Help me...well, everything.
August 21, 2006 3:56 PM   Subscribe

Please help, I am the moistest newborn regarding life skills.

My question is this: how does a person start over after suffering a severe early setback?

When I was nineteen years old, I started taking the pill. A few weeks later, I found myself rooted to the ground with anxiety and depression. I dutifully talked to a doctor, who asked about my family history of mental illness—my father, sister, grandmother, and great-grandmother are all manic-depressive—and speedily diagnosed me as being manic-depressive as well. He started me on horse-doses of Topamax, Wellbutrin, and Klonopin. It would be an understatement to say that I reacted poorly to these drugs. My weight dropped to a hundred pounds; I fainted on a regular basis; I was overcome with fatigue and listlessness. However, when I expressed concern to my doctor, he assured me that the pills were helping, that the pills were necessary, that I would need to be on the pills for the rest of my life. It hadn’t occurred to me that the estrogen could be causing the depression, and it apparently didn’t occur to the doctor either. Needless to say, I now regard him with a hatred I would normally reserve for a bunny-swallower reeking of nun-blood.

I remember very little of the next few years. I got married when I was 21, and moved away from my family when I was 23. Removing myself from my dysfunctional parents seems to have triggered in me a desire to change; six months later, I stopped taking all the pills cold-turkey. The benzodiazepine withdrawal was excruciating, as some of you must know. I wasn’t even aware that it was a habituating drug. However, after a few months passed and the withdrawal symptoms lessened and finally disappeared, I found myself feeling so good—not euphoric, merely energetic and happy. I felt better than I had in years, better than I could remember. I felt normal and capable again, and that feeling hasn’t gone away.

How do I begin my life again? I’m 24 now, and I feel I missed out on a few years that are crucial to developing certain survival skills. I have no degree. I have no car. I have no job. I have no credit cards, no bank account. I have no money. My husband and I recently moved to Florida, so I have no friends, either. I acquired a literary agent shortly after I started taking the pills, but lost contact with him as my health began to worsen. It looks very bleak, all written out like that. It is bleak. My husband is abstractly supportive, but he seems to be more of the “throw the toddler in the pool and he’ll figure out how to swim, and if he doesn’t then it’s his own little toddler fault” type. When I talk to him about going to college, he is given to making mildly discouraging remarks—no, don’t study that; well, we’ll see if you can get in; what would you do with that degree; sure, if you can figure out a way to finance it. This…is not helpful, thought I understand that he is only trying to be practical.

I apologize if this question is too broad or vague; I posted this under my usual name so that I could clarify my situation in the comments as needed. Treat me like Rip Van Winkle—that is to say, do sexy things to me while I grow a long beard under a tree—or like a recently-released prisoner wearing the government’s stiff pants. I am not very good at asking for help, but…please help. I have no idea where to start.
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (26 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Congratulations on escaping from a dark place.

I don't think there's anything you've missed out on in that time that's no longer available to experience. If you've got a passion for studying something, you need to make it clear to your husband that it's very important to you, and take steps to start studying.

Don't spend too much time mourning the past, you can't get it back and it will just make you sad. Focus on what you can do now and in the future to make the most of life!

Get back in contact with your agent, find some part time work, do volunteer work with a charity, join some clubs and meet people with common interests, open a bank account, even if there's nothing to put in it. Don't get a credit card unless you really need it.

Good luck!
posted by tomble at 4:13 PM on August 21, 2006

If you want to go to college, but you're not sure what you might be interested in studying, the local community college would be a good way to start exploring.

Classes are cheap, you can try lots of stuff, and you can cut off as much as two years from a more expensive four-year degree program by taking classes there.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 4:15 PM on August 21, 2006

If you have no job, and it sounds like you don't have to worry about food or shelter, then you have something very precious: time. Don't underestimate the value of having time.

If you have no degree, you may be eligible for some scholarships. You might just find a local university financial aid office and go there and see what there is to learn.

