I wish I could be a completely different person.
July 23, 2012 11:17 AM   Subscribe

I have so many problems--I'm so far from being the person I want to be --that I don't even know where to start. If you were me, what would you do this week to try to build up to some change?

I am: just your average early 30s lady with a history of childhood abuse and of major trauma in the past 5 years, some of it still ongoing, and with treatment-resistant depression. I have some ADHD symptoms but the psychologist who evaluated me did not consider them significant enough to warrant medication. I am also: already in therapy and on medication; I have also been in dialectical behavior group therapy but can't afford to do it right now. I am also: in graduate school but working a lucrative freelance contract at present.

I just feel like a total mess. I get that none of these things are necessarily "bad" and that most of them, frankly, are habits that have been created while trying very desperately just to survive, but I just wish I could be a different person. Can you help me figure out how to change without feeling like I have to do it all at once?

I have problems with:
Food. I am a compulsive eater and have gained and lost weight. I'm pretty sure that the extra weight I carry is because of my food compulsions, not because of genetics.

Caffeine and tobacco. I drink enormous amounts of coffee and Diet Coke, which fucks up my sleep and my eating. I am quitting smoking (again) this week, because the medication I take makes the physiological symptoms negligible, but I am worried that I will freak out and start again as soon as something difficult comes up.

Work. I am an intense procrastinator and have been my entire life. For example: Downloaded Leechblock for Firefox, spent 3 hours trying to figure out how to game it. Crowed about my success but had wasted 3 hours.

Exercise. I should be doing it for many reasons, but find it difficult to sustain.

Cleanliness. My house is a slovenly mess and I find it difficult to pick up after myself.

Internet. Addicted to the internet. Full stop. (I have several small addictions, I guess.)

Money. I eat out all the time. Partly because my kitchen is gross. Partly because it's a way to feel taken care of. But I can't afford it.

Here's what I wish my life looked like: I have a mostly-tidy home that feels good to wake up in. I get up and go to bed at the same times every day, roughly. I have lots of different routines in my day--cooking for myself, picking up after myself, getting some exercise, doing some yoga or meditation, having a regular work schedule (spend some time on the dissertation; spend some time on freelance work; spend some time building my freelance business every day). I shower and wear clean clothes every day. I remember to take all my meds every day. I don't rush to meet deadlines. I read and teach myself my musical instrument and maybe do a little crafting for fun. I eat mostly whole foods I've prepared myself.

It all sounds nice, and it all sounds like a life I will never have--like it would require being a completely different person. Is that true? I don't think I want all that much. I just don't know where to start. I want to be able to tell a different story about myself, but sometimes that seems impossible.

So. Where would you start?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (44 answers total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
Exercise! Easer said then done, I know, but I always feel so much better about my self and more focused. Try differnt things, running, basketball, biking, even just a brisk walk. You might find something you actualy enjoy.

Good luck.
posted by d4nj450n at 11:22 AM on July 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

Pick one thing and start there. You can't do it all at once.

Many people who have issues with compulsive eating find that Overeaters Anonymous helps them. It is free. The works of Geneen Roth are also helpful to many people; you can find them at most libraries, or for super cheap second hand.

Many people who have issues with keeping their home clean and organized find that Unfuck Your Habitat helps them. Also free.

Can I also recommend Facing Codependence by Mellody, Miller, and Miller? It can be really helpful in highlighting where you might feel you don't "deserve" to have a serene and self-respecting life.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:24 AM on July 23, 2012 [6 favorites]

I would start by talking again to my head-med doctor about medication for ADHD, emphasizing the ways that the ADHD-like symptoms are interfering with your ability to function and to create the sort of environment where you can effectively work on your depression issues. Because untreated ADHD and the resulting chaos in and of itself is depressing as fuck and can make you feel utterly incompetent at life.
posted by drlith at 11:26 AM on July 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Personally, I'd start with the tidy home, because cleaning your home would have the most positive spillover: physical activity, cooking at home, positive outlet for procrastination, etc. How much of a slovenly mess are we talking about? Are you comfortable (emotionally and financially) with hiring a maid service, even if it's a one-time thing?

You don't need to go cold turkey on all of your bad habits. For example, you could make a compromise such as "I'm allowed to eat out if it's more than X miles away and I walk there".
posted by acidic at 11:26 AM on July 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

Cleaning house is a great place to start. Top to bottom, back to front. And make it really easy on yourself: Hire someone. Best damn $200 I've ever spent. Just having it out of the way can help you really see what else needs to be done, and the effects will last a while. Do one cleaning chore (or maybe two) per day after that; don't save 'cleaning' for it's own nebulous time some afternoon off. It'll never get done that way. But getting the big mess out of the way will help give you the room to develop better habits.

Exercise is a great next step. It will make your body feel better, which will help your mind work better. Once you start exercising you'll have a reason to cook for yourself and eat better. You'll have a reason to quit caffeine and smokes, so you won't have to fret about a little downswing here or there plunging you back into addiction. (Anyway, exercise is addicting and makes a halfway decent replacement. Just don't over-do it.)
posted by carsonb at 11:30 AM on July 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

Start small. Start really, really small.

Right now things look overwhelming and big because you're looking at the whole big picture and you can't do it all at once. This is gonna take time; which makes sense, because it took time to get you here.

But fortunately, starting small is a) easy, and b) can snowball into more goodness.

