Let me tell you this: If you meet a loner, no matter what they tell you, it’s not because they enjoy solitude. It’s because they have tried to blend into the world before, and people continue to disappoint them. 
 — JODI PICOULT, MY SISTER’S KEEPER The first time I remember
describing my family as “nonexistent” was in middle school, when I described myself as “the asexual offspring of a tree” in an attempt to make total abandonment, in the face of very alive parents, sound super chill. 

    There’s a very particular sort of no-man’s-land that comes with having alive parents who are technically there, could technically take you in if you really needed somewhere to go, but if you went there, you wouldn’t be any safer than anywhere else.
     Now, you might be reading this and thinking, “But my family is so wonderful, and I still feel alone,” or “My mom sucks, but my dad was so awesome, but I still feel lonely all the time,” or “My mom was the best person, and ever since she died, I feel so lonely,” and to those people I will say, I have no idea what any of that must feel like. None. Not a clue. 

     Even now, as I sit here writing this, I have never felt loved, in the way I imagine many of you have, in my entire life. I know that sounds depressing, so don’t worry; my brain has responded accordingly by being depressed. I wish I had felt loved. It seems pretty cool. That isn’t to say I haven’t had glimpses of what it might be like: the equivalent of shitty little face-mask samples from Sephora—just enough to cover your forehead and part of your right cheek. Just enough to give you an idea of how great it could be if there had been more of it for a longer period of time—enough for several uses, maybe even a lifetime of them. But the larger sizes are pricey and out of stock, and it’s fine, you didn’t need it anyway. You’d gone this long without it. 

     I wish I could give you a clean and simple business card explaining what happened so I could be the kind of orphan who would immediately make sense to everyone. Like if my parents had a socially recognizable problem that immediately explained their inability to take care of me and my sister. Something I could put on paper and hand to people as proof. Here. This is why. And then I could write those two paragraphs for you, easy. Example: “I have a cocaine-addicted dad and a mom who loved meth!” Boom, no further details required, let’s move on to the jokes! But they don’t. And it’s not that simple. 

     If you tell someone your parent is an alcoholic or an addict, they seemingly, on some level, get that you had a rough childhood. You don’t need to expand for hours, trying to prove your case like a lawyer with the odds stacked against him. Or in some cases spend your whole life trying to figure out if, wait a minute, holy shit, your parents actually were toxic after all, like you’re trapped inside a one-player game of Clue and the big mystery is “Why am I like this?” You’re immediately seen and heard and validated and everything you see is real—or so I imagine. Similarly, if you know someone’s medical diagnosis, this affords you the ability to say, “Yeah, my dad’s a schizophrenic,” and people will at least reply, “Oh, shit,” and trust you and move on—and maybe even google “schizophrenia” later that night and continue muttering their whoas on their own time. When it’s not that simple, or you don’t have any of that information, it’s that much easier to go your whole life thinking it’s just you; you’re too sensitive, you’re wrong, you need too much, you could fix your relationship with them if you wanted to, if you would just do the right thing, whatever that is, only God knows, but you should die trying. 

     My favorite response whenever I tell people I don’t really have a family is “But what about your grandparents?” or “But what about your siblings?”—a bizarre move on their part to assume I actually have, like, twenty relatives who love and support me and I just didn’t look hard enough for them. “Missed a spot!” Except the spot is a reliable, healthy caretaker of any kind. Trust me, I wish I could spin blindfolded and point to one to appease you and me, but I promise, there’s no one to point to. 

     My extended family exists, and I passively love most of them in the same way you might if you saw a childhood teacher at the grocery store who always seemed nice enough. 

     I knew them growing up and I’ve seen their photos in photo albums and I know they know who I am and I know what they do for work. Kind of. But mostly I just see them as people who could’ve saved me and didn’t. But then I think, Maybe they didn’t know how bad it was, I wasn’t technically their problem, etc., etc., forever; that desperation to believe that the people who hurt you didn’t know, had a rough day, aren’t bad people, that it was all a misunderstanding. And if they knew what they did or didn’t do, they’d say sorry. They would. 

