Life: punching me in the face over and over and over again
February 16, 2011 4:35 PM   Subscribe

I broke up with my boyfriend last week. How do I focus on a mountain of academic obligations when all I want to do is crawl into bed and sleep forever?

I ended the 1.5-year relationship because I was feeling uncertain about it, and I wasn't comfortable with feeling uncertain after dating for so long. Yet I still love him, and a week after the act I'm wrecked with regret. I know that running back to him is a bad idea--I can't separate out legitimate reasons for resuming the relationship from my inability to cope with being alone right now--but it's taking all of my willpower to keep from doing so.

This is particularly bad because I need that willpower to focus on my work. I took on too much this term: a full course load, including two honors classes and two lab class; being a TA; a 25 hr/wk job. I wasn't handling this well before the breakup, and now that I've lost my main source of emotional support, I've been failing almost all of the myriad tasks before me. A lot of advice on breakups here say that throwing myself into work is a way to cope, but how do people do that? It's really hard for me to study electron conjugation when I'm too busy crying all the time. Likewise, some have been giving me advice to talk to my professors about my problems, but I'm really not sure how to approach them (I'm usually a good student, so I've never been underwater when talking to a professor). "Boo hoo hoo, my boyfriend and I broke up, please give me an extension on this assignment?"

Basically, I'm dealing with two separate problems here, each of which exacerbates the other: my academic stress, and the emotional fallout from the breakup. My emotions are keeping me from handling my work, I'm so stressed from work that I can't process the breakup, and so I'm stuck in this miserable state of paralysis and failure. I'm taking steps to reduce the work load in my job, and I've scheduled appointments with professors and my academic adviser, but those won't take effect for another week or so. Advice on how to deal separately with the two problems is welcome, but I'd really like guidance on how to handle the combination, especially in the immediate future.

Thanks so much for reading through this mess and giving advice. I really appreciate it.
posted by flawsekno to Human Relations (23 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Incidentally, I'm a second-year college student, and my ex and I have established no contact for at least another month and a half.
posted by flawsekno at 4:39 PM on February 16, 2011

You are not a failure. You will survive this. It will get better.

Write this out on a piece of paper, put it in your purse. Write it on a post-it, put it on your laptop. Write this on a notepad, put it on your bedside table. Read it often, mentally recite it when you cannot reach for the actual physical paper.
posted by banannafish at 4:43 PM on February 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

You can frame a request for an extension in the sense of either personal issues or emotional issues, rather than giving the full story of a break-up.(Alternatively: taking a mental health day.) If your school has free behavioral health services, going to talk to one of them may be extremely helpful and they might be able to provide a letter to your professor explaining you are in a bad emotional place right now and would need a little extra time for your assignments. I go to a small liberal arts university where the professors are very personal and know students, so I'm not sure how this might play out at a larger school, but it may be worth the try. Even if its just to talk to someone about your stress. While that may add to your problem of stress, finding the time to talk to someone about this (probably as much time as it took to ask MeFi this) who is very familiar with this time and emotional stress issue, particularly in college, might be worth it in the long run. It *is* important to address your emotional issues. Talking to someone else may help you do this in a way that is more productive than making yourself more upset and crying (not that crying is bad!)

Also, try doing something you enjoy to relieve stress--knit, read, bake, exercise, play at the park, make pottery, etc. I know you have many obligations and are stressed by all you have to do, but taking the time to focus on yourself outside of being in a relationship with someone else may help.

On a final note, take a step back from your situation for a moment. You're not a failure. A year after you graduate, you will have no recollection of the grade you get on the assignments you have now.
Best of luck.
posted by fuzzysoft at 4:53 PM on February 16, 2011

If your work is slipping, you may want to talk to your professors. You don't have to say 'break up.' You can say, 'crisis at home that has been difficult but is resolved now' and ask for some more time to do x y and z.

If your professors give you crap, try talking to whatever student support systems (e.g. counseling) that exist out there.

And good for you for hanging tough. You are hurting but that will stop. Write that line on your post-it, too.

Good luck
posted by angrycat at 4:53 PM on February 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Don't convince yourself that you can just power through this.

Give yourself some time. Take a couple days where you don't do any school work. Get some bad marks? Who cares. You're smart, you'll get back on track when you feel like it. Sacrifice some short term grades for long term mental health.
posted by auto-correct at 4:54 PM on February 16, 2011

Best answer: I would schedule an appointment with your school's counseling center. They can help you communicate with your professors about your needs at this time. So if you need extensions or to miss a few classes, they can help arrange that.

