Why can't I just stay in Neverland
October 14, 2012 4:30 AM   Subscribe

University was the best experience of my life. Now it's over, and the post-college depression is hitting me hard. How do I navigate the murky depths of the early 20s-crisis?

I graduated this summer with a bachelors and masters, and moved back to my parental home. A month ago I started as an (unpaid) intern at a very high-profile public organisation (e.g. government, NGO, thinktank etc) while also applying for med school for 2013. I get on very well with my parents, who are letting me live rent-free, and have agreed to partially (or fully) finance med school if I get in; if I don't, I also have leads for a potentially good career related to my current internship. Overall, I know I have a lot to be thankful for, and that I have no right to feel unfulfilled or even remotely discontent.

But I feel myself increasingly asking, 'is this it? Is this going to be the baseline for the rest of my life?'. For me, university was life-changing. I had no real friends all through school, partly from being a foreigner in a predominantly white tiny town, and I just thought the superficiality was just what (non-family) human interactions were like. Then, I went to university, and met people I connected at a level I never knew were possible; they really shaped the way I saw myself and about others. I experienced things I never thought I would, made mistakes, and opened my eyes to how diverse life can be. Before graduation, I felt that the world was open to me - that it was full of possibilities, inspiration, and hope for the unknown.

Now… it's as though the last 4 years never happened, and I've woken up back to the mundane world I inhabited until I was 18. I spend 8 hours staring at a computer, making small talk with colleagues (but who are never going to be your friends). The 2.5 hours spent on a dirty metro every day really drains me, and when I come home I have no energy to do anything fun or productive. I can see myself being in the same place, doing the same thing a few months, a few years, down the line. I feel closed in with predictability and repetition, and I feel that even if I find new jobs in the future, it will just be a new cycle of predictability that will continue until I retire. It saddens me that I will never regain the same spontaneity, immediacy, vitality and carefree life I had at university. I know I'll get used to it after a while, and eventually find a kind of security and confidence in the repetition (and money!) that would help me become a more adjusted adult, etc. But that is probably what scares me the most: that the person I was, or was becoming, will eventually fade and I'll just settle into this new responsible, comfortable adult, not even realising what it is that I had lost.

I guess I'm also feeling the brunt of diminishing friendships. The closest friends I had have all moved abroad semi-permanently this or last year. We skype about once a month, but it's starting to feel like a fragile maintenance rather than advancement of a relationship; it's becoming more and more obvious that we (or at least they) are starting to build new lives that I'm not part of, and eventually our friendship will dwindle into a nice memory. Even for other friends that are in the same country, the difference in dynamic - from living together and staying up all night talking, to seeing each other once a fortnight for a few hours - is really making me lonely. I wonder whether life is really just a series of situational and replaceable friendships. I've been taking two evening classes in an effort to make new friends, but the wall of 'friendly acquaintance' feels higher than expected - it feels almost intrusive, when everyone seems to have such busy and established lives with SOs/longstanding friends etc already.

Living with parents is pleasant, but I really miss having the independence and full control over every aspect of my life - at home, I can't tread on my mother's rules, I can't cook my own meals, and I feel like a dependent again. Then I feel pathetic, because I am a dependent as I'm not earning yet, and will likely stay their dependent if I get into med school. I am grateful for their generosity, and I know that by applying to grad school I had made that choice myself - but the lack of disposable income, the feeling of obligation I have to my parents and the distance of my house from the centre makes me feel guilty for even trying to pursue a social/life at all. Recently, my quota of meaningful human connections have diminished into my parents, and I feel that I am regressing in my development as a human being.

I'm sorry. I realise I'm being melodramatic, whiny, and immature; I understand it's a textbook situation of the post-college/early 20s crisis, and I should just shut up and get on with it. I don't want to be one of those people who say that university was the best time of their life and constantly bemoan about work; I want to be the person who always maintain energy, optimism, and freshness about life. What can I do to change my mindset? Secondly, is there anything I can do on a practical level to better my situation (considering my lack of money/independence/friends)? I have always wanted to travel - but it's looking pretty unlikely, with my (current and foreseeable) lack of money. It also feels difficult to get a paid job and move out at this stage, considering my lack of certainty over what I'm going to be doing next year.
posted by pikeandshield to Work & Money (15 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
There are many cultures out there where grown children live their parents, sometimes all their life. So it's not a big deal.

The best cure for mild ennui (I won't call it depression) is making plans, and acting on those plans. Do something. Sounds like you're going to medical school. Focus on that.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:52 AM on October 14, 2012

It gets better!

First off, going from university life to working 9-5 is very very draining. I was a zombie for the first few months - each workday I'd get up, go to work, come home, cook dinner and fall into bed. Even on weekends, I'd spend half my time sleeping. (I also distinctly remember having conversation with friends where they'd ask me something incredibly simple and I'd stare at them in panic because not only did I not know the answer, I didn't even understand the question. Like I said: zombie.) So that's a big part of it. Once you get used to the hours - and you will! - you'll feel much better.