     I grew up a real-life Matilda: surrounded by biological family who, in constantly rotating ways, couldn’t be bothered. I can see all of the origin stories of my family members now and can empathize with them, understand the reasons why things played out that way. But as a child, I just wanted my parents to live somewhere else without my ever knowing they existed so I could firmly be what I already was, albeit not legally, albeit not technically, albeit not on the surface: alone in a way you can never quite describe to people. But I’ll try. 

     In the very, very earliest years of my life, maybe around five, I remember my mom telling me she believed in me. I don’t remember what it felt like, but I can see it in pictures, and remember it in that hazy way you remember things from when you were too young to remember things. My mom loved me. And in the years that followed, she became so shattered from my dad’s abuse, as we all had, that it was like she was dead. So the only voices in my head were my dad breaking me down to nothing and stepping on the pieces, and the constant fear I would die, we would all die, whenever he felt it was time. And even though my mom didn’t have the same kind of viciousness, no one in my family was supplying any alternative views on my worthiness either. 

     I reached out to my mom and my sister at the end of writing this book, and I can see now the truth of what happened to all of us was heartbreaking. My mom (and later my sister) coped with my dad’s maliciousness by leaving her own body and mind, resurfacing only to, as if possessed, repeat many of the same things he’d said and done to her, to us. They don’t remember most of it, which for years I thought, Bullshit. But the more I talk to the women in my family, the more I know they truly don’t remember a lot, and they are horrified they passed on his behaviors. And I understand that because I don’t remember a lot. But I remember more than they do, even though I wish I didn’t. I say this because it is essential to me to convey the shattering I feel in my chest when I think of your holding my father and mother in the same camp. Because they are absolutely not. 

     Calling my mom and my sister was the first time I was able to release some of the anger I had, instead of living in a constantly conflicted state because they were victims of the same abuse I was, they just handled it in a different way, so could I be angry at them, even though they were victims too? Was it cruel to be angry? And the answer is no, it was not cruel to be, and yes, I could be angry. I told them as much, and they were in tears, both horrified and baffled by how they’d treated me, a response I can tell you my dad has never remotely displayed with any of us. It doesn’t erase what they did, and they know that, and though the wounds all feel the same, I know they are not. 

     I know this is why most people who have similarly conflicted relationships with their family members will smooth the paper when they speak of them. They will tell you they’re close with their family, they love them so much, so perfect, so great. And then, just maybe, if you get them alone on a certain day, they’ll tell you they always felt alone, still feel alone, their family wasn’t great. And the very next day they might deny this, to you and everyone else. And if you do this, I want you to know I know why you do it. Particularly if one of your family members was just evil, and the rest were . . . complicated. Because you know there is so much goodness in some of your family members and some days, years, lifetimes, it’s easier to forgive the deep pain they’ve caused you, when you know that humanity and compassion lives within them, and why, FUCKING WHY couldn’t they have shown it to you sooner? And the answer might be that someone else in your family had tied their hands behind their back and they couldn’t. And it will only make you feel worse. Ah, what could’ve been. 

     I recently went to the gynecologist for my annual vagina exam. I would truly rather do anything than go to the doctor for so many reasons, not the least of which is the “oh shit, here comes a nervous breakdown in the basement of an office building” forms you have to fill out. These seemingly straightforward forms lay bare everything I carry with me about myself, all of the information that tells a story no one wants to read. And this process always starts off with two words followed by a blank space you’re supposed to know what to do with: Emergency contact: ______. 

     Until very recently, this simple question has made me cry in the waiting room of every doctor’s office I’ve ever been in. Because it makes me feel as I have always felt, very deeply: that I belong to no one. 

