Our lady of broken pheromones

I get it: Ask Polly is your boozy, brassy bestie who tells it like it is and has your best interests at heart. She winds up talking about herself more than I think is truly necessary, but hey, Cheryl Strayed (Dear Sugar) tells stories about herself in her columns. Is there an advice columnist who doesn’t draw on personal experience? That’s why we come to them for help. We think they’ve lived bravely and messily enough to help us make sense of ourselves, why we’re stuck or miserable or so horribly sad.

One reason we prize these columnists is they often answer the question we didn’t even know we were trying to ask. I read through posts I don’t think relate to me and by the end discover I needed to hear these words for an entirely different punch-to-the-heart reason. There are those times when you get excited, though — when you see a question in a headline that you’ve wondered if you should send in yourself.

Ask Polly: I’m Pretending I’m Happy Single, But I’m Not!

Seems promising! Much to everyone’s shock, I haven’t been someone’s girlfriend since two brief and unsatisfying stints in high school — yes, you read that right. Now I’m 32 and while I have plenty of friends who are also single, many others are married, in long-term relationships that might as well be marriage and/or expecting first or second children, at an age when I really thought I’d be doing same. Granted, I didn’t think at 32 that my mother would be dead of cancer for four and a half years, or that I would wind up in New York City, or that I would love comics or swing dancing or writing about health care policy. I’m open to surprises, especially if they’re the good kind. Ask Polly usually is.

I’ll let you read this column yourself and see if it makes you as viscerally upset as it made me. The letter-writer says she’s done everything right, she’s been her best self and she’s put herself out there, but she can’t escape a dark, hungry grief at how alone she is in the world, that as wonderful as her life is, she has no one to share it with. Not only that, but she has to pretend she’s fine to accommodate everyone around her, lest they be disquieted by her pain — and that she’ll never find love until she comes to terms with her singleness, a fairy-talesque bit of unfairness and rules, if you ask me.

Polly picks up on all the wrong words and lays into her. “It’s time to live in the real world,” she says, rather than with the ghost of this man and this life you think you deserve. As long as you do things and take on the attitude that you are the boss and you are the captain of your fate and you own everything you do, “I guarantee you that the second you stop pretending that everything is fucking hunky-dory and start building the life you want instead of waiting around for someone to save you, you’re going to start attracting people everywhere you go.”

I like existentialism. I like the idea that what we have is our actions, here and now, not in some imagined hereafter. But Polly didn’t, if I may be a bit French about it, answer the fucking question, even if she’s wildly sure that she did.

The letter-writer speaks often of her grief. I did everything right. I did everything I was supposed to. I was myself, I didn’t settle, and yet I’m so sad, I’m terrified I’ll lose everything, meager as it is, if I’m honest. Those are my words; that’s what welled up when I read that letter. And yet somehow, for Polly, it’s just a question of willpower. Get off your ass! Be your most authentic self! Don’t give a shit about expectations, just let it happen!

That is not shit you say to a very depressed person.

There’s a puritanical streak in Polly’s answer: You must deserve this misery because you’re not doing the work. And yet this suggestion comes up in so many advice columns — if you just find some activity or group or MeetUp, you’ll perk up and find what you need. I want very badly for that to be true. But I have to rejoin with a passage from Sarah Kurchak’s excellent “Depression-Busting Exercise Tips for People Too Depressed to Exercise“:

When it comes to having a mental illness, the G.I. Joe doctrine is meaningless: Knowing what will help you isn’t close to half the battle. It’s a tenth of the battle, at best. Most people with depression are already aware — often too aware — of all the things we could or should be doing to combat our condition. But where the well-meaning mentally healthy person sees a straightforward progression toward improvement, we see the paradox: yes, if we could do those things, it might help our depression, but not being able to do those things is a major part of being depressed.

