Ask Polly: Why Should I Keep Going?

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Dear Polly,

Please tell me why staying alive is worth it. I’m not writing to you with pills in hand or anything. I don’t intend to kill myself, but lately I am overwhelmed with thoughts about, like, lying down on the floor and waiting for the world to end or the dust to suffocate me, whichever comes first? I don’t understand how to get through this long life. I used to be optimistic and believe that there was enough wonder and joy in the world and in my own life to make living worthwhile, even when things weren’t going well. I used to have a sense of humor! Can you even imagine? I used to be a vibrant young woman who looked forward to becoming a vibrant old woman! Now I’m this humorless, hopeless, weeping heap.

Six months ago, the person I loved up and dumped me. I was blindsided and heartbroken. I thought I had a person, someone to be with and be alongside, someone I loved so much it’s like I lost myself in it. We were together for three years, and I had all these notions about Love and Trust and the Beauty of Building a Life Together, but guess what: He didn’t have them. He said he did; up until the week before he broke my fucking heart, he said he wanted to be with me. And then he left, and it’s like the loving, lovable part of me left with him.

Also, I quit my job last month in a surge of post-dumping, post-birth-control hormones and a serious case of the oh-shit-my-life-has-to-change-immediately-and-quitting-a-job-where-I-am-capable-and-valued-to-be-an-unemployed-33-year-old-“writer”-is-clearly-the-only-solution I-don’t-give-a-fucks. So now I’m sad all the time, alone, and about to be unemployed. My friends and family are tired of me, my pets are confused, I’m exhausted from trying so hard for so long (not just these past months, but all the years before them when I cycle through ambition and optimism and hard work only to end up lost and scared and alone), and I’m sick of trying. I can’t see a way out, and I’m not doing well with the whole “be okay with not knowing” thing. The prospect of another 30 to 50 years of this feels absurd.

Exercise and therapy and meditation and happy lamps and gratitude-journalling and volunteering and reaching out to friends aren’t doing it. I’m not doing it. I don’t think I can do it. How in the ever-loving hell do people do this? Please, Polly, tell me: How and why do people stay alive for so long?

Thank you,

Weeping Heap

Dear Weeping Heap,

When you’re depressed or traumatized or both, you question everything: Why I am driving to my pointless job that I hate? Why am I going through the motions with these friends? Why do I even get up in the morning when everything I do all day is meaningless? It’s tempting to think that if you cleared everything bad or even just meh out of your life, you might feel better.

But then you quit your job and you recede from your friends and you drop your day-to-day activities, and before you know it, you have no reason to get out of bed in the morning. Your whole life feels like that “Nowhere Man” scene in the Beatles movie “Yellow Submarine”: an empty human faces pristine nothingness in every direction. That scene scared me to death when I was a kid.

Nothing is more corrosive to a fragile soul than a blank slate of a life, a day that begins with a giant question mark — WHEN WILL YOU FIX THIS? WHAT WILL YOU DO TO GET THROUGH THIS? — and slides into formless, despairing oblivion from there. The sounds of birds in the trees, footsteps, dogs barking — all are an insult to the senses. 

When you don’t have anything to work toward and very few people to confide in, the last interesting thing in your life can expand to take over the whole picture, even though you know that thing is long gone. I wrote a song in the middle of one of these drifting, aimless times when I was 29 years old:

Laughter outside

Clocks ticking down

Cars starting up

Nothing to believe

Count back from ten

Will I see you again?

Don’t smile at me.

You can write down your feelings like I did, and maybe you’ll emerge with a song or a poem that captures what you’re feeling. But generally speaking, you’re not going to start a writing career in a depressed fog in the wake of a breakup, with 24 hours a day free and clear for writing. That’s too much time to doubt yourself and hate yourself. The stakes are too high. Your energy is too low. Those circumstances are custom-built to destroy you. You’re too focused on reaching some reward zone, on crossing some finish line, on becoming someone who is never lost and lonely again. It’s hard to do great work when you’re just trying to get the work over with.

So I want to tell you right now: What you’re doing will not work. I’ve tried it many times before: “I have nothing so I will focus very hard on getting more. I will work to exit this place.” The work was misery. I didn’t enjoy it. I just wanted to rest, to be loved, to arrive somewhere better, magically.

For example: I tried to take two months off work and write a book about my dad RIGHT AFTER HE DIED UNEXPECTEDLY. That was madness. I was 25 years old, and I had very little writing experience. I would call my friends and say, “I’m trying to write, but all I do is cry.” They were like, Uh, yeah, maybe don’t beat yourself up over that right now.

You know what I could do, though? I could rip the ivy out of my mom’s backyard for four hours a day. I could run and walk and run for hours, 10 miles a day, 12 miles a day. I could listen to music and keep moving. It didn’t feel that great, but it felt better than lying in the same pool of tears day after day.

I resisted this for years, but I don’t resist it anymore, and it’s probably the reason for a lot of my happiness now: Hard work is salvation. It’s not about where you’re headed via hard work, though; it’s about the work itself. When your brain and your heart are a tangle of recrimination and longing and despair, physical labor is divine. You work for hours, covered in dirt and sweat and bugs and filth, and maybe you’re a little miserable at first, but by the end of the day, you heart is more open. You slide into a hot bath and you say to yourself, “At least I did something.”

