Starting points for sorting out my life please?
August 26, 2010 9:45 AM   Subscribe

My life has been running out of control for almost unimaginably long time. I am 'technically' a university student but I have been so unengaged and worried about my degree course and university the past year that that affiliation or 'student' label does not really apply. So in any other sense I am unemployed. Although I recognize the need for purpose, disciple and structure in day-to-day life, I fail to impose this upon myself.

When I am not absorbed in some escapist outlet (which is a lot of the time) my life is so directionless, so meaningless and so empty it's beyond ridiculous. The trouble is I've spent so much time putting off actually trying to tackle what's wrong that I avoid doing so purely because I am so ashamed I've left it so long. I feel utterly paralyzed - the best way I could attempt to describe it is it is as though I a sane person living an insane person's life. Unfortunately, and without exaggeration, there is literally no-one I can explain my situation to that could ever possibly hope to understand in a helpful way (this especially applies to close family members). Could anyone offer any recommendations for self-help books, programmes or places to turn to dig myself out of this mess? Obviously the most immediate thing to do would be to take a job, any job, but I am terrified of falling into greater despair doing this.

(I know this may sound like depression, but from my understanding of the condition I don't think I am suffering with this - it is more like I understand what could constitute a happy, fulfilled life but the the current lack of fuel in the tank so to speak prevents me for working towards this) Thanks
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
(I know this may sound like depression, but from my understanding of the condition I don't think I am suffering with this - it is more like I understand what could constitute a happy, fulfilled life but the the current lack of fuel in the tank so to speak prevents me for working towards this)

That sounds exactly like depression to me.
posted by crankylex at 9:49 AM on August 26, 2010 [6 favorites]

It's depression. Depression can take a lot of forms--apathy is one of them. And you seem anxious. Anxiety often goes hand in hand with depression. Take it from one who knows: you need medication. A small 20-milligram pill daily makes an unbelievable difference in my life. And, if you get the right medication, you will not feel spacey or bad or drugged--you'll simply feel more like yourself. Go to the university health service and ask for an appointment. Try the medicine recommended. If it doesn't work, try another. Stick with it. And get some therapy--probably cognitive therapy--to help you understand what's happening to you. Good luck.
posted by Jenna Brown at 9:53 AM on August 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

Yeah, that's pretty much exactly how depression manifests itself in my life. I got officially diagnosed and everything (this is years ago, though), and did a lot of talk therapy and a little bit of meds. Things are much better now.
posted by rtha at 9:53 AM on August 26, 2010

I understand the feeling that while you should just get a job, you are afraid of falling into greater despair. After all, it is very hard to know how a new job will work out. If you try it and fail (by getting fired, or by discovering that you are not capable of doing the work and having to quit, or by falling prey to interpersonal conflict at work, etc.) then your life will look even worse, things become even more hopeless.

I tend to feel this way about any new thing that I attempt. I fear to start a new job, move to a new address, develp a new friendship, or practically anything else. I hesitate to read books by authors I haven't read before. However, I decided a long time ago that I have to do these things anyway. My life doesn't work unless I am prepared to risk doing things that might not work out. And oddly enough, things do work out, quite often. And even when they don't work out, it's not the end, I move on and try something else. And that is what I recommend. A job would be very healthy for you; overcome your fear and get one.
posted by grizzled at 9:54 AM on August 26, 2010

It sounds like depression, and possibly ADD.
posted by rmd1023 at 10:17 AM on August 26, 2010

The OP clearly is not asking for your diagnosis speculation, he/she states that pretty clearly.
posted by The Straightener at 10:27 AM on August 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

It's hard to recognize depression when you're slipping into it, especially if you're still going through your days and not feeling "sad" or feeling like you're in any sort of crisis. I came up with the following analogy the other day (in therapy, no less!) and think it applies here:

Imagine that your living room has one of those overhead light fixtures with four or five bulbs. When all of them are lit, it's bright and great and you can see everything and you don't think about it. When one burns out, you usually don't notice, because it's still pretty bright. If you've got two out, you still don't notice, but you start thinking "has it always been this dim in this room?" It's not until you've got only one bulb left that you realize it's time to change the light bulbs, and even then, you can keep the room lit with just that one bulb for quite some time. But by the time all your bulbs are burnt out, it's too dark to change them.

You're running on only a couple bulbs and thinking that's just all the light you've got. Even if you don't think you need therapy, I'd recommend an intake appointment with a therapist so you can talk about all this with someone who gets it, and who can give you suggestions that make sense.

