I'm out of sorts. Help me find some sorts.
May 6, 2010 4:02 PM   Subscribe

I don't work or go to school. I have no friends. I live with/off my parents. Interacting with people – especially people I don't know – makes me very nervous. It's been like this for years. How do I turn my life around?

(If you don't have time to read this absurdly long post, the above says everything, really. Feel free to answer without reading further.)

So how did it get like this? Not sure. When I flunked out of college, I guess my parents told me I had to go back to school or go to work, and for some reason I said no. They didn't press the issue. Now I'm in my early twenties, and I've spent the past several years doing nothing.

Well, almost nothing. I have taken a few college courses - and done well in them. I have worked a few part time jobs. Mostly though, I've spent all of my time reading - and occasionally posting at - an internet forum I'm addicted to. (Not this one.)

So what's stopping me from rejoining society? I think, in part, it's because years not-interacting with people have made me both deathly afraid of, and very bad at, interacting with people.

I'm nervous around all people – especially people I don't know well. I have a hard time looking people in the eye. And my speech is halting – I have a hard time thinking of things to say, and forming my thoughts into words.

I know everything gets better with practice – if I spent a good amount of time each day talking with others I'd get good at it! But that's easier said than done. I mean practicing Dance Dance Revolution is easy, because I don't care that I can't beat PARANOiA EVOLUTION on anything other than Light Mode right now. But I care deeply about my social skills. It's devastating when a) someone asks me “what's wrong with you?”, or b) my uncomfortableness makes someone else uncomfortable, or c) someone thinks I'm coming on to them when I'm not.

Anyway, I'm tired of being a miserable, parasitic, neurotic hikikomori; I'm sure my parents are tired of it as well. So I'm going to change.

Perhaps step one should be: asking my parents if they'd like to pay for therapy. I stumbled across this therapist-finder, and I found a nearby cognitive behavior therapist who believes that therapy shouldn't drag on for years. I may go to her (even though her page, unlike a lot of other pages, doesn't say anything about having experience with LGBT issues.)

And I guess step two is: going back to school and/or getting a job.

My brother thinks I should go to college. A real college, not a community college. And a part of me really wants to do that. I'd like to stay in a dorm and everything, again. Every time I visit a college campus I get nostalgic. Plus I figure being surrounded by people - being part of a community - would be good for me. I also figure if I don't go to college now, I may never. But I dunno. I wonder if I'm too old for dorms and college parties. I wonder if “real” colleges (as opposed to community colleges) cost too much. And perhaps I shouldn't go for college unless I can pay for it all myself. I mean would it be fair to ask my parents to help pay, considering how long I've been mooching off them?

And maybe I should wait on college until after I've figured out what I want to do with my life. Do I want to be a journalist? Travel writer? Documentary filmmaker? Scientist? Physicist? Third world English teacher? Buddhist monk? I have no idea.

posted by anonymous to Human Relations (25 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I think you should definitely ask your parents if they want to pay for therapy. Being nervous or anxious around new people is very common for a lot of people. Of course, for some more than others, and therapists know how to deal with this, either with therapy alone or with therapy and drugs to keep the anxiety away.

I think that maybe for now (while you're in therapy?) you could look for a job where you can be for some months or a year, that would serve a double purpose: you could save some money for later (college?) and also, it would be a good place to "practice" being around more and new people in a sort of safe environment. I'm thinking, for example, something like a service position at a Best Buy or whatever.

One more thing, if you're thinking about "rejoining society" as you say, I'm guessing you've spent too much time at home and you have taken less care about your clothes and appearance, so maybe think about getting a new haircut, and some new clothes in case you're going to be applying for a new job or a new school?
posted by CrazyLemonade at 4:16 PM on May 6, 2010

Before everyone says "you need to go see a therapist and get on drugs" I'll say this:

Cook. Not for fun, professionally. Not at a chain, at a nice restaurant. Don't know how to? Work as a prep cook. Peel potatoes, cut mirepoix, and fabricate meat. You'll either hate it or love it, but you'll learn a hell of alot, you'll get paid, and it'll keep you busy in a (somewhat) controlled environment. There are 3 answers in a kitchen- "yes chef," "no chef," and "I don't know chef," that's all you will have to say.

