People think I’m fine but I’m not

Write for Advice
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


Dear Cary,

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 As I slog my way through this semester, I find myself feeling ever more hopeless and withdrawn.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?

A Pretender

SoldOut_Jun13-22_2015Dear Pretender,

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.

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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.

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Desperately unhappy in the top Ivy League school

 

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, APR 22, 2008

I want to work in New York publishing, and I know this is the route, but I’m miserable and depressed.


Dear Cary,

I am a freshman at the top Ivy League school in the country, and while this has never been easy, or, to put it more accurately, not too traumatic, recently things took a turn for the worse. Now I can’t imagine how I am going to survive until the end of the semester, much less three more years.

I’m from Los Angeles, a place with which I very strongly identify (which I discovered only after I moved to the Northeast). While I was really into journalism in high school, my true passion has always been creative writing. I had a lot of choice senior year, and it basically came down to the premier private university on the West Coast or on the East. I chose the East, mainly because I was really impressed with the sheer opportunity that comes with going to a school like this, but also because I was (and still am, although not as much) interested in getting into the publishing world of New York, both as an editor to pay the bills, but then hopefully as a writer myself. Having begun an internship at a literary magazine here I now know that my first estimates were accurate: If this were something I wanted to pursue, I would have no problem getting the connections I might need to succeed through this school and its alumni network. (Seriously, words cannot explain the alumni network. You eat breakfast in the dining halls and look up into intimate portraits of the presidents.) But since beginning here I’ve also become a bit rankled (and, if you can’t notice, a little bitter) at this empire that, under the pretext of academia, stretches to every office, every field and every department in the world. I just suppose that my experience here has tempered my previously bewildered awe for this place.

My freshman year so far has been something of a disappointment. I find myself coming up short on everything I’ve done here. Up until now it’s just been the work, and the unending papers and deadlines. Last semester I took only three classes but ended up writing 17 papers. I get really stressed under pressure and the weather just upsets me in general (the long, cold winter where everything looks dead is not something I enjoy). This semester I sought out student health services therapy for my depression, which had been ongoing for about a year before college, and while it wasn’t exactly a grand panacea, it did help somewhat to talk over things.

But even all of this was endurable because my dorm life had been relatively OK. I don’t have a lot of friends because first semester any participation I might have had in any writing organizations was stopped by the fact that I was already writing two papers every week, and I didn’t want to write more “for fun.” Also, I’m really quiet and introverted by nature, and my self-confidence in new social situations is lacking. So basically I didn’t really branch out a lot but that was OK, because I had made really good friends with my roommate and a couple of other friends in housing. However, ever since winter break I had considered the possibility of transferring, because even though I had made a couple of good friends, I am mostly miserable on campus.

I feel completely invisible here, like no one notices me or everyone looks through me as I walk around campus, and I feel my minority and female status has a lot to do with it. More than once I’ve wished that some fortunate and not too fatal accident/disease might land me in the hospital to relieve me of my responsibilities and let me somewhat gracefully bail out under an acceptable circumstance. While my grades last semester were fine (I got a 3.5) this semester is going quickly and neatly down the tube. I got an extension for this eight-page paper due two weeks back but still have yet to write a word. I’m barely toeing the line in a chem class and my languages are suffering as well. I’ve thought about dropping the class with the paper due as I’ve yet to read any of the book on which we are to have a final in three weeks, but each time I have been talked out of it, or talked into hanging on for a little bit longer. I’ve talked to my dean and my mom and my therapist several times about this, but they don’t seem to understand that when I say I’m sinking I mean I’ve already drowned. I feel awful about everything.

My dorm life too, which I had once depended upon so much, also recently imploded. Basically the major thing that happened was that my roommate, with whom I usually get along very well, became really upset with me because I didn’t give her enough advance to tell her that I didn’t want to enter into the housing draw in a suite with her because I didn’t want to room with another person who we were supposed to be rooming with. She said some things (including that she couldn’t trust me anymore). I didn’t say anything, mostly because I was feeling so guilty myself about it because she was completely in the right and I was in the wrong. Yet I just couldn’t room with this other girl next year. It would be a suite, always type-A, high energy, partying and drinking, and I’m just way more chill, more relaxed, than that.

A week or two later nominally everything had been settled, as we had the room draw and she got a single and I got in with these other girls who are pretty chill and low-key as well, except my roommate and I are still not talking. I had apologized the day of and then about a week after, except nothing came of it. Except the worst part about it was the way in which I was so totally dropped from the group, and people with whom I had been really close friends, even better than with my roommate, wouldn’t even greet me as we passed in the hall. It felt awful. At first I avoided my room completely, and I didn’t have a place to crash on campus except various common rooms and libraries. I felt so totally isolated. I remember going to a pizza parlor that day and sitting there for three hours and not ordering anything, just slowly turning over my own depression in my head.