Another way to think of it: if you ever find yourself asking whether you're depressed or just a loser, you're depressed.
posted by Metroid Baby at 10:37 AM on August 26, 2010 [7 favorites]

Been there, and from the description/answers it seems I'm still there.

I've been reading the 4 Agreements. The concepts are pretty cool at least as a starting point to get thinking and change thinking into something proactive.

I would say that Codependency No More significantly helped and after re-reading it, I saw that I have improved a lot. Yes, this isn't a depression book but perhaps some of the traits will help you recognize the source. Just a shot in the dark on that one.

Sorry I can't be of more help. I'm in and out of therapy a lot thinking they may give me answers. Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

I wish you an enormous amount of good luck and happiness. It will happen. For some of us, it's slow. One day at a time and reach out to people. It helps.
posted by stormpooper at 10:46 AM on August 26, 2010

No mention of your age but given that you're "technically" a university student, I'm assuming you're in your late teens, early 20s. For what it's worth, I went through a very similar "phase" when I was that age.

How did I get out of it?

Slowly. Not through any great wisdom or intention. It's just the only thing that worked. I slowly started making more commitments, going for walks, accepting invites to do things (even if a big part of me was screaming "no"). I started working part time. I started reading books instead of watching TV. I started jogging. Again. There was no great plan afoot. I just felt a powerful need to remove myself from the rut I was in and the only thing that worked was taking small yet deliberate steps.

Looking back on it now though, I think I did things exactly the right way. Because the rut I was in didn't just happen. I slipped into rather slowly, so it makes sense that I'd get out of it the same way.

You ask for books or programs. None come to mind, but that said, I'd recommend anything that gets you focusing on getting enthusiastic about stuff. So rather than go in for self-help, maybe join a community radio station, or start gardening, or join a book club, maybe a church if you're into that sort of thing. I think life is like marriage sometimes. Every now and then it helps to consciously renew your commitment to it.

Good luck.
posted by philip-random at 10:46 AM on August 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

Could anyone offer any recommendations for self-help books, programmes or places to turn to dig myself out of this mess?

You sound like you're at the point where the self-help approach is less likely to arrest the negative feedback loop you're in, and may even accelerate it, unless you're prepared to do something fairly drastic along the lines of saying to yourself "tomorrow, I will pretend to be a different person living a different life that makes that person happy, and if that works, I will keep doing it until it is not pretending any more."

Hearing another person engage with your situation makes a difference. You are in a decent position to get that kind of help. Jumper cables are good, but you need someone to give you a jump start.
posted by holgate at 11:03 AM on August 26, 2010

Regardless of whether or not you have depression or another actual illness, it sounds to me like what would benefit you most is having a chat with a supportive, friendly presence who can help you figure out what you want to get out of life and what the best way to get there would be.

This is what therapists are for. You probably have free access to one through your university counseling center. Make an appointment, or look up what their walk-in hours are, and go there. Even if you don't need medication or whatever, the people at the counseling center will probably be more helpful than random people on the internet.
posted by kataclysm at 12:02 PM on August 26, 2010

This is going to sound utterly bizarre, but I think you might try FlyLady's baby steps.

If you're anything like me (and I have nasty, unremitting chronic depression that doesn't respond to treatment, woohoo!), then your "paralysis" maybe includes simple day-to-day things that don't get done.

Very recently, I started focusing on doing those tiny, concrete things -- and ONLY those things. I have imposed a very small, but meaningful amount of structure on my life, and it has thus far made a huge difference. Not only are those tiny things getting done, but the structure itself seems to somehow have created the time, space, and motivation with which to do other things.

Anyhow, most of the kinds of self-help you're asking for are going to be geared toward depression. Even if you believe you are not depressed, those resources will very likely help you. Still, it is a good idea to get screened to rule out depression. If you are still registered at school, there are services there that can get you low-cost or free therapy (I saw a therapist through my school for over a year, completely for free.) You should go and, at the VERY least, get an assessment.

If you want to test yourself for depression, pick up a copy of the book Feeling Good by David Burns and take the Beck Depression Inventory that's in there. Then do the exercises in the book, even if you don't think you're depressed. They are helpful for all kinds of ruts or funks.

Or you could do MoodGYM.

Good luck.
posted by Ouisch at 1:55 PM on August 26, 2010

I know how you feel. Also, my best friend knows how you feel even more. He's slowly climbing out of the pit of blah he found himself in a few years ago, after neglecting classes an his degree for so long. Right now he's finally seeing a psychiatrist, and he has a prescription for anti-anxiety meds that are slowly building up to an overall change. He's doing a form of CBT therapy and occasionally sees an anxiety specialist.