I’m also furious at Polly’s self-aggrandizement. I’m glad that she bought a house and had a dog and kicked out her do-nothing boyfriend and that she feels confident enough to cap it all off on this shitty note:

You’ll probably end up domestically enslaved eventually. I’m not saying “KEEP THE FAITH,YOUR MAN WILL COME!” and I’m also not saying “GIVE UP ON LOVE FOREVER!” The fact is that if you do what I’m telling you to do — plunge forward and embrace your life and open your heart and learn a new way to live and be real, never fake — you are very likely to stumble on a husband and have a few kids. And then you’ll look back on this time and you’ll say, “Man, I had it good, back when my whole life was my own creation.” And you’ll have to crawl out of a messy haze of diapers and bickering to get that capable, strong feeling back again.

But depression is not fakery, and the letter-writer sounds hella depressed. I know I am, and I know how profoundly hurt I felt after flinching away from Polly’s answer. Throwing yourself into activities without taking care of what grieves you is just not going to fix everything Polly proposes it will fix.

This letter feels unkind. And the thing is, Polly can be kind about depression. She was kinder last April, although her declaration that not exercising for an hour each morning was effectively proclaiming “I PREFER MISERY OVER JOY” is a bit much. But she also said, “You struggle because you’re locating all of the magic in your life outside of yourself.” She said, “You are not lost. You are here. Stop abandoning yourself.” She was much kinder in June 2014, when she wrote:

Your identity until now has depended on how other people see you. Starting today, you have to feel your way towards an identity that makes sense to you and you alone. Your moments of freedom, of possibility, of feeling in touch with yourself, have been blotted out by your anxiety and neediness and struggle to blame yourself and NOT blame yourself and blame yourself all over again.

She was even kinder in November 2013, when she wrote, “You’re addicted to loneliness and desperation. It’s the strongest emotion you’ve ever known, so your subconscious tells you that it’s your destiny.” (Her instructions throughout the remainder of that letter are wonderful.) So why does it feel like Polly needs a reread of Allie Brosh’s painfully accurate Hyperbole and a Half comics “Adventures in Depression (Part 1 and Part 2)”? Tough love, as the Establishment’s Kurchak notes, “is probably the last thing you need at a time like this.”

Twitter user E. Kimble probably diagnosed it correctly in response to my late-night screech of anger and pain: “Having binge-read a lot of Ask Polly over the last couple days, I feel like Polly is a good writer capable of giving advice to her past self, and nobody else.”

Much shorter than an advice column, but I feel like until Polly finds her way back outside herself, that pretty much hits the target.

I wish I had an answer for the letter-writer, who calls herself Unhappy Spinster. I’m starting to get scared myself, not least because even though nothing in me is screaming out for a baby, I know my eggs become “geriatric” after 35. My parents had me at 41 and 43, and I spent my whole life in the shadow of their health problems, never realizing it wasn’t normal. My heart hurts to know that I have no one to go on adventures with, or who will hold me when I’m screaming into my pillow with loss, or who will take my hand and make big choices with me, who wants to build something with me. I know I deserve better, and I use “deserve” because everyone deserves the love they want.

I did everything right (its own extensive essay); I haven’t dated shitheads just to have a guy, I joined activities that I like because I like them, I’ve gone on dates from websites and apps, I’ve asked my friends for help setting me up, and still nothing. That gets framed as “I don’t know anyone who deserves you,” like that’s supposed to console me. There’s no one, and I can’t help but feel torn between I’ve done everything right, where are they? and no one will ever want me, what is it about me that’s wrong?

Back in college, I used to describe this feeling as “my pheromones are broken.” Any guy I got hopeful about was never interested, and any guy who expressed dately longings was never who I wanted, and just wasn’t going to be. You feel like the 52-Hz whale, with no one else in your species to pick up your signal. If you want a partner in life and you haven’t ever been in a relationship as an adult, trust me: you don’t need Ask Polly to make you feel defective.

Uphappy Spinster, I hope you get Raptured into relationship bliss sooner rather than later. But until you do, I’m here too, and I hear you, sister. I’m sending you my love.

 Read more about #52essays17.

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