How do I not screw up the rest of my life?
January 15, 2008 4:54 AM   Subscribe

How do I not screw up the rest of my life? I've just turned 24 and my life is a mess.

OK, so this is going to be long...

To start at the beginning - I was raised in a very religious (almost cult-like) environment until the age of about 13. Then, due to my dad's alcoholism/affairs he was kicked out of the religion and my parents eventually divorced. I am now not religious at all, but my parents are still involved with that religion. Around age 14/15 I started having very bad anxiety attacks and ended up in hospital several times. I was put on anti-depressants just before I turned 16 which were supposedly non-addictive but had such bad side-effects that I didn't manage to stop taking them until last year, and that was after many months of self-weaning. I have never had therapy and it was never offered apart from a short period of family counselling around the time my parents split (it didn't help). I dropped out of school at 16 with hardly any qualifications and did mostly waitressing on and off until I was 19. By this time, my friends were going off to university and I was left behind, but I don't recall it bothering me too much at that point.

I had a particularly horrible period between age 20-21 - I was (physically) ill, had surgery, slipped into very deep depression and became pretty much a shut-in. I hardly left my house in those two years and made little attempt to stay in touch with anyone. I did write quite a lot though and had several close online friends, but they eventually got understandably exasperated that I constantly refused any real-world contact and I quit writing because I felt I would never be anything close to good at it. But it's still the one thing I wish I could do well.

Finally, when I turned 22, I realised I had to get off my ass and just do something. I got a tech support job with a broadband company which I really enjoyed and got to be quite competent at and went back to college. I had a manic year of working and studying full time, but managed to pull it off and got accepted into a top-10 university in England (I'm from the UK, but my home country is not England). Feeling pretty confident, unmedicated and relieved at getting a second chance (even when my old friends were finishing university), I went off to uni this September...and completely fell apart. I felt totally intimidated by everyone around me (smarter, prettier and four or five years younger) and every bit of self-esteem I'd built up over the previous two years was zapped in about two weeks. It got so bad I couldn't go to lectures and couldn't do simple things like food shopping (my mind would blank out and my hands would start shaking at the was embarrassing). Obviously I made no friends, but this was almost entirely my fault.

I quit before even completing the first semester. Although I'm relieved, I regret not trying harder. Now I'm at home again, jobless and about to go through the process of applying to university for next year closer to home. I can still go to a very good university in my home city and come out with a decent degree, but by that point I'll be 27. I have friends around that age now either working and earning £30K+ or about to finish PhDs. It's so disheartening because I know I can be smart and capable, I just can't be consistent about it. I hear pretty often that I have "potential" at various things. But when I look at my peers, I see them actually doing stuff rather than just having the potential to do stuff. I've coasted on "potential" for way too long - there has to be a point where I start delivering, and I'm not. I should be at the same level as them, but instead I'm five years behind thinking I'll never catch up. I am paranoid about getting older and can't help feeling that I'm not youthful anymore and that the things I should have been doing - living my life, travelling, having relationships (I'm still a virgin and have only been intimately involved with one person...several men have wanted to sleep with me, but they never fall in love with me) - have passed me by and that window of opportunity to just be young and carefree is rapidly closing.

My relationship with my parents is complicated. I'm very close to my mother (who I live with) and when my dad isn't drinking too much we can have an OK, though not close, relationship. They are always encouraging and financially more supportive than they probably ought to be given that I'm an adult, but they don't exactly push me to succeed, and never have. I guess the fact they believe the world is close to ending means they don't put too much of an emphasis on getting a solid education and I resent the fact that they allowed me to drop out of the education system at such a young age. I'm sure I was a brat at that time, but I was, socially at least, a very naive kid and it was their responsibility to maintain some sort of structure in my life and they didn't do that. I also resent that my mother allowed me to be medicated at such an early age and did not insist on my doctor addressing the real problem. To have spent such important years feeling alternately crazy and numb was, I believe, very damaging and I'm still trying to figure out things about myself I should have been learning years ago. But I'm not blaming them for everything or for the decisions I have made as an adult. I know they love me and just want me to be happy, but they are not good mentors and I feel like I'm having to figure out all this stuff on my own with no one to help guide me or even just give me something to do and let me get on with it.

Right now, I am very close to being depressed and shutting myself away from the world again. I am struggling to sleep and eat properly, I waste days in front of the computer doing nothing, I'm avoiding people and I'm panicking at the thought of going outside. I don't want this to be happening again, because I'm not sure I could make it through twice. I don't really remember not feeling depressed, but at least when I had a job and college I had a certain amount of obligations which forced me out into the world and gave me the motivation I needed to get things done. I'm looking for a new job but I am still quite devastated by my university failure - it has hit me hard because I genuinely wasn't expecting it and my mother simply can't understand why I'm upset about it. If it had happened when I was younger it would bother me less, but with the sense of urgency and the fear of "running out of time" I already have, it's very hard to accept that I have failed yet again.