Also you need someone to talk to. Please, please make use of the counseling services available to you. You are precisely the kind of person they are there to help.

Every professor has a different approach to students in your situation, and everyone has different advice about how to talk to a professor. If you go it alone one-on-one to each professor, explain that you're having serious personal problems right now that have impeded your ability to handle your ability to function on a daily basis and you need extra time for your assignments. All of that is true.

I wouldn't go into the details about the breakup unless they ask. Some will probably ask, but I don't think it is any of their business. (I do not ask if a student is upset about something-- the bluffers are always obvious)

The other side is that professors get played a lot and don't want to make exceptions because exceptions make extra work for us and set a bad precedent.

That's just another reason why I really encourage you to talk 1) to the counseling center and 2) to your academic adviser as soon as you can. Let them know it's urgent.

If there is a wait to get to 1) or 2) and you live in a dorm, please consider talking to your RA. Also consider peer counseling services at your school. RAs and peer counselors should have ways to circumvent the red tape getting you faster access to counseling services.

The point is to get someone who can liaison between you and your professors right now when you are not at your best.

I am so sorry you are going through all of this. My advice for the immediate future is to crawl into bed, treat yourself kindly, and get up in the morning, make yourself a pot of coffee and plod on through the day.
posted by vincele at 4:58 PM on February 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Sorry about this situation. Hard one. If you can't lose yourself doggedly doing your work, as you say, first thing is, as everyone says, try to get a relief of tasks if possible.
Other than that, your solution is probably boxes. That is, fragmenting your day into small units of planned activity with breaks, and the only discipline needed is to return to your stuff, whatever it is, after the break.

Usually, for non-grief-stricken people, a work pass would be 45 minutes or thereabouts, with a yoga-doodle-coffee break of maybe 10-15 minutes and another go of 45 minutes, repeat, lunch etc.
If you for now would reduce this to 20 minutes of work, forcing yourself not to get absorbed in your emotions during that time, with the promise that after those 20 minutes you're okay for 15 to do whatever your soul needs, and with the obligation do blow your nose after those 15 minutes and to do another 20 minutes of work, that might be a way. The idea is to put a structure on top of everything else, that's a) manageable and b) not to be contested no matter what.

For long-term planning: if you have a deadline, make a breakdown of tasks per day, dividing them evenly over all the available days. Like, for reading a pile of books, you'll have to calculate how many pages every day; for writing an essay, make a realistic outline: research day 1-3, draft, day 4-etc. If, for any reason, you fail to do all the planned work of any given day, make a new breakdown and divide the piled-up delayed tasks evenly across the remaining time, in order to avoid a buildup of shame and insurmountable mountains.

Good luck, and eat chocolate.
posted by Namlit at 5:01 PM on February 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Speaking as a teacher, I always prefer to hear about what is going on in my students' lives from them. Go tell your teachers that you are having a hard time, and that you need some extensions on your work. You'll work out a schedule with them that will give you some breathing space without putting you too far behind.
posted by pickypicky at 5:17 PM on February 16, 2011

Do you have a roommate? Perhaps one who's seen you and your ex together and knows him and knows your story? Go sob on their shoulder. (Chances are, they knew it was coming, or at least know the drill when couples split) If you live alone, try to spend time with friends or at least make study dates with aquaintances from class. You need to build social bridges to people who aren't your boyfriend. That will help more than anything. Also, don't blow off your work- You may fail, and that's okay, but you'l respect yourself more if you keep trying in the meantime. Talking to conselors and professors are both good things to look into, but connecting with your peers will keep you running day to day.
posted by Nixy at 5:22 PM on February 16, 2011

Best answer: This may not work given your double-whammy, which you've articulated well, but when emotions are keeping me from focusing on work, here are a few things that help me. One is to realize that the hardest part is getting started, and to motivate myself to do that by thinking of it as an escape from my emotions. Two is to jumpstart that by asking myself to do something nonstressful that shifts me into academic-mode, something like saying the alphabet backward, alphabetizing the words in the sentence I'm reading, or making a simple chart like "number of states that start with the letter C vs. the letter M." Three is the cold-water-on-face trick.

