breaking free of the past
January 14, 2009 5:09 PM   Subscribe

I'm having trouble letting go of my problematic past, but desperately want to move forward. What do I do?

I could ramble on for pages about this, so I'll try and get to the point.

Here's the deal.

After a particularly terrible 2008, where I redefined "rock bottom" on more than one occasion, and on the occasion of my impending 25th birthday, I've been doing a whole lot of self-reflection.

I won't get into the details, but in short I've made a variety of bad decisions in my life on most every front, which have resulted in me going through assorted periods of depression, anger, and nihilism. Consequently, my life is pretty empty, and it's really starting to bother me, to put it mildly. I've let many, many opportunities slip away, and I'm struggling to rebuild my life into something of value, both to me and to others.

Many years ago, it occurred to me that maybe, on some level of consciousness, I actually *want* this. I want chaos and destruction, and if I find myself too close to what may become a good thing, I'll find some way to ruin it. Problem is, then I get depressed and overwhelmed by regret, thinking obsessively about what could have been.

I think I sort of "cling" to this "tortured soul" narrative, even if I objectively, rationally am fully aware that it is insane. It's as if I'm loathe to let myself become "normal" because it would invalidate the last 10 years of my life; i.e., all that suffering for nothing. Now, this would be all well and good if one day I wrote the greatest novel ever, or become a painter of international acclaim, but I have done neither of these things, nor anything remotely close.

So part of me wants to have friends, go out on the town, do interesting things, and whatever else "normal" well-adjusted people do. But part of me can't escape living this character - I want to be different from everyone, mysterious, distant. All my life thus far I've been sort of an outsider (the smart kid, the quiet kid, the weird kid, etc.), so maybe I'm taking way too much pride and identifying too deeply in that part of me.

But I admit I really have no perspective here. I want to change my life, to enjoy life, but emotionally I'm finding it difficult to just throw away my past and act like it never happened and won't define who I am going forward.

I know I should probably see a therapist, but I have problems with initiative (in one of those "nihilism" periods now). Does any of this mean anything to anyone, or fit an existing psychological concept I haven't heard of? Can I salvage anything from my past beyond platitudes of "at least I learned something"? Or is it just clean break, get over it and move on?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (33 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
I want to be different from everyone, mysterious, distant.

You're not the Gunslinger. You're not the mysterious stranger. People look at the dudes who play that part - often really badly and obviously, you should know - and say "that guy is a mess and a douchebag." Distant people are no fun. So if you want to have friends and enjoy your life, cut that shit out right now.

I am sorry if this comes off as mean or unsupportive. But I watched a good friend try the mysterious, distant thing for years and it got him was loneliness and depression. Quit playing a part and acknowledge your genuine desires - to like people and in turn to be liked by them - and you will find that the rewards of that far outweigh the rewards of the play-acting you've been doing for the majority of your life.

If you feel like you've wasted your youth, welcome to the human race. There are a ton of us who feel this way. You are still young and there is plenty of time to start being real. So start now.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 5:25 PM on January 14, 2009 [25 favorites]

Perhaps you should count yourself as lucky that you're able to put your past away just by making a choice to do so. I think that's pretty lucky.
posted by 517 at 5:28 PM on January 14, 2009

Shall we talk about nihilism? It is an absolute certainty that you will be dead within the next 75 years. You have perhaps three times your total number of days on earth at your disposal. At that point, your every thought, emotion, affect and imagination will become food for worms. The day may be far off, but it is coming. And faster with each passing year, if my experience is any measure.

What you do between now and that date will define who you were. What you do. Not what you thought or how you carried yourself. The longer you linger in a self-indulgent latency, the more you increase the chance that you will die without having made something of your life. And the more you deny the world the benefit of your labor.

You might read very carefully the book of Ecclesiastes. It is the surest confrontation with nihilism that I know of. It doesn't flinch from the ultimate futility of our lives and contains no pious platitudes. But it does affirm the human scale in the face of the savage ultimate. Your small joys and meager accomplishments have dignity when placed against the scale of your life. And that is, for you and for any one of us, the only scale that matters.

And aside from that, I think you know better than anyone on this website what you need to do. I suggest you start small and begin working with a therapist to set attainable goals. Good luck.
posted by felix betachat at 5:29 PM on January 14, 2009 [19 favorites]

Why would moving forward involve throwing away your past? I know a LOT of people who have a "narrative" of "Yeah, I was a wild child and did a lot of crazy stuff and learned from it, and therefore am now interesting and deep but also mellow, because man, if you think today is nuts, you shoulda seen my life ten years ago." Those are fun people, interesting people, and often (although not always) healthy and sane people.

