out of hell, and you aren’t some sad sack who can’t dig hard or fast enough. More differences: I didn’t struggle with gender-identity questions. More differences: So many differences! As many as the stars in the sky, several so indistinct to the naked eye that we can never know what they are, but they hold the answers to why you are here, in this very sad place, feeling terrible, feeling sick and sad and sorry, at such a young age that it’s just not fair.
It’s just not fair. You’re already seeing mental-health professionals so I’m not going to hold forth here on depression or how to treat it clinically. I’m glad you’re in therapy (don’t quit therapy!), and I have to trust that you’re being cared for appropriately. I just want you to know that it’s not fair. It’s not fair that you are where you are, under the care of parents who don’t understand enough. It’s not fair that you’ve worked so hard at school but nothing feels like it adds up. I’m just so sorry about how shitty you feel. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. No one should have to feel this bad about their life at your age. No one. And that sucks so much. Please just keep connecting with your trusted friends as much as you can. Be vulnerable and tell them the truth. Connection itself is important. Put your faith in it, even when you can’t feel it.
And say this to yourself, every single day, in the face of all evidence to the contrary: You can be whatever the fuck you want to be. That’s what it is to be a human animal. You get to choose for yourself. If you were my kid, I would tell you that: Be what you want. Use any name you want. Do what you want.
But I wouldn’t be the perfect parent to you, either! I would probably spout all kinds of terrible ill-informed ideas about what you might be. “Are you this? Are you that? Let’s talk about it!” I would use words that you would take personally and then I would urge you to trust yourself, to avoid taking my words personally, to ignore my words entirely because I just love you and I talk too much. I say that to my kids a lot, when they say something that kicks up some ideas inside my head, and words start spilling out of my giant mouth. There wasn’t enough talk about difficult situations and so-called negative emotions in my house as a kid, so I’m overcompensating now, sloppily. It’s very annoying to everyone involved.
That’s humbling. But what I say to my kids is this: I am a human animal. Just like you are. I get to choose to say too much, to make mistakes, to stick my foot in my big mouth. I want to be more careful, sometimes, but mostly I want to make sure that my kids don’t treat every single word out of my very inadequate talky mouth as some DIVINE JUDGMENT ON THEM.
So I add more words on the pile, to demonstrate that words can become cheaper and cheaper. I flood the market with words, to show that only your own words matter. You are the decider!
My kids, like most kids, like to read into all of my words. When I say, “Daughter No. 1 is good at X,” Daughter No. 2 says, “ARE YOU SAYING I’M BAD AT X?”
“I’m not talking about you! I’m talking about Daughter No. 1, dude!” I say with a laugh. But Daughter No. 2 is sure that I’ve just cast aspersions on her. So then we talk. She talks, I talk. I say more wrong things, because I care so much about her and it hurts a lot, how much I care. I feel inadequate. I sometimes care so much that I have step waaaaay back and shut up so I don’t get overwhelmed by how much I care.
Am I a good parent? Jesus, it’s upsetting to even consider that question. All I can tell you is that I’m doing the best I can with the tools that I have at my disposal, which are rusty and misshapen words, blunt words, whimsical words, flimsy words, and also all of my weird tangled belief systems, which are extremely disorganized and come tumbling out looking messy and conflicted and incongruous, just like they do in this column. I hate organizing shit. But I am doing my best anyway. I put in the time and the love and I show up. I am a human animal.
There are still times when I cannot rely on my best philosophies, because my body and brain become freakish and angry and septic. That’s when I have to exercise and work hard instead of thinking or saying words. I pry open my stubborn heart. I accept the humbling that comes to me, day after day. My humbling also comes in the form of my inconsistent nature. I love something one day and I hate it the next day. (Maybe you can relate to that!) I turn on every single one of my new initiatives immediately. But I don’t change my path, even when my heart and mind turn against my latest plan. I keep working. I stay the course. I do not backslide, because I know that backsliding makes me feel terrible. I know this from decades of experience! Instead, I accept that I am inconsistent and conflicted and therefore love and hate every goddamn thing in the world. I accept that I was designed to be humbled repeatedly. Humbling keeps me from becoming rigid. I am a grandiose but humble animal!
