How can I stop my life spiraling out of control?
January 13, 2018 7:58 AM   Subscribe

I haven't been happy with my life for the past few years and have struggled with mental illness before. Recently things have started to worsen again and I'm really worried about recent developments. How can I get out of this downward spiral (now), and build better habits in and for the future?

I think it might be important to give some background before sketching my current situation.

1. I was raised by wonderful parents who did translate their love in very protective behavior, which made for a careless childhood. I excelled in school and graduated university with outstanding grades, but struggled with increasing performance anxiety. I started a PhD expecting to graduate in four years. However, it took me ten years.

During that time, I struggled with many issues. To deal with the near-absolute lack of structure in my life, my perfectionist tendencies grew to an elaborate system in which I kept track of virtually everything I did. I couldn't read a book without taking notes a certain way, couldn't watch a movie or listen to an album without writing a review, couldn't clean the kitchen without going overboard. But I would get overwhelmed often; when things didn't feel right I would 'stop' the system and engage in mindless behavior: surfing the internet endlessly, playing video games for what must have been thousands of hours in total, and sleeping. And then I would re-emerge and start over; I had rituals for this, like counting to ten in my head or touching a piece of furniture. When things became really bad I would count numerous times a day but couldn't get myself moving, like an engine failing to start, or running for just a short time before stopping. I couldn't get anything done anymore and would avoid work for months on end.

During this whole time, I lived with my partner whom I had met as a teenager. I relied heavily on her in many ways, as I didn't leave the house much. Also, I did go and see a psychologist who convinced me that my system was my problem, not the solution. I know that now and have cut back on it, but keep struggling until this day with the anxiety that's at the root of it.

2. Last year my life changed quite drastically. I did finally graduate. However, my partner broke up with me, finally having lost patience with and trust in me. After the initial shock, there was a period of frantic energy that made me start running, ditch my gaming console, reconnect with friends, and do well enough at my job as a teaching assistant, while actually feeling a huge blackness within me.

But this energy is wearing off and I'm losing it. Work is a constant struggle: I avoid every task, big or small, until it's almost too late. It doesn't help that I feel I'm in a dead-end academic job and have no other work experience. In general, things just don't get done while I keep accumulating plans and ideas, or I just waste time - both by surfing the web endlessly (including this very website). I cry often, sometimes numerous times a day. I dream about my former partner a lot, who I haven't seen for months but miss so much. I sleep way too much and sometimes spend whole days in bed, eating either junk food or nothing at all. A few times, I have actively hurt myself through binge drinking or cutting (but luckily this is rare).

I tend to feel better when I'm around others and not alone, but I increasingly find myself avoiding going out. I'm also really devoted to hiking and especially running, because I like to push myself physically and it doesn't involve any decision-making. But it's getting harder, partly because I'm not eating well, partly because of injuries. I also spend lots of time on the swingset in a local park; I wish I could sit there all day. But this, too, is avoidance.

I have been in (talk) therapy for a few months. I'm really honest there, which is a relief, but I'm not sure I'm actually making any progress with the stuff I'm honest about.

I am both disappointed in and worried about myself. I am overwhelmed by life and its myriad options, by all the information out there, all the people around me - now more than ever since I find myself without my best friend, who was my anchor for better or for worse. I lack the courage, the resilience, the motivation to get over myself and act according to my values, as far as I know what they are. I fear for my future. I feel I've never actually proven that I can function properly, let alone on my own.

I really need to make some changes but I have no idea where to start. I'd really like to now from people who faced similar situations: what has helped you the most? In what order should I tackle things? What's fundamental, and what can wait? How can I keep myself accountable and actually do the things I value or just need to do, without me turning into a control freak again? The more complex the solution, the least likely it is that I'll be able to successfully apply it.

Thanks so much for reading.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
What has helped me the most after 30ish years of struggle with everything you talk about is a combined anti-depressant/anti-anxiety medication.
posted by I'm Not Even Supposed To Be Here Today! at 8:03 AM on January 13, 2018 [17 favorites]

What helped me was finding antidepressants that worked for me. Those lifted the cloud of depression and anxiety enough that I was able to make progress in therapy on the underlying issues.
posted by mcduff at 8:04 AM on January 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

Your description of your system is classic OCD. Front-line treatments for PCD are CBT or medication. If you don’t feel like your talk therapy is helping, then I think you need a different doctor.
posted by bq at 8:42 AM on January 13, 2018 [9 favorites]

Self compassion meditation every day. You can find lots of different ones online.
30 minute walk every day. Not aiming for excellence or anything except walking for thirty minutes.
Stick with therapy.
posted by SyraCarol at 8:43 AM on January 13, 2018 [7 favorites]

Medication can be a big help. It also doesn't have to be* a lifelong thing. I took my antidepressants long enough to get some space from my anxiety/depression and get back on track. When I felt ready, with the help of my doctor, I weaned off on them.

