Need help "moving forward" in life
September 21, 2020 11:46 PM   Subscribe

Feeling isolated, alone, and lost in life; what can I change to move forward?

Just over five years ago, I ended my first serious romantic relationship, not long after seeking advice here on the behavior of that boyfriend.

I was able to see after leaving that I'd been in an, at worst, an emotionally abusive relationship, or at best, an utterly incompatible one.

I suppose what makes things difficult is that, for most of my life, certainly all through my adolescence and early 20s, I had a host of issues - anorexia, bulimia, severe depression, anxiety - therefore I really missed out on socialising with people my age, so when I met my ex partner, who was of course wonderful at the start, I thought everything had finally come together.

I've spent the years since the breakup slowly building up my self esteem and trying to heal myself from that damaging relationship. I've also finished a PhD, and have been working as an (untenured) academic.

When I exited the relationship, I moved back home with my parents, which was meant to be temporary. What I need help with, however, is the fact that I'm still there, for a variety of reasons. But the situation with my mother has become untenable. We have frequent arguments, which escalate quickly into her insulting me, and I'm left feeling incredibly anxious, with no one to talk to about it. I have very few friends, and in the past 5 years, have only dated 2 people, both of which ended badly.

What also compounds my problem is the fact that my job is unreliable owing to the current situation with COVID, and I'm becoming more and more disillusioned with academia. I'm also very isolated in life - as I said, very few friends, my job is very alienating, I don't have relationships with coworkers, I basically have no social or support network besides my immediate parents, and one or two friends.

I thought by now I'd have met a (good) partner, something I've badly wanted for a long time, but has always seemed to elude me.

What's stopping me moving out is, honestly, a terrible fear, of where to go, of being alone, of being in a precarious financial situation.

I've unfortunately found therapy useless. Since my late childhood, I've seen a variety of psychologists, psychiatrists, and apart from glimmers here and there, I've found them very unhelpful. For the past year, I was seeing a doctor who I thought was on my wavelength, and yet, he recently gave me an ultimatum, that he could only continue to be of help to me if I took more medication, a route I'm determined not to go down again.

I believe I need encouragement and direction to build my life, not to be diagnosed with a mental disorder and medicated.

I'd be so grateful for any advice, especially if you've had a similar history to me, about how I can move forward, how I can begin to create my own adult, independent life?
posted by NatalieWood to Human Relations (13 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I'm going to avoid going into any detail on my own past, but I do see some commonalities with you in your question.

Depending on what your parents are doing this might not be tenable for you. Right now, there is a great opportunity for anyone who has had difficulty making friends in the past -- many people who are staying at home much of the are interested in meeting with others who have been consistent with their own precautions. If you are interested in socializing by, for example, meeting up in a park to sit apart and talk while wearing masks, or go for a hike, there is a good deal of opportunity for making friends. Many people have found themselves outside of their former social attachments because there is such variation in what precautions people are following and if you are being more careful, you don't want to meet up with someone who has been going out to parties or something. It's a great time to reach out to people you might not know well, or even know only online. If you don't know anyone in that category who lives nearby, check out meetup groups and similar groups on other platforms, many of them have switched to zoom. And a lot of people aren't expecting polished social skills in person right now, since so many people are staying in.

It's difficult to not get along with a parent you are living with. You might look for some online groups where people can talk about the stresses of living with parents as an adult, or even start one, there are many people who have had to move into that situation now and would probably appreciate someone else to talk to about it.

As for psychologists, while they are helpful for many people it's not the right answer for everyone. Maybe you can find another one you like, or maybe working on some of your issues on your own might be what you want to do, or maybe there is some other sort of professional that can help with things like a life coach.
posted by yohko at 12:31 AM on September 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

Also, you need to work on a financial plan for the long term, with an eye towards getting out of your parents house. You might look at some of the FIRE retirement planning groups online, not because you want to retire early but because there is a lot of focus there on how to save money and earn extra money on the side, in a way where it's very normalized. You might not find much understanding on the more negative sides of living with your parents there though, as most people in those communities who choose to live with their parents probably have a different sort of relationship, though you might find a few ideas around how to work around specific difficulties.
posted by yohko at 12:52 AM on September 22, 2020