If you are near a university, then you can also go to the library; you can probably get a borrower's card. Think of all the books in all the fields you can look at! Eventually, you might find something to focus on.

If, on the other hand, you already know what you want, don't be afraid to admit to it. Actually, my first impulse was to ask you, "What do you want?"
posted by amtho at 4:18 PM on August 21, 2006

Therapy. Therapy therapy therapy!

Therapy to help you deal with your very real and justified anger at having been treated horribly; therapy to help you recover from years of depression; therapy to help you focus on which life changes you want to make -- and make them; therapy to help you develop more effective ways of communicating with your husband.

Lots of people recover from a shitty start. You can too.

You don't have to do it by yourself. Get some help.
posted by ottereroticist at 4:21 PM on August 21, 2006

Good luck, glad you're feeling better. Clarity of mind is a wonderful thing; when you have it, you have the ability to create the life you want for yourself. Please remember that your life is your own and no one else's, and therefore holding yourself to someone else's list of goals or timeline is pointless. (That last point is advice I'd give to anyone of any age in any situation!)

Some concrete suggestions:

With regard to education, I would recommend taking a class or two about something you are genuinely interested in, as opposed to starting a degree program right now. Community colleges are great for this, and most universities offer classes on a continuing education basis. Try to arrange it so that those classes can apply towards a degree if you go that route later, but make your first priority learning about something that interests you. This gives you the opportunity to get your toes wet both with the subject and with higher education itself, and lessens the financial impact considerably.

Another suggestion is to find a job, any job, at a company that does something you find interesting. Then you can see that business a little closer up, and it gives you the opportunity to work your way into a more interesting/profitable role. One of the rising stars I work with started out here as a temp administrative assistant, only in it for the hourly rate. She decided she likes design & marketing, is now learning about the design business, managing some client projects for us, and is getting a degree in marketing in the evenings.

You may feel like you are behind the curve, but there are many many 24-year-olds out there right now with a college degree who realize they don't really know too much about the adult world. Your situation is not too different, and you haven't lost an irreprable amount of time. Honest.
posted by Cranialtorque at 4:34 PM on August 21, 2006

I think you should put yourself in the care of a reputable psychiatrist who treats bipolar disease. From the chronology in your post, it sounds like you went off your meds six months ago and are now feeling super. Could be you didn't need them; could be you are manic. No need to take chances, right? You don't have to go back on meds -- just be in touch with someone who will help you monitor the situation.
posted by footnote at 4:35 PM on August 21, 2006

You also might be able to contact your agent again. I can't imagine any distance would make his/her job harder. And I'm positive that depression is a common affliction of writers.
posted by shownomercy at 4:53 PM on August 21, 2006

Wonderful answers, peeps, please keep them coming.

footnote, I appreciate your concern. However, the only manias I have ever undergone were induced by Celexa, which the doctor prescribed for a little while before switching me to Wellbutrin. The doctor diagnosed me as manic-depressive based on the fact that I was depressed at the time, and manic-depression ran in my family. As I stated in the original post, I don't feel euphoric or "super"--I feel stable, and the feeling has been relatively unchanging since I withdrew from the meds.

amtho, I am looking into classes in metalsmithing and jewelry design--I do a lot of dabbling in cold connections, but I have no torch. The local community college doesn't offer any classes in this, so I am investigating other colleges that do. These present other difficulties, however--should I strike out on my own? How will I finance? etc. I should also mention that I began a new manuscript in February (poetry, sorry agent) and am hoping to finish it before I make any major decisions about college or jobs, as I very much appreciate the fact that I will never have so much time again. I have no delusions about "writing for a living," though. I mean, it's poetry.
posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 5:05 PM on August 21, 2006

Give yourself some credit - it says something wonderful about you that you fought these obstacles successfully enough to publicly seek this kind of long-term advice for your future.