So here’s my concrete advice for you: You’re very depressed, so I want you to exercise every morning for one hour. Every other thing you do as an unemployed, depressed person is predicated on this step, and skipping it is tantamount to announcing to the world, I PREFER MISERY TO JOY. After you exercise, take a shower, make yourself some strong coffee, and look for a job for one hour. Research. Fix your résumé. Write cover letters. Email people for leads. Follow up. Get people on the phone. Do whatever you can, but you need a job soon.

I also want you to work on something physical for one hour every day — clean your fridge, wash your floors and rewash them, paint the walls of your apartment a new color, refinish your coffee table, whatever. Don’t tell me you don’t do that kind of thing. Do it and trust.

And yes, you must find a therapist. Commit. Borrow the money if you have to. You need this. You require it. You are not doing well, and it could get worse. Someone needs to be watching you closely, and you need to dig into your feelings. I suspect that this is one thing that you don’t want to do, because you’re terrified of your own feelings. And that’s why you must do it.

So you need to do a bunch of very hard things. But if you lean into your hard work right now, you’re going to learn just what a crisis can do for you, how it can blow out the bad patterns of thinking and feeling, how it can change you from a person who clings and cowers and hides and pities herself to a person who faces the truth without fear and builds a gorgeous life out of the wreckage of the half-broken life that came before.

You write, “I’m exhausted from trying so hard for so long (not just these past months, but all the years before them when I cycle through ambition and optimism and hard work only to end up lost and scared and alone), and I’m sick of trying.” I know that feeling. But honestly, if you really think you’ve ended up back where you started, that tells me that what you really wanted from all of that hard work was a magical, external reward that never came. You expected to be released from the purgatory of work at some point, to cross some finish line and be magically rendered all-caps HAPPY. You wanted to become someone else.

If you can’t feel any of the gains you’ve made in the past, if you’re sure that it’s all a cycle in which zero is gained each time, if you don’t recognize the slightest bit of progress, then I’d suggest to you that you’re having trouble feeling your feelings, and you’re treating love and success as external rewards that BRING happiness, when in fact love and success are SIDE EFFECTS of happiness. And happiness is all about loving the feeling of working hard. Happiness is all about loving whatever you have, wherever you are, even when you fall on your face, even when you have nothing, even when your muscles are aching and you feel caved in and sad.

People who say that they’re lost and scared — like you do — are often anxious and hiding. People who say they’re exhausted all the time are often exhausted because they’re busy distracting themselves from their own feelings around the clock. And when a big wave of emotion comes and knocks them down, they experience it as a tsunami that just wiped away all meaning and all gains.

Listen to me: You really do need a therapist. You’ve got to stop running away from yourself. You have to excavate. When did you lose your hope and your optimism? You have to dig.

Because you aren’t facing an endless, formless string of empty days. You’re facing a very short path to the end. You don’t have that much time. You struggle because you’re locating all of the magic in your life outside of yourself. When you are loved, then you are lovable. When you are left behind, you are unlovable. When you “arrive” at some point of success and fame as a writer, you will be worthy. Until then, you are worthless. I’ve known people like this in my life. I have a friend who has told me for more than a decade now that she is exhausted. Always. Exhausted. She is always sure that external conditions around her need to change for her to be happy. She is always either about to be “rewarded” with success and love, which will mean that all of her hard work has finally paid off, or she is in hell. “Everything is shit,” she tells me over and over. “How did I end up back here?”

As long as you imagine that the outside world will one day deliver to you the external rewards you need to feel happy, you will always perceive your survival as exhausting and perceive your life as a long slog to nowhere. Instead, you have to savor the tiny struggles of the day: The cold glass of water after a long run. The hot bath after hours of digging through the dirt. The satisfaction of writing a good sentence, a good paragraph. You MUST feel these things, because these aren’t small rewards on the path to some big reward; these tiny things are everything. Savoring these things requires tuning in to your feelings, and it requires loving yourself instead of shoving your nose into your own question marks hour after hour, day after day.

You are not lost. You are here. Stop abandoning yourself. Stop repeating this myth about love and success that will land in your lap or evade you forever. Build a humble, flawed life from the rubble, and cherish that. There is nothing more glorious on the face of the earth than someone who refuses to give up, who refuses to give in to their most self-hating, discouraged, disillusioned self, and instead learns, slowly and painfully, how to relish the feeling of building a hut in the middle of the suffocating dust.

When you worked hard in the past, you were doing it to GET SOMETHING, to END UP SOMEWHERE. This time, I want you to work hard just to enjoy the work and to breathe and sometimes just to sweat and suffer. I want you to be right here for a change. Not focused on some moment in the future when everything turns to gold or turns to dust. I want you to look around you as you work, and see that it is brilliant and glistening and you are at the center of everything right here, right now, all alone.

That doesn’t mean that nothing will ever change. If you can learn to be where you are, without fear, then sooner than you know it, your life will quite naturally be filled with more love and more wonder than you can possibly handle. When that happens, you’ll look back and see that this was the most romantic time of your whole life. These are those terrible days, those gorgeous days, when you first learned to breathe and stand alone without fear, to believe not in finish lines but in the race itself. Your legs are aching and your heart is pounding and the world is electric. You will have 30 years or 50 years, or maybe you’ll be gone tomorrow. All that matters is this moment, right now. This is the moment you learn to be here, to feel your limbs, to feel your full heart, to realize, for the first time, just how lucky you are.

Polly

Order the new Ask Polly book, How To Be A Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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