My entire life is up in the air
June 21, 2010 8:50 AM   Subscribe

I feel empty and unfulfilled in every major aspect of my life. Please help me see a way out.

Just to get this out of the way -- I'm already in therapy. I've been in therapy off and on for 15 years and it has definitely helped. But it seems to be taking forever. My partner and I are in couples counseling too and have been to two sessions.

I've tried SSRIs and I didn't like the sex drive side effects. I've tried Wellbutrin and it gave me terrible acne (still have the scars from an attempt at Wellbutrin last fall) and made my hair fall out until I'd been off it for a few months.

I put myself on St. John's Wort and L-theanine about three months ago. I also take Vitamin B and D. I haven't noticed any side effects. It definitely helps my mood.

So, here is my situation. I'll break down each life area and make it as brief as possible.

1. Career: For years I was utterly devoted to writing. I wanted to be a novelist and refused to have any "fallback plan" except menial office jobs. I actually managed to make a decent living as a journalist/tech writer for about five years, but when the US economy blew up all that were available were content mills that paid pennies, so I've taken what I've been able to find since then --office jobs. I now have a temp position that I've had since Feb 09, but it's going to end in three weeks. I haven't been able to save any money and I feel completely at sea about what to do next. I now resent my writing because it didn't "work out" and I never want to do it again. I'm ready for a completely new career.

2. Education. I'm overeducated. I have a master's degree in women's studies and most of another one in creative writing. I am over $50K in debt but the payments are manageable.

3. Relationship. I have been in a relationship for six years with a younger man who I love tremendously, but a true sense of partnership is missing, due to the age difference and being at different levels of emotional maturity. I often feel lonely and misunderstood in this relationship. We're in counseling to figure out if we should split up or make a long-term commitment. He's focused on his career right now and the relationship doesn't come first for him, but when I ask him point-blank if he wants to split up he says no, that he loves me. As for me, a big part of me wonders if my current depression is actually because of this relationship not meeting my needs for connection and intimacy. But, because he's willing to work on things, I haven't decided to leave. I did leave him last year but I moved about a mile away and lived alone, and we continued having a relationship under those terms. Leaving him made me practically have a breakdown. I couldn't sleep right for months and almost lost my job, and I'm afraid that would happen again if I left him again.

4. Family. I was always adamantly child-free, but then my sister had her first baby, a boy, last year and I've been questioning my reasons for not having children. They were all fear and ambivalence based, and sprung from a lack of self-confidence and a tendency I had to withdraw from others. One thing therapy has helped me with is to get in touch with my nurturing side. I didn't even know I had one, and now it may be too late for it to make a difference. I am probably too old to have my own child now, so I talked to my partner about the possibility of adoption and he unequivocally said being a parent is not for him. In fact, he couldn't believe I had changed my mind. I can hardly believe it either. I thought I would never want kids. I have realized that I have much more love to give than I ever thought was in my heart. I have been reading the AskMe threads about children vs. childfree lives, and people have said they would not have been able to become a fully-fledged adult without parenting. And I definitely feel like I have arrested development and I'm so ready to move on to the next level of growth. For me, that has more to do with cultivating healthy relationships than it does with the career success I thought, as a younger woman, would be ultimately fulfilling.

5. Environment. I live in a city with a particular vibe that just doesn't fit me. I moved here with another partner 10 years ago from a smaller college town where I felt more like I fit in. I've met a few friends here, but for the most part, this town is filled with the type of people who really enjoy a 24-7 party atmosphere and don't particularly need to be out in nature. There's a certain personality type that predominates here -- extroverted, superficial, and on the make. My partner is reluctant to move, though. This is his hometown. And I've stayed here far longer than I ever intended, because of our relationship.

This all seems overwhelming, and I fight feelings of incompetence at adulthood and decisionmaking all the time. I think it's the depression talking when I have those feelings of being a failure at being a person, and that I've never made a good major decision in my life. I'm really fighting those thoughts with the CBT tools my therapist gave me. I talk to my Mom about these issues a lot and she's incredibly supportive and even offered me to come stay with her if I leave my partner and this unpleasant town. But while a complete life makeover seems appealing, changing every single major aspect of my life seems incredibly difficult. I'm introverted, highly sensitive, and emotional, and change tends to trigger episodes of depression. I will work with my therapist on these issues, but I'm seeking the hive mind's thoughts and support too.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (12 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Focus on one thing. Improve that. Repeat.
posted by the foreground at 9:01 AM on June 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

Move to a new city.

Don't resent your writing or your education. Ultimately, that will be resenting yourself. Learn to accept them, find peace with them.
posted by Flood at 9:10 AM on June 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Have you considered converting your attempt to remedy your situation into a career of its own?

Remember, the biggest literary trend of the last ten or fifteen years (discounting Harry Potter) has been the rise of the Hipster Memoir: Tales not of the unique, but of that with which many people-- customers-- can identify.