I realise my issues are not solvable by just posting this question. I feel guilty for even writing all of this because I know that compared to many people I haven't had a hard a time at all, so maybe I'm just spoiled and lazy and have no one to blame but myself. I'm considering therapy, but I'm worried about approaching my doctor because I absolutely will not go on medication again (and I know that's what will be suggested because this is the NHS and it's cheaper/easier to drug someone than it is to fix them).

In short, I am lost and alone and terrified. I guess I just want advice, hope, reassurance that it's not too late for me to be OK. I'm tired of being miserable and scared of the whole world. It's exhausting and I want to live and not feel this damn old when I'm only in my mid-twenties.

(I'm sorry about the length, and for being whiny.)
posted by matryoshka to Human Relations (34 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
I was in a similar situation to yours a few years ago. Over the course of 3-4 years, I worked a lot to change. Here are some tips.
First step, get out of your mom's place and live by yourself. Get a room mate or two if you can, they're great. For me, living in the big city made a difference. I got a crappy job that paid the bills and that was ok.
Then go back to school, or take a course or whatever. You need to be around people.
Try to talk to them casually to forge friendship. Friends help you feel less lonely and more energetic and alive.
Nothing's gonna change overnight, it takes time.
posted by PowerCat at 5:14 AM on January 15, 2008

It is definitely not too late! You're only 24! You've barely begun. One thing you need to do is stop comparing yourself to other people. You are you, not them.

There are plenty of folks who go to college later in life; your school may even have an organization for "non-traditional" students. Seek it out, because you may benefit from talking to those folks and learning about their own life experiences. I'd be surprised, should you join one, if you weren't the among the youngest in the group, because it is not uncommon for people in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s to be going to university, whether it's for personal enrichment or a career change or a new beginning. Here's a good story about someone who went to college later than normal.
posted by MegoSteve at 5:18 AM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have a similar story, but less difficult in many ways -- but you can't really compare these things. My story, the short version: Alcoholic mother, undiagnosed teenage depression, crashed in university after being a straight-A student all my life coinciding w/ another major depression. At about age 22 I decided that I could not live my life so unhappy all the time. But I didn't have the gumption to end it.

So, I pretended to be happy. Over time I found that pretending to be happy is a good way to learn to be happy.

I started seeing a therapist twice a week (No drugs). I let go of ambition. I was lucky because I found a job I loved. I devoted myself to it, but did not entertain the grander ambitions that I had before my second depression. I only did things that made me happy. If it made me feel insecure, I didn't do it. I did not allow myself to think negative thoughts about myself -- kind of like cognitive behaviour therapy, I think. I stopped therapy after a year, but I should have gone longer, in retrospect. After a year or two, I was feeling much better about things.

After about 4-5 years, I started to have ambition again. At 30, I went back to school and am doing well. I returned to therapy before attempting school again, and it is very helpful.

So, what can I offer you? Please consider seeing a good psychotherapist. Please consider not blaming yourself for things that you could not help. If you had been diagnosed with cancer and not depression you would not call yourself lazy. When I was trying to change the way I was thinking about myself, I had to remind myself that I knew that I wasn't well, and that therefore my perspective on the reasons for my failures were not trustworthy. I didn't try to make myself believe it wasn't my fault, but I made myself agree to stop assuming it was and look at it like a scientific experiment. Start from a neutral position, and look at the evidence. It's hard to explain what I mean. But therapy will help.

As for losing your youth, all I can say is that you are still so young that you have nothing to worry about, and that if you were older, you might not even worry about taking 4 years to repair your health, because you'd see that 4 years is no time at all.
posted by girlpublisher at 5:34 AM on January 15, 2008 [9 favorites]

24 is still *so* young. My mother started university at 45 (part-time, while working full-time and raising five children) and she did quite well. The advantage of going to school when you're a little older is that you're intellectually more mature, will appreciate it more and do better academically.
posted by orange swan at 5:47 AM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You really haven't screwed up your entire life. Given average lifespans these days, look at it logically - you're maybe a quarter of the way through. Amazing things can happen in very short times, and you have years and years ahead of you yet.

As noted above, leaving home and moving in with other people is a really good start. From your question you're either Scottish, Northern Irish or Welsh, so pick a big city somewhere in your home country (or another part of the UK) and look for a job there. Go on or Craigslist or Gumtree, and look for a shared flat.

Moving in with other people when you've never done it can be scary and really exciting, and there is no better way to simultaneously learn the basics of how to look after yourself (shopping, paying bills, keeping the place clean) and social interaction (contrary to popular belief, most people are inherently pretty awkward - living together and socialising is how we learn to overcome that).

Work for a couple of years, and look for something to do in your spare time that will get you out and let you do creative and interesting things. has a vibrant meetup culture, and from experience I can tell you it's a fantastic way to meet new people in a big city. I even met my wife through it!

