I started reading your column a couple years ago and it helped me through some issues in my first real relationship, but things have changed beyond what I can process solo. Asking for help is something I have trouble with, but I’m at my wit’s end. Maybe I’m missing something, maybe I just need a jolt to get me moving again, but I could really use a second opinion.
The backstory: a year and a half ago, my life was on track—my courses were going well, I had three straight appearances on the Dean’s list, and (after managing some minor depression while simultaneously working two jobs and taking three upper level summer courses) I found myself in the first serious (actually, first, period) relationship of my life. I was busy, but happy. I had enough credits to graduate, but needed another year to do my student teaching.
A little over a year ago, my life started to unravel. During my student teaching, I worked harder, and more, than I ever had before in my life. Paperwork, planning, creating materials, teaching, grading — they consumed me. I had had to leave my other jobs to make time, and I was living off my savings (paying for rent, utilities, groceries) while working 80+ hours a week for no pay. My marginal social life vanished, my sleep schedule became increasingly disturbed, and my panic attacks, which I had conquered six years earlier, returned in force. Somehow, I kept my long distance relationship intact.
Eventually, it became too much. Sleeping maybe four hours a night, on an even tighter budget because of dental work on a broken tooth, and with my panic attacks coming four or more times a day, I withdrew from the program. I was convinced that if I didn’t quit, the job was going to do permanent damage to my health.
As a result, my GPA was heavily dented (diminishing my chances at grad school), and I was left with an almost unusable degree in history. Cue six months of job searching, of trying desperately to convince employers that I was worth their time, that a history degree was incredibly versatile, that I was readily adaptable to any number of fields. Rejection after rejection piled up. I became depressed, but kept trying. My family applied pressure, disappointed that I hadn’t been strong enough to follow through and become a teacher.
Then, my girlfriend broke up with me, effectively saying that the whole time she’d felt she was working down a “relationship checklist.” She’d basically never really felt all that much for me. She stayed with me because of her own insecurity. We’d been together a year.
Two days later, I had to put my dog to sleep. My best friend was dying of cancer, and I couldn’t watch him suffer anymore. This, combined with the breakup, with the shame of failure, the sense of years wasted—this broke me.
Today, I’m 24 years old. I work in a presumably dead-end job in a grocery store, bachelor’s degree seemingly irrelevant, and live in a tiny studio apartment crammed next to the workshops on the family farm, because it’s the only place I can afford. At work, I am surrounded by people, but there, as in every part of my life, I am alone. Isolated, insignificant, all the potential I used to feel drowned in the bath. My breakup left me with staggering trust issues, a paranoid fear of ever being vulnerable again, and a jealous not-quite-hate of everyone who has real, genuine love in their lives. My depression has seemingly sunk into my bones.
I’ve tried online dating, but conversations peter out, everyone ghosting on me within a message or two, no matter how polite, interested, etc. I am. The last two times I tried to ask someone out in person, a panic attack hit, stopping me from getting the words out. My work schedule doesn’t align with any of my few remaining friends, preventing me from seeing them much more than once every couple of months, and that number is about to get smaller, as my best friend is about to leave to take a lucrative job on the other side of the country. I doubt I’ll get to see her again.
My psychiatrist is changing my meds, so that will help with the depression, but it won’t change any of the underlying issues. I’m trying to be proactive, trying to be more social, but the social anxiety is just getting stronger, and even though I’m happy for my friend, glad she has this amazing opportunity, I can’t shake a sense of betrayal at her leaving. Our relationship has always been completely platonic, totally safe, and she was the one person I had left I could always be totally honest with, and know that she would be the same- honest, that is.
My work leaves little time for my art, which is the one thing that still brings me any lasting happiness. One day working at my craft is generally enough to keep me going for a day or so, but those free days are few and far between. And much as I wish I didn’t, I still want to connect to people, even just one person. Maybe especially one person. It’s so much easier to be myself, to be comfortable with myself, if I know that someone other than me likes me. Even just one other person.
But looking at my life right now, I can’t see why anyone else would want to be part of it.
Anyway, there are a bunch of issues all tangled up in those last few paragraphs, and I would really, really appreciate it if you could offer advice on even one of them.
Please, thank you, and please,
Barely Holding On
I’m reminded of a somewhat famous quote: “If too much weight is placed upon [the average man].. they snap. How does he live, I hear you ask? How does this poor pathetic specimen survive in today’s harsh and irrational environment? I’m afraid the sad answer is, ‘Not very well.’ Faced with the inescapable fact that human existence is mad, random, and pointless, one in eight of them crack up and go stark slavering buggo! Who can blame them? In a world as psychotic as this… any other response would be crazy!”
The idea is that everyone is just One Bad Day away from snapping and that anyone will break if things just get bad enough.
Sounds familiar, right?
I feel for you BHO. While I haven’t been exactly where you are, I’ve had my share of One Bad Days that came pretty close to breaking me. There was a point in my life when I thought I had the perfect job, working on a feature film with some names you would very definitely recognize. I was being paid to work with some good friends of mine doing a job I loved. I was dating a woman who I thought was damn near the idea of my perfect woman. Then it all fell apart. In the span of a week, I got fired from my perfect job, my friends no longer talked to me and my perfect girlfriend dumped me.
If one of my cats had died, I probably would’ve hit a downward spiral that would have taken me a long time to pull out of… if I did at all.
So I understand where you are right now; I’ve been there. But like the old joke says, having been there before, I also know the way out.
As weird and woo-woo bullshit as this may sound… you need to do is change the story you tell yourself about what’s happened. You have been through The Shit, no question. You were going along, doing everything you were supposed to and leading a good life and then you had an entire mountain of shit dumped on you out of the clear blue sky.
