Asking work/life advice for a friend down in the dumps
November 19, 2017 12:44 PM   Subscribe

A good friend of mine is spiraling (aren't we all in the US) and I'm at a loss as to help him. Mostly looking for practical actions but "headspace shifts" also acceptable.

So, J is in a bad place, though better than last year. He quit his extremely abusive relationship with alcohol in January, started eating healthier, started the process of seeking medical attention for some long running health problems which alcoholism and serious depression were blocking him from addressing, and generally feels as if he's in a better headspace than last year (yes he is). I've been a supportive cheerleader, helping with making appointments, covering bills like groceries when depression ate his head and subsequently low level retail job, just being there when needed...but now it's getting harder.
Here's a personality sketch:
J is an intelligent person who dropped out of HS at 16, never saw value in the GED or college, travelled extensively instead, excellent baker and general people person when he's not crashing, excellent musician, lots of critical reasoning and general brain skills though not much formal maths etc. Depression really has done a number on his life, especially when 3ish years ago some scene politicking essentially locked him out of the community he had been a part of for nearly 17 years--we're talking childhood friends that moved here (seattle) together no longer return his calls. This obviously was crushing to any sense of motivation or forward thinking and he now is functionally a shut in who really only leaves the house to come to mine and bake, chill, make perfume, smoke weed. He lost his cafe job late last year because the drinking, general depression and health problems all worsened after the election and he no call no showed for a week. This is bad in a "small town" environment like Seattle, which he knows and contributes to his depression about finding work. Bills are getting paid because he manages a house with tenants, but only the necessities like electric, once a month groceries, etc. We are both in our mid 30s and he has the very accurate feeling that time is running shorter to get sorted for the rest of his life, so working a 'survival job' where you come home exhausted seems wasteful of time that could be spent building that life. However, just hanging around staring at the internet and spinning in circles is driving him batty--he is a driven person with no direction and seemingly no substantial options. Therapy is extremely difficult for him to approach due to childhood trauma relative to therapist shopping and other abusive parent situations.
I am a college instructor in the Humanities so I'm not the best at giving advice to someone without formal education. Like, I did this because I didn't see any other way of being safe in this bonkers capitalist culture except to go into tech (no thanks). This is a shitty city to be broke in but he left the Midwest/southern central for Good Reasons, so moving far away to cheap rent is out, and moving within the PNW is just a lateral move with less housing security.
He needs a job, I suppose yes, just to eat... but needs to be pointed in a direction to clamber out of this hole too. It's so hard watching someone you care about start to get together at the very bottom level, address enormous systemic problems like alcoholism, but then not know where to go from their new, better baseline. He has so much mental energy that is spent on self destructive thoughts and into willpower to not direct this energy into active self destructive behavior, rather than onto productive life makin stuff (he is aware of this). He needs a place to point this mental energy that goes somewhere, isn't just spinning wheels. In ancient cultures we shipped the men off to war and returned them to a life in politics, religion, social work. Now you rat race and die, and the irritation I have with this structure precludes any practical advice I can give. So, hivemind?

tldr: mid 30s buddy is getting his life together after life changing shit, both good (no more booze) and horrible (no more community or direction). What next steps can he take to have something like a normally comfortable life in this capitalist hell dystopia we all live in? Help me help him so we don't have to depress each other about this anymore.
posted by zinful to Human Relations (7 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I am literally your friend, to a large extent, sans lack of education and alcoholism. It seems like he has lost all real faith in anything "good" since losing his friends and since the election shifted his reality. I lost my job and a huge chunk of my social group to small town drama as well, and since then what I've been trying to find is some small sliver of humanity that I can believe in and not disappoint me. I've been volunteering at a small "pay it forward" cafe in town and that has been very good for me as has disconnecting from social media in general. Does he have money to just go out and travel a bit and get away from the town that has shut him out? Is there a reason why he cannot begin any sort of academic career to change his employment situation (other than unchecked mental illness)? Even if it is a part-time online program? I think a change of scenery/people might help immensely.
posted by Young Kullervo at 1:07 PM on November 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

You mention he's smoking weed. He might consider cutting that out as well. I know some people use it to treat mild depression, but this doesn't sound mild, and weed does seem to exacerbate anxiety disorders in some, so I would cut it out entirely-- particularly given his history of substance abuse.

Other than that, an entirely prosaic suggestion for lifting depression is a daily walk. Exercise can combat depression and build his strength. Eventually, he could look into volunteering as a pathway to a new job.
posted by frumiousb at 3:22 PM on November 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Is he a dog person? I was thinking he could try volunteering with a local shelter to walk their rescue dogs. It would help just by getting outside daily and having the focus to care for something else. If he finds he likes it, maybe he could look at setting up his own dog walking business.
posted by mannequito at 4:47 PM on November 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Mental illness qualifies as a disability for the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation. They may be able to help him find a job.
posted by Eevee at 4:59 PM on November 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Given that you're in Seattle, and it's winter, SAD might be a factor in his depression. See if you can get him a SAD lamp, and offer to support him to get more exercise - even just a little daily walk while the bread is proofing. Things like mindfulness meditation ("MBSR course Seattle") can also help, but are hard to start when you're depressed.

