So the world’s falling apart. I’m seeing quotes from experts that predict this will go on for 18 months or more. I don’t think I can stand the stress and isolation all that time. I have mental-health challenges, so I think I might crack. And I’m not sure our infrastructure can endure it either. I have a medical condition that’s stable and doesn’t put me in danger of COVID-19. However, I worry the strain on the health-care system will take away my treatment, leading to a slow death. And then there are the usual worries about things like food. Will the supply chains hold up six months or a year from now? How do you see all this happening and not start looking for an exit? I’m willing to admit that I’m weak or entitled. People around the world deal with this all the time. I don’t think I have it in me. How do I find some strength and hope?
Dear Feeling Weak,
On any day of your life, a million terrible things could happen. Every morning, you have to force all of the awful possibilities out of your mind. You do this because there is no alternative.
I’ve always been a very fearful person. I’ve always been sensitive to the fragility of the human body and the myriad ways lives can be ripped apart. My dad died when I was 25 years old, and it made me even more fearful. Then I had a baby.
Imagining all of the bad things that could happen to the baby almost sent me over the edge. I felt like someone had removed my liver and now I had to hand my liver over to other people, and ask them not to drop it or neglect it.
One day I came home, and my husband was holding my liver in one hand while stirring a boiling pot with his other hand, all the while talking to my stepson in an animated, cheerful fashion.
I freaked out. “You are going to kill me,” I said. “Calm down,” he said. “Stop being so overdramatic.”
My heart started racing even more (Pro tip: The words “calm down” are never calming!), but I washed my hands and then took the baby away from my husband. And then through gritted teeth, I said something like this: “You are going to listen to me very closely. Don’t talk. Just listen. I am in a very, very particular, unfamiliar, fragile place. I have never felt this way before. I’m going to have to describe it to you. You are going to have to listen. You do not have to understand or believe that I am remotely sane. You can continue to believe that I am irrational. But if you do not listen closely and respect and honor my needs around this fragile feeling, this marriage will end. Period. This is not negotiable.”
I wasn’t someone who threatened to end my marriage, ever, just to be clear about that. I needed to communicate clearly that we were on perilous terrain.
We retreated to the bedroom and talked for a long time. I told him what I needed in order to raise a baby with him. He told me the reasons he thought I was nuts. I told him that I was fine with him thinking I was nuts. He could continue to do that. Of course my views were not utterly rational. Rational was not the point. Calming down was not the point. He needed to understand how high the stakes were for me. Even if there was a .0001 chance that my baby would drop into the boiling water, the stakes were too high for me to endure those odds. He didn’t have to understand my feelings, he just had to operate as if he had the same feelings, for my sake.
It took a lot of persuasive talk, and tears, to get my husband on my side. It was exhausting. But by the end of our talk, my husband got it. He agreed to behave in ways that were guided by high stakes and my irrational feelings and to never say the words “Calm down” to a woman whose liver you’re holding. And if ALL OF THAT sounds nuts to you, that’s okay. These were the conditions I knew I required in order to raise a baby with someone who was more careless than I was in every way. These were the things I needed in order to share a house with this man and trust him to raise a family with me.
After that, I felt better. And my husband never told me to calm down when I described the toddlers who get left in the car or run over by a clueless grandparent backing out of the driveway. He took on the low-odds possibilities until he was worrying about them himself. I turned him into a slightly neurotic, hyperaware parent. I formed him into a seismograph, in my image. Call it twisted, I don’t give a fuck. It worked. We were aligned. We fought less. We kept our kids relatively safe from harm. Maybe we became obnoxious. Maybe we were paranoid. I still don’t care. I didn’t feel alienated and alone in my marriage, because I dared to get very, very specific about my needs.
And once I knew I had someone on my side, I started to calm the fuck down. I made a resolution to keep all of the looming threats in mind without INTERNALIZING and VISUALIZING and LOSING SLEEP OVER the millions of ways a baby could die or become injured. Any time I went from safeguarding my kids to picturing something awful happening to them, I learned to stop myself.
Doing your best to avoid disaster is practical. Repeatedly imagining disaster, on the other hand, is wildly impractical. Once I realized how jittery and anxious I was feeling, I steadfastly refused to indulge my imagination when it came to my baby. I resolved not to become a pile of nerves quivering on the floor. I wanted to breathe and feel happiness and survive parenting without being transformed into a shadow of my former self. I wanted my kids to be aware of danger but not paralyzed by fear at all times.
Mistakes have been made, that goes without saying. But the decision to never fixate on terrifying outcomes when it came to my kids was very important. I could still fixate on bad outcomes FOR ME. But that was (and is) a world apart from doing it about my kids. Eventually I didn’t have to try anymore. The second I pictured something terrible, it was just: NO. CAN’T.
Everyone is different. Everyone experiences different conditions as threatening or scary or paralyzingly awful. We all have to respect these differences while relentlessly standing up for our own needs and asking for exactly what we want from the people who are closest to us. That means becoming a tiny bit shameless, I should add. It took a shameless amount of assertiveness and belief in my own particular sensitivities as a seismograph to ask my husband to behave as if he, too, were a seismograph. I had to get very specific. I also had to let go of the need to be right and seem rational. I had to own my role as the Chicken Little of the family.
“Pretend the sky is falling with me,” I told my husband, and he did. It was an act of love and solidarity. I was so grateful for it. It kept us glued together at a vulnerable time, when we could’ve fallen apart for good. I didn’t have to hate myself for being a chickenshit or a seismograph. I could relax because someone was on my side.
