How do I fix me?
October 28, 2009 10:33 AM   Subscribe

I feel like my life is over and I'm only 35. I feel completely stagnant and stuck, relationshipwise and jobwise. Do I need to change things or do I need to learn how to deal? Help me figure out how to be a happier person.

Is there some Grand Unified Theory that explains all my problems? How do I fix me?

I'm a 35-year-old male who has dealt with lifelong anxiety. Two major things in my life right now have me in despair: my relationship and my job. Neither of these is awful; they are just blah. I can't see either of them improving. I feel like I'm too young to have a midlife crisis, but I feel like I have nothing left to look forward to. My life feels over. I feel like even if I change things, I'll become anxious and unhappy about something else. There are good things about my life, but I just do not know how to be content. Maybe deep down I feel like I don't deserve it.

I have been in therapy with different therapists on and off since I was 17. I've been seeing my current therapist for nearly 9 years, and I like her, and I have insights regularly, and she claims that I've changed for the better, but I still feel unhappy. I am a compulsive self-analyzer, but I can't seem to translate insights into actual change. Isn't the goal of therapy supposed to be to get to a point where you don't need therapy anymore?

I took meds (Celexa) for about 4 1/2 years. I never really felt like it solved things. I don't think I have depression -- I can function fine, I don't confine myself to bed, there are things I enjoy, I have genuine passion for life. It's just that life weighs heavily on me, and it always has.

I get frustrated and stressed out easily by little things in life. I have always worried about death, worried about wasting my life, worried about getting older (even when I was 21). Now I worry about middle age, old age. I'm gay, and I feel like I wasted my youth because I didn't come out of the closet until I was 24. I worry about long-term stress making me ill, which causes me more stress.

My relationship: I've posted a few AskMe's about this before (see here -- I changed details like numbers and dates in that first post because I wanted to be extra-safe about being anonymous), and I hate the idea of being a broken record, and I can see how people who have read my previous AskMe's might shake their heads at me for not having changed anything. But the thing is, I'm just terrified.

In short: my partner and I have been together for six years, and we've been in couples therapy for the last two. We truly love and care about each other and have a cozy, very boring, oxytocin-filled relationship, but we have never had a very sexual relationship, and after discussing it repeatedly in therapy, I'm pretty much convinced we never will. He has practically zero sex drive, and I'm just not sexually attracted to him. We have fooled around together twice -- twice -- in the last four years, and never did much before that. We have an open, don't ask/don't tell arrangement, which means that all my sex is with other people, which means that I can never have sex that includes intimacy, which means a big part of my life is very unfulfilled. Whenever I do start to feel some sort of intimacy with someone, I feel really guilty about it.

I guess the difference between this AskMe and my previous ones is that while I used to think there was a possibility we could eventually have a sexually fulfilling relationship, I've since realized we never will.

He also very much likes having a routine, likes being a homebody except for going to the theater alot (we live in Manhattan) and going to our favorite restaurant. He isn't big on excitement. Me, I need to shake things up every once in a while. That might sound odd, given that I tend to be pretty anxious, but I do like to expand my comfort zone sometimes, while he doesn't.

There are some days when I obsess about breaking up with him. But when it comes down to it, I just can't seem to do it. We have talked in our couples therapy about breaking up, and I would just miss him terribly -- having him next to me at night, talking with him, being with him. Plus, since I'm a very emotional person and I get stressed out easily, I just can't see how I could handle being alone and missing him. Our relationship has major flaws, but I do feel calmer knowing he is there whenever I get totally anxious about something. I cannot imagine being stressed out and having nobody to turn to, especially because I live in Manhattan, which can be a difficult, isolating place sometimes. Would I move into some small crappy studio by myself somewhere? I don't have very many friends, so I don't have much of a support system. (My partner and I are both in a social organization, so there are friends/acquaintances there, and people do like me, but it's hard sometimes because I worry about what people think of me.)

What if I wind up being single for the rest of my life? What if nobody else comes along? What if someone else does come along but that relationship is majorly flawed as well? What if my punishment for breaking up with my partner is that I never find anyone else again? Because, odd as this sounds, I do feel like I would be punished for it. That I am not allowed to change my situation, that I should be thankful for what I have, that I want too much.

Maybe I could keep him in my life, and we could be best friends?

And... what if I end the relationship and I'm still unhappy?

Now for the job situation: this is another thing entirely. My job is not very stressful and is sometimes decent, and I'm thankful for that, especially in this economy. But it's just a boring paycheck for me and isn't at all meaningful. Worst of all, over the summer, my office moved into a sterile office park in the New Jersey suburbs. Now I go to the office two days a week, which is a 1 hour 40 minute commute each way, and on the other three days I work from home, which feels so isolating and makes me feel like I'm not doing anything. I despair of ever getting out of this situation.

I have never known what I wanted to do with my life. I have seen career counselors, I have read career books -- at times I have been hopeful but I eventually despair. I have wanted to be a writer, a therapist, a journalist, a professor. I went to law school, but I didn't really enjoy being a lawyer. Now my job is related to the law, but it doesn't thrill me either. What I *do* like to do is read nonfiction and learn about things. I love learning and I love writing, but I don't think I have the expertise or ability to write nonfiction, and I have little interest in writing fiction. I am good at writing about myself, but who wants to read about me?

See how hard on myself I am?