I have some of that myself - spent most of my late teens/early 20s in one bar or another, in one state or another, sleeping in one sketchy motel (or occasionally parking lot) or another, and I accept and embrace that, even though it's not at all what my life looks like now. And all of that craziness led to some fabulous stories, some memorable friendships, and an interesting resume that's gotten me some solid jobs.

You may have other issues that necessitate more of a "clean break" - you didn't provide enough detail to tell. And I'll let someone more than two years older than you talk about how young you are, and how much time you have to do all sorts of things with your life. (I'm certainly hoping it's true, for my own sake.) But yes, you can and almost certainly should move on, yes, you really should get the help of a qualified professional to deal with it, and yes, you can still have a fundamentally alienated worldview and be an interesting, successful, and happy person.

Incidentally, I found the references to writing and painting rather telling - I think the meme that great artists must be tragic and starving is incredibly toxic to young, creative people. Suffering more often gets in the way of art than facilitates it, at least while the suffering is actually going on.
posted by restless_nomad at 5:33 PM on January 14, 2009 [4 favorites]

The behaviour you're describing is self-pity. That's not to put you down or make you feel worse, that's just what it is. Everybody self-pities. Like guilt and remorse, it's fundamentally unproductive unless it spurs you to take action. Deciding what action to take in response to these emotions is *precisely* the job description of a therapist, or, if you don't want to go to one yet, it's also what friends and family are for.
Nor is the statement "at least I learned something" a platitude, if your experiences have genuinely taught you things. Have they?
Finally: you will almost certainly never write the greatest novel ever nor will you paint to international acclaim. Most likely you will never be famous, almost certainly, you will fail at many of the things you try. I can guarantee you that in most things you'll end up like the rest of us, mediocre and middling, content in our own slice of the fat section of life's bell curve, reconciling ourselves to the bad parts and enjoying the good parts.
And do you know what? That's fine.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 5:34 PM on January 14, 2009 [4 favorites]

And yes, as felix betachat has pointed you, even if you're mostly or entirely irreligious, Ecclesiastes is great reading.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 5:41 PM on January 14, 2009

It's as if I'm loathe to let myself become "normal" because it would invalidate the last 10 years of my life; i.e., all that suffering for nothing.

Why is this the construction? Turn it around: tell yourself if you let yourself become "normal," all that suffering most certainly would have been for something -- namely, that it kicked your ass into choosing your own mental health and well-being.

Our worldview -- and certainly our self-view -- depends to a surprising degree on the narratives we choose to tell ourselves. You can start reframing your narrative if you want. You're going to die one day; we all are. You're not some special snowflake; none of us are. And you know what? I find that liberating. I find that both humbling and awesome. I find in that the freedom to create meaning and happiness in my own life on my own terms based on the qualities I value most in myself and others.

Besides, take it from me: the Doomed, Mysterious, Tragically Hip persona is neither clever nor attractive nor original, and it won't bring you any lasting satisfaction. Its antithesis -- the Together, Stable, Reliable Person with a Sense of Perspective, Humor, and Compassion is a rarer and more valuable thing to strive towards.
posted by scody at 5:42 PM on January 14, 2009 [8 favorites]

I think your model for the cool person you want to be is kind of flawed. Even "different", mysterious, cool types still have friends and go to bars and movies and stuff.
posted by fshgrl at 5:56 PM on January 14, 2009

You are worthwhile and have purpose and meaning if you are NOT this angst filled, distant, and, yes, essentially romantic character. A quieter, more responsible and predictable life does not mean you will fade away and become boring and unspecial. Your triumph will be breaking through this pseudo-tortured soul and into the maturity of someone who takes the long-view, buckles down, nurtures friendships, relishes some structure and simplicity, and achieves long term goals.
posted by hellboundforcheddar at 5:59 PM on January 14, 2009 [4 favorites]

Depression and morbid self absorption can both be thought of as manifestations of egotism. Get off it. Just do your life. No one says you have to have the best life ever, but you still have a life. Just live it and try to enjoy the little bits as they go by.
posted by alms at 6:11 PM on January 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

What a great question. You have many years ahead of you to act on the realization you're coming to right now. More people than you may imagine go through their entire lives keeping people at a distance by living an in-authentic life; being a persona rather than a person. It's much more difficult, yet more innate to simply be who we are.

All of the comments above are so on point, I have nothing to add but to suggest another option for Ecclesiastes which I second as a wonderful read. The link is to a more modern rendering of that book, which I have found more accessible reading. You may, though, appreciate the time-honored version from felix betachat's link.

