Ask Polly: I Got Sick, Dumped, and Fired. What Now?

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Dear Polly,

I am in the worst place right now. A year ago, I was in an exciting new relationship with a guy that I loved and I had the job of my dreams. Fast forward a year, through a couple of deaths in the family (including a cousin about my age), major shakeups at work, and a health scare, to this summer, when I was dumped (cruelly and punishingly), fired from my job (unceremoniously), and underwent painful surgery on my reproductive bits, all within the span of a month or two. I am a mess; a fucking mess. I’m turning 34, single, unemployed, and uncertain as to whether that whole “fertility” thing is off the table.

My heart is broken in several places, and all I can seem to do lately is oscillate between slightly below functioning and catatonic. If I make it out of bed, that’s a good day; if I make it all the way to the Starbucks two blocks away, that is a fucking amazing day. I have a therapist, but one hour a week isn’t nearly enough to address the mountain of shit I am under. What’s worse is that being in your mid-30s means that all of your friends, even the best of them, are preoccupied with daily dramas such as maintaining their own sanity while wafting through dirty diapers, spouses, and challenging careers of their own. They have just enough energy to listen politely for a few minutes as you bitch about your problems that likely seem so petty to them, thinking about all of the other things they could be doing. “That sounds really hard,” they nod.

But it is hard.

I feel like I have no network of support, and my family isn’t the kind of family that is good for that. They are the kind of family that would make the pain worse by piling on the guilt and disappointment (“Why didn’t you choose a more stable field when you spent all that money on a master’s degree?” “Why didn’t you marry that one guy we met ten years ago? He was so nice.”). (Note: I also have a spiritual community based in Buddhist practices, but, lately, even leaning on that isn’t helping.)

I don’t know what to do besides lie on the floor or cry in the car. I live in a smallish city, and I sometimes fantasize about moving across country just to run away from everything (my ex and his new girlfriend, my old colleagues, my frustrating family), but I know enough that my misery would just follow me. If just one of these things had happened, I could’ve probably dusted off and powered through, but I feel like I’ve reached a breaking point. I’m lonely, isolated, and there’s no one support group for (potentially) barren unemployed-singles-with-shitty-luck-and-shittier-families. I can’t fix any of it right now, but what should be the priority at 34? Getting my career back on track, trying to find a real partner, figuring out what’s wrong with my body and what to do about it? Or should I just burn it all to the ground while yelling “Fuck it!” and move 3,000 miles away? I’m just so goddamn overwhelmed right now, and I need help!

Everything Is Terrible

Dear Everything Is Terrible,

What you’re going through does sound really fucking terrible. This is one of those intense junctures where every single thing in your life is either truly fucked or it looks completely fucked to you. Can you get pregnant? Who knows, but the fact that it’s even in question is a living nightmare. Can you get another job? Probably, but not when you can’t even get out of bed most of the time. Are your friends capable of talking about what’s happening to you? They don’t seem that able to, with their kids and careers and busy lives. Is your family capable of listening? The last time you tried to talk to them, they piled onto you about your big mistakes, so all signs point to “No fucking thanks.”

A few of these fucked things are going to look less fucked over time. But at the moment, you can’t budge them out of their fucked state. You are so fucked right now that you don’t have the energy to fuck with fucked things. You can’t fucking do it. You can’t even fucking think about the fucked things, because you’re really fucking tired of feeling fucked and knowing you’re fucked and fuck this fucking fucked up life, for fuck’s sake!

So you ask me: Where do I start? Do I deal with my career, deal with my body, find a partner, what? You ask me this in a tone that tells me you believe that a clock is ticking down for you and you have to start today, even though that feels impossible. You ask me this in a voice that says, WHATEVER YOU TELL ME TO DO, I CAN’T FUCKING DO THAT. YOU GET THAT I CAN’T EVEN GET TO THE STARBUCKS, RIGHT? YOU GET THAT? ARE YOU FUCKING LISTENING AT ALL?

I’m guessing some of your therapy sessions take on this tone, too. And I’m not saying you’re “too angry” or “too negative.” Oh, no. Trust me. This is just you, trying to find a way. Your way of finding a way is you saying, “There is no fucking way.”

There are lots of reasons that’s your way. We could talk about how your family talks to you about problems, which seems to fall into the category of Tracy Flick’s mother from the movie Election, who told her perfectionist daughter, after she lost her bid for student-council president, “Maybe you should’ve made more posters.” And even if your family weren’t like that, you’re living in a culture that tells you the same thing. If you’re fucked, you probably fucked yourself. Getting dumped, getting fired, even having health problems (particularly female health problems) — these all feel not just like major failures but major moral failures. You made some serious miscalculations, you transgressed in certain unforgivable ways, and because you’re a woman, all of these things aren’t merely encountered at the level of “Oops, you messed up!” or “Wow, what a loser!” but “How sad, you’re just that sort of extra difficult, problematic, fucked type of woman whose inherent weaknesses and personality flaws invite a world of pain into her life.”

