“When you’re curious about your shame instead of afraid of it . . . you can run your hands along your own self-defeating edges until you get a splinter, and you can pull the splinter out and stare at it and consider it.” ~ Heather Havrilesky, from “I’m Broke and Mostly Friendless, and I’ve Wasted My Whole Life”
Wednesday late afternoon. Cloudy and still cold, 29 degrees.
Today’s post is a bit different—it’s a direct reaction. I stumbled upon an article in “The Cut,” which is part of New York Magazine. It was a letter to the “Dear Polly” advice column, which is written by Heather Havrilesky (all headers are from this), and the title of the letter was “I’m broke and mostly friendless, and I’ve wasted my whole life.”
I cannot begin to tell you how much that title brought me up short—it’s too close to two of my favorite sayings: “I’m fat, ugly, and my mother dresses me funny” (thanks for that, Kathleen), and “I still don’t know what I’m going to be when I grow up.” I actually sat and just stared at the title for a long time before I even began to read the actual article, and what the writer had to say could have been written by me, only a younger me.
In essence, the woman, 35, feels as if she is floundering because she chose to move around a lot; she rationalizes her moves and choices as being, “adventurous, exploratory,” and now she feels that she has nothing to show for it: no lasting relationship, a job that she doesn’t enjoy, and few friends. Additionally, she is now saddled with a lot of debt and few prospects for advancement in her career. Ultimately, the woman says that she now “feels like a ghost.” As a result, she finds that she is drinking too much, and ultimately feels old and past her prime. The woman, who once considered herself creative, now says, “I’m jealous [of artistic people] and don’t understand how I landed this far away from myself.” She signs herself “Haunted.”
Honestly, I could have written that letter with a few adjustments, and I could have written it at several different points in my life, including when I was 35, which was a lifetime ago.
“When you carry around a suspicion that there’s something sort of embarrassing or pathetic about you, you find ways to project that shame onto completely innocuous things . . . to tell yourself that everyone is laughing at you behind your back somewhere . . .”
Obviously, there are some differences. I have had children, while she has not. I have had one previous marriage and am now in my second marriage with a man I’ve been with approaching two decades. In spite of these major differences, I understand this woman much more than I like. I remember having a crisis of faith in myself when I was at the museum. I just felt as if I didn’t know who I was any more.
I hadn’t done the work on my doctorate or my MFA while I was teaching at ODU, and that was part of my plan. I hadn’t really done anything with my writing, other than entering a few contests and sending off a few poems. I felt as if I was suffocating in my own failure.
Let me pause here. Yes, I am well aware that I had a lot to be grateful for at that time: a family, a home, a job, etc. But you cannot know nor understand the kind of suffocation that I felt unless you have been mired in it yourself. My children have always been the great joy in my life, but I have never seen myself as a wife/mother. That was never my chosen identity. My then spouse knew that going in, but once we had children, I found myself relegated to many of the traditional parental roles; for example, I always took the kids to the doctor, never him, yet when we married and discussed everything, we had agreed on 50/50.
So what happened?
“Shame creates imaginary worlds inside your head. This haunted house you’re creating is forged from your shame. No one else can see it . . . You find ways to say, ‘You don’t want any part of this mess. I’m mediocre, aging rapidly, and poor . . .leave me behind.’ You want to be left behind, though. That way, no one bears witness to what you’ve become.”
What happened was time. Time has a funny way of changing everything, including all of your plans. We never planned to lose a daughter. We never planned to have a third child. We never planned to grow apart.
It just became easier to move into roles with which we had become comfortable . . . until it wasn’t.
I didn’t plan to have a major identity crisis. It wasn’t a midlife crisis. It was a true identity crisis, as in I didn’t have the least idea of who in the hell I was. Like Haunted, I just couldn’t figure out who I was, and as a result, I began to push people away. I subconsciously believed that I didn’t deserve to have people who loved and respected me. I wasn’t worthy of any kind of admiration or praise. I felt like a terrible human being.
And I wish that I could say that it was the only time in my life that I felt that way, but it wasn’t.
“My shame is the fuel that keeps me writing . . . What if you just decided that you’re an artist, today, right now? You’re sensitive and erratic, maybe. You’re maudlin and also expansive. What would it look like to own that identity, as a means of making art . . .”
Havrilesky’s advice to Haunted is to let go of her shame, which is all well and good, but oh so very hard to do. Granted, Havrilesky does a mighty job of relating to Haunted, talking about how her own shame shaped her and how she tried to write her way out of it. And maybe Havrilesky’s words genuinely helped haunted. At least, I hope so.
But I know those words wouldn’t have helped me. I read so many books after Caitlin died, trying to find an answer, trying to find a way to assuage my guilt. Nothing helped. The books just made me mad. It’s hard to take advice from words in a book or on a page or a screen, regardless of how much you really want to.
Then later, after I had my sons, I actually felt right for a while, felt as if I truly could move on, let go of the guilt, enjoy life just as it was. And I tried, oh god how I tried. I worked, and I wrote once in a while when I felt moved—which is a terrible approach to writing, just ask any professional writer—and I tried to live on love and hope, and I wish that I could tell you that it succeeded, and it did, until it didn’t.
“You might feel proud of your small creations and you might start to see how every single thing you’ve done, every place you’ve been, every town you’ve lived in and left, every friend you’ve gotten to know and then forgotten, they all add up to a giant pile of treasure.”
I chose to use Havrilesky’s response to Haunted for my headers because it’s a beautiful piece of writing; it’s sincere and compelling. And I know in my heart that she probably did help some individuals who read it. In fact, I would urge you to read both the letter and the response if you have time.
But ultimately, if you carry shame or guilt or any such debilitating feeling around for too many years, it melts beneath your skin and becomes permanent, and all of the homilies and all of the wonderfully written books, or articles, or passages, or quotes—all of those will not penetrate nearly as completely. That is not to say that they cannot be temporary balms because they certainly can.
Whenever I’ve had a particularly thoughtful comment on this blog over the years, it has touched me and delighted me and just maybe made my day better than before. So yes, words can and do help. But my point is that Haunted, who in many ways is a younger me, can only help herself once she is ready, and she may never be ready. But, and this is a big but, Haunted obviously has hit a point at which she is ready for change, otherwise she never would have written the letter, and that’s a very important point, so here’s hoping Haunted has better days.
I do want to close with this wonderful passage from Havrilesky’s response. Do try to read the original:
She is blindfolded, sitting on a mountain of glittering gems. She is beautiful, but she feels ugly. She has a rich imagination and a colorful past, but she feels poor. She thinks she deserves to be berated because she has nothing. She has everything she needs.
~ Heather Havrilesky, from “I’m Broke and Mostly Friendless, and I’ve Wasted My Whole Life”
More later. Peace.
*All of today’s images were found on NASA’s official image gallery, which you can find here. (I felt like I needed images of swirling storms.)
Music by Cloves, “Don’t Forget About Me”
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
~ David Wagoner