Move out. And I get it, you’re afraid. So what! Do it anyway! No one ever guaranteed you an easy pain free life. If you wait for everything to be perfect before you leave home, you’ll never do it. But if you move out, you may move into a share house with other people and make new friends. You might move across the country. You might find a better job. You might meet your soulmate. But if you stay, you’ll have what you’ve always had, and that’s not making you happy. Life is about taking risks because if you don’t, you’ll never get anywhere and you’ll spend this short time you have on earth wondering what would have happened if you just tried anyway. Be brave, the whole world is out there for you.
posted by Jubey at 12:57 AM on September 22, 2020 [21 favorites]

As someone who also lost much of their adolescence and 20s to severe mental illness & disordered eating and grew up with parents who were high conflict/low nurturing/frequently hurtful & insulting, the thing that made the biggest difference for me was getting the hell away from that house.

Was I a great housemate when I moved out? Nope. I was somewhere between meh and terrible, depending on how bad my mental health was and the impact that had on executive function (I was the housemate who would never clean up unless prompted to, I let a wooden window frame in my room rot to the extent that the wood came away from the glass and there was a hole at the edge of the the window because it didn't occur to me that that was a problem I was meant to solve, or even highlight to the other people living in the house or the landlord, because I grew up in a house where causing or highlighting problems = getting extremely yelled at and degraded, so what possible motivation could I have had to highlight problems when I thought it was a surefire ticket to getting yelled at?). Was I happy when I moved out? Not particularly, I was frequently very depressed and low-functioning, although I managed to keep my life together enough to that I didn't lose my job. Was this a necessary step towards getting to a place where I could actually build a meaningful life for myself, even if it wasn't a particularly happy or high-functioning time? Absolutely yes.

Therapy didn't work for me at all until I was willing to admit the huge impact that the way my parents treated me growing up had on my personhood and start engaging with therapy from a trauma angle, rather than a depression-symptom-management angle. Medication didn't work for me at all, because the problem was not "chemical" depression but the kind of depression that comes from deep-seated trauma and worthlessness issues, as a direct result of being raised by people who were incapable of being kind, nurturing or appropriately attentive to my needs. For me, it wasn't possible to heal from that trauma until a) I got away from the place where the trauma happened and the people who had done it to me and b) I was able to break through the many self-protective layers my own psyche had constructed for me and actually admit that this trauma was the root cause of everything that was making me feel relentlessly terrible.

I hear that you're afraid. Sometimes when we have parents who insult and undermine us, part of their narrative is that we're incomplete, incompetent people who can't survive without them, because if they can get us to believe that then they can continue to manipulate and control us, including keeping us close as an unlimited source of further opportunities for abuse. There's probably a voice inside you right now that's telling you, unsafe and unhappy as you feel in your current environment, that it would be worse if you tried doing something else because [insert reason that either your parent or your own depression thinking has cooked up to convince you this is a risk too scary to take]. I get the opposite of grass-is-greener-over-there syndrome a lot of the time, where my brain convinces me that the bad status quo is better than the possibly-worse, possibly-better unknown in a well-meaning but maladaptive attempt to keep me safe and contained. From what you've written, it doesn't sound like the grass where you are is especially green right now, so why not try some other grass and at least see if you can make a go of it?

When I moved from my parents' house to a place of my own several hundred miles away, the new grass was not especially green either and I was unhappy a lot of the time, but it was an absolutely necessary step that made it easier for me to find other, greener grass in the long term. Right now you've got whatever narratives you've internalised about yourself either from your parents or mental illness or both floating around in your head, whatever internal structures your brain has built to perpetuate those narratives in the hope of keeping you "safe" in a fairly restrictive sense, and you're getting constant repeat exposure to those faulty narratives whenever your parent begins insulting you during an argument. If you move you, you'll still have the internal versions of those narrative, but you'll also have free space where no one is continuing to reinforce those things in their interactions with you. That free space is the breathing room you need to begin challenging some of those narratives and constructing new ones about yourself, which is a key part of the early journey of building the life you actually want to live and the self that you actually want to be.