The most disturbing thing about the situation, however, is that this happened basically once before, when I was in high school, over a journalism position for editor in chief with another girl who used to be one of my closest friends.

Over spring break I finally got up the courage to apply for transfer to the West Coast school I had turned down once before (I did this before the whole rooming thing happened). I don’t want to run from my problems, and I harbor no illusions about how much better life there might be than life here, except the way I figure it, even the worst there is better than the worst here because my friends and my family are nearby, and it’s not freezing six months out of the year. I just have no place here anymore, and I’m really alone and isolated and depressed nearly all the time. I don’t know what to do, and I certainly have no idea how to begin making headway on my homework. Most days I feel accomplished if I just go to class. I feel as though I can’t do anything, much less think, much less write. I feel like I can’t do anything right.

So I suppose the reason why I am writing is to ask your advice on how to continue on with the semester and general thoughts on the roommate situation and whether I should transfer back to the West Coast. I’ve never been one to read advice columns much, but I’ve read a bit of your stuff (well, OK, a lot), and I’m rather encouraged.

California Dreaming

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Dear California Dreaming,

I suggest that before you go back to the West Coast, try something new: Try really taking care of yourself. If you can really take care of yourself, you can get through this. And if you can get through this, you can have your dream of working in the New York publishing business. Or you can do whatever else you want to do, if it turns out that’s not your first-choice dream.

By really taking care of yourself, I mean giving yourself not just what you need but what you want, and more of it than you are used to giving yourself. If you are under a doctor’s care for clinical depression, continue that routine. But along with whatever you are doing with the doctor, try really taking good care of yourself physically, emotionally and spiritually.

After all, you are a California girl. You know how to do this. There are probably activities you used to take for granted in your California life that kept you sane and healthy. When did you feel happiest in California? What were you doing? Were you going to the beach? Were you in the sun? Were you getting massages or meditating? Were you dancing? Were you driving? Make a list of the activities that used to make you happy.

And then for six weeks do the following things. Exercise three times a week for at least half an hour. Eat three meals a day that include fresh vegetables and fruits and enough protein. Take a daily vitamin supplement with extra minerals and B vitamins. Get eight hours of sleep a night. Once a week, get a massage or sit in a hot tub or sauna or all three. If you come from a religious practice, do your religion. If you have a favorite food or meal, eat that favorite meal. Get your nails done. Have a facial. If you like animals, find some animals to be with. If you like to swim, swim. Consult your list of things that make you happy and do those things. Don’t worry about what other people think. Just follow your instincts and give yourself what you need.

If your grades slip a little, that’s OK. If it would make it easier to drop one course, go ahead and drop it. Meanwhile, establish a routine that keeps you in top physical and emotional shape. Do it as a program. Keep track of your self-care activities in a journal. Write down each day the things you do to keep yourself in good shape. Take note, in the journal, of any improvements in mood or attitude, but do not expect any overnight changes. You have been running yourself ragged for so long that it may take longer than a month to feel any genuine improvement. That’s OK.

Perhaps you can also adopt a new set of beliefs to get you through this. Try these new beliefs out: “It doesn’t matter how people treat me day-to-day. What matters is how I conduct myself. If I conduct myself with dignity and self-respect, and if I take care of myself, I will be fine. I do not need everyone to like me. I know what I want. If I take care of myself and work toward what I want, I will be fine. There is enough time for everything. I do not need to rush.”

Keep your mind on what you want. Establish some goals that make you happy to think about. If you want to be an editor and writer, what publishing house would you like to work for? What would be the titles of some of the books you would publish? What authors would you like to work with? But perhaps your East Coast experience has soured you on that dream. If it turns out that what you would rather do is work in the Los Angeles film business, then begin visualizing that in the same way. What directors would you like to work with? What movies would you like to produce?

Meanwhile, ask your therapist how to minimize the stresses you are most prone to. Ask what forces might be working on you that you are not aware of. For instance, you say you are introverted, but sometimes you sound like an extrovert. It may be that you have needs you are not fully aware of, and that you are incurring stresses because you do not take these needs seriously. Perhaps you have a higher need for approval than you realized. Perhaps you have a need for solitude but also have certain traits of the typical competitive, power-motivated extrovert. Winning does seem to suit you.

Explore these things. But do not expect quick answers. Just explore them to see if you can identify areas of stress that you can eliminate. This is all in the interest of taking good care of yourself while you work through this four-year program.

Do this and see how you feel by the end of the year. Take the summer off and enjoy yourself. Come back in the fall and do it again.

And if you do all these things and you still hate it there, no problem. You can always move to the West Coast and finish up there. Nothing wrong with that. The main thing is to learn to take care of yourself.

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