That story probably feels pretty divorced from your circumstances, but it’s not. For you to feel comfortable safeguarding yourself while also refusing to fixate on the millions of horrible outcomes that could befall you specifically and all of us generally, you need to stand up for the particulars of your mental health. You need to look closely at your specific emotional challenges as a human being, and you need to say: This is how it feels for me. I feel like I want to find an exit. I feel like I can’t survive this. I feel like I am not strong enough.
Here’s the suicide hotline for anyone who’s been feeling that way: 1-800-273-8255. Commit to reaching out to someone when you’re feeling bad. Everyone is struggling right now. We’re all in the same boat at some level. It’s important to understand that moments of extreme darkness will come and go, and things could get a million times worse and still be survivable. Put your faith in human connection: It makes all the difference.
If you have close friends or a partner or a family member who can listen to you describe your very specific Chicken Little–flavored needs and desires and align themselves with you, and show solidarity for your (sometimes irrational!) experiences of what this moment means, then call that person or those people. Open up to them, and explain your needs, and get them to understand.
But let’s be clear: Finding people who will join you where you are is very, very hard. It’s hard for all of us, always. If it feels impossible? Guess what? You’re not alone. Try your best. And if/when that fails, I want you to write everything down for you, until you clearly comprehend who you are and where you are and how you’re feeling right now.
This is not about descending into darkness in any permanent way, mind you. This is simply about painting a picture that someone else might understand, a persuasive portrait of how you’re experiencing this moment. This is you saying to yourself: YOU ARE HOLDING MY LIVER OVER A BOILING POT OF WATER. This is you crying and telling yourself: I DON’T KNOW IF I CAN DO THIS. DO YOU FUCKING GET THAT?
This is you making your needs crystal clear. This is you standing up for who you are, without shame. Does that really matter, all alone in your apartment as the world crumbles around you? YES, IT DOES.
This is you saying: I deserve to have my needs met. Think about all of the times you were treated like your needs were irrational, like you needed to calm down and shut the fuck up, like you needed to stop being so in the way, so inconvenient, so absurd, so laughable, such a wreck. I’ll bet you can think of a lot of examples.
Use this moment to get your own back. Take this opportunity to say to yourself: I don’t fucking care if I’m fragile and irrational. I’m going to honor my needs without shame.
Don’t skip this step, even if it seems beside the point. Honor your needs, without shame. That’s number one.
Number two is: Protect yourself. Take very good care of yourself. Feed yourself well, exercise, get plenty of rest. Stay aware of the threats so you can do your best to avoid those threats. Put energy into making yourself feel as healthy and resilient as possible.
Number three is: Resolve not to fixate on the millions of terrifying possibilities you cannot control. You can make this choice now because your peculiar needs matter. Remember? You’re honoring your needs without shame now. One of your needs is this: Avoiding the terror here. You said it to me for a reason: You aren’t strong enough to hold these terrors inside your head for 18 months. So don’t do it.
Are you strong enough to survive for 18 months in isolation? Yes, you are. You’re strong enough as long as you’re honoring even your most irrational needs without shame, being very safe and careful in areas that are within your control, and letting go of all of the circumstances beyond your control, as in banishing them from your fucking head permanently.
Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (Read it if bleakness makes you feel stronger. If not? DO NOT READ.) is about a man who’s struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. As the man and his son travel south toward the ocean, looking for food and shelter, the man tries hard to avoid big questions and unknowns that might threaten his ability to survive. Because he has a boy to take care of, he becomes extremely practical. He protects his boy and he keeps moving forward, no matter what. There’s a sense of calm beauty underneath the horror of every word McCarthy writes. Showing up for whatever comes next is beautiful. You don’t have to be a hero. You just keep moving.
I probably wouldn’t have sat my husband down and insisted that my irrational view was going to need to be honored, back when we first had a baby together, if I weren’t convinced that our ability to raise a baby and stay together depended on it. It took something bigger than myself to force me to finally stand up for my very specific needs and persuade another, very skeptical human being to hear me out and get my back.
Today, you’ve been faced with a challenge that’s much bigger than any challenge you’ve faced before. The stakes are high. This enormous calamity dwarfs you and exists outside your thoughts and feelings completely. You have to treat yourself with extreme care under these conditions. This is an opportunity for you to finally stand up for what you need at every level, in a very concentrated and intense way that is fully justifiable and concrete. This is a chance for you to design a map that you can use to navigate this disaster and every other disaster to follow this one, guided by your very irrational, specific desires. This is your time to learn to blot out the parts of the world that are just too gigantic and out of your control for you to metabolize, and focus on what you can actually control and have influence over instead. You have to avoid big questions and keep moving forward. You’re about to achieve a sense of mastery over your life and your understanding of yourself, while letting go of what you can’t control in a permanent way. These high stakes are a blessing disguised as a curse. Take this blessing.
What sustains you? What can you create, every day, to bring you life, to build up your strength? What beauty is lurking underneath these terrors? As Ranier Maria Rilke wrote, “No feeling is final.”
The path before you is simple. You wake up in the morning and you put Chopin: Nocturnes in your headphones and you look for joy. You embrace every tiny glint of beauty and every scrap of hope hiding in this small, enclosed life. You surrender to the reality of this “borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it,” as Cormac McCarthy put it. You eat this divine silence, this dark longing, this lonely sweetness, this solitary dread. You sit in your quiet garden and welcome the weather, good or bad. No feeling is final. You are strong enough.
Ask Polly is moving to an every other Wednesday schedule, but there’s a new Ask Polly newsletter to fill in the gaps; please sign up here. Polly’s evil twin Molly’s newsletter is here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?, here. Her advice column will appear here every other 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.