BTW, you communicate very beautifully and clearly your dilemma...I'm guessing you're already a more real and whole person than you have let people know until now.
posted by mumstheword at 6:31 PM on January 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Three years ago, I became a nihilist for a couple months after seeing the Vagina Monologues (don't ask-- long story). The way I got out, and what I think is the only non-fatal end, was to think my way out. Here was some of my reading list:

Michael Novak's The Experience of Nothingness (1968) Be sure to get one of the earlier editions, as later revisions emasculated the most beneficial theme: the experience of American nihilism.

Ecclesiastes - Adding a third vote to the chorus, this book (as well as the wonderful body of apocalyptic Sacred Harp music) helped me better cope with impermanence and my own mortality.

Paul Farmer's Pathologies of Power - this book is optional for you. For me, it gave me an example of a meaningful career in public health and an opportunity to spend my life doing something good. You might like something different, but the idea is to find a source of inspiration-- an idea for something meaningful that you might like to do.

In short, explore the reasons for your nihilism, defeat it, find something meaningful and bigger than yourself, and devote your life to it. Friar Lawrence said: "For none so vile that on this earth doth live but to the earth some special good doth give." You're capable of great good, it just seems that you're lacking an outlet at the moment.
posted by The White Hat at 6:44 PM on January 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Roshi said something nice to me one time. He said that the older you get, the lonelier you become, and the deeper the love you need. Which means that this hero that you're trying to maintain as the central figure in the drama of your life -- this hero is not enjoying the life of a hero. You're exerting a tremendous maintenance to keep this heroic stance available to you, and the hero is suffering defeat after defeat. And they're not heroic defeats; they're ignoble defeats. Finally, one day you say, 'Let him die -- I can't invest any more in this heroic position.' From there, you just live your life as if it's real -- as if you have to make decisions even though you have absolutely no guarantee of any of the consequences of your decisions.

--Leonard Cohen

(In other words: what everybody else said.)
posted by neroli at 8:28 PM on January 14, 2009 [18 favorites]

You are too young to have fucked up your life, and you don't know the meaning of "rock bottom," at 25, unless you've lived a lot more than it sounds like you have -- I mean, lived through a war or something. You actually congratulate yourself prematurely on being a tortured soul. You've got a long way to go. I had a valued mentor when I was a teenager who was in his mid 40s at the time -- a brilliant musician, a great artist, and my teacher -- living through a standard male mid-life crisis that fascinated me as an adolescent and gave us a bond (because male midlife crisis recapitulates adolescence). We had a running joke every time we checked in over the years. At 25 I told him I finally got where he was at back then; he said "no you don't." I said it again at 30, and 35, before -- in reply to the "hey I'm 40 and now I get it" email -- he finally wrote "now you get it."

You don't start to *really* believe you've fucked up your life until it's half over; and then, no matter what you've accomplished, you will be right. The trick is not to be too right. Nihilism is fine when you're young and adorable. It's shitty when you're old and in the way.

But the upside is that you're 25, dude. So if you can define where you've been and what you've done as "chaos and destruction" and come to self awareness about it, you can avoid much more Grand Guignol versions of chaos and destruction later on. You're just in training. You might just yet manage to get this motorcycle over the flaming pit without getting your ass burned.

The secret, I have learned -- but not mastered, lest I sound preachy -- is assuming responsibility for *other* people's well being and happiness, and forgiving yourself a little selfishness when you've earned it that day or that year. Easy to say, very, very hard for even the most generous and centered person to maintain as an ethic. This could mean having a family, or a job you care deeply about that serves the world in some way, but it doesn't need to mean conformity and blandness. It could mean so many things that it's pointless to list them, but it means caring about something other than your own experience of the world. Or rather, someone.

felix betachat really nailed it upthread: what you do is what you are. We all do some destructive and selfish things -- all of us, even saints -- so if you want to counterbalance that shit, keep it under control (therapy works for some people, but there are other disciplines) and do a whole bunch of good stuff for other people. Be the opposite of aloof. Be engaged. Do something really well -- real artists are no more or less (or predictably) tortured than anyone else, they just get tortured about the texture or the color or the line they're working on as easily as they do about love or addiction or the voices in their heads. And besides, ask any truly tortured person who is also an artist of magnitude and see if they wouldn't trade their gift for peace.

I once met a musical idol of mine in the men's room at a club where he was playing (luckily on a double bill with someone else, as you'll see). This person was drinking himself to death. He'd been in and out of rehab for years. This show immediately preceded (and precipitated) his final stint in rehab, after which he died a few months later of alcohol-related causes.