You started right off bang with the state of your home, and that may be an easy place to start. There's a teach-myself-housekeeping system called FlyLady that does indeed start small; you may want to just look that over and get a feel for her approach. Her tone can be a little off-puttingly cheesy (at least, I found it that way), but - boy, she's right that starting small and going with baby steps at first is the way to do it. Seriously, the only thing she says to do on your first day is clean your sink, and that's it.

I'm not crazy about her tone, but her logic is sound; when I'm feeling overwhelmed like that I will pick one task and just do it. And when the rest of my life is getting chaotic, I ground myself by focusing on small things, like "okay, I will clean just my bathroom and that's it," or "okay, I will make one really good dinner for myself and I'll just worry about cleaning the dishes tomorrow" or "okay, I'll get takeout, but I'm still going to wash the dishes." Start like that - pick ONE thing that ou're going to do right now. And just do it. It will be the one little thing that is in control right now. And then get used to staying on top of that - everything else may be crazy, but by God, your bathroom is CLEAN, man. ...And then as you get that under control, then you can just gradually branch out.

The other reason why this works, is that it is something you are doing strictly for you. Another thing I've recommended in cases like this is to start with really immediate sensory comforts. Take a few minutes to think about what YOU personally think would make the world's absolute most comfortable bed - and then make those changes to your bed. Maybe you want new sheets, maybe you want to raise it off the floor a bit, maybe you want a mattress topper, maybe you just want to move it across the room so the light doens't hit you in the face in the morning. Whatever. It is your bed, and you are going to make it the absolute best bed in the whole damn world because you deserve the best bed in the world, dammit. And then - once you've done that, every morning right before you get up and every night before you go to sleep, just take a few minutes and...enjoy the tactile comfort of your bed because it is the world's best bed. Look forward to "goodie I get to sleep in the world's absolute best bed tonight". (I still do this sometimes -- seriously, I really like how my mattress is exactly as firm as I need it to be.)

Or think about ONE food thing that you want to learn how to make, and get really, really good at just that one thing. And then every once in a while, treat yourself to that World's Most Perfect Version Of [blank]. Make it exactly and specifically the way YOU like it.

These little baby steps will reinforce for yourself the fact that you DESERVE to have these things. And from that foundation you can build on to other things; still moving in the baby steps, but coming from more and more of a place of things being under control each time.

Good luck. You CAN do this.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:32 AM on July 23, 2012 [8 favorites]

Do you have a best friend or significant other? Do you have friends?

I'm a form believer that you can't change yourself in a vacuum. You need the pressure relief of good and healthy relationships that make change an opportunity, not a weight that fills you with more doubt and fear or feelings of failure.
posted by discopolo at 11:32 AM on July 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

*firm believer, not form believer.
posted by discopolo at 11:33 AM on July 23, 2012

Yeah, I totally forgot that asking for help should work its way in there too.

AskMe is, of course, a great place to start. But having one or two or more people you can call for help if you need it, whether it's coming over to clean the big clean with you, having you over for dinner when you just can't cook for yourself that night, or being on the other end of the phone when the cigarettes start to sound good again is nigh irreplaceable.

If relationships is somewhere further down on your list of things to work on too, though, I understand. Hire the maid.
posted by carsonb at 11:36 AM on July 23, 2012

Here's an idea: pick up one piece of discarded paper from somewhere in your home. Make a paper airplane out of it, and toss it into your kitchen, Wherever it lands, clean that little area. That way you've gotten started, but without having to deal with the difficult step of deciding where to start. It doesn't really matter where you start, it matters that you start. Anywhere will do.

Other thoughts: you mention abuse and trauma, some of which is still ongoing?!? You should probably do whatever you can to change that situation first. Everything else will get so much easier when you don't have to be diverting so much of your resources to survival.

A good place to start for a lot of your goals would be to sign up for (+ go to) a gentle beginners' yoga class. It helps you build strength, a sense of control in your life, and a better relationship with your body, and it's easy and pleasurable.

Your vision for yourself is very realistic, and lovely. You'll get there.
posted by Corvid at 11:42 AM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Compulsive eater? Have food that requires preparation to eat it. The easiest way to stop snacking is to not have snack food in the house.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 11:46 AM on July 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Work on the things that are the easiest to change. For me, I think that things on your list that are the easiest to change immediately are about your house being in order. Clean up your house, get your kitchen in order. Then you can go to the grocery store and buy things to make food for yourself.

Maybe invite someone over for dinner once a week if it will cause you to keep things in order for their arrival at first.

Get out of the house, too. Take a class (for me it was improv, but if you're looking for excersize, then perhaps a walking group or birders or something outdoors). Meet people. This will get you off the internet more.

Give yourself permission to enjoy yourself. Enjoy what's fun for you.
posted by inturnaround at 11:47 AM on July 23, 2012

Caffeine is the easiest of these things to deal with. Though I never drank any soda, I couldn't function without coffee for most of my life. Then it started making me dizzy, so I had to give it up. Now I don't (physically) miss caffeine at all. I wouldn't advise you to just up and quit, but start, tomorrow, cutting your intake in half. After a week of that, cut it in half again. And so on. You can just replace 1/2, 3/4, etc, of each cup of coffee with decaf, and slowly cut down on soda until it's a rare (or never) thing. If you do it gradually, there should be no withdrawal. Then you can get that out of the way and deal with the harder problems.

Another relatively easy thing is cleaning. It may be a huge pain the first time, but you'll feel like you really accomplished something. Plus maintaining an area once it's clean is so much easier than waiting till it's a mess.

