Help, My Friend’s Life Makes Me Feel Worse About My Own!

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Help, My Friend's Life Makes Me Feel Worse About My Own!

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Estimated reading time: 25 minutes

Doctor’s Note: Today’s column involves discussion of sexual abuse, grooming and rape. 

Dear Dr. NerdLove,

I’m a 39-year-old woman who didn’t lose my virginity until I was 29, and then only because I was determined to, even in very unideal circumstances. Despite my best efforts, I’ve still never had anything that could be called a relationship — just unrequited crushes and sex with a handful of men who used me, then ghosted. A little over a year ago I had an encounter with a childhood friend that sent me spiraling in what I’m afraid are some seriously unhealthy ways.

I’ll begin at the beginning. Growing up, I was an unattractive and socially awkward outcast who dealt with being bullied and shunned by my peers by constantly telling myself I was going to be beautiful and successful when I grew up. I latched onto stories of models and actresses who claimed to have been ugly ducklings and fictional characters who went from homely children to beautiful women. I always did well in school, but this was so taken for granted by my upper-middle-class family that I didn’t derive any real self-esteem from it. The only area of my life where I had any confidence or sense of achievement was a certain sport I participated in from a young age—a very expensive sport that I was only able to do because my father made a good professional income, although I was still one of the “poorest” kids involved.

From about age 10-15 my only real friend was a girl who participated in the same sport, and would talk and hang out with me at sporting venues even though she ignored me at school. She was quiet, bookish and creative, like me, but unlike me she was extremely pretty. When we were 13 (I believe it started shortly before she turned 14, since she was a few months older than me) she became sexually involved with a man in a position of authority with regard to our sport. He would have been about 28 at the time, and was so good-looking and charismatic that every single adult woman who knew him seemed to have a crush on him or actually be pursing him. There were rumors that he was gay because he never dated any of them—little did anyone know this was because he was secretly “dating” a child.

My friend told me in detail about losing her virginity to this man and their further sexual encounters, which she seemed completely happy and enthusiastic about. Not having the sense at the time to realize how fucked up this was, I was simply wildly jealous of her, because I, like everyone else had a crush on him, but he never behaved remotely inappropriately toward me. This continued for approximately a year and a half, until we were 15, when he died suddenly in an accident. Everyone was grief-stricken but my friend went absolutely crazy, and couldn’t tell her parents or anyone why. This happened during the summer, and she wasn’t at school the following fall. I heard she had been sent to boarding school, and had no contact with her for many years.

I didn’t grow up to be beautiful; I look pretty much like you’d expect me to look from my childhood pictures. When I was 16 my father left my mother, siblings and me for a younger woman and had a second family, whom he seems determined to concentrate his resources on. He paid only minimal child support and I had to quit my beloved sport. He promised to pay for my college education, then reneged, leaving me with a colossal debt that I’m still paying off while living in a studio apartment and working dead-end admin jobs that don’t even require a degree. Despite sustained and extensive efforts, I’ve failed to achieve even the smallest success in the creative hobby I hoped to make a career of. And my romantic life has been as stated above. Of all the things I promised myself, as a lonely outcast kid, that I would have when I grew up…personal beauty; a hot, rich husband; a large, beautiful house; children; international travel; a creative career; success, or at least continued participation, in my sport…I have achieved exactly zero of them.

All this time, especially once I matured enough to do some research into and reading about abuse, I told myself that my friend was a victim who was probably deeply traumatized by what this grown man did to her. Either that, or that she had never actually been involved with him, just obsessed with him, and was fantasizing and lying to me about their relationship. (Trying to ignore that the sexual details she shared were nothing an early-teenage virgin could have come up with on her own.) I mostly managed to turn any lingering feelings of jealousy I had toward her to pity and a hope for her recovery. I told myself that the silver lining to my unattractiveness was that I was never similarly victimized, and even into adulthood never got any unwanted attention from men. Of course I never got any wanted attention either, but I told myself that many women (including maybe even my former friend) would happily trade places with me, and I should count my blessings.