If you don't like it, cross it off your list and do something else. If you do, well there's always cooking school (since you are anonymous, there's no way to tell where you are from- why is everyone marking their posts anonymous now, is it really that important that people don't know you aren't doing anything with your life? Hell, if you can get away with it, I say do it- I'd love to not have any responsibilities/obligations.

Okay, back to it. Unless you are 100% committed to college, which it doesn't sound like you are, don't go. It'll be a waste of time/money and it doesn't sound like that's what you need right now.

If you are just being lazy, well, I can't really help you there.

I'm sure I'll get flack for this post, but whatever.
posted by TheBones at 4:18 PM on May 6, 2010 [7 favorites]

ahh, beat to it, crazylemonade already jumped in and said "see a therapist, get drugs." Oh well, I'm not saying that's wrong, I'm just saying that if you are really depressed, go and see one, if you just don't know what you want to do, go and do something and figure it out.
posted by TheBones at 4:20 PM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I was in your exact same position in my early 20s and basically ended up forcing myself to go to college with the explicit intention of graduating. A necessary part of this step for me was attending a community college temporarily.

This has worked out really good. For me, it really was just a question of "OK - time to do something else" and then doing it. No waiting around to decide what to be when I grow up. That's something I have done while working through classes to graduate. It's a messy process but then that's life.

Alternatively, as you know, you can decide that it's time to just get a job. Commit yourself to keep one long enough to get the hang of it. Really though, you have to do something other than nothing at some point. For me I was lucky that I was sick enough of my life that I was motivated to change it. If you are not motivated right now, hopefully you will be soon. Sometimes it really does just take time (and perhaps "therapy" too!).
posted by flavor at 4:25 PM on May 6, 2010

I graduated high school, flunked out of my first semester of college, worked a lot of shit jobs and basically kept to myself. The internet wasn't common at that time or I would surely have been addicted to it. Then I got sick of living like that and moved out of state. Worked for a year and then went to college in (other state). Moved into a dorm that was 21 and over. BEST THING I EVER DID. There were ready made social groups. Even though there were plenty of 18 year olds in my classes, at the dorm no one was too much older or younger than I was. A lot of people were beyond the constant partying, so we ended up playing cards or watching movies instead of drinking to excess.

The reason you take a bunch of generalist liberal arts classes in your first year is so that you can figure out what you want to do. I don't think my school allowed you to pick a major until at least sophomore year. So don't worry about not knowing. Also, if you get a degree in accounting, that does not preclude your becoming a journalist or Buddhist monk (it is a good fallback position, though).

Therapy is a good first step. You can make it out of the woods. Ask your parents for help.
posted by desjardins at 4:25 PM on May 6, 2010

Whatever you do, don't start drinking or using drugs to cope or loosen yourself up. They are poison to your personality type (at least the type that comes through in this post). They may work for a while, but they will eventually isolate you even more. My two cents.
posted by milarepa at 4:35 PM on May 6, 2010

ahh, beat to it, crazylemonade already jumped in and said "see a therapist, get drugs." Oh well, I'm not saying that's wrong, I'm just saying that if you are really depressed, go and see one...

I did not say "get drugs", I said that getting rid of anxiety can be done with therapy alone or with therapy and drugs. Also, therapy is not just for depression. Avoiding being with new people is a reasonable enough, well, reason, to go see a therapist.

I'm sometimes annoyed at the number of people who just throw out therapy as an answer to any question, but Anonymous is telling us that they have no friends, no school and no job, and are already considering therapy, so I nice push in that direction might be helpful.

