I’ve always been under the impression that each decade of life gets easier. Blame women’s magazines in dentists’ offices, but are there not always features about how your 20s are total trash, your 30s are full of newfound self-compassion and peace, and by your 40s, well, you’re so happy and angst-free it’s basically like you’re floating around on molly for an entire decade? All of this increasing contentment seems to be pinned on knowing yourself more and becoming more comfortable with who you are as a person as you grow older, which totally makes sense, though it’s been the opposite of my experience. I’m now 37 (and FYI, I totally wrote 35 at first, and then thought, “If I can’t be honest about my age in an anonymous letter, that’s actually too sad”), and I feel like every year of my life I become more and more uncertain of who I am and what makes me happy. Which in effect means every year of my life I become more miserable.
I moved to Los Angeles five years ago, and I guess I haven’t really adjusted. It’s hard to make friends here — or at least friends who want to hang out more than once every three months. I’m in a marriage that makes me feel anxious and bad probably 60 percent of the time, but I’ve felt like this for two years now and I’ve done nothing about it. I have a job in a TV writers’ room, which had always been my dream and is why I moved out here. But while there’s a ton of stuff that’s great about it (okay, well, mostly the money), it’s not as fulfilling as my old job. Not to sound like a snob, but people are dumber and shallower here? The old network hacks pretty much control the room, and we end up spending large parts of the day looking at all the $5 million houses they want to buy on Zillow, or listening to them complain about how their wives spend all their money on purses (barf). I come home at night feeling numb and dumber and wondering if tonight’s one of the nights my husband’s going to start crying and say he’s not happy in our marriage and then take it all back the next day. I pretty much live in dread and fear of the next day, but keep waking up and living it anyway because I don’t know what else to do.
Actually, I know what I want to do, but unfortunately it’s impossible. I want to wake up and be 28 again and do the last decade all over again. I want to be with my best friends in New York and feel confident and happy and funny and like I have a distinct personality again. I want to be the person I used to be, the one who didn’t put up with bullshit from men, or who, at least, had an inner voice telling her, “This person is not right for you. LEAVE.” Maybe I’m looking back at my halcyon youth with rose-colored glasses, but it really feels like I was a whole person then. I stood up for myself. I knew who I was. I knew what I wanted and had the energy and ambition to at least try to go for it. It was the last time I felt like there was actually a core me.
I try to tell my therapist about this and she, wisely, always advises, “Channel your 20-year-old self. Do what she would do.” But I just don’t know how to. Because all the circumstances of my 20s have changed. My beloved group of friends have all gotten married and had families of their own. Half of them left the city. They’re still my best friends, but our contact is way more sporadic. The place I used to work has all but shut down. And I can’t find the little voice inside me anymore. The one that would tell me what to do. I think I’ve just lived in sadness and anxiety for so long she felt ignored and up and left.
I don’t even really know what my question is — this whole letter is a meandering mess, pretty much a verbal representation of the nonentity that is my personality right now. I guess I’m asking: When does it get better? How does it get better? How do you rediscover yourself? Or is this just life? Am I being an optimistic idiot to believe that there’s some means by which I can become “happy”?
Not Really a Person
Dear Not Really a Person,
I understand how you feel and I’ve been there, believe me. Your misery renders you vulnerable to magical thinking: I could be happy if I could locate my true identity. I could be happy if I could get this crying man out of my house. I could be happy if I could just bend the laws of space and time. Ultimately, this is a fantastical approach, and it’s just as fraught as looking at the $5 million houses you want to buy on Zillow all day long. It’s escapism. You’re trying to skip the hard part.
The hard part is feeling where you are and where you’ve been. The hard part is tracing your path back to when you resolved to stop feeling your feelings, to rise above them permanently. The hard part is recognizing that you’ve lost yourself because you’re never genuine with anyone. You’re playing a part — to make new friends, to get along with those mutants at work, to keep your husband from crying, to avoid your insecurities and your longing and your rage, to avoid standing up for yourself in any real way. You’ve lost yourself because you’re sure that if you show your true self, whoever she is, no one will like her.
This farce began decades ago. You chose a persona and stuck to it. Even back when you had close friends in New York, I’m guessing that you were already playing up the aloof, over it, above it all parts of your personality while playing down your vulnerability and your fear of your own flaws. That’s a common trap in professional circles in New York and L.A. and it’s a beyond-common personality profile in any writers’ room, but it’s also the dominant key of your entire letter. There’s a reason that when discussing your marriage, the one image you offer up is your husband crying. Vulnerability is more disgusting to you than overpriced purses. Your husband knows that perfectly well, which is why he pretends that crying man doesn’t exist the next day.
Even though you’re miserable and you’re facing a major crisis, your letter is all about trying to go back to being aloof, over it, above it, energetic, ambitious. You think that it’s not about that — you think it’s about knowing who you are, that’s all. But the feelings you crave are ego-related. You say you want to “feel confident and happy and funny,” but you don’t say, “I miss this one friend, we really loved each other.” You say you have sporadic contact with old friends and describe them as having moved on, as if there’s no real way to connect with them anymore. You imply that your husband’s emotions are depressing and too much for you to take, but you also say that you used to never take bullshit from men, as if that’s what you’re doing now. You say your marriage makes you feel anxious and bad, but don’t describe your actual husband at all, aside from his tears. You say that people are dumber and shallower in L.A., but you’re also tempted to lie about your age in a letter to a total stranger.
You hate yourself for landing here. You see yourself in everything around you, and you hate yourself (and them) for it.
