'I'm Isolated and Heartbroken'

Feeling your truest desires can be soothing when you subtract the shame.

Untitled (1951) by Gertrude Abercrombie

Dear Polly,

I'm alone and mostly always have been, and the pandemic feels like it's been an indictment of all my life choices. Help?

I was an only child and slow to come to the social world and though now as an adult I have a million friends and people who love me, I've never really been able to sustain a relationship. Some of that was, I think, repressed issues about sexuality -- I've turned out to be mostly gay to my own surprise, though swinging both ways kept me from externalizing that until I was way older. A lot of it was also issues about my body, which I've hated my whole life and have shied away from accepting and though I have been therapized to the hilt and I know all about it, it was hard to want to open up all those issues to anyone else. In my more self-hating moments I'd have told you I was ugly. Now I think: I'm just closed down on that front, though so open on so many others.

I also managed to adjust to living alone in a way that hasn't helped, in that I give off the vibe I often read you advising others to adopt: in what I now think of peacetime, I don't really need someone in my house and I think it shows. It's partly because I'm a writer, and one who lives more than most do in her head. I love people and do need them, but I also have another thing going and it seems to scare people. And I tried to make peace with that -- to radically accept that this was who I was and I could just try to be more open and see what came.

Then, at the top of 2020, for the first time in a long time, I started dating a woman in a crazy-intense way that nonetheless thrilled a lot of people who witnessed it. I'd had enough therapy by then to feel like I could just start trying to open up the closed-down part. And then she almost immediately broke my heart. It'd be identifying to reveal the details. Just trust me when I say I now think it was one of those situations where everyone went in in good faith, but external circumstances, timing, personal issues, and a fair amount of narcissism on the other end and not enough boundary-setting on mine, resulted in unmitigated disaster and a breakup so brutal that people who knew us both could not believe she'd been so cruel.

This all happened maybe four weeks before lockdown. I was being propped up by friends and meds and so barely functional by the time lockdown rolled around that I actually didn't even see it coming until the weekend of, where I live -- which is Southern California.

Because I had worked so hard on trying to just be open to what had happened with that woman, I tried some pandemic dating. First it didn't work out because it was too soon and I fucked it up with someone who seems like she under other circumstances would have worked. Then it didn't work out because none of the attempts let me connect to anyone who was really open to being in the moment. 

All of which, in another year, would be grist for the mill. But in this one, they've been devastating because while I know it's over-personalizing, the pandemic to me, the meaning of it, has been a bit like (and I'm sorry to quote Damon Lindelof like a complete idiot but he's cribbing from John Locke anyway): We live together or we die alone. That's what this year taught me. 

And I don't want to die alone. And that’s what it feels like I'm barreling toward. And the pandemic is continuing to foreclose all the ways in which I might move away from the feeling.

I guess I'm not looking for practical advice. I do all the things. I talk to friends all the time. I filled my calendar with work, which is an unusually fulfilling sort of thing that does involve connection (though also a lot of rejection and disappointment). I have pets. I walk. I volunteer around town in the limited way the pandemic makes possible. I am still on all the useless, useless apps. I go to the beach to watch the sunset which is the thing guaranteed to make my life feel expansive and grand for twenty fucking minutes.

And in all of that I'm still alone when the sun sets. I don't have a pod -- my friends never coalesced around that. I don't know when I'll have sex again. I listen to my friends talk about all their childcare problems and I sympathize but I'd trade. I would.

So what do I do? Do you have anything for me?

I Can Radically Accept Everything But This One Thing

Dear ICRAEBTOT,

What you’re going through sounds excruciatingly hard. People talk about how, in prison, isolation is the worst punishment of all. You’re in isolation. Lots of people are, but that doesn’t change how it feels for one person. It’s obscenely difficult.

On top of that, you’re a writer who lives in your head a lot, so you’re prone to taking whatever landscape you occupy and warping it until you can find meaning, make sense of it, fix it, redesign it, etc. You’re a kind of mental perfectionist: You scrub your intellectual environment until it’s clean. And when you come to a spot that won’t come out, you don’t just shrug and move on like some people do. You obsess about what combination of products and tools and methods will eliminate this stain from your life forever.

I’m a little bit like you in my inability to set very small but hauntingly uncertain things aside, and many of the writers I know are similar. Some of my close friends who are like this have a tendency to call me and say things like,” What am I doing wrong? Just tell me what to do next so this doesn’t happen again.” And even though, thanks to my people-pleasing tendencies, I end up giving these friends irritating suggestions like “Push away self-hatred at every turn!” and “Get a treadmill desk!,” what I really want to say is that the question itself is the problem.