I also went through some dysfunctional "lost years" a while back, except they were primarily my fault. I managed to pick up the pieces to the point where I don't feel years behind my contemporaries - here are some thoughts.

Think in terms of baby steps - decide on goals and break them down into small, manageable pieces. You cannot get a degree, a job, and a writing contract this week. You can call and ask the local community college to send a catalog, peruse some job listings to get an idea of what's out there, and write the first couple sentences of an email to your old agent contact.

The suggestion of community college is an excellent one. As croutons mentioned, they're cheap and will shave two expensive years off a degree from a larger institution. They're also experienced in helping people with minimal financial resources find ways to finance the classes.

You don't need to know right now what you want to study if you're aiming for a 4-year degree. The first year or two at most colleges is devoted to fulfilling the non-major-related degree requirements, which are designed to expose students to a broad range of coursework and help them define their interests. If you might want to transfer to a larger university for the second two years, ask an advisor to help you select courses that are generally accepted as transfer credit at other universities.

In the meantime absolutely volunteer, for several reasons. It will help you see yourself as a productive and useful person. You will meet potential friends and job connections. You will gain skills you can use to market yourself for paying jobs in the future. It's clear from your post that you're smart and articulate; I bet a school could use you as a reading tutor or a local non-profit could put you to work at their writing and editing.

Good luck!
posted by lalex at 5:11 PM on August 21, 2006

You ask how to get over suffering an early setback: I'd suggest not viewing it as a setback.

I've found myself in a somewhat similar position to you, but with a different set of circumstances behind that position (I was deaf, I am no longer deaf) and I figure it's going to take me a while to sort out where I'm heading (I've given myself a year). Basically, I feel like I've crawled out of the deepest darkest blackest hole in existence (and it keeps getting deeper in retrospect).

There's confusion (what the hell do I do now?), guilt (what did I spend the last few years doing?) and feelings of failure (I'm not where I expected to be at this point in my life). At the same time it's exciting to discover that it's really possible to feel normal (i.e. not depressed, sad, ill) and even happy most of the time and to realise the potential that exists in the world.

The most effective way I've found of dealing with this massive overload of feelings is to take one thing at a time, make decisions as they arise and take as much time as is required to make decisions that don't require an immediate answer. It also helps to sit back and see what comes up, what things are different and learning again how to engage with the world (that last one may or may not be relevant to you).

The important thing is not to regret the immediate past because, in going through that experience, you've probably developed skills that go beyond what you normally would have developed if you hadn't had to deal with that adversity. Now there's the opportunity to use those skills from a better baseline - you may find that things that took so much effort before are effortless now.

Good luck - this can potentially be a really exciting time.
posted by prettypretty at 5:15 PM on August 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

nthing the suggestions for community college classes, volunteering, etc. I also think this point from lalex is specifically worth underscoring:

Think in terms of baby steps - decide on goals and break them down into small, manageable pieces. You cannot get a degree, a job, and a writing contract this week. You can call and ask the local community college to send a catalog, peruse some job listings to get an idea of what's out there, and write the first couple sentences of an email to your old agent contact.

Another baby step I would add to the list is learning about finances and budgeting. When your husband sits down to pay the bills or balance the checkbook, watch. Ask him to explain what he's doing. When you're feeling comfortable, perhaps you can take on some of those tasks yourself or get a savings account of your own.

Also, you may enjoy yoga and/or meditation as a way of developing a sense of mindfulness and acceptance about your personal circumstances, as well as continuing to build on the sense of physical well-being you've rediscovered.
posted by scody at 5:22 PM on August 21, 2006

One thing I would suggest is that you pay some attention to how all of this is affecting your husband.

...he may be less than entirely thrilled with the new functional you.

I'm not saying this is the case, just that it's something to watch out for. In particular, make sure his abstract support doesn't devolve into passive-aggressiveness or outright sabotage. From your description of his behavior, well, let's just say I'm a bit suspicious. Then again, I'm suspicious by nature.