I am also very fickle -- I can never be sure that what interests me now will interest me a few months from now. The only constant is history, particularly American history.

I feel hopeless at 35, and if the next 50 years are like the last 10, I don't know what I'm going to do, and I am only getting older. I am stuck, stuck, stuck, and I hate it.

I've created a MeFi account that I can't post from yet, but you can email me there if you want.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (34 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite

I read the above the fold text and immediately formed a comment, then read the rest and still have the same comment to make.

Happiness is a choice.

You have to decide that you want it and then take steps to reach it. You are not doing that. You're staying in relationship that doesn't thrill and make you happy, you're avoiding the one going interest you have, American History, and wallowing in something that makes you unhappy. Stop that, get out of your own way.

Make the choice to be happy and then take the necessary, and sometimes hard, steps to go do that. Every regret you've ever had can be washed away by taking the steps to become happy.

Good luck!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:54 AM on October 28, 2009 [11 favorites]

maybe you should get into teaching, and try to transmit your passion for learning to your students.
posted by gonna get a dog at 11:02 AM on October 28, 2009

IANAT (I am not a therapist) but it sounds as if you may be suffering from dysthymia, which is a persistent, non-acute depression. It also sounds as if you may be co-dependent, which makes it very, very difficult to extricate yourself from relationships (to people and things, such as jobs) that aren't working for you.

Your therapists should have evaluated you for these, but a couples counselor would be unlikely to. The good news is that both of these are treatable/manageable to the point where they no longer adversely affect your life. If you are in individual therapy, bring these up with your therapist (maybe just print out this page to bring with you), and if you're not currently in individual therapy, consider it, and possibly attending CODA meetings and/or reading up on co-dependency.

One of my wise friends says, "If you keep beating your head on the same wall over and over, you need to change direction, because the wall isn't going to." Albert Einstein said, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." Either way, if what you are doing isn't working for you, the solution is to change what you're doing. You can start with smallish changes if you like, because they're more comfortable, but you get bigger results with bigger changes.

Have you considered, for example, instead of having an open relationship, having a poly relationship? Then you can get intimacy, which is tremendously important, instead of just sex. Or take a bigger step and just be roommates/friends with your partner and go out and actively seek a meaningful connection with someone else. You are not getting what you need from your relationship as it is, and you are punishing yourself with your paralysis.

If you can overcome the low-level depression or dysthymia you seem to be experiencing and move past your stagnant relationship, you may find that career opportunities look more appealing or that you enjoy what you do more. At the least, it would give you an elevated base from which to explore your options.
posted by notashroom at 11:06 AM on October 28, 2009 [5 favorites]

Brandon has a point with the choice comment. You may choose to no longer fulfill (or give the perception of fulfilling) yourself with trivial and often meaningless things, people and (in)experiences fueled by brands, drugs or fear.

Often times, some personality types, may choose to shock the system by completely changing the environment and handles in which one operates. Sometimes this means taking a long, undefined trip out of the country. Sometimes it means selling worldly possessions (or putting them in auto-drive) and doing something to explore your true North.

In your developmental years, you may not have had this or these types of life-defining, personality-forming experiences or maybe you have and just need to be reminded of them.

My grandmother recently moved apartments, to one down the hall from her previous one. A very elderly woman took notice and commented to her about it. When my grandmother asked her about her situation, she said that she had lived in that building from the first week it was built--57 years ago. She had worked a government job, single her whole life, and did nothing but watch TV and go for weekend shopping excursions. Is this a life wasted? In my mind, perhaps.

At this point, you have the gift of foresight to imagine what you could be 30-50 years down the line and see if that requires an adjustment. Now, just find the thing that moves you and make it happen (scare yourself).
posted by omidius at 11:13 AM on October 28, 2009

I would just miss him terribly -- having him next to me at night, talking with him, being with him.

doesn't thrill and make you happy

I think he doesn't make himself happy. I could be wrong. But I think it's hard to say thrill>love. I'm biased. This is probably my current belief system and I've been content. But these guys seem to love each other and want to love each other. Isn't that a good thing? Or is there a need for insta-thrill from whoever you're in a relationship with? Is that the way you tell if a relationship is good enough?
posted by anniecat at 11:40 AM on October 28, 2009

I think you need to stop thinking so much about yourself and being so judgmental. Just give yourself a break and quit analyzing yourself and him. I think just clearing your mind and meditating on nothing will help rather than hyperanalyzing.

Being analytical helps you in school but it doesn't help in relationships. Just be.
posted by anniecat at 11:44 AM on October 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

OP here.

Brandon: yes, happiness is a choice. But I guess I feel like it's not necessarily a choice that's open to me. Sounds ridiculous, I know. I need to get into a mindset where I can understand that I am entitled to happiness as anyone else.

notashroom: It seems like everyone on AskMe gets diagnosed with dysthymia. :) Maybe I have that, maybe not. I don't know.

anniecat: I don't think wanting to have a sexual relationship with a life partner means that I am looking for an "insta-thrill," does it?
posted by chameleon at 11:54 AM on October 28, 2009

Chameleon, no, I was just talking to Brandon Blatcher.
posted by anniecat at 12:02 PM on October 28, 2009

*First of all, it sounds like you are dysthymic - which is a lower grade depression but also extremely persistent in the face of treatment. Bring this up with a therapist (preferably a new one so you can have a more objective assessment than Ms. 9 year)

*You also seem to lack self esteem and confidence, which could be a by product of possible dysthymia. Working on self esteem and confidence may help fortify you to help you make the decisions you need to make in order to extricate yourself from your agonizing situation.

