Today in Polly: Beets By Dre
*curls into fetal position*
It’s Today in Polly, the newsletter crossover you didn’t know you had until we sent it, where Heather Havrilesky, professional advice giver and proprietor of Ask Polly and ASK MOLLY joins me to competitively answer any and all reader questions that can be addressed primarily with extended architectural metaphors and/or classic science fiction scenarios.
Our last issue was just a couple weeks ago and in keeping with tradition I have now unlocked it for everyone, so go read that one too if you missed it. But today we have a paean to the virtues of dissociation, a tour of some home renovations in progress, a pleasant interlude in Stardew Valley, and a vision of the future awaiting the few of us that make it through. We’ll also ask: Can you always quit? The answer might surprise you! Let’s go:
I was raised by traumatized and depressed parents. Being around their fragility taught me my preferred coping mechanism, which is checking out whenever I feel anxious or sad or angry - books, TV, repetitive video games, mindless eating, unfocusing my eyes and leaving my body, anything to try to regain a sense of internal quiet, for hours at a time. I know this strategy isn't good for people, and now that I'm middle-aged and married after long years of living alone, change feels urgent. How do you learn to risk not only feeling your feelings, but the possibility that your feelings might hurt someone you love?
The Difficult Child
Rusty: First let’s take a moment to appreciate “checking out” as a coping mechanism. Good for you to have a coping mechanism at all, to begin with, and furthermore way to go having the one that is least likely to land you in jail or have you say something that you can’t ever take back in a moment of anger. Dissociating may not be as hot as it was a couple years ago, but when you really need some mental and emotional maneuvering room, it’s a solid choice. Unfocusing your eyes and leaving your body is probably a top three emotional survival technique in my book, and I think you should give yourself credit for mastering it.
Obviously it’s a problem if that’s your only move though, and you already know you’re ready to step into your body and look out your own eyes again. You asked about “the possibility that your feelings might hurt someone you love,” and oh my sweet difficult summer child, there is no “might.” Your feelings will hurt the people that you love, and they will hurt you. Accepting that is the first step in learning to risk feeling them. When you’re young and it’s your parents’ feelings you’re trying to manage, it can be like the whole world is ending and you’re just a tiny mouse trying to find a place to hide. You’re not a tiny mouse anymore, you’re a whole-ass grownup human being who can take some damage and get back up and keep going.
I took my kids skiing for the first time recently, and it reminded me of when I learned to snowboard. The way you learn to snowboard is: you strap on a snowboard and point yourself down the hill and then fall down every couple minutes for however it long takes for your body to get the hang of it. I can’t think of a better model for learning to be present in your feelings than that—you just have to take a breath and throw yourself down the hill. But bring your partner along. Tell them what you told us, that’s probably a good way to start being open about your feelings if you haven’t already. Tell them that you might get tired and need to check out sometimes. It’s ok to take a break when you need it! Tell them you’ll be back when you’re ready, and then be back when you’re ready. Learn to trust that getting hurt, or hurting someone else, is not the end of anything, it’s just part of life.
Polly: Dear Difficult Child, your name says it all: Deep down, you believe that your adaptive strategies, which helped you survive a childhood among traumatized, depressed parents, have rendered you difficult. Don’t get me wrong: It makes sense that checking out is causing friction in your marriage. But as long as you define your most inventive and resilient methods of self-soothing as a kind of crime against the people around you, you’re going to struggle mightily in your efforts to dig for more feelings and bigger desires.
To your spouse, your withdrawal might look stubborn, callous, or even selfish. But when you check out, you’re doing maintenance on an elaborate system that makes it possible to function, earn a living, bite your tongue, do your best, and serve your spouse's needs. So now that feeling more is on the agenda, you have this creeping sense that if you open the floodgates, things will get too messy to manage. You won’t look like the same dependable, rock-solid, functioning human that you did before.