Oh, also, I know that when diet and/or take-out food issues come up, everyone usually mentions getting really into food and learning to cook and how it's so much fun. And that may turn out to be the case for you too. But if that feels like a lot of pressure compared with just eating out, remember that you can eat mostly whole foods you prepare yourself without really cooking. Cut vegetables into bowl, pour olive oil, vinegar, lemon juice over them. Or cook pre-cut chicken breast in pan, heat frozen vegetables in pot, combine. Or wash berries, place in greek yogurt container, eat. That kind of thing.

Good luck.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 11:49 AM on July 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

I really like the UnFuck Your Habitat tumblr. They post tips and tasks everyday.
posted by spunweb at 11:50 AM on July 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

I remember to take all my meds every day.

Here's how I do this: I insist with all of of my doctors/psychiatrists that the only way I can be meds-compliant AT ALL is if I take everything only once a day, and that it has to be at night. Then I have the pharmacy blister-pack all of my meds (well, as many as will fit), and then I only have to pop out one day's worth of meds at bedtime-- and since a couple of them are for sleep (and I can't sleep otherwise), there's a built-in incentive for taking them every night.
posted by mireille at 11:51 AM on July 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Always, always start with sleep.
posted by leigh1 at 11:53 AM on July 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Here's where I started - I instituted a 15 minute cleanup as soon as I walk in the door after work (or after going out), every day, no exceptions. My apartment is very small and it is now sparkling - so much so that 15 minutes is almost too long. I'm thinking about reducing the 15 minutes to 10 and adding 10 minutes of light exercise.

The other benefit of having an arriving-home routine is it short-circuits the automatic impulse to flop on the bed or couch with my laptop. When I do that, suddenly the whole night is gone and my brain is still fuzzy and I've gotten nothing done and feel terrible.

So I recommend have an arriving-home routine of something not-too-difficult - whether that's making a quick dinner or doing some exercises or cleaning up the house.
posted by valeries at 12:04 PM on July 23, 2012 [14 favorites]

ABC: always be cleaning. A messy house is daunting because the clean up seems like a huge job, which is an easy victim of procrastination.

Keeping a clean house doesn't mean constantly doing the big job, it means constantly doing little jobs. Take a glass to the kitchen to put in the dishwasher. Run the dishwasher. Wipe the counter. Put a few items away. The house is never show-perfect, but once you develop the habit of constantly taking care of one or two things, the overall effect is neatness and a feeling of cleanliness and control and not being overwhelmed by cleaning to be done.

This is good for two reasons: It's easy to win at small tasks, which builds up a virtuous cycle of making a small improvement, feeling good about it, and so having the energy to make more small (or slightly larger) improvements; and it's tangible. A little bit cleaner is a little bit cleaner, and a half hour doing a bunch of low-hanging tasks can make a really noticeable improvement.

It also requires some physical effort on your part, which counts as a sort of low grade exercise that can jump start that cycle as well.

Look around you. Find a single cleaning task that you can take care of in one minute, and do it. That's how it starts, and how it keeps going. Chip away at the cleaning for this week, and you'll be amazed at the extremely visible difference in your surroundings and your life.
posted by fatbird at 12:07 PM on July 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

I so get what you're saying here. Please remember that every small positive step - even in a day filled with nothingness and despair and failure - is still really really worth it.

I would start with cleaning a SMALL PLACE in your house. FlyLady is good for this for some people, but she exhausts me. When my sisters come over to help, we focus on doing exactly one small area. I think next time is my "dining room table" - we periodically have to take all the things off of it and put them where they belong. It's a Norden table from IKEA, to get an idea of what I mean by "small." Maybe 5 square feet? We ignore the stuff on the chairs next to the table, we ignore the stuff underneath the table, etc.

If you have a friend you can bring into your place, get them to come help you do it. Afterwards, go to a grocery store and get stuff to make into a picnic, or go to the friend's house to make food there.

I recommend starting with a DRY area of MOSTLY TRASH. This is the easiest way to not feel grossed out/embarrassed, not create more work for yourself (giant piles of things to put away in other places,) and constantly see the results of your success (it's too easy to ignore your kitchen, whether clean or not.)

For the meds compliance thing, I bought a bunch of these things. They sit by my alarm clock and so as soon as I wake up (hitting the alarm clock) I hit the box of pills and I am reminded to take my morning doses. At night, I see the box when I'm setting the alarm up, and I take my evening doses. I also have the little army of as-yet-untaken-pills boxes sitting in a really obvious place in my bedroom, which I pass by in order to get into bed. I almost always remember (not always, just almost always) to put the next day's box by my alarm. You'll want to go to a big box store or major pharmacy and look at the different kinds of pill boxes available, in person. Both because the size matters (few single-day pill sorters with just and both AM/PM had chambers large enough for my schedule) and because Amazon charges twice as much as what you'll pay anywhere else.