You mention losing the will to do things. Consider "micro-movements." I learned about them from SARK. You aren't committing to going on a run, you are committing to walking across the room to where your running shoes are right now. If that goes ok, make the commitment to the next thing (putting on the left shoe for example). I'm not 100% sure this is good advice for someone who has rituals to manage their anxiety so please discuss it with your therapist. You could just use it for really important things, like finding CBT or talking about medication with your therapist, for example.

*this is not a knock against people who use medication for long periods/their whole life to manage an illness. It was just something that I erected as a barrier to taking care of myself so I wanted to mention it.
posted by CMcG at 8:58 AM on January 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

Another vote for seeing a different doctor, one who prescribes and is familiar with OCD and possibly ADHD.

You sound very like a good friend of mine and right now I caution you against putting all your energy into planning an elaborate life turnaround instead of just doing a few small things like make an appointment with a doctor and call two friends and make plans today. Its the same amount of energy expended but better outcome. Don't get sucked back in to your tendency to plan and create systems to the detriment of taking actions. You know you tend to do this so you can see it and deflect yourself a bit. But long term I think medication and exercise and slowly shifting your life, one bit at a time, towards a more sustainable model will help a lot.

And be kind to yourself, you are still heartbroken and its not wrong to hate living alone. Lots of people hate it. It's natural.
posted by fshgrl at 9:06 AM on January 13, 2018 [23 favorites]

I have watched untreated OCD and it makes life so hard. There are good pharmacological treatments. I’m echoing the advice to consider them.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:54 AM on January 13, 2018

I second the "Stick with therapy." I had a similar background, and a similar experience with grad school, although what made me hit bottom came some years after I graduated in the form of three significant losses within the span of six months. I had the exact same experience you've so far had with therapy as well---the first half year or so was learning to be honest about everything. Then the real digging could begin. I learned over time that just being able to name things and talk about them helps. But it takes time.

I also used medication for a while in conjunction with therapy---I was very angry with some things and couldn't get past the anger without help, and medication gave me some perspective. I got on and later off medication in consultation with my therapist and another psychiatrist. It absolutely helped. You may stay longer on it than initially planned, which is fine. I went through two re-evaluations before I started winding down with it.

The day-to-day part of what you're going through now is hard. There is a road, although I know it is hard to see when you're the person to handle everything all the time. You are getting through it; being this open about it here was one step actually. It's completely normal to hate being alone, to miss the support of someone else. Be forgiving with yourself. Don't feel guilty when you need you-time. Don't ever feel like you are wasting your potential. You are not. When you are ready, you'll make the changes you want to make.

I'm talking from the other side of the bridge. There is one.
posted by seyirci at 10:02 AM on January 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'll nth the recommendation for continued therapy and getting some medication that works for you. I seriously am angry that I went so long denying myself the idea of medication. I wasted a lot of time.

I've also recently discovered Habitica, which I am finding to be really encouraging and lightening my self-reproach while also making me do things I have resisted doing. YMMV and if you think it will just exacerbate OCDish behavior you might be wary. The main thing is to start small and easy. (Like, 10 minutes of cleaning, or going outside for 15 minutes. These small rewards make me feel better about myself and I anticipate being able to up the ante as I get better.)
posted by RedEmma at 11:43 AM on January 13, 2018

Getting older and being properly medicated worked for me and have completely changed my life for the better. As I get older, I believe more of the good things I feel about myself and so far fewer of the bad. Same with others: if someone gives me a compliment, I tend to believe and that helps my self esteem when people think I'm nice or funny. It's nothing I've done, per say, I think that part was just...plain ol' growing up.

But I'm not sure that would have been possible were I not properly medicated. I've been diagnosed with some pretty serious anxiety, depression, and some ADHD-ish stuff and a few little chemicals for my brain make all the difference. Are you medicated? Averse to that for some reason?

(FWIW, reading your post was like a painful flashback to the ages of 18-27 for me. I'm so sorry you're stuck in this, it's truly awful and debilitating. I know it's SO FUCKING HARD to be kind to yourself about this right now but try, if you can. You've made the effort to take care of your mental health and get happier which is HUGE. You've got this. Keep on truckin.
posted by youandiandaflame at 2:47 PM on January 13, 2018 [4 favorites]

I think you need to be kind to yourself. Finishing you phd is a big transition where you lose your goal and often support system of many years. You also lost a partner at the same time. These are a huge deal and you need time to adjust. Accept you need to be kind to yourself.

I agree with all the meds/cbt comments above but also:

Routine. Is it a weekday?

Set alarm for 8. Eat. Run. Shower. Go to the place that you work by 10. All of the days that are a work day even though postdocing etc. is a deadend. It's ok - we're all doing it. Try to have lunch with someone there a couple days a week. Try to work a few hours a day for real and socialize when you're there.

Maybe set some long term goals for yourself. Like go to career councelor. Try to do a networking activity each week.

