Please help me figure out what to do with the rest of my life.
May 19, 2015 11:13 PM   Subscribe

I'm at a point in my life where progress has stopped and I need to make some decisions about how to move forward. I can't keep doing what I've been doing and I could use some advice on new things to try. Difficulty level: late 30s emotional wreck in need of new direction. As ever, special snowflake details and apologetic wall of text inside.

[Some minor details have been changed to obscure identity. I might still be obvious to people who know me so if this sounds familiar at all, please be kind and keep it to yourself.]

About me and my challenges
I have some physical and psychological issues that sometimes make it difficult to do things I'd like to do or in fact anything at all. I've been struggling with depression and anxiety all my life, partly due to unlucky genetics and partly due to years of external factors (abuse, neglect, trauma, abandonment). I'm on meds that sometimes help and sometimes don't (and yes I should revisit this with a competent doc and/or therapist, and if you can recommend a good one in Portland, please do). While I haven't been formally diagnosed, a lot of what happens in my life plays out like avoidant personality disorder - for years I've been avoiding most social situations and relationships, working from home whenever I can, and dealing with extremely harsh self-criticism, impostor syndrome, feelings of inadequacy and inability to trust. I have a very small group of close friends, most of whom are no longer local as jobs and family have drawn them away, so just a couple of people that I regularly spend time with in person, and it's been many years since I've had anyone in my life who could offer much in the way of experienced counsel. For a while it seemed like I was making some progress, but lately some dramatic reversals have led me to an almost hilariously low place in my life; in the last year I've lost my job and several friends, my dog died, my savings has been wiped out and my credit ruined, and at the same time I've seen my avoidant behavior grow toward paranoia and agoraphobia and compulsive behaviors. Occasionally I feel a bit suicidal, in more of a resigned "maybe there's really not much more ahead for me" way than an angry "I'll show everyone" way, but paralyzing existential terror usually serves to keep those moods in check.

For better or worse there's not much farther to fall from here, so before I start trying to climb again, I'm taking stock of what options I have so I can choose a better direction. If you have constructive advice about any of the issues I've described above please feel free to share here or by email (below), but the main thing I'm looking for right now is some practical advice on how best to move forward and in what direction, especially if you can think of any options I haven't yet considered.

About the things I'd like to do
I say 'occupation' rather than 'career' above because I'm not sure at this point whether what I want is really about career advancement or reaching goals. I can be an effective leader and manager when I'm in my element, and some of my peers are now taking senior management roles, but titles aren't important to me and I'm not interested in climbing a corporate ladder and taking on additional responsibility for its own sake. I'm more interested in identifying something that I can be good at and where I can make a positive contribution, something that doesn't make me anxious and stressed and dreading Monday morning all weekend. I know not everyone is going to find happiness and fulfillment in their work, but for me work is about the only part of my life in which I've ever come close or am ever likely to come close to that. I'm as happy as I've ever been when I'm competent at something and doing good work. It's also about the only way I ever meet people and make new friends, because my confidence comes with competence and when I'm confident I'm actually pretty good with people.

tl;dr: I just want to do something I'm good at and halfway interested in that doesn't make me feel hollow and shitty inside, and I'm hoping that will help with both immediate tangible needs (eating, sleeping indoors) and emotional stability (self-worth, confidence).

Skills, experience, constraints
Up to now I've spent most of my professional life around technology, in IT (mostly network administration) and in software (support, implementation consulting, small pieces of engineering/development mostly around customization). I never went to college, due to the turbulent history mentioned above, but I've always been good with tech so I've had a small measure of success there. Over the last several years I've worked with a few startups in the Bay Area including one or two whose names are pretty familiar, and while the money was good, the whole scene left me feeling as hollow and depressed as I've ever felt and I couldn't go back to that even if they wanted me which mostly they don't. I'm currently consulting in data mining and analysis, and to be honest I hate almost everything about it, but I'm passably good at it and it's paying at least some of my bills while allowing me to work remotely. It's not reliable income though, and the anxiety about making ends meet is taking its toll, so I'm hoping to find something new that's both more stable and closer to my heart.