Then, a little over a year ago, I very randomly ran into my old friend when we both happened to be in the same town near where we grew up. She recognized me before I recognized her (I told you my looks hadn’t changed!) and we went to lunch together and had a long talk about our lives since the death of her “lover” and our separation.

 

Basically she went through a period of depression and promiscuity at boarding school, and while traveling through Europe the summer before college (it didn’t prevent her from getting into a very prestigious one). She settled down at college and met her husband, who was then in grad school, her senior year. Yes, he’s hot. And rich. And she has everything else I always wanted, as well. The house. The kids. She’s still thin, beautiful and youthful-looking. She’s traveled and has plans for further travel. She’s had some creative success, and will probably only have more as her kids get older and she has more time to devote to it. For now, she’s a stay-at-home mom (my ultimate dream). And yes, she still participates in our sport, and has gotten her kids into it as well.

We talked about her abuser/lover, and as it turns out, her big conflict is that she now knows intellectually that he was a pervert and a predator, but still feels emotionally that he loved her, she loved him, that their relationship was a beautiful and positive experience for her, and that the only trauma she suffered was from losing him. She says she loves her husband, but still thinks that if this man had lived, they would have gotten married when she turned 18, as they’d discussed, and she would have been as or more happy. She doesn’t like to talk about this experience with her husband, because he insists (like any sane person) that this man abused her. And she’s conflicted about how to talk to her daughters about sex and relationships in the coming years, because she’s going to have to either lie to them about her own experience, or tell them “do as I say, not as I did.” But overall she is shockingly happy and well-adjusted. We’ve stayed in occasional touch since then, and as far as I can tell she is not putting on any kind of facade.

Immediately after meeting her I fell into an obsessive spiral of dredging up old memories and reevaluating my and my friend’s lives in light of what I now knew versus what I’d assumed. Far from being a traumatic handicap, her early sexual experience — in spite of the loss surrounding its ending — seemed to have set her up for a lifetime of love, success, and happiness, while my unattractiveness and unwantedness at the same age seemed to have set me up for a lifetime of loneliness, insecurity, and failure. I couldn’t, and still can’t get over that she attracted the kind of man I can’t even dream of attracting now, as a mature, educated, savvy woman, when she was just a silly, naive adolescent girl. That she got him, at an age when I couldn’t even get an adolescent boy to hold my hand or sit with me in the cafeteria. It felt like she had effortlessly won first place in her very first competition, and was thus forever exempted from any fear of ever being among the losers. The more I mulled it over, the more it came to seem that this was something I’d instinctively felt to be true all along, but suppressed in favor of a more conventional, acceptable version of events, until I was unavoidably hit with the truth which ran counter to that. It feels like one more of those truths that the world, for whatever reason, does not want acknowledged, and tries to convince me there’s something wrong with me for knowing. That looks do matter…that money can, to a large extent, buy happiness…that you won’t, in fact, find love when you’re least looking for it… that not every rich, beautiful, happy-seeming person has some secret misery to counterbalance their fortune and make them unworthy of envy, just as not every poor, unattractive, unhappy person has some secret inner joy or virtue.

Just a couple of weeks later — in fact, on yet another online date that went nowhere — I happened to see a movie and became unexpectedly hyperfixated on a villain character who somewhat resembled my friend’s abuser/lover at the time I knew him. Out of nowhere I began to write a novel-length story about a psychopathic teenage girl (based not on my friend, but on my own ideal, inner adolescent self) who gets into a relationship with this character, and I posted it anonymously online. I’ve received praise for my writing, which is far more creative validation than I’ve ever had before. But I’ve also had people telling me to kill myself, calling me a pedophile, etc. Normally I’m able to smile at just how bass-ackwards that is, when the girl is clearly the viewpoint character with whom the reader is meant to identify and sympathize, while the man is the love/lust object — the opposite of how a pedophile would probably write such a story. I know that I have no sexual attraction toward children (I’m actually somewhat uneasy around them, due to my memories of being bullied) and would never do anything to hurt another person. Yet whenever I get such a comment, I can’t seem to resist beating myself up mentally, telling myself this confirms what a thoroughly ugly and worthless person I am, for even longer than the giddy high I get from positive comments.