You may also want to consider either NAMI or another free support group. Your university mental health services may have a few.
posted by Fee Phi Faux Phumb I Smell t'Socks o' a Puppetman! at 12:08 PM on July 23, 2012

I forgot where I read this recommendation, but I've been using it for a kickstart to get back into any kind of exercise if I feel like I've been too sedentary. Basically, I set the alarm on my phone for 15 minutes (or even 10), walk out the door, and when the alarm goes off, I head back. That's it. No trying to walk extra-fast to make it a workout, no monitoring my breath or heart rate or anything, just walk 10-15 minutes there and back. That way I'm not wrangling with special clothes or changing clothes or dealing with specialized equipment or any of those things that make exercising no fun. And it is a relatively pain-free way to get in a 20-30 minute walk, which is a big deal when you feel like any exercise is misery.
posted by Neely O'Hara at 12:17 PM on July 23, 2012 [7 favorites]

I'm going to suggest two things.
  • Take one walk every day. Just go around your block. It will probably take you 20 minutes. (I just saw Neely O'Hara's advice about setting a timer. That's brilliant.) You can also make two playlists on your iPod or smartphone, four songs out, another playlist with 4 songs to get you home! Songs you really love!)
  • Clean some portion of your kitchen. The area around the sink is a good bet, but you might prefer taking out the trash and sweeping and mopping. You can break that down. Take out the kitchen trash today, sweep tomorrow, and mop the next day.
OK, a third. Give yourself permission to buy a huge package of paper plates, disposable cups, and plastic silverware. That way, you can eat healthy meals at home without having to tackle the kitchen all at once. While you're working on the kitchen and putting all the clean dishes away, you can just throw the disposable dishes out and only have to worry about cleaning up any newly dirtied pots/pans/spatulas/serving spoons.

Also give yourself permission to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches all week (or one day a week for a few weeks) to "save up" enough money to invest in 3 hours of time with a house cleaner. Having someone help you is nothing to be ashamed of, and can give you the motivation to keep doing the small daily things to maintain. I know getting over the mountain of "it's awful and I can't believe I let it get this way!" can be so intimidating. Having a fresh slate will help.

Yes. You are investing in yourself, and you are worth it. So so worth it.
posted by bilabial at 12:23 PM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

I skipped all the other answers because you said this:

I am quitting smoking (again) this week, because the medication I take makes the physiological symptoms negligible, but I am worried that I will freak out and start again as soon as something difficult comes up.

If you are definitely committing to this attempt to quit, then don't try to do anything else right now in terms of self-improvement. It's going to take all the energy you have. However, if you do it successfully - and I speak from experience - it will make you intensely proud of yourself for the rest of your life, because it is one of the hardest things you'll ever do, yet it makes the biggest difference. It is also probably your most critical habit in need of changing.

If you can manage this, in just a few weeks or months:

-you'll have more energy because you'll be getting more oxygen
-you will no longer hate on yourself every hour and a half because you see yourself lighting up
-you will smell and look better
-your relationship with your body will likely change. Exercise is a great use of the excess nervous energy you may find you have, and walking or jogging will help distract you as well as give your body an endorphin life.

It's a very hard thing to do - since you've tried it before, you know. On average it takes smokers 7 serious tries to successfully quit - some achieve it in fewer tries, some more, but all that matters is keeping on trying, because you learn something new each time that helps you do better next time.

What helped me quit after 13 years was Freedom From Smoking - an online community of the American Lung Association that is full of incredibly good research-based advice and first-hand experience. It comes with a step-by-step phased plan for quitting, a message board and a built-in cohort of people quitting at the same time as you, so there's tons of community support and the wonderful distraction that comes with reading and writing about your and others' experience.

I'm serious - if you're quitting smoking, give that your all and don't ask anything else of yourself this week or for a few more weeks. It is one of the biggest life changes you can make, and deserves your full attention.

If you're not going to quit smoking, then go ahead and choose something else from your list. But really, don't try to quit smoking AND change another difficult habit at once. That's a great way for both efforts to fail and for you to feel bad again. Give it your best shot, and if you don't make it, try again.
posted by Miko at 12:25 PM on July 23, 2012 [5 favorites]

Ok, based on what you wish your life looked like, I'm going to devise a daily schedule for you. I hope this isn't too presumptuous!

Since you want to work on your dissertation, freelance work and building your business everyday, I'm going to start with a 9 to 5 workday. (Or if you want, 8 to 4, or 10 to 6, or 8 to 6, you get the idea. The point is, you have a workday.) You can break down your day like this:

9 am to 12 pm: freelance work
12 pm to 1 pm: lunch and cook for yourself
1 to 2 pm: build business
2 to 5 pm: dissertation

During your workday:
Use the pomodoro technique to stay focused. I downloaded an app to my android phone so I work for 25 mins and break for 5 mins. In those 5 mins I'm doing little exercises, like squats, stretches and walking around a bit. I can get up to 8 to 10 pomodoros in a day; that means eight 5-min breaks = 40 mins of exercise, which is nothing to sneeze at. Plus it helps to move around while you're working. Also drink water/have a healthy snack during your workday. I did this around 11 am, and around 2 or 3 pm.

Before your workday starts:
8 am: wake up, shower, breakfast (no coffee or soda, drink water!), take meds, get dressed (even though you're working at home. It helps you to get into the "I gotta do work" mindset).

End of the workday:
5 pm to 5:45 pm: yoga/meditation.
5:45 pm to 6 pm: do some clean up. (you can get a lot done in 15 mins, try it!)
6 pm to 7 pm: dinner.
7 pm to 7:30 pm: exercise: walk around the block or whatever exercise you choose to do.
7:30 pm: free time. work on your music and do crafting.
10 pm: get ready for bed (brush teeth, wash face, etc.).

