Quarter Life Crisis, Redux
December 29, 2010 5:41 AM   Subscribe

When I'm not in school, I feel like my life has totally dead-ended. I'm starting to think that stress and anxiety are the only things that motivate me. How do I stop delaying (and being terrified of) reality and finally become a real (adult) person? The details inside are super long, and I apologize for them in advance.

I'm nearly 27. I just graduated from (a new, accredited but unranked) law school and passed two state bars. I have a (part-time, temporary) fellowship at a prominent legal aid organization (with zero possibility of getting hired afterwards) and spend the rest of my time pulling documents at city hall. Or sleeping.

Since the anxiety/rush of college and law school has worn off, I have no energy or motivation for anything at all, even things that I enjoy. Both of my jobs are very low stress -- probably a result of the whole temporary/part-time thing. Occasionally I have bursts of deadlines that get me going (in a horrible, anxious and freaking out sort of way), but other than that I do nothing but lie in my bed, watching TV on the internet. And sleep. I used to be an insomniac of the highest order. Now I sleep 12-14 hours per night, unaided.

I want to do things. I want to keep a clean apartment, hang out with my friends, read books, take yoga classes, brush up on my Spanish, write, volunteer, apply for jobs... but I can barely force myself out of bed. I have MDD and anxiety, but so much of my stress and sadness has just vanished after finding out I passed the bar. This isn't what depression feels like for me. This is something new and different.

I sort of had this lost feeling after college, but I only took a year off, knowing I'd go back to school. Law school was a predictable last resort, but I am genuinely in love with public interest work and do think that this is as a suitable a career path for me. But there are no jobs, and I'm totally petrified of Huge Life Changes like moving somewhere else for work. (I know this is a death sentence, but just moving four blocks away to a new apartment a few years ago sent me into a 6-month depression spiral.)

Things I've tried:

-going to a doctor (clean bill of health)
-taking vitamins (D, B, omega3s, you name it, all worthless)
-exercise (it exhausts me more and I hate it)
-therapy (once a week, and it's helpful)
-medication (currently prozac and klonopin, but these are not side effects. I've been on both much longer than these symptoms have been around.)
-forcing myself to do things (this works in short bursts, especially if somebody else is relying on me, thus creating a stressful situation. I do send my resume out into the ether, and even follow up, with no response. Ever. I recently wrote a short article for an ABA newsletter. I joined the expansion committee of a local food co-op. I take CLEs. I reach out to people I admire for informational interviews. I am sort of a functional person, but anything I do just comes from panic about my future.)

I feel too old and too young at the same time. I'm exhausted like an old person, but have the life skills and drive of a teenager. I'm pushing thirty, but the thought of marriage or children horrifies me (but of course, not being on track for at least the marriage part makes me feel like a failure). Honestly, I feel like a total fraud -- I know NOTHING about law or the practice thereof, and the fact that I'm licensed is laughable. I love school (liberal arts, not law) and I yearn to be back, but I'm trying to face facts: I'm delaying real life, I have nothing in particular I'm passionate about that would merit something like pursuing a PhD, and I'm probably just lazy.

How do I snap out of this rut? Is creating stress for myself the only way I can move forward in life?
posted by timory to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You're clearly already facing adult realities as they actually are and muddling through the way most people do. The ladder of discrete, manageable chunks of achievable goals and the dangled promise of a final conferral of success that motivated you in school were the illusions. The notion of an upbuilding life, culminating in a job, marriage, and children, is the cultural construct that you need to allow yourself to reinvent.

You think you have the life skills of a teenager, but I've never heard of a teenager trying so many things out on their own to help them cope, and you actually are succeeding in the sort of functional sense that most of us succeed. You think you're a fraud, but two state bar associations disagree. Those disconnects between your self-perception and the reality of how successfully you're getting by, not to mention the 12-14 hours of sleep, are the bigger issues that I hope your therapy will help with.