Other things that I'm good at or would like to explore further:
  • I'd love to do something or be involved in something creative; I love books and movies and music and games and art, and I would probably enjoy some role in creating or supporting things like these. There was a time I thought I might write fiction, and I guess I might yet, but as an immediate next step toward paying the bills it seems unlikely.
  • I'm fascinated by computer games, which started out mostly as escapism and avoidance but led to some interest in the mechanics of games and their creation. Again, something I'd like to someday explore further or to work toward but doesn't feel like an immediate next step. (It doesn't help that the game dev scene seems pretty unwelcoming to diversity at the moment.)
  • I'm a good editor and have always been the go-to person on my teams for proofing/correcting/rewriting (though you wouldn't know it from this wall of text, I'm sort of just brain-dumping here before I lose my nerve).
  • I know a bit about development in languages like C/C++, Java, Perl, Python, Javascript, and Ruby, but probably not enough to take on a development role without some serious ramping up first, and I have no professional development experience outside of some basic scripting (mostly JS/jQuery) on client projects.
  • You might not expect it given the emotional state I've described above, but I've become pretty good at the customer care side of the technology business, and my last couple of roles have been a mix of technology and consulting. I like to help people and to know that I've changed things for the better, even in small ways, and I take as much satisfaction in that as I have in any of the more technically sophisticated things I've done. I don't think I could handle a role that required a lot of emotional strength right now, though; right now I'm extremely sensitive and some days just the news or random videos on YouTube will have me close to tears, so helping someone in pain or crisis might be difficult.
To pay bills right now I need to make upwards of $32k/yr, or $16-17/hr in an hourly full-time job, or $30-40/hr in a part-time job. These numbers will probably drop as I continue to downsize, unless I move somewhere with higher cost-of-living than Portland. Higher numbers would let me put some savings and retirement funds aside, but in the short term I can be pretty flexible for a job that checks off some or all of my boxes and helps me get to a better place.

I'm open to going back to school, if I can identify an occupation that school would help facilitate. My income is minimal so any programs targeted at low-income returning students would help (and I'm not really in a position to take on student loan debt; even finding anyone willing to make a loan might be hard). I like the idea of earning a degree someday but with no safety net I have to focus first on supporting myself; I've always had either the money or the time but not both. But if anything about this question makes you say "you'd be perfect at X, and you just need to take these classes/earn this degree", I'd love to hear it. Extra credit for any reputable distance learning programs you can recommend. For the right role I'm also open to relocation to any city with a good public transit system, though my preference would be Oregon or Washington.

I'm looking back over all this and realizing it sounds as if I'm asking for help finding a job, and if your response is "yes you should do [this specific thing], contact [this specific person]" that's great and I promise I'll look into it. But if your answer is "consider doing something like X for now and maybe go back to school for Y and think about a career in Z", that's fine too. I'm realizing that I've gotten about as far as I'm likely to get, figuring this out on my own, and while the few friends I've talked to have been well-meaning, none of them have a very good sense of what it's like to be me or what I should think about doing next. You're the smartest bunch of people I know, Metafilter, and surely some of you have found yourself at similar loose ends or have some of the same skills and interests. Please talk to me about the kinds of things you'd think about if you were in my shoes. Thank you very much for your patience and time in reading all this and sharing any thoughts you have.

If you have questions or advice you'd like to take offline, you're welcome to contact me at my 'super sneaky anonymous person' account, just drop the spaces and quotes.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (6 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think you should necessarily look for the right job, I think you need the right organisation to work for. Have you considered looking for organisations that you really like the sound of, and applying directly, to see if they will create a job for you? (I have done this, only once but it worked). Your skills sound broad enough, and you might find yourself doing something you wouldn't have expected and excelling at it.

Also, as a little mental exercise, have you plotted all your options (especially the ones from that list) on this venn diagram? Might help eliminate some, or show you where you'd be best off applying effort or learning.
posted by greenish at 2:33 AM on May 20, 2015 [4 favorites]

What greenish said, with one addition-- I used to be line manager for an IT organisation in a non-tech company, and we would have sold our teeth for someone with a good tech profile who is good in customer services for our IT organisation-- most people with any kind of network administration profile didn't want to work for us, they wanted to work for consulting firm where they could make Big Bucks. If you find the kind of organisation that would suit you, I think it would be fairly easy to eventually find a job...
posted by frumiousb at 2:48 AM on May 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

It seems like you got pretty close to finding the job you want except for this bit: "the whole scene left me feeling as hollow and depressed as I've ever felt and I couldn't go back to that even if they wanted me which mostly they don't." I'm not sure what scene would suit you better (e.g., a nonprofit?), but it doesn't sound like getting new skills is the top need.
posted by salvia at 9:35 AM on May 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

I can be pretty flexible for a job that checks off some or all of my boxes and helps me get to a better place.