This is only my suggestion; feel free to modify or discard (maybe you want to shower and take meds before bed, I dunno). The next step is to do the things that enable these things, like grocery shopping and laundry, which I suggest doing on the weekend. I also like the idea of hiring a cleaner on a one-time basis to get your house clean and all you have to do is maintain it. I think I would make that my first step: start looking into hiring a cleaner (get recommendations from friends, look on craigslist).
posted by foxjacket at 12:30 PM on July 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

Seconding Unfuck Your Habitat. It breaks things down into small, manageable chunks so you don't get overwhelmed. Feeling better about your living space can help lift your mood.

I will also suggest Health Month. You give yourself a few rules (up to three for free, or you can get sponsored, but three is good place to start.) There is a MetaFilter team that is super supportive. It's a great way to get good habits firmly set. Your rules can be easy or hard, ranging from "drink X glasses of water per day" or "floss teeth" to "no cigarettes" (and Miko is right, if you are taking that on, give it your full focus at first.)
posted by ambrosia at 12:33 PM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

I really enjoyed doing The Apartment Therapy 8 Step Home Cure. It's a week-by-week plan for cleaning up and organizing your home, but it also touches on how to use your home to improve the quality of your life. (There's even a basic roast chicken recipe.) It helped me get rid of a lot of clutter and make my space a lot more open and livable. Some before-and-after pics of spaces from some folks here.
posted by mochapickle at 12:48 PM on July 23, 2012

I would start with the following:

1- UNPLUG the internet. This will allow me some MUCH NEEDED downtime and the ability to think without distraction.

2- Clean up the kitchen. Just seeing it clean and usable would motivate me to do at least a little bit of cooking for myself.

3- Throw out all the soda. There is zero nutional value in it, and I can drink water when I get thirsty.

After that, I would then set up a plan of small goals I'd like to accomplish. Now that the kitchen is clean, I feel like maybe I can work on another part of the house. After the house is in a little bit of better order, then I can work on getting myself straightened out some more.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step...
posted by eas98 at 12:53 PM on July 23, 2012

You could be me. Except I am a dude, and ten years older than you. Some of these answers are great, they really are, but they come from pretty, well-put-together people who are focused and ambitious and not at all like us. When you are asking for help, you don't want to hear from someone who has never faced what you are going through. That is sort of like a fish offering you advice on how to ride a bicycle. You really want to hear from the guy who is as messed up as you are (that's me). My brain is wired just like yours, and my life has that same inexorable trajectory down, but I am a little farther along, and I've found a few things that help people who are put together the same way we are.

First off, as others have wisely said, stop thinking about the big stuff. I know it's hard (may be impossible, really), but just accept that all those things you wrote about exercise and internet and budgets-- they are all right, you have the correct idea. Now forget that stuff. You think you need a big five-year-plan to turn your life around. You don't. What you need worse, and something that will help you out much more, is a plan for the next five minutes. I'm serious, here. My own coping mechanisms for the same behaviors are successful when I concentrate on "right now" and making small incremental changes to improve things today. So then, on to brass tacks. Here are some of my coping mechanisms. A lot of them focus on getting those little bursts of inspiration and motivation that inspire you to break that passive procrastination cycle:

1. Here is a great little essay in the form of an advice column, written by Heather Havrilesky. Who knew that years later the mean girl from suck.com would turn into such a fantastic and compassionate writer? Take note, the guy asking for help tellingly calls himself "Being Bad Being Me". You feel like you could have written that, too. In her reply, one of the things Havrilesky recommends is Neil Fiore's book "The Now Habit" And it is a great book for understanding the behaviors we instinctively have that hurt us. You should definitely read it, but it isn't one of those immediate aids that I'm talking about. That essay is. I liked it so much I reformatted her answer, and printed it onto a 4x6 index card, which went into the pocket of my uniform (I was in the military when I first read it). I had to shrink the text down to tiny tiny, but I could still read those words whenever I needed that little boost to throw off my chains. That essay helped me through a lot of tough times. I felt like it was written just for me, and I think you will, too. Am I being clear on how helpful it was? I thought those words were so good I took them into combat with me.

2. This one is more practical. Get yourself one of these timers. Not something similiar. Buy that model. It's only $13. It is simple, but the effect it has had on my life has been incredible. Just a simple cube, place it with time limit you want facing up, and in 5, 15, 20 or 60 minutes you get a loud alarm. Usually for me, that alarm is telling me to stop playing Fallout and to get back to work. It is simple, but it can work wonders. Use this alarm to break up your bad habits. I thought maybe there was a Cool Tools entry about it, but I can't find it at the moment. Anyway, that little cube is a surprisingly powerful weapon for people like us trying to do the right thing.

3. Take 12 minutes of your life and watch this TED talk by former Harvard psychologist Shawn Achor. The gist of it is that working hard doesn't make you happier. Instead, being happier lets you work harder. And the great thing is that there are some things that you can do right now to make your self happier and change your bad habits. He has a book, too, of course, and it is a good one. But for now, just watch this talk, and come back and watch it again when you need that push or boost. I've seen it many times, and it still helps me out.

4. Here is another TED talk, this one by Jane McGonigal, who talks about how she used her experience as a video game designer to help her recover from depression and suicidal thoughts following a brain injury. Again, like Shawn Achors, Heather Havrilesky and myself, she focuses on things you can do right now that will give you that tiny course correction with just enough strength to break that bad procrastination habit and do something constructive.

5. Many people have recommended flylady.net, which has a similar outlook and pragmatic approach. It will start you out with just one thing at a time. Hmm, are you seeing the pattern here?