Have you considered trying to hook up with old friends? It might be useful to have a third opinion on things, especially when it comes to education and careers.
posted by aramaic at 5:34 PM on August 21, 2006

I might be shouted down, but... I don't think you've got a problem here. The fact that you're asking the right questions ("how do I get a bank account? An education?") means that you're already so far along the path to doing the Right Thing that your problems are totally surmountable.

How to get a bank account? Call the bank and ask them. But you already knew that, right? See? You're practically there already.

As to your husband... your description rings bells with me. I'm the type of guy who loves to argue. It's not malicious, but playing Devil's Advocate makes sure every facet of a decision gets explored before it gets made.

So I'd like to suggest an experiment: start talking about how impossible it is that you'll ever go to college, that there are just too many obstacles in your way, you're not smart enough, you've lost too much time, etc etc etc.

If he jumps up and starts trying to convince you that it's easy, you'll do fine, then great - he's just the kind of guy who always takes a contrary position in a discussion.

If he agrees with you... well, you may have a small issue there.
posted by Leon at 5:38 PM on August 21, 2006

Leon and aramaic--as far as I can tell, my husband is just contrarian. I should have stated in my original post that he is the only reason I came through this ordeal at all, and that he is boundlessly relieved to find me well again. However, he has a visceral dislike for people who complain, and considerable disdain for people who allow feelings of helplessness or inadequacy to prevent them from getting things done. These factors combine to make our discussions of these matters less than productive.

prettypretty, your story is amazing, and your post articulated precisely the way I am feeling. Thank you.
posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 6:43 PM on August 21, 2006

I second just calling and asking for help. Until these past two months, I didn't know how my health insurance worked, so I didn't use it- didn't go to the doctor when sick or anything, just because I was scared that it would be hard to figure out. I finally called my insurance company and whaddyaknow, it's actually really easy. Most places you call will be thrilled to help you, in part because they will know the answers to the questions you're asking. You go, girl!
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:02 PM on August 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Listen to everyone here who says to take baby steps and not beat yourself up over regrets or anger over what happened/didn't happen in the past few years. Just take responsibility for building what you want today, day by day.

The truth is, most everybody feels like they got a late start in one way or another. I'm 37, I know who I am and what I want and how to get it, but lots of days I still feel like I wasn't there when everyone else got the textbook on How To Get It Right The First Time.

My story is pretty boring: came out, got cut off financially and in every other way, ran around being Ms. Queer Nation, made every mistake a non-drug-addicted young adult can make in America, and finally finished college several years late. Learned to pay bills and cook and be a grown-up somewhere around the age of 28, and paid for the younger years for quite some time.

Now I have a career I love and a happy family with a baby on the way. I know how to cook real food and hire contractors and make friends. My life has meaning, but more importantly, my life *then* had meaning, too, it just took a while to sort it all out.

All these things would have been nice to have earlier, but it all worked out, and now I have a much more broad perspective on humanity than my friends who apparently read and assiduously follow the textbook, year by scheduled year.

Thanksgiving for every wrong move, they say.
posted by pomegranate at 7:22 PM on August 21, 2006 [2 favorites]

I was feeling mopey about my own situation until I talked to a friend of mine who got a great job right out of school (he had just finished his master's degree) -- and since that time he's worked a good schedule and traveled and has had most every trouble solved (and for example, he's moving to Japan for two years. Everything there has been arranged for him.) And HE was moping that at age 29 he felt like he hadn't grown up yet . . he'd never had to find his own apartment, change jobs, go through any of those typical in-your-twenties ordeals. He had a great deal of respect (and some envy!) that I had been through so many struggles! I think there's some truth to this . . . when he gets thrown back into the 'real world' he'll be at a bit of a loss. And thus for you it's more like you haven't had a setback at all. You're on a different path but you are going the same speed as everyone else; you won't realize it until your path merges with theirs.
posted by oldtimey at 8:06 PM on August 21, 2006

Beautifully written post. But please explain/clarify why husband isn't helping with these basic life issues (no money? really?), and the gratuitous literary agent reference, so that I may banish the whiff of James "French" Frey that tickling my nosehairs. I want to believe. I do.
posted by turducken at 8:08 PM on August 21, 2006

Some people get late starts.
Other people get early endings.