Because for those who keep their consciousness around their emotional lives absolutely fastidious – through years of therapy, through years of writing, through years of understanding the appropriate sounds to make in different company – there is no perfect new action to take, no puzzle to solve, no right answer to what’s wrong with your current approach, no fresh strategy for getting what you want. So much so that talking about a concrete fix here is like buying bricks when you need bread.

You’re good at construction projects. You’re good at auditing and analyzing. You’re good at exiting a situation and convincing other people that you were right and the other person was wrong. That’s how I was when I was younger, too. Even though you’ll say, “No, trust me, this woman was a true narcissist and she came at me with a fucking vengeance!” and even though I believe you, I’m not talking about specific scenarios, I’m talking about your emotional position on the map at this moment, as someone who just learned how to open up and then got hurt, as someone who just started noticing that, when she doesn’t need other people in her space, they pick up on that. You’re at the start of a bewildering road. A road like the road in The Road. You’re not on a quest to find bricks and boards. You’re just hungry. You’re looking for bread.

For you, bread is romantic love and real friendship and true connection. That would present itself as a pretty simple problem, if you knew how hungry you were before now. But you didn’t. You defined yourself as someone who could probably starve for long periods and that would be fine. In fact, I’ll bet you congratulated yourself when you were actually malnourished. “Look how much I’ve built, while I was slowly dying of scurvy!” is a statement that sums up vast stretches of my life.

So this moment is a gift to you, as fucked up as that sounds, considering all of the hellish hours that come with it. But that’s where you are, in a terrifying bubble of discovery. This is the moment you can feel the enormity of your hunger for the first time.

I’ve been through a very different sort of reckoning this year – well, a few of them. But I landed in a similar place, where I realized not only that I need more human connection in my life, but that my default mode is to push away love and care and nourishment. I’m not just talking about being slow to return emails and phone calls (which probably isn’t how you are, but stay with me), I’m talking about encountering a strange, guilty dismissiveness inside myself in the face of love and affection. I associate other people’s emotional needs with duty, and I associate my own emotional needs with fear. I’m avoidant, yes, but I’ve also built a million and one skyscrapers and industrial parks and outdoor shopping malls out of it, all fueled by my anxious past. I have tremendously complicated rationalizations for wanting to sidestep certain people or roll my eyes at some friends or scoff at my husband or my mother or anyone who truly matters to me.

Because I’m a writer, my rationalizations are very convincing. Because I give open-hearted advice on the internet, I’ve spent years ascribing only good intentions to myself. And look, my intentions aren’t bad. But the facts on the ground are simple: I struggle to stand still and receive love from other people. I struggle to accept people who aren’t building the exact same skyscraper that I’d build. I struggle not to just drift slowly away from people I care about. I struggle not to give up on people. And even though I don’t feel that angry at anyone in my life, even though I’m pretty peaceful and accepting and I’d even call myself happy, in this shit year, I struggle not to assume, always, first and next and last, that people don’t care about me as much as they say they do.

Some of these things might match you and others won’t. All I know is that I didn’t know the full picture until I recognized my hunger for more connection, for deeper friendships, for more interesting and more mutual allegiances. It took a series of crises, some big and some small, to understand that I didn’t want to keep playing along with whatever was offered to me, passively, shrugging and backing away every few weeks, losing the thread, getting emotional distance the second things got hard. I also protected myself from rejection by avoiding anyone I was truly thrilled about getting to know better. Perverse! And I had no idea how evasive I was. I just knew that I felt dissatisfied.

I think this is your moment to take in just how avoidant you are. Do you accept love from people you love, or does affection shift you into a remote, fault-finding place where dismissive thoughts crowd out every emotion? Do you tend to either give too much or take too much, anxiously trying to please or get your needs met instead of relaxing into the moment and seeing where it takes you?

I don’t even want to continue down this path, though, because I think at this peculiar moment in human history, communication has become hopelessly strange and self-conscious and needy and rigid and warped. It’s very difficult to navigate human connections after months of being cut off. Right now, I’m living with a house full of humans, I exercise and call friends and get work done every day, but I still feel a kind of social and emotional vertigo. So maybe it’s not the ideal moment to dive too far into an analysis of your avoidant habits.

If you decide, like I did, that these behavior patterns are standing in your way, I would still urge you not to stigmatize them. I think most of my favorite people are avoidant. I’m drawn to people who protect their soft, chewy centers. There’s just nothing wrong with being a person who wants to feel good and safe. These were just our ways of feeling safe, as a kid probably and now as an adult.

What’s surprising is that if you struggle to let people get very close to you, you might also be someone who has trouble drawing healthy boundaries: You people-please and say yes to things you don’t want, to make up for the fact that you think of yourself as kind of a prickly asshole. That’s not just confusing to other people, it’s completely irrational: You run around saying yes to what you don’t want and no to what you truly want, and then can’t understand why other people seem wary or afraid of you. What people read into your friendliness mixed with distance is judgment, and there’s nothing most people dislike more than feeling judged.

