Nowhere to go but up?
November 1, 2009 9:37 AM   Subscribe

How did you come back from miserable failure?

My life was humming along more or less well until a couple weeks ago when disaster struck. I have, temporarily at least, failed out of school, which, beyond the obvious, has enormous financial and personal implications. I'm 35 and a single parent, so starting over, while possibly necessary, feels extra daunting. As often happens, this one disaster is causing me to see everything else in my life as a failure. In an effort to avoid spiraling into depression, I'm trying hard to keep my brain together by exercising, talking to friends, and seeking inspiration from other people who have had their lives fall apart and recovered. In short, I am seeking metafilter-flavored chicken soup for the soul. Can you tell me how you came back from totally fucking things up?
posted by serazin to Human Relations (19 answers total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
I am so sorry you're going through this & I can relate. Basically, due to some unfortunate circumstances, I self-destructed a few years ago and lost pretty much everything that was important to me. I don't really want to get into details on the interwebs, but please feel free to email me.

Anyway, it took time, and a lot of help from my Mom, my closest friends, and a good therapist. I'm also someone who does best when I have something to work towards, even if it's incredibly far out, and by far out, I mean it could be years. For example, moving to a different place, taking a vacation, buying a house, or having a dog. If you can find something to build towards, it may give you just enough momentum to keep putting one foot in front of the other. It may not seem like it now, but it will get easier.

Also, I don't know the circumstances of your issues with school, but can you find value in this disruption of your plans? Meaning, maybe you were not studying the right thing for you and this will force you to redirect your academic energies to something that would be a better fit, or maybe there is something else you need to be focusing on right now that was being eclipsed by school. This is an incredibly hard thing to do, but if you can find a purpose in this experience, it will help you to move forward.

I know how daunting starting over can be, but it can be done. Bit by bit, it will come together and become exponentially easier, and it will be worth it. Best of luck.
posted by katemcd at 9:56 AM on November 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

I ended up taking a job with the government at a desk for about a year and a half, after flunking university after two years.

The job was enough to pay the bills comfortably and for me to relax and unwind after that experience. However, the place was the epitome of bureaucracy...obviously. After seeing the lack of advancement opportunity, I decided to head back to post-sec, this time to a technical college.

The differences were night and day. No lecture halls; much lower pretentiousness-level; classes with subjects I could excel at and enjoy. Through that I ended up getting a part time job in the field, and I'm finishing my last year while working.

I would just keep in mind that student loans are by far the cheapest borrowed monies, and also, in your case (single mature student) bursaries and scholarships can probably pay for half of your tuition for a year! Especially if you're a woman! Especially if you don't take a full course load! Hopefully this time you can choose something you actually like to do, which might not get you the greatest degree from a top-notch school, and it might take you 6 years to complete a 3 year course, but then at least you have a goal.
posted by Khazk at 9:57 AM on November 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

When I nearly failed out of school (I was a lot younger though) I discovered that it was because I didn't really want to be doing what I was doing. I then, in a somewhat accidental fashion, found something that I did want to be doing, and everything went drastically better from then on. It wasn't that simple in the details, but that is the outline. So I guess the message from this is to take this opportunity to think hard about why you're in school, and whether what you are studying is what you really want. (I can also sense a need for some serious thought about this from previous questions...)
posted by advil at 9:58 AM on November 1, 2009

I have told my story before. Going from losing nearly everything, to acceptance that your entire life has to change is frightening, but eventually enlightening and uplifting. The key for me was the acceptance. When I quit fighting for the old ways and began fighting for change, I was richly rewarded with a new happiness.
posted by netbros at 10:03 AM on November 1, 2009 [11 favorites]

There's cognitive things you can do, like reframing your failure as something else, like a bend in the road on the way to your success. Lots and lots of successful people have had spectacular failures on their way to success. You are just one of them.
Failure is an inevitable aspect of change. You could even say failing is an essential ingredient especially the willingness to fail and keep going.
You can look at all the people who do not have what you have now and practice gratitude for what you have, actively, daily as a practice recount all the things you have to be grateful for.
It's hard to negate a negative, meaning focusing on the negative aspects of what happened will only make it loom larger. Examine the lesson, take it to heart and start planning something better, something to look forward to and working toward.
It helps to make positive statements in your mind. Yes, it happened. Yes, you can survive this and move forward and be successful, yes it was a good lesson and now for something better.
posted by diode at 10:18 AM on November 1, 2009

When I was in the throes of divorce and probably at the lowest point of my life so far, a mate said to me: be your own best friend. By that he didn't mean that he was abandoning me, but that I should treat myself with the same respect and care consideration that I would treat him, instead of beating myself up. I found that very sound and helpful advice, and it helped me bring a little detachment from my misery. If your best friend was in this situation, how would you comfort and reassure them?

