Help me get this derailed life train back on track
June 25, 2010 8:04 AM   Subscribe

Why am I destroying my life when everything was going so great for so long? And how do I stop?

Through a mix of small and dramatic life changes in the past year or two I managed to turn myself from a lifelong deeply depressed, insecure, rudderless recluse with a host of self-destructive behaviors into a more confident, disciplined person with active, well-balanced, healthy life in all aspects. I was in the best mental health and life place I've ever been. I'd gone from being the lovable, drifting, do-nothing, fuck-up among my friends to a source of pride and admiration.

About a month or so ago I saw all of these life-long goals and wishes reached or on their way there, was overcome with a deep sense of terror, and have been backsliding and having low-level panic attacks ever since. All of the self-destructive behaviors are piling back en force. I feel completely and utterly out of control, and when I try to get back on track with all the little steps I used to get on track in the first place the deep pit of fear in my stomach returns, I mentally freeze up, and immediately pick something self-destructive to focus on. In the meanwhile I'm headed right back to where I started.

Has anyone else dealt with this? Why does my brain want my happiness to die? And how do I stop this downward spiral before I undo everything I've worked so hard for?

(No therapy--I have been to ten therapists or more in my life for varying amounts of time with each and it's been less than useless. I have a copy of Feeling Good and it helped me in the past but is only going so far now.)
posted by Hey nonny nonny mouse to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
This may be too simplistic of an answer but when we're used to X, (say, being depressed), our brain naturally seeks X as a comfort state. For some people being depressed is more comfortable than the new, "good" state they're in because they're used to it. Even though being depressed is considered generally bad, if it's what you're used to it makes sense that doing well might be really intimidating/weird/scary. I feel that way too sometimes. "Ohhh this is such a nice day!... Oh Christ, what's wrong? Someone's gonna die now or something. *grumbles, feels better*".

I'm also biased because I work in mental health and I say therapy is like dating. I'm not saying date your therapist, however! You have to keep trying until you find a therapist you click with. There are many different methodologies and practitioners out there. Some are good, some are not so good, and some are mad as a hatter.
posted by ShadePlant at 8:13 AM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Have you attempted to find a psychiatrist? It's a little more heavy duty -- trying to find the right cocktail to get you on the road to recovery is a tough process and the dead ends are harsher -- but if you're discounting therapy and are past the point of self-help, the option exists.
posted by griphus at 8:20 AM on June 25, 2010

Hey nonny nonny (mouse),

I don't know if this is anything at all like what you're going through as I don't know what degree of destructive behaviour you're dealing with.

However, as someone who oscillates between periods of supreme organisation, action and achievement on the one hand, and procrastination, ineffectiveness, sloppiness and laziness on the other, I feel I can relate somewhat.

For me, one of the keys to getting out of the rut is to say to myself "okay, so you're in a rut HopStop, you're playing stupid games online and watching South Park when you have work to do and empires to build. So what now? Let's recognise this rut and embrace it. Yeah? If this is what we're gonna do with our time, let's fucking do it."

For some reason this seems to help. It seems to be some sort of over-indulgence/permission reaction: if I allow myself to engage in the destructive behaviour it's no longer interesting to me - so it was never the behaviour itself that I was interested in, it was just a bit of rebellion against all that goody-two-shoes stuff.

Anyway, I'm sorry if this doesn't make any sense to you and I wish you the best of luck.
posted by HopStopDon'tShop at 8:49 AM on June 25, 2010 [7 favorites]

If you're going the Western World Mental Health Route, research indicates the most helpful treatment for a variety of diagnoses, for anything from depression to schizophrenia, is a combination of therapy + medication. YMMV.
posted by ShadePlant at 8:52 AM on June 25, 2010

I recognize this feeling, though for me the cycle is more like months rather than years. Here's what I know, what's helping me stop this kind of thing:

1. You must remember that your downslide right now does not erase all that you've done in the past year or two. It may erase certain artifacts of your progress, but it does not erase what you actually did. Even if you slide all the way down into a pit and live there for the next two years, that time is still real.

2. It's possible that part of your problem here is not believing in your own agency. You did that stuff you did, right, but now you feel like you are helpless in the face of your own resurging bad habits. Even though you have evidence that you are not helpless in the face of these habits.

3. It's never, ever, ever too late to change. You very likely know this already, given that you've done a lot of work on a lifetime of bad shit. But that applies in the short term, too: It's not too late to stop whatever you're doing.

The key, I think, is that you're falling back into bad patterns and you've got to remember that they are just patterns. They do not define you, they are not some fundamental secret heart of you that will resurge no matter what. They are behavioral patterns, created by your life or brain chemistry or whatever, that are familiar to you and easy to fall back on when you start feeling anxious. Your job is to break the pattern. Breaking the pattern does not need to mean revamping everything and fixing it all in one big jump. Breaking the pattern means that where you would usually do x-bad-thing in one given situation, you do y-better-but-not-necessarily-perfect-thing. This is because you need to reassert your own agency.

