Please don't let me get a job
December 3, 2008 5:00 PM   Subscribe

UnexpectedGapYearFilter: I've dropped out of my biochemistry course to go home and deal with my crippling depression. I've managed the going home bit... now what?

Okay, appointment with a therapist - check. Doctor's appointment to discuss anti-depressants - pending. I've got a lot of sorting myself out to do, so I suppose I should do that first. But then what?

My plan is to start this year of my course again in September, hopefully by which point I will have stopped hating myself, threatening close friends with suicide and other behaviours that are not conducive to learning. Naturally I am looking forward to this.

I'm a bright lass and nine months is pretty much forever. Besides giving birth, what could I do to fill this time?

More specifically I'd like:
  • Recommendations for depression-recovery type things - books, strategies, biscuits, anything.
  • Any advice for how to find work experience in something biochemistry-related in England, for someone halfway through an undergraduate degree
  • Suggestions for useful or interesting things I could learn about (for example, I can't drive, I have no idea how Ubuntu works and I'm far too smart a person to not understand basic physics - what else am I missing out on?)
  • What do you wish you'd done before you graduated university?
  • (Bear in mind that these have to mesh with my occasional need to stay in bed all day and sob quietly into my pillow whilst listening to badly-worded angry teenage pop-punk).

What do you recommend?
posted by teraspawn to Grab Bag (23 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I was kicked out of school for poor grades... spent 8 months trying to figure out how to use my time productively. My only advice would be to make up some sort of structure for yourself - try for quasi-regular meal times, and sleep enough, at consistent times of day.

Studying is a good idea. I would do things that are far outside what you'll be able to do in school - some artistic skill (as oppose to theory) like musical performance or freehand drawing.

You asked for random ideas so here goes: I spent a lot of time playing with linux audio stuff, particularly synthesis tools. Processing is a good introduction to programming concepts and audiovisual art at the same time. I got my learner's permit and learned to drive (so, yeah, do that). I traveled and volunteered a few times, that's highly recommended in terms of buoying spirits.

You could also do some really extended research project - I'd read GEB and a bunch of philosophy of mind books along with it. War and Peace, Moby Dick, or anything by Thomas Pynchon (Gravity's Rainbow and the associated guidebooks!) would be only my list.

All that said, don't neglect the opportunity to take it easy. I'm an easily sidetracked slacker, so I have to make sure I give myself some structure - you might have the inverse problem.
posted by phrontist at 5:20 PM on December 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

Also, take the time to think really deeply about your philosophical outlook on things. Question the things you won't have time to pontificate about when you get back to "real" life. This is a good resource.
posted by phrontist at 5:21 PM on December 3, 2008

Definitely, definitely, definitely keep a regular sleep schedule. I think that's the number one thing you can do to help repair yourself, keep yourself from feeling worse, and make you feel like you're still a productive member of society. What you do once you get out of bed is so much less important than the mere act of getting out of bed at a "normal people" time.
posted by adiabat at 5:24 PM on December 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

if getting out of bed in the morning is #1 then I would say
#2 - EXERCISE - it will absolutely help your recovery if you can exercise regularly and at least try to take a walk if you aren't up to anything more strenuous.
#3 - Do something outside of the house. Every day, at least walk to the mailbox. Most days go somewhere, even if it is just to buy a cup of coffee.

Bonus: do volunteer work - it will make you feel better about yourself to be doing something that makes a difference to someone else. It will also make sure you get out of the house because you will have a commitment. It will get you out of your own head and doing something more or less practical and it will let you interact with other people where you only have to be polite, you don't have to be happy or sociable.
posted by metahawk at 5:57 PM on December 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

PS - do not take any work experience that is likely to be stressful, that requires you show up every day or that will mess up your future if you do badly and flake out. You are taking time off to recover from an illness - don't put yourself in an environment that adds stress instead of reducing it. Similarly, be very realistic about the goals you set for yourself. It is hard to learn complex new things when you are very depressed because depression messes up your concentration and focus. That's OK - but you don't want to set up a situation where you make yourself feel like a failure for not accomplishing things that you just don't have the energy to tackle right now. Be kind to yourself and lower your standards, just for now.
posted by metahawk at 6:02 PM on December 3, 2008

I did a similar thing as you in 2005, withdrawing from school and taking a leave of absence just before the final exams for the Fall semester for a number of reasons, depression of course being one of them as well as the inability to decide what I ought to be studying (I started out as a Music Performance major, and now I'm back in school as a biochemist).