Hope things work out for you, Anonymous, whatever you decide to do.
posted by CrazyLemonade at 4:36 PM on May 6, 2010

I do agree with you crazylemonade- it's just the first/standard answer here on metafilter. Yes, it's important to make sure you are on the right track, and there are therapists that have more of a focus on careers/education, which could be very helpful in this situation. I'm sorry, I come off as being prickly sometimes (okay alot of the time), my main point is that "see a therapist" and "take drugs" is the go to answer here, and sometimes it is necessary, but sometimes, it isn't.
posted by TheBones at 4:40 PM on May 6, 2010

I say go to school (even a community college), take some more classes in something you have even an idle interest in, and then find an opportunity to study abroad for a few months.

Go with a group, where most of the people don't know one another very well, and go live and study somewhere new for a few months. You'll have a safe, structured environment (school liaisons, etc), a group of people that you have something in common with (even if it's just the fact that you all are from X country, studying in Y country), and something to talk about with the people in the group (i.e. "Why do people from Y country do Z with ABC?").

And when you get back, you have something to talk about for the REST OF YOUR LIFE with strangers. Trufax, I went to Japan to teach English, and came back five years ago. I am set for life with dinner-party small talk, as long as I can remember the stories. Also, you will have proven to yourself that you can do this.

As far as cost... if your parents are unwilling to help out, find a decent state school and get some student loans. Broke people go to school all the time (I'm considering going back to grad school myself, and "broke" is what I aspire to someday), and it would be the best investment in yourself that you can make.
posted by mornie_alantie at 4:42 PM on May 6, 2010

I wonder if “real” colleges (as opposed to community colleges) cost too much. And perhaps I shouldn't go for college unless I can pay for it all myself.

The good thing about community college is it will save you a ton of money, because you will transfer into a four year college from there. I would also say that community colleges do have a very friendly atmosphere, and people do actually make many good friends there just from class and hanging out in between classes. Living in a dorm is a great way, but definitely not the only way to make friends in school.
posted by Think_Long at 4:51 PM on May 6, 2010

If you want to get comfortable talking to people, find people you're comfortable with. You already belong to a few communities (your other forum and MetaFilter), and you probably live somewhat near folks like these. Find a local community to spend time with in person. When there's a known connection, talking is a lot easier. I'm not good at small talk, but if it's something I know about, I'll converse for hours. There's less thinking about what you're going to say, and more saying what you're thinking.

"Real" colleges don't always give you that "college experience" you've been thinking of having. My second year in the dorms was with a guy who often left his boots covered in pig shit just outside the door to our very small room, and would complain out loud how unfair video games were. I knew plenty of folks who had polite, awkward conversations at best with their dorm-mates, because of (perceived) differences in interests. And there are a range of "college parties" - my friends threw some that were just a bunch of college friends, drinking and playing board games in the comfort of someone's house, not something you even need to be in college to enjoy. But if you'd like to try it as a personal test of Getting Out There, I wish you all the best.

But if you're looking to get back into classes, community colleges are the way to go. 1) inexpensive, 2) smaller class sizes (generally), giving you 3) better access to professors (some who might teach the same courses at a local university for much more money). There you can also chat with other students about class, working on getting social there, too. You can try courses out to see if an odd topic grabs your interest, and if it doesn't, you aren't tied into one certain major with related courses you need to take. Heck, take a speech class. It'll force you to talk in front of other people for a period of time, but you get to rehearse your topic, and you won't feel silly for practicing what you'll say to people (I'm saying this out of experience - I get nervous and talk too fast, and this course helped that a bit).
posted by filthy light thief at 5:11 PM on May 6, 2010

I was excruciatingly shy and awkward during my early teens. I never knew the right things to say, and even if I did, the thought of actually saying them was paralyzing. I would have been perfectly content to retreat to a safe place and read books. The thing that forced me to come out of my shell was getting a job in retail sales.

Yes, retail sales can be undignified and soul-sucking... but that job was what taught me how to function in almost any social setting. For the first time in my life, I was forced to speak to strangers. And strangers of all sorts - all ages, genders and sexual orientations, and all races, cultures and backgrounds. Not just responding to them either, I had to initiate conversations with them. I had to interpret and understand their different wants and needs and work with them.