Every single thing you’re going through right now is understandable and relatable to me. I’ve thought everything you’ve thought about my life and my friends and L.A. I have proclaimed the citizens of L.A. dumb and shallow. I have hated people here for giving a shit about money and clothes and looks. I have written off friends with babies and friends without kids. I have felt isolated and angry. None of what you describe is warped, exactly. But your descriptions are telling. They paint a clear picture of where you are and where you were and where you want to be. You felt confident and funny before; now you feel insecure and sad. Instead of accepting how you feel and working from where you are, you want to be magically transported to the past. You want to be on top of the world again. Here’s what you need to understand: You weren’t living in a magical realm before. You aren’t really in hell now. But if you don’t want to be in hell moving forward, you have to do the hard part.
One thing I’ll say for Los Angeles is that this town will make you do the hard part. People always say that about New York, that you can’t survive there unless you get really tough and learn to deal. I absolutely agree about New York. I would love to live there, but I’m also aware of how completely vulnerable and slow I am in that environment, like a puppy among porcupines. But here in L.A., you can’t survive unless you learn to be vulnerable and slow, and to appreciate that the porcupines around you are actually puppies. Most of them aren’t dumb and shallow. Many of them are complex, thoughtful people who have battled their shame and come out on the other side feeling good in their own skin.
That’s an odd thing to say about a city full of people who work hard to look several decades younger than they actually are, but it’s true. It takes years to appreciate it, but L.A. is packed full of genuine weirdos, in the best way. Not everyone here is like that, but there are many, many people who are living in this city on their own terms, writing their own maps to navigate this fucked-up world, and trusting themselves when everything else falls to ruin. There are a lot of true freaks.
The hardest thing to be in L.A. is not a freak, but a conflicted, sad person who doesn’t realize how conflicted and sad she is. This whole town is either in therapy or talks like they’re therapists themselves. It’s grating, but if you lean way the fuck into it, you’ll figure out that a lot of the people around you are more interesting than they seem.
I don’t know about the writers in the writers’ room. I’ve met a lot of truly, deeply fucked TV writers and I’ve met a few down-to-earth ones, and it’s very hard to tell the two groups apart at first because they sound exactly the same: Like they’re in love with you but they left the stove on at home so they’ve gotta run. That impatient sound alone — shared by agents and producers, too — makes me break out in hives immediately. But writers’ rooms in particular are bizarre environments: cloistered and deeply insecure and extremely hierarchical. What other habitat would tolerate a network douche who wants to peruse $5 million houses on Zillow in front of his co-workers? The tiny, strange microcosm of Hollywood does not reflect the true nature of this massive city, and it never has.
Right now your extreme efforts at seeming JUST FINE! are making you anxious. The more you try to seem confident and happy and funny, the less confident and happy and funny you’re going to feel. You need to be the miserable freak that you are right now. That’s not possible at work, but it is possible everywhere else. It’s what your husband is already doing. You need to lie down on the ground and cry right along with him. You need to admit to him that you’re also lost and unsure of what comes next. If there’s any hope for your marriage, it lies in that dark place where two people who’ve been pretending for years finally tell each other the whole truth. You are two bewildered animals who feel all kinds of crazy things. There shouldn’t be any contempt in the air when you describe your emotional reality to another human being. It’s not personal. Surviving in a marriage requires accepting that both partners have wild, unexpected feelings that are not some moral verdict on who they are. Being brutally honest without feeling ashamed will set you both free and make you closer.
That’s the hard part: Telling the truth. Feeling what you’re feeling. Letting go of the person you used to be, and becoming who you are now. Allowing the shattered, disappointed, insecure human being — who’s been with you all along, even in New York — to show her sad face and speak up in her little voice. Letting the porcupine be a puppy. You might not want to become the kind of person who talks about feelings without throwing a punchline in at the end, but trust me, life is a lot more relaxing and happy among the unabashedly honest and unashamed.
The somewhat paradoxical secret to feeling good in fake, cheerful L.A. is to be your genuine, honest, sad self. Most of the people I know here love honesty. You have to give people the benefit of the doubt, though — that’s true no matter where you are. When you’re trying really hard to make friends but behind your smile you’re skeptical, superior, or suspicious? People can tell.
Surviving past the age of 35 is humbling no matter where you live. We’re humbled by our friends who move on in their lives and humbled by our friends who don’t. We’re isolated and falling apart and we don’t want to become some sad, aging cliché, bitter and sobbing on the floor, wanting more than this life gave us.
Ten years ago, that was me. I wanted a lot more. I wanted everything. No one seemed to like me anymore. I wanted to be my brilliant, confident, funny self again. In order to feel good, though, I had to feel my feelings (instead of thinking myself in circles). I had to locate the sad, lost little kid I’d been hiding for decades. I had to admit that I was so covered in shame I couldn’t see straight. I had been playing a role for years, and once it stopped working, I hated myself for it.
If you want to feel good and make it through this, you have to stop putting yourself above everyone around you. You have to let go of magical thinking and humble yourself. You have to look up at the vast blue sky above you and fall to your knees and beg for mercy.
Right now, I’m writing a book about my marriage, and one chapter begins: On the day you get everything you ever wanted, you just might feel like it’s not enough. That’s how life feels before you know your truest self, who is not charming and self-assured, but scared and lonely and so full of feelings she’s about to explode. Your truest self is more brilliant than that charming role you play, though, and she’s far more lovable. Your truest self isn’t hard to find: She’s right here, right now, asking for your forgiveness. Will you forgive her for bringing you to this point?
Forgive yourself. And while you’re at it, forgive this sky for asking you to stop hiding. Forgive this dust for craving your tears. Forgive this ocean for reminding you how small you are. This is how it gets better.
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