The rest of it, I think, is mostly culture shock ... you have gone from being on your own for however many years it took you to get a bachelors+masters (I'm guessing 5, at least?) to living with your parents again, and it's totally different.

Your parents are probably treating you like you're 18, and (if you're anything like me, anyway) you are probably acting a bit like your 18-year-old self around them. But you don't have to be the same person you were when you left. Why can't you cook your own meals? If you've got the kind of family dynamic where the whole family sits down to dinner, you can probably skip out a few times, or just tell them that you'll be late because [whatever] and not to leave any for you, you'll whip up something when you get back, thank you. Or maybe you can cook dinner for your parents once or twice, they might appreciate that.

Think of it this way, unless your parents contributed 0% of your education so far, you have always been a dependent. The fact that you weren't living with them didn't change that. So you might as well keep doing whatever made you happy while you were at university - going out, seeing friends, whatever. Have a social life, it's okay. If your mother objects (you mention mother's rules, there) see if you can negotiate some sort of middle ground between Not Going Out and Going Out All The Time - periodically check in via text so they know you're alive and thinking of them, say.

And beyond that ... work isn't as boring as Dilbert makes it out to be. You can most definitely find an engaging, vital, interesting career that isn't all just predictability and repetition - in fact my impression is that everything career-track isn't predictable or repetitive at all. In today's day and age, nothing stays static for very long. Sure, you might wind up doing the same thing for a year or two, but then you'll move on. Find a friendly senior person in your chosen field (whether it's med or NGO/government) and ask them to tell you the story of their career so far, from the beginning - you'll likely find it's a much longer and more complicated story than "I graduated and started working here 20 years ago and never stopped." (And if it is, well ... don't follow in that person's footsteps?)

The way I see it is: I spent all that time in university learning how to be an excellent human being - work is when I get to put it in practice.

(Also, you can totally make friends with your colleagues.)
posted by Xany at 5:18 AM on October 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

I think the biggest thing to remember is that, right now, you're in a transitional phase. You've left college, but in a way, you're in a holding pattern until the next part begins. That's ok, but just remember that your current situation isn't forever. Next year you'll be in med school or embarking on your career.

As for the career, I remember feeling the same way. It's really easy to feel that way when you've just graduated and you're doing grunt work. But you're paying your dues now. You're very young (really!) and you'll have lots of different jobs in your life.

The same goes for friendships. I remember feeling similarly after I graduated from college - that I'd never have friends like that again. Silly me. I'm now in my mid-thirties and some of my closest friends are from my twenties. (And yes, most of them were colleagues.)
posted by lunasol at 6:01 AM on October 14, 2012

You should take some time off and travel. Hitch-hiking and hosteling through a foreign country is EXACTLY what you need right now, before the grind of medical school sets in. Now is not the time to "adjust" to 9-5 life. Now is the time to have an adventure, to meet more people, and to see what's out there. You'll get to direct your own life, as you say you want to. You'll get to meet new people and perhaps forge another deep and meaningful relationship. And you'll get the kind of break that can energize you to put your nose to the grindstone when medical school comes around.
posted by parrot_person at 6:06 AM on October 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

The very excellent therapist I saw in my early 20s (my favorite of a number I've worked with) told me that he thought young adults were done an massive disservice by our culture in terms of helping them recognize/deal with what an enormous time of transition that is. He said all the attention gets paid to adolescence as a time of change, when young adulthood is even more so.

You've leveled up, and this level *is* a little harder. You left a very structured environment in which the expectations you needed to meet to advance were clearly evident and the opportunities for socializing were very apparent and prominent. Now you're in an environment that's significantly less so in both cases. It's a huge adjustment to figure out how to find happiness in this new situation.

It sounds like you already somewhat have this in mind, in terms of recognizing it as a problem you're dealing with. But I think you need to give yourself a bit more care in dealing with it. If you had been thrown into the deep end of one of the classes you took senior year as a freshman, would you have faulted yourself for not getting the material? Probably not - there were prerequisites that helped prepare you to get there. Likewise, don't beat yourself up for feeling unmoored in this totally new situation you've never dealt with before. It's normal to feel that way, and it'll take time to adjust.

It is true that making and keeping friends after college can be more difficult, because you don't have as many built-in opportunities for it as you did then. And it sounds like you're doing things to work on that by taking classes. That's a great start. Things might happen more slowly in this regard now, so keep at those sorts of efforts, even if they don't yield fruit right away.