___The Relationship___

There are some days when I obsess about breaking up with him. But when it comes down to it, I just can't seem to do it.

Nut up. Do it. Trust that you are strong enough to handle the consequences (if you do not trust that you are strong enough - see the first two points)

What if I wind up being single for the rest of my life? What if nobody else comes along? What if someone else does come along but that relationship is majorly flawed as well? What if my punishment for breaking up with my partner is that I never find anyone else again? Because, odd as this sounds, I do feel like I would be punished for it. That I am not allowed to change my situation, that I should be thankful for what I have, that I want too much.

See all that? That's all garbage. Really. Its over-thought, low-self esteem, hypothetical garbage. Get rid of that shit. There are always "what ifs" in life. There is no reward without RISK. You *might* be single for the rest of your life, but you aren't fucking Nostradamus and can't tell the future. It just as likely that you may find someone who is a perfect fit for you. Furthermore, would being single for the rest of your life be so bad? What would it mean to you? Do you believe you couldn't be happy as a single person? Getting a firm grip on these questions might help you figure your shit out. Look into CBT - which urges you to analyze your negative thoughts objectively. This often helps show you that they are indeed garbage.

Also..."not allowed to change my situation?" Nonsense - you can do whatever you want to do. You deserve the best in life simply for being who you just need to believe that yourself rather than have someone else tell it to you (CBT can and will help in that respect).

Seriously, I'm sure your SO is wonderful...but its time to end it. Many people have done tougher things.

___The Job___

But it's just a boring paycheck for me and isn't at all meaningful

Welcome to the experience of about 98 percent of the American workforce. Look, somehow we all believe that a job needs to be "a calling" and we get bombarded by all this bullshit about how you need to love what you do and how it should be fulfilling etc. Most of that is also...garbage.

Statistically speaking, we can't all do what we love. A very very small percentage of people will LOVE what they do. They're the ones who write articles or get interviewed and propagate the idea that we "all just need to LOVE our work omg!" Chances are you are not ever going to be in this percentile (don't let that stop you from trying, but also don't let it get you down - fine line).

You don't need to love what you do, but you do need to tolerate it. If you can't frame it in such a way that you can tolerate it...then you're doing pretty well. If you don't love your job, you had damn well better love your life though. What do you do outside of work? Find a hobby that you enjoy, exercise, hiking, yoga, travel, fantasy baseball...WHATEVER - that gives your life MEANING.

Meaning rarely comes from a job...but we like to pretend that it does. Believing that it will leaves most people unfulfilled. A job is a job. Its a meal ticket. That's a good place to start thinking about it. You've got a good paycheck...and you don't totally hate your job. Be thankful, you're kicking ass.

___Closing Thoughts___

I feel hopeless at 35, and if the next 50 years are like the last 10, I don't know what I'm going to do, and I am only getting older. I am stuck, stuck, stuck, and I hate it

Your outlook is likely colored by your current, warped state of mind. Happiness IS a choice, as others have mentioned. Unfortunately there are NO guarantees in life or love. The only guarantee is your own innate ability to reframe the way you see the world in such a way as to give it a positive spin. This is much easier said than done...but a regular committed schedule of exercise, meditation, CBT therapy, and anti-depressant meds might help.

Also, don't worry about the next 50 years...worry about now. Take responsibility for your predicament and make the tough choices regardless of the "what ifs."
posted by jnnla at 12:15 PM on October 28, 2009 [10 favorites]

Make a plan to achieve a goal. When you have a goal in life, life stops being directionless. It can be anything, anything, but I would suggest that you start putting away a substantial sum of money (like 10-20%) every month into a special fund. To do so, you would have to cut back on a lot of luxuries, but if you think of it as a challenge, you would be more motivated to achieve it. When you have accumulated enough to support yourself for one to two years without working, quit your job, and do a job that you have always wanted to to but never dared to try.

When you know what you want to do in life, your relationship and other worries will sort themselves out.
posted by moiraine at 12:20 PM on October 28, 2009 [3 favorites]

It seems like everyone on AskMe gets diagnosed with dysthymia. :) Maybe I have that, maybe not. I don't know.

I don't know either, but what you're describing does sound like a potential fit. I'm not diagnosing you, just suggesting you ask a professional to assess you and diagnose you if they feel it appropriate. What do you have to lose?

I realize you said "everyone on AskMe" gets diagnosed with dysthymia jokingly, but I just searched and found only 74 comments in all of AskMe (prior to this post) with that term, so I suspect if you feel it is a common suggestion, it's either a function of the questions you choose to read or the answers that stick with you. You decide whether that's meaningful or not.

It's up to you what you choose to do, and choosing to do nothing is as valid as any other choice, but if you want change, you're going to need to make change happen. Whatever you choose, I hope you find happiness.
posted by notashroom at 12:22 PM on October 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Print out this post. Give it to your therapist. Discuss.

Print out this post. Give it to your partner. Discuss.

