Dealing with guilt and regret after majorly fucking up
May 15, 2018 3:22 AM   Subscribe

After several years of being a fuck-up, including withdrawing from two semesters of college, I finally feel as if I'm on somewhat solid ground. But the persistent guilt and regret of wasting so much time, money, and privilege weighs constantly on my mind. How do I accept responsibility for my past without having it ruin my future?

Long story short, after graduating from high school with enough credit to graduate college in two and a half years, I'm actually going to be graduating in five. I'm currently in my fourth year and seeing the cohort I first entered college with posting on social media about jobs and grad school acceptances; meanwhile my GPA is just above the threshold for academic dismissal. I've been almost entirely reliant on parent support, though I hope to pay for this final year myself.

I've been diagnosed with major depression and generalized and social anxiety, but it feels like I'm faking my mental illnesses, using them as an excuse. Especially since I feel very few of the physical symptoms that are supposed to be associated with them. I did therapy for several months and tried Lexapro, but quit both when neither seemed to be doing very much.

I do finally have some things going for me. I've become more confident in my ability to do my schoolwork. I have a well-paying internship this summer at a respected company. My school is top-tier in the highly sought-after major I'm pursuing. I think I'm on the path to finishing my degree and getting a good job at the end of it.

But guilt has become a 24/7 resident in my mind. I can't help but think that since I had the *ability* to do well all along, why didn't I? Why did I waste so much of my parents' money? I'm constantly thinking of how few people get to have the privileges that I've been lucky enough to have, and how little I deserve the chances I've been given.

Besides the guilt, I also have so much regret for the time I wasted- almost half a decade of my youth. I'm probably never going to have as much free, unstructured time again. I can't help but think that I could have spent that time becoming great at something, or taking advantage of having access to brilliant professors, or even just making friends. Instead, I spent most of it in bed.

If I start reading a book about drawing, I think 'imagine if you had spent even a tenth of the time wasted over the past few years drawing.' If I start working on interview prep, I think 'imagine if you had done just one question a day the past four years.' To avoid these thoughts I end up spending my time on exactly the sort of meaningless distraction that I'm angry at myself for having wasted time on- and so the cycle repeats.

Now that I've finally on the road to overcoming my past, how do I move on from it?

Thanks so much for your responses.
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (17 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
 
Because it's pointless. The past is gone and you can not change it, but it also seems like when it was the present, you didn't have that many options either, because you were sick. Old MF standby: therapy with CBT. This guilt shit that the world puts on us is valueless (you know it because you're asking how to get past it).

I don't currently have capacity to delve into CBT and why, but once, when I was beating myself up here, some lovely person pointed out that my mistakes did not include kicking puppies/kittens and it stuck with me. When I fail to reach a goal, all that happened was I failed to reach a goal: it wasn't like I'd kicked a puppy.

So yeah, therapy if you can afford it, David Burns' books if you can't, and always remember, you didn't kick a puppy - whatever you didn't succeed at wasn't as bad as that.
posted by b33j at 4:38 AM on May 15 [6 favorites]


Yes, therapy, please. It sounds like you have very negative self-talk which is common in people with depression. Does someone you know--a family member, perhaps--also talk to you that way? Distance and time will help you see that their narrative about you is wrong.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:05 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]


I've been diagnosed with major depression and generalized and social anxiety

Suppose your career had been derailed because you were involved in a serious accident, or had experienced a major illness. Would you still feel guilty or ashamed at taking time to overcome the effects? Because, in fact, you do have a major illness.

Depression interferes with everything. It's like trying to run with a hundred pounds of lead weights around your neck. Your past experiences with time management are a symptom of that. They are not you.

You can't get away from your past, but you can re-evaluate it. You now have understandings that your luckier friends don't.

It sounds like you are beginning to heal. You might try keeping an occasional log where you note things that went well, no matter how seemingly minor. Reread the log now and then.

Also, write these words on a piece of paper and fasten it to your mirror so you can see them every single morning:

YOU ARE NOT YOUR OUTPUT
posted by Weftage at 5:32 AM on May 15 [14 favorites]


it feels like I'm faking my mental illnesses, using them as an excuse

That IS the illness. When you hear that voice, label it "illness talking."