Speaking of those classes, a good thing about the life stage you're in now is that it's a great time to pick up almost any new interest you choose. Try out some things you've never done before that you've always been interested in, and give a second look to things that you think are "not for you." Spend those 2.5 hours on the metro reading a book in an area you know nothing about. You might be surprised.

The truth is, enriching your post-college life to the degree it was when you were a student is dependent on your effort - in a way it wasn't before. I know finding the energy to do so is a challenge, believe me. But as you get acclimated to this new routine, I bet you'll find that you can do more than shuffle to and from work.
posted by jocelmeow at 7:11 AM on October 14, 2012 [5 favorites]

Seconding going abroad and traveling!! I recently moved abroad to work in a new country right after graduating (got my diploma in June, was in new country by August!) and even though there have been a few "Omg what am I doing so far removed from every one I know?/No one will care if I get hit by a bus/car/train/tram and die!" moments, it's been really great so far.

Even though I have yet to make the really close friends I had in college, I'm meeting a lot of new people. I mean, if I had stayed back in the US, pounding the pavement for a different job, I would've never seen Jean Claude Van Damme's yacht, met someone who has kayaked in every continent except Antarctica, AND an ex-MIT computer science professor who seems to just bum around the world while taking high paying programming jobs when he runs out of money. I met these 3 people in the same day. Not saying you have to live abroad, but traveling would be a good idea.

It's been a massive change for me too. I went from living with 3 roommates and having my closest friends living a block or two away from me to in a tiny tiny studio, by myself, in a completely new environment. It's been hard keeping in touch with everyone, but I manage. I never would've saw myself in my current job (teaching kids/helping them with college applications) ever, but it works. It pays the bills, lets me explore, and really, it gives me a time out from everything I knew and to re-evaluate what I want to do next.
posted by astapasta24 at 7:20 AM on October 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

OP, I also enjoyed the college/university experience 10X than life before that ...but I also found things that were even more powerful/interesting/life-changing after college, too. Trying to come up with a few things that could apply to your life right now (that also helped me at the same point on life) and that seem relevant to you based on info you put here.

• Consider volunteering (besides the internship). Something one-on-one with people and something that you are passionate about/want to make a difference in the world/change. As an example, how do you feel about literacy? Or people who are new to your country and need help with language or tutoring? Throwing those out there because those were the volunteer experiences that I had and rewarding, but pick something else if you are passionate about it/can't entirely glean this from your post If you volunteer through an organization one on one with someone, it helps you reconnect to people. You also mention that you really appreciated diversity in college- this will be another type of diversity (you may get in contact with people you would never have met in university...some people may not even be able to read, but try very hard/etc). If you see the struggles in other people's lives, it helps you let go.

• The next level up of volunteering. I'm not sure how applicable this is because it sounds like you are transient right now (waiting to hear from med schools,etc.), but just throwing it out there if you have a few months - or a year or two - what about volunteering overseas in a program for health care,etc.? Not sure what the program is called in the UK, but lots of countries have a Peace Corps/VSO/Vouluntaire de Progres ...and you are economically supported to do this, especially ifyou are short of funds right now. I think that this may be a good fit for you because the other volunteers will be similar to you and you will experience diversity/culture in a way that was not even possible in uni.

• Revisit your internship and ask yourself: What do you want to get out of this and what other things can you learn? Just look around in other departments, etc. Is there a skill that you want to learn that would help you in your next goal or possible career? Ask the person who does it to go to lunch and pick their brain. Or--- not kidding--apply to jobs that are paid in your company, etc. You know how you enjoyed college because of the diversity/breaking down barriers, etc. ? If you are in a think tank, surely at least person there has something in common/or maybe there is a related lecture or event that you can attend that is sponsored by your company. You may not see it because of blinders ...they may be older, have children, but they may still have something that you can learn and gain from another perspective. How do you know they would not be happy to have a work colleague/acquaintance/friend...you don't know yet.(Or look around for another interns/new people/etc. ....these people are usually happy to make new work friends).
posted by Wolfster at 8:33 AM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

By the end of college you are really good at something interesting and important and complicated.

The thing that feels so carefree and immediate and spontaneous and vital and so on about college life is the sense of mastery that you have. You're walking through life going, "Yeah, I've got this. I'm on top of this shit. I'm good at what I do, and I keep getting better."

What I'd do is look for other areas of your life where you can attain that sense of mastery. Which unfortunately means starting out with a sense of NON-mastery — "Oh man this is hard and confusing and I suck at it" — and powering through it until you start to reap the rewards. Shitty, I know. But it's what you need.

