Burnt out on trying for years and years
October 12, 2016 8:46 PM   Subscribe

I’m nearly 50 and have all but given up on any form of worldly success or financial stability. What now?

Although I was a good student and have a bachelor’s and master’s degree in humanities disciplines, I have always struggled to achieve and to make a living. My field is writing/journalism and I’ve mainly worked for local magazines, and have been freelance since 2005. I’ve taken other jobs to supplement my writing, but they’ve mainly been $10/hour, part-time positions that I’ve been bored by and struggled to do well because I am terrible at multitasking in a fast-paced environment. Though I try really hard, I usually end up pissing off bosses, coworkers, and customers and I usually don’t know exactly what I did wrong. I haven’t worked at such a job since March and the thought of going back to an office job or retail fills me with dread. I’ve been bullied at several jobs and struggle to understand and navigate office politics. This has caused me to develop social anxiety.

My greatest dream was always to be a novelist, yet I have struggled to understand people enough to write characters, and also found it hard to create plots that hold together and make sense. I’m good at shorter forms and nonfiction, yet I am disappointed in myself.

I’ve been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, ADHD, and PTSD. I come from a dysfunctional family in which I was the scapegoat and I believe I’ve had these conditions since childhood. A year ago, I went on meds after realizing that my condition was chronic when I looked at my life history. They definitely help with mood and motivation and some of the ADHD symptoms. But they don’t increase my “spoons.” I have limited mental energy. I always have but it’s gotten worse. My pattern has been that I find it nearly impossible to keep up with mental health self-care when I’m working full-time, and also nearly impossible to hold down a job when I am spending as much time as I need to on self-care in order not to go into a depression or panic attack. I am also in counseling.

I also believe I fit many of the criteria for being on the autism spectrum or NVLD. I’ve had several assessments done without a definitive diagnosis (I am female), but I’ve been trying for years to overcome the “Aspie issues” without even knowing what they were, with every form of therapy known, and have been unable to. It seems like I have a history of holding down a job for a year or so, but getting burned out at that point. I also (for about five years now) have mild/moderate genetic hearing loss that I’m very self-conscious about and cannot afford hearing aids. This also impacts my job performance and emotional well-being..

About the PTSD. Three years ago, I was in a domestic violence situation that I escaped from. One thing that my ex did was tell me I was defective due to the above issues. He undid years of therapy with six weeks of abuse at the end of our relationship. That’s when I moved back in with my mom. I spent the first few months depressed in bed, going to counseling three times a week, and barely eating. I got a job six months after my arrival. It was a bad fit, and I felt like I was in a fog the entire time. I was gang-bullied on this job due to not being able to fit in, and my experience there was the last straw in terms of making me think I am not fit to work 40 hours a week, at least not since the PTSD. All my life I’ve felt overwhelmed when it comes to work and much of “adulting,” but I am even more overwhelmed by it now than I was before the PTSD. It was always a struggle before, but I feel burned out from that struggle like I am never going to get any better at these things. I kept thinking I would mature and improve in having my shit together, but it seems like the opposite has happened. A life even with minimum needs getting met seems like such an uphill battle for me, and so effortless to others. Looking back at my life history, it seems hopeless that I will ever live a life that I am proud of, let alone be out of poverty.

Another factor playing into my difficulties with employment is that my field is one that is dying, and I am only good at, and enjoy, that one thing--writing/editing. I bumble around with anything other than writing, and have terrible executive function. If I am not in a writing environment, I seem slow and ditzy. If I am in a writing environment, my intelligence shows but I’m still seen as absent-minded. As a child, I showed savant-like abilities in language, far above any other aspects of IQ and performance. I believe I have dyspraxia as I feel slow-moving, bump into things a lot, and drop things. I learned to tie my shoes and tell time a couple of years later than average. I’m including these details so you can get a picture of what I am like. I’m embarrassed about my awkwardness so I limit my interactions with people who do not face similar challenges.

I do have good things in life too. I’m currently working as an editor for a magazine in my community. But it’s on a contract basis and pays less than $500 a month. It’s easy for me and I’m good at it. It barely takes any of my time. I can work from home. I feel like if it were any more demanding than this, I would start fucking up at it trying to juggle everything. I also fear getting other clients for the same reason. I am living with my mother and can barely pay my bills. I come from a family of high achievers and am terribly ashamed. None of them really get how functioning is and always has been such a struggle for me. Intrusive thoughts of shame at not achieving enough have been part and parcel of my entire adult working life and add to the distractions on the job.