I had some bad fuckups in college. The only thing that helped me see my way out of it was finding something I really believed in and looked forward to, and pretty much focusing almost solely on that. Keeping an eye on the future and what was immediately next, and saving the feelings about my perceived failures for later. As you go on you'll find out that a LOT of people have been where you are, and the sting will fade as you understand you have a profound connection with others around the challenges we face in life. I recall really feeling like this all came full circle when I was asked to sit on an advisory group for a local university on how they could re-engage students who had bombed out of previous programs - it was rewarding to be able to relate in a personal way and speak up for those students, and I felt it was the kind of life experience that was bad at the time but brings wisdom and empathy later that can be used to help people. You can reconcile the feelings later when you're able to feel them in a non-destructive way. For now, concentrate on becoming hopeful and well and putting yourself in situations where you will thrive.
posted by Miko at 5:52 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]


Dear anonymous mefite,

I see your pain, it really sucks. It hurt so much to have to live with such darkness. I cannot say what you feel about yourself is wrong, because you know your own life the best. You live it. I can only say it's possible to endure such pain and chip away at it creatively and courageously.

And my feelings tell me that you're incredibly courageous in writing this post. You're trying something different. Keep on trying.

I feel that I want to say something with you, mostly because your experience and thoughts are very similar to an earlier, younger me. Probably I "wasted" more years even more years! But I think that any advice I may offer will be more about me than about you. I hope there will be people who can be there to listen to you. This can happen in good psychotherapy but also in other trustful relationships. Can you identify your allies and enlist their alliance?

You said that medication or therapy didn't work for you. That was then; what about now? "A few months" of psychotherapy isn't unusual depending on your goal, and whether you can find the you--therapist combination that clicks with you. Maybe the first one just wasn't very compatible with you, so there wasn't much for you to adhere to the therapy.

Finally, if you're ever going to need antidepressants again, please don't just "quit." (I hope that wasn't what happened.) Instead, work out an ordered, gradual discontinuation scheme with the psychiatrist. Disorganized withdrawal is hazardous and may leave one with long-term adverse effects.

Also, if you'd like to, feel free to MeMail me.
posted by socketophylakes at 5:53 AM on May 15


Hi! College professor here...the folks above me have written very important and useful things that I hope you take to heart. I especially worry that you feel like you're "faking" your mental illness. There is not one right way to have depression.

But, I wanted to give you my perspective on your situation with leaving school and now feeling like you wasted that time. First of all, you did not waste time. You had a major illness that you had to deal with, and that required you leaving school. That's actually a really mature decision to make. And, my classes are filled with students who are returning for the second, sometimes third time. There are a variety of reasons why they had to step out for some years--some physical or mental health related, some family obligations, some financial, some were just not ready the first go-rounds. And that's okay. There is also no one right way to do college. Was that time wasted? As someone who suffers from comparing myself to others, I get why you are saying that, but please do the things needed (therapy, CBT, etc) to try to get away from that. What I can say is this: the students who are back in my classrooms after some time away are often the very best ones I have. Some of my top researchers, and now most successful students, are the ones who came back. Because being in that room is a choice, a choice backed with experience. It's not something they are doing because it's just what is expected after high school, it's a choice they're making. Most of them take way more advantage of their situation than they would have done if they had been "successful" the first time out.

Personally, I think you should be PROUD of coming back. Look at all the hard work you've done! I'd be willing to bet that experience will serve you well in the future. Best of luck, OP.
posted by TheFantasticNumberFour at 5:54 AM on May 15 [17 favorites]


anonymous, I went through the same thing. I was a promising kid who cratered in college in a fit of depression and guilt over wasted time and the costs of school. Unlike you, I dropped out in my fourth year. I'm here to tell you that everything will be OK.