I also walk a lot. Yesterday I walked 10 miles. I walked my dogs and I walk at my treadmill desk. “Who walks that much?” you might ask. “What kind of a fucking animal needs that much walking?” I do. Walking too much is my baseline now. I sometimes start to believe that I’m a very happy person naturally, and then I stop walking constantly and I’m a miserable asshole again.
So, you said the word diabetic and now I’m going to lecture you about exercise? No. The second someone tells me they live with their parents and they feel like shit but they can’t take any initiative, I start thinking about walking. You asked if there was something simple and stupid that you’re not seeing? Walking is the simplest and stupidest thing in the world, particularly for someone sitting in a dark bedroom owned by someone else. You must get out and see the sun. You must feel your legs underneath you. Walking will refamiliarize you with what is good about being alive.
And while you walk, you will think about what it will take for you to like yourself again. You will notice how you talk to yourself in a harsh tone, every minute of every day. You’ll consider how you might treat yourself with more care, and push away these mean words you use. You will imagine treating yourself like a precious child, even though you haven’t been treated like a precious child before. You will try something new, in other words.
Even though I am, by nature, a conflicted and miserable asshole, I have learned to like myself. It took me so long to get here! And if you met me at age 25, you would think I was truly fucked. All of this shit you’re in right now is NO INDICATION of what comes next. I’m not kidding. Resist the urge to see yourself as doomed and look directly at the obvious: You need to get out of that house.
Because your parents hate themselves a little bit. This is true for most people, mind you, but it is more true for your parents than most. People who call their kids selfish and lazy and also refuse to respect their truest desires (yours around changing your name, for example) are battling a lot of shame and self-hatred. To treat another human as if that human belongs to you, like a pet that you named, like a pet that can’t freely change its own name as needed, is really an act of deep denial and rage. If your child is a pet or a belonging who doesn’t have free will and doesn’t get to make its own choices, just imagine how trapped YOU must feel! Imagine all of the things that YOU YOURSELF aren’t allowed to do, because in your mind, you are someone else’s pet! God’s pet, maybe! Your husband’s pet! Your wife’s pet!
There are a lot of self-hating pets out there with no free will, in other words. They strain against their leashes and they don’t know why. And do you know what pets on a leash hate the most in the whole world? OFF-LEASH PETS!
When my dog Potus spotted an off-leash dog, she would react as if she were witnessing a deep injustice in the world. HAVE YOU NO DECENCY?! She seemed to say, as she leapt in circles and barked and growled and pawed at the window. PETS BELONG ON LEASHES, her snarling told the foul off-leash offenders.
But Potus also felt that she was the queen of the dog world, true to her name. If a dog did not supplicate immediately (which she enjoyed so much, she really savored groveling) she would become deeply insulted. She was always prepared to casually assassinate a non-pandering dog. She looked forward to the opportunity to teach these inadequate dogs a very bloody lesson indeed!
I’d never known a dog like that before. A few times, we were chased down the street by territorial off-leash dogs, because Potus loved to cast a queenly stare upon her inferiors, even when she was on a leash, miles away from home. Once, after I ran away screaming “GET YOUR FUCKING DOG!” (Bad parenting alert!) and then the off-leash dog caught up to my two on-leash dogs and they fought (Potus with great zest, and my other dog, Bean, fearfully and coweringly), and then the dog owner finally retrieved his dog, Potus acted like she’d just walked into her own surprise birthday party. Bean was all sad and scared on the way home, with her tail between her legs, but Potus had a bounce in her step. She had an actual smile on her face. “This has been a damn good day,” she seemed to say, as the cuts on her ears bled into the street.
Potus enjoyed enforcing what she saw as the natural order of things: Pets on leashes, good. Pets off leashes, bad. It was satisfying, knowing the difference between right and wrong. It felt good to be right, and to enforce the rules.