I think this is a good idea. Set your sights on an interim job for now, while you work out the larger plan. I think greenish's suggestion is a great one.

I keep hearing what frumiousb said, that people with the combination of solid technical and soft skills are rare. Some fields or roles I can think of that make use of this lucky combination:
- UX design or research
- health and healthcare-related technologies (devices, software, information, healthcare service administration). This might include developing rehabilitation products, e.g. games like this)
- educational publishing and technologies (e-book design especially) - there is at least a bit of scope for storytelling here
- teaching what you know
- technical writing (**but not straight copy editing. Not a lot of money in that, and the jobs are so scarce as to be invisible.)
- sales of tech products (I don't think this has to be evil, if you believe in the product. Additionally, it's not the most extroverted or aggressive who do the best over the long haul; it's people who can establish and maintain long-term relationships, and are wiling to do the research to meet clients' actual needs)
- systems engineering
- business analysis, or yes, consulting

This is just a list of ideas; I hope others can offer personal experience or knowledge about the viability of some of these options (if you like them).

It sounds, though, like you're most gratified by making a personal connection with individuals, on a day to day basis. My thought is that teaching or training might fulfill that need in a very obvious way. Corporate training, or working in adult education/vocational colleges (which tend to appreciate people with industry experience) might be less stressful and demand less physical stamina than e.g. teaching 8am-4pm at a high school level. The tradeoff with teaching in colleges is less consistent income, but you might be able to supplement that with other kinds of work. Jobs in corporate training are usually more stable. (You would need to go back to school, though, obviously.)

You could even get involved in some outreach projects (maybe those coding bootcamps that are so popular?) on a volunteer basis right now, to get a feel for whether that sort of thing might be for you. And I agree with you - it would be good to do anything that has you operating from a place of strength. (At least, that's what helped me most when I was coming out of a severe depression.) Something like this might offer you that platform. It might be the kind of thing you could do on the side, as well, if you went for a less person-focused but more remunerative type of job.

I also think it would be hugely beneficial for you to honour your creative impulses and get going with writing, whether or not you're paid for it. (Maybe join a writer's group?) You clearly have a gift. (Sort of classlessly putting to one side the urgency of your question, your "brain dump" is clearer and better and more evocative than anything I could muster on my best day, after a beautiful sleep, mainlining caffeine.) I can tell you that creative expression is another thing that made dark times brighter for me. Some of us just need to do that, on any level we can.

Take good care of yourself, above all. I hope people chime in with recommendations for effective therapists; keep looking, yourself. And please reach out to your non-local friends. I'm sure they would hate to know you're feeling this way, on your own, and would want to offer the support you deserve. Best of luck to you.
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:42 AM on May 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

it doesn't sound like getting new skills is the top need.

Agreed; it sounds like you need to feel a sense of mission.
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:43 AM on May 20, 2015

Take this radical suggestion that you seek out a supported-living home and strive toward supported Independent Living. I used to work for one in Eugene where mainly the clients were developmentally disabled. However, there were some very strong backgrounds who could hold down work but who suffered with either mental illness or syndromes like Prader Willi. They traded some independence for the opportunity to skill up to the level of Independent Living. Oregon may have changed its rules since 2009 when I worked there. The law at the time was people who were disabled prior to the age of 18 may make a start toward being placed in a home. These people are advocates and very well trained. Telling them your situation, and the support you need and what you expect will make it easier to get the treatment you need. I have many friends with mental illness in the IT world and who relish it for the relative freedom it provides. But going home or needing to be part of a corporate culture is anathema. Take advantage of all the state of Oregon has to give you!
posted by parmanparman at 10:34 AM on May 20, 2015

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