6. Finally, the people who say it all gets better when you have friends and family to support you are right. Unfortunately, if you are like me, you are terrible at making and keeping friends, and your family is far away and fraught with very mixed emotions. But it is true. If you have friends, try to be a part of their lives, and help them out, and your own problems become less. If you don't, or you just need something a little extra, you can always send me a message here on metafilter, and I'll do what I can to help.

Good luck with your journey. Making the effort to make things better is worth the pain that comes. Trust me-- I'm ten years ahead of you on this same track. Take care of yourself!
posted by seasparrow at 1:55 PM on July 23, 2012 [38 favorites]

Some of these answers are great, they really are, but they come from pretty, well-put-together people who are focused and ambitious and not at all like us. When you are asking for help, you don't want to hear from someone who has never faced what you are going through.

Wait, what? That's quite the assumption. I didn't even attempt to answer any of the other points because it'd be hypocritical of me. I remain a work in progress but can relate to all of the OP's concerns and want the same kind of life. In fact the reason I focused on the meds aspect was because I believe it is 100% the very first step that can positively impact all of the other concerns, and because it's the one thing I've sorted out for myself. Many others gave advice from their own experiences-- a lot like seasparrow, they are just further down the same track.

OP, seasparrow gives some excellent advice too but I hope you won't discount the advice that others gave before him as invalid-- I'd hazard a guess that (like me) it's the absolute relatable-ness of your question that's encouraged the replies you've gotten in general.
posted by mireille at 2:20 PM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yes, mireille is right. I didn't mean to tell you to discount anyone else's advice, and I am truly sorry if anyone took it that way. I only meant to say that I feel where you are at. By all means, listen to everyone and decide for yourself. I was just making the point that sometimes Professional Cello Players don't give the best advice on how to fix your Harley Davidson motorcycle. Then again, maybe they do.
posted by seasparrow at 2:43 PM on July 23, 2012

I think maybe printing out this question and taking it to an ADHD specialist will better inform whether you should be on meds for that or not.

I get that depression and trauma can have similar seeming effects, but, damn, it sounds to me like you're saying "the optician said I was nearsighted but not enough to need glasses. Everything always looks big and fuzzy and over there, and I'm too scared to drive a car like a grow up for some reason, and I suck at taking notes from the blackboard in class, I'm not even enjoying my favourite TV shows because they just look like a bunch of blobs talking to some other blobs, and my therapist says they're a Rorschach test representing my childhood parakeet trauma. How can I tackle this gigantic global mess? Please write big so I can see the replies."

I mean if you'd written that, maybe glasses aren't the whole answer, but still. See where I'm heading with this?
posted by tel3path at 4:04 PM on July 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

Advice, in order:

1. Commit one hour each day to making improvements. 30 minutes of walking, 30 minutes of cleaning up.

2. Grab a large trash bag and bag up one thing a day to give away. Once a week, take that sucker to Goodwill and start a new bag.

3. PODCASTS. Yep, that's the secret. Load up a bunch of stuff you're interested in and listen to it while you walk and clean. It makes the time go by so much faster.

4. Pick one room at a time to clean up, and only spend the 30 minutes per day doing it. You'll see a ton of improvement after just one week.

Good luck! You are in control of your life and you can make it whatever you want it to be.
posted by raisingsand at 4:10 PM on July 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

Just on the caffeine addiction: wean yourself. Drink 3 cups of coffee a day? Drop to 2 and 1/2 for several days or a week, then 2, etc. or go by 1/4 cup increments. I promise, you won't notice 1/4 cup increments, especially if you trick yourself with decaf.

(I quit caffeine when I was trying to get pregnant. Now I have a 2 month old, and am back to a single cup of black tea in the morning. I found quitting caffeine shockingly easy, and found myself wondering why I ever drank so much of it. Quitting smoking was another story entirely -- one of the hardest things I ever did, and still, 10 years later, one of the things I'm proudest of. It was a complete life changer. I became, and have remained except for the interruption of pregnancy, quite fit. Exercise is a central part of my life and well-being, and never could have been while I smoked.)
posted by kestrel251 at 4:26 PM on July 23, 2012

Do quicky trash runs this worked wonders for me an ex-packrat to end all packrats.

1) Grab a black trash bag, set a timer on anything for e.g. 6 mins or 3 mins or whatever.

2) Grab everything you haven't used in a year and which has no sentimental / sale value.

3) Toss it into this opaque black trash bag.

It's opaque so that you won't keep fishing stuff out, or start browsing through old mags / papers etc only to realize 4 hours later u have done NOTHING and ...well do I need to describe the feeling to you?

4) So toss everything as per step 2, one by one into the opaque black bag, and don't stop till the timer goes off - WHEN the timer goes off, close the bag up and go to wherever you throw your trash (outside the house), and THROW IT!!!

5) Come back in the house feeling oddly happy.

Your life will improve through this small trick.
posted by ravingOak at 5:08 PM on July 23, 2012

I think it's great that you have an ideal life in mind! That positive visualization can be really helpful. I agree that starting small, with one or two things, might be the least overwhelming.

I would suggest daily walking as a way to incorporate movement into your day. My boyfriend and I have a workout plan that involves cardio and pushups/situps/squats each day (the idea was to do it for a month but we're continuing on); we're doing it together even though we don't always exercise together. Maybe you know someone who you could do a challenge like this with. My incentive is a new pair of shoes at the beginning and a pair at the end. Perhaps you could incorporate something like that to motivate yourself. It really helps to have someone else in it with you (partly because I don't want to admit that I missed my daily exercise to the other person!)