But insofar as you enjoyed the manageable goals and pleasant gold stars of life in school, you might be able to create for yourself a spreadsheet of "SMART" goals with pre-defined success criteria so that you can check them off and color code the outcomes or whatever it is you need to do to build a visible record of success. Ex.: "I will sleep for just 9 hours per night, 5 nights this week, and note the number of nights I succeeded in that here." Or, "I will read one liberal arts text this month and post a short review of it on Goodreads." Be careful not to overreach--it's more or less built into human psychology to overestimate what we can achieve. And leave yourself time to just live, because that's not only OK, it's one of the most important things you can do.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 6:45 AM on December 29, 2010 [14 favorites]

Good news - this is it! This is adulthood. The goal now is to make the best possible choices for you. Doing something is a choice, doing nothing is a choice. Trying various ways to solve things like this is a major step in the right direction.

Lets step back and think to when you were five (earlier if you can, but five is demonstrative). Think of the things you did, sure, but think more about your parents and what they were doing. If you think about it, you'll see they were faking it too - establishing routines so that they got stuff done, teaching you how to take care of yourself, and otherwise struggling to find time for their own interests. Your parents were faking it just as much.

Heck, think back to the young substitute teacher you had in high school. Yeah, they knew some stuff, they seemed cool, but in reality - they were where you are now back then - faking it long enough to get you guys educated and then going home and saying: WTF now?!?...

You have to realign your expectations to what you can and can't do. If moving is not an option, then you are limited in your career choices to where you are - that's fine - but you have to be willing to accept those consequences: a potentially limited job pool and/or depressed wages. But, if its worth it because it keeps you where you are, accept it, own it, and move on with your restrictions - that isn't a real deal breaker in life.

And last, sometimes being an adult is a tough choice - if your lifestyle is unattainable without moving, meaning you have adjusted your expectations of what you can and can't do and have - no matter how hard and traumatic it may seem - you may just have to move. Bills. Have. To. Be. Paid. Sorry.

Having a safety net is huge, that's your councilors, your parents, your friends, or maybe in some future a family of your own - none of that is anything you have to rush. Take your time and build those relationships into safety nets, talk with them about your fears - be open and honest (and slowly unwrap - not all one big data dump). You'd be surprised how much your own parents, or that substitute teacher were supported by their own community and family (emotionally).

Good luck with adulthood.
posted by Nanukthedog at 7:07 AM on December 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

There are different types of depression, you know. What you describe does sound like one of them. I'd bring that up in therapy if I were you.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:11 AM on December 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

No one -likes- exercise. But it will almost definitely help with your energy problem. Can you implement it slowly, in a way that you can manage? The feeling of progress that comes with long-term exercise can help set the tone of the rest of your life- waking up slightly different each day, rather than a Groundhog Day scenario

And while of course I concede expertise to your actual doctor and his clean bill of health, perhaps you ought to see an endocrinologist, as much of what you describe could be attributed to symptoms of hypothyroidism

If learning really is your thing, can you take part-time lessons locally? Perhaps pick up a language, the benefit of which is very tangible and can also give you that sense of progress.

Whatever you choose to do, it's gonna fall back on your own determination to get past this hump of no motivation. Just do it without thinking and the impetus will likely be found as your hormonal state improves. Good luck~
posted by MangyCarface at 7:34 AM on December 29, 2010

AKA: Saturn return

Exploring media that reference this age old issue may help you cope.
posted by Cuspidx at 8:40 AM on December 29, 2010

You really haven't mentioned what you care about or love or believe or enjoy.

Figure that out. Then do something about it.
posted by mhoye at 9:16 AM on December 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

+1 for mhoye's answer. I share your general apathy towards almost everything, my shitty job that I sort of just ended up in included...

But after a good dumping of snow and a solid day of snowboarding, I think it's all pretty much worth it.
posted by LarrenD at 10:05 AM on December 29, 2010

Response by poster: i mentioned a lot of things i enjoy, but also mentioned that i can't even make myself do those things. that's the whole problem.
posted by timory at 10:16 AM on December 29, 2010

Actually, it doesn't seem to me like the problem is with you, the problem is with society and culture. This is going to be the case for a lot of people your (and my) age. If you feel like there is nothing for you to do it could be because there is nothing that you can do in this economy and in this society. There's not a lot of law work, and establishing a career in public interest work is... insanely difficult if you aren't already privileged with status and connections that allow you to work in an underpaid unappreciated field.