You really have to be your own partner on this one. Identify for yourself, in whatever moments of clarity you can find, what would be the bare minimum you could do to get through. Bare minimum; your goal is to just get through without any major problems. (So, 8-10 page paper? Ok, 7.75 pages. What topic could I write 7.75 pages on with the least effort? Ah, that thing I did my midterm report about.) Then, create space for your emotions, so take the time you need every morning to sit with your emotions, and then attempt to leave them aside, go to the library, and make solid progress through your bare-minimum-effort plan. Then, when you need to stop working, let yourself. Cry. Then, that moment when you're sick of crying, splash some water on your face, set the emotions aside, and go back to focusing on pages 5-6 of your Aztec Architecture paper for the next hour as a pleasant escape from your troubles. Go with the flow, giving both the work and your emotions some space to coexist.
posted by salvia at 5:31 PM on February 16, 2011 [7 favorites]

Since other people are dealing with the emotional aspects, I'll stick with the practical. Where do you do your homework? Are you less likely to cry in a public place? I'd consider moving all your homework on campus or to a library or coffee shop. You still might not be able to concentrate as well as you usually do, but at least your bed isn't right there tempting you to crawl in it. Don't take anything else with you--no iPod, no phone, no nothing but homework. Decide before you get there how long you'll work. Maybe just start with an hour, and don't leave until that hour is up. You might not be working super hard the whole hour, but if there's nothing else for you to do and no one to distract you, you'll likely do the work.

If that won't work, do you have a friend you can do homework with at your place or theirs? Someone to snap their fingers at you to refocus your energy when it looks like you're spacing off or about to cry?

I wouldn't count on extensions too much unless you can get something in writing from your school counseling center, and your emotional state might not be *that* much better in just the day or two or week you might get as an extension. I know it sucks in the short term to try to keep up, but once you get behind, it's easy to get even more behind later, and that can affect your entire semester's GPA in bad ways. You're probably better off trying to keep up and turn everything in on time even if it sucks or is incomplete. Half credit is better than no credit, if push comes to shove.
posted by BlooPen at 5:31 PM on February 16, 2011

Also, for me, the best breakup I ever had (and surviving it coincident with a major school deadline) involved reading When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron, at least the first couple chapters, trying to meditate and sit with the emotions whenever they started to overtake me, and following the book's approach of kindness towards oneself.
posted by salvia at 5:33 PM on February 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

vincele's advice about school is spot-on. RA, counseling center, etc. Also if you are going to miss a deadline for an assignment, you should email your professor BEFORE the deadline and say something like "I'm having a personal crisis and will not be able to complete the project by the deadline. If there is a way to arrange an extension I would be very grateful."

And try to find a friend to lean on, arrange to meet them for meals or whatever - something that gets you eating, sleeping, bathing, doing the basics of taking care of yourself.

A breakup in this circumstance is so hard, I'm sorry you're going through it. I went through a similar thing around that point in college, and part of what made it hard was just that the relationship was so familiar and comfortable, having been together for so long, and without being able to talk to that familiar bestfriend person, how can you even cope with anything? But it gets better. It just takes some getting used to -- not relying on that person, and building up your circle of other people you can rely on. You can do it, it will be good, even though it's hard now. A year or two from now, you will think "wow, that was so necessary". Hang in there.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:35 PM on February 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

When I was in this situation, every morning before every class and, eventually, final, I'd lay there debating whether I wanted to get up or not. When I realized that laying in bed sobbing probably wouldn't do me any good, I'd make myself go to class. I'd just sit in the back and try not to cry, but I think the class offered an opportunity to focus on something else, for even a little while and I accepted that gladly. It was a period of time where I could think about German declensions instead of how badly I was hurting. God, even German noun declension was better than that!

Also, I totally support what other people are saying about don't spend too much time alone. Go be with other people. Like going to class, it will force you to think of something else.

Wishing you all the best.
posted by chatongriffes at 5:36 PM on February 16, 2011

I'm not the best with advice, but if it makes you feel any better I'm in the exact same situation right now. Focusing on just about anything is really hard when you're in that kind of "twilight zone"- when one thing is weighing on your mind so much that you kind of feel stuck and unable to really do anything else. You want to do other things like studying harder, but it's just not happening. You can't get motivated because it's always there at the back of your mind, breaking your concentration. Here's what's working for me:

Go hang out with your best friend- That's what friends are there for! You don't even have to talk about what you're going through if you don't want to, but I've found it extremely therapeutic just to reaffirm that you do, in fact, have regular contact with other people. The reflex is to shut yourself away, but trust me, that's only going to make things worse. And don't neglect the power of a hug! Sometimes that can make all of the difference in the world.

Get in touch with friends that you've negelected for awhile, and go have lunch with them- They'll have all sorts of interesting stories to tell you! Things to help you clear you head of unpleasant-ness. If they gush about how much they missed you, that's a plus! Lots of people care about you, even if you don't see them all of the time. It's good for rebuilding your social network.