So why not go public with your situation, and create a blog about Mid-life Life Fixing?

Interview self-help people. Test out self-help products, seminars, tours, etc.

Be the walking experiment and proxy of all those in a similar situation... and use your writing skills to give it coherence and spark.

Sometimes, if you feel can't fix the problem, you can try on Being the Problem... so that the problem stops being a problem and reveals itself as a tool for a bigger yet less obvious problem's solution.
posted by darth_tedious at 9:14 AM on June 21, 2010 [9 favorites]

Here's something that helped someone I know: make a vision of what you want your life to be like. Maybe draw it or cut out pictures from magazines. Try to make it as detailed and specific as possible. Next, find someone you can describe it to. Someone who will really listen deeply (ie, not your boyfriend). Have them take notes that you can keep. Then, think about what one thing you could accomplish in the next six weeks would get you furthest along that path. Then, revisit your vision and think about what the next step would be.
posted by salvia at 9:51 AM on June 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

My first thoughts were, DTMFA, and move. But that's drastic, and I don't know you. I think you would find a way to land on your feet, though, and you would surprise yourself by how you would rise to the challenge, and you might start to like yourself again.

You don't like yourself very much right now.

I'm not sure you want to have kids, or if you're just searching for the missing piece that will make you happy. I think that the boyfriend is terrified to be alone so he won't make a break, but "focusing on his career" isn't "emotional abandonment". I am not sure that it is age so much as he is rising and you are treading water. (I do not mean to be unkind.)

I think that having a child would be a terrible decision at the moment. Your boyfriend is not ready to parent. It would not 'save your relationship'. There are likely plenty of AskMeFi threads on that very topic. You have to stabilize yourself before you yourself can think about parenting. Maybe it is how you find your way out of the relationship.

I know all about falling apart when a relationship ends. I am not proud of it and it was neer pretty but it's happened to me. For me one of the blessings of getting older was being secure in the knowledge that the pain wouldn't last forever. I think you need to do it. I think it would be freeing for you. I think all the energy you are expending in trying to be the perfect girlfriend would feed YOU and I think you need feeding from an emotional viewpoint. You could get through the hell if you knew that you had to, that it was going to save You.

You should be writing all of this down. I don't even disagree that you should blog it. But you're a writer; we write in times of crisis. Even if you just write for you and then throw it out it will help you process and sort it all out. You need to try to envision what kind of like you would like. I would recommend Barbara Sher's Wishcraft. You can always find it in the library or very cheap used.

Believe it or not, there is a serious demand for people who can articulate their thoughts in clear, written English. And it will become more and more of an asset as time goes on. I think you could do better than a menial office job. I don't know your skills, though, and I can't help coach you through that without it.

Good luck.
posted by micawber at 10:21 AM on June 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

Good technical writers are always in demand. I'd suggest first getting back into that so you have financial independence. I'm not accounting for any unstated reasons you have for REALLY not wanting to write anymore (therapist), but you've been a success at it before so you can be a success at it again. I know it might be complicated in your head, but do try to recognize if/when an avocation is choosing you. After you're financially independent, then you can make a good decision about whether you want to move or not.

2. Forget about kids for now. You don't say how old you are, but you're in a pretty stressful situation (all told) and that's no environment to decide to have a kid. One approach here is to use salvia's point about imagining the best life that you want and turn that into a goal. It's not complete, since it takes time to buy mansions and start writing workshops, but including children in that goal can put you on a path to sorting out the elements of your life that are not child-friendly.

3. These should make you busy enough so that you aren't processing your boyfriend situation all the time. It sounds like he's just doofing around relationshipwise and you've been getting serious-y about babies, to the point where you're asking him strange and passive questions like "do you want to break up?" Come on, you're going to put the relationship in someone else's hands? Make up your own mind whether the relationship should break up.

people have said they would not have been able to become a fully-fledged adult without parenting

Hopefully I'm not inciting a shitstorm or anything, but that's just an instance of people looking at the changes they've gone through since having a child/ren and calling it "fully-fledged adult" afterwards.
posted by rhizome at 11:22 AM on June 21, 2010

There are two kinds of people in the world, those who have had Total Life Breakdowns and those who haven't. I have. It sucks. Now, consider what people do in the movies and books when they have Total Life Breakdowns. I'm sure this will be natural for you, as a creative writer. You know the story: They move to Italy. They open a pastry shop. They talk to Clarence the angel. They go see the watery parts of the world on a whaling ship. They find a guru.

So, since nothing is working for you, nothing is holding you back. You can go anywhere and do anything. What do you have to lose? This is what you need to hear: Do something crazy. Teach English abroad for a year. Move to Africa. Whatever sparks your enthusiasm. Break up with your boyfriend, move, find a new job. Live with your mom in the meantime if you need to. Get back into individual therapy. And do something you could never do if you had 2.5 kids and a perfect husband, house, and career. Have an adventure. You'd be surprised how doable this actually is. It worked for me and so well that it actually makes me thankful I had the Total Life Breakdown in the first place.