You are not "delaying" real life. There is no "real life." Don't freak out too much, because there is a whole generation living through what you are living through. We've been sold a false bill of goods about how our lives should be lived and it is quite depressing when it becomes clear that "being an adult" isn't going to be possible for people of our generation. You just passed the bar, and now you are going to have to fight tooth and nail to get a low-end position if you can even get employment. Wow. Imagine how depressing other people must feel being in your exact same position, but with much less education. Again, it's not you, and it's not because of laziness. If there are no opportunities to work, how can you be lazy?

Our whole life, we are told that we must accomplish something, or have a point, but at no point is anyone presented with the opportunity for such. That's very depressing.

So, I guess I can only recommend more exercise. Work out until you like it. Sorry.
posted by fuq at 1:41 PM on December 29, 2010 [9 favorites]

-medication (currently prozac and klonopin, but these are not side effects. I've been on both much longer than these symptoms have been around.)

...so much of my stress and sadness has just vanished after finding out I passed the bar. This isn't what depression feels like for me. This is something new and different.

Have you considered a change in meds? Like you say, times have changed -- these may be side effects that weren't so noticeable under higher stress levels. Perhaps the high stress was necessary to get you over them and now you need a different kind of push, either by changing or adding meds. IANAD, but I'd recommend talking to one about this possibility.
posted by buzzv at 2:34 PM on December 29, 2010

Response by poster: changing meds scares me. over the past 12 years i've been on paxil, effexor, wellbutrin, lexapro and prozac. none of them helped and all of them except prozac had annoying side effects (and absolutely brutal withdrawal periods). honestly that's the only reason i'm on prozac at all -- to avoid withdrawal effects.

i also did talk to my shrink about this a few weeks ago, and she told me to up the dose. maybe that will make a difference, but it seems unlikely. in any case, after all these years i'm much more inclined to think that anti-depressants have no (positive) effect on me, and i'm not sure i want to keep messing around with them.
posted by timory at 3:25 PM on December 29, 2010

i mentioned a lot of things i enjoy, but also mentioned that i can't even make myself do those things

This absolutely is what depression feels like for me. But medication works for me: the fact that so many different types haven't worked for you makes me wonder if something else is going on. All I can suggest is keep trying: keep seeing your psych and trying different things, asking about different diagnoses, etc.

As an anecdote that may or may not be comforting, I have a friend who has been depressed, suicidal, self-harming since she was 14. She is now 30. She had tried all sorts of antidepressants, on huge dosages. She was recently in a psychiatric ward for two months, and still nothing helped. Finally last week a psychiatrist suggested trying an ADD medication. It worked within 10 minutes: she said it felt like a fog lifted from her mind and everything went into focus. I have honestly never seen her as happy and stable as she has been the past week.

I am NOT at all suggesting you have ADD (I know so little about it that that would be stupid) or that you are depressed to the same level she was. But what I am saying is that you might try all sorts of medication without success and then SOMETHING will suddenly work. It might not be an anti-depressant. So keep talking to your shrink.
posted by lollusc at 4:48 PM on December 29, 2010

Response by poster: i keep seeing the "mark resolved" button and having mini existential crises. can i just mark it resolved and POOF no more problems? sigh.
posted by timory at 5:46 PM on December 29, 2010 [6 favorites]

I second the change in meds answer, as well as the 'you're not depressed; you're just realistic' vein that fuq and Nanukthedog started. i also finished a big degree and then had a period of thickness, where i just went through the motions and also had a lot of unhappiness that things should have revved up and gotten a lot more interesting and easier and exciting than they were. but finishing my degree was mostly a big nothing. things sound kind of anticlimatic for you. i can't wait for deadlines to be over, to have some free time, to do whatever i want and then, poof, when i have it, i don't know what to do with myself and get into a funk. everything has that same what's-the-point-really feel to it.

