My life is a failure

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JAN 27, 2005

Like a man waking up from a coma, I suddenly realize in my 40s: My life is a sad, painful, ugly ordeal!

Dear Cary,

This past year has been pretty painful. I feel that I have lived a failed life. About a year ago it was like I woke up from a long coma and for the first time clearly saw my life for what it has been. I started looking back on what I wanted when I was 14 or 15 and what I thought my life would be, and it was like a jolt from wherever that I had not achieved the things I wanted the most in my life.

Due to a variety of family problems, personal problems, illnesses, stupid mistakes, bad relationships and just plain bad luck that I don’t want to detail here, my life has been a sad, painful, ugly ordeal. Therapy and medication only helped me so much. Most of my problems were in the social and emotional areas. I just didn’t get the development and life experiences that most people get. A painful childhood led to an even more painful adolescence. I had a brief respite when I was around 14 or 15, but I wasn’t able to completely get over the obstacles.

I also wasn’t able to help my younger siblings avoid the same problems and pitfalls I faced. It was a nightmare watching them go through the same things. I had also hoped to have a family of my own, but I was not able to overcome my social problems to do that.

I have done OK in some areas. With some difficulty I was able to go to college, hold jobs, and maintain my own home. I am surviving, and there are things in my life I enjoy, but I also know I will never be completely well and normal and feel whole.

Going back over my life, I have been seeing very clearly how this problem led to that problem, this mistake led to that mistake, etc. I know part of it is probably my age; I am in my 40s, a time when you look back. But am I also going through the grieving process for the things I have lost in life? The pain has been acute. I don’t think therapy will help. You can’t go back 20 or 30 years and change things.

Lost Dreams

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Dear Lost Dreams,

No, I don’t suppose you can go back and change things in the past. But if you are willing to seek a happier life, your analysis of your past behavior could prove a starting point for changing things in the present. Perhaps you can identify ways you might do things differently today. The question is, how, in practical terms, do you accomplish that? How do you apply your insights? How do you translate them into behaviors? What concrete actions can you take to put into effect these insights you have gained? And also, what might stop you? What lies between your insights and their application, between theory and practice? What further, perhaps hidden, personality traits or beliefs might work to stop you from changing your life, in spite of all you now know?

This would be a great time to put down on paper specifically what actions you might take today to change your life. Since you have not provided specifics, I can’t know what those things might be. But one of them might be that, in the very beginning, you will first refuse to rule out anything. That would, I think, include the refusal to rule out further psychotherapy. But it would not be a prescription for it, either.

It would be nice if there were specifics to work with. But at least the refusal to rule anything out leaves you the widest selection of options. Let’s play a little game with that, just to be sure it’s clear what we’re talking about. For instance, if it turns out that you need to run for president in order to have a happier life, will you be willing to do that? What if you have to stop eating asparagus? Meatballs? Tuna? What if it turns out that you need to get up at the same time every day and to exercise three times a week on strength equipment? What if you have to give up coffee? Will it make any difference to you what you need to do? What you need to do might seem surprising; it might not make sense; it might offend your sense of who you are and what you know. I’m suggesting that you be prepared for that.

Your ruling out certain possibilities may be a protective device. But what further is there to protect yourself from? You have already suffered deeply in the failure to become what you desperately want to become. So I would abandon all caveats at this point. I would abandon everything. I would continue walking into whatever crazy flames you’re in. I’m one of those people who believe that deep change comes through difficult surrender, surrender of protection, surrender of the sense of knowing what we’re doing; I believe in shamanistic transformation through trial and madness. It sounds to me as though you have come very close to a painful madness of truth; you have seen the tragic dimensions of your life. Many, many people never get this far. You, in your comprehension of your own failure, have gained a valuable bit of wisdom. To have fully grasped the way our dreams don’t pan out, the way the water always rises around us, to be standing now, in your 40s, waist deep in the flood asking the most fundamental, searing questions about life — you are very close to some kind of transformation anyway. So please do not give up. Please do not foreclose on any option available to you.

While you have taken brave and difficult measures to discover the reasons for your unhappiness, you may also have boxed yourself in by limiting the kinds resources that you believe might get you over the top. When you say, “I don’t think therapy will help,” you may be right; but it also sounds a like a prophetic proclamation without much practical meaning; you may be doing what a lot of us might do in a similar circumstance — to attempt a kind of preemptive walling-off of further emotional or spiritual discovery. Because, of course, the whole thing can be quite painful. If you just mean that you don’t think much pointless psychobabble about the past is likely to help, I would agree. If you should get into therapy and find it’s pointless psychobabble, please have the courage to follow your instincts.

But, having had these difficult insights about your life, and being left with many practical questions about how to put them into practice, you might benefit from some concrete assistance making specific present-day changes in your behavior. You will have to seek the relevant know-how to make those changes. Whether that know-how is in the hands of psychotherapists or economists or general contractors or plumbers or hypnotherapists or Buddhist monks I have no way of knowing. All I know is that most big projects require some kind of help.

So rather than tell you what I think you need to do, I will just plead with you to keep going, to hang in there, to find a way to apply your insights to your current life. Whatever is of use to you, use it. Whatever is of no use to you, let it go. But keep going, keep struggling to understand your life, and don’t rule anything out.

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I got derailed somehow!

Write for Advice

 I feel like I’ve failed at everything. How do I get back on track?

 Cary’s classic column from  WEDNESDAY, FEB 16, 2005

Dear Cary,

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

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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!

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