I had decided to take a full year off before resuming school, and to my parents' absolute horror, I just packed all my stuff in a suitcase and a hiking backpack, and ended up on a one-way flight from Houston, Texas to Seattle, Washington. Having moved from Bulgaria to the United States in 2001, I was still not over the culture shock of ending up in, well, Texas and had always wanted to visit Seattle. I decided to get a job that is entirely different from anything I had been studying because I found the thought of even dealing with biochemistry oppressive, and ended up with a sweet web development position only a week after having moved to Seattle.

Being on my own in a city where I didn't know anyone at first pretty much forced me out of my depression: suddenly I had to face my responsibilities, or I would have had no money for food among other dire consequences like having to go back to Houston and admit defeat. If you have a problem with motivation, nothing quite gets you out of bed and on your bike on a cold, rainy morning like knowing that if you don't do it, you will end up on the street.

In January of 2007, I was back on campus in Houston, having learned how to take care of myself and with a renewed interest in academic matters (I did miss learning for the sake of knowledge during my year off, but I ended up playing in a civic symphony orchestra, volunteering with many organizations, picking up lots of important skills for my job, learning how to cook and meeting a wonderful boyfriend while I was in Seattle).

Anyway, I don't know if it would be a good idea to recommend to a complete stranger to do something quite as radical, but for me it was a great year, and I have absolutely no regrets: I feel that without taking the year off, I would have completely given up on finding a direction in life and only further spiraled down a path of self-destruction.

MeFi mail me if you want to talk about it: I've been there.
posted by halogen at 6:09 PM on December 3, 2008

I did much the same thing as you last year (I delayed starting uni to deal with my depression), so here are the things that helped me:

The book "Feeling Good" by David Burns is a hell of a lot better than it's cheesy title suggests. It (along with therapy and medication) has made a massive difference to me - it's often recommended on mefi, and after reading it, I realize why. I would definitely suggest you buy it, read it, and do the exercises he suggests.

1. Get out of bed every day, at some point during actual daylight hours.
2. Leave your house every day (even if it's just to the wee shop round the corner, or the post-box)
3. Talk to somebody who is not your mother every day. Call friends, or go to the shop, buy a paper, and say hi to the guy working the checkout.
4. Do something every day. It doesn't have to be much. Just, have something to do so you won't be stuck feeling like you can't do anything. Read good books. Listen to lectures by The Teaching Company. Take up knitting. Install Linux. Take your meds. Just make sure whatever you do is low-pressure, and you're doing it because you want to, not because you feel you have to make up for the months you're missing at university.

Something else that may or may not be helpful is a strategy a fabulous friend of mine created. It's called "joy sadhana" (or "gleee!")

What you do is this: at the end of every day, write down five good things about that day, and then three things that you did well.

Don't feel like they have to be amazingly good things - you could list "my bed is comfy" as a good thing, and "brushed my teeth" as something you did well - I'm all about the small victories. It's helpful, because even when you feel like you had the worst day ever, and you're horribly depressed, it helps you see that you don't suck quite as much as you think, and that on the worst possible days, there's still something to be positive about. At least, that's what it does for me.
posted by spockette at 7:05 PM on December 3, 2008 [4 favorites]

Each time you find yourself in a bleary haze of doom and gloom, endlessly rubbing your pain points against your mental palate....look around you. Literally. With your eyes and other senses. Notice that none of the stuff you've built into high drama in your mind is actually happening right here right now. Your ex-girlfriend who was cruel to you isn't here right now. That stupid thing you said last week isn't here right now. Everything that seems to be pressing you down is not here right now.