Maybe get a new hobby like painting or whatever, as a new thing you actively don't track or take seriously.

Sorry getting your PhD sucked. The part after also really sucks. But maybe the part after that is going to be pretty darn ok. Really.
posted by Kalmya at 5:15 PM on January 13, 2018

What helped me:

Ruthlessly sticking to a mindset of living every single day fully focused on the present (for x amount of time until it becomes a habit). This entailed closing the door on the past and letting the future take care of itself. With only surviving the here and now to care about, I got over myself by learning to derive joy and contentment in the tiny details - having a moment of silence right after I wake up to express my gratitude for another new day, savoring a hearty breakfast, paying more attention to my surroundings during my commute, appreciating the people around me, etc.

Picking up a hobby (cooking) I can wholly immerse myself in and use to engage with others. I delighted in executing interesting, unusual, and complex recipes while developing qualities like conscientiousness and resourcefulness in the process. When I got confident enough in my cooking, I used the food I made to build deeper connections with friends, neighbors, and people in my community (by inviting them over for a meal, cooking together, etc). I still cook every day for my fiancé and myself, it's my daily ritual (along with praying before bed) that keeps me grounded.
posted by tackypink at 9:00 PM on January 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

I know you're in talk therapy but my God, what you describe is classic OCD. The meds were life changing for my sister and for everyone around her. Please, please see a diagnostician.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:28 PM on January 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

I have a dear friend who probably could have written this question. She has OCD and has suffered for SO LONG in a really similar way to you. Nobody has been able to convince her to seek treatment and I am worried she will never get better. It sounds like proper OCD treatment is what you need. Please, please, get some help.
posted by Cygnet at 11:16 AM on January 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

I absolutely have also had symptoms not unlike this - feeling stuck, perfectionism, exactly. I have a job which at times requires me to be at home writing for days and I feel totally stuck inside my own life, my own head. Sometimes the lack of social contact and routine really made this situation feel like a prison. The other thing is how totally happy I am when I'm around people and have a routine and some form of structure. It's like night and day - suddenly I have no worries - so you definitely CAN feel happy and productive again, I think - this structureless life doesn't really suit most people!

I think you already sound like you're making quite a good effort - if you're already trying to hike etc and going to work - what worked for me was hitting absolute rock bottom and realising I needed people around, structure and to get out of my own head, and to make changes so I wasn't stuck like this anymore. And as said above - the only way I found to do this was to just stop worrying about the future (as I said, this required hitting a point where I just couldn't worry anymore), the past and literally live day to day for a while until I had a plan, and just trusting that the future would take care of itself.

This was just last year, so now I make vague goals for the future, but my way of fighting my OCD tendencies is just to say, no I'm NOT going to plan this down to fine details - what am I doing just today? And making a list just for today, not looking to the future. I believe you can exercise this procrastination muscle too - I just recently started tackling the scariest item on my list for JUST five minutes to start - (instead of cleaning the house to avoid it) and then as a treat, I can do something else for ten minutes, then another 5 mins back at the hard task - you can do anything for 5 minutes, and it takes the scariness off it. I've been doing this a few months now and it's really working to just STAY in the moment, stay in the day, and just do the few tasks you have to.
Then things take care of themselves.

To me, it sounds like you have a lot going for you. Doing a PhD is hard for anyone - and just like being freelance, seems to lend a lack of structure which doesn't suit everyone. Just start over, make plans, as said above, and once you do this, the momentum will eventually take over. Some good advice above - you can do this! I don't take medication for my OCD tendencies - sometimes they disappear for months - I think we all have our weak points that we have to work on. Counselling definitely helps for perfectionism!

But what I've learned is that I need to be around people - otherwise i turn into a bit of what you describe! The way you're currently living your life isn't suiting you - so just think that this is the year you're going to change that. You need a new approach. Start in the short-term. Plan to see people, go for lunches, reach out, put plans in place for every day, even if only a coffee or a class or a walk/hike. It's so hard at first, but as days go on, it'll all gather momentum and come together and you'll get energy from it. I hate living alone too, and plan to change that, but in the meantime I'm just avoiding spending a full day at home, getting out, setting goals however small, (with bigger goals in mind) - you can do this!

It's amazing how lack of human contact and structure can turn the most successful people into shells of their former selves - and how quickly it can be reversed to set you on your way again. I suggest counselling if you can at all - just chatting can be a huge support - and make some small plans with baby steps, and not focusing on the bigger picture! Most people are not able to see the bigger picture but for people like us, the myriad options are always there and we need to actually step away from that and do the tiny steps. And it can be done :) Make tiny list and tick off when you've achieved a few things. Bit by bit your goals get achieved . But really, how I did it, was by just staying in the moment. Just blocking out tomorrow (apart from meetings with people!) and taking it day by day. Good luck! :)
posted by cornflakegirl at 12:36 PM on January 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

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