I’m highly reluctant abandon this story because it’s the most I’ve written in almost two decades, and it feels like something that has to come out of me. But is it a healthy or unhealthy way to cope? How should I be thinking about what happened between this man and my friend, and how our respective lives turned out? I’m going to have to be my own therapist here, because the result of trying to get counseling on my bare-bones health insurance is a 25-minute once-a-month Zoom appointment with a grad student (young enough to be my daughter, if I’d been a teen mom) who listens sweetly, but has no actual insight or advice to offer. More generally, how can I come to terms with not having the life that I wanted, and stop so painfully envying my friend and every other person who has such a life?

Searching for Some Success, Somewhere

OK, this is… a lot. And I’m going to go ahead and remind you (and everyone reading this) that Dr. NerdLove is not a real doctor… because honestly a lot of this is stuff you should be unpacking with an actual mental health professional and not a loudmouth with an advice column. A lot of this is waaaaay above my paygrade. I know that your insurance makes it difficult. It’s still important. Captain Awkward has a couple of posts on her site for finding low-cost or even free mental health care that I would highly recommend checking out.

But, if nothing else, there’re a few things I think I can point out that might help at least give you food for thought and possibly point to different directions to send those thoughts and feelings.

The most obvious thing that sticks out to me is how much you’re looking to validation from others – either directly (getting praised from your family for your academic and athletic achievements, comments on your fanfic) or by comparison with your friend. And as much as I’m sure it feels like I’m dismissing things or hand waving them away… what you’re describing in your letter is precisely why relying so heavily on external validation is a trap. It’s an inherently unstable foundation to build on precisely because anything can take it away. Those negative comments kick out the loadbearing support of your self-esteem. Realizing that your friend isn’t adhering to the trauma-victim narrative in your head tosses means that you don’t have that comparison to allow you to feel better about yourself. Everything just spirals down the drain and the negative thoughts and feelings just get that much louder, that much more real and that much more “authentic”.

But a lot of this really does come down to the stories you’re telling yourself and how much you’re holding onto a very narrow view of things. Even when the previous narrative you told yourself is proven to be incorrect, rather than recognizing that maybe things are more complex or messy than you’d thought, you shift to a different narrative. And this new narrative is not that different from the previous; it’s as black-and-white/them-vs-me, no mess, no shades of gray as the others. The only difference is in this one you’re the asshole instead of the beneficiary.

But that’s not the case either. Let’s take your friend as an example. I don’t think anyone with even a lick of sense is going to disagree that what this authority figure did to your friend was monstrous. This was grooming, it was abuse and it was rape. A 13-year old can’t give consent to sex with an adult and the adult absolutely should know better. Even with all the seeming romance of a handsome authority figure falling for her, folks should have all sorts of questions about why a grown ass man thinks someone who’s barely a teenager would be a good partner in a relationship. It is, unquestionably fucked up in every sense.

This is why it’s entirely understandable that you’re a little gobsmacked at how your friend views it. There’s really no wiggle room here, no “from a certain point of view”… it was abuse. But your friend doesn’t see it that way. Why? Well… because people are messy and rarely slot into easily delineated roles or behaviors, and they can frequently hold two entirely contradictory beliefs at the same time. Cognitive dissonance is a motherfucker, especially when it strikes at the core of your being.

Your friend’s story reminds me a bit of just 14 when she lost her virginity to David Bowie and had a sexual relationship with Jimmy Page soon after. By her own accounting, she now has complicated and mixed feelings about it, but still doesn’t seem to see it as exploitative or abusive. And while the rest of us can look at that and say “are you fucking serious?”, how she feels about it isn’t up to us.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t think that it’s seriously fucked up, either.