From this observation, you'll gradually start noticing that it's all insubstantial fantasy built up by your mind, which endlessly repeats and builds up that stuff as a sort of demented art project. As you immerse more and more into this whipped-up whirlwind, the real world loses its feeling of reality for you (the whirlwind's much more seductively sensuous, though to the outside world you're just sitting in a glum lump).

Keep stepping outside by looking around. What's here right now? Notice your mind's weak and pathetic attempt to entangle even the here and now into the fantasy whirlwind ("I hate this chair! I hate this apartment! I hate my life! As I was saying: what's the use!!!"). Keep dragging yourself back to your actual environment. Fight the repetitive immersion via repetitive emergence. Every mental maneuver comes AFTER the raw perception. There's a time lag. Stay in the raw perception, don't fall behind.

There is nothing wrong with this moment...unless you think about it.
posted by jimmyjimjim at 7:16 PM on December 3, 2008 [73 favorites]

Two things:

1. I second Spockette's recommendations, especially Feeling Good.

2. Please do not consider this "The Year To Get Well (or else)." Recovery from depression can be quick, but it can also take awhile. Please don't add extra pressure to yourself with a deadline. Always, always be kind to yourself.
posted by tcv at 7:36 PM on December 3, 2008

Also: favor action. Period. When the option of taking some sort of action comes up, get in the habit of favoring doing it. Action happens in the world, which is why depressives recoil from it.
posted by jimmyjimjim at 7:40 PM on December 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Sorry. Also, study yoga from one of these teachers, whose system is well-devised to get your flow going again.
posted by jimmyjimjim at 7:43 PM on December 3, 2008

It took me until I was 26 to finally do something about my depression, and even then, it was only because I was incredibly close to losing somebody I cared about a lot because of things I'd done in the depth of depression. 3 suicide attempts and I also had a problem with cutting. So there's that.
After I got out of the hospital from the aforementioned thing I'd done, I found myself so low I could barely care about anything. The only thing that kept me moving was the idea that I knew I was capable of being happy, I just wasn't sure it was a feeling I could sustain daily, and for long hours at a time. I went to therapy and saw a psych who put me on Prozac and Lamictal. I didn't really dig the meds, but seeing as I really felt I needed to get better, I took them. After 6 months of visits, twice a day, I dropped the meds and stopped going to therapy. I really didn't need them anymore - I was better.
I don't credit it all to the docs. I read a lot during that time period - especially from this author, Peter Mcwilliams, and in that link you'll find all his books for free. I read a lot of books about philosophy and worked hard to find a way to frame my mindset in a better, healthier way. I also went out more, I forced myself to spend time with friends, I removed the negative influences from my life, I stopped taking anything that wasn't prescribed, I didn't drink....
Anyways, it's over a year now since I quit and I'm still doing really well. I'm sure it doesn't work out that easily for everyone and if I didn't have someone, two people really, helping me through it all, I probably wouldn't have made it. I hope you have at least one really, really good friend around as well as an open communication with people who love you. It helps.
posted by Bageena at 7:54 PM on December 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

There's some great advice above. I ended up in a similar situation (biochemistry and all.) Here's my advice:

1) Get out of bed every day. Leave the house every day. Even if you just go out and get a cup of tea.
2) Find something to do every day. Read a book while you're at the coffeeshop, go have dinner in a part of the city you're not familiar with, go to a museum, exercise, take a walk - just do something. Trust me. It makes a big difference.
3a) Consider a part time job. It might actually be less stressful if you consider a job unrelated to biochemistry; you are, after all, only partway through your undergraduate career, and have time to take lab jobs later. The point of taking a part time job would, in this case, be less about getting work experience and more about providing some structure to your life, while giving you a chance to regain your confidence in your ability to get stuff done. If you _do_ want to do biochemistry, consider working on a volunteer basis at a local lab. Much less pressure, knowing that you're just a volunteer.
3b) Alternately, consider taking one or two classes. Again, they don't need to be related to biochemistry at all; the point is the same as that of a part-time job. You want to add some structure to your day and regain your confidence in your ability to do things without depression mucking it up.
4) Be cautious about the "travel! move to a new city!" advice. This could work; it could also be a huge disaster, with you sitting in a dark room in a city where you don't know anyone and don't have access to a doctor, hating yourself. If you've been dealing with suicidal feelings, I'd strongly urge that you work on getting to a better baseline state before taking on a challenge like moving to a new city. You need to work with your doctor/therapist during this time, and the support of your friends/family can make a big difference.
5) Don't focus too much on being Totally Better In 9 Months. That can become yet another source of stress, and recovering from a bad patch of depression can be an annoyingly unpredictable process. Work on getting a little better every day.

Good luck. MeMail me if you want to talk about it; I might be able to think up some biochemistry-specific advice.
posted by ubersturm at 8:13 PM on December 3, 2008

Even if you're not leaving the house that day? Grab a shower and get dressed when you get up. It sounds stupidly simple, I know, but it really helps focus your attention on doing more than just lying around the house. Wearing actual non-pajama clothing == "getting ready to do something."

Considered picking up a new language? Something like German that would give you access to journals in your field that don't have English translations? I took Scots Gaelic when I was busy rebuilding my entire life in 2004 and I loved it (and I need to find some time out of my rebuilt life to go back to it). No major time committment, no serious academic pressure, just a few folks and some Teach Yourself books.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 8:25 PM on December 3, 2008

I'm a longtime Metafilter member (in another account) who almost never responds to "life advice" questions on Ask MetaFilter, mainly because it would be like receiving sex tips from the Pope, but your question reminded me enough of my own experiences a few years ago that I wanted to at least offer encouragement.

One of the minor joys/tragedies of Metafilter is that it helped me realize that smart people who struggled with depression in college are terrifyingly common. I might have more productively realized that much earlier, if I hadn't been too depressed to talk about my depression with others, so congrats on already being ahead of the curve on that one. As it is, in the fall of my junior year I dropped out of some activities I'd been involved in in the mistaken belief that that would help me focus on my classes. Instead, I quickly became socially isolated and depressed, failed a couple classes and, after roughly seven increasingly miserable months, withdrew from the university late in my junior year.

My parents were supportive, but didn't really know how to help, other than by paying for a lot of therapy. In retrospect, I wish I'd sought advice on AskMe, because, as I said, it would have helped me realize that major depression is surprisingly common among college students, and that one semester of poor grades and some time off didn't mean that my whole future had been crushed, or even significantly dented. Unfortunately, I didn't realize that at the time, and my depression over my depression fed on itself, as such things are wont to do, and it took much longer for me to get back on my feet than it should have.

I spent the summer lifeguarding and taking summer classes, got distracted by a girl with her own mental health problems, spent the next fall auditing classes unproductively while living at home (read: still socially isolated), then stumbled through the balance of my college career at a fallback school I hadn't really wanted to transfer to. I then graduated, used the internet skillz I'd spent several lonely years honing to land an awesome internship, then an awesome job, and now have brighter career prospects than I would have if I'd completed my third and fourth years of college uneventfully.