You've been avoiding having difficult conversations with people you keep in your life to help you. You need to figure out how to have those difficult conversations if you ever want to feel better. And you may not be ready for that yet. You seem like a very cautious person who doesn't do anything unless you know for sure that it's going to work out better than what you have right now. That's a big part of the problem. But at some point, the fear of always living the way you do now will become stronger than the fear of an uncertain future. When you get to that point, you'll need to figure out how to have those conversations. And just being honest with people in your life will be a big part of that.
posted by decathecting at 12:24 PM on October 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

I need to get into a mindset where I can understand that I am entitled to happiness as anyone else.

I think everything else in your original question is a symptom and this comment is your disease. I would suggest you focus on treating the disease; if you are still seeing your therapist, this is what I would try to get a handle on.

That said; My job is not very stressful and is sometimes decent, and I'm thankful for that, especially in this economy. But it's just a boring paycheck for me and isn't at all meaningful.

This is what hobbies are for. Seriously, find something you love and devote some time to it. Allow it to be the thing that you do just for you, and just to make you happy. It can be anything; wine tasting, model railroads, archery, bird breeding, collecting rare books, whatever. Just something that is yours and serves no purpose other than to bring you joy.

Because I think you need something in your life that proves to you that this is something you can experience and deserve.
posted by quin at 12:26 PM on October 28, 2009

jnnla and decathecting: Excellent answers. Thank you.

Some other good ones here too.

notashroom: You may be right -- it could be the particular questions I was reading. And thanks for the well wishes.
posted by chameleon at 12:41 PM on October 28, 2009

I'm younger than you and in quite a different life place, but a lot of the things you said in this post resonated with me. I don't know if this makes what I have to say useful or useless (since I still think like this), but I'll try to share what works for me.

You aren't happy with your life as it is. You need to try to change it. It might work, it might not, but the act of trying and the small successes you have in the process will make you feel a lot better about yourself. You need to start looking for things in your life that make you happy, even in a small way, and make those things your priority. You enjoy learning about American history- can you research classes you could take on that topic? In Manhattan, there must be some options. Would you enjoy teaching? You could frame the class taking as part of a goal to eventually become a teacher of history in some way. This is just an example, but think hard about what kind of goals you think you would enjoy achieving- it could be learning a sport, going on a trip, finding a partner who makes you happy, anything, small or large.

The thing is not to get overly focused and anxious on your progress towards the end goal, but to make sure the steps along the way make you happy. Reaching the end goal, whatever is it, is not going to suddenly make you a happy person- taking the steps, enjoying them for what they are, feeling good about taking action in your life and paying attention to your happiness on a day-to-day basis might, though.
posted by MadamM at 12:51 PM on October 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

It sounds to me like you have love, but not "chemistry". This means that you have an approach/avoidance conflict built into the idea of breaking up. You want more, but you don't want to lose what you have.

To look at it economically, I think that you need to spend something to make more. Breaking up will be painful, but if you keep your eye on the ball, so to speak, you'll eventually find someone who just works better for you.

Talk therapy for you is probably a big thing to keep doing during the transition from dating to not dating, and what happens after.

I also think that meditation can be good medicine for your anxiety. No guarantees, but I know that it works well for some people, and it's easy to learn.

Good luck. The road ahead is tough, but I think that you have the right mindset to take it on.
posted by Citrus at 12:53 PM on October 28, 2009

I know a man who graduated from college, got a boring job, and spent 15 years doing that boring job and living in the same boring apartment in the same boring town he went to school in. Everyone who knew him just sort of assumed he would be stuck in the same situation for the rest of his life.

Last year he quit his job and moved halfway across the country in order to pursue his true artistic passion, and he is so much happier. His life still isn't perfect, but he is so, SO much happier. I don't know what finally made him change his life, but by god he did it. So can you.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:34 PM on October 28, 2009 [6 favorites]

> I've been seeing my current therapist for nearly 9 years, and I like her, and I have insights regularly, and she claims that I've changed for the better, but I still feel unhappy.

> Isn't the goal of therapy supposed to be to get to a point where you don't need therapy anymore?

Yes-- you are correct. Your therapist is no doubt a very nice person, but she has failed you professionally.

As for the relationship-- don't let oxytocin's warm fuzzies run your life. Given your description, I'd strongly recommend moving into the crappy little studio and meeting new people. Besides, your present guy probably will stay within your life, to some degree or other... so, emotionally, you likely will continue to have him as a fall-back.

What would you have to do to meet some people-- not just prospective partners-- with an interest in American history? What projects could emerge from such meetings?
posted by darth_tedious at 1:43 PM on October 28, 2009

Or is there a need for insta-thrill from whoever you're in a relationship with? Is that the way you tell if a relationship is good enough?

No, but the OP is clearly unhappy with the current state of the relationship, isn't attracted to his partner, has sex with other people to sake a physical need, yet never gets the sex with intimacy he craves and is only staying with his SO 'cause he doesn't want to be alone.

That's incredibly far from happy and he deserves to treat himself better.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:59 PM on October 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

You need to change things AND you need to learn how to deal.

Why change things? Your current partner sounds like a great friend. However, you do not seem compatible as lovers and will never be fulfilled in a relationship with him. I sense you already know this, and the only thing stopping you from accepting it is the fear, anxiety and inner conflict you described. Same story with your job. You already know that you - as a passionate and thoughtful person - have the need for something much more fulfilling, and that fear, anxiety and doubt is the only thing stopping you from pursuing that.

Why learn how to deal? Well, you need to address the fear, anxiety and conflict in order to make these changes, and also to deal with the life that these changes will bring.