I’m sure that my disdain for the neoliberal, competitive, consumerist system does not help matters. It is damn near impossible for me to get as rah-rah about a job as I am about my creative projects or the people I love. Except for writing jobs, work has always just been because I needed something, anything. And that lack of enthusiasm has caused problems on the job. I try to perform adequately, and on top of that I am expected to expend energy in being bubbly and it is exhausting. I feel like I have two jobs when I have to work with other people. I just want to keep my head down, be left alone, and do my job. I simply do not have the mental energy to shift back and forth between working and enthusiastic social interaction on the job, as is required in the American workplace. I’m not unwilling; I would certainly do so if it didn’t drain me to the point of inertia by Friday.

In addition to my difficulties with distraction, moods that affect my performance on a job, and executive dysfunction, I also am challenged by issues of poverty such as food insecurity and transportation. (I have food stamps and go to food banks but it’s not enough). I have a car, but coming up with gas money is problematic. I also have people in my life that I care about who are also experiencing mental and physical health issues and I would worry about them if I were away from them for 8-10 hours a day; I have had separation anxiety since childhood and their issues compound that. (I spend a lot of time with my boyfriend, who lives with his disabled mom). They don’t have a car. My mom is kind enough to pay for my car insurance.

I have a loving and supportive partner, but he has many of the same issues I do. He says he is going to try to get on disability for his mental health issues, and suggested that I try that as well. It feels like giving up to me but I am burned out on trying to live the kind of “normal” middle-class existence my parents have always shamed me for not having. But I'm also burned out on feeling all this shame, too--I did not ask for all these mental illnesses.

As my 50th birthday looms, I feel like it’s too late to catch up to where I should be in life. It’s a shock that I am technically middle-aged and that some of my peers even have grandchildren. I don’t even feel like an adult yet and I think that if I don’t by now, I never will.

Despite all of these career and finance-related problems, my day-to-day life is okay because of my mom’s help, and I’m happy with my partner. But it’s my future, and my partner’s future with me, that I’m worried about, and though my mom is the one person in my family who understands, she is not wealthy and she's in her 70s. I want very much to pay her back, though she says I don't have to. I also have student loans and no savings, no 401k or anything like that since the professional world has always seemed so out of reach to me and the downturn hit my industry so hard.

What can I do to sustain myself from now on that won’t stress me to death? Is disability the answer?
posted by Beethoven's Sith to Work & Money (15 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a prickly sort, but occasionally I run across an ask that just makes me want to give the asker a hug. Like this one.

I think applying for disability is an excellent idea. You should be aware that it is difficult to get, especially on one's first try, so temper your expectations carefully. Do not base all your hopes and dreams for the future on getting it. The payments are also not large, especially if you are on SSI rather than SSDI (that is, if you haven't worked enough to have paid enough into the system for SSDI). But getting some income security, even of a limited nature, would introduce some stability into your life, which it sounds like you could really use, so it is worth a try. If you are on disability, you usually also qualify for Medicaid, likely another plus for you. It sounds like meds have given you some relief, but if you've only been on them for a year, you haven't had a lot of time to search for the optimum choices for you. Also, in many states hearing aids are covered by Medicaid. Note that there are attorneys who will handle your disability application in return for a statutorily-fixed percentage of your award. Unsurprisingly, they vary in quality but you are more likely to succeed with even a mediocre one than on your own. (Also note: if you are earning more than about $1100/mo. when you apply, you will be rejected. Something to keep in mind in determining whether to try to take on more work while applying.)

Have you worked out how much you would need to get a place on your own again? Is it possible you might want to move in with your partner at some point? It sounds like your mom (and dad?) is making you pay for support by swallowing abuse--you say your mom is the only one who understands you, but also that your parents shame you for not having a normal middle-class situation. That's not a good living arrangement to be in. Give careful thought to whether it's possible to extricate yourself, although it would be understandable if it's not.

In the meantime, have you consider taking on some carefully limited volunteer work? Even if it's just ladling soup or walking dogs at the shelter, volunteer work can give you a sense of value in the world and accomplishment. Depending on the work, it can also provide opportunities for "rote" social interaction that may be easier for you to handle but nonetheless satisfying. Obviously, you would need to find work that fits your challenges (time-limited, not catastrophic if you have to miss a session from time to time), but I really think it could help you emerge from this mindset of worthlessness that you struggle with.