I'm sorry you're having a bad time, and I hope you feel better soon. Congratulations on changing all you have!
posted by hought20 at 8:57 AM on June 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

I don't know if this is applicable, but I would like to tell you a little story that may help.

I spent my early adulthood in a similar chaotic mess. I skipped out of college and was mired in craziness, drama, depression and panic disorder. Somehow, through a mixture of perseverance somewhat blind luck, I managed to pull quite a feat - I built an impressive career and a budding music career. I moved across the country with my long term partner, and my life finally started to come together in a way I'd never imagined it could. I lost 70 pounds. I joined a band. I worked on a high profile product that totally changed the trajectory of my career and earned me some respect.

Once I was at the pinnacle, I totally fucked it all up. I ended my ten year relationship. I moved across the country, back to where I experienced all of that chaos and depression and craziness and drama. I got a job that made me insane and depressed. I lived alone again, in the same situation I was in before. I had to fight the feelings of "why the hell did I blow everything up? What kind of exceptional fuck up am I?" every day. And it was really, really hard.

Pretty early into this major life change, though, I realized that this was something that I had to do, hard as it was. I had to face the fact that all of the history of my experience in the city of my origin is an actual part of me. I had to go there to learn what parts of me are here forever and what I can actually change. I learned that the life that seemed like the pinnacle of what I wanted, I had not actually built entirely by myself. I was able to get the folks that I thought wouldn't accept me to accept me, I found a way to blend in, but that's not what my life is going to be about - that is not the way to long term happiness. Ok, so the people who thought I was a fuck up were "proven wrong", but I was and am the same person, and I knew, somewhere deep down, that if all of that evaporated (and things do evaporate), that I would not be ok, I would still believe that I was a total mess deep down.

Change is really hard, and it is also certain. You need to learn that you can and will deal with it. If you think of this time of change as a testing of the waters, as a way to learn more about yourself and how you actually deal with difficult times, instead of how you believe the people in your life THINK you should, you are only going to get stronger, have a better sense of self, and you yourself will have a better way to roll with the punches life hits you with in a way that brings YOU comfort, not comfort to the people who are around you.

It would help you to remember these things:

1.) You can never completely undo what you've done. You can change where you are; you can leave a mountaintop and go back to the valley where you were unhappy, but you can not unlearn what it felt like to climb that mountain, and you can't un-know the fact that you were there. This is not a cause for despair. This should be a comfort.

2.) Accept that the time in your life where you were so unhappy is a part of you. Understand that going toward the light, the place where you believe you will be happy is not ALWAYS going to feel like happiness. You will always remember the bad times and they will always hurt. This is part of life and you will never eliminate those feelings. They are not evidence you are broken and unable to be happy anymore than your feelings of happiness and contentment are evidence that you are perfect and unable to be unhappy. It's all part of the spectrum.

3.) Read Feeling Good again. It will remind you that you are not on a downward spiral. You are on a roller coaster. Stay in this moment.

4.) Watch this video.
posted by pazazygeek at 9:29 AM on June 25, 2010 [11 favorites]

I'm in therapy now for things semi similar. And she is telling me that due to a very traumatic childhood, this was going to happen on and off until I stop getting overwhelmed and recycling feelings and coping mechanisms back to childhood. I know it sounds like a bunch of b.s. but as she points out specifics, she is right. She said I'm overloaded with anxiety so natuarlly I will destroy things because it's overwhelming.

I know your 10 therapists were useless. But there is one who isn't. Find them and talk this through.
posted by stormpooper at 9:45 AM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I was being successfully treated for a pretty serious anxiety disorder, and was close to terminating therapy, my therapist asked me to spend some time thinking about what I got from my anxiety that might be hard to give up, since those were the kinds of things that would pull me back into old patterns. One thing I thought of was a sense of drama--a simple thing like doing the dishes could seem so overwhelming that it would get to be a bigger and bigger job, and then when I finally got the kitchen clean, it was like the theme from Rocky should be playing in the background, or I'd scaled Everest without oxygen. Learning to let normal things be, and feel like, normal things was something I had to consciously adjust to.

I'd also say that, in the years since that first successful treatment got me 90% of the way there, I've learned that there's an ebb and flow in how functional I am and how well I'm dealing with it. Anxiety no longer dominates my life, but I still think of myself as an anxious person who needs to be vigilant in watching out for early warning signs that a bad patch might be coming. My partner helps with this, and we do seem to be able to head them off at the pass quite often.

