‘Please Congratulate the Fuck Out of Me!’
It's time for a year-end accounting of how far you've come.
Sun Water Maine (1922) by Georgia O’Keeffe
I’ve been reading you for some years now, and I’ve always appreciated your perspective. I have an unusual problem, and I was hoping that you’d be able to help.
In short, I need someone to congratulate the fuck out of me.
Hear me out. I grew up gay in a cult-adjacent church that traumatized many of my closest friends and made me feel invisible. I wasn’t personally mistreated much—I was too afraid to come out until years after I left—but the congregation was a mouldering heap of misogyny, homophobia, and covered-up sex abuse that left deep scars.
My mental and musical abilities gave me a way out. I went to graduate school, got into therapy, came out as gay, had a couple of disastrous relationships with deeply fucked-up men, and despaired of ever having a real career.
And then, quite abruptly, everything started to change.
Toward the end of my doctorate, I went out on a whim with a military vet who was unlike anyone I had ever dated—he was consistently kind, emotionally available, and trustworthy. We slept together that first night and then never stopped; we were practically living together from the moment we met. I became significantly kinder, more aware, and broader in my interests, and his patience with my intellectual airs and bitchiness were nothing short of saintly.
And I was good for him, too. He had PTSD from military service as well as a very unhappy childhood, and his finances were in disarray from trying too hard to save a family member with a gambling addiction. My bourgeois sense of entitlement was, ironically, exactly what he needed to develop good personal boundaries and get his career where he wanted. We also had a deep understanding of each other’s spirituality, something difficult to find in the gay community: We were both outcasts from conservative churches, yet deeply religious by nature.
Our love was so bizarrely good and healthy that I had difficulty recognizing it as such. I spent about a year trying to decide if I had to leave. I was seized by overwhelming relational anxiety that nearly shook our relationship apart on multiple occasions. It was so frightening I nearly wrote you on more than one occasion. CAN THIS ACTUALLY WORK? I asked myself over and over, wondering if he was artistic enough or savvy enough or intellectual enough or politically similar enough or handsome enough or ENOUGH ENOUGH to hold my interest. Could anyone who genuinely loved me be a real catch? Eventually I finally realized—and forgave—that I was a deeply distorted, self-absorbed person and that I was projecting my own insecurities on him. In the reality we were slowly creating, we were both becoming enough.
We moved south to be close to his family, I finished my doctorate remotely, and it eventually sank in that I would never have a real academic career. I was an excellent musician and academic, and I had spent years piling up gold stars on my CV, but the academic job market is just broken. It just is. I had invested ten years of my life chasing after a niche career in which I would never be good enough.
Grief, loss, feelings of worthlessness, vanity, and foolishness. At one time I had wondered if getting together with a working-class guy who didn’t understand my esoteric career, though he was always kind and supportive, had thrown off my mojo. (For the record, I never threw that doubt in his face.) Looking back, though, it’s clear he saved me from myself.
Thanks to my partner, I’ve finally had the courage to let go of the mad, precarious merry-go-round of academia. The academy and I are now amicably split up, with joint custody of the kids: I’m still teaching occasional classes and publishing a little research (my fourth peer-reviewed article is coming out imminently!), but I now have stable and satisfying work as a choir director, organist, and piano teacher. I still occasionally feel like I’m worthless because I never made the tenure track, but mostly I’m too busy being happy and well.
We’ve found happiness like we never thought would be possible for us. We might not have precisely the same tastes in music and art, but we have a sweet little sports car (he works in banking and knows everything about cars), we go to the beach regularly, and we have happiness, serenity, and prosperity like we have never known. My partner is not a hugely loquacious type, but he’s attentive, sensitive, unfailingly kind, and always up to discuss arty-farty things if I really want. I’ve also come to realize that maybe we click together because I actually LIKE being with someone who isn’t obsessed with abstract ideas all the time. Frankly, I find many academics a little bit annoying and precious now.