About that mindset. Your middle-class family is not you. Your family does not carry the same burdens you do. I know it's hard to reconcile yourself to the kinds of permanent limitations in life that disabilities can bring, and I expect there are disabled people who can speak much better to that point than I can. But the fact is that serious disabilities, especially in this unsupportive society, can and do curtail your options. That may be something for you to grieve over, but it is not something for you to be ashamed of. Frankly, they are the ones who should be ashamed, for their judgmentalness, inflexibility, and lack of compassion.

(Also, wow, I'm exhausted just reading about your career struggles. To keep moving, to keep trying, after all that shows real tenacity!)
posted by praemunire at 11:07 PM on October 12, 2016 [13 favorites]

Are you technical at all? I'm thinking maybe you should take as many free technical writing and software classes as you can and try to line up some technical writing gigs. You might be able to transition into a technical writing position eventually once you get some jobs on your resume. Good luck and try not to compare yourself to other people. Everyone is on their own path in life; everyone has their own values.
posted by gt2 at 1:04 AM on October 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

Wow, that was a hard read.

While I admire some of the underlying Republican and Libertarian perspectives on how things should be, and feel that some of these are good things to strive for in your personal life, I've always recognized that there are significant external factors that contribute to personal success. That "self made man" ... isn't. Or, at least, not entirely on his own. I've seen rich lazy slackers who got there through the benefits of circumstance. And I've seen people who put all they can into it every day, barely scraping by. I deem both situations to be unfair.

Our society is not optimized for every kind of individual, and I believe that you are one of the people that we've failed to figure out how to serve. In many cases, we place monetary value on the wrong things, which means that it is unlikely that you're going to strike it rich as a writer. This is hard enough on most people, but for people where a disability might be involved, that's even more tragic. You are fortunate that you have the tenacity to continue to move forward after years of struggle. Please understand that this is, in itself, quite the accomplishment.

Disregard your middle-class family's opinion. You cannot wave a magic wand and suddenly have things change. Is your mother supportive? As praemunire said, it is unclear on the family dynamics here, but if your living arrangement is suboptimal, this could be dragging you down. Family should be supportive, but we don't get to pick our families.

Please, do see about getting SSDI. The process is not particularly easy, and the benefits are not fantastic, but they do provide a financial stability that would then allow you to focus on the bigger picture, and experiment with things that you might find less stressful and more fulfilling. Volunteering in some way you find enjoyable is a perfectly reasonable contribution back to society, if you feel the need to do so. You do not need to be conventionally "successful" in order to have a good life.

However, if that doesn't pan out, please consider revisiting the office job strategy. Toxicity in the workplace is mostly a function of the personalities involved, and it is totally possible to wind up working with a small group of awesome people. I think it might be best to avoid large offices, which tend to be all office politics. My limited experience suggests small office settings are more likely to run strongly towards the bad/toxic or the good. You obviously need to shop for the good. With a little luck, you may be able to find an environment where there are good people who aren't all about the office politics. It is worth the effort.
posted by jgreco at 1:13 AM on October 13, 2016 [5 favorites]

Have you considered teaching online courses? With a masters, you are qualified. I've taught composition courses online, and most of it is grading papers, which is sounds like you would be skilled at. It's a little difficult to break into the field (everyone wants experience teaching online, so how do you get it?), but once you are in, you can get momentum and it's a growing field.

Are there any local writing groups near you that you can join? I found that to be one of the best moves for me when I was trying to improve my fiction writing. They are generally populated by people who are trying to better writers, so the criticism for was always super helpful and never judgey. Other writers can help you with plot development. Understanding people? I used to go to coffee shops and other public places and eavesdrop and transcribe conversations and then analyze them for speech patterns and motivations to try and understand dialogue better -- my point being that you can learn to write better in the areas that you are weakest.
posted by archimago at 4:16 AM on October 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

See, cases like yours (and mine) are why I think that the whole notion of "if you want it bad enough" is such bullshit - because you and I wanted what we wanted incredibly badly, but life threw curve balls at us and gave us obstacles and roadblocks that stopped us, but these stupid "but if you want it bad enough it will manifest" things keep popping up and don't seem to ackknowledge that "wanting something bad enough" doesn't solve mental illness or poverty, and they only make us feel even worse as a result ("ooh, I guess you didn't want it bad enough then if you're not successful yet").

And that is bullshit.