He was also, I should point out, one of the greatest songwriters in American musical history. (Some may have figured out who I mean by now.) I worshipped his art, saw him play a dozen times before that night, performed most of his songs myself, modeled my own songs after his. And here we were standing in front of the sinks. He was glassy eyed, drunk as a skunk, and drinking the last of a bottle of Jim Beam -- a 750ml -- while he leaned on the urinal. There was no one else in the room. He looked like a corpse. But I was in awe of this man as an artist, and I said some stupid fanboy thing like "man, I really dig your music," and he put his hand on my shoulder, stared straight at me with dead eyes, and said "My problem is, I can't stop being funny." And then he basically slumped down to the floor and passed out.

The other artist on the bill carried the show that night, and this guy was dead a few months later, at 53. If you ask any serious professional songwriter to name the 10 geniuses of this guy's particular genre of the 20th century, you'd get this guy's name on every list. Deep, profound, brilliant writer, and deeply respected as such in his lifetime. (Of course, the romance of self destruction played too big a part in that worship and fed his problems.) But we're talking Dylan and Springsteen grade writing here, although not as well known. Dylan and Springsteen, I have reason to believe, would name this man as a top ten pick themselves.

But I always took the meaning of those words to be that he would have given up his art not to be in that moment of abject self-destruction. Because this great artist was, in that moment, a pitiful human being on his last slide to the bottom. And he knew it. And everyone in the hall that night knew it when he sang (he lasted two and half songs). And I knew it in that moment. As I have been saying, you don't know the meaning of rock bottom.

So here's weird advice: cut yourself some slack. You've worked yourself into a self-pitying whirlwind that keeps you from getting perspective on such things as the fact that, at 25, you have not even touched the bottom of the shallow end of the pool. If I could go back and talk to myself at 25, it would be to say those very words, and to add, lighten up and get out of your own head a little. Great art comes from experience, experience happens with people, people are flawed and destructive, and that's life.
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:37 PM on January 14, 2009 [22 favorites]

Narcissism? I'd describe myself in a very similar fashion with similar problems and that's the conclusion I've come to. How ever valid it may be.

The shitty part is you don't get those 25 years back. You spent them doing something completely different to your peers (I assume) and different to what you wanted to do. The good part (is of course) that you're young and the you can start doing those things now. Don't think because you've wasted 25 years that you deserve a leg up on everyone else, oh you & I are starting wherever we are at in real life and that might be lower than you think. But the only way is forward. Fuck 25 years ago. You're the only one responsible for getting what you want and you're going to have to make decisions about what you want in the future.

Be ruthless in pursuing what you want, it's your responsibility to get what you want. You will attract other friends who take care of this same responsibility (aka happy normal people). And remember that you're not just being ruthless irl, you're more importantly being ruthless against yourself. You will get these goals because they will make you happier and you have to slice through the depression. As you and I know, the tortured soul gets nowhere. It's a fantasy to think he ever could :(.
posted by Submiqent at 8:53 PM on January 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

I went through a self-indulgent, nihilistic, depressing period for a couple years and having come out the other side a much better person, I take solace in the fact that the level of pain I felt as a result of those bad choices negatively correlates with the likelihood that I'll consciously choose to do it again.

It's hard when you feel guilt because of wasted time/opportunity but there's no reason to continue to behave this way. There's no time like the present to get it back and to figure out how to care about things! People have social needs and those include being liked and wanted by others.... so dive in! :)
posted by cranberrymonger at 8:54 PM on January 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

First, let me say, there are so many contradictions here, that it almost had me laughing. The fact that you are thinking through your life and worrying about it all meaning something is not something that any self-respecting (no pun intended) Nihilist would do. That's a compliment, really.

You claim to want to change your life, but after all of the shit you have been through it is much easier to continue along the same path. After all, the devil you know is less scary than the devil you don't know.

And then you claim to want to hang on to the last 10 years of torture in your life so your struggles aren't invalidated. But you get depressed and wrapped up in thinking obsessively about what could have been.

Frankly, all of your logic and philosophical posing seems to be a masking a massive amount of fear and depression. Some people are truly afraid, and others hide behind fear because they don't have the tools to propel themselves forward. Not having the tools you need makes you feel powerless, which leads to paralyzing depression.

If you can put your fears aside, you will be able to get that perspective that you are craving and realize that your experience is not some anomaly, that it is all part of a maturing process. Being aware that anyone can be different and mysterious, and yet still be well-adjusted and enjoy life amongst other people is important. And note that I didn't say 'normal' people, because there is no such animal. We all have our own shit to deal with, no matter what a 'normal' person appears to be. Pity that people can't see the struggles of others. It would instantly put our own experiences into perspective.