Sometimes I do fall off the wagon, so to speak, and then I do have to pick up those old coping mechanisms all over again--I just started therapy again a week or so ago after being out of it for years, after some big life events left me feeling like I needed a brain tune-up. It's never as bad as it was in the pre-treatment days, but it's not something I expect I'll ever be completely over, either. You may be experiencing the ups and downs of recovery for the first time; probably not the last, if you're like me, and you'll get better at dealing with them in time if that's true.

At times, both therapy and meds have been godsends for me. (Though meds, in particular, have also been a bit of a minefield.)

My therapist, who take a CBT approach, cut through my endless list of all the things that weren't quite right in my life and how hard I'm finding it to make the small changes that would help my life look the way I want it to look and sent me home with one assignment the first week: to focus on finding some time to do things I find pleasurable. And she sent me home the second week with a short list (literally, written on a big post-it note) we had developed of just a handful of things I could focus on this week, rather than trying to fix the whole big mess all at once. This was helpful because I'd been sort of trying to make lists of everything I thought I needed to change, and it was just too much, of course.

So maybe cutting yourself some slack, picking one or two things you might focus on doing that would help right now.
posted by not that girl at 10:01 AM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I can't see how CBT wouldn't be able to help with this. This book was a great help for me when I was going through depression and experiencing lots of anxiety. But whatever you do, at least give Feeling Good a good re-reading. I noticed with the book I suggested above how incredibly easy it was for me to forget about so many of the most helpful pieces of advice offered, even just a few days after reading it. If you want the best advice to stick with you, you'll want to highlight and review it, maybe even consider taking notes.
posted by Ryogen at 10:05 AM on June 25, 2010

Response by poster: I'm feeling very tired of fighting myself. Right now functioning is hard enough and the prospect of going not just through the hoops and waiting lists an uninsured person needs to go through to get mental health care but to try to go through them multiple times to "date" my therapists is overwhelming. I feel I am not rich enough in time or money to have that luxury, especially when everything else is so messed up.

I am trying the Feeling Good stuff. It is hard when I keep panicking when I try other things. The whole time I was improving and recovering it felt like I had these big lofty goals in front of me and now when I think about getting better I just see a big ball of terror where the goals used to be. I don't know why being successful is so scary.

I have not thought about medication. It seems that would be even harder to get than therapy.
posted by Hey nonny nonny mouse at 11:03 AM on June 25, 2010

I have not thought about medication. It seems that would be even harder to get than therapy.

It's not. You make an appointment with a psychiatrist. You show up there, talk for a while -- be wary of the ones who push meds on you after five or ten minutes -- and leave either being told you do not need medication, or a prescription. You get it filled. You take it and keep a journal of your mood. If you feel awful (or uncomfortable in some other way,) call your psychiatrist immediately and tell them. Otherwise you meet with them in a certain amount of time and talk about how the medication is treating you. It may be changed/raised/lowered in dosage. You keep doing this until you, hopefully, find something that works or decide to try a different psychiatrist.
posted by griphus at 11:07 AM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't know why being successful is so scary.

Ok, so why is being successful so scary?

Is it because you'll be in the spotlight? Is it because people might say negative things about you? Is it because people might come to rely on you? Is it because you're afraid you have to keep it up forever? Is it because your brother/sister/mom/dad was never successful and this means you'll be "better" than them? Did someone make fun of you when you were successful as a kid? Did being successful cost you friends?

Any of these hitting a nerve? If not, keep throwing things out there until something does. Then you'll have a clue as to what feelings are at the root of this.
posted by MsMolly at 4:50 PM on June 25, 2010

I know all about feeling overwhelmed about both my mountain of Things To Do and my Great Accomplishments. Personally, I'm terrified of failure, and ironically, it causes me to stop trying. "I can't do this," "It's too much," "I'm not good enough." That may or may not be your internal dialogue.

Not that girl has it, about lowering your expectations and cutting yourself some slack. Dump the big lofty goals. Focus on the little things you want today. Focus on making today a good enough day, and set your "good enough" expectations low. What matters right now is putting yourself at ease and building self-efficacy.

Start off by spending maybe 15 - 30 minutes a day, at a specified time, doing or addressing something you are feeling most anxious about, or if that's too much, doing any to-do at all. If it helps, make lists of to-dos, broken down into small steps. All of those big things can be broken down into a series of very small, very doable things. You don't have to worry about the mountain. Just take care of one small step, check it off, and breathe.

(Sorry for the mangled, repetitive comment; I'm working under a big ol' sleep deficit and stopped being able to focus about halfway through.)
posted by moira at 9:06 PM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Anxiety and depression never really go away forever--they are always in remission. It's OK to feel bad. It's OK to fuck up. It's OK to fuck up big.

You're not a bad person because you've started to backslide into old habits. You're an incredibly brave person who has done a lot of hard work, and now you need help keeping the whole thing up and running. What you're experiencing are symptoms of a soul that needs care and attention, not manifestations of a lousy personality.
posted by guybrush_threepwood at 9:16 PM on June 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

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