How do I plan my life after depression?
August 5, 2016 8:47 PM   Subscribe

I had a bad depressive episode some years ago, which got me into treatment. In retrospect, I feel that I have been depressed many times before in my life and that this untreated depression explains my low ability to function from, say, the ages of 19-22 and 25-30. I now feel more capable than before, but also overwhelmed by all there is to learn. What should I prioritise, and how to organise my life so that I can learn these things gradually and safely without becoming overwhelmed or attacking myself for not having learned them before?

My situation: I'm a heterosexual woman in my early thirties, I have an academic job, and I live with my mother (sometimes my father joins us for a few months at a time; he is normally based in a different country but lives with her in the summer). My closest friends are mostly scattered across the globe. I finished my PhD this year, with difficulty, and after revisions. I've never been in a romantic relationship, and am significantly overweight (although I lost some weight this year). I haven't published anything in two years, in a field where the minimum expectation is a journal article a year.

I sometimes feel like I'm doing okay, gaining mastery of a few new skills, progressing, and then, at other times, I look at my life and see myself as basically a stunted person. I have no idea how to navigate a romantic relationship or what that even looks like in practice. I interact poorly with my dad, especially, like an oversensitive teenager (I react very badly to criticism and am aggressive in arguments with him in a really childish way - I'm not like this with other people, but it feels like a phase I should have gone through at sixteen). I hardly ever work through a full day in a regular pattern - my research has always involved a few days or weeks of working at a crazy burst and then months of sporadic effort and procrastination. My friendships are strong and close but few, and my social life basically involves hanging out with my parents, Skype, or the occasional coffee with a friend who lives in my city.

My real question is "how do I fix my life???" which is too big a question. But where do I start? My goals are to eat healthily and to exercise regularly, to pick up a sensible regular habit of daily work, to join a dating website and try to figure out if/how I want a relationship, and to move out of my parents' house. So far, I've been focused on cooking, exercise and scheduling work. But I have this panicky sense that everything else is slipping by while I slowwwly figure out how to feed myself and go for more walks and do timed half-hour research sessions and then I'll be forty and it'll be Too Late. I am in therapy and that has helped a lot with my mood and thinking through my patterns around work and relationships but I don't feel my behaviour has changed in many useful ways yet.

Should I move out first? Try to make incremental progress on all fronts at once? Do something to make a radical break in my life, like moving to another country? Carry on as I am but try to develop more patience? (How?)
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (7 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds to me like you're doing well. Go you! I suggest that you move out as soon as possible. It's the quickest way to practice decision-making and get to know yourself as you identify preferences and create your own reality. And I think you might benefit from some group activities, like volunteering somewhere or getting involved in other aspects of your campus, to ratchet up your social life. Perhaps a good option for you might be some form of coop housing where you have both a fully separate apartment and some common areas.

Yes, you're also in therapy (and possibly on medication), but may I suggest a coach geared towards bolstering good work practices (on the job and setting up a new place). It helps with accountability and goal setting--tough during the post degree years--and isn't that expensive via phone or Skype. If you love your field it might help you meet the metrics (publishing or whatever), so you can make a big move from a stronger platform. If you're not publishing, etc., from fear it can get you through that too. And if it's because you've lost interest in your field, it can help you reengage or morph to something else.

Trying sitting with your desire to make a radical change, like switching countries, and figure out what you want from that and why it appeals. A reset button? A flight response? A test of your mettle, sink or swim style? It might help you know what to do within the context of your current city and job.

Good times ahead!
posted by carmicha at 10:32 PM on August 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Long time depressive myself. Still figuring things out, but every time I look back at where I was 5 years ago, I see lots of progress - and even genuine accomplishments.

Couple things you might find helpful:

Radical change (for a depressive/bipolar person) is usually about avoiding, or running away from real problems. It's usually a bad idea. Incremental change is usually healthier and more lasting.

In my case, I've found that completing small, manageable projects to be very therapeutic . One or two small victories a day helps keep my mood elevated and my confidence up. In my case, this usually involves repairing things, but it can be anything: a crossword puzzle, journaling, a craft, cooking, etc. The idea is subtly remind yourself that you are useful and have skills and can accomplish things - before attacking the world at large.

In your specific case, it also seems that your social circle is more limited than you probably want. There are a lot of ways to address this, but based on what you've written, I'd strongly consider classes at a local community college or similar. Regular interaction with people with similar interests will probably be more helpful than a dating website. Since you are paying for the classes, you are less likely to give up on them, and if you choose based on your genuine interests, you are more likely to find like-minded people.
posted by Anoplura at 12:01 AM on August 6, 2016 [5 favorites]

I finished my PhD this year, with difficulty, and after revisions.