You ask how to create your own adult, independent life, and I think "independent" is the key word here. This is going to be so many times harder to do if your mother reminds you of everything she doesn't like about you every time you fight. You deserve the space to figure out what you actually believe about yourself and what you actually want your life to look like, and that's going to be easier if actual physical distance and space from your family of origin is involved. As Jubey says above, be afraid and do it anyway! The brain is very good at convincing us that a bad now is better than a maybe-worse, maybe-better future. But you don't get to find out if it's maybe-better or maybe-worse if you stay where you are, and even if it does turn out to be worse in the short term, it might also be the first step you need to take towards better in the long term.
posted by terretu at 3:49 AM on September 22, 2020 [33 favorites]

Feeling alone and isolated is the worst. I have been there- it's a dark place and seems impossible to escape. I feel for you.

So how can you cultivate healthy connection to Life and others? Let me suggest taking time (ideally in silence, maybe even over the course of weeks etc.) and get ruthlessly honest/selfish with yourself … and decide what is REALLY important to you (what MUST you do before you die?) How about the setting? What kind of place would you want to live? How can you exercise the extraordinary freedom that you have? Maybe it's partially tied to academia, maybe not.. but write it all down, and review it every morning and night - then start DOING that, little by little, no matter how impossible it might seem. Train yourself to 'see' your dream/ideal.

For me it was art. First I did the strange thing of buying paper, pens. Next, I doodled. Next, I researched. Next I set up an Instagram, went to art shows.. etc. etc. etc. I just built and built, little by little- every day no matter how small... just slowly growing a personal 'mandala' so to speak... I started taking care of my body and mind SO THAT I could better execute my activities. I met obstacles/challenges with creativity... not frustration/anxiety... and I let my MY priorities lead me.

And here's the thing... I'm certain that by spending more energy/ focus on your projects - your world will change.. You might have to straddle a crappy job and your 'dream' - you might have to put up with some shit... but that's OK... as long as you're building, right? You will open up and ‘create’ meaning, discovering opportunities to give, contribute and connect with people/activities that you naturally and freely enjoy, and people in-turn will ENJOY/ BE DRAWN / CONNECT TO YOU.

The key is the shift from the death-spiral mentality and re-directing your nervous system and all of that mental energy towards your projects. You've done extraordinary things- and you've got a glorious, massive blank canvas in front of you... I'm confident you'll organically find the connection and meaning you seek- you'll be living and breathing it.
posted by mrmarley at 6:01 AM on September 22, 2020 [3 favorites]

It's a long time since I read it, and it's maybe a 'you either love it or hate it' kind of book, but Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway might be a useful read for you. I think I read the whole thing, accepted the parts of it that spoke to me, rolled my eyes at the other parts.

It sounds like you made the very constructive, capable decision a few years ago to retreat to a place of (relative) safety, to get away from the abusive relationship you were in. Brilliant decision! But a. that place no longer feels so safe and b. It sounds like you're now more than ready to start growing again, moving out into the world and deciding what the next chapter's going to be like for you - what hobbies, friends, relationships, career, locations and so on might be a part of it. And it's scary to turn around that momentum and take those first steps out again in a new direction. But the first few steps are the scariest, and each step gets smaller and less frightening, until one day you look around and things are settled again, and better, and the new things you're trying are smaller, more manageable, just refinements to a life that's basically OK.

And taking things one step at a time is fine. You don't have to find a new home and friends and a job and a partner and find new hobbies all at once. It does sound like the first, most important step will be to move out. If you can do it in a way that brings some low-key social contact with pleasant housemates, great, but whatever works. Do that, let the dust settle a little, then look round and think, OK, what next?
posted by penguin pie at 7:07 AM on September 22, 2020

Being diagnosed with a disorder is okay if it's reasonably accurate. You can make your own choices about medication. Being diagnosed can be a way to understand yourself, to see that no wonder I get super-anxious, have crippling depressions, emotional volatility, but look at me, I managed it today. It can be useful to have meds as an option. I have an anti-anxiety med in the house, almost never use it.

If you have, say, Bipolar Disorder, a lot of therapists are unable to provide good treatment, because it's more complex, and many therapists are not adequately trained or skilled. Keep looking; interview therapists about their ability to help you learn some new behavioral management skills, and cope with the way things work for you. There are things you can do with a therapist acting as coach - regular exercise, time outdoors, sunshine, good sleep habits/ regular schedule.