But here’s the thing: you survived. You made it through to the other side. Battered, bruised and beaten down to your knees… but you made it. You weren’t broken by all of this. You may have had to crawl for a while before you could stagger back to your feet, but the important thing is you got back up again. I mean look at you: yes, your life isn’t great right now. It’s certainly not where you wanted it to be. But you’re still moving forward.
You’re suffering from some emotional shell-shock, sure, but you’re doing all the right things. You’re getting help from a therapist. You’re afraid of being hurt again, but you’re still putting yourself out there. You’re working, you’ve got a place to stay, you’ve got friends and you have a creative outlet that you love. You’re trying to find love, be more social and put your life back together again.
Dude. That’s goddamn incredible! That takes an incredible amount of strength! I understand how it feels right now but you should be proud of the fact that you’ve survived and that you’re pulling yourself back together.
The mistake you’re making here is that you’re looking at your current circumstances as being permanent, a consequence of your supposed failure. But that’s not it at all. You’re not a loser who’s squandered his potential, you’re in rehab. You’re a bad-ass who took as nasty of a hit as you could care to imagine and now you’re fixing things. This isn’t failure, this is someone who’s taking the time to heal, to get all of the various pieces put back where they’re supposed to be and get back out there.
Do you not see how goddamn amazing that is? Do you not recognize the strength and the courage that all of this takes? Of course you’re hurting. Of course you’re scared. You’ve been through the fires of Hell and you’ve got the ashes to prove it.
Shifting that mindset, recognizing that this isn’t failure, that it’s rehab for your life, your heart and your soul, will change your perspective and help you have a clearer idea of what to do. Part of that process, that responsibility to your rehabilitation is to not re-injure yourself. Like a runner who broke his leg, trying to force yourself back in the race before you’re ready just makes it harder to recover. You re-open old wounds and set yourself back because you haven’t fully healed yet.
As frustrating as it may be, you need to dial things back a little and focus on more immediate goals like your mental health. Addressing your depression and your social anxiety should be your first priority. Start with talking with your therapist about the social anxiety; that’s part of their job. But also, take baby steps to being more social and expanding your social circle. Start with a resolution to interact a little more with your co-workers. You don’t need to make friends with them, but simply opening up a little and being on conversational terms with them will go a long way towards easing that sense of isolation. As you start feeling a little more secure, consider finding a regularly scheduled meet-up or class that interests you and just commit to going. You don’t need to go and be a social butterfly; hell for the first few times, you may want to focus on just being there and being around other people. Then, as you start getting used to it and more comfortable… then you can start being a little more social. Not much, maybe just 10% more. But even that micro-victory will help break you out of this feeling that you’re hopeless and helpless.
As you improve, find ways to start moving your life forward. Your job may be a dead-end… or it may not be. It may just be your stepping stone to the next phase of your life. Look for your next step. It doesn’t have to be a big one; it just needs to be a step up from where you are now. That, in turn, leads to the step after that. And the step after that.
Those tiny victories, those micro-revolutions may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things. But each and every one of them is proof that your potential isn’t gone. They’re the little cracks in the wall of your depression, the reminders that as hopeless as you may feel right now, you have control. Those cracks may not seem like much, but they build up over time. Put enough cracks in that wall, and you WILL break through.
That’s the path to building your new life and getting healthy and ready to love again.
Look around you. This isn’t the end of your story; this is just the beginning of your first act. What has gone before is merely prologue; your future is still ahead of you and it’s full of glorious potential, if you’ve got the heart and the grit to reach for it.
You’re doing everything right, BHO. You’re putting in the work to rehab yourself and get ready to take that next step, and the step after that. You’re braver and stronger than you give yourself credit for. You’ve got this.
All will be well.
Thought I’d drop by an update about what went down with my family and ex after the whole “why don’t you bring her this bottle of scotch” scenario.
Gonna get the bad news out of the way first – my trip to Sam’s vicinity was before your response. So yes, I brought the (what I suspected was) “getting you two back together” booze and we had some awkwardness. The good news was: before the trip, I was offered my dream job. Across the country.
Sam was doing what I would describe as love bombing – asking how I was, what my friends (the ones she was always too busy to meet) were up too. There were none of the behaviors that lead to our break up (and I may have baited the hook because that’s the kind of asshole I am). But at the same time, no acknowledgement of any of the toxicity. It felt like a stage production of Sam’s idealized version of our relationship that she’d hope to dupe me into playing myself. She even brought me presents – one to the coffee shop and one “back at her place.”
We had a fake pleasant gift exchange – “oh, this MacCutcheon is from my family, I didn’t think to get you anything” – and an extended catch up session. I went for polite distance, with a huge spoonful of “I’m the happiest I’ve been in months.” As Sam walked me back to my car, she brought up the coming out to visit topic again. And I dropped that I was moving away for a job in a few months. But that I appreciated that she could see the value in maintaining a friendship if that’s what she wanted.
I haven’t heard from her since. My parents and brother still keep in touch, but I am trying courteous ways of maintaining my boundaries. Mostly, this means that I respond as if they told me a coworker of theirs I met once texted them: a quick “that’s nice” followed by a subject change.
So thanks to my career acting as deus ex machina, it’s all worked out. I’m settled in my new city and even had a work trip where Sam lives… with zero expectations that we’d see each other while I was there.
Thanks for helping me realize I could redirect my family and not get sucked into litigating my decision to break up with my girlfriend!
Santa’s Ex Helper
Glad to hear from you SEH! Thanks for letting us know how you’re doing, and congratulations on both the new job and on enforcing your boundaries!