Right now, you are an off-leash pet. You scare and threaten your on-leash parents. When your parents avoid you or clam up around you, that’s them running away and yelling “GET YOUR FUCKING DOG!” And when they can’t take it anymore? They turn and rip you to shreds. The more wildly off leash you seem, the more they’re destined to attack you.
And they think this is a good thing to do. They think they’re righteous in their efforts to keep you, their pet, on a leash. They are on leashes, after all. They might behave as if they’re on their idea of God’s leash. Or each other’s leashes. Leashes of self-control, of rigidity, of self-censorship, of faith, of denial, of fear. Countless leashes, as many leashes as there are stars in the sky, many of them naked to the human eye.
I want you to know that your parents do love you. They are just very afraid of you, and afraid of the world outside, too. In daring to speak words like “I might want to change my name,” you are threatening to rip off your leash and come tearing down the street after them. Everything they ever did will now be erased, as far as they’re concerned.
The concerns of leashed pets! Christ almighty. It’s hard to sustain empathy for them, even as a fellow parent. They are doing you a disservice. But the disservice is not necessarily in their words. They have to tell you the truth about how they feel, right? The problem there is that they aren’t saying enough words. They aren’t saying, “This name thing, I don’t know, for some reason it makes me feel so sad. I’m sorry! I want to give you this! I want you to be happy! I’m so worried about you!” They aren’t saying those words because they can’t take their damn leashes off. So instead they paint you a picture of your worst-case scenario: you with diabetes, dying young.
God, they’re stupid and angry, but mostly? So stupid. They’re serving you their fears on a platter, and watching you eat them. Their vision for you is made out of fear. I shudder to think of how many bad stories about your future you’ve heard up until now. It is chilling to imagine what other stupid shit they’ve said to you, that now guides your circling thoughts. This is how the tar pit is formed.
I will say this: I do have empathy for their fears. I know that their fears spring out of their love, even if they are very stupid with their words. I know that I don’t always trust the world outside to tell my own kids exactly how they should be. This has nothing to do with gender, specifically. It has everything to do with literally everything. Our culture is so broken and so wound up in leashes that we are a fucking country of S&M-loving motherfuckers. Look at my language! There are many, many leashes laid bare in my constant swearing! I am such a former Catholic, bound up in leather straps, in a dungeon. How could you ever trust me for a second?
I don’t expect you to. The truth is that you can only trust yourself. Trust yourself the way I trust myself. I like to swear, so I swear. It makes me feel free. I know it doesn’t always sound right. What can I do? This is me, off my leash. This is me, an animal roaming free in the world, snarling, barking, enraged, and also very happy. And free.
I want to help you break free. I think the first step is to see your leashed-pet parents, and hear the words that they aren’t saying. You aren’t really selfish. That’s how leashed pets talk about pets that are off leash. You aren’t really lazy. That’s how pets that are rigid and can’t crawl out from under their tangled pile of leashes, their tight kennels, their tedious bowls of kibble, talk about pets that maybe want to roam free in the scrabbly hills, killing and eating squirrels instead of dutifully licking hands and crunching powdery nuggets.
I appreciated my violent queen of a dog, Potus, who died last year at the ripe old age of 14. She was a massive inconvenience to me. I made some mistakes along the way. But I respected her essential nature. I had to, you know, keep her on a literal leash, because she was my literal pet and she would have very much enjoyed fighting another queenly, violence-loving dog to the death if given the chance. But I appreciated her sense of humor about homicide. She was one of a fucking kind.
That’s the kind of love I treat myself to, too, as a largely inadequate parent. I am not so great at many things. There is probably a right answer to some of my big parenting questions, a right answer that I don’t want to know because I’m arrogant and I distrust our shitty culture. Distrusting our shitty culture is something that makes me happy and makes me thrive. I want to trust my instincts and also give my kids the same gift of distrusting our shitty culture.