Getting sick of your current mode, understanding that it won't get you what you want out of life and taking action to move on is the first step. Give yourself some comfort in knowing that no one can ever get rid of their past, much as some of us would like to. You can view it as an albatross, or you can use it is a tool (in context) to define how far you have come in your journey so far.

The challenge that I see here is that you must get very clear about what you want and then obtain the right help to get you there - Therapy, yes, I think is good for everyone. But getting the kind you need is important - Something only you can decide.

To get started, my suggestions for you would be six-fold:

1) Decide what you really want. Shoot for the moon. You have already decided that your life has meaning and that you have the potential to enjoy it. Figure out what you want. You may want to start by defining what you DON'T want.

2) Try some Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. You don't even need a therapist for this. There are tons of great books out there on CBT (Dr. David M. Burns is a leader in this field) and a lot of psychologists will say that it is greatly successful. Arresting cognitive distortions is the only way that a lot of people can move foward and keep them from stumbling backwards. If CBT is helpful, then find a therapist that is willing to work with you on it.

3) Do. Make friends, go out on the town, do interesting things, and whatever else those well-adjusted people do. Figure out what helps you to enjoy life. Start small and take baby steps if it is overwhelming. It will get easier and you will find that most people are generally pretty supportive of those that want to enjoy life. If they aren't supportive, run the other direction.

4) Keep at it. This sort of change isn't easy. But you can't win if you don't stay in the race.

5) Let yourself be vulnerable. This is really difficult, but ultimately, your 'outsider' profile fools no one. No risk, no reward.

6) Give yourself time. Your current state didn't happen overnight. Any change is going to take a while and you need to go easy on yourself.

While my snark escaped a wee bit earlier in my response, I truly hope that this helps. The fact that you are addressing this now, rather than in your 40's or 50's puts you ahead of a lot of folks. Make your 25th birthday a milestone, and come back and tell us how it's going.
posted by inquisitrix at 9:08 PM on January 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Uh, you are not bottomed out remotely if you are posting this on the internet. Rock bottom is homeless, addicted to drugs, possibly with a life-threatening disease and the apathy/lack of funds to even test yourself to know for sure.

Rock bottom is you're in jail because you committed involuntary manslaughter and woke up arrested after you blacked out, possibly in the hospital yourself. Unless you are out on bail right now or just found out you've got a terminal disease from your own carelessness, you can turn this destructive streak around and learn from it.

Also, what the fuck is normal? Normalcy is hard to define, as is often discussed here.

Get some perspective. Volunteer. Get therapy. Go do something with yourself that makes you feel good instead of bad and embrace that feeling.

Realize that you have the chance to be an inspiration rather than a disappointment (to yourself or anyone else) and that being that person doesn't make you a sell-out, or sheeple or whatever it is that you think normal equates to... if you're hurting yourself, you're hurting others, too. Please don't do that.

Letting yourself get in a rut, depression, self-sabotage... these are behaviors that will not result in a Great Life's Work of Art. Why would you expect it to, exactly? Because you want a reputation for being weird or different? Your reputation is not art, man. Neither is your "image". Art takes two things: inspiration and effort. You don't seem to have those things right now. Remedy that. Focus on what you want to produce and project into this world.

Once you find your true will and follow it without being swayed by popular culture or peer pressure, you'll see that "tortured soul" is NOT the equivalent of "mad genius artist."

Wallace Stevens was a Harvard-educated successful businessman; Dylan Thomas bragged about his alcoholism and died at 39. I know which one I respect more... I'm just sick to death of people assuming that living a life like Jim Carroll imbues them with some kind of artistic merit.

Most self-destructive people who embrace their evil sides suffer unnecessarily, then die poor and alone. Why would you do this to yourself? Get help. Stop romanticizing your own damnation. Self-loathing and pity isn't like pollen; you can't feed off it and catalyze it into anything useful, like honey. This is your chance to reverse your life and make the most of your past mistakes.

Let all your mistakes from this moment forward at least be new ones.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 9:29 PM on January 14, 2009 [6 favorites]

I know I should probably see a therapist, but I have problems with initiative

I think you know what you need to do. I could blab around the epistemology of my psychological issues with the best of them (still can) but what I needed was an experienced professional to guide me through understanding why I kept repeating certain patterns of behavior and thought and how to create new, healthier approaches.