Uni will always be there, and tuition costs are still low enough in the UK that you can conceivably save up and have a solid buffer of cash ready when (if) you want to give it another go. Also, remember that all the eighteen and nineteen year olds (and a few of the older ones too) who start uni and seem so together and cool and experienced and amazing are exactly the same as you - everyone tries really, really hard to be awesome when they start university, as for many people it's the first time in their lives that they have the opportunity to reinvent themselves, to start completely over with the humiliations, pettiness and same old, same old of school behind them.

You'll be fine, you really really will.

Oh, and get yourself along to a Mefi meetup. I've still not got to one yet, but by all accounts, they're generally rather lovely, and made for folks like you who need the company of fellow sometimes socially awkward but fundamentally awesome people.
posted by Happy Dave at 5:50 AM on January 15, 2008

Best answer: I thought it might help you feel less alone and 'running out of time' if you could see some of the previous versions of this question:
'What should I be when I grow up?',
'Am I too old for an MBA?',
'Is 30 too late to get a degree?',
'How old is too old to start over?',
How do I go back to college?.

My experience: I'm going to graduate from uni at almost 24, six years after I finished high school. My younger brother will finish the same time as me, and he failed almost an entire year, took six months off to live in Indonesia learning the language, and drove around Australia having huge adventures for a year. Most people I know from high school have already finished and gotten real jobs. Most people I know at uni and at my student jobs are two to four years younger than me. The supervisors I'm working under at my work experience position are my age or just older, and they've been working for a couple of years now. But then, I also have a couple of friends who have started and stopped and drifted through uni, so they're now almost 24 and working retail, still thinking about going back to uni for something they'd actually like one day. And you know what? My age has never made the slightest difference. It doesn't make a difference to me that X hasn't got a degree. Nobody's ever said 'isn't that a little old to be taking first year maths?', or anything like that. A fair proportion of the other students I tutor are older than me.

Actual advice: see a doctor. Take in a written script for yourself, with a whole bunch of paraphrases for 'I will not take drugs', and repeat them as many times as you need until you have to leave or you get a non-medication suggestion. Then take the advice of the therapist you get, instead of anything else I write :). But also, if you go back to uni take advantage of the 'non-traditional students' stuff, to avoid the 'surrounded by younger better faster people!' feeling. And stop telling yourself you're passing the cutoff to the young and carefree days - I have late 30s friends who are still successfully fitting in with my 20yo uni social scene, so you've got a lot of time left to do it in!
posted by jacalata at 5:51 AM on January 15, 2008 [3 favorites]

I don't even think you'd be non-traditional. God I'm 32 and still trying to figure myself out. And probably will be for a long time.

I'm at work and can't type a lot but I certainly have felt similarly to you (without a lot of the parent issues). My one observation is that people who have more stable lives than me stuck with something at some point and really buckled down and learned something. I never did that, exactly, and ended up bouncing around between sort of low level careers. If I'd done a nursing program 10 years ago, things would have been a lot easier for me and I'd have the money to do what I want to do now.

I'm not complaining, exactly, because I've had an interesting life and done a lot of interesting things that my peers haven't done. The grass is always greener. So it's not regret, and I don't think I could have gone through school at the time, so it doesn't matter.

At 24, you could do ANYTHING AT ALL. Don't forget that. I mean, really at 32 I could do the same and I have some significant years on you.

Additional advice: find a style of social dancing that you like and go to classes. It will be awkward at first but it's an insanely good way of meeting people. I never really put much thought into it but I've always gone to dances and looking back, many of my strong relationships I've met through dancing or music.

Sorry this is discombobulated but I'm typing through scanning boring documents.
posted by sully75 at 5:57 AM on January 15, 2008

Two cents from an actually traditional student. My program in and of itself is very small and competitive, but even then there are about two or three non-traditional students that I've seen. They invariably arrive a few minutes late, keep very much to themselves in class but pay intense attention, and sometimes leave early - probably due to obligations from their other life. On the other hand, the liberal arts elective I take is a fairly popular course and has more than a few non-traditional students. I've become good friends with one of them, who is very engaging in class and very open to discussion of course material with the people around him, and always up for just a chat over tea.

University is what you make of it, really. I felt completely isolated because I lived off-campus, and that's not even on the same scale as the crap you've had to go through. But not everything is scary, not everyone is out to get you. It's not too late to go back; there are things you can do, clubs to join - there are ridiculous amounts of clubs at most biggish Universities - and people to talk to. Moving out is a good move; I don't think I would've been as active around campus if I were living with my parents simply because their mere presence discourages being 'out'. Therapy is a good move, even if it's just to have someone to talk to while you get used to being social again. And I've found that being social begets being social. The more you try to make friends, the more easily it'll come to you. It might take a while, but University is such an amazing venue for meeting like-minded people. Please don't give up :)

Oh, and because everybody needs a hug - *hug*
posted by Phire at 6:16 AM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's not uncommon to see mid- and late- twenties students going to school. Don't stress about it. Speaking as a sometimes-TA, these students are often a joy to work with because they're more serious about their educations than their freshman and sophomore peers. There's a real benefit to NOT trying to figure out the who social-scene thing while you're trying to study.