You might consider teaching English abroad, working in childcare or child advocacy, getting into women and children's rights abroad, working a journalism angle somehow. Or something totally unrelated. Whatever you want. Anything. You'll get through this, you know you can and you know you will. Don't live in fear. The first decision is the hardest and after you break your inertia everything falls into place. Good luck.
posted by Nixy at 11:31 AM on June 21, 2010 [21 favorites]

Consider the hypothesis that feeling empty and unfulfilled has much less to do with the facts of your life than it does with how you think about those facts. If that's the case, changing the facts (breaking up, moving, having kids, etc.) won't necessarily help, but changing the way you think about them will.

I'd get the book Feeling Good, read it, and go through all the exercises with a pen and paper (or computer, as long as it's not just in your head.)

Note also that it's possible to be in (e.g.) a bad relationship and not to be depressed or to be in a good one and be depressed. Getting past the depression will make it easier to you assess whether you want to change some things in your life more than changing the things in your life will get you past the depression.

(IANAD, etc.)
posted by callmejay at 12:00 PM on June 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

You are free: no kids, no job, no attachment to the place you live in, a relationship you can live without.
Pack a rucksack and go around the world. Find a place where you can help the children and find meaning to your life.
posted by uauage at 1:04 PM on June 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nthing the "have an adventure" suggestions. You need to be shaken up. You need to find out who you are when the chips are down; when you're facing a blizzard halfway up a mountain peak, or you're trying to make friends with a bunch of kids in some dusty village where you don't speak the language, then your past writing, your ambivalence about your boyfriend, your reproductive status, etc, don't mean a thing. If you survive (and I think you will surprise yourself, for the better) you will be transformed. This is a good book: Change Your Life Through Travel
posted by The otter lady at 3:21 PM on June 21, 2010

I'm glad you mentioned CBT, because you're already aware of the process of disputing harmful negative thoughts. In your own write-up, I found a few that were worthy of disputation, and maybe this will spur you to dig deeper into CBT:

Education: I'm overeducated.

The overeducated part is a harmful stigma. Think of other countries, like Japan, where the education-level is so high, that janitors and subway train drivers know about Thoreau and Aristotle too, but there's no stigma, because all that knowledge just makes them better citizens. Be proud of your education for its own sake, not for its vocational contribution. Your education has made you a more aware person and a better thinker. Now it's time to think about job training, which may come from on-the-job training.

Relationships: I couldn't sleep right for months and almost lost my job, and I'm afraid that would happen again if I left him again.

Ask yourself if those fears are founded. They shouldn't be based on your experience with your down-shifted relationship, since it seems like anybody would feel awkward in the same boat. It'd be like telling your partner, "okay, let's try sleeping in separate rooms, just as an experiment." It would drive anybody insane.

People break-up and move on. If you left him, you'd ultimately be fine. You have to believe that. You have to believe that you wouldn't regret it either. People over-estimate how much they'll regret leaving the person they're with, but once the partner is out-of-sight, they eventually become out-of-mind. We're built to withstand switching partners.

So I'd say give CBT a chance. It's proven to be as effective as Lexapro and other anti-depressants, without the side effects. First try to listen to yourself, and pick out which voices seem to be the most harmful. I'd look at the voices in you that make over-generalized negative assessments, like, "I've never made a good major decision in my life." Make a laundry list of the positive major decisions you've made in your life, you'll be surprised at how many of them there are, and you'll start to feel better.
posted by philosophistry at 10:39 PM on June 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Spend more time caring for children, tutoring or reading to kids at the library. Help out your sister by babysitting for her. Nothing shuts off my desire for children faster than caring for children for long periods of time (e.g. longer than a day). When I am done, I feel so relieved! And free! If you MUST PARENT, then you'll have to end it with your boyfriend. Explore your alternatives to biological children, especially fostering older children.

Don't blame the problems in age on his being younger. I am dating a younger guy. Yes, we are in somewhat different places in life. But he is still supporting and committed and awesome. I suggest finding something like that. If you break up, don't assume that the way things played out in the past are the way will have to be this time. You can move further away to a city you feel at home in. You can meet other people. You can get a perscription for a mild sleep aid, because often insomnia is caused my axiety about insomnia, and just having something to take can fix it.

The upcoming end in your work situation sounds like a great opportunity to start a new chapter in your life. Go travel somewhere. Move to a different city and wait tables. Build houses in rural West Virginia. Advoate for women's rights and the arts. Blog or write a memoir about whatever you decide to do. You have a huge amount to contribute to the world, and unlike most people, you have nothing holding you back.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 7:03 AM on June 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

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