Recognize that your parents may also have mental health issues, may have had bad or inadequate parenting, may be overwhelmed. When a parent is mean, unhealthy, manipulative, walk away, I'm going to my room now. If they follow, leave the house, I'm going for a walk. It takes a lot of time, but refusing to accept bad behavior can change the way people behave to you. Disengage, because nothing you do to engage them will make a difference.

You leave by making a list of the steps needed to leave. You do not need permission, you don't even need to let the parents know in advance. Find a roommate situation or apt., set a date, let them know at some point, and go. Do a budget so you know you can do it.

Finding friends in Pandemic is really hard. Loneliness is real and painful. Start a meetup group and meet via skype every other week to discuss a hobby. Do MeFi chat, or Discourse on Reddit. If one group doesn't work, try another. Even attending Zoom presentations that I see on facebook gives me some feeling of respite from quarantine. There are online book groups. Check carefully, some people at work might be nice.

whether you go, or stay with folks thru Pandemic, you deserve respect and dignity. You deserve love and a good life; don't let anybody suggest less.
posted by theora55 at 7:40 AM on September 22, 2020 [2 favorites]

In terms of self-esteem, perhaps check in to consider whether you're being unnecessarily harsh on yourself. It's okay to feel sad about social isolation, but your small friend group, lack of dating success, and disinterest in connecting with coworkers are totally normal and don't reflect badly on you. Your past and present are truly not predictors of future success. (And in terms of past success, you survived huge life challenges, finished your PhD, and are working in academia - you're a total badass!)

I agree with yohko that you may actually find it easier to make new friends these days. I'm in the US and have had modest success with the "BFF" version of the Bumble app.

If you're someone who enjoys journaling, I've also really enjoyed my Dreamwidth account - I've met a number of lovely people on there, and it's generally a safe environment to share mental health struggles.
posted by toastedcheese at 8:15 AM on September 22, 2020

1. Ask your parents if, should you move out and then run into hard times, whether they will let you move back in again. If they say yes then that should take a bunch of the anxiety about moving out away.

2. When you move out go for minimalism. If you don't have much stuff to deal with it makes moves, evictions and housing flexibility much easier. That way if you get offered a job that would require you to move yet again you know you can leave the furniture on the curb and move all the stuff you are keeping in an Uber.

3. Make a list of all the things you desire in a partner. Once you have a good list work on filling all those needs for yourself in a solitary way. The thing is a relationship is more likely to be a big major investment where you are often putting in more than you are getting out than something that builds you up, and it takes experience with relationships to find the right type of person you can cope with long term. Until then and it is worth assuming it will be a long time or maybe forever, you have to be the one to fill in the missing parts.

A good relationship is one where you get something back, but many relationships mean you have to put an enormous amount in and end up getting not as much back. There is no magic manic pixie who will make you feel happy, just a bunch of people looking for a replacement Daddy or someone to order around or someone to make THEM feel complete, or someone who is willing to do the dishes or someone who never ever leaves a dirty dish or crumbs on the counter. Having a relationship means finding someone who works well with you and making the necessary accommodations to make it work. But many people end up in relationships there they have to do a lot of work and tolerate a lot - Even if you find a perfect individual things change such as if they get sick, or if their job turns into a hellscape, where you can find yourself carrying more of a load than you get back. It usually does. Usually there will be times when you are supporting another individual as well as yourself and not getting much support in return. Partners are not ideal parents. There is nobody out there who will make you feel complete and secure and bring nothing but comfort and support into your life. A good relationship is one where you can trust the other person not to burden you more than they have to, and to take as much of your burdens as they can without making themselves unhappy - and that's what you want to get really good at - emotional and mental and physical self care, so that you can only place burdens on the other person when you have to, and not so much that you make them unhappy. You need to be able to be happy without them, not just with them.

So take that list of things you desire in a partner - good sex, loves to look at me, makes me healthy snacks, reliable income, doesn't keep me up late listening to them moan, says encouraging things etc. etc. and work on giving yourself good solo sex, learning to glow with affection when you look in the mirror, pre-planning healthy snacks, get back-up income possibilities lined up, find ways to turn off the mental tracks that keep you awake, evaluate your own self talk and continuously make it more and more supportive and encouraging and less critical etc. etc.