But the real advice: Any good school is going to have free counseling resources for students. If you feel overwhelmed, go to the counselor. It will help immensely.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 6:32 AM on January 15, 2008

Here's some advice from a book I enjoy:
All you need do is refrain from smoking, drinking and the use of drugs. Eat only wholesome, low-fat foods, with the emphasis on vegetables, grains and fish. Seek work.

Work hard. Show up on time. Do more than is expected. Think of ways to make the job efficient. Don't complain.

Shave, bathe and wear clean clothes. Be cheerful. Don't gamble.

Live within your means. Save.

And then when you have all this in balance, study things of substance. Read to satisfy your curiosity. Don't father children out of wedlock or bear them as a single mother. Exercise. You will find that you will be promoted--perhaps not knighted, but promoted. If that doesn't happen, look quietly for a better position.

Find a husband or wife whom you love and who has the same good habits. Invest. Assume a mortgage if you must. Teach your children the virtues. And then, having become the means of production, you will own your share of the means of production, and if you do these things, all of which are entirely within your power, you will own your lives.
posted by bryanjbusch at 6:35 AM on January 15, 2008 [14 favorites]

Best answer: Do not compare where you are in life to where others are.

That's a punk game.
posted by hexatron at 6:38 AM on January 15, 2008 [7 favorites]

Best answer: What hexatron said. You are comparing your insides to their outsides. You will always lose that battle. No matter what others do, you are a wonderful, pure, complicated human being.

I am older than you. My life is unutterably odd. I have destroyed it many times over. But the pain and efforts have never been wasted. There is another side to your struggle. It does lead somewhere. Keep fighting to be you. I have no doubt you will succeed.
posted by milarepa at 6:55 AM on January 15, 2008 [5 favorites]

Best answer: First of all stop comparing youself to your friends or other people your age. You will drive yourself crazy! Comparisons are good to challenge yourself to do better, but as soon as you start to put yourself down for not equalling their achievements, then you are doing more harm than good.

Everyone has their own journey to take, their own path to follow. Yours might be rockier than people who you know. Don't beat yourself up for it. Even in your suffering, you are gaining invaluable wisdom which people twice your age can only dream of attaining. Unfortunately this wisdom is not reflected in your salary, on a business card or on a diploma, but it is probably more valuable than all three.

Second, we now live in an era where almost anyone at almost any age can "start over" again. When I was in University, I met a woman in her 40s who spent her younger years playing for an orchestra. She decided she wanted a change and went back to school. She studied hard, was one of the smartest people in our class and a few years later she had her degree. The last I saw/heard of her was when I saw her on TV being interviewed as an expert in our field of study. Another 40-something year-old lady (single mom) I know went from working in a dead-end retail job to taking part time classes just to learn more about things. She is now a few years away from her PhD. Although both of these women are wonderful and exceptional in their own right, they are no different than you or I. You can start over and over and over and over and over again and it's OK. You have a lot of life to live! Life doesn't end at 20!

Third, a lot of us regret the time we wasted/mistakes we made in the past. I know I do. If only I was 24 again! And I am sure, there are plenty of 50 year olds saying "If only I were 36 again!" (my age). Again, we live in an era where it is OK to be single and free and get our act together at any age. We now know that "age" is subjective (i.e. in your head) and not the number of years you have been on this planet - look at me, I am 36 but I act like I am 86. My wife is 40 and acts like she is 24! I think she has it figured out. You can't stop age. But you can stop and change your outlook.

If it is any consolation, a lot of us feel alone and isolated. You are not alone in your solitude!

My advice to you is to forgive yourself and then pick yourself up and get back in the ring. Remember - it is OK if you fall off the horse as long as you get back on each time!

Don't give up! You can do it! You deserve all the happiness and success in the world. Now go and get it!
posted by bitteroldman at 6:59 AM on January 15, 2008 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I've been in the same position you are -with my own twists and variations of course - and at twice your age I can say you will get through this and be all the stronger for it.

First, although we all long for love and that special connection we can achieve with others, be very wary of relationships at this point in your life. Someone who falls in love with the depressed confused version of you, will for reasons of their own want that kind of relationship. Rarely does this allow for growth. If you are capable of being in relationships with sex involved without making it your total emotional everything, go ahead. But keep your head straight. It is a temptation to find a port in the storm and can lead to bigger problems later on and inhibit your need for growth.