I'd also suggest, if you decide to start consistent exercise, to buy (if you can afford it) some nice workout clothes. I just got an all black set of stuff from Target (shorts, bra, tank top) which make me feel like Catwoman. A brisk Catwoman walk feels great!

Best of luck to you! You can do this.
posted by sucre at 5:09 PM on July 23, 2012

Couch to 5k is the only exercise programme I have stuck to for more than a week (currently two months in). Easy podcasts that break running down into chunks you can conquer. The NHS has a series but there are others. I find learning to run has improved my life in so many ways that I could not have anticipated, chief among them being to prove to myself that I can set a goal and stick to it.
posted by pink_gorilla at 5:59 PM on July 23, 2012

I'm in a very similar position (drug-resistant depression, PTSD, feeling like I have all the life habits of a depressed person and am not going to get un-depressed unless I change them) and I have started recently with cooking healthy meals. Through Groupon I found out about emeals.com.

They give you a menu for the week, a grocery list for the week and simple recipes each day that don't take long to prepare. They have all kinds of options and many of them are for one or two people. I work from home and I've started cooking every day at 4:30. I have found that this change has inspired other changes, but even without that it is worth it. We're eating better and spending a lot less money.

Now onto Diet Coke and Marlboro Lights :)
posted by orsonet at 6:34 PM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, and there's a game called SuperBetter that can help you achieve goals. I haven't tried it myself but I've heard good things!
posted by sucre at 7:04 PM on July 23, 2012

For me the key word in your post was dissertation.

EVERYONE I know who has done a PhD went through a period of intense procrastination, depression, and other related issues (e.g. the food stuff, the lack of exercise, financial trouble).

1. don't beat yourself up about it. You are doing something very very difficult. It's not surprising if other things need to slide in the meantime.

2. were things better before you started the PhD? Then they will be better again afterwards. Hold onto that.

3. consider seriously whether you want to keep going with the dissertation. Can you take a break for a year or two? Do you really need the degree? Is it worth it to your mental health?
posted by lollusc at 7:10 PM on July 23, 2012

Sometimes, I've found it better for my mental health to hire someone to help me clean, than to go to therapy. And, it usually costs less than a quarter that of a 1 hour therapy session.

Actually, on average, it has been a more useful expense than therapy, but, that makes me feel a little guilty (?!?).

So, what I did - advertised for an organised student, to help me organise and tidy my things for 2 hours on the weekend. They didn't clean without me, they helped me go through my things, throw out clothes I didn't need (which was easier to do when I was paying someone to watch me dither over what to throw out).

Having a healthy habitat, really, really helps my mental state.
From there, clean kitchen leads to being able to cook. Big pots of soup, and freezing batches, and then at least I had good, cheap alternatives to eating out. Learning to cook food that was faster than getting takeout? So, so handy.

Specific advice:
Tobacco - A friend managed to quit with an e-cigarette. Black, with a blue light, quite stylish, lots of vapor flavors, cheaper than cigarettes, and they got back the lung capacity of a non-smoker. Finally, they just quit the e-cig.

Caffeine - Quit it. Go to tea with no sugar, or soft drink with no caffeine. The caffeine and sugar are both pretty terrible. I'd suggest laying off the caffeine entirely, and if you can't cope with day-to-day life on that, go back to your Dr, possibly about ADHD, because that is an awful lot of stimulants (you'd want to quit caffeine if you did have to go on ADHD meds anyway, because it increases the side-effects like twitching, racing heart etc, which you don't want).

Er, despite the variety of advice - focus on one thing at a time. Maybe the cleaning next?

Anyway, look at what you have accomplished - in graduate school, and a 'lucrative freelance contract'. You've mostly got it sorted. I'm about the same age, (very intelligent, but) way less accomplished, however, my depression is much better than it used to be, so I'm actually feeling pretty ok about life. By which I mean, I realise I'm largely a success, whereas before, I would have focused on the stuff I haven't done or accomplished (an undergraduate degree, for starters). I still struggle, but, less so.
Good luck!
posted by Elysum at 7:45 PM on July 23, 2012

Seasparrow, thank you so much for recommending the Heather Havrilesky essay. I'm in a similar position, and it hit so close to home.

"your problems will not be solved by thinking"

I'm going to frame that.
posted by unbearablylight at 12:35 AM on July 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

It all sounds nice, and it all sounds like a life I will never have--like it would require being a completely different person. Is that true?

No, it isn't. What it requires is that you remain you, and develop different habits. That sounds huge and scary, and it is--especially when you feel so buried under the accretion of the way you're doing things now--but the focus should be on changing what you do. Even if that's just a little bit at a time. There's some great advice above, and I hope some of it speaks to you.

Be kind to yourself by not setting your expectations for change too high. A small change refutes the narrative in your head that you'll always live like this.

One tiny small alteration: Wear a pedometer. Pick an arbitrary number of steps and just see whether you take those steps or not. Then try to bump up the number. Regardless of whatever else you do for exercise (and I do think that's key), looking at that number every day puts the focus on the objective number, rather than on the "shoulds" in your head. It's an inconspicuous external reminder of what you achieve.