Travel isn't a bad idea. Working abroad would be even better. Getting the hang of minor workplace tasks in your own home country can feel tedious as hell; doing it in another country makes you feel like some kinda brilliant secret agent. Give it a try.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:50 AM on October 14, 2012 [6 favorites]

The tough transition you are experiencing is a universal experience. It's called "adulthood" and "reality". It's hard because in school, social life is easy and all that you really need to do goal-wise is get good grades. When you start working, suddenly there's the question "Is this what I've been studying so hard for, and is this what the next 45 years are going to be like?". It can be quite a shock. It's important to do work that interests you because you will be energized and you will meet like-minded people. It's also important to make efforts to enhance your social life, and I think one of the best ways to do that is by joining Meetup groups. Just stay active, stay positive, and remember things are always evolving and changing and as long as you are shaping that change in positive directions, things will get better.
posted by Dansaman at 9:20 AM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Can you delay med school and travel or teach ESL somewhere or do something other than live at home and be dutiful? Looking at your other questions, I'd say you need to take a break from being studious and respectable and diligent and maybe go be a waitress at a ski lodge or surf bar and just have some fun. Can you move to where your friends are and couch surf for a couple of months? I realize that adulthood means having a job, paying bills and all that stuff, but I think there's so little time to just try out new roles and scenes that you might as well make the most of it. Med school will still be there.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:36 AM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

What I'd do is look for other areas of your life where you can attain that sense of mastery. Which unfortunately means starting out with a sense of NON-mastery — "Oh man this is hard and confusing and I suck at it" — and powering through it until you start to reap the rewards. Shitty, I know. But it's what you need.

This! Looking back at that transition period in my early twenties, what made that time worthwhile was that even though I was working fairly low-paying jobs, and feeling, much like you, that all my friends were moving away and looking down on me for still being in my hometown doing menial work, I was also reading new books all the time (even when I couldn't really afford them), meeting new people, blogging and cartooning (not as much as I wanted to be, but I did keep those interests alive), and doing part-time work in my field that eventually led to more lucrative and rewarding part-time and full-time opportunities. Oh, and I met my husband at one of those first few jobs, too.

So while at the time, I often felt like I was drowning in my (soon mostly former, alas) college friends' judgment of my life choices, I came out of that period with a great job, a great relationship, some great hobbies, and strengthened friendships with the people I did stay in touch with.

The key is to stop judging yourself while this is all happening.

Here's what I wrote about that period back when it was happening.
posted by limeonaire at 9:40 AM on October 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

A good chunk of what you're feeling is very, very normal for folks coming out of undergrad (esp. in the current economic situation) and part of it is unique to your own issues.

when I come home I have no energy to do anything fun or productive
FWIW, I can totally relate to this. The trick with this, as with the larger issues in your question, is to create opportunities that are so exciting and awesome that you can force yourself to do them anyway regardless of how tired and drained you are after work. It's really important to socialize on the weekends. Find a meet up (or start one), book club, class, something that really, really interests you that will also get you in touch with new people.

Focus on the future: don't sacrifice today for tomorrow, but whenever you start to feel down, remind yourself that you've already got your next step planned out, that the current situation isn't a permanent one. Best of luck!
posted by smirkette at 9:51 AM on October 14, 2012

It sounds to me like your long commute, which is just a minor detail within your question, is causing a lot of your trouble. I totally relate. When I first graduated college, I was also living with my parents. I lived in the suburbs, and commuted about the same distance as you currently are. It really does make you so tired, because work isn't taking up 8 hours of your day - its taking up 10. Your current situation is temporary, but you should remember this for the future. Lots of people underestimate the extent to which their commute is going to detract from their quality of life.
posted by Ragged Richard at 10:52 AM on October 14, 2012

Your life doesn't have to become dull simply because you've left college, but you will also have periods of dullness just like you had periods of stress at college. They don't last forever.

I am currently sick of commuting so I get that - I want to move but can't right now - but this will not last forever, it will happen at some point. I will work towards making that happen and be patient that it will.

Keep moving, keep doing new things, keep working towards what you want, and there is no such thing as certainty about anything - merely things that seem like good ideas at the time.
posted by heyjude at 5:18 PM on October 14, 2012

Before graduation, I felt that the world was open to me - that it was full of possibilities, inspiration, and hope for the unknown.
This. Perhaps I'm wrong, but the 9-5 job is not about these things at all. It's about predictability, responsibility and security - attractive qualities for some but clearly not for you, at this stage of your life.

You are young, carefree and supported by wonderful parents: now is the time to pursue 'possibilities, inspiration, and hope for the unknown'! Make music. Write a blog. Fight for a cause. Find a way to make money. Build tools other people can use. Lend your energy to those who have none. Go where no one else has gone (both literally and figuratively) and tell us about it. Make the world a better place. Create. Explore. Experiment. Fail, learn and fail some more while you can still afford it.

As for that feeling of obligation that comes from living with your parents: either move out, or convince yourself that by viewing their support as a burden not an opportunity, you are actually doing your parents a disservice. They will want you to make the most of living at home!
posted by fix at 10:34 PM on October 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

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