The increasing depression I felt during college almost entirely went away once I was no longer in school. In college, I never felt like I was doing enough, nor did I feel that my work had impact even when I was satisfied with its quality; the high costs of education had created a spiral of remorse over my mediocre performance. Despite dropping out, I got a job not long after leaving school, and as soon as I was in a position where the work I was doing had reverberation in the real world, I felt inspired and productive. Not a day went by that I didn't feel like I had fixed something or helped someone, which created a great deal of personal pride and satisfaction - and that's something that I never felt in college, even when I did OK.

However, I continued to have a lot of guilt over the wasted money, and so I went back to school to finish what I started.

When I went back to get my degree many years later, all of the feelings that I felt in college came back. It was remarkable revisiting school 20 years after dropping out; it was non-stop frustration. Not only did I lose the feeling of having impact, I was having to pay for what I believed to be worth much less than what I was paying - the instruction and education simply wasn't, in my opinion, worth the cost or aligned with what I wanted to do.

I realized that despite years of life learning and a reasonable degree of success, college was still making me depressed in the same way that it did decades ago. I realized that the structure of college had been holding me back, and my reaction to that was depression. And to be honest, that realization made the experience a little easier. I buckled down, did the work, got a 4.0, got my degree, and waved goodbye forever to the (useless, for me) world of academia. I went back to work, free of the guilt about dropping out since I had a degree in hand, and went on to bigger and better things.

You have a great opportunity this summer to intern the hell out of that internship. My hope is that you get a flavor for what you're really looking for, are productive in a different environment, and that gives you something to look forward to after college. Muscle through that last year, and then you never have to do it again.

Don't feel guilt. This may just be the way you interact with the college experience - it may be holding you back in the same way it held me back - and it may be the only way that it was ever going to be. There's plenty more in this world for you to do. Get through, try something different, never look back.
posted by I EAT TAPAS at 5:58 AM on May 15 [5 favorites]


It was my last semester of college, and depression put me two weeks from graduation about to fail out of (one of my favorite!) classes because I just couldn't do the work. By some miracle I hadn't realized, I had just enough credits to graduate without the class, so the professor said one of the kindest things anyone had ever said to me: "If this is the worst mistake you ever make, you'll be a very lucky person." (He was right.)

Congratulations on getting to where you are now! You have done amazing things already, coping with a major illness and getting yourself back on track. And a paying summer job? That's fantastic. Your parents love you (I know, because I'm a parent). Your school wants you to graduate (if only because it's better for them!).

And your peers on social media--never forget that most of us only put our best selves on social media. Most people don't post about the days they're wearing underwear for the second time because laundry is the worst, or the time they completely missed an entire book on the syllabus and showed up to class having no idea what people are talking about (me).

As for how to move forward, I agree with all the previous posters that therapy sounds like it would be super helpful. Your school probably offers resources for this right on campus, for free or cheap. I also recommend taking advantage of every option your school has for helping you academically. Go to your professors' or TAs' office hours. Attend writing workshops. Enlist a buddy or two to go to the library for study time. AND--make time for yourself to unwind. Each night, take an hour to watch a favorite show, read a novel for pleasure, take a walk around campus, or attend an on-campus event. It's really, really important to have time to recharge.

Good luck.
posted by CiaoMela at 6:22 AM on May 15 [3 favorites]


Tanzan and Ekido were once travelling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was falling. As they came around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross at an intersection.

"Come on, girl," said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.

Ekido did not speak until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he could no longer restrain himself. "We monks don't go near females," he told Tanzan, "especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?"

"I left the girl there," said Tanzan. "Are you still carrying her?"

— from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings, by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki.
posted by ubiquity at 6:24 AM on May 15 [8 favorites]


Now that I've finally on the road to overcoming my past, how do I move on from it?

Here's the view from a decade down the road - I dropped out of university at 20 to take care of a family member who was ill. After an intensive year of that, and a year of less intensive, I decided not to go back until I was 25 and traveled, explored music and writing, dealt with my depression and anxiety, worked odd jobs, and generally didn't accomplish much else.

Now, a decade after having gone back to school, I've got a great job and a set of experiences that nearly nobody I know has. It's helped me greatly in my career to be able to identify with people of different background and experiences. I spent the first year or two after going back kicking myself for wasting 3-4 years, but now I see my different path to where I am today as a strength.

