Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, OCT 14, 2011
I may seem like I’m OK, but I’m hiding in my dorm room crying
I have been wanting to write to you for a while, but I always put it off because I think I can fix it myself or that the feeling will pass. As time wears on, I no longer believe that I can.
I am soon to graduate from a big, expensive university with a middling GPA. As I slog my way through this semester, I find myself feeling ever more hopeless and withdrawn. Upon arriving on campus freshman year, I promptly had a complete nervous breakdown. I was a thousand miles away from home, surrounded by all these golden children of Westchester and Greenwich, and I couldn’t handle it. I begged my parents to withdraw me from school, but they couldn’t comprehend why I would react in such a way. I stuck it out through freshman, sophomore and junior year at the same school. I was miserable each and every single day the entire time.
I have hardly made any friends during my time here (and I imagine that I must be the only person at this entire university with such an accomplishment). I never have any weekend plans and I stay in my dorm room most of the time. I don’t have such great grades, and particularly this semester, I find it increasingly hard to even make it to class or hand in assignments.
Why didn’t I transfer? It’s hard to say. I have this knack for appearing exceptionally functional. I can act peppy and upbeat all day long, but I will absolutely collapse in my bed sobbing every night. I imagine that the only event that can possibly remove me from this blanket of anxiety and fear would be total unconsciousness. A while back, I saw a therapist at my university for a few sessions. I couldn’t articulate any of my feelings to her. All that happened was that she commended me for being a “mature young woman.” That’s what I must seem like on the outside, I guess.
I’m submitting my résumé to various jobs now, and my application often gets denied with nary a first-round interview offer. I imagine how things will be post-graduation. I have no great hopes of being a high-powered executive or a successful writer. I have no dreams about white picket fences, 2.5 children and a loving husband. I desire absolutely nothing, except to live comfortably without anxiety.
While I don’t want to hurt myself, I find it just so difficult to make it through each day. I feel positively alone and exposed. I just don’t know what to do with myself except lie in my bed, browsing the Internet for hours upon hours until I fall asleep. While I know that if I just continue to eat, sleep and breath, this semester will be over and I will finally graduate, I worry that the future will only hold much of the same. I don’t remember ever feeling truly “happy” outside of fleeting moments of fun and laughter. How can I stop being so alone and miserable?
I would say the best way to stop being so alone and miserable is to begin an unflinching and courageous study of yourself. Through this you will learn what is happening to make you feel and behave the way you do and how to change.
It’s as simple, and as difficult, as that. Its results can be instantaneous and also can take a lifetime. It is the true calling of humankind: to know ourselves.
It is unfortunate that universities do not concentrate on this essential task as much as they might; many universities are little more than vocational training grounds for the elite vocations of leisure and power. They are not the sanctuaries for personal growth and learning that they might be in a more enlightened society. It sounds as though you have gone to such a university and it has been pretty much nonstop torture.
It is time for the torture to end. It is time for you to begin your true course of learning.
I can make some guesses, but I am just a guy who set out to be a writer and ended up answering people’s letters for a living. I’m not trained in clinical psychology or philosophy.
Still, I can notice a few things. To me, it sounds like you have a lot of anxiety.
So, the short answer would be, to accelerate your study of yourself, that you begin learning as much as you can about this thing called anxiety: what it comes from, how it is treated, what steps you can take to lessen its impact on your life. Not all therapists are equally skilled. The one you consulted apparently did not identify your problem. No doubt you are skilled in masking your problems, but the job of a good therapist is to gently, skillfully, firmly, with compassion, help us take off the mask. Many therapists would more or less instantly grasp your situation and guide you through this difficult time.
You can help, of course, by learning about your condition.
This does not have to be a sad and frightening time. It is a time for discovery. You have nothing to fear. Once you begin to grasp your true nature, you will find an abundance of joy and pleasure in life. You are not far from the prize. You are just beginning.
