Ask Polly: I Moved Back Home, and I’m Miserable!

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Photo: Clarissa Leahy/Getty Images

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Dear Polly,

I recently moved home, back in with my parents. I’d been living in New York City and was underemployed and very depressed for all the reasons that all the artistically minded 20-somethings these days are depressed. I thought that if nothing else, moving home would be a kind of reprieve, a way for at least one aspect of my life to be a little easier.

That didn’t happen, obviously. I feel myself slipping back into childhood patterns and hating myself for it. It’s hard to see my parents growing old, to cope with my mother’s untreated depression, to see their quietly dissatisfying marriage. And most of all, my parents have made it clear that they are uninterested in and unable to deal with my sadness. My mother has suggested I am selfish for expecting her to take on my problems on top of her own and it would be better for everyone if I just sucked it up and never spoke about it like she’s always done.

I feel invisible. I want to wander the halls weeping and force them to look at me and listen to me and feel as helpless in the face of my sadness as I do. Probably this is selfish. I’m not a kid anymore, and my parents don’t have to subvert their lives and desires to mine. But I’m increasingly resentful and depressed by their unwillingness to acknowledge what I feel. The obvious solution is to move out, but I can’t afford to and have nowhere to go. But I don’t know how to balance the strong, silent insistence that I put on a brave face and my desire to just fall apart sometimes, and the fact that I came home because I thought it was where I’d be allowed to do so, and the knowledge that that’s so selfish and immature. How do I find some peace in this situation for as long as I’m powerless to change it?

Sad and Probably Selfish

Dear SAPS,

You’re facing four incredibly difficult challenges at once: (1) dealing with depression; (2) making peace with exactly how dysfunctional your family is; (3) figuring out what to do with your life; and (4) coping with a structureless, amorphous daily existence. Any single one of these challenges could body-slam the average 20-something human being and leave her broken and devastated. These are challenges that, individually, take years to tackle, sometimes decades. You are trying to face all four of these enormous challenges at once.

If you weren’t depressed to begin with, this situation would make you depressed immediately. And now you’re trying to get help from someone (your mother! Why not?) who’s telling you, flat out, that she can’t and won’t help you. It seems absurd to you that she won’t help and doesn’t want to hear it. If she can’t help you, who will, right? But for some reason your mom isn’t equipped to handle this kind of emotional challenge.

Believe me, it’s not just that she has problems of her own. That part makes sense, but that’s not the full picture. This is a woman who can’t handle raw emotion from someone close to her. She wants to help, but she can’t, and she hates herself for it. She is defensive about her inability to help you, so she calls you names to make herself feel less guilty about it.

So right now you’re locked in a classic dysfunctional battle. You want support, and you’re going to keep making your unhappiness more and more apparent to her, and she wants you to get tough and leave her out of it, so she’s going to keep saying hurtful things to push you away. This can only end badly! It’s like calling an aloof ex-boyfriend and threatening to hurt yourself. You cannot go down this path right now. You can’t allow yourself to stay locked in the tractor beam of your mother’s withholding, defensive, dysfunctional Death Star. This is going to hurt like a motherfucker. You’ve got to back off and view this situation from a great distance.

And also, oh yeah, you’re depressed as hell.

You have to find a therapist immediately. If you skip over this step, you might as well not read the rest of my advice. You are at the dead center of I NEED A THERAPIST NOW land. Almost no one on the planet needs a therapist more than you do. If you had all of the money in the world, I’d say move out immediately and see a therapist three times a week. But you already told me you can’t move out.

So tell your parents that you’re sorry you’ve been such a mess and ask them if they can help you pay for therapy temporarily. If you’re still on their insurance, that will help. If you’re not, they might be able to add you to their insurance again. Ask them when you’re nice and calm, okay? Tell them you’re going to look for a job doing something, anything, but you need to see a therapist starting now or you’re going to be in big, big trouble. Tell them, “I am severely depressed. I know that you guys have your own troubles. But I’ve got to get professional help from someone and I need your help to do that. We can write down all costs, and I promise I will pay you back slowly once I get a job. I am sorry for being a burden right now; I know this is a lot.”

Yes, I’m telling you to make the right sounds. Yes, this won’t sound entirely authentic to you. That’s by design. We want to get you in therapy, pronto.

If they say no, look up all of your local clinics with sliding-scale therapists and make an appointment. Do your homework and make it happen. You must not skip this step.

Now I’m going to tell you some other things about your situation because I know you’re isolated and you maybe need to hear that someone else gets it. But look, you have to be in therapy, and you have to work hard to put yourself into a position to move out as soon as possible. You need to be in high-gear emergency mode right now. I know you’re depressed, so that’s hard-to-impossible. But you can’t lie down on the ground and ask your mother to come to your rescue. That will be your impulse. That’s why you’re there in the first place. It’s not going to work. Instead, it’s going to hurt like hell, because she can’t help. Don’t test her right now. Don’t test yourself. It’s too dangerous.