Don't beat yourself up - there's no one path to go through life. Many of those I know who ended up on the straight and narrow (graduate at 21-22, work, get married at 27) are struggling in their 30's - so there's no one way to do things. You're where you need to be now, and the road to get here is part of who you are - find a way to be proud of that.
posted by notorious medium at 6:35 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]


In a few weeks, I'll be 50. I have had so many re-inventions of myself, so many times when my perspective has shifted and I've approached life differently... I could spend lifetimes playing "what if": What if I'd gone to a real college? What if I hadn't dropped out of college? What if I hadn't blown that windfall of a substantial amount of cash on a risky startup business that didn't work out? Again? Yet again? What if I'd stayed at that job where I was kicking ass and succeeding hard and offered a lot more more to stay, but something about the culture just tweaked me wrong? What if.... well... relationships, the things I've spent money on have or haven't brought me happiness, the cross-country move, all sorts of things.

All of those things are learning experiences. We learn different ways, and we all have different obstacles to surmount. Some of us don't do well in the classroom experience. Some of us take many passes to learn how the world works.

Yeah, if you've got depression and generalized anxiety maybe seek professional help, but also realize that no matter what our social advantages or privilege, we all have our own challenges to overcome and lessons to learn, and for many of us maddeningly few of those lessons are things that are taught in school.
posted by straw at 6:43 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


Dear OP, congrats to getting yourself on firmer ground. That is a huge accomplishment. I am one of those people who just barely squeaked by in college and life made a lot more sense to me once I was an employed person. Also, I had undiagnosed ADHD at the time, which didn't help. I spent a huge percentage of my adult life regretting the past and fearful of the future. I heard that somebody in AA once said, "If you have one foot in the past and one foot in the future, you piss all over today." And that is pretty much what I did for many years.

I am a lot kinder to myself now. All those moments I wasted? Well, for one thing, nothing is ever really wasted. We carry around those experiences and they often inform our future behaviour for the better. For another thing, people do what they do when they are ready to do it. You were not wasting time earlier; you simply didn't have the capacity to graduate in fewer than 5 years. That doesn't make you a terrible person, it makes you a person who needed 5 years to graduate from college. (Which is, by the way, the norm these days. Bachelor’s degree earners take 5.1 academic years, on average.)

Someone suggested that instead of hating on myself all the time for what I had not accomplished (think endless to-do lists, regrets from the past, etc.) that I start keeping a list of what I had accomplished each day. As a little reminder that life takes effort (for me, eating three nutritious meals a day even is kind of a stretch) and that I am actually doing things but often avoid giving myself credit for any of the things I have done because I am so comfortable with the "I am fucked up" narrative. Only I am not actually fucked up–and I bet you aren't either.

I do have both ADHD and an anxiety disorder. That makes some things I want to do more challenging to accomplish. But that doesn't make me a terrible person, either. More like, I am a warm, funny, wonderful, passionate, opinionated, kick-ass gal who needs to do some things differently than a bunch of other folks and that is okay. And I, personally, am more than okay. I bet you are also more than okay. I bet you are also wonderful.

These days I mostly accept the fact that becoming more fully myself, a person I love, took the time it took. Still, I do have some regrets. I regret that it took me so many years to understand that nobody gets a do-over for having had a shitty (childhood; college experience; bad romance; trauma; etc). We just don't. What we do get is an opportunity to use our past experiences, including the shitty ones, to help make life easier for our current and future selves.

In addition to keeping a list of what I have accomplished, I have also learned to think of just 3 things that make me grateful. Just 3 things I appreciate. I learned this in a workshop about depression. YMMV. But every morning after I wake up, I think about 3 things I genuinely appreciate. Sometimes these are small things. Like I freaking love my clock radio. Sometimes they are large things, like the warm and close relationship I have developed with my grown kid. Doesn't matter what they are. Just recognising that I have at least 3 things to be grateful for helps me be mindful for a few moments and not get stuck in what might have been.