That might sound like your worst nightmare, but retail sales make it easy to start small. Often, salespeople start out as greeters, just saying hello to people who come in the door. On the salesfloor, your interactions with customers are very scripted - "Hi there, how are you? Are you finding everything alright? Well, my name is X, let me know if you need anything." Then while you're helping someone find something or ringing in their purchase, you can try making small talk. Comment on what a sweet gift they're buying, tell them thanks for coming in and have a nice day. It might seem very artificial but you're taking baby steps toward full on socializing (and believe it or not, being good at small talk is a valuable skill to have).

And the best part? The customers come and go. There are some regulars, but for the most part if you screw something up and someone looks at you funny, who cares? They'll leave and you'll probably never see them again. Even if they do come back, they probably won't remember the awkward thing you said. You can just chalk the experience up to a lesson learned and move on to the next customer.

Also, your fellow salespeople. Don't know what to talk about? You can always talk about work. Ask them to teach you how to do something, bitch about rude customers, etc. It's a unique bonding experience. Ten years later, I still keep in touch with many of my old coworkers.

You said you think you'd be fine if you just got some good practice socializing and interacting with people. So why not get paid to do it? It also sounds to me like you'd really benefit from getting out of the house on a regular basis. You must realize that it's not a healthy way to live, and you seem motivated to make a change. Seize this momentum and go for it. If not retail sales, many service-oriented occupations will allow for similar types of interaction with the public.

As for your brother's advice, I'm not sure I'd agree that a "real college" would be the best environment for you right now. College is great if you're already outgoing and social, but it can be a very alienating place for someone who tends to be a loner. I think your instinct to hold off on college is correct. Get to know yourself better first. Explore life for all its opportunities and possibilities. The rest will fall into place.
posted by keep it under cover at 5:25 PM on May 6, 2010 [7 favorites]

I agree with keep it under cover, and would like to add the suggestion of food service. A fast food place isn't ideal, because you don't get much opportunity to talk with people, but I worked at both an ice cream shop and at a coffee shop and felt like I learned a lot about how to initiate conversation and talk to people. I was very shy before and generally became much more comfortable around people. Interactions are short and structured, but require some effort from you to make conversation, and it also does give you great opportunities to bond with your co-workers. I've heard similar things about being a waiter, but that might feel too overwhelming for you just now.

Therapy is definitely important, and I recommend it, but like you said, practice interacting with people is the best way to get more comfortable with it and I think that in itself would make you feel much better.

Best of luck!
posted by EmilyFlew at 6:16 PM on May 6, 2010

This is an off-the-wall suggestion, but have you considered an Americorps program? If you live in a city, there are probably a number of programs (often with nonprofits, often related to education or environmental issues) near you. I did an Americorps year and met people from all sorts of backgrounds, and there are a few features of AC as a whole that seem like they might be a good match for you

- Volunteer work is a standard Mefi prescription for people who are in transition, depressed, or 'stuck' in some way, and many Americorps positions provide experiences like these - whether it's helping kids with homework, clearing trails, etc.
- Programs can be fairly structured, and like the study-abroad suggestion above, you'll likely be with a team of other Americorps members who are entering a new environment and facing challenges together
- Like the retail and food service suggestions, you will probably have the opportunity to have structured, work-related interactions with all kinds of people
- Because they are one-year positions, there were a lot of people that I met who were going through some kind of a transition: either straight out of college, switching careers, finished some school and dropped out, moved back in with parents, trying to build a resume in a tough economy etc. You won't be alone in that respect.
- All AC programs require you to have a highschool diploma (some do require a college degree) but the program is designed to be able to serve as a bridge to college for many people.
- As such, you spend a certain amount of time getting training as well as performing service, so it can be a good way to build skills (my program had resume-writing sessions and our supervisors would help edit cover letters and so on)
- Relatedly, you get an education award at the end of your service, for loan repayment or college tuition