Your friend had an affair with a guy who groomed her. She recognizes intellectually that it was profoundly fucked up… but there’s also the part of her that still sees it as the love of her life and a magical experience. Maybe she’s holding onto that because accepting the reality would mean also having to question or reconsider everything else that happened in that time period. It might mean having to reframe what she thought of as beautiful and romantic as predatory, and the feeling of loss that this possibility would entail is too much, so she denies it. Or maybe she genuinely still feels that way. But the point isn’t that she’s wrong for how she feels, nor is the point that you’re wrong for having assumed that she would be a traumatized victim. The point is that shit is rarely cut and dry, people are complex and messy and life doesn’t always conform to narratives that we tell ourselves must be true because it’s a narrative.

We use stories to make sense of the world around us, to convey meaning out of chaos… but that doesn’t mean that life follows narrative convention. Which sucks… but that’s also why it’s important to allow for complexity and weirdness that doesn’t always make sense to us.

Case in point: you had one narrative in your head about how her life would’ve played out and when that proved to be inaccurate, now you have another. Now this narrative is that her abuse was a benefit and going through that gave her this great life. Except… did it? There’s an intellectual fallacy that’s relevant here: post-hoc ergo propter hoc – literally, “after this, therefor because of this or “because X preceded Y, Y happened because of X.” In this case, the idea is that because she has a loving husband and family after having been abused by this man, her ability to have all of this is because of the abuse. But that’s the fallacy; there’s no actual evidence that it’s because of her abuse and may well be more accurately described as being despite it.

This is fucking with you, in no small part because you’re telling yourself a story about how this makes you worse than her. Because she doesn’t see herself as the victim here, rightly or wrongly,  you’re now reinterpreting her situation as her “attracting” this taboo-yet-fantastical love affair with a guy who left her better for the experience. Meanwhile, you couldn’t get a guy your age to notice you – as though his age and position of authority made him higher value than one of your peers. She “won” her first trial without even trying and now she’s better off for it.

Except she didn’t win. This wasn’t a contest or a challenge, this was a fucking adult preying on children under his charge and authority. Your friend didn’t attract him, any more than the deer attracts the puma. He was a predator and he preyed on her. This isn’t her getting a grand prize, it’s a that a monster chose her instead of someone else. That’s not winning. That’s not being handed the blue ribbon marked “for the fairest”. That’s one deer being taken down in the forest, rather than the one next to it, because one drew the short straw and the other didn’t.

You’re according her far more agency and her predator far less than either merits in this case. That she seems to be ok despite things doesn’t mean that this was proof that she was blessed with a love that you could only dream of. It means that under the best of circumstances, she’s fucking lucky that it wasn’t worse. And that’s assuming that she’s being honest with herself about all of this and not violently repressing the experience or outright lying to herself about it.

Is she? I have no goddamn clue and I refuse to speculate. It makes sense to me that she might be… but like I said, people are goddamn messy, they frequently don’t behave the way we expect and it’s possible to hold two entirely contradictory feelings about the same thing at the same time. It’s better to allow for that messiness and complexity than to try to force people into narratives that don’t and may never be accurate. And it’s never a good idea to base your self-esteem and self-worth on someone else’s story.  

And here’s an important part of that: you don’t actually know her story, nor does her story have anything to do with yours.

You’re not Jean Grey and you’re not Professor Xavier; you don’t know what’s going on in your friend’s head, nor do you have a perfect view of her entire life – either from your school days or now. What you saw then and what you see now doesn’t mean that you’ve grasped the arc of the entire experience. You see a very small, very curated fragment of her experience from an incredibly limited perspective. You don’t know what truly happened, nor how she truly feels. You’re just comparing her highlight reel against your thousands of hours of unedited footage and then wondering why your life looks different from hers and then assuming that you did something wrong while she did something right.

Why did he pick your friend? Well, maybe it’s because she was more conventionally attractive… or maybe it’s because he, like most predators, can see who’s going to resist and who’s going to go along with it. Perhaps the real reason he chose her is because of things in her life that made her uniquely vulnerable, while you would’ve seen this as the fucked up situation that it clearly was. The reason doesn’t really matter because that’s not the point. The point is that this is absolutely no basis for determining that you are lesser or worse than she is.