But, as a fellow emotional kid, I have to tell you: I get it. Holy God, do I get it. You went back home to be supported. You figured, At least I have my mommy. But it’s almost like a horror story where your mommy is replaced by an indifferent stranger. So now you’re pounding on her door. GIVE ME BACK MY MOMMY!

Argh, it hurts me to think about it. Boy, have I been there. And when the stranger says, “I have my own problems, damn it!” you feel like the most selfish terrible human alive, but you are also enraged, angrier than you’ve ever been in your life, because you realize that IT HAS ALWAYS BEEN EXACTLY LIKE THIS.

Telling you that your current path is ill-advised is like telling a clumsy kid to reconsider a career in knife juggling. You need a therapist, friends, a job, daily structure, and exercise. If you tell me, “I had all those things in NYC except the therapist, and it wasn’t working,” what I’m going to say to you is that your current situation isn’t working either, to the point where eventually it will shatter you.

Okay, that said, do you see why you came home? In some ways, you wanted to reassure yourself that you were supported by SOMEONE. In other ways, you thought you could get a break from your anxiety about your career, your creative ambitions, your bills, everything. But being back in your own bedroom, with no schedule, in a house with parents who simply want you to handle your shit and get out of their faces? Whew, is that a recipe for disaster.

Once you start therapy, you’re going to need to impose some structure on your life. To help you feel less guilty and selfish, I would put two helpful household tasks on your schedule every single day. For example: Do some laundry. Weed the garden. Load the dishwasher. Walk the dog. Wash the windows in the front of the house, inside and out. The harder the chores, the better. Do things your mom has been putting off. (Check with her first.) This will buy you a lot of goodwill, and it will make you feel less worthless. Yes, obviously you’re also angry at your parents, which is perfectly normal and which you need to talk about in therapy and write about and call your friends to cry about. But helping out will be good for you. It’ll give you the faintest feeling that you’re productive and useful, which is invaluable at this moment.

You also need exercise. A long walk is fine. You have to move, though, if you’re able to do so, because it will help with the depression (in addition to whatever your therapist recommends).

You need to look for a job, too. I know you’re confused about what comes next, but I don’t think you can solve that problem from your childhood bedroom, under the current circumstances. I would look for work instead, so you can move out soon.

The bottom line is, this reprieve is not a reprieve. You’re more anxious and upset and depressed and angry than ever. This is a crisis in your life. As someone who’s been through plenty of crises, I want you to know that even though moving home now feels like a massive mistake, one thing is definitely true: You’re facing a lot of stuff all at once that most people face over the course of a lifetime. And I’m willing to bet that this enormous shitstorm will be something you look back on and laugh about eventually. You’ll also look back and say, “I learned so much about myself that year.” It’s traumatic, honestly, how much you’re learning, but don’t run away from it or avoid it or take to sleeping around the clock. Be kind to yourself and forgive yourself for feeling sad and weak. It’s so normal and natural to feel sad and weak in your position.

Go on a long walk and cry. Wash the windows and cry. See your therapist and cry. It’s okay to live that way for a while! Write things down. You’ll want to remember this time. Everything terrible about this moment is also incredibly promising. Use everything you find here. You want to be an artist? This is where art is born, in this intersection of melancholy and hope and terror, in this perilous place where all of the tiny lies of a lifetime fall away to reveal the hideous, gorgeous, heartbreaking truth.

You can pull yourself out of the gloom and also believe in this gloom. You can break the world apart and put it back together again. Therapy will help you to see how invigorating and devastating and electric it is to live where you are right now. Don’t call yourself or anyone else names. Don’t ask for permission from your parents to do what you need to do or expect them to understand your plan or your journey. Give them the respectful space they want. Don’t compulsively look for love and support and a listening ear where there is only an overwhelmed, depressed woman. You aren’t selfish to ask, for the record. You just aren’t going to get what you need from her right now. She already told you that.

Growing up means letting go of illusions. I know it hurts. God, it took me so long to do what you’re about to do. It took me so long to stop putting my hand straight into the flame, then wonder why I got burned. People would tell me to stop, and it only made me cry. “Why can’t he/she just give me what I need?” I asked, over and over.

The trick is to keep your heart open somehow, even as you’re in an amazing amount of pain. The trick is to remain hopeful about the future, even when the past looks rotten. The trick is to keep moving, even when every cell in your body wants to give up. But you’re brave and you can do this.

You will feel terrible, but you’ll take one small step, and it will feel good. Keep doing that. Keep doing very small things. They will add up, no matter how small they feel when you’re doing them. Be patient with yourself, love yourself, care for yourself, and celebrate every small thing you can do. No one else can take care of you, not really. That’s the most heartbreaking part of becoming an adult, but it’s also cause for celebration. No one else can take care of you. You don’t have to ask for something you won’t get anymore. Now you can give to yourself instead.

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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