Obviously therapy is helpful but if he has therapist trauma, maybe he could try to seek spiritual guidance or 'coaching' from a person practicing in whatever thing he believes in. In general, he needs support and wisdom — from a person who is a pro at it — to help process the emotional trauma of the friend-group rejection.

He could also look into the Icarus Project as a peer support network. I believe they have a Seattle chapter. And for shifting his thinking to a harm-reduction, empowered, future-focused way of processing upheaval in his own life and in society. They also publish great resources, unfortunately their website is full of broken pdf links right now.

Here are some links to PDFs published by Icarus Project:
- Taking Care of the Basics poster, but the blog offers some good commentary (+ terrible design, apologies).
- Tips for improving sleep
- Navigating Crisis. This may strike you or him as extreme, but it's VERY important to discuss what he wants and needs before a crisis happens. You, as the supportive friend, can easily get overwhelmed and make the wrong decisions, or find out that you're on radically different pages w/r/t appropriate responses. As a person who's been on the receiving end of inappropriate 'support' from friends that ended up making things worse, I really really think this is an important one.

Things he may want to look into, depending on his personality/preferences:
- house-sitting or pet-sitting, somewhere nearby but outside of his usual haunts.
- doing a work-for-board stint at a farm, retreat centre, etc; I know it's winter but people still need labor.
- seconding above suggestion to walk dogs at the SPCA, it's great.
- volunteering at a community kitchen or peer-run center for homeless/struggling people, either baking or teaching others how. (I'd say don't do it at a regular homeless shelter, because the people who manage those places tend to be awful and oppressive; thinking of Salvation Army specifically.) Or something like Food Not Bombs might be up his alley.

Honestly Seattle is TOO EXPENSIVE to be depressed in. It's too expensive for mentally-healthy people with decent jobs, a depressed and creative person just can't sustain themselves there anymore. The stress of any job that would pay enough for Seattle cost of living will very likely be too much for him to deal with in the short and medium term. Depression is not a quick or easy thing to get out of, and he needs to honor his own pace of recovery or risk a relapse. I don't know how else to put it, but that's the reality of having a mental illness in today's economy/society — there's a reason homeless shelters are full of mentally ill people.

Plus it sounds like the people and 'small town' environment of Seattle itself is causing a lot of his problems. So you shouldn't be assuming he's just going to bounce back and get a job and be happy there again after a couple weeks or months. Looking to the longer term, in order to fully move past this depression he's gonna need to make a major, positive, optimistic life change in his external circumstances.

Overall, it's better if you can support him to get into a clear and positive headspace and to make those big life decisions, rather than just letting things continue to deteriorate until he's at a crisis point and/or homeless. So there may be a mental shift that YOU need to make: accept that you don't have power to 'fix' his problems, that his problems may not be 'fixed' in the short term, or that he may not address them in the way that you think is best, accept that he knows more than you do about what he is capable of and what is good for him. The important part you need to play is to offer companionship, respect for his intelligence and his insight, a nonjudgemental ear (and, ahem, maybe a bit more of a positive outlook on life?), and then honor his decisions and his recovery process.

That's what I wish my friends had done.
posted by it's FuriOsa, not FurioSA at 5:54 PM on November 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

What I am about to say is predicated on your friend no longer being mentally ill (which seems to be the case from your description and which you should help him address first.)

I’d encourage him to go back to school or, if that proves too complicated, contemplate a complete change of scenery. Honestly, it would change your friend’s perspective to go and live somewhere else, in a much poorer country, on the planet.

Volunteering for an organization like the Peace Corps would do wonders to help him put things back in perspective and return with renewed energy. The US is a global power and rich country with a huge variety of economic opportunities on offer. Sometimes, it takes spending time in more deprived areas in the world to understand how lucky you are (with the added bonus of looking after others rather than navel-gazing). Your comments on the society in which you live seem very pessimistic to me, and there’s a non negligible chance that you are passing on a bit of that negative outlook to your friend.
posted by Kwadeng at 1:36 AM on November 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

Your friend really needs to not think like this:

We are both in our mid 30s and he has the very accurate feeling that time is running shorter to get sorted for the rest of his life, so working a 'survival job' where you come home exhausted seems wasteful of time that could be spent building that life.

First of all, as you say yourself immediately, he is not building any such thing with the time not wasted by working an ordinary bad job that's beneath his ambitions in life :

However, just hanging around staring at the internet and spinning in circles is driving him batty--he is a driven person with no direction and seemingly no substantial options.

There are so many reasons why having responsibility and a job - any kind of job - would be helpful for him. Increase in self-esteem, social contact (that can be leveraged into better jobs or opportunities), breaking out of the circle of self to focus on what others (coworkers, customers) need from him. It's paradoxically harder to get anything done to improve your life when all you have is time on your hands than it is when your free time is limited. It's easier to get a good job when you have a bad one. Your friend is not going to transition from despair on the couch to whatever kind of situation he considers to be worth his effort in one step, and he kind of seems to think that the things he needs to do to begin that process are beneath him.
posted by thelonius at 7:00 AM on November 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

« Older Advice on how to unlock an Ipad   |   39th birthday party ideas in Seattle Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.