some people (my husband!) can appreciate this sort of downtime and see it as refreshing and a recharge, but i know that i end up feeling guilty and like life is getting away from me, that i'm wasting it and that something is missing. even exercise feels like a waste of time to me, whereas he feels like he's accomplished something if he does nothing all day but go for a jog.

i've tried to embrace his attitude, while at the same time, not get so down about my 'need' to get more done and to have more happen. even when i have free time, i like to have a list of things to do. if i can just cross off a few of them, i can see that i've done something. they are not necessarily chores-- i have been known to actually write down to watch a dvd i'vebeen looking forward to, or to do a silly craft project i bought supplies for. it's the whole i-did-that-today thing that helps me feel better about time not racing by. this is it. this is time and you can do whatever you want in it. you've accomplished a ton in the past few years and if you all do for a period is get through your days, you'll still have accomplished so much. there is still so much time left to do all those things you list. whenever you want. i think this is along the lines of M.Caution's advice...

things improved for me a ton when i got my second job after my degree, but they are not perfect, and i know that the underlying 'big nothing' issue is still lingering, just to a much lesser degree. which makes me think it is not a problem with me, but more of an existential thing that we all struggle with to some degree. i mention this improvement, because you say that big life changes on the horizon scare you....but things like job changes, if it's a job that excites you, will probably be worth this stress.

my suggestion to reexamine meds is that i understand that sometimes prozac and similar can act to take the edge off to let you function better in high stress situations, like law school, etc. but if your situation has changed; if life is just not all that edgy anymore, this sort of treatment could actually be bad for you. not speaking as a doctor, just someone with a pharmacological understanding of the chemicals but a laymen's understanding of the drugs in treatment.

p.s. that degree i finished was a PhD-- i notice you mention it in contrast to how prepared and fired up you feel. i don't see the PhD as any different than your law degree-- i still feel fraudulent, unprepared and, during my studies, lazy.... i suspect that there are no letters to put after your name which will cancel these things out...
posted by Tandem Affinity at 9:17 PM on December 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

By the way - if I wasn't clear - you have my thoughts. Depression, quarter life crisises and the job market are real and serious problems. It would be awesome if we could blink our eyes and makeat least one of those just disappear... but we can't that's why my advice stems from trudging through and not from minimizing it.... acknowledge and move on....

Also, if Matt and, Jess, Cortex, and pb could make a "mark resolved" button work like that, membership would be cost way more that - and it would be way cheaper than healthcare.
posted by Nanukthedog at 6:25 AM on December 30, 2010

i mentioned a lot of things i enjoy, but also mentioned that i can't even make myself do those things.

Don't take this the wrong way, but that's not what I said. I enjoy video games, good scotch and rich food, but I don't get out of bed for them. I get out of bed for my startup and my family. They are important.

You're juggling a couple of hard problems here, don't think I believe otherwise. Depression is a real thing, existential crises are a real thing, and the job market is still in the toilet and I am not telling you that those are lightweight problems. But maybe if you figure out what you believe you should work on, some goal that is bigger and more important than yourself and your inaction, that will at least give you some signposts. And maybe some motivation to keep moving and go through the motions of working on whatever that is, until you can get yourself out from under the big three there, one at a time.
posted by mhoye at 8:33 AM on December 31, 2010

If you're still reading this, the follow up from mhoye is also what I was getting at. I didn't mean what I said in a snowboarding is a hobby of mine sort of way, it's something I'm extremely passionate about and being able to snowboard as much as possible vs. not being able to has been a huge factor in most of my life decisions.

I don't know a whole lot about law or the academic world, so I can't offer specifically relevant advice, but those and public service seem to be the closest things to passions that you've mentioned. Finding a way to make your life about something involving any combination of these three things is going to be the best thing that you can do.

(Along with continuing to seek the advice of healthcare professionals)
posted by LarrenD at 12:44 PM on December 31, 2010

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