How do you make these changes?

- Sometimes, getting more insight into inner conflict is enough to bull through. 9 years of continually getting insights with your current therapist suggests this is not the case. (Perhaps you just haven't realized enough of the right insights, but it seems unlikely that you'll get unstuck by pushing harder on this path alone.)

- Sometimes, it's necessary to tune brain chemistry. It seems you've tried this, but perhaps not with enough trial and error in terms of finding the right drug/dosage.

- Often, such changes require a carefully thought through course of gradually modifying behaviors. The value of these slight modifications is that they bring experience and wire new habits that are required to make the bigger changes that you simply cannot make all at once.

ALL THREE OF THESE areas - inner conflict resolution, brain chemistry and behavioral modification - need to be looked at together. It sounds like most of your history has focused only on analysis (i.e. the first area.) You can analyze and enhance your understanding until the cows come home. However, without having sound brain chemistry and some mechanism that enables you to break old habits of thought and behavior, you may be forever stuck in these old patterns.

Here's what I'd suggest:

1. Find a new (or additional - if you can afford it) therapist/coach who focused more on behavior and less on analysis. Tell them your specific goals are to find the strength and means to get in a more fulfilling relationship and more fulfilling career. Measure success (theirs and yours) based on these concrete goals.

2. Continue with some element of analysis. If you can get that from your new therapist, great. Otherwise, you might need to get it from another source. This source can be your current therapist (and keeping this as a constant in your life might help with the transition), or perhaps even you are capable of continuing this progress on your own.

3. Find a good psychopharmacologist who can help ensure your brain chemistry is not unnecessarily stacked against you. This person can be one of the above, or someone else entirely. You should only need to see them every couple of months once getting settled.

Drive relentlessly to address all three areas - conflict resolution, brain chemistry and behavior modification - and DO SO WITH SPECIFIC CONCRETE GOALS in mind. If you don't realize your goals over time, look at each of these areas and figure out where you need more/different support. If you do realilze your goals and you still aren't happy, rethink your goals. If you find you are realizing these goals and getting happier - then keep it up!!!
posted by c, as in "kitchen" at 2:16 PM on October 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'd take the pressure off of "should I change jobs? should I break up with my partner?" You're in a rut of worrying about these things, and being in that rut hasn't helped you. You can break up or quit your job, but it sounds like you foresee that making some random change would leave you in an equally unsatisfying situation with a lot more stress and chaos, or even put you in a very vulnerable psychological position.

Instead, I'd do two things: look for targeted interventions that can institutionalize in your life that will move you slowly but steadily in the right direction, and work actively and creatively to help your anxiety and depression and self-criticism.

Targeted interventions, particularly ones you can make new fixtures of your life:
* What I *do* like to do is read nonfiction and learn about things. I love learning and I love writing, but I don't think I have the expertise or ability to write nonfiction
- a journalism class? an evening grad school program?

* I don't have very many friends, so I don't have much of a support system.
- get a second job? join a particular volunteer group?

Work on your anxiety, depression, etc:
- get a new therapist (you can even have two, if you can't bring yourself to dump your current one)
- talk to people about it
- read books about it
- try to see the connection between your emotions and your dissatisfaction with your life; shift the focus to your insides rather than your outsides
posted by salvia at 2:18 PM on October 28, 2009

That's incredibly far from happy and he deserves to treat himself better.

You're right Brandon Blatcher. Listen to BB, chameleon.
posted by anniecat at 3:12 PM on October 28, 2009

You need change.

Just try to change something small at first and then scale up. Replace that old futon you never quite liked. Go on a road trip. Take a class in something. Start jogging. Move to another apartment. Repaint.

You don't have to jump right away to a conclusion that the change you need is either your relationship or your job. Try on a few other changes first, smaller ones. See if you can find something you want to change to rather than something to change from.

And try not too eat yourself up too much about it all. Be kind to yourself. When that voice says: "Oh, you know what, you good for nothing, you really should be doing more of this other type of thing!" or "Why didn't you instead do that back there!" try to just tell it: "Yeah, maybe, but just reading this book I like is OK too."

posted by yoz420 at 3:47 PM on October 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm pretty new here (actually very new); are we allowed to ask you questions? can this be a discussion?

[First of all: dysthymia. It's just a description. It basically means you're pretty unhappy at least half the time. It's not an explanatory concept. So whether you are or you're not, it's not useful except if "having" a diagnosis makes you feel better == that it's not "you" that's the problem, but a "thing" that you "have". Fine.]

But -- here's something that struck me:

" I've been seeing my current therapist for nearly 9 years, and I like her, and I have insights regularly"

And've said nothing that could be considered an insight in your post. By insight I mean any sort of understanding of your situation, that rises above the level of description (like "dysthymia" (I know you didn't say you had dysthmia, other people did. )

After a number of years of New York City-style psychodynamic (psychoanalytically-based) psychotherapy (the kind people who live in Manhattan usually get), people can usually say things such as the following:

"I'm terrified to leave a boring relationship, and that has something to do with the fact that my mother was distant (or depressed, or witholding, or competitive, or seductive (or whatever)), so I grew up feeling afraid that I'd be abandoned if I went off on my own and attempted to become autonomous, and that's also why I can't combine sex with intimacy, or do other things like find a better job --- things that involve a feeling of *agency* -- because I can't abandon my "inner mother" or I'll be all alone in the world"


"my father was a passive person and I grew up afraid of what would happen if I assumed a difference stance toward life than passivity"

blah blah etc etc

You know, stuff like that. Stuff that therapized people say. That reveal that they understand that their symptoms, rather than simply literal representations of some sort of objective reality, are also (or mostly) SYMBOLIC, that is, aspects of a psychologically-based narrative that they have gradually constructed (starting at a very early age) to attempt to make sense of the painful emotional world in which they were raised.