Others are going to have wise words about how to cope with the anxiety or professions. I'm going to add something that helps me - maybe think about how to redefine "success". I mean - you're an editor at a magazine. That's actually damn impressive! I know it's a contractor, but it's better than being a SECRETARY as a contractor, right? (That's what I did for ten years.)

My own personal definition of success these days doesn't really have to do with fame or achievement - it's smaller, but it still feels good. Like - during a conversation with my colleagues at work (all women), they were all talking about the niggly little things they do to persuade their boyfriends to buy them things. And I didn't contribute, partly because I don't have a partner - but mainly because I would NEVER, EVER do that. I prefer being independent and buying my own things, and I also would value a potential partner's independence and will too much TO do that. And as I thought about that, I realized "you know what, not only do I have my values towards a partner in the right place, but I'm also ABLE to afford to buy myself things. I have to pick and choose, but I still can afford things." And I tell you, it may not be a name on the cover of a novel, but being able to dance around the apartment singing Independent Women that night and mean all the words felt damn successful.

Everyone else is going to give you better advice for the big things; but also try "embracing the things you're doing right," for an extra boost.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:51 AM on October 13, 2016 [15 favorites]

Yes, I definitely want to agree with and emphasize what EmpressCallipygos wrote. If you want it bad enough... it is merely more likely to happen. You could NOT want something and have it fall into your lap, pure luck. But you can totally and completely want something, and be the ideal candidate for something, and yet never cross paths with that opportunity, so it still doesn't happen. Many external factors, most at least somewhat beyond your control, feed in to your success or failure. Anyone who says otherwise is just full of it. All you can do is to try to change the variables, and keep trying to identify possibilities. Sooner or later it may just "click."

Identifying some support structure going forward is very important, of course, which is why I suggested exploring the SSDI option. If you can qualify for that, then many other possibilities open up. SSDI would remove the pressure to determine a means of financial support, which then makes it possible to focus on finding something meaningful to do with your life, and that "something" doesn't have to fit into the traditional capitalist concept of "gainful employment." It would certainly allow you to focus on writing, for example.

With the pressure off, you might be able to explore other employment options as well, without the anxiety-causing income concern sitting front and center. SSDI does encourage recipients to become employed if possible, so you are not locked into disability.

The fact that you're here, trying to figure this out, and that you've gotten this far the way you have, these are positive things, and you have my respect and admiration. You are already a success in that you've gotten this far. Empress is correct, please embrace the things you're doing right.
posted by jgreco at 5:59 AM on October 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

SSI/SSDI doesn't have to be forever. If you need a safety net right now, it's ok to use it.
posted by lazuli at 6:03 AM on October 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Are you in a position where you can set up shop offering writing and editing services on a freelance basis? It sounds like you have a lot of relevant work under your belt. (Sorry if this idea has been discarded for reasons; there's nothing more irritating than being told, "Oh, you should just do so-and-so" by people who have not considered the difficulties.)

What I came to post, though: do not feel bad for not being able to make retail jobs work for you. The atmosphere at a lot of those jobs is absolutely horrible and many times, bullying doesn't just happen; it is what passes for management. I've owned a retail business, and was stunned by what I found when I took a low-level retail job. Now, it's possible to find a job like that that is a fit, but you have to have some idea of what you can do and what you want. For example, you can do merchandising without people breathing down your neck and indeed without much human contact at all. But you have to luck into a job that will give you experience in that area.

I second the suggestion of volunteer work. I started volunteering for literacy, which turned out to be mainly for English language learners, at least in my area. It was eye-opening in terms of the challenges a lot of people are dealing with. It also was a stepping stone for people who wanted to get jobs teaching ESL and things like that. There were a lot of volunteers there trying to ease a transition back into the workplace after the economic crisis or being stay at home parents or caretakers, so you might find people in similar circumstances.
posted by BibiRose at 6:30 AM on October 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

I echo what everyone else said about applying for SSI/SSDI and also really trying to focus on your achievements so far, which are great. It may not have been super remunerative but you sound like a great person to have on an editorial team, and as a former member of the same field, it really is imploding - it's not just you.

I had a few other suggestions just around making money. One is that I hear you that you worry about taking on new clients, but if you could get some corporate writing or editing contracts, those pay a lot better. Another approach is to go after small businesses who have marketing or writing needs; they often can be pretty flexible. Fundraising and grant writing, marketing collateral, video scripting for ads, etc. are all also areas of writing that you might find some flexibility in.