I don’t need to lay out a detailed map of every woman who’s taken a fall and then been ground into the fucking dirt just for having the audacity to try in the first place. Our culture loves to personalize every female failure — and success, too! If you lose, it’s because you’re difficult and crazy. If you win, same thing.

I don’t know about this from personal experience, but from what I’ve gathered, people of color have a similar set of bullshit postgame analyses to confront every single time they try something — anything, really. And as women (and as human beings in general), it behooves us to pay attention to how the world pathologizes and personalizes the failures and successes of people of color and LGBTQ people and other marginalized people. Even though, in my opinion, most sensitive, thoughtful people who do more than blunder blindly through the world are eventually rendered insecure by the systemic poisons of our modern culture, it’s still crucial to notice and understand just how much more poison gets ingested by those in vulnerable groups. That’s not a whiny-snowflake thing to notice; it’s a human-fucking-being thing to notice. And with the world in the state it’s in right now, we have to remind each other, in every stressful moment, who else is under this same stress or worse, and who has been under this kind of stress for decades. This kind of awareness is crucial to finding a path forward and crucial to understanding what true solidarity in the fight against injustice means.

So now you’re thinking “SOLIDARITY? FUCK, I CAN’T EVEN MAKE IT OUT TO THE STARBUCKS, AND YOU’RE TALKING SOLIDARITY?” But this is a piece in our collective puzzle now: Understanding that the things that make you sick aren’t just your particular, isolated lack of supportive family and supportive friends and supportive partners and supportive doctors. Instead, you see sickness in your family and friends and exes and doctors because they’re all drinking the same poisonous water that you are. That poisonous water means that you don’t just get dumped, you get brutally dumped, because that’s what you really deserved. Why did you deserve it? Because your ex didn’t know how to explore or express his own feelings until he was furious and basically hated you and was ready to project all of his frustration with himself and the world onto your relationship, and treat that relationship like garbage that needed to be taken out so he could locate True Love ™, which would never ever demand the same things of him that your Not Good Enough, Complicated, Messy Love did. (Until a few years from now, at which point the shit hits the fan with Mrs. Right, too.)

It doesn’t take a mind reader to know the basic outlines of how people fail each other today, because most people fail each other and themselves in the same ways, over and over again.

Which brings us back to you and this moment. (I know: “FINALLY, MOTHERFUCKER!”) This is an incredible moment in your life for the same reasons that this is an incredible moment in the history of our country. Because your whole life has been razed to the fucking ground. You can’t believe you landed here. You made such careful plans to avoid landing here! And yet, here you are. And what you do right now is going to determine your life from this point forward.

“Well, fantastic,” you’re thinking, “since I can’t even find a way to take a shower most days.” But that’s where real change begins: In an unshowered, inert, very dark place, at that point when you’ve finally acknowledged, “My friends, my family, my career, my love life, my health are all fucked and there’s nowhere to turn. No one can pull me out of this. Therapy is not enough. I NEED MORE!”

You need more. Say it out loud. You need more.

Who is going to give you more?

YOU have to give you more. You have to feed yourself and take care of yourself in better ways. You have to treat yourself like a precious thing. You have to be loyal and true to people who are brave enough to treat you and themselves as precious.

You also have to find ways to make that trip to the Starbucks worthwhile. You have to reinvent reasons to get out of bed, or even just METHODS of getting yourself out of bed. Here’s what I do to get out of bed: No thinking. No reviewing the things I don’t want to do that day. Just put on your clothes, make tea, sit down, write. Every day. Or go outside and walk or run. Every day, first thing, no questions. You decide now what it is you will do, what will help to jump-start your brain and heart and breath, and you commit to it and you do it every goddamn day no matter what, with no thinking or feeling before you begin. You do not lie in bed, trying to locate your will to live. You rise from your bed like a robot and do whatever is required to jump-start your will to live.

That’s just one small thing. You can come up with other concrete solutions that work for you. But the only way you’ll do that is by very consciously avoiding looking at the big picture, at what you deserve versus what you’re getting, at what you wanted versus what you have. Because at this point, all of those big-picture things are too entangled in a YOU SHOULD’VE MADE MORE POSTERS state of mind. That’s your family (poisoned), that’s you (poisoned), but that’s also culture (poisonous). And if you can’t separate the poisons from the YOU yet, you have to sidestep the whole hazardous-waste site for a while and just do the concrete things that you know will get you moving.