At least that's my understanding of how therapy works. You come to understand what your personal story is - the story of your life that you have *constructed* (with help from others close to you), and that helps you achieve some distance from that narrative, and that helps you realize that there are OTHER narratives available to you., and you even start to create a new narrative with your therapist -- a new model of a relationship with an authority-type (parental) figure.

For example, there are several elements of your narrative that are striking e.g.:

"I have to cling to a sexless relationship because otherwise I might very well be alone for the rest of my life" (as opposed to, say: "I have found this relationship; I am an interesting and loving person and there are thousands of others like me in this city and therefore, obviously, if my current relationship doesn't work out, I will find another one")

In therapy you hopefully begin to understand what's been going on in your life that has resulted in these beliefs, but also to help you really *feel* (not just understand) that you are a terrific, worthwhile person who can find others you can trust with your emotions (starting with the therapist). If the therapist has not been helping you in these ways, I'd discuss this with him/her (and not just discard him/her for another one, which I imagine you would have almost as much anxiety thinking about doing as thinking about ending your relationship) --

I would definitely tell your therapist that you've asked this question here. I would be REALLY interested in knowing how you would feel about telling your therapist that you are asking "us" what to do about your life. Would that feel like a betrayal to you, to tell your liked-and-insightful-sometimes therapist that you are turning to strangers to ask what to do about your life? If so, isn't that interesting to think about? Is it anything like the split you need to make between the sexless but loving boyfriend (analogous to the therapist?) and the exciting but faceless sexual encounters (analogous to -- US?)

You say yourself that you *have* to stay with the boyfriend, or you will be alone. Why? Why do you need to think that? What if you weren't going to be alone? what if you were able to get everything you wanted but your boyfriend had to be unhappy and feel abandoned (instead of you)? When you think about that, does your anxiety increase?? even for one millisecond, before the anxiety rushes in and then the depression takes over to mute all your emotions?

I believe that you should start by dealing with your relationship with your therapist. There is something key about what is going on between your therapist and you. You stay and stay yet you don't feel really helped by the relationship. Yes, that's true of other aspects of your life too, but I'd try (I know it's the hardest thing!) to keep it in the room, with the therapist. That's really what you're paying her to do --- I know this sounds stupid, but it's true ----

you're paying him/her to tolerate your feelings toward HIM/HER. You say you "like" your therapist. Is there anything about your therapist that you don't like? Anything at all? Hair? Shoes? Start with that.

You sound so *reasonable* in your post. You let your power dissipate, it sounds like, when dealing with the world, and only "let it out" in your anxiety symptoms. It's as if you only have "permission" to feel powerful when it's against YOU. You obsess about dying. That's because you're ALLOWED to die (in your head). What you're NOT allowed to do is LIVE.
Living is the most dangerous thing for you (living = *choosing* a lover, *choosing* sex, *choosing* power). Who in your life didn't let you choose power? who was threatened by your sexuality? your autonomy? Who couldn't you leave, the way you can't leave your boyfriend or your therapist now?

Sorry to ramble.
posted by DMelanogaster at 7:25 PM on October 28, 2009 [13 favorites]

If you were my daughter, this is what I would advise:
- Ditch the therapist; 9 years and you're still unhappy and stuck? Not good enough. Yoo much navel gazing and not enough action. Perhaps not a bad therapist, but obviously she's comfortable having you show up on a regular basis. To heck with that. You have the tools to help yourself by now.
- Distance yourself from the comfortable person who shares your bed and pain killers. Both of you are seemingly unhappily cozy/cozily unhappy. Get some fresh air, fresh people, and a red dress. Cook something different, colourful and with some zing to it. Buy a super pair of shoes and wear them. Sounds frivolous, and it is, but it helps. Colour and sunlight and living things help with depression. Buy an unkillable plant and nuture it.
- Think of what you would do if the worst were to happen. If your companion were to run off, get hit by a bus, whatever, what would you do without him? Well, you'd build a new life because you would have to. So start that project now while you have him there for comfort. Join a club, go dancing, volunteer, visit an art gallery - anything that's outside the cozy nest you have built. He doesn't have to accompany you always. Don't let his not wanting to go stop you from trying things. And no one cares if a woman shows up alone these days.
- What would happen if you lost your job? You'd find another. So, think about what you would do if that were to happen. Would you stay put or relocate or go back to school? Are there any different jobs within your organization that you can apply for to give yourself a change?
- Stop taking the pain killers unless they are absolutely medically necessary. Those kinds of drugs flatten the emotions and drain your energy. I've seen enough drug use to know what even legal, necessary drugs can do. If necessary, join NA or AA for help. If the other half won't quit, make him leave as it's impossible to stop when someone else is using in front of you.
- If you have long term, low grade depression, does the coming winter and lack of sunlight get to you? If so, buy a lightbook to give your system a boost. Clean the windows. Make an effort to brighten up your surroundings and yourself. Small steps get you to bigger
- Don't give up on yourself.
posted by x46 at 8:06 PM on October 28, 2009

x46, OP is a gay man. Not that he shouldn't buy a red dress and fabulous shoes if so inclined. Whatever works.
posted by notashroom at 8:16 PM on October 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

The one thing that stuck with me...