Americorps is certainly not perfect, but it's might be an option to look into. memail me if you have questions!
posted by heyforfour at 6:37 PM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

keep it under cover beat me to it, but I second the retail sales job idea. Likely many of your coworkers will be naturally outgoing and you can learn much from them. I was very much like you after I graduated high school and at no other time in my life did my social skills develop more than when I worked a sales job. One caveat though is that, depending on the environment, it can be somewhat stressful. Since it seems that your parents are willing to support you financially for now, if you do take a sales job work hard and do your best, but go in initially with the attitude that it is more about your personal development than career advancement so as to avoid that stress.

And aside from any specific situation you put yourself in to learn, though it can be painfully difficult, you simply have to force yourself to interact with others when the opportunity presents itself. You will eventually learn how and it will become second nature. You'll realize that many types of interactions are in a sense repetitive and you will come across them time and again so you can develop a repertoire of responses to handle those interactions, which makes it easier to function and becomes a part of your outward personality.

Believe me, I know it seems impossible, but learning to be comfortable in social situations can be done and once you get there it makes life much easier, and more enjoyable.
posted by anonop at 6:50 PM on May 6, 2010

I'm tired of being x. So I'm going to change.

When you want to change, a therapist can really help. Find one you like to work with — you might need to sample more than one to find a good fit.
posted by exphysicist345 at 7:17 PM on May 6, 2010

Having gone through this myself, I am all for therapy and prescribed drugs. What really helped me was going to graduate school. I didn't really want to go, but the alternative was a career as crazy bag lady. I did graduate from college, but i really floundered when I graduated. It was soul searingly awful.

You have choices:

1) get a job (preferably a physically hard one, I like the idea of being a prep cook.)
2) go to college again, take survey classes until you find something you like. Plan on graduate school
3) try a community college, they have really good technical courses and are helpful with people who are going back to school
4) waste your life living in you parent's house. (this is the one that got me moving.) I didn't want to be the crazy "kid" in the basement.

What ever you do, take it seriously. Your life does depend on it.
posted by fifilaru at 7:47 PM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm kind of with theBones, cause it worked for me.

If you can find work, it doesn't have to your life's vocation, but it does have to be something that you get a good feeling from, something where you are treated well, then you can build up your self respect and build a low budget financial autonomy.

If you can do that, that is a really great place to be in, to then look at going to community college.

When I was in my early twenties my life took a very strange turn, I found myself in the position of being a foster parent to some teenage children. I didn't manage it very well and ended up dropping out of university, which subsequently meant I lost my US visa, and had to return to Australia. It took me years to build my life and happiness back up again. The key thing that did it was a job with a company that carry out environmental restoration projects. It was manual labour, and the pay was low, but the company treated me with respect, and working hard out in the sun and the rain, planting trees was really good for me.

After a few years I was in a much better position mentally and financially to return to university.

There is only one thing I regret about that time, its that i felt so low I dropped out of contact with people who really cared about me. I wish I'd written to them and said, look i'm feeling pretty low these days, and I think it's going to be a few years before I'm back to my happy social self, but I want you to know that even though you might not see that much of me over the next year or two, i'm thinking of you and look forward to spending time with you again.

or something like that
posted by compound eye at 7:59 PM on May 6, 2010

Volunteer somewhere, helping people.
posted by Jacqueline at 8:50 PM on May 6, 2010

I was excruciatingly shy and awkward during my early teens. I never knew the right things to say, and even if I did, the thought of actually saying them was paralyzing. I would have been perfectly content to retreat to a safe place and read books. The thing that forced me to come out of my shell was getting a job in retail sales.

Me too. It was a dumb job at a cafe, and I told myself I was going to do it for one year only, until I figured out something better. So that's exactly what I did. I learned a lot about coffee, and I learned that greeting strangers was actually easy. I was able to use the experience a couple years later to get a job as a barista in the cafe at Burning Man, where I met many, many other weird and awkward and crazy, passionate people that work hard at things they enjoy.

