I feel like I’ve failed at everything. How do I get back on track?
Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, FEB 16, 2005
I need help. I don’t know how my life got so badly off the rails, but it has. I have no idea what I can do to ever be happy again.
I used to have a lot of promise. I grew up in a small Rust Belt city, with good parents who loved me tremendously. I was always the smartest kid in the class, the one with straight A’s, the one who as a kindergartener was brought before the fourth-grade class to show off how well I could read their reading textbooks, the one who was going to be brilliant and amazing some day. I had enough friends of my own, but I got bullied a lot and never felt like I fit in, all through high school. Everyone told me that I would find my place in the world once I got out of high school. So I did; I graduated near the top of my class and headed off to a Great University in another part of the country. I remember my 20th birthday, walking around the campus, thinking how wonderful it was to be there and thinking about how bright my future was. At that moment, I thought the whole world was open to me.
Nothing has worked out like I had hoped. I had dreamed of a journalism career and worked on student publications, but I gave up while still in college when I repeatedly failed to get an editorial position above that of a lowly staff writer. Looking for a replacement career, I decided to become a lawyer. Part of me was thinking that law would be a good profession for me, but deep down I knew I chose it because it was the only profession I could get into without having to change my major and take an extra year to graduate. Right after I started law school, my reservations about being there and the stress of the workload threw me into a deep depression that kept me from getting good grades or following the regular career path of getting summer jobs with law firms. I started therapy for depression just before graduation, and recovered, but too late to help my career prospects.
So I moved back to the same miserable Rust Belt town where I grew up, living with my parents, unemployed. Eventually I passed the bar and got a low-paying legal job with a local government agency. I met and fell in love with a woman right before she moved to take a good job about a hundred miles away, in a much nicer and less depressing town. We kept up a long-distance relationship until she wanted something more; then we got engaged and she moved back, giving up her job for a much lesser one. Our relationship became much less pleasant once we were together all the time, and there are a lot of ways in which we are incompatible. But despite all my doubts, I felt that I couldn’t break up with her, since she had given up so much for me that I felt I owed her. So we got married, and still are.
Before the wedding, she wanted me to try to earn more than a civil servant’s paycheck, so at her urging, I opened up my own law office. I soon realized that my minimal career experiences up to that point had done nothing to prepare me for the pressures of litigating as a sole practitioner. I knew nothing, and was quickly swamped. I don’t have many clients, but that’s OK, because I can’t handle the work for the few that I have. I have tried to give up my practice for a regular job, but no one will hire me; in the legal profession, failing at a solo practice is viewed as a sign that you’re just not able to hack it as a lawyer. This has been a tremendous strain on my marriage, and my wife often lets me know just how disappointed she is in my inability to bring in as much money as she had expected when we got together.
Now, at age 34, I find myself a million miles from where I hoped to be when I started out. I haven’t accomplished anything great; instead I have only failed. I’m living in the same miserable town where I was born, unhappily married, and operating a failing business. I can’t help feeling like a complete failure. So what do I do now? How can I get anywhere? How can I regain the hope that I once had when I have no more faith in my ability to make the right decisions?
Swamped and Lost
Dear Swamped and Lost,
I enjoyed your story very much. I should say I “related” to it I guess — enjoying other people’s tales of woe sounds so vulturish, doesn’t it? — but the truth is I do enjoy hearing tales such as yours because I relate so strongly to it. I mean, I got the feeling you should be a writer. You sound a lot like me. You seem to have the dour temperament for it, and failure in life seems so key to success in writing — it has a way of stripping away illusion. I also note that your use of language is very familiar to me personally; it’s that pattern of depression in which your depression is not delineated by the language so much as buried in it, mixed in it, like pebbles in concrete; pieces of your depression lie suspended in your language. I am very familiar with this. This is the kind of chatter that goes on in my own head.
I also see that you have done many of the things I did — quitting an organization, for instance, when you were not given your due as quickly as you thought you deserved to be given your due. Those of us who were singled out as children for being exceptionally bright often go through this, apparently; we are always the smartest one in class and we come to expect special treatment; we aren’t toughened sufficiently, perhaps, as younger children — especially if we only do what we are good at, the academic stuff, but shy away from sports and other activities where we might not be able to be the best; so we aren’t taught how to accept being second best, how to be just one among many; so when we encounter such situations later in life, we quit; we crumble; we throw a fit.