It's all just speculation, particularly given the relative brevity of your question, but my personal take is that most of the justifications and explanations we attach to our depression are pretty much pasted on, just trying to make some sense of it, to attach it to a narrative that doesn't just seem petty and arbitrary. But there is actually very little value or direction to be derived out of these fictions. I think they are rooted in a belied that the problem is basically intractable: if you can't escape it, at least you can explain it, justify it, maybe even set it up as a superior, if cruel, worldview. But the reality is that if you could easily think your way out of this you would do so because having your life crippled by depression sucks. Your doctor can help you find a therapist in your area. Your health plan can help you find a therapist in your area. Your free/cheap community clinic can help you find a therapist in your area. Your friend who went through it can help you find a therapist in your area. The internet can help you find a therapist in your area. The internet can help you find a therapist in your area. It isn't perfect. It isn't quick. There are false starts and difficult decisions. It's still most likely what you need to do.
posted by nanojath at 9:40 PM on January 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have no special wisdom, but I can tell you a personal story that perhaps you can relate to.

Like many, I had a hard time in high school. I was very insecure, with no real sense of who I was. I was constantly anxious and unhappy. I reacted to this by setting myself apart by dressing in non-conventional ways, being cynical about "the system" (a great excuse to blow off homework and class), and generally being kind of weird. Those behaviors became my identity, not because they were expressive of something true about me, but because they were something I could point to and say, this is me and that (everyone else) is not me.

A lot of time has passed, and I've since discovered some things about what really makes me happy, what I want to do with myself, who my real friends are, and so on. I am so much happier now that I am constantly amazed at my own luck. A little while ago, a friend who was one of my closest friends in high school told me that lately, I've become more generic and mainstream, lost my whimsy, and no longer have my own unique aesthetic. I was hurt. He just doesn't get it. I'm wearing the same Gap sweater as the girl across the bus, but that doesn't matter, because that's not what makes us different. I know who I am now, and it's not "person who wears weird clothing." That doesn't mean I'm a part of the faceless mass, it means my face isn't all there is to me. People who get to know me know who I am and why I'm special.

So I think what I'm saying is that your need to have this outsider identity may not be the cause of your unhappiness, but a symptom. Maybe, instead of placing your focus there, you should try to work out what activities or people really make your heart buzz warmly. I second nanojath and others suggesting that a therapist can give you some perspective and help you figure out how to change what isn't working.
posted by prefpara at 2:10 AM on January 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

I want to be different from everyone, mysterious, distant. All my life thus far I've been sort of an outsider (the smart kid, the quiet kid, the weird kid, etc.), so maybe I'm taking way too much pride and identifying too deeply in that part of me.

Just to demystify and de-glamourize the whole "mysterious" sound like a lot of young people, before their brain chemicals change and they chill out with age. That is, a LOT of people go through what you are going through (check out about 1/3 of the livejournals out there, if you must--and there are so many of us adults who prided ourselves in being "special"), so just how great can seeming "mysterious, distant, and different" actually be?

The thing is, I think there IS a unique and special, wiser "you", as there is in each of us. However, you still haven't tried to discover or understand this "you" yet, just gone along with what seemed a more seductive, ego-boosting "you". From what I've experienced and learned, this wiser "you" emerges when the ego goes silent. You need the ego, yes, but right now its way too overactive in your life.

You say you've made a variety of bad decisions--well, good for you, at least there was some variety! Think of your past as "well, at least I got to see how THAT worked out". Guess what, at least your past was a colorful one. Now try doing some new things, maybe things that are completely out of character, and just wait around to see what happens. Try a completely new job (moonlight if you must) or hang out with a person you normally wouldn't hang out with. You might find that you aren't as chained to this old you as much you thought, and wow, the old you had its moments but was kind of a drag.
posted by uxo at 2:30 AM on January 15, 2009

i don't think you can ever break from your past. you can change directions, but your past is what got you to the starting point of that new direction.

my only piece of advice is to be more compassionate towards yourself.
posted by rmd1023 at 4:23 AM on January 15, 2009

Does any of this mean anything to anyone, or fit an existing psychological concept I haven't heard of?

I hope this doesn't sound flip, but I think the "existing psychological concept" your state would fit is "being 25."

Hear me out. I've long thought -- after going through it myself and watching my friends -- that people in their mid-to-late 20's go through a bit of a floundery "what the hell do I do now" tailspin for a while, just because of the nature of how everyone's life usually works: through childhood and into college, you're pretty much learning how to be functional in an adult society, and then we're tossed into trying to fend for ourselves. So it's kind of like in our early 20's, we're all frantically trying to learn how to juggle - it's the first time we're really confronted with having total responsibility for how to earn our own living, make our own housing payments, how to decide what we want to eat, how we want to entertain ourselves, etc. That is a lot of freedom all at once -- but also a lot of responsibility, and a lot of us do a little bit of flaily "oh crap i need a job because i have rent oh there's a job i hope i can keep it eek eek eek," and it takes us a couple years to settle that down to a point where we realize, "holy crap, I'm actually pulling all of this off! Yay!"