Be a good friend and rely on good friends. Get a job and keep your education going, at least part time. I got the education I could in my thirties while pregnant or nursing. It can be done. Don't worry about what others have achieved - they are coming from such entirely different backgrounds without the kind of experiences you have which, although you may not see it now, are an asset. You have learned to pull yourself up and begin again, a major skill that some never master. Everyone hits a wall somewhere in their life. You have gone through things as a young person that will give you great insight as you get older. You have the beginnings of wisdom, a rare commodity.

Get outside and in touch with the world. Walk or bike whenever possible. I can't stress enough how much outdoor air can improve one's psyche. Walk to a library to read. Find theater or film that engage you and make you think. The arts are a great gift artists give to others. Soak in other's experiences of the world and use what you can.

Good luck - you will get through this and be better for it. E-mail if you need cheerleading.
posted by readery at 7:00 AM on January 15, 2008 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I'm in the midst of fixing my life after some not-amazingly-dissimilar problems, and I'm not a whole lot older than you. The most shocking thing about this process is how EASY it has been. Once you get the ball rolling, you realize how young you are and how many solutions there are in life. Very few people are truly "stuck," and you are not stuck.

You should go into therapy, move out of the house, get a job and finish university. I know you know that, but it's easier to do this than you think. Tell the therapist you don't want to deal with drugs at the moment, and s/he'll no doubt understand. You'll probably have to do a lot of heavy lifting to talk your problems through, but you know what? I get the vibe that you'll like doing this. You'll feel so much better knowing that your life isn't this endless, gray prison. All this nonsense with depression and anxiety will soon become a phase you went through, as opposed to a state of mind which defines you.

There are no secret Loser Police who are going to arrest you for starting some important steps at 24. If anything, the Loser Police deal with the people who never bother to fix their lives. You are going to be very OK, and I wish you luck. Email's in the profile if you want to talk.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:30 AM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You're not spoiled or lazy. You don't believe in yourself.

You acknowledge that fact that you can't blame your parents any longer. This is good. Ruminating on the fact that your childhood was less than ideal and mom and dad let you drop out at a young age is pointless. We all have a story. My story is just as dysfunctional. It took me a while to figure things out, but I feel fortunate for the process.

24 is young and you're still sorting things out. Don't be hard on yourself. Your first university experience wasn't what you intended. When you start university again you'll be wiser and more prepared, and happier.

24 is young. 44 is young. I'm sure you're aware that you're doing yourself an incredible disservice by comparing yourself to others. Nothing but misery results when we compare ourselves to others. I did it for years and it got me nowhere. Most of us do it, or have done it. Fortunately, I learned that it's a destructive way to go about life.

I think you know it doesn't matter how old your classmates are. What matters are your goals and ambitions. Your perception was that your former classmates are prettier, smarter, more confident. How do you know this is true? Would you look down on a classmate that was older than you? Would you think that she didn't have her stuff together, or that she was lazy? I would think not.

I've been known to isolate when I get anxious or depressed. It has a snowball effect and can become a hard habit to break. I find that getting outside everyday, even for a morning or afternoon walk, does wonders for the mental health. Make plans often, even if it's just browsing at a book store or window shopping. If you receive an invitation from a new friend, say yes. Even if you don't have a single friend, enjoy your own company. Walk in the sunshine. Smile. Chat with a neighbor. Get a life in other words.

You can get your self-esteem back. Make a diligent effort stop the negative self-talk and false beliefs. Tell yourself that you are competent, intelligent, and capable. Imagine yourself as a little girl. Would you tell that little girl that she was lazy? Spoiled? Less smart than her peers? Not good enough to attend university? I think not. Take a couple baby steps to get your life where you want it.

Louise Hay is kooky, but I love this quote of hers: "Life is Really Very Simple. What We Give Out, We Get Back." Corny but true, life is what you make of it. Friends, a new job, and a degree may not happen overnight. Rest assured that they will happen if you put forth the effort and treat yourself with kindness.

Good luck.
posted by LoriFLA at 7:48 AM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I started my undergrad degree at age 24 (omg that was 10 years ago! talk about feeling old!). At that time, I was a virgin, living in a place where I knew almost no one. I'd struggled with depression and panic disorder for years. My mother, while not an alcoholic, was certifiably psycho. I struggled in school though I scored well on tests. I heard that line about "not living up to my potential" more times than I could count.

I'm 33 now. I've got my master's degree. I'm engaged to be married. I'm not depressed, and my panic disorder is 200% better than it was. My mother's better too, and we actually get along. Life is not perfect, and it has been a rocky 10 years, but what's kept me going more than anything is the faith that I can endure. That, and pushing myself into new situations where I was forced to rely on myself.

But probably the most important thing I've learned is that I don't have to be perfect to be liked or loved. I am no better and no worse than anyone else. I'm good at some things and terrible at others - just like everyone else.I can fail at something and I will not crumble. I can fail at something - even something big - and not have it mean anything about who I am as a person.