I had a particularly jolting moment last year in a conversation about my childhood when I described how, after a traumatic move away from my beloved boyhood home and neighborhood, entering a new school in seventh grade, finding myself stirred to a kind of intellectual frenzy, carrying home a stack of books taller than I was, books on, of all things “the halogens.” In this conversation, someone said to me, “Thinking is not enough.” I realized then that I had tried to think my way through adolescence! It might not sound like much, but like many things that strike us for reasons only we understand, it appeared to me that I had done all my thinking in order to avoid confronting the true challenges of becoming a person. Wow. And then I started to drink! I had no center! I had no heart! I was a walking, talking avoidance mechanism!
So without going into all of it, let’s just say it’s been a long road for me, learning humility, learning to be a worker among workers. And to this day, one of the most shameful aspects of my personality, the one that I still try to hide by adopting an air of being a regular guy, is that I think of myself as a superstar. Even saying it right now makes me cringe. I love to make myself cringe. I figure I’m hitting some kind of nerve. I do this like a performance: Watch me mutilate myself! Watch me cringe!
It took failure to bring me to my senses. Failure can be a great gift. If you can finally allow yourself to fail, perhaps you can let go of being such a great and responsible guy, and so miserable. The way you’re going now, it sounds to me, you are failing very slowly, in such a way that you will never ever give up, but just keep failing interminably, never giving up but always failing, never surrendering but always sinking lower, never admitting that you might have made some choices that weren’t based on what you really needed but on what you thought you were supposed to do, never having the courage to just say, Screw it, I hate the law! This is not what I want! I want what I have wanted since I was a kid! … which is … what? To be a journalist? To study frogs? To move to the tropics? To live your life the way you want?
If there were no compelling psychological needs to keep you from living your life the way you want, it would not be a difficult thing at all. The practical barriers are minimal. The barriers are all psychological. That doesn’t mean they’re not real. Oh, boy, they’re real all right. It means, on the contrary, they are so real that they must be confronted head-on. The lack of practical barriers is deceptive. Maybe that’s exactly it: You’re so expertly functional that if you want to, you can stay right on that miserable edge of functional depression and buried rage your whole damned life until you’re lying on your deathbed thinking, Wow, I’m finally starting to feel like a human!
You could spend the next 40 years in a slow-motion free fall, agonizingly failing to live up to your dreams. You can stay there your whole life! In that way, those of us who have some definable problem are much better off. We hit bottom, as they say, and then we can start to get better.
What would it take for you to “hit bottom”? What would it take for you to realize that you need to stop slowly failing and have a good, healthy crackup? Would it take losing your practice? Your wife leaving you? Losing your house, your car, your clothes? Would you have to be on the street, wracked with clinical depression, dragging a few belongings down an alley, bruised from a beating you don’t remember, swollen from infection, weak from malnutrition, haunted by nightmares? What would it take? How far would you take this before you got up the courage to truly fail once and for all?
Maybe all you need is to go see a therapist now, before you lose everything. Maybe you’ll go in there all shaky and uncertain and when you sit down you realize that for the first time ever you can tell someone everything — and I mean everything! — and it starts to come out in tears and rage and sadness, and as you shake with the fever of grief and loneliness, as your hot tears fall, as all this surprising but curiously familiar activity begins in your heart, you start to realize how aloof you have held yourself all these years and thus how alone you’ve been, and this doesn’t even come as a thought but as a reality: In your body suddenly you’re human again, and only later do you reflect upon how difficult it has been to simply be a part of the human race, how above it you’ve held yourself, how numb you’ve been, and finally you can say screw it, screw the law, screw the demands of everybody that I be everything the test scores said I should be, screw my own Little Lord Fauntleroy specialness, screw my expectations, my vengeance, my dreams of power, I am what I am and that’s going to have to be good enough.
You’re only 34. You’ve got a couple of lifetimes to go.
p.s. I got sober at 35. It’s a good time to let everything come crashing down all at once — you’re still strong enough to lift a few of the timbers and crawl out of the wreckage!