There was a point where it was easier for you to accept value and validation because of what you assumed her life to be. But your assumptions then were just as inaccurate as they are now, just in a different direction. That’s still a very poor base for you to build your sense of worth and value on because it’s fiction. Fiction follows rules. It has tropes and patterns and even fiction that seems to eschew narrative structure still has structure. Life doesn’t follow narrative structure. Life isn’t inherently balanced on the micro or macro level, where the rich and powerful have secret miseries and the poor have the life force that the rich lack. This is just an example of the Just World fallacy, the idea that good things happen to good people, bad things happen to bad people and everyone gets what they deserve so that the karmic balance is preserved. Life isn’t like that. Life is chaos, life is messy and shit happens to everyone. The rich and powerful are often shielded from it because they’re rich and powerful, but they’re not immune, any more than the poor only know squalor and misery exclusively.

Let’s now take a moment and look at your literal story – the one you wrote about the young girl and the movie villain she loves. This is another area where perspectives are going to differ wildly – both from one another, but also from what’s actually there and what people see. Are people being unfair in calling you a pedophile for writing this story? Quite possibly. There are people who will assume that writing a story where a character does morally dubious or outright despicable things means that the author inherently approves of those actions, even endorses them. One of the common sources of drama in the fanfic community are pro-shippers and anti-shippers, people who fight viciously over whether certain ‘ships’ are permissible and who writes them, reads them, enjoys them or objects to them. Both sides will frequently frame the other as being ontologically evil because it’s a lot easier to do that than to recognize that not everyone shares your taste, your outlook or your preferences.

(Seriously, I’ve got friends with fairly visible public profiles who still get shit from strangers because of their preferred ‘ships’ in fiction that was relevant half a decade ago.)  

But any author will tell you: you can’t hater-proof your stories. People will read into your work what they want to read, regardless of your intent, your craft or the actual words on paper. And while occasionally critics may have a point in good faith that’s worth considering, listening to the haters and giving them any credence means tacitly accepting their viewpoint as true and accurate, even if that viewpoint is entirely perpendicular to reality.

And this is precisely why you can’t rely on the positive comments for validation either. People can love your story for the wrong reasons just as they can hate it for the wrong ones. And more people who comment are going to hate on it because – to paraphrase one Anton Ego – it’s easy and fun to write and to read. The negativity bias I talk about includes people who want to shit on other people’s work as much as how the negativity affects us more than positivity. The fact that someone hates your work doesn’t make their opinion valid; it just means they hate your work.

The same applies to other supposed markers of worth. Justin Bieber sold more copies of one album than the Beatles’ entire discography combined. That doesn’t make him a better musician than the Beatles; it just means more people bought the album. JK Rowling is one of the best-selling authors in history. That doesn’t make her one of the best authors in history, just a very popular one at a very particular place and time. And whether people love or hate the work doesn’t mean that they’re better or worse people.  

Does your writing a story about a taboo relationship make you an awful person? No more than Thomas Harris is for writing about a cannibalistic serial killer instead of, I dunno, a magic pony that talks. If you were seriously advocating for the positive benefits of a sexual relationship between a child and an adult (LOOKING AT YOU, PIERS ANTHONY), then that’d be a different story. But this sounds way more like trying to process a lot of complex, messy and often ugly feelings than suggesting that maybe the short-eyes have some good points.

Now maybe there’re ways you could’ve written it that would’ve made it less prone to rage-bait. Maybe the beliefs you mention – that your friend somehow “won” by “attracting” this guy – come through in the narrative and that’s setting people off because of the whole “raped a child” thing. I don’t know; I haven’t read it and I’m not here to play editor. I am here to tell you that you can’t keep veering back and forth based on fictional narratives and the opinions of others.