But I mess up. I try to cover up bad words with better words, but words don’t erase words. I try to stay open and also trust my instincts. I try to listen to words from my kids that are clearly filtered through things some gaggle of idiots they bumped into at school or online said to them, and I try to pretend that those things came from my kids’ interesting brains and not the brains of some leashed mutants surrounded by other leashed mutants, snarling and barking at each other all day long. But sometimes? I am condescending instead. I point out that the world is run by idiots. I am the inverse of your leashed parents in that way. I make the world look wild and scary and untamed. I make roaming free look brutal. I talk about biting live squirrels in the neck in soft, soothing, happy tones, and then wonder why my kids look at me like I’m Ozzy fucking Osbourne.
I would be a better parent to you in some ways, because I say change your name right now and be exactly who you want to be. But maybe what I really mean is: For now, change your name inside of your heart. Explore who you are and learn to love that person, no matter what. But also? Get out of your room. Get out of that house entirely. Get a full-time job that you don’t like if that’s what it takes. Lose the leash. Find out what you want to be without hearing the words of people YOU DEFINITELY NEVER WANT TO BECOME echoing through your head. Maybe you’ll learn to love your leash-loving parents from a safe distance. Maybe they deserve your compassion, as fucked and as angry as they are.
But you won’t know that for yourself until you hear and feel and taste these words: Rage is fragility. Your parents are ashamed of themselves in ways they can’t acknowledge and probably never will. To them, you manifest their shame. You are their shame and their fragility, made whole. Think of my dog Potus, snarling and barking out the window at off-leash dogs. Those dogs told her that she was not the queen, not really. Those dogs forced her to consider the possibility that she might be killed by THE REAL QUEEN. That’s how high the stakes are for your parents. You are the off-leash dogs that mean that they are a joke. You play on their fears. You disrupt their balance. You tilt the vertical and the horizontal on their already-buzzing, blurry, black-and-white feed on the world. They are too rigid to walk out into the bright daylight and see the world in full color.
Most people are. That is the sad truth. But you? You are different. You are flexible. Do you feel the truth in my words? You are meant for great things. Everything scary and backslide-y and stuck about you right now is PROOF, to me, that you’re the kind of person who interrogates their circumstances and wants a REAL ANSWER, A REAL PATH, A REAL LIFE. Don’t mistake your high standards and your passion for weaknesses. These are strengths.
Your parents don’t have what you have: the vision, the range, the strength, the flexibility, none of it. That doesn’t mean that your parents are more deserving of compassion than you are right now. They are fragile enough not to see your fragility clearly, not to treat you with care, not to respect your needs, not to listen when you say, “I need a new name,” not to hear you when you say, “I am not being selfish,” not to feel you when you say, “All I need is your love. Let me be who I am. Let me figure out who I am. Give me faith that I can do anything to change my circumstances. Give me hope of connecting by TAKING ME AS I AM. I cannot show up for events I dislike with people I dislike until you show up for me. I cannot move my body until you move for me. I cannot hear you speak until you hear me.”
Your parents are too trapped to rise to that challenge. Leave them barking. Walk out the door. Roam free. If you can’t do it today, build a sanctuary in your room, in your heart, and live there, knowing that this world loves you and that love blazes straight through the walls of your parents’ cold house. FEEL IT. Stop blaming yourself for being unable to thrive in the kennel your parents made for you. That is not selfish. Leave that house for as long as you can each day, until you can leave for good. Do whatever you can to simply get out, anywhere else, in the fresh air. Your job is to find your way back to enjoying who you are. You are bigger than your circumstances. Trust me on that.
Your depression is not your fault. Keep listening to your therapist and talking to your friends and trusting in connection. You will be loved, loved, loved and loved some more, in due time. You are beautiful and very, very young and full of light and your life is just beginning. Backsliding is just what you do at age 25. Everyone does it, over and over again. You are generous and open-hearted and you feel your parents’ words, every word, so painfully, so completely. You’re incredibly sensitive, and that’s a nice quality. But today, it’s time to stop feeling their words and feel your own. It’s time to stop trusting them and trust yourself. Take their love and feel that, but leave their bad messages about who you are on the sidewalk, like a leash that a very determined dog bit right through, because she knew she was destined to be the queen.
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.