Let’s not worry too much about most people, though, because a lot of people don’t mind feeling judged at all. They’re okay with themselves, so they’re like “Hey, judge and be judged, we all have big brains in our heads, we all feel pretty good, who the fuck cares?” Part of your job right now is to find these people – people who are reasonably secure, who can show up in the moment (or at least want to), who understand the allure of a formerly avoidant, industrious woman who is stepping out into the world of love for the first time like a puppy discovering fresh snow.

It’s a beautiful thing. Being in that state makes you beautiful, in fact. And it’s going to be important for you to know that. It doesn’t matter what state your physical self is in. What matters is that you understand and welcome your body into the picture, and celebrate your emotions and desires when they present themselves to you. You have a lot of time and space to get there. Every day, you need to focus on letting your body and your feelings join your mind.

Your mind will want to exclude your body and your feelings. Your mind will say, “Fuck them, they’re gross, they’re scary, they mean I’m weak and disgusting!” You have to repeat this one idea to yourself: Need doesn’t make me weak. Hunger makes me stronger. Desire makes me more powerful.

This has been my challenge this year, too: to notice when I move from “I want this” to “Wanting this makes me pathetic” and “Everyone thinks I’m a fucking joke” and “Everything I do and say is embarrassing.” This deeply anxious, ashamed part of me will probably never disappear completely. What’s hard is, sometimes I have to listen to these feelings and just retreat into my shell a little. The answer to every problem is not “Show more of yourself!” Sometimes the answer is to protect yourself and rest and try to get a little perspective on where you are.

And other times, it feels good to be vulnerable and open-hearted and trust that the good people will understand. In order to do that, personally, I have to take the garbage heap that lives inside me, thanks to an emotionally unpredictable childhood, and use it to have fun and enjoy myself, in my writing, in my conversations with trusted friends, in my relationships with my husband and kids. I’m not the kind of person who can pretend to be better than I am. I have to tell the truth, and look, in some areas, that can be a liability. I think this has been a year of whiplash for me. I’m trying to figure out some balance between giving and taking, showing and hiding, vulnerability and protective boundaries.

Even though I haven’t figured all of that out yet, the one thing I try to do, no matter what, is to celebrate my needs and desires every day, and to encourage the needs and desires of everyone around me.

You’re hungry. You need to be open about that. You feel broken and embarrassed by the fact that you’re just starting to look for romantic love and a real relationship, in earnest. You should experiment with being honest about that, but also experiment with holding back some of your thoughts and feelings on that front. A big part of learning to be truly open in a sustainable way is learning to exert boundaries and calibrate your exposure. I’ve learned that partly through observing how people I admire know how to say “no thanks” without explaining themselves. But most of all, you need to learn how to say no to the things you don’t want, while giving a more enthusiastic YES to the stuff you actually want. You have to notice when you can’t show up, and say so, and respect yourself even when you’d like to be different than you are. And you have to notice when you can show up, and you want connection and love, but you’re just in the habit of hiding.

But most of all, you have to love your little puppy in the snow. A puppy doesn’t blame itself for being confused by snow. The puppy relishes the feelings of bewilderment ushered in by a soft, cold world of floating white. The puppy savors every shiver of doubt. The puppy might be seized by fear when it’s up to its neck in this magical, scary stuff, but then it starts moving, jumping, bouncing, dashing, all charged up and almost hysterical, madly in love with this new feeling of terror mixed with exhilaration, desire mixed with confusion, freedom mixed with pure elation.

You know in your heart that you’re going to feel so many things soon. You’re at the very start of trusting your power and your instincts while also making space for a world of snow. Make this next six months into a snow globe. Practice relishing what’s here, in all of its imperfect, drifty, glittering loneliness. Practice believing that you deserve to lead someone toward the things you do know, even though you’ve never really done this before, even though you’re lost, even though you sometimes feel worthless and weak. Practice cherishing your sadness, your loneliness, your weakness, knowing in your heart that nothing could be more vibrant and alive and important than this strange, fragile moment of clarity.

Invite that watching-the-sunset energy into your life over and over again, at different times of the day. Don’t analyze anything: Feel it instead. Dare to let in some hope. Imagine falling in love and feeling loved back. Imagine an apartment full of friends whose care and support you can feel. Overestimate yourself for a change. Savor a fantastical image of who you are becoming, as you open you heart, as you tap into your power, as you give your power to those who need it. Relax into a new sensation that you deserve more than you ever thought you did. Consider this a market correction. Consider this your daily bread.

Polly


This Ask Molly is about feeling more and moving closer to the people who love you. If you’re struggling and you’d like a subscription to Ask Polly, email me: askpolly at protonmail.com.