"...and if the next 50 years are like the last 10.."

I don't mean to make you anxious but 50 is a long time to be think of.

Once I read in the newspaper about some poet who had died. He used to live for five years at a time. So he would plan things for the next five years and never longer.
I liked that concept very much.

Sorry I was of no help. Good luck.
posted by xm at 8:52 PM on October 28, 2009 [5 favorites]

x46: painkillers? red dress? I'm a guy and I mentioned nothing about painkillers. Were you confusing oxytocin with oxycontin?
posted by chameleon at 6:05 AM on October 29, 2009

DMelanogaster: the parallel you draw between my relationships with my partner and with my therapist are brilliant. I can't believe I've never made that connection before.

I didn't mention much about my childhood because my question was long enough already. But basically, I grew up loving my mom and being afraid of my dad. My mom was wonderfully affectionate, at least when I was a little kid. My dad had a bad temper -- he spent a lot of time raising his voice at me while I was growing up, berating me, accusing me of being manipulative, or a momma's boy, or a snob, or incompetent, or immature. He belittled my hobbies. Every so often when I was a kid he hit or shoved me. I'm not sure how often he did that, maybe it was just a few times, maybe more. But at any rate this all made me scared of him and made me think I was a horribly incompetent human being.

What I did have was my brain. Until I was 6 years old I was the smartest kid I knew. Everything in school came easily to me without much effort. Then, in first grade, I met other smart kids for the first time. In a way, this was traumatic for me. From then on, I was always competing with other people to be the best, and whenever I wasn't the best, my parents (both mom and dad) got mad at me, sometimes accusing me of self-sabotage or of not working hard enough. Nothing was ever good enough for them. After my teachers recommended I skip seventh grade, my parents agreed to it, even though I didn't want to. Middle school is hard enough under normal circumstances, but to skip a grade? It brands you as a complete nerd in the eyes of your classmates. It made me an outcast and I resented my parents and teachers for years.

Anyway, my parents' high expectations continued through college and into law school and then it finally stopped a few years ago.

Then there's my brother. Until I was 4 years old, I was an only child. Then my brother was born. He was rambunctious, outgoing, more normal than I was, more comfortable and secure in himself than me. He seems to be more savvy about the way the world works than I am. He's also heterosexual and married with their first kid on the way. Our relationship is great, but I often compare myself unfavorably to him.

So as a child, over the course of a couple of years I encountered competition both within my family and at school. My brother had his charm and his savvy, but at least I had my intelligence. And then it turned out that there were people who were smarter than me and that my brains couldn't help me get through the world. So as I grew up I felt like I had nothing going for me at all.

It didn't help that at around 11 years old I realized there was something different about me, that I was gay. I was terrified about telling my parents. In short, during college, after being out to a few friends for a year, I finally told them, and they reacted badly, so I went back in the closet and we rarely discussed it. Five years later I finally realized this wasn't going away and this was who I was, so I came out to people again, and a year later I told my parents again. Once again they reacted badly. But they eventually came around and now they're cool with it and just want me to be happy. That's all very summarized.

My relationship with my parents is much better than it used to be. They've come a long way. Now all I get is occasional nagging from my mom to give her a grandchild.

At any rate, to this day I still feel incompetent, immature, different, a criminal, and I worry that I could be manipulative or snobby. Everything my dad accused me of. On top of that, I don't deal with stress well, which adds to my feelings of incompetence. I am always in the wrong. (Not really, but that's often how I instinctually feel.)

The little voices (not literally, of course -- I'm talking figuratively) tell me that I am too old, too short (5'6), too incompetent, too insecure to find another partner.

See why my question wasn't longer? :)
posted by chameleon at 7:09 AM on October 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Although I am a 29 year old woman, in a 13-yr long relationship (8 1/2 year marriage), there are some things in your post I can really relate to, particularly your lack of "attraction to your partner." In fact, much--MOST--of what you wrote about your relationship, I could have penned myself (and you inspired me to finally sign up for an account for myself just to post.) :)

My partner and I had been more sexually active than it seems you and your partner are, but not by much, and not with any great "positive" feelings. But we are the best of friends, and I can't picture ever not having him in my life. So I, like you, am very conflicted on my own personal options, have nearly filed for divorce, and have agonized over what is "best" and "right" to do. I also got hit with a *terrible* panic disorder about 3 years ago because of all it, and have slowly been crawling my way back to "normal life." No formal therapy or medication proved whatsoever useful to me, and I have done what needed to be done on my own, with the help of some very intelligent people who were kind enough to write their wisdom and research and advice down in books or online. I say all this so you can know I can relate to your anxiety too, which I obviously suffer from to varying degrees at times.

So with that little personal backstory, I wanted to give you the name of a book: Passionate Marriage by David Schnarch, Ph. D.