Do you have a cleaning buddy? Not for the whole house, but for your kitchen. Commit to one day of really, really deep-cleaning your kitchen. It doesn't have to be perfect (and don't look at those magazine pictures, they'll only depress you), just good enough to make it functional. Pick someone who can help you ruthlessly evaluate the tasks. Get takeout and work like hell for one day, together. If you can make your kitchen functional *for you,* you have removed at least some of the barriers to cooking at home and making healthier food.

If you can't work at the task in front of you, go clean the egg tray*. I mean it: some small, stupid task that you put off even though it will only takes five minutes. While you may not be working on what you're supposed to be working on, you are making some small improvement somewhere else in your life.

You are capable of doing things differently. Small changes in what you do will help get you somewhere that's not where you are now. Go to it. Good luck, anon., and be kind to yourself.

* Egg tray theory courtesy of a long-ago friend who was putting off her dissertation-writing.
posted by MonkeyToes at 12:55 AM on July 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

So. Where would you start?

Strand yourself far enough from home to make the trip home beneficial. Take public transport to the stranding spot or have someone drop you off. You could do this on foot or take your bike along for the stranding and the trip home. Make sure you take no bad stuff with you (no snacks, no caffeine, no smokes, just plain water) and no way to buy such things along the way (no money). Now you are out of the house, getting fresh air and exercise, not smoking or eating, not messing about on the internet, and you can't just back out of it because you are X miles or Y hours from home. Take a phone or a friend if you really think you need to for safety, but otherwise turn off the phone and turn off your mouth and focus on where you are and what you're doing, which is clearing your mind and body.

Do that as frequently as possible. Come home feeling better.
posted by pracowity at 2:25 AM on July 24, 2012

I spent a considerable period (a few years) during my late 20s in a mind-fucking, suicidal depression that culminated in losing my job, my best friend, and finding out the guy that I'd been involved with for almost six years was a lying and cheating sack of shit. I spent several months completely blanked in depression and during that period every bad habit that i'd been sort of on top of prior to that point grew exponentially out of control. People talk about 'hitting rock bottom' and I thought it was sort of bs before that point, but something did switch on (or off) inside of me after a particularly nasty hangover one morning, and I decided to quit smoking. At the time I smoked a lot of weed, too; I decided I was going to quit that as well. I had no other goals other than that. I didn't think about the future; I didn't think about whether or not it would work; I fixated entirely on not smoking. If I felt the urge to smoke, I'd take a shower and lay in the bottom until the hot water ran out. Not smoking was my only goal.

A month later I didn't feel much better, depression-wise, but I was at least thinking more clearly. I decided to finish an exam that I'd bailed on years earlier, which would allow me to complete a degree I no longer cared about. I didn't need to do it, but the shame of not doing it before had always been a part of me, and it seemed like it was accomplishable since I wasn't working and didn't want to talk to anybody at the time. I spent the next month studying for the exam. I didn't need to study, but I decided that I was only going to take it once and not flunk it, and if I studied I wouldn't have an excuse if I did screw up somehow. Besides, it gave me something to focus on when I felt like screaming at my roommate for smoking. I aced the test at the end of the month, which allowed me to file for the degree, and gave me a boost of self-confidence that I wasn't expecting. It didn't make me feel 'better' in terms of the depression, but it made me feel more confident.

The day after I did the exam, I got the first call back on a job in something like seven months. Over the next month, I went through several rounds of interviews (which included a lot of research on topics I had never worked with before). I didn't think I'd get the job, but I was hopeful, and I didn't want any excuse to beat myself up if I didn't get it, so I pushed myself really hard to learn. I got the job and started four months to the day after I decided to quit smoking.

Two months into my job, after my finances had sort of stabilized, I still didn't feel that great. Things had improved but I was still depressed. I decided to take up cycling. I hadn't ridden a bike in 17 years and had no idea what I was doing, but I took the same tactic that I had with everything else before: I focused on it singularly and I pushed myself as hard as I could. Within three months I'd done a century, built three bikes from parts, and lost 20lbs.

My mantra since that time has been small fires create larger fires. It's something Werner Herzog said in an interview, and I repeat it to myself so many times a day I should probably get it tattooed on my forearm or something. The cumulative force of my previous victories combined with singular focus on one thing at a time is what led me out of my hole. I'd made infinite lists and promises and plans to myself before that but nothing worked. Only the grim acceptance that I alone was responsible for resolving my problems and needs, and doggedly fixating on them one at a time with limited expectations other than 'I will try my hardest so I can do my best, that is all I can do'.

Good luck.
posted by par court at 3:05 AM on July 24, 2012 [11 favorites]

I can't recommend this book enough.

This is a bit trite - but for some reason it has helped me to think about a parent saying all of the things that my internal monologue says to me to their child. It almost always stops the cycle of berating because I know that kids who are told over and over again that they can't do something, or can't change or that they're an idiot have a much harder time succeeding...as well they should. Looking at the sink full of dirty dishes and then repeating to myself that I'm a slob - definitely doesn't make me want to wash a sink full of dishes!

The book helped me to realize how to temper the self-criticism in a very workable way. The author also has two TED talks. One on the power of vulnerability and one on shame both of which speak to why we are so hard on ourselves and how to start to change it.

Anyway, it's a short read and I found it very helpful. Brene is also an academic so I feel like she gets at the resistance to "self-help" from an academic perspective rather than from the cheerleader perspective and I find that refreshing.

Good luck.
posted by jasbet07 at 5:02 PM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

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