     It’s not that I don’t have people in my life. I have my agents (hahaha, I listed them first, which is just the loneliest thing), but they aren’t obligated to give a shit about me really, beyond business, even though that model seems so cruel to me. I truly assume on some level that with anyone I regularly, truly interact with on any level, it’s personal. I don’t expect people who see me passively to, I suppose, but I would just assume that if you talk to me almost daily, you should care if I died. If you deal with suicidal ideation or depression or anxiety, that’s often part of how you define someone’s ability to be close to you, or to be a true friend. 

     I have some waiting-room friends, my term for people whom I’m in the process of evaluating to see if they’re trustworthy, as well as people who’ve already been through that process but have proven unsafe at various points, which means I’m still trying to determine their long-term eligibility for the role of my friend. (God, even reading that exhausts me; no wonder the idea of getting close to people makes me sleepy.) 

     People who know me might be tempted to be, like, “This bitch talks about being alone, but there are, like, thirty people in her phone,” but here’s why my brain feels like that’s nothing. Every single one of those people falls into one of the following categories, except for my therapist, who is so great that I recently described her to someone as “my only friend,” and this was the saddest fucking thing ever. Still, I have spent most of my life not having a therapist at all, so I’m so grateful I have one now. Anyway, back to the categories: 

 •  I don’t know them well enough to tell them when things are really bad. 
 •  They’ve told me to reach out when things are really bad, and then I’ve told them when things are really bad, and they didn’t write back, and it gutted me. 
 •  They’ve told me to reach out, reply when I reach out, but don’t really seem to have the empathy, bandwidth, or know-how to respond in a way that feels comforting to me, so I don’t do it anymore. 
 •  They’re selectively helpful, so every time I reach out, I never know if I’ll be helped or disappointed, and it feels easier to just stop trying. 
 •  They’re super helpful, but I feel like there’s an unspoken time limit in terms of how much I can talk about how hard things are, so I usually keep it to about three texts and then change the subject back to them and how I can help them through their day, and they don’t challenge me when I do this, and it feels awful. 
 •  They’ve been really, really wonderful and helpful before, but I don’t want to “bother them” again by reaching out another time. 
 •  Work contacts. 
 •  People who are fighting their own gigantic battles and are therefore either too triggering or send me into a spiral where I focus all the energy I should be using on myself to help them survive. With these people, I always leave the conversation feeling used and drained. To be fair, they did not ask me to turn myself inside out to help them, but my brain is so hardwired to kill myself to let someone else live, someone who is actually not dying at all, and give them the blood I need to survive when they’ve at no point suggested they needed so much as a drop, that I pour mine out into their veins, and since they absolutely did not need it, it overflows, dripping onto the floor, helping no one. 

     Because of this, I have always obsessively deleted people in my phone as a way to try and protect myself. “Ugh, I just texted Megan that I really needed her because things are really bad, and she didn’t reply. Lane, come on, she never replies! She says to ask if you need anything and then she doesn’t write back when you do! Delete her number so you don’t forget this again!” And then later I’ll need that number for something and I won’t have it and it’s a whole thing, but in the end, that’s something I’m willing to deal with. Because it’s far better than needing help so desperately, telling myself maybe it’ll be different this time, only to be hurt again because of course it won’t be. 

     I have a lot of internet friends with whom I trade voice memos and GIFs, and strangers on the internet who DM me the sweetest fucking things, but on a deep, unrelenting level, I do not have anyone I would call if I were dying. I would blank. I have blanked. 

     There are people who say things like, “I’m here if you need me, I love you,” and I have no idea what the fuck they’re talking about, because I don’t believe it. Because the people who’ve said that to me before later turned out to be unsafe. So now when I hear it, my brain thinks, “Fuck this, I’m out,” as a knee-jerk reflex designed to keep me safe. It’s like my brain says, “Hmm, I’m not sure if there’s arsenic in this lemonade, but since there could be, there is. Don’t drink it.” So I don’t drink it. And it might’ve been wonderful lemonade. Or it could’ve killed me. But better safe than sorry. 