Go outside, pick a cardinal direction, and walk- Seriously, just put one foot in front of the other until you find something interesting, or you feel like going back. You never know what you'll find! Perhaps something new and exciting, (like an art gallery you never knew existed), a restaurant that you've always wanted to try, but never have, or maybe something in nature you haven't taken the time to notice in forever. You don't have to love the world around you, but at least take it on a first date!

Don't throw yourself into work- I've heard that my whole life, and it's never once worked for me. That's ignoring your problem, and it's just not healthy. When you go through the motions numb like that, society is the poorer for it.

Academic Stress:

Get a dedicated study buddy- Not necessarily someone who's in any of your classes, but maybe just a friend you can meet at the end of the day to study with. Make sure it's someone who's not too chatty! Just sitting in the same room with someone helps me focus, and I feel less inclined to slack off. Also, it's just nice to have some company.

Talk to professors on a case-by-case basis- The harsh reality of college is that some teachers are just dicks. Be careful who you talk to, as some of them have a nasty habit of making you feel worse. With professors you know to be less sensitive to their students, try sending an email before you talk to them in person. See what kind of response you get. Hopefully, most of them will be happy to work with you. Just showing that you are concerned does wonders!

Work as you normally do- Again, don't throw yourself into work. You're obviously a good student, so there's no need to rock the boat by working yourself to death. Things that normally wouldn't get to you seem overwhelming when coupled with extracurricular emotional stress, but if you can motivate yourself to just keep working at your usual pace, you'll see that you're still doing just fine.

As always, YMMV.

Look, I know it can't mean much coming from a complete stranger on the internet, but for what it's worth- Things are going to get better. It might not be tomorrow, but I know it will.

No matter how you're feeling today, it does get better. I've seen it happen for so many people.

To quote Bob Dylan, "When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose", if you want to look at it that way. In the meantime, don't ignore the way you feel. Don't try to force yourself to be happy. That doesn't do anyone any good. Let your grief run its course, and I promise it will be over much faster. And with that, school will fall back into place.

Best of luck to you!

Some Beck for you
posted by Krazor at 5:41 PM on February 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'll stop posting one last time after this comment, but something I got from the Pema Chodron book was a reduction in the amount that I re-upset myself semi-intentionally. She talks about how sometimes people try to escape their real feelings by covering it up with even more dramatic emotion, and I found that to be very true for me. Break-ups are disorienting, and I found that sometimes I was more bewildered than anything else, and I actually had an urge to be upset, because that was a story I understood ("I broke up and I'm so upset!") when my actual feeling was more like "huh this is all new and really weird and I feel really all these different strange ways and don't exactly know what's going to happen next, which is kinda weird." Also, if I was really honest with myself, I sometimes wanted to feel sad because then I didn't feel guilt about feeling ...really kind of fine in some ways, even empowered and free. But to feel empowered and free while someone else had pain -- that challenged my sense of myself as a good person. So rather than hang out with that ego-threatening mix of emotions, I'd rather just convince myself I was really sad.

Anyway, your emotions will be totally different, but if you pay close attention, you might find more space to just be where you are even if you don't really know yet what that place is.
posted by salvia at 5:57 PM on February 16, 2011 [5 favorites]

I'm in the camp of people advising you to use the counseling services available through your university. In addition, vincele is right about different professors having different approaches. If a student comes to me obviously in distress, I'm not going to push. On the other hand, just today a student was telling me a horror story about a prof demanding to see copies of hospital admissions papers in order to excuse some absences. So, yes, approach your professors and explain that due to some serious personal issues you would like an extension. FYI I'm more likely to say yes if the student has a specific plan, rather than just seeing how much time he/she can get. Just be aware that the professor may say no.

I'll also share this with you. I had a similar concentration problem when my fiance left me 3 weeks after 9-11. (Living in Manhattan and having been downtown on that day, obviously there were other things also disturbing my concentration.) I found, strangely enough, that studying in bars worked for me. I wouldn't drink anything but coke, but late night was the worst time and in my area bars are open late. So I would go and study. People thought it was odd, but it worked. After a few months, I was fine to study at home. Some of this is about experimenting with what will help you (try studying in various places, see where you feel best, I would recommend places with people around you).

In general, being busy is a good idea. At that time, I called my friends and said "OK people every event, volunteer charity, picnic etc. tell me about it because I'm in." I ended up having crazy fun-traveling to Boston for an Anime con, going to masquerade balls, volunteering for an erotic arts festival. So you might want to let your friends know that you should be as active as possible and see what they propose.
posted by miss-lapin at 6:00 PM on February 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Let yourself be sad. Open up to someone who can nudge you to stay motivated. Talk to a counselor.