Another route is to go completely the other way and consider working in jobs that don't require office-type interaction. Some ideas that came to mind, just to add to your income part-time, are dog walker, house sitter, cat sitter, school bus driver, house painter (if that's something you could develop skills in), but there are probably dozens of other ones out there. For a lot of writers I know that's a good match with writing, it gives quiet non-human time (maybe not so much school bus driver) and also is a rich source of ideas, since one's in contact with people's homes and lives in a more observational role.

But that's just brainstorming. Hope you come to a new balance soon.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:24 AM on October 13, 2016 [4 favorites]

Have you looked into writing work that might be better paid? Technical writing, grant applications, editing, etc.?

Some non-career jobs I’ve had that don’t require significant emotional work/ human interaction are part-time warehouse jobs, lowly finance department tasks like mailing out checks and filing, data entry, and telephone interviewing. The latter is technically human interaction, but it’s all scripted and if you are able to compartmentalize that, I know a surprising number of low-energy introverts whom it works well for, since it’s not a difficult job to get and maintain in many areas.
posted by metasarah at 9:27 AM on October 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

Whoo, another aging, financially unstable, introverted and depressed former journalist here, and way too much of this resonated with me.

One thing that has helped me psychologically is realizing that sometimes "accomplishment" is largely a matter of spin. There is a LOT wrong with my life, and sometimes I feel like an abject failure. Broke, sick, old, obscure, etc. But I've published hundreds of articles, including cover stories in quite a few publications, and done all this other stuff with my writing and art. I'm hardly a household name, but I've done a lot of shit other people only dream about. I came out as trans and had this whole decade of club kid adventures, and that was pretty huge given where I started. And I did it all with miserable depression and health garbage (including cancer) that'd make some folks jump off a bridge. So I can hate myself for not being rich and famous, or I can give myself credit for all I have done, and everything I've survived.

It's all spin. If you look at your life a certain way, I bet you have a whole lot to be proud of!

As for your future career... when you figure it out, let me know! I can tell you that working with people seems really scary when you haven't done it for a long time, but then once you get out there it's not so bad. You may surprise yourself with how social and not-weird you can be.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 2:23 PM on October 13, 2016 [5 favorites]

For those suggesting SSDI, it's going to be really hard to get if you're currently able to work at all. And while it does provide income it doesn't provide LIVABLE income unless you have somewhere to live that you don't have to pay for. I currently get about $1400/month, and if I wasn't able to live with my parents that wouldn't be enough to support me. Also there are a lot of states (like Texas) where you don't qualify for medicaid if you're on SSDI, so you have to buy your own insurance through the marketplace for two years until you qualify for Medicare. I'm not saying don't pursue this as an option, but it's definitely not as easy as people above are making it out to be.
posted by MsMolly at 2:23 PM on October 13, 2016

I have a friend who worked for decades writing and editing for small progressive newspaper and magazines. Then, when he was maybe in his later 40s, the entire newspaper and magazine industry tanked.

He found a private detective who was willing to pay him to do some easy side work - his investigative journalism experience got him in the door. After maybe a year of that, he applied for a civil service job, as an investigator for the local Public Defender's office (or maybe the Prosecutor?!! Oddly I can't remember, and have likely flubbed some other details here but in broad strokes this is what happened.)

Now he has a pension, paid sick time, a living wage, and a retirement plan. One idea to consider.
posted by latkes at 4:16 PM on October 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

Oh also literally none of this is your fault and there are systemic and structural causes of your financial woes that are way bigger than you.
posted by latkes at 4:20 PM on October 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

My greatest dream was always to be a novelist, yet I have struggled to understand people enough to write characters, and also found it hard to create plots that hold together and make sense.

My own approach to creative projects is often "What aspects of this do I know I'm terrible at, and how could I take a different approach that avoids those aspects entirely and call this 'innovation'?"
eg, there are some kinds of science-fiction where characters are unimportant next to compellingly thinking through some fascinating ramifications of a "what if?" idea. There are interactive fictions (and computer games) where characters are absent because the reader becomes the protagonist and their interactions are with a mysterious environment. "Aspie issues" can become an advantage in some kinds of fiction writing, and we live in a world where non-traditional works are often more successful and influential than the traditional novel.

Undertaking a labor of love for money is a bad idea, so I'm not suggesting this could address any financial concerns, but doing it simply because it is a labor of love, I think recognizing your own weaknesses should be the start of that process, not the reason to give up on dreams.
posted by anonymisc at 6:02 PM on October 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

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