I sometimes feel like I'm doing okay, gaining mastery of a few new skills, progressing, and then, at other times, I look at my life and see myself as basically a stunted person.

This is a classic effect of depression: it downplays and belittles the significant things you achieve in life, and magnifies the smaller problems and bumps along the way.

You got a PhD. Many people who start one (I'm included) do not. Getting a PhD takes a huge amount of work, perseverance, dedication, focus, sacrifice and drive. No-one has an easy ride through getting a PhD; many have dark periods during it, and describe it as one of the traumatic, soul-breaking ordeals they go through in life. And taking a PhD from start through to conclusion takes several years of doing that to the exclusion of many other things, a significant part of your adult life.

You were awarded a PhD, so you have rigorously proved you have the capability to do significant and difficult things.

and then I'll be forty and it'll be Too Late

Myself and so many of my peers went through the "life ends at forty" fears (I'm now nearly 48). And on the other side, the truth gradually reveals that life is better after forty, and in fact every decade usually turns out to be better than the previous one, on reflection and hindsight. Why this is differs, but common (overlapping) threads seem to be life experience, gradually easier to realize the important things in life and spending time, and gradually easier to say no/walk away from people and situations that drain our mental energy and waste our time.

I've gone from dreading being 40 when approaching it, to now looking forward to 50 - bring it on, reality! - as I'm approaching it. Very common amongst peers, I have much more confidence about life and dealing with people and the situations they cause.

tldr; you were awarded a PhD so you are capable of significant achievements - proven fact. Life gets better as each decade rolls by.
posted by Wordshore at 2:41 AM on August 6, 2016 [10 favorites]

Too late for what?
At your age you have two thirds of your life still ahead of you. Imagine everything you have learned from a newborn til now... And then picture that twice more...
Goal one: work with your therapists on ways to not be so critical of yourself.

I like the idea of you working towards the goal of moving out.
posted by SyraCarol at 5:15 AM on August 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Maybe I missed this, but, do you have a job? If you don't have a job, I'd focus on that. Jobs can bring great satisfaction.

Otherwise I'd look for a hobby you enjoy. Book club. Volleyball. Volunteering. Whatever. Try to get involved.

Honestly, your life is fine and if you want to move out from your parents home you can. I wouldn't fret too much about this.

You do sound really critical of yourself. Maybe more therapy? A regular cardio routine? I'd highly recommend meditation. Virtually nobody's life looks perfect on laper, but some people are happy. Be kind to yourself.
posted by Kalmya at 6:05 AM on August 6, 2016

In terms of medium-and long-term priorities, I would go: 1) job, if it's not set up yet. Living situation will follow that, and dating and socializing is doable but awkward in its absence. I think if you're continuing with academia, there might be some restrictions in terms of location (right?). So follow your personal, material, and health-related interests in determining which jobs (and by extension, places) you're going to focus on. Then 2) move and 3) participate in extracurriculars, expand personal network s, date.

Food and fitness, you can work on immediately, and the latter might help boost your mood a bit.

Relationship with your dad, that is going to be an incremental thing.

(If you're set up with a job, move.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:14 AM on August 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure if I have any answers for you yet, so first I'm just going to try and relate if you can bear with me. I deal with a lot of the same feelings about my own life-- feeling stunted, too slow, not good enough-- and the shame that accompanies those thoughts on a daily basis. I'm almost never proud of who I am or where I am in life, and I envy people who seem to live life effortlessly when I'm not even capable of holding down a full time job. It's tough living like this, and I feel just as bad for feeling so bad all the time.

So, on to you. How do you fix your life? By doing literally anything you want. You probably already know how to prioritize your goals and narrow your expectations when things start to get overwhelming. Keep working on whatever it is you're doing (cooking, exercise, scheduling) and when those things stop serving you or making you feel accomplished, shift your focus to something else (dating, house hunting). The reality is that you can only juggle so many things at a time, and even though you want these changes in your life to be persistent there are still going to be times when you don't cook anything for weeks and get absolutely no exercise, but *hopefully* it will be because you're working on other things that are also important to you. It can be paralyzing to think about all the things you're *not* doing at any given time, but as long as you're doing *something* (and practicing basic self care), you should try to feel good about yourself.

Nothing you do will ever be good enough; You have a PhD but you still feel like shit because you're comparing yourself to other people with PhDs who publish things more often than you do. I don't want to discourage you from being the best person you can be, but the dark side of that is feeling like you are perpetually less-than and worth less than this idea of a better you, who is always by definition one step ahead. Love yourself. Don't drive yourself crazy.
posted by mammal at 12:29 PM on August 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

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