I am not going to try to tell you very much. I am just trying to give you a gentle shove in the right direction. But I can tell you this, which may give you some hope: I have learned some techniques for dealing with anxiety. You can learn those techniques, too. I did get counseling and therapy, and you can get that as well.
One of the most important things I learned about anxiety was something a therapist said to me more-or-less offhandedly. He said, Well, you know, anxiety is often a method of warding off feelings. I thought, wow, that’s odd. I had never thought of anxiety as an active strategy, a creative act. But when I saw myself using anxiety to ward off feelings, I found I could direct my attention to the world, and what was going on, and to what feelings those might be that I was warding off, and I could see that my head would not explode if I just let those feelings come, and that things were basically OK minute to minute in spite of whatever feelings were washing over me.
Here is an interesting page to look at. I was searching for “therapeutic methods for dealing with anxiety” and I found this page. Its heading says, “Coping Skills for Trauma,” but it’s a really rich page full of suggestions for people who may be having anxiety and would like to get back into the present moment. What a wonderful set of suggestions!
In fact, I just did one of the exercises suggested on that website, and it was pretty calming. I looked around the room and saw an abstract expressionist painting by Judith Lindbloom, framed by my sister Melinda in her shop in Lynchburg, Va.; a table lamp bought at Target; a box of thumbtacks used to post fliers on billboards; a pair of reading glasses bought at Walgreen’s; a pass to the Litquake after-party. Those are five things just sitting here within easy view. Looking at them reminded me of my connection to the world, to my sister and my friend Judith, to our enterprise of doing workshops and posting fliers about them; to our shopping trips to Target; to my eyesight; to my participation in Litquake. It quickly grounded me. It brought me back into my life, the life that I’m living — the only life I’m living.
So these techniques can quickly bring us back into the life we are actually living. And when you think about it, it’s amazing how little attention we may be paying to the life we are actually living. And it’s often surprising how rich our lives are, when we stop to inventory what is in our lives. Your life, I feel sure, is very rich, too. Your problem is that you cannot experience it because you are warding it off. But this can change.
So, let’s just be honest. I’m a champion at warding off feelings. It may be because as a kid I was the kid who always was having too many of them — too many feelings about too many things; and feelings that were not simple, either, but required explanation and analysis, or simply needed to be said. That wasn’t working too well in my family, I found at an early age. Being the kid with feelings was not really the way to go. So I don’t know exactly what I did, because I wasn’t there. Or I can’t be there now. I can’t remember exactly what I did, what I decided to do. But I do know I learned to act quite analytical about my feelings, as though they belonged to someone else. And I learned not to say what I was feeling but to say something else — that the president is a numbskull or that certain chemicals are fascinating, that there will be a full moon tonight or Did you know…
You get what I’m saying? And I connect these two things: I connect learning at an early age that direct communication about my feelings was not welcome or appreciated, and also that by side-stepping that, and stating factoids, or stating opinions about politics, or the weather, I could avoid the scorn, derision or sheer incomprehension that would appear on the faces of the people around me.
Meanwhile I was bursting inside! Meanwhile I had all these secret longings and fears! Meanwhile I lived an inner life of strange abundance and richness. Meanwhile I was the kid wandering around wondering about God, about plants, about the sun, about evolution, about raindrops and fusion energy and girls. In a nutshell, I guess … I was full of feelings and that made it hard. So anxiety became a way of of freezing the moment and directing attention away from the flow of feeling.
So now it has become important to find ways to get back in the flow of feeling even when those around me are not receptive. So I have a rich inner life and I am often consumed with my own thoughts and feelings. Anxiety is just one way of responding to the flow of consciousness and feeling.
So that is just a little bit about anxiety. For you, what I can say is that if you begin a study of your own nature and history, and find what characteristics you have, and then find a therapist or psychologist who can become your partner in helping you understand your own nature and your own history, and you continue this study on your own, unflinchingly, courageously, then you are well on your way to becoming a happy and fulfilled person. It isn’t easy or magical, but it is the way to a meaningful and happy human life.