But this is supposed to be about you, not me, so here's my papal sex tips for your gap year, biased by the experiences described above:
  • Whatever you do, don't withdraw from your friends. Social interaction of any sort is really valuable for getting past depression. I was more embarrassed by my troubles than I should have been; don't let that be a justification for withdrawing from people. And even if its tough, get out of the house every day.
  • Put your happiness first until you're unambiguously back on your feet. Don't feel bad about taking a half-load of courses in the fall if things like you're still having trouble with your things like your mood, diet, sleep schedule, or thoughts of suicide. Coincidentally, biochemistry was one of the courses I was taking when I withdrew; depending on where you are in your major, you might not want to take orgo 2 next fall.
  • Be sure to get a therapist who has experience with college students, not just overworked middle-aged professionals in loveless marriages. Don't expect anti-depressants to work in a few days, or a few weeks. Sunshine and exercise can be more effective than pills.
As for what you should do in the interim... I got a part time job, and it was singularly unhelpful. Travel is probably the most common suggestion Ask Metafilter offers to young people looking for something to do, and its a lot easier to suggest than to do, but this does seem like an unusual opportunity to do Something Awesome. Plenty of young Americans spend a few weeks backpacking through Europe; as a Brit, that's probably even easier for you. If you're looking for something more ambitious, two years ago New York Times columnist Nickolas Kristof wrote a piece encouraging young people to go backpacking or volunteer that I've kept in the back of my mind ever since. In it, he specifically endorses two organizations that he said would be willing to accept young American volunteers willing to stay at least six weeks (although both probably sound less attractive now than they did then). The first was a bunch of girls' schools in Pakistan started by a female Pakistani anti-rape activist that he's written a lot about; the second was a school in Calcutta for children of prostitutes. I mention this mainly because I'm still hoping to schedule some space between my current job and my next one to work at the Calcutta one, or something similar.

More prosaic suggestions for psychologically beneficial things you might do between now and September might include community theater, tutoring or mentoring at-risk youth (if you're feeling up to it), or hiking/biking trips.

Anyway, it sounds like you're already taking good steps to help yourself, not least by preserving your self-esteem and sense of humor. So much so that I'm reluctant to even post this. Good luck, and yeah, if you're looking for someone to talk to about this stuff, feel free to Mefi mail me.

On preview: I knew that biochemistry was tough, but holy shit.
posted by easily_confused at 10:03 PM on December 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

Sports: Go running for 30 minutes every day, in a comfortable pace. Has been shown to reduce stress levels.
posted by EuroBunny at 10:40 PM on December 3, 2008

Ask your shrink if travel abroad is wise given you're specific depression. You'd experience the clarifying immediacy of survival, find hostel, find food, etc. while seeing crazy new things and making new friends. But this can be either wise or unwise depending upon you're case.
posted by jeffburdges at 11:45 PM on December 3, 2008

I am right now winding up a mostly-voluntary, totally job-free semester off from college. I think it's safe to say that dropping out of school was the best thing I've ever done. Without question, what has made this time such a success for me was having two very clear long-term goals:

going back to school for the spring semester (in my case at a different university)


going on an Outward Bound course in January.

The first goal is more important in the long term, but the second goal the one that keeps me focused and generally feeling good. This is largely because, in order to get in shape for the course, I have to exercise more than is usual for me and exercise turns out to be an excellent defense against my own crippling anxiety. Also, it gives me something to look forward to at the end of the semester besides just more school.

I do other things to fill my time, too, such as:

Rec-league Ultimate Frisbee
Preparing dinner for my family most nights
Learning the piano and harmonica, and keeping up with my pre-existing instruments
Going to museums
Reading with wild abandon
Visiting various friends and relatives who live where I don't

I recommend all of these, particularly making dinner: cooking is a useful skill and it will give some structure to each day.

However, a collection of small responsibilities and hobbies is no replacement for a solid, long-term goal. This goal should allow you to return to school having done something interesting, something that was a departure from your normal life and that you couldn't have done without significant preparation and effort. Outward Bound was my choice in that department, but maybe you'd rather train for a long bike trip or something. Just pick a goal you can look forward to wholeheartedly and commit yourself to it in a material way (such as by putting money towards it). You can diddle around in as many hobbies as you want, but if you stick to your final project then you can be sure your time off is well spent.
posted by Commander Rachek at 12:46 AM on December 4, 2008

I can't help with the depression-recovery thing, as I'm fortunate enough never to've really gone through that myself. I hope you find a way to feel better soon.