Incidentally, I was 30 then. I had no assets, few friends, had a pack a day cigarette habit and was drinking way too much, and terrified that I would lose my place in my daughter's life. Now I'm 39, probably healthier than I've ever been, certainly wealthier, I have a satisfying and remunerative job, my spare time is consumed with various co-operative endeavours, I'm engaged, my kid is doing great and of course she love me... my general well-being could not be better compared to that time. And yet the route from there to here has been mostly unplanned and unexpected. I've just improvised.

Frankly I think a lot of recovery isn't so much effort as it is avoiding wallowing while you wait for the wheel of fortune to turn a bit, so that you can grab it when it does.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:49 AM on November 1, 2009 [9 favorites]

In 2001 I was a full time student at community college, when my live-in boyfriend and I broke up in an incredibly messy way. I tried to keep up with my classes, but I was so depressed I abandoned them, and most of my teachers gave me F's. This was especially hard to deal with since I had known a couple of them for a few years; I felt like I had really let them down on top of all the other horrible crap I was feeling (one had even gotten me a job that I utterly bailed on). Four years later I went back after I decided that school was really what I needed to do. The breather had been worth it, though- I refocused on what I really wanted and needed, and what my priorities were. I decided that I was really and truly tired of not being paid enough or taken seriously enough in my profession, and I wanted the degree to open up places that wouldn't even consider me without it (even if the thought irks me somewhat). It was hard to go back into the close-knit department I felt I had let down before, especially when all my former professors recognized me on my first day back. However the fact that I had been so lame before gave me new resolve to really kick ass and prove that I wasn't the total fuck up that I might have been before. I transferred to Davis this fall. It was long and difficult and I know that I really got in my own way during the journey, but I know I'm where I really want to be right now. I'm not sure I would have the resolve I have right now (and sometimes it definitely wavers) to get through this if I hadn't gone down the rabbit hole of feeling totally useless and unworthy of support. Going back and finding out that people were willing to give me a second chance was a great feeling, and I was grateful to be in a better frame of mind and have the drive to prove myself this time around.

I guess the thrust of my post is that sometimes these setbacks are necessary or helpful in some way, even if it seems like utter failure at the time. As fucked as education in the US is, they will always take you back, if you want it badly enough. My geography professor told me that she flunked out of college three times; the last time was when her sister was shot and she had to take in her niece and nephew and raise them herself. But then, you know, years later she was my geography professor. It's what she wanted, and she made it happen. As an older returning student to the Oakland community colleges, I was amazed at how many classmates had it so much worse than me or were coming back from much larger setbacks. It really helped my perspective in a lot of ways, and ultimately I am a better person and a better student now than I was.

I don't know if any of that helped- I'm not sure I'm particularly articulate this morning. Feel free to MeMail any time, if you like. I'd be happy to meet for coffee some time if you're still in Oakland.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:28 AM on November 1, 2009 [5 favorites]

Reading books is one of the things that helps me get through my most difficult periods. Two that have been especially helpful are When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron and When You're Falling, Dive by Mark Matousek, which is a collection of stories of people who have made it through hard times.

Best of luck to you. Be gentle with yourself.
posted by triggerfinger at 11:35 AM on November 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It's always reassuring to read these threads and realize that other people have suffered the same slings and arrows of fate, because when you're going something like what you described, serazin, it certainly feels like you're alone. Like so many others who have posted, I had a bad experience with grad school, nearly a decade ago, but its effects linger on.

I think you've started with some good ideas, namely exercise and social support. I found exercise to be centering - it was one thing I could say, "well, I may have fucked XYZ up, but hey, I can run miles, lift weights and look awesome!" Not to mention, I slept a lot better and it gave me an outlet for the days when I was so stressed or beset by self-loathing that I had to do something besides lay down and cry. And sometimes I did that too.

Sounds stupid or vain, maybe, but you need to find those things, however small, where you can have a win.

Get enough sleep, but don't let yourself oversleep.

Personally, while reframing and all that is well and good, I found that it was literally years before I could even think about the circumstances around what happened and avoid the crushing return of self-loathing and despair. Eventually I was able to look back more kindly and recognize factors of why what happened happened, and what I would do differently, but I'll differ and say right now, don't try to analyze the situation, or compare yourself to the less fortunate. Right now you're still in shock and you just need to keep yourself moving - I'll hazard a guess that you're probably too close to take any sort of useful lesson from this yet. Give it time.

Proactive planning - goals, like katecmd said, start planning your next steps, even if (and especially if) they are as mundane and immediate as a new job. a new exercise routine, somewhere to take a few days off with your kid. Keep busy with the basics to let life settle out until you're feeling stable enough to start planning for what comes next.

I also found reading therapeutic, a lot of Thich Nhat Hahn and other comforting books I'd already read.

Many already wrote this, but truly, be gentle with yourself. I wish I'd been better about this, myself. Whatever the circumstances, this is not the end of your story. If your mind tricks you into thinking that your life is now a total failure, make a simple list. Five things you love, or are grateful for, or know you can do. Just a quick way to force yourself away from the cognitive trap of seeing everything only in black or white and letting this overwhelm everything else.