At least get an assessment. Your description of yourself sounds like depression to me, and you may be sublimating your anxiety more than you know. Best of luck to you.
posted by Mizu at 2:05 PM on August 26, 2010

You didn't ask for a diagnosis, so here are some books:

When Things Fall Apart and Start Where You Are by Pema Chodron.

Other universal medicine -- Get good sleep. Get exercise. Interact with people face to face more. Replace passive activities with active ones.

And it wouldn't hurt to talk to a professional. Neither you nor I can diagnose depression if it's there, but (s)he can.
posted by cross_impact at 2:21 PM on August 26, 2010

It sounds like you're at a point where even though youunderstand what could constitute a happy, fulfilled life, that seems so far away from where you are now, and you don't know where to start. So you're not starting.

What I'd recommend is sitting down somewhere with no distractions and writing it down. Where do you want to be? What are those things that would constitue a happy, fulfilled life? Write down some specific end goals - whether that's getting back on track with your course, changing courses, not playing Xbox 16 hours a day, ditching university and getting a job (what type of job?), travelling, moving somewhere else (etc).

Then pick the one thing that seems most important to you right now. Focus on that. What do you need to do to achieve that? Keep breaking it down into individual steps that are easily achievable, until you're at the point where you have a simple, concrete, next step (eg: go to class X tomorrow morning). Then do that. It's one thing. Do it. Once you've done that, look at what your next step is (eg: do the reading for your next class - not "catch up on a semester's worth of reading" - just the next class). Breaking it all down into small tasks makes it all seem more manageable and can get you over the paralysis. Over time you can add more things, and keep revising your list, and maybe start working on other things you want to achieve. (I've forgotten how to do links, but try - don't read the entire site, just go to the pages on basic principles)

Good luck.
posted by finding.perdita at 4:07 PM on August 26, 2010

I second the suggestion in tema of becoming a tiny bit productive ---that's what you should aim for at first--a tiny bit productive.

But I would also recommend that you seek out some absurdity. And engage in some absurdity. Plant morning glories under a telephone pole, leave a note for a stranger about how you like the color of their house...for three days in a row, walk outside and gather a handful of small stones, return to your room, line them up on your bed, and lay on top of them for 5 minutes--see what kind of effect it has on you. Sleep with your head at the foot of your bed. Do a handstand right now.
posted by vitabellosi at 4:20 PM on August 26, 2010

Look at what resources your university offers. You will not be the first student this has happened to - see whether there are counselling services, academic support services, or other people who are able to help you with this stuff.
posted by AnnaRat at 1:55 AM on August 27, 2010

Since you say talking to a family member isn't an option, I'd suggest a therapist as someone who could assist you in figuring out why you're in this situation, and help you come up with a plan for changing it. It's exactly what they are for.

However, you might find that finding and visiting a therapist is difficult if you feel paralysed. A book that might possibly help you get to the point of seeing a therapist is The Now Habit, by Nial Fiore. It's about procrastination, which might not sound relevant at first. But he does deal with why people try to impose structure on themselves, end up spending time on escapist stuff, then feel bad because they know better than to do that. It's a good book, and the kind of thing that will still be useful later even if it doesn't help you now, so it's sort of a low-risk thing to try.

I think you're right that getting a job is not going to fix this. You can't force yourself from stasis into a fully organised, highly productive life in one step, you need to just pick a smaller step to work on for now, and then when you've done that, work on the next one.
posted by harriet vane at 4:05 AM on August 27, 2010

In my opinion, the best place to turn would be a mental health provider. I know that's easy to say and tough to do, so I will give you my best tips and books.

Driven to Distraction has good tips for self-structure and getting help with structure. It's written for/about people with ADHD but you don't need to have ADHD to use the tips in it.

Personal advice:

You can try to build yourself a little routine, ideally one that involves other people (you don't have to know or like them, nor do they have to know or like you.) It would be great if it were something nurturing and pleasant for you.

It doesn't have to be much. Just get out of the house every day to get coffee at the same shop, or go to the library to read the newspaper.

Just a little structure can help anchor you in the world and build your confidence.

If you have trouble doing even that, it's okay! I know I do, sometimes.

I was much more able to give myself structure after I got my ADHD medicated effectively. However, even without that I was able to do okay at a job where much of the structure was provided for me (schedule, exact activities planned out) and there was good social contact, which helps prevent loneliness and keep up my self-esteem.

Good luck!
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:17 PM on August 27, 2010

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