A Buddhist friend of mine has a saying: "Fall down seven times, get up eight." That is what life is all about, and that is the way everyone lives it, even those people who make it look easy. I've overcome many of my major problems, but I still procrastinate, I still don't have the job I want, and I still act like an ass to my fiance from time to time. The difference I've realized that this is what life is - it's not going to reach a point where I sail through the day on a blissful cloud, never making a mistake. And that relieves me of the fear that holds me back.

Be patient with yourself. You are perfect as you are whether you know it or not.
posted by desjardins at 7:53 AM on January 15, 2008 [11 favorites]

I can't add much to the suggestions to keep at it, but my one contribution is to not rule out medication without a fair assessment. Medications have improved a lot in recent years, even within the last 5 years. They have worked extremely well for me, and my friends, as I have discovered since taking them. The stress level in my life hasn't gone down at all, but my SSRIs help me to cope and be happy. Properly prescribed and supervised, they can do wonders.
posted by mausburger at 8:10 AM on January 15, 2008

Best answer: You are doing amazingly well.

Really. You have great insight into what helps you (structure, having a schedule, sleeping and eating properly) and what doesn't (your old medication, lack of structure, comparing yourself to others). You have goals; you want to make a change. I suspect that if you walk into a therapist's office, they will be thrilled to work with you -- you're insightful, motivated, and intelligent. You've just had bad stuff going on in your life that you're trying to sort through.

None of this means that you're "whiny" or "spoiled" or "lazy." It means you're a little lost right now -- which is a very common thing to feel in one's mid-20s, even without all your extenuating circumstances -- and you need a bit of guidance and, as desjardins says, patience. Therapy would be one way to find that guidance, and it sounds like you're open to it (and it certainly doesn't need to involve medication if you don't want it to).

Other than that, some of the best advice a therapist gave me was, "Do more of what makes you feel good, and less of what makes you feel bad." It sounds like you're working on that, so good for you -- just make sure you're not beating yourself up when you can't do as much good stuff as you'd like. Be patient, kind, and gentle with yourself for a while.
posted by occhiblu at 8:14 AM on January 15, 2008

I've only skimmed responses, so I apologize if I'm repeating anyone.

You have several symptoms of social anxiety or avoidant personality disorder. Reading those wiki pages should give you more confidence to search for a psychologist who will commit with you to talk therapy. I was nearly crying when I read them myself, since I felt like my problems were now something I could overcome with help. I made an appointment, got a diagnosis, and started Cognitive Behavior Therapy using this book as a guide with my psychologist. Ask prospective therapists about them and assert your preference for talk therapy. They may not be a silver bullet for you, but I'm sure they would make a promising start. Learning to deal with anxiety has really helped me feel in control of previously-overwhelming fears of inadequacy and has given me great confidence to participate in social settings. Please get this help.
posted by cowbellemoo at 8:16 AM on January 15, 2008

A lot of good stuff has been said, but just a few things to add:

1. Don't beat yourself up. You've had a shit 6-or-so years, but now you can begin to turn things around.

2. Eventually, you'll be 27 whether or not you go back to school. Might as well be 27 with a degree.

3. Go to therapy, and tell your therapist you want meds to be a last resort. Don't rule anything out, but make learning good coping skills be the priority.

Really, it doesn't sound like you've screwed things up all that badly. You're so young!
posted by lunasol at 8:18 AM on January 15, 2008

My mom went back to school in her early 40s after my father died, and it turned out to be one of the things that helped lift her out of the worst of her depression. Then again, for her it was a chance to get back into the world of grown-ups. My husband went back to school a little over five years ago, in his early 30s -- it was a very challenging (!) experience for both of us, but he did pretty well, found new interests, met people who've become important in his life.

So 24 is still young. :) But yes, it can be hard to deal when everyone seems to be even younger. My mom/husband were lucky in going to schools where there were lots of non-traditional students. You might want to check out your intended school to see if there's a group for non-trads.

While you are getting up the gumption to try therapy, I'd recommend a read of at least the first couple of chapters of Feeling Good, which has lots of practical steps for dealing with your depression.

Good luck. You can do it.
posted by epersonae at 8:19 AM on January 15, 2008


...and it's amazing how fast your life can change for the better.

I spent a large chunk of my 20's feeling like a loser; a college drop-out, minimum wage jobs, feeling trapped by the world and by my own "shortcomings".

I moved to a large city and took it one step at a time.

Within one year? I had a fantastic well paying career in a field I love, a wonderful group of friends, and side-line hobbies that are fulfilling in so many ways.

It wasn't always easy, and I KNOW that feeling of looking at the mountain of changes you feel you need to undertake to achieve the life you desire.

But it can be done, and you can do it. Trust me on this.
posted by Windigo at 8:23 AM on January 15, 2008

Best answer: It is possible to get psychotherapeutic treatment,without medication, on the NHS, though it can be in high demand, and provision may vary from area to area. in particular Cognitive Behaviour Therapy,and other similar treatments, have received NICE approval and are recommended treatments for mild depression (see p.20 Depression: Information for the public from NICE) The guidelines for health professionals also suggest it sohuld be considered where patients express a preference, for instance, because of past experience of the side effects associated with anti-depressants.