The something better I did afterward was get a job at a plant nursery, which I was able to do because I had cash register experience and I liked working outdoors with plants. That led to gardening and design jobs. Many years later, I'm studying to be a landscape architect, and I can tell you that there are a lot of socially awkward, but incredibly passionate and knowledgeable people in the plant world. It's okay though, because once you've found a niche, you will care less about clumsyness and saying dumb stuff or putting your foot in it, and other people will care less too. In a nutshell: if you can take a few basic, basic steps, you can find your way to something that makes you happy, and then being socially awkward doesn't matter so much. I'm still a dork, but in a much better place than when I started off with the crappy retail job.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:15 PM on May 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

One more for the job suggestion. I can relate to your situation, and a stupid cafe job working for someone else and having to turn up on time and be friendly and get things done changed everything. Being out in the world and making commitments and meeting people is a million times easier when you're already doing it.

I say 'working for someone else' because during my less than sociable period, I was running my own business and interacting plenty with the public through a market stall, but it was all still sort of about me controlling my entire world and it didn't help with the anxiety or getting out of home. Getting a barista job, then moving out, then doing a bunch of better paid but tedious secretarial work finally made me figure out in a non-speculative way what I wanted to do with my life. Therapy without the shit job didn't do much for me - I spent too much time looking at what I thought was the big picture, but I was too disconnected from the world to even know what I thought, let alone how anything else worked.

You can turn this around. Good luck!
posted by carbide at 4:10 AM on May 7, 2010

Just chiming in to add that community college is often fantastic in situations like this (depends on where you live, of course) - it can be really great to help build your confidence while you look around for a 4-year school to transfer to and decide what you really want to study.

And seriously, you will save a boatload of money and probably have a better experience - at my community college, there are 50 students in my biology class; at a state school, there'd be 300 and I'd be paying twice as much for the privilege.
posted by pikachulolita at 7:06 PM on May 7, 2010

I've been there (or somewhere similar) before. I was actually in talk therapy (and cycled through most of the SSRIs and few other things) for much of the time without huge change, until my psychiatrist (at a low-income community program) told me he wouldn't see me anymore unless I got a job. And I didn't, for some reason (I can't remember why, but likely anxiety-related), so I stopped seeing him.

A few months later a temp agency I'd registered with called me, and I started working. That's what made the difference.

I didn't really have the liberty of therapist-shopping, so therapy alone might be more useful for you than it was for me if you find a perfect style and therapist, but don't underestimate the value of a regular place to show up to every day (school, work, whatever.) I later did a course of CBT for social anxiety, and I think pairing it with regular forced interaction with people makes it easier to get more out of it.

Summary: therapist maybe, job definitely, if you can at all swing that, and if therapy doesn't magically help, all is not lost, keep trying for the job or for volunteer gigs.
posted by needs more cowbell at 6:08 PM on May 8, 2010

I don't have answers to all parts of your question, but I have some experience with social anxiety, agoraphobia, and community college versus university. I suggest community college as the better of the two options in this situation. Even if you later transfer to university, the smaller classes, etc mentioned previously will be easier, less overwhelming and more inviting; friends I made there are in my life twenty years later. I found in university it's very easy to get lost in the impersonal shuffle and partying students..
posted by _paegan_ at 1:36 AM on May 10, 2010

What jumped out at me in your writing is that you want to learn to be social again, and have no idea what you want to learn after that. In consequence, I really wanted to support those saying that you should get a job-job where you can interact with people a lot until you figure out what you really want to learn.

College isn't for everyone ever, and if you have no clue what you want to study, can be incredibly frustrating. Keep doing excellently in one or two classes a semester, and be a full-time "social sciences" student at a cafe, bookstore, etc. You might also find yourself drawn into a lucrative trade rather than a desk-jockey job that lets you withdraw again. Good luck.
posted by whatzit at 11:04 AM on May 10, 2010

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