Yes, it’s good to have the approval and support of others, especially of people who you love and respect and especially as a child. External validation isn’t a bad thing. But you can’t rely on it as your foundation of self-worth and self-belief. That has to come from within, first, because otherwise you are entirely at the mercy of other people – people who have no interest in supporting you and who may not even be operating in the same reality as you because they’re bringing their own bullshit to the proceedings.

And you’re not exempt from “bringing your own bullshit”, as we’ve seen. You’ve done this as much as they have except instead of applying it to other people’s fiction, you’re applying it to your own life, and you’re using that as the truncheon to beat yourself up because your life (and other people’s) didn’t follow narrative rules. This is why the answer isn’t “ok, clearly the first narrative set of rules didn’t apply, time to apply a different one”, it’s to recognize bullshit and stop believing it. Comparison is called “the thief of joy” for a reason.

Is it reasonable to envy others for what they have? Sure; that’s only human. Is it reasonable to blame yourself for not having it? Absolutely fucking not. Nor is it reasonable to keep assigning motivation and cause-and-effect to things when that’s clearly not the case. How should you see your friend’s relationship with her abuser? It was abuse and it was rape, objectively. If your friend has different feelings about it than you, then that’s her lookout, not yours. You don’t need her buy-in for your feelings, any more than she needs yours for hers. If her life is better, afterwards, than it might have been otherwise, that doesn’t mean that it was because of the abuse. Linearity doesn’t imply cause and effect. It just means that abuse preceded it.

Should you take down your story? I don’t know, that’s your call. If you can’t ignore the haters and the stress of it gets to you, then by all means, yank it down. But don’t rely on that to tell you that you’re a good or awful person, any more than comparing yourself to your friend should be the basis for how you feel about your life.

What you should do is start finding the things that make you feel good, that make you feel awesome and that feed your soul. Find the things inside that you can use to create a true foundation for your self-esteem – things that people can’t give or take away because they’re yours and yours alone. The external can bolster it, support it, burnish it… but you can’t rely on external validation for your self-worth. It has to come from you. It’s ok if you can’t think of anything now. That just means you should go find it or create it for yourself. That’s how growth is done.

How do you deal with those feelings of envy? My advice would be to use them as fuel. Yeah, you would like the things they have… so let that inspire you to go find or create joy and satisfaction in your life. They can motivate you to find the things that are right for you, that make sense for you, rather than requiring what they have, specifically.

That means what is right for you and what is good for you may be very different from what other people have and that’s OK. Maybe it will be love and marriage and kids. Maybe it will be a close-knit family of choice. It may be the community you create for yourself and for others like you. That’s all ok.

Perhaps it will come later in life than it did for others. That’s ok too. It doesn’t need to be exactly what they have and when they have it. It just needs to be what’s right for you and your circumstance and the life you lived, not somebody else’s. You don’t need someone else’s dream or someone else’s life. You want yours. And even if it seems like you’re always working for it but never reaching it… well that’s ok too because you’re working towards things being better instead of giving up your power and agency.

Here’s a truth: there really won’t be a point where everything is perfect and finished and nothing more to achieve, nothing more to work towards. I have a tattoo on my forearm – the sixty third hexagram from the I-Ching. It means “after completion” – the idea being that life is never “finished”, you are never at a point where you are done learning or growing or achieving. I got it in no small part as a reminder that there’s always more to learn, more to accomplish, more to discover, and without maintenance, what we’ve built will just fall apart. This is why finding the joy in the search and the growth and the journey is important, because that means you’re alive. We only stop growing when we’re dead.

Your growth and improvement starts with changing how you see things, with rejecting the narrative of fiction and embracing that people can have radically different views of things and radically different experiences. You need to reject the comparison to others and instead accept not just self-improvement but self-acceptance and self-compassion. You need to be your own best friend, your cheer squad and your primary hype woman. Love yourself because you’re you, not because you’re better or worse than someone else.

It’s a long journey and it’s not always easy. But it’s still important. And every day is an opportunity to start.

You’ve got this.

All will be well.  



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