Patient consent is an important principle -- you can not be forced to take anti-depressants and the guidelines for doctors make note of suggesting alternatives where this is the patients wish.


At 24 I went to University after being homeless for three years and only a year after a breakdown of my own (studying was what got me through it). Faced with a situation radically different form anything I knew, and feeling utterly alienated form those around me, I, too, crashed and burned back into the spiral of depression and barely made it through to the end of the year. I was faced with the option of taking the whole year again, or leaving, but instead decided to take a radical leap into the unknown and transferred to another university to study something (dance) that I chose as the least likely thing possible.

The next three years contained some of the best times in my life, and some of the worst. Left unchecked, and kept to myself, depression took over and in my final year I was faced with the choice of finishing my degree or finally facing depression head on. I chose the latter and left without any qualifications. I do not regret the decision. My life was not over then at 28 and its not over now at 40. Neither is yours.

You need not face that same dilemma if you return to study. Universities in the UK, even the smaller ones, all have specialist support staff for dealing with mental health issues who will be able to help you through (I have seen a girlfriend of mine successfully negotiate University, despite a crippling anxiety disorder, with that help). However neither they, nor anyone else will be in a position to help you unless you break out of your isolation and reach out to them. This is the first step in the journey you will have to take. It's a journey that never really ends, but therein lies the answer to your question. We all keep moving -- it's how we know we are alive, that our lives aren't over. There is always someplace else for us to go.
posted by tallus at 9:06 AM on January 15, 2008

Best answer: I promise you that someday you will look back on this post and smile compassionately and wonder how you could even imagine that you were "old" at the age of 24.

You are WAY too hard on yourself - look at where you were at 20 and where you are now - you've progressed so much, please allow yourself to look at and admire your strengths. You've gotten your success by taking one step at a time, and that's what you need to do in the future.

You've had a set-back, but you can learn from it. Hold onto your ambition to complete school but know that it's quite likely that a few months in, you might start to freak out. You might start getting scared and doing that comparison bullshit thing again, where you beat yourself over the head by only noticing others who are "doing better than you" oh, look, that person is younger than me! that person over there is prettier than me! that person's not a virgin! blah blah blah...

Ask yourself what you can do to prepare for this, just as you would prepare for any future event (forecast rain? take an umbrella). That's the key question, in my mind - how can you use your considerable strengths and ingenuity to lay in supplies that will see you through the freakout that may come.

My belief is that social support is key, and the way I'd do it would be that I'd start getting connected to a counseling center or a club or some kind of support group *immediately* upon entering school, or even before. Let someone know that you have this funny quirk where you beat yourself up by only noticing unfavorable comparions to yourself. Strategize about how to head this off at before it takes hold. Setbacks are part of growing. Everyone's fighting a battle, even the people who seem to have it all together. We all need kindness.

One other thought - many people are more afraid of success than they are of failure. There are lots of reasons for this - without knowing you, it's impossible to know if this is true of you or not.
posted by jasper411 at 9:24 AM on January 15, 2008

Just wanted to add one more thing - from the perspective of this 33 year old, almost nothing you do before age 25 "counts." (Barring, say, homicide or other major crime.) Everyone that age is a fuck-up to some degree. If you're still doing the same shit at 35, well, then it's time to be concerned.
posted by desjardins at 9:30 AM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

You are not getting any younger. If you don't start trying now because you are "too old," you will be even older if you decide to start trying later.

That said, you are young. Live.
posted by fiercecupcake at 10:05 AM on January 15, 2008

Much good advice above. I just wanted to chime in and say that I finished my bachelor's degree last year, several months before my 40th birthday.

Seek therapy. A good therapist can help you very much -- and make sure you find one that you are comfortable with. (Treat your first visit to a therapist as a test drive -- you are not bound to a particular therapist because you talked with them for an hour.) Your doctor may be able to recommend someone, or you may have to go hunting on your own, but do it. It can make a big difference in the way you see yourself and the world.
posted by flexiblefine at 10:26 AM on January 15, 2008

Best answer: I think you could really benefit by talk therapy. Your commitment not to be medicated does not need to conflict with this: a decent therapist should respect that (though you should not discount their advice simply because they try to get you to consider the benefits of seeking more effective medication - it should be up to you, but keeping an open mind won't hurt). A close family member of mine with serious anxiety attacks also benefited greatly from participating in a group talk for people with anxiety issues.

Your negative comparisons of yourself to others (which are really unreasonable, given the several very bad hands you have been dealt), your extreme and unfair self-judgments, your depression and social anxiety, and your difficult relationship with your parents are all things that would benefit being discussed with a therapist.