So, I need someone to congratulate the fuck out of us. I’ve made many absurd choices, nursed a lot of delusions about the world and myself, and had to put up with a lot of homophobia and career disappointment, and yet here we are. We’re alive and well, making love, living in a place we both like, both gainfully employed and enjoying our work.
We’re getting married in May, a few days after the fourth anniversary of our meeting.
In a world where there’s so much suffering and so much going wrong, it feels almost indecent to be so well and so happy. So please, Polly, congratulate the fuck out of us. I don’t feel comfortable asking for this from the homophobes I grew up with, or my unhappy colleagues still on the academic whirligig. But it feels good to ask you for this, at last.
Best Wishes, Best Bitches
Congratulations, first of all, on writing one of the best letters I’ve received all year. You describe so eloquently the twisting, ambivalent paths we all take in the general direction of happiness, wondering if we’ll ever get there, asking ourselves, “Is this regular mortal enough for me?” which is always an echo of “Am I enough for him?” not to mention “Is a normal life enough for us?”
When you’re sensitive and intense and prone to overthinking small things, and you come through a gauntlet of bad experiences and then fiiiiiinally establish a real life with a real human being, there are still going to be echoes of your deepest fears in the mix. The weird irony of finding real love and feeling secure and satisfied for the first time is that it just might make you feel safe and free enough to dig for the dangerous feelings you’ve been avoiding all your life. If you’re accustomed to loneliness and alienation, if you’re used to dark longings and daydreaming, those things will bubble to the surface occasionally, without warning.
It’s hard not to blame yourself for that! Because there you are, with everything you ever wanted, and it feels pretty good, but there your head goes again, taking you on some weird trip through the dark woods for no reason at all!
But of course your head will do that. You’ve always been attracted to looking under rocks and peeking around blind corners. You’re compelled to prove yourself to others — and to yourself. That’s where so many of us land when we’re emotionally insecure as kids. We want to do the hard work that we’ve always done, even when it’s inconvenient and unsettling and it makes us ask big, uncomfortable questions about our choices every step of the way.
Even though it can feel inconvenient and compulsive at times, congratulations on doing that hard work anyway. You noticed your ambivalence and you didn’t push it aside. You didn’t torment your boyfriend with these feelings, but you also didn’t bury them. You wanted to know if you were in the right place. You should feel proud that you were brave enough to unearth all of these uncomfortable feelings in spite of your fears.
The second thing you did was live with your ambivalence without setting your entire life on fire. Sure, maybe that sounds easy now. But the truth is, that part can be very hard for someone whose BOLDEST CHOICES have often led them away from shame and danger and into the light in the past. When a sensitive person has a lot of good experiences, historically, with courageous decision-making, that can be confusing in situations that call for patience and staying the course. Long-term relationships thrive on patience, because the mood between you can change from month to month. You can feel romantic for a few months and then shift into a fallow period where you’re not as connected. And if you’re feeling safe enough to ask big questions, you can also sometimes trick yourself into thinking that something must be wrong. But you didn’t do that! You kept noticing how good you felt and how kind and secure your boyfriend was and you kept saying, “But I think this is what I want.”
You could feel what you really wanted and connect with how much you loved your partner because you’d been welcoming in the full spectrum of your thoughts and sensations around your relationship for years. In other words, because you dared to notice your ambivalence, you could also notice your passion when you needed to. A common experience, but not one that has a robust or friendly narrative attached to it in our stupid, stupid, very very very stupid culture!
I mean, just noticing that our culture is stupid is so important. Because life is incredibly confusing when you don’t notice that. Lots of people can make the same fucked up sounds at you and be 100% wrong. So congratulations on not taking the very dumb definitions of “cold feet” and “confusion” so seriously that you gave up on the love of your life for no good reason.