But because we were panicking a little, we maybe didn't make the best choices about any of those issues -- partly becuase we just plain didn't know enough yet, and partly becuase we maybe just grabbed the first thing that came along becuase we had to do something. We had to learn how to juggle on the fly, so to speak. So our mid-to-late 20's is when we start to really look at ourselves and ask, "hang on. Now that I know how to juggle, let's look at the things I'm actually juggling." and people start going through a lot of self-examination over some of the choices we've made so far and trying to change things. Maybe you will totally change everything -- you were juggling balls, but you want to try flaming knives now -- or maybe you want to make a gradual change (start with clubs, work up to flaming knives) or maybe you'll stick with balls.

but I think that this is a lot of what's going on now -- this is really the first real opportunity you've HAD to have the LEEWAY to examine your choices and alter them. Up until this point, none of your choices were as 100% yours, so to speak -- our parents doing much of our caretaking during our childhood and teens does take a lot of pressure off of us, and while we do make a lot of choices in high school and colleg,e, there is still that safety net. this is the first time you've had to REALLY have evaluated choices that are totally your own. It's tough and confusing and scary, but being honest with yourself about who you are and what you really want, and not trying to be something that you're not -- and being patient with yourself while you figure out what that all is -- will help a lot.

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:24 AM on January 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm twice your age, and in my personal history I've had a big ol' pile of distinctly different "lives" - which in many cases have been almost diametrically opposed to a previous incarnation. Yet I'm actually a very emotionally grounded person.

(In one or two of my lives, we could have been best buds, so try to listen to what I say next that way...)

At my age, I find that I'm incredibly grateful for that fluidity; I'm very, very glad that I had a lot of different experiences, and I'm especially happy that I haven't been the sort of person to become "stuck" in one particular era or mindset. It's very common for people to become "snagged in time" somewhere between 20 and 30 years old; their ideas calcify, and they essentially stop learning and become closed to new concepts. Nothing for them will ever be as good or cool as what was good or cool at this age; they will never be as good or cool ... yet they have about 50 or 60 more years to go, if they're lucky! To me that's tragic.

A child of six years old doesn't lose the "investment" of their previous five years when they progress past being a toddler, and neither does someone who is 25 invalidate their life of the previous 10 years by growing into a new stage. To be honest, reading your description, it sounds like a 8x8 cell, with bars on the window... and you know what happens to old prisoners, do you not? They are terrified to leave the cell. Don't become an old prisoner!
posted by taz at 4:28 AM on January 15, 2009 [6 favorites]

There's a lot of wonderful insight here! I can only add some tips that helped me a dozen or so years ago when I was turning 50. My "bottom" presented itself in a way that felt like I was laying on the ground and couldn't get any lower....but then I saw a stream of light like from under a door. It was my ray of hope, so I got up and went to work. Six years of therapy later (mostly in the form of Al-Anon), I could honestly say I knew how to be happy. It's been all uphill ever since.

Learn to identify how you feel at any given moment (mad, sad, glad, scared). Practice journaling. Pay attention to your natural interests. Understand that happiness is BUILT--out of insight and good habits; it's orchestrated; you work at it. Decide what matters most to you, make a list. And to paraphrase the serenity prayer: learn to accept the things you can't change, find the courage to change the things you can, and gain the wisdom to know the difference, all with serenity. Life is a journey, enjoy it.
posted by Idjit at 6:26 AM on January 15, 2009

I really like your question for a number of reasons. Firstly, I can identify as I've been there, I continue to revisit, and getting through it permanently has been my biggest project for nearly a decade. Secondly, it helps me to see others coming forward and articulating in an honest, intelligent, and humble way. It reminds me that change is possible and that I'm not the only one.

Unfortunately there's no prescription for this. You'll have to work mercilessly on it. You'll have to try numerous things until something starts to work. You may have to drink many kinds of kool-aid.

Although a gift, what will probably not help so much is wit and intelligence. What brings about full transformation of the soul is not Doestoesvky, Foucault, Kafka, stellar papers at conferences, or all works sold at opening (whatever floats your boat here). It's more about identifying with humanity, recognizing there's a force in the universe more expansive and timeless than your imagination and understanding and recognizing your place in it.

I don't mean to be presumptuous but if there's any chance of drugs or alcohol being used to explore, get away from, deal with, whatever... address that today. I may sound like the happy nurse here but if your mixing what you've described above with drugs and booze some really interesting things will happen for some time... but it'll eventually all come down in a horror unparalleled to anything you've experienced before.