I know you are not married, but it WILL still apply...I promise. :) For me, it has iterated all my deepest and most personal feelings and thoughts about sex in general, and helped me validate my feelings about my personal sex life and see them through a clearer, nonjudgmental lens. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine someone already knew all this and wrote it down! It has been most valuable to me just helping me see that nothing is actually fundamentally wrong with me or my partner, and that there IS a framework from which we could launch a better sexual relationship. You said you feel there is no longer "the possibility" of having a sexual relationship with him, and here I will disagree. There is always a possibility, but no one can say whether it's a likelihood except for you and your partner. I see-saw back and forth with the same feelings toward my partner, but I do see that I (and he) could choose to improve the sex life. (And we both have made concerted effort and have taken steps that have allowed us to have some highly pleasurable encounters, though I still battled with the attraction--as in, to a degree, I wished it were someone else--and assume that might be the case for a while, but this stems from other nonrelated marital issues that bleed into the bedroom.)

So I wanted to just pass this title along to you, because I see you read nonfiction and love to learn--me too!--and really am hoping that it might give you a fresher perspective on the whole sexual (and relationship troubles), and best of all, a new approach you and your partner could take. I wish you and your partner the BEST of luck! I know how hard it must be for you. :)
posted by LillyBird at 1:37 PM on October 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

[Is there any reason that posters don't relate to each other's posts, but keep responding to the o.p. as if no other posts have occurred in between? It's weird. It even seems sort of -- autistic. (just saying)]

[no offense to anyone, it's obviously the culture here]

Thank you for calling my connection between your therapist and your relationship "brilliant", Original Poster. It made me so narcissistically happy.

So -- you're at a place where so many therapy patients/clients get to. Intellectual understanding of their situation, and then the "Now what?" phase. "I KNOW all this. Now what am I supposed to DO about it?"

I would say at this juncture (as I was sort of saying in my first response to you) that what there is to do about "it" (it = you; because it's you that's the issue, not your "situation", as some would have it) is to take a deep breath and try to tune into what you are feeling toward the therapist (other than "like") while you are in the room with her. This takes courage.

Just to say, if I had paid for nine years of therapy and I was still feeling as bad as you're feeling, I would have a lot of feelings toward the therapist. I'd be: disappointed; angry, even! I'd also feel, god, I must be a real loser if I'm still in this position. Am I more of a loser than her other patients? (for "other patients", read: your brother) Is she bored with me? Is she just taking my money? does she have pity for me? is that good or bad?

I would try to allow myself to treat the therapy as a laboratory situation where I allow myself to (and I know it's hard) feel ANYTHING I am feeling in the room.

I just think that, although you intellectually know a lot of things about yourself and your background, you are very very cut off in what you allow yourself to feel about other people (as well as yourself), and before running toward change/action, I would try to deal with the "Internal" part of your struggle.

There is a lot of danger you relate in your background, so of course you have curtailed what you allow yourself to think and feel. You're in a kind of self-preservation mode, feeling and acting in a way that has to do with basic survival (which you've said, actually, is one of your primary obsessions). When we are in survival mode, we're not thinking about explorations and change. We need to keep things the way they are to preserve our safety. You don't go on adventures when you're a nervous wreck! You stay close to the hearth.

There is a famous quote from the therapy world by Donald Winnicott that I now can't remember (ha), but it says something like this: fear of the bad things happening in the future is really unconscious memory of bad things that have happened in the past. The bad stuff you fear Has Already Happened, but you haven't really worked it all through yet.
So you live in perpetual dread of the future, but really what's going on is that you have already been traumatized and now are in self-preservation mode..sorry if I'm not being clear and rambling again.

Good luck, you seem like a very nice guy who "deserves" more (although I don't actually believe in "deserving" things)


A Therapist, yet not Your Therapist
posted by DMelanogaster at 2:43 PM on October 29, 2009 [6 favorites]

DMelanogaster: thanks. By the way, I am way ahead of you on thoughts and feelings about my therapist and about other people. A few paragraphs of text are not enough to describe everything I think and feel. Just because I mentioned that I like her doesn't mean I don't feel other things about her and share those feelings with her.

Lillybird: I'm so glad I prompted you to join MeFi! mathowie will be so happy. :) And thanks for sharing your story -- as always, it is nice to know I'm not the only one who feels these things.
posted by chameleon at 9:42 PM on October 29, 2009

If I was you, I would save up enough money to quit my job and take some risks for awhile. Risk! Travel! Work a crappy job waiting tables! Learn a language or three! Volunteer! Learn Learn learn! Live on your wits for awhile. You are bright, I can tell, and bright people need to shake things up and get enough stimulation to feed their brains and bodies. While I saving money to quit my job, I would exercise as much as possible. I would do a lot of yoga and swim a lot, because for me, though it doesn't solve all my problems, it takes the edge off A LOT. I would commit to getting a sex life back, with or without my partner. I'm sorry, but if you've tried every avenue to get it back with him, than it's time to open some new avenues. Listen to some dan savage podcasts if nothing else. You can not give up on your sex life!
posted by Rocket26 at 11:40 AM on October 30, 2009

Another idea would be to tell the therapist, "hey, I realized that -- not only do I not change relationships and not change jobs, even when they're not working for me -- I also have been coming to see you for nine years, and maybe it's time for a change. Our time together has helped me, and I know you will understand that the most therapeutic thing for me is going to be saying goodbye to you and going off into the world to find another therapist. So, thanks a lot for everything!"
posted by salvia at 4:32 PM on October 31, 2009

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