Easier said than done, I know, believe me.

In the end, I think I agree with joe:
Frankly I think a lot of recovery isn't so much effort as it is avoiding wallowing while you wait for the wheel of fortune to turn a bit, so that you can grab it when it does.
posted by canine epigram at 12:47 PM on November 1, 2009 [4 favorites]

Positive music always helps only have one way to go which is Up! according to Shania:

Exercise definitely helps. Perhaps add some yoga for extra calmness.

I'm going through something similar as you right now. One big thing that helps me is that I schedule every hour of my day to study, etc.

I literally have no time to be depressed even if I wanted to!

I get down once in a while and start thinking negatively (like just a few minutes ago) and started reading Metafilter and that's how I saw your posting.

It makes me feel more at ease that I am not alone in my struggles. And you are not either.
posted by simpleton at 12:54 PM on November 1, 2009

Best answer: Great answers here already. Failure is a relative term. Many people don't even get to school to flunk out of it. No one will be judging you more harshly than yourself, but take comfort in the facts that a) You have your life, your health, and people who love you, b) Flunking out of school is very common, many people do it and many people overcome it. c) I think as adults we're somewhat failure-averse. Kids fail at stuff all the time. In fact, they're shit at practically everything. But we don't view that as failure, we view it as learning. So you learnt something. Congratulations. Surely that is why you went to school, why you live, in the first place? Learning is never something to be embarrassed or ashamed of.
posted by smoke at 3:01 PM on November 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

Serizin-you are already taking reasonable and prudent steps to stop the spiral of depression. That shows your wisdom. Honor that in yourself.

I'm considerably older than you and this is your jumping point to the next step in your development.

I tried to go to college, but was in an abusive relationship and my husband made it horrible, so I took four years of working and beatings to get my AFA.

In spite of that, I raised 3 kids, had successful and not so successful businesses, in which every failure opened up a new opportunity. For example, my recent bout with cancer almost cost me my job due to loss of productivity. I took five months off of work and wrote articles, blogs, and updated my resume. Luckily, with an ADA accommodation I got my job back, PLUS, because of my ***failure*** at my job I discovered I was a marketable and very awesome writer.

The moral of the story is when you are locked in a room, crawl out the window.

posted by ~Sushma~ at 4:03 PM on November 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

There's a quote somewhere that goes something like, "Persistence is more important than talent". People crash and burn and flunk and fail all the time. Sometimes, as in your case, it's more visible than others times. Assess your mistake, but do not be afraid to fail again. It's okay to flunk! Even preferable, sometimes. Just don't let it wipe you out. Take a week and mope, then start walking again
posted by GilloD at 4:04 PM on November 1, 2009

No matter how low you feel, there are thousands upon millions of people that would trade places with you in a second if given the chance. Homeless people would kill for the warmth of your apartment. Parents ripped from their children by death would love to spend another night with their son or daughter. People starving would relish those unappetizing leftovers you had for lunch. Failure is rarely absolute. Lick your wounds; feel what you feel, but don't let the illusion of complete failure blind you.

This perspective is what keeps me positive when I feel buried in failure.
posted by milarepa at 4:22 PM on November 1, 2009 [3 favorites]

You need to get into talk to your school advisor ASAP to find out if you've really flunked out or if something can be done. If there were extenuating circumstances, they might be able to get you incompletes or late personal hardship withdrawals in your classes and work things out with your financial aid so you can pick yourself up and try again next semester. This is definitely something where the sooner you act the more options you have, so get on this first thing tomorrow.

If you want to MeFi mail me more details (school, circumstances of failing out, etc.) I'll see if I can think of more specific things you can try.

I speak as someone who had to deal with this kind of crap before and found out that schools are often a lot more accommodating of personal crises than one might initially imagine...
posted by Jacqueline at 6:49 PM on November 1, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. So far there's been some really useful and reassuring advice here. I'll check out some of those book recommendations too.
posted by serazin at 7:24 PM on November 1, 2009

seconding Jacqueline: do not be ashamed; talk to people at your school (your advisor? trusted prof? dean of students?) to see what your options are. There may be a way to stay, or to arrange it so you are taking a year off, but can return if you demonstrate x, y, z progress during the year.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:58 PM on November 1, 2009

I wrote a Fail CV listing every fuckup I'd ever made in my adult life. After years of diffused social pressure to present myself as flawlessly and continuously successful (hi, Facebook!), it filled me with a mad, cathartic glee and was actually weirdly empowering.

One of the richest women in the world has also meditated on the uses of failure.
posted by stuck on an island at 9:47 AM on November 2, 2009 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: That Rowling speech was surprisingly compelling. Thanks.
posted by serazin at 7:53 AM on November 3, 2009

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