You have the enormous advantage of seeing this early on in life. Many of us hated the fucking world for decades before considering change. You've also found perhaps one of the best places to inquire about this sort of thing.

MeFi mail me anytime. Be well.
posted by uhom at 7:51 AM on January 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

This is really interesting to me. I went through a serious bought of "nothing matters" after a profoundly difficult breakup in my late 20s. I was convinced that my life had no more meaning because everything I had been up until that point was tied up in the relationship. It was very difficult and I felt as if nothing in the world matter. But after a lot of thinking, and watching way too much Buffy and Angel, I realized something. It really doesn't matter, I'm not a special snowflake and I'll probably die alone. But what's important, what actually matters is the life I lead now. Being separate from the world, being distant and immune to your surroundings robs you of that. And while, I still think that there's really no fire of love or connection that you can build that will last an entire lifetime; I do firmly believe that it's the memory of these fires that lasts. The people I've loved and who've loved me...those keep me warm even when they are no longer in my life. Every single second that has gone before is valuable and important because it has made me who I am. You don't ever lose your past self, you only build up. That mysterious loner that you once were is still there, just acting as a foundation for the new you.

So the solution is, get out there. Set fires in your life, make connections and do those things that you dream of. Even if you fail, even if you end up alone and eaten by your cats, you have had a life and have lived. And really, that's all any of can ask for. Good luck.
posted by teleri025 at 8:25 AM on January 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


And really do the work. If you get a good therapist you can slam through a lot of issues in a short period of time. The point is to get to the core of why you present that persona to the world when you desire more interaction.

And seriously, going into therapy is really common and the people who need it and really work at it come out a lot stronger in the end.

So give it a shot. It's the internet so you won't get a full diagnosis here but at least it's worth a try to learn more about yourself in a neutral, non-judgmental environment.

I'm a big fan of Jung's work - facing your shadow-self and your anima / animus and all that.

There is a deep universe inside of you - time to go probe it.

(PS have gone through the same thing - I think a lot of ppl have & am currently in therapy now so if you have questions, feel free to PM)
posted by HolyWood at 8:39 AM on January 15, 2009

When I'm feeling bad, I (and I'm not joking) stop feeling bad and feel awesome instead. The trick is to remember to do this.
posted by mullingitover at 1:43 PM on January 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Lots of fascinating advice here. Just want to add my 2 cents worth (well, someone else's, really):

"I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavour."
- Thoreau

I find this to be a really powerful ultimate affirmation of free will, and a reminder of the role of choice and responsibility in our lives. Good luck with however you choose to proceed.
posted by Weng at 3:51 PM on January 15, 2009

To add:
The point of going to therapy is to work through your issues and give you your life back so that you can then start examining different philosophies that may work for you.

I'm a big fan of Jung, existentialism and the postmodernists but when I bottom out, even my intellect can't save me.

And you can actually work your intellectual leanings into therapy.

Seriously, it helps.
posted by HolyWood at 11:28 AM on January 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Submiquent said something curious upthread:

Don't think because you've wasted 25 years that you deserve a leg up on everyone else, oh you & I are starting wherever we are at in real life and that might be lower than you think.

I don't know by what metric anyone could accuse the OP (or you, since you put yourself in the same boat) of "wasting" 25 years unless they were supposed to be doing fulfilling skilled work for the benefit of humanity right out of the womb.

Anonymous reported having made bad life decisions for the past 10 years, but that period includes several years where almost everyone's life decisions are pretty bad. If their self-assessment of those bad choices and their impact is even close to accurate, I'd still say anon might have wasted four or five years tops. That might feel like a lot, but it's a lot easier to deal with than blaming yourself for not making the best use of every moment of your entire life since birth.
posted by backtotherain at 11:36 AM on January 17, 2009

At age 17, I decided I'd become like one of those cool loners, like the cowboys and James Dean. During a really unhappy moment at age 21, someone reassured me, "but you are so cool, you don't seem like you need anyone." At that point, I realized (a) I'd achieved my goal with great precision, and (b) it was a stupid goal, all of those cowboys were probably miserable too. That started the tougher challenge: to envision a better goal and achieve it with the same precision. Nihilism and romantic alienation are the lazy way out, and they're not so much a way "out" as a way of putting off the real work.

My book recommendation: Jim Harrison, particularly The Road Home (or maybe Dalva, the more accessible book with the same characters). First sentence: "It is easy to forget that in the main, we die only seven times more slowly than our dogs."

Re: "all that suffering for nothing," see the sunk cost fallacy.
posted by salvia at 4:54 PM on January 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

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