But also? Congratulations on honoring your artistic temperament while not being so rigidly narcissistic that you needed the world around you to match you perfectly. Because, while it’s obviously true that two artists or writers or people whose sensitivities and intellectual fixations match perfectly can have a great relationship, I sometimes think that those of us with tumultuous childhoods (not sad or deeply terrible, necessarily, just unpredictable or haunted by shame) feel safest with partners who aren’t as knocked over and dragged under by big emotions, big ideas, and big fears. Congratulations for standing up for your right to be a passionate, creative, faintly volatile wonderwall (what is a wonderwall, I wonder?) while also honoring the delicious, deeply gratifying satisfactions of a stand-up guy who knows how to learn from you, delight in you, adore you, and also gently assert his own needs along the way. THAT IS SOME TOP NOTCH EMOTIONAL ACHIEVEMENT AND YOU ARE NOW WALKING ACROSS A GIANT STAGE, YOUR NAME ECHOING ACROSS A GRAND AUDITORIUM, IN ORDER TO RECEIVE YOUR DIPLOMA IN MATURE, HAPPY, GROWN-ASS ADULTHOOD AND TRUE, DEEP, DELICIOUS, ABSURDLY BINDING, AND SOMETIMES, YES, FAINTLY ANNOYING LOVE!
I hope this graduation ceremony doesn’t just feel like a pesky formality. I hope it’s bringing tears to your eyes, tears of pride and joy. You because you deserve to really feel this!
Let’s also note that you could’ve stayed on the academic hamster wheel forever, but you noticed that you were going nowhere and that felt bad. Congratulations for jumping off. You could’ve viewed your new career through the dull, snooty lens of academia, but you resisted that temptation. Instead, you noticed that you love music and people and singing and connecting and the magic of live performance so much that this was what you wanted for yourself. Congratulations for knowing that nothing is small when you love it enough.
Congratulations for knowing that love is enough, against a history of feeling like nothing would ever be enough. Congratulations for recognizing that you will want more sometimes, because that’s how human animals are, and you will forgive yourself and be patient with yourself and not burn anything down just because you’re in A Big Mood. Congratulations for noticing that you had become a deeply distorted, self-absorbed person, but congratulations, also, for allowing yourself some room to be your intellectual, vainglorious, arty-farty bitch self now and then. BECAUSE IT’S FUN, MY BITCHES, AND FUN MATTERS.
You followed the fun. You didn’t pack up all of the shame and deep hurt and rejection of your past and lug it along with you. You misplaced it. You stuffed it into every available trash can. Sure, sometimes a little shame falls out of your bag, onto the floor, and then you cry a little because you remember how it was to feel small. Congratulations on crying. And congratulations on being brave enough to remember how small you felt.
Congratulations on valuing safety and companionship. Congratulations on never giving up on adventure in spite of this. Congratulations on knowing what constitutes beauty to you. Congratulations on seeking out joy every day, as much as you can, in spite of a heart and a mind that like to trip you up and pull you into dark corners and tricky mazes instead. And congratulations on getting married in May!
I know it took a lot of work to get here. I know it even took some pride and courage just to write this letter to me. (You hit it out of the park, truly.) I know it’s sad just to think about how confused you were, for so so so long. I’m right there with you, as someone who winds up in a lot of distorted and bewildered and self-absorbed cul-de-sacs. It’s embarrassing, to be so wrong, so lost, so dumb, over and over again. But it feels good to be embarrassed by it. Because feeling stupid about how ridiculous we are can be a way of noticing that we did our best. We are doing our best. We will keep doing our best. Our embarrassment is also a form of forgiveness.
You opened your heart, even when you felt afraid. You kept an open mind, even when you were skeptical. You dared to believe in a new path forward when your old path started falling apart. You set aside your ego and humbled yourself, again and again, and you asked the world to show you what it had to offer. You opened your eyes wide, and sat quietly with a big question mark in your lap, and waited.
You were patient but your were also bold. You forgave yourself over and over again instead of succumbing to shame. And you found your way home. Congratulations and very best wishes to the best of best bitches.
I want to ask everyone who’s reading this to join me in congratulating the fuck out of BWBB right now in the comments. And after that, if *you* need a little congratulations, please ask for it, and we will serve it up to you on a big platter. Thanks for being here, Polly readers. It’s been a long, hard year but you’ve pulled me through the shit so many times. I’m grateful to each and every one of you. xoxoxo