When it's time to work, tell your brain that you can be sad again later, but it's time to concentrate on something else.

Work in small increments. Take breaks as often as you need to. If you can only work for 10 minutes before you need to take a break, do it.

Commit your breaks to a certain amount of time. Set a timer on your phone for 3 mins, 10 mins, etc...whatever works for you.

During your break, do something positive...get some tea, say hi to your pet, do a nice stretch, lay on the bed, go sit outside.

Gradually increase your work increments between breaks.

Don't give up on yourself. You can still get shit done. You'll be happier when you do.
posted by Bunsen Betty at 7:30 PM on February 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I don't have too much to say except that I'm really grateful and blown away by your advice, sympathy, and stories. Thank you--I almost feel like I can do this now. =)
posted by flawsekno at 11:41 PM on February 16, 2011

I'm going through something similar. We broke up earlier this week and a large project looms at work.

What I have done so far is to tell my supervisor about the break up. I said something like, "I just wanted to let you know that if I don't seem my normal self, it's because of a recent break up." She was nice about it. Later in the week, she mentioned that with the project, she would need me to work more than 40 hours a week. At first, I just wanted to burst into tears when she said that, but then I told her that my health was suffering and that I couldn't work extra time. She seemed a little surprised, but she let it go.

It has been a relief for me to tell people. I felt a little weird telling people in the professional world about my breakup, but I gave it a chance and it has been liberating. People who aren't total jerks will understand and I was surprised by how many people empathized with me.
posted by parakeetdog at 9:29 AM on February 17, 2011

1. You have to sustain yourself and get through this situation- for yourself. This means that you don't have to "process" the break-up now; it can be done later after exams and all. All you have to do right now, with respect to the breakup, is to take care of your needs and emotions.

2. And that means, talk to friend(s) if you feel like it. If you can't confide in friends/family, see a counselor. That's exactly what those folks are for. You can feel absolutely safe and comfortable talking to them. Ask them questions if you have any, or if you have any hesitations about discussing something.

3. For the studies, structure your time. That means, you plan your months/weeks and days for things that need to get done. Find a place where you can study. This may or may not be what you did before- and that's okay. Just go with what feels the best right now. But when sit to study, all you do is study. No goofing/thinking of ex. Even if you don't *feel* like it, do it anyway (that's discipline!). Plan some time at the end of the day to think about breakup/ex. But when the time is up, you have to get to the next task.

4. Exercise more if you can. Either that or work physically so that when you go to bed, you are tired.

5. Give yourself permission to feel what you are feeling at the moment. This is partly how you take care of yourself right now. And this means, you are not weak if you burst crying while studying...just get yourself to the restroom, cry your heart out, wash your face and get back to reading.

6. In the time that you plan for thinking about the ex each day, make a list of all the reasons you thought it wouldn't work. (You can do this after the exams too). The next time you feel bad about the breakup, remind yourself of the reasons.

This may all sound very robotic and may or may not work for you. But, I think the important thing is to get through the exams right now. Even if that means you barely make it. You can think ALL you want about your ex and the breakup later.

Feel free to email if you want to.

Good luck!
posted by xm at 3:52 PM on February 17, 2011

Response by poster: I doubt that anyone is still reading this, but I wanted to thank you all again for the support you lent me here. I actually managed to pull through the quarter with reasonably good marks, mostly through cold-water tricks and talking to various professors to reduce both my academic and lab workload. Emotionally though, I was a horrible wreck; I broke down and begged my ex to take me back at one point, which he refused, and it wasn't until I could slink back home for break (and learned that he had started dating someone else) that I really was able to deal with the situation.

Now that a few months have passed, however, I'm happier now than I ever could have envisioned in February. In retrospect, breaking up with that guy was the best thing I could have done for myself. I was freed up to do a bunch of crazy things--making a giant fiddler crab costume out of paper-mache for a party, dressing up as a drag queen, spending 16 hours crafting a diorama of Omaha Beach out of cardboard and marshmallow Peeps for UC Scav. More importantly, I realized how fantastic my friends are, how much support I have when I reach out to others. Right now, I'm more self-possessed than I've ever been, and life is pretty wonderful. Thanks so much for helping to make this happen.
posted by flawsekno at 1:55 PM on May 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

Of course we're still reading this. (... via the "recent activity" button that brought this up to the surface again).
Great update, this sounds better than good, and makes this an extra helpful thread for others!
posted by Namlit at 2:48 PM on May 16, 2011

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