You didn't fail at university because you're weak or bad or lazy or stupid. Your anxiety and depression issues (of course I'm not competent to offer a real diagnosis, these are just qualitative terms - nevertheless:) genuine conditions that are reasonably traced to bad situations in your childhood and probably biology (it sounds like your parents frankly have mental health issues as well) got the better of you because you didn't have the appropriate resources to contend with them.

Finally, honestly, you're really so young. People start over in their thirties, forties, fifties, sixties... I worked for some time at an online university and saw people get their doctorates in their eighties. Take your mental health issues seriously and stop believing you should be able to deal with them without any help, and stop as best you can beating yourself up and blaming yourself for them. When you're to the point where you can be pursuing education and still deal with your feelings and anxiety, what other people are doing at your age won't seem nearly so important. Believe me, the older you get the more insignificant 5 or even 10 years here or there seem. Most of us ultimately waste a fair bit of time going down the wrong track.
posted by nanojath at 11:24 AM on January 15, 2008

I haven't read anyone else's answers even though I'm sure they're way better than this little nugget: Four or five years is going to pass either way. You'll be 29 or 30 either way. So why not just go to school in that time? It's never, ever too late. I'm only a year older than you but I'm gearing up to go back to school for an advanced degree. Sure, I'll feel weird when I'm with people that are a few years younger but you know what? There are lots of people who will be way OLDER too. College is not just for 20-year-olds.
Never, ever give up. Take baby steps to getting on track and you WILL.
posted by slyboots421 at 12:38 PM on January 15, 2008

My mother-in-law, after being a teacher, a tutor, a missionary, and a stay-at-home mum, has recently finished her Masters' in counselling - at the age of 50-several. She's opening a business with a couple of other people in a month or two, specialising in marital counselling.

It really never is too late to do what you want. And dear lord, you're not old.

I struggled a few years back with a similar feeling - I did a 4 year undergrad degree over 5.5 years due to depression, and due to a couple other things didn't get real job until 6 years after I'd started that degree. I was years behind my original classmates.

On the other hand, three years later, career-wise I'm lightyears ahead. Funny how these things go.

A good friend of mine was doing his undergraduate degree for a good 10 years. I went to his graduation because I couldn't believe he'd finally graduated, at the age of 28 or so. He's doing alright for himself, and seems to be happy in his life.

At parties I feel old, sometimes - often I'm the oldest or second-oldest person in the room (at age 26) and some of my very good friends will be celebrating their 20th birthdays this year. But hey, in the grand scheme of things, I'm still very, very young.

What you want to do is possible. From my own experience, I'd advise you to go see a medical professional for counselling; and get out of the home environment, simply because it's an added emotional load you probably don't need right now.
posted by ysabet at 3:03 PM on January 15, 2008

Take the long view. When you're 35, the difference in when you got your degree and when your friends did will not make any difference in your relative earning powers. It really won't.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:25 PM on January 15, 2008

realizing that this is a grossly overdiagnose mental health problem- but is it possible that you suffer from a mild form of bipolar disorder? bouts of depression coupled with manic episodes like during the first few years of school?

and an aside- i also just turned 24. i had an abnormally stable and uneventuful childhood, went to an ivy league school, graduated on time with honors and now have a great job and live on my own and have a boyfriend who loves me dearly. Yet I share MANY of your feelings of insecurity when comparing myself to my classmates who have more prestigious jobs that pay better, nicer apartments, perfectly coiffed hair, graduate degrees, engagement rings, etc. And thinking about them kills any motivation I have to improve myself and instead leads me to all sorts of espacist activities.

The point being, you aren't alone in this feeling. There will always be people who have more of x or are better at y than you are. Of course the converse is true as well. Blaming yourself, your parents, or your background may be irrelevent. The transition to adulthood is a universal phenomenon, the ambiguity and uncertainty of what lies ahead is duanting no matter what pedigrees, achievements, or material things you possess.

Find small things that make you happy (for me, things like excersice, fruit, setting achievable goals, being social, all work wonders). Compete only with yourself if you can help it. I agree with everyone above that says it's never too late to be in school. My mom went to college in her 30s while taking care of two kids; and I am sure there are many people like her who look at you with the same envy and intimidation you feel regarding 19 year olds- wishing they were in school at your age, and had your level of selfcognizance, gumption, and desire to be better.
posted by flaneuse at 4:16 PM on January 15, 2008

tl;dnr. Don't sweat it, you're young. During my youth, Southern Fundamental Babtist, mom ran off with the preacher dude and presto! half-sister. Shit sucked for a long long long time (my high school years were totally fucked)... but yeah, around 30 or so... not a big deal anymore... Fuckers have been married longer than my father was, perfect for each other. Screw 'em, f**k 'em, totally ignore them for the next 10 years. Life works out in the end. (Mom is sorta cool now...)

Toss out that shit an flip 'em the bird. Worry about it 10 years from now.
posted by zengargoyle at 2:05 AM on January 16, 2008

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