You can FEEL what you feel about the big picture, mind you. You should do that in therapy, and do it in your free time by writing down your feelings as much as you can. But trying to “solve” the “problems” that you assume, in your heart, are all your fault, is not going to help right now. Until you can leech out the poisons, too much thinking and analyzing will only make you more neurotic.

That said, you do need more people to talk to, who like to dig deeper than some of the “That sounds hard” Skimmy McLightfeet in your immediate environs. I’ve had my life flattened many times, and one of the worst things about hitting rock bottom is the people who don’t know or can’t remember or don’t want to remember how it is to feel fucked — or who don’t want to admit that they feel fucked, too. Keep in mind that, in our fucked culture, this includes the vast majority of people. And sadly, it’s the people with just the right mix of fuckedness (being a woman) and privilege (being white and not incredibly poor) who tend to be the least inclined to acknowledge fuckedness at large. Sometimes people of color, gay and trans people, people who’ve been through a major sickness or loss, are a little less avoidant and superficial and awkward about other people’s sadness and struggles, and a little more frank about their own. Those people also tend to have a sense of humor about the fact that just existing can be a trial. But they’re also, sometimes, wary of the fact that you could disappear the second you get your good life back. Maybe you’re just a temporary visitor in the land of those who prefer not to play along with our poisonous culture.

And, if you hate yourself for being a loser right now, and if you can’t snap out of that self-hatred, then you’re all the more likely to hate anyone else who our culture treats like they’re losers (when they’re not).

So at the center of this whole mess we find the same question: Are you prepared to recognize, analyze, and reject the poisons you’ve ingested since birth? Are you prepared to feel your feelings without hating yourself for feeling them? Are you ready to stop blaming yourself for everything, and in so doing, stop blaming other people in dire circumstances, as if they created those circumstances themselves? This is the beautiful gift of a world leader with a massively hungry ego who’s filled with self-hatred and projects that self-hatred on anyone he views as having failed: He leads by bad example. “This is how it’s NOT done,” he seems to say with every overly aggressive handshake and every deeply insecure facial contortion, ugly only because his vision of what masculinity must be is so deeply confused and sad and desperately ugly.

Sometimes it’s helpful to imagine how it would look to take the opposite path, to let your humanity show instead of hiding, to stop grabbing and reaching for something to make you feel more powerful, more loved, more worthy, and instead find within yourself the courage to just be a regular human who says, “I am feeling sad and small right now.” Without apologizing for it.

There’s a song by Pinback that embodies that feeling for me (forgive me if I’ve mentioned it before, but God, I love this song):

That song sounds like forgiveness to me. The music seems to tell a story of cycles: Just when you think you’re about to fly, you are free-falling. This is just how it feels to be alive. You didn’t bring yourself here. This world planted you here. Forgive yourself for being here. Imagine owning that everything is terrible right now without suggesting any path forward. Imagine admitting that this place you’re in is hard, very hard, without explaining how you got here, without apologizing for being here, and for taking up someone else’s time, as your own time to make your life perfect runs out. Imagine divorcing your ego from this picture, and cutting our culture’s mean-spirited take out of this picture while you’re at it. Imagine that there’s no postgame analysis of your personality flaws in the mix. Lose the surveillance camera that’s always playing inside your brain.

No one is watching you closely. No clock is ticking down. True emancipation means escaping the ravages of ego, escaping that second-to-second hunger and confusion that an insatiable ego entails. Emancipation means having the power to say: I am what I am, for better or for worse.

This is me. I am here.

Now that you’re here, now that everything has been razed, now that you know that you can’t lean on the people around you that easily, now that you know that the strongest-seeming people are sometimes the weakest of all, you can recalibrate. You can look inside and find your strength. What you do now will determine how the rest of your life will unfold.

Now you’ll be a better friend to the people who need you. Now you’ll be a better partner to someone who can tell you the truth about what he’s feeling. Now you’ll look into people’s faces and you’ll recognize when they’re at war with themselves, when they’re hiding, when they’re anxious for more, more, more. Now you’ll seek people who’ve been through some stuff, who don’t mind saying so, who don’t mind hearing the darkness in your life and even in your soul.

You’re ready to embrace your whole self, now, not just the part that can do what the world expects of her. You’re ready to show the world your real face, without always flinching in anticipation of the next blow. When someone tells you “Maybe you should’ve …,” your heart goes to a calm place, and you understand that this is them off-gassing their own poisons. You forgive and, suddenly, you are also forgiven.

You are in the worst place right now. You are in the best place right now. Don’t move away. Be right here, right now, without any apologies, without any stories, without hiding. Use this place for all it’s worth.

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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Ask Polly: I Got Sick, Dumped, and Fired. What Now?