You work with what you got.
posted by niloticus at 8:17 PM on August 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

turducken, I should have said that I have no money of my own, and don't want to "take" money from my husband any longer. I feel he has supported me for far too long.

I don't quite understand your James Frey comment. I suppose you are insinuating that I am either engaging in hyperbole or telling outright lies, in which case I don't really know what to say. I didn't mean the literary agent reference to be gratuitous--I hoped that it would help illustrate how unmoored I am from my previous life.

Thanks for more great answers, everyone. You've all been extremely helpful.
posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 8:47 PM on August 21, 2006

Did the doctor do bloodwork to make his diagnosis? I was hospitalized 20 years ago for depression and was put on lithium even though the tests proved I did NOT have a chemical imbalance--simply because I had bipolar relatives in the family ( I was told later that this decision was made before the bloodwork was done). I think that your doctor was an incompetent piece of shit. Get the tests done, if they prove you are bipolar get the medications recommended, if not I would seek out more holistic therapies: i.e.acupuncture, homeopathy (NO SNARKS--this has helped me much more than antibiotics) and shiatsu massage. Your local health food store will be able to recommend alternative practitioners.
posted by brujita at 9:35 PM on August 21, 2006

Hyperbole is a-okay by me. It's the not-so-secret ingredient of all good memoir. (And Frey wasn't a liar -- just a sloppy writer with cynical disdain for his readers.) Hence my question re your husband: In the story that you've woven, he's the undeveloped character. I'd like to know more about him.
posted by turducken at 10:32 PM on August 21, 2006

The first step is to get a driver's license and start getting out and about. The school, the friends and the rest of your life will be there if you get out to meet it. It won't come to you.
And you really haven't missed much. If you were 40 I wouldn't be able to say that, but this is as good a time as any to start something new and different.
posted by ptm at 11:19 PM on August 21, 2006

PRB, a specific suggestion. If you're getting into metalsmithing and jewelry design, have you explored lampworking at all? It seems to be a thriving hobby/small business in Florida, at least based on the number of lampworkers I see listing Florida as their home. You might try contacting a local artists guild, bead society, or something similar. Issues of Bead & Button and Beadwork will have shop listings in the back for another jewelry resource.

Make sure you're wearing your own jewelry, too. It's a great feeling to get a compliment on a piece you've made, plus it's good advertising.
posted by booksherpa at 1:07 AM on August 22, 2006

Congratulations and thank you for telling your story in support of humanity and in defense from the soul-murdering consequences of well-meaning but inept medical care, especially as regards women, hormones, and mental illness.

I suggest you give yourself new challenges, in the form of a job. Anywhere. Doing anything that isn't dangerous. It will most likely be horrible in lots of ways -- all my early jobs were. But you will gain some measure of independence from your husband and you will meet people.

Then consider taking extension courses, classes which give you the college experience but don't require full enrollment.

You are eloquent, intelligent and kind and this will help you on your path, no matter how much of a late start you might think you have gotten. Be careful not to let your circumstances define you. Try to find the similarities between yourself and others, and not the differences.

And look to your childhood and the things that made you happy as a child and cultivate them in your life as much as possible.
posted by macinchik at 8:44 AM on August 22, 2006

These are all such wonderful suggestions. Thanks, everyone, for your support and concrete advice.

booksherpa, excellent point. There are a ton of jewelry artisans in Florida, and I should start seeking them out. I do wear my jewelry when I go out, but as yet I haven't set up a little online shop. That's in the works as well.
posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 10:42 AM on August 22, 2006

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