We don't get do-overs but we can start again. At any hour. On any day. So if you find yourself stuck in regret, or self-recrimination, you can try DBT-related self-soothing activities to pull yourself out of your head and back into your body. You can try a gratitude list. You can listen to Brené Brown on YouTube talk about shame. You can limit or avoid social media because comparing ourselves to other people is a guaranteed way to feel shitty. Or you can remind yourself that you are worthy of love just as you are. You are loveable just as you are. There are people in the world who take 7 years to get their undergraduate degree, others who drop out after a semester, and many who never go to college at all.

Would you want a friend to think badly of themselves because they had an illness and couldn't graduate college as soon as they had hoped? Be a good friend to yourself, OP. Be well. We are rooting for you.
posted by Bella Donna at 7:02 AM on May 15 [5 favorites]


Hey OP, one more thing: If you are having constant guilt, please go find a meds doc or therapist. My sticky, obsessive thinking dropped dramatically after I started taking medicine for my ADHD. That was not why I got the medicine and I honestly didn't even realise I was having sticky, obsessive thoughts until they went away. There is treatment for that; you don't have to suffer forever and you don't have to tough it out. It may not be easy to find the right treatment but it is totally worth a shot to deal with that as well as your depression and anxiety. Getting treatment for my ADHD and anxiety improved the quality of my life dramatically. Like, dialled up to 11.
posted by Bella Donna at 7:10 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


That you feel guilt for "wasting" time and money speaks to the fact that you fully realize how fortunate you are to have had the support and resources of your family, friends, and professors/higher ed professionals during the time when your illness was at its most acute. I wonder if reframing your guilt as gratitude for the patience, kindness, and support you have received (and paying it back or forward wherever you are able) would help you put this into a more positive context.

Despite your illness, you have managed to excel academically in a competitive program and obtain a paid internship at a big-name company. That's not nothing! But I definitely hear you on the "squandering of the precious unstructured free time of my youth" thing, because that is a mental detour I take A LOT more often than I should. So when I start down that uncomfortable little shame spiral, I like to try to fall back on this quote:

"The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is today."
posted by helloimjennsco at 9:16 AM on May 15 [3 favorites]


I think that if you had graduated in four years flat, without figuring out how to cope with depression, it could have bitten you in the ass on your first job. Get well first and then get going. (And, yes, it sounds like your pricey education will eventually pay off.) When repeated guilt feeling pop up, you could try waving them away with a gesture, a shooing motion or the middle finger, or a bronx cheer. Try not to dwell. If you can't make a cognitive shift there, then try therapy to help with this. Making yourself miserable is a net gain in misery in the universe. I wish you wouldn't torture yourself. I would be glad if you could find a path to happiness or bits of happiness and acceptance.
posted by puddledork at 9:58 AM on May 15


Long story short, after graduating from high school with enough credit to graduate college in two and a half years, I'm actually going to be graduating in five

Wow, way to go nailing high school so you had room to recover from your illness during college without even falling behind the average timeline - nobody will ever look at your resume and even wonder about your graduation dates!
posted by the agents of KAOS at 2:09 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]


It’s taken me many years to see the gifts born by the long periods of wasted time, when I felt I let life slip uselessly through my fingers. Even now, in my forties, I get sudden bolts of recognition that hit me with the shock of an epiphany – THAT is what my brain was doing, unbeknownst to me, while I was seemingly frittering my life away in my twenties!

What you need is patience – you will not immediately recognize what has been gaining shape inside of you, under the radar, as it were, while you were in the throes of your depression, or listlessness, anxiety, impostor syndrome, exhaustion, burnout, or whatever else has kept you in thrall all these years. Don’t think that ALL your systems were in shut-down mode – at some point, you will be surprised at just how much has been happening inside you right under your nose.

During one of my times of hibernation I discovered this Robert Graves poem, which is both excellent in more ways than one and also seems to capture this kind of irregular life:

The butterfly, a cabbage-white,
(His honest idiocy of flight)
Will never now, it is too late,
Master the art of flying straight,
Yet has - who knows so well as I? -
A just sense of how not to fly:
He lurches here and here by guess
And God and hope and hopelessness.
Even the acrobatic swift
Has not his flying-crooked gift.
posted by miorita at 4:20 PM on May 15 [4 favorites]


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