But I am in a similar situation, finding myself with a lot of time on my hands at the moment, and wanting to use it productively. I'm trying to teach myself to be a good photographer, which gets me out of the house and helps me feel more directed aimless wandering and exploring. It seems to be a good blend of the artistic and the technical as well. As others have said, if you play a musical instrument, maybe now would be a good time to do some practice. Practice *can* be stressful, or it can be really relaxing. I actually find scales and stuff quite calming, especially when they're slow and repetitive. Cooking can be quite nurturing - what about picking a cuisine and working on it? Learn a new language? Taking a low-key class if you're up to it could be a good way to get yourself to be a bit sociable, whilst still feeling like you're learning something. Yoga? What about doing a First Aid certificate? I will be very happy with myself if I get off my bum and renew mine, and here at least, they only take about a weekend to do. And broadly I just want to read a bunch of books that i've always wanted to read but never gotten around to. Bertrand Russell's 'A History of Western Philosphy' is a good choice for a smart person with a lot of time!
posted by Emilyisnow at 12:51 AM on December 4, 2008

Lots of good advice here. However I'd like to reiterate that if you are fairly seriously depressed your memory and analytical skills can be pretty dampened. If you try some of the 'learning things' ideas here, and find that you are just not retaining much or finding it very hard to grasp, then don't comdemn yourself for it. Its a symptom, not a personal failing, or indication that you are losing your mind, and maybe you will just need to leave those sorts of things until you are bit further down the path to recovery.

However I very much second the fact that 'doing good' can be a good lifter of mood. Doing voluntary work and serving others gives you purpose, something to do and other people are benefited and often grateful, all of which are good things. When I was depressed as a student I also used to donate plasma and platelets. Its like giving blood, only it takes longer, as the machine centrifuges your blood and gives you back the red cells, and can be done every 2 weeks, since its the red blood cells that take a long time for the body to manufacture. Because I was a faithful regular the receptionist and nurses would all greet me by name and with a smile. They were gentle and professional and would bring me a magazine and a juice and cookies to keep blood sugar up. And since there is no payment for doing this in the UK, all the nurses and doctors made sure to thank everyone every time. All in all it just made me feel a bit better!

Whatever you choose to do, set yourself small and realistic targets, so that you will have many small sucesses. Do not set yourself big targets like learning a while language, or reading many heavy books, or whatever, since then you will probably not achieve all of it and will then berate yourself for this.
posted by alicegoldie at 1:17 AM on December 4, 2008

Learn Welsh!

(I'm taking you a bit literally -- I'm at uni right now, and I wish to hell I had the time.) You'll be able to listen to Radio Cymru and keep up after the initial lessons, or travel around Wales someday and do the same :) It's a genuinely lovely language and...I don't know. I feel like maybe its long history will help you step out of your head for an hour or so a day, or however long you study.

And I agree with get up, get dressed and leave the house every day. Come back and crawl into bed and be sad if you need to, but setting up some kind of rhythm to your life will be so helpful.
posted by kalimac at 1:30 AM on December 4, 2008

Book suggestion: The Mindful Way through Depression. It includes a CD with mindfulness exercises.

got a lot of sorting myself out to do

Be careful of Depressive Rumination.
posted by DarkForest at 7:17 AM on December 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Well, I have a near-chronic low-level depression that pretty much has to be fought off all the time and sometimes devolves into the full-blown deal. I've gotten pretty good at fighting off depression. The key for me is to have long-term projects going and keeping busy in the day to day.

One of the most efficient ways I've found to combat depression is to do something manual. My favorite is making food for others. You might want to try that. Baking is in some way the easiest way to start since it's the most magical. Also, everybody loves warm bread, cake, biscuits etc. and doing stuff for other people is another good way to get the happy chemicals flowing in the brain.
posted by Kattullus at 10:56 PM on December 5, 2008

« Older We What? Pee Ess Who?   |   How can I sharpen my conflict resolution skills? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.