You might meet the housemate of your dreams on Zoom tomorrow and be living with her in two weeks (lease begins October 1st!) but in that case getting really good at meeting your own needs and knowing what will make you happy and secure is even more urgent because you don't want to blow it. Remember, you can't even hope for someone else to be a support and partner if you don't know what you need and can't articulate it.

4. Figure out how you keep getting sucked into arguments with your mother and figure out how to not get into them. This is a really key thing. So many factors go into getting into an argument - maybe she throws something at you and you take the bait, maybe you have unfinished business and resentments towards her and you are the one throwing out the bait, maybe you are looking for loving and nurturing and when you don't get it you are willing to settle for negative attention - if you can figure this out you'll have a key to your psyche and once you have that you can work on the part of that which leads you to the relationship with your mother being bad.

I am not at ALL saying that the arguments with your mother are your fault. She could be being highly abusive and you could be defending yourself. Whatever the dynamic is, it is not working. And that dynamic is likely to be one you bring with you out of your parent's home when you move. So figure that out. What do you need to do so that there will not be an argument the next time you normally have one. Where do you need to change what you are doing?
posted by Jane the Brown at 9:44 AM on September 22, 2020 [4 favorites]

It's not clear how long you spent with any of the therapists you mention -- how long was typical, how long was your longest. It's possible more time with one than you've spent so far might be helpful, but not possible to know given the details above. You don't seem interested in seeing another, so I won't dwell on it. I'll only say that a therapist with the right style might make a huge difference. I'll spare you the details from my own experience unless you're interested.

You also seem to view meds as not the solution. Neither did I, and when I ultimately tried antidepressants, it was unsuccessful. But it led my psychiatrist to suggest genetic testing. The idea was that it would identify which drugs/classes of drugs would work better or worse for me based on the genetic findings. It revealed an issue I never would have known I had, and suggested a different class of drug could be helpful in the same way antidepressants might help someone else. In my case, I was prescribed an anticonvulsant, counterintuitively (to me, anyway). It helped a fair amount, with no noticeable side effects.

Apologies if neither of those subjects are of interest.
posted by troywestfield at 9:47 AM on September 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

Feeling isolated, alone, and lost in life; what can I change to move forward?
Literally anything. We learn by getting out of our habits. I suggest: take a walk every day. That one seems to always open more doors for me.
posted by j_curiouser at 9:54 AM on September 22, 2020

We have frequent arguments, which escalate quickly into her insulting me, and I'm left feeling incredibly anxious, with no one to talk to about it.

That is not okay. Please consider making a plan to move out as soon as you can. If this were a romantic relationship, we would all be saying DTMFA. You do not deserve to be insulted and staying with someone who insults you is not a healthy or effective way to avoid being lonely. Also, I think it's almost impossible to avoid feeling lonely during a pandemic and I feel lonely pretty often. Feeling lonely is uncomfortable but it is one of the discomforts you learn how to manage on your way to greater independence.

Congratulations on getting your PhD, which I could never, ever have done in a million years (and lots of other people couldn't, either). Congrats on getting work; very few people are tenured. You have survived anorexia, bulimia, severe depression, anxiety, and a shitty relationship. Go you! Now it is time to explore a larger world. It doesn't have to be large, just larger than your parents' place as you seem to realize. So figure out your finances, start saving, look for housemates. You got a PhD, you can totally figure this out. It will take time, but you have time to build your future a day at a time because that's all anyone has. We are rooting for you. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 3:47 PM on September 22, 2020 [2 favorites]

Lots of excellent advice above. Echoing all who encourage you to take a leap and move out - you need change, and even if the initial experience is hard and scary as it likely will be, nothing will be different until you rearrange your chess board, and it's easier to keep moving and build momentum once you are already in motion than it is to start from a dead stop. Moving out is a very direct way to get moving.

Regarding the diagnosis stuff with psychologists - these are just frameworks to label and contextualize challenges humans face throughout the course of their lives. Having words for emotional experiences has been shown to be helpful to many, though it might not be the thing you need right now. However, given how lonely you seem to feel, I could see the right kind of therapist being additive if they can focus more on your experiences than physiology.
posted by amycup at 6:16 PM on September 22, 2020

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