     At this point in my life, I often fear it’s too late, as if there were a sign-up deadline for intimacy and friends and family and I just kept missing it. And it’s not that I want to, but it’s so easy to get wrapped up in “But this is the normal time to have xyz thing. I do not have xyz thing yet. So it is too late for xyz thing.” Even though my rational brain thinks that’s garbage nonsense. 

     But back to the gyno. The fluorescent lights in the waiting room put pressure on me to hurry up so I can get into the actual doctor’s office and get the fuck out of here, so I refocus and hold my pen in a way that means business. Usually I just leave the emergency contact field blank, TBD, we’ll see, fingers crossed, I’m fine, maybe they won’t notice. But they always do, damn those properly trained, thorough medical administrators. “You didn’t fill out the emergency contact,” the woman at the front desk said while pointing her pen directly at the violation. “I don’t have one,” I said, my face turning red. “You can just put down a family member,” she said, a little more slowly this time, as though maybe there was a language barrier between us. “I don’t have any,” I replied, getting angrier, tears mixing with my rage. “Then just put down the name of a friend who would come pick you up if anything happened,” she said, inching dangerously close to pity as she saw the tears pool in my eyes. On other occasions I have put down a friend I used to be close to years ago who lives three thousand miles away but would at least pick up the phone, or my roommate, who technically knows me. 

     In this particular situation I was getting a full exam, STD testing and all, which is really fun if you like looking back at your sexual history for the last year—the highs and lows, the mistakes, the people you used to be able to count on but can’t anymore. While readying the HIV test, she asked me, in a tone that suggested she said this twelve hundred times a day, like customs officers who stamp a hundred passports without looking at them, “Do you have a support system should your test come back positive?” My first thought was “Oh, definitely not.” And then I panicked about how I suddenly was very, very fucking sure I had HIV. Like, more sure than anything ever. Did it matter that I’d had only one sexual encounter all year? NOT AT ALL. Jesus, those are some fucking scary questions to pose, even hypothetically. 

     Later, in the exam room, the totally badass, give-no-fucks gyno asked me about my sexual history, and when I told her that the one person I’d been with all year became violent, she asked if I’d reported it. My reply was “Please,” in the way that only someone who knows what happens when you do that does. She followed this with “Have you told your friends?” and I said, while barely letting her finish her question, “Yes, and they don’t care.” I took a frantic breath before thinking, Make a joke so she knows you know that’s fucked up, but feels like you’re fine. TELL HER YOU’RE FINE. So I added, “They’re really cool people.” And she said, “Right, well, what about your family?” Jesus, enough with the third degree!!! Just accept that I’m a Cool Girl in a leather jacket who comes from nowhere and is fun and so alluring and shit. Don’t look closer and don’t make me look closer either. Instead I said, with a quickening pulse and flushed face, “I don’t have any family” for the second time that day. And she said, “Well, we’re happy to be your support system.” I scoffed like I didn’t care, but I cared. 

     On some level I walk through the world like an adult human version of the baby bird in Are You My Mother? subconsciously waiting for someone to see that I’m very take-care-of-able, can I live with you now? I know you’re my age, but have you ever thought of adopting an adult? It’s cool and fun! And I know that sounds stupidly heartbreaking, and I’m not pretending it’s adorable and cool, but I know it’s there, below the surface. 

     It’s hard not to throw everything I’ve written so far out the fucking window right now because I don’t want you to know this, because I don’t want you to hate me for being so sad and not normal, but then I think, What if you know exactly what I mean? 

     What if you, like me, would at times throw your whole life out the window and walk away, in hopes there was somewhere you could go and buy an entirely new life with new problems, new people, new everything, as if you were replacing a shitty sweater you’d worn through? Except you get only one sweater for your whole life, and anything can happen—theft, weather, cars that splash you with dirt, stains that do and don’t come out—but you can’t trade it in or take it off. It’s just yours and it’s you, forever and ever and ever. 

     So what do you do? Well, as far as I can tell, you explain how your sweater got like this. Why it looks the way it does. And why you put patches where you did, to hold it together and make it look intentional. And you hope people will understand the parts you can’t hide anymore, even if you tried.


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