Dear Cap’n Awkward,
I’m stuck in a depressing living situation and I don’t see a way out. I spent much of 2010 living on my own, doing a halfway-decent job of getting by, occasionally needing my mom to help me with rent like many a financially irresponsible 22-year-old. The thing is, I’ve been pretty badly depressed pretty much all my life, but when 2010 started I was doing a really good job of keeping that under control. I was no longer a socially inept dweeb who was convinced he would die a virgin – I had recently learned how to be self-confident and interesting and get dates. I was in a long-term relationship with a very smart woman, which was awesome for me given my former social ineptitude. I had a job – the soulless corporate kind where you can tell your bosses view you as a disposable resource, but still. Income.
But about halfway through 2010, all that fell apart. My relationship with my girlfriend ended up being incredibly emotionally taxing (both our faults), which caused my depression to flare up in a big way despite the antidepressants I was on, which in turn caused me to lose my job and thus my apartment. Shortly afterward, I broke up with my girlfriend, which took that particular emotional burden off my shoulders. But I was desperately trying to get by and avoid moving back home with my parents – not only because of the whole “living with your parents” shame (which you’ve rightly denounced on your blog in the past), but because my parents are conservative suburbanites and I personally find that atmosphere incredibly stifling. For a while I tried fixing computers on a freelance basis. I was living in a motel room for a few months, an increasingly unsustainable situation that finally fell apart after a string of customers and (ex-)friends screwed me over, as some people are wont to do.
So I ended up back in my parents’ house, which is where I am now. I’m as depressed as I’ve ever been, as you can imagine, and that depression leaves me with incredibly little energy. In fact even after seven months, I’m still stuck in some kind of depressive mire where I’m constantly replaying all the times I was screwed over last year in my head, which has the lovely effect of keeping me depressed and lethargic. Plus, I’ve been unemployed for a year now (not counting the freelance computer fixing, which doesn’t necessarily contribute much to a resume), my work experience is spotty, I have a job I don’t feel comfortable referencing because I got fired from it and was only there a relatively short time (less than a year) anyway, and as you’re aware the economy isn’t exactly handing jobs out like candy these days. The only thing I have going for me job-wise is a bachelor’s degree (namely, English).
I’m incredibly isolated and lonely in this suburban hellhole, and while I love my parents I have absolutely nothing in common with them. I know from firsthand experience that there are places and environments where I could be happy, and that this house isn’t one of them. In fact I just feel even more depressed because right after I finally learned how to like myself, and met some people I have a lot of things in common with, and found out that some people do in fact find me sexually attractive, it all fell right out from under me. And now I feel worthless and unable to take care of myself and alone and I can’t come up with any sort of specific, realistic plan for getting myself somewhere else.
I mean, I would love to move to some really cool urban neighborhood in New York or Seattle or wherever the hell. Like I said, I’ve spent time in such places and I know from experience that I’m happier there. I just want a place where I can talk freely without censoring myself and I can wear blouses and skirts and I can have sex with people and I’m not constantly being smothered with reminders of the “potential” that I’m wasting and the “ambition” I’m supposed to have… But anyway. Is it in any way plausible to relocate myself to such a place? Because I just don’t see a way given that I have no money and there’s no telling how long it would take me to find a job. I am doing some freelance writing here and there, and that’s working out okay, but as long as I’m stuck here I feel I’ll be too depressed to really do enough work. Or is that just me rationalizing laziness? I don’t know. I’d be grateful for any advice. Love your blog, by the way.
-Trapped in the Burbs
I am not a mental health professional of any kind, so nothing I say here is a substitute for dealing with your depression as the serious health issue that it is. Your brain chemistry is being a jerk. You are grieving for an old relationship and an old job and an old way of life – that first taste of independence cut short. I can’t fix your brain or speed up your healing process, but I can suggest some strategies that might help you come unstuck. Use what’s useful to you, caveat emptor, et cetera et cetera.
1. Be nice to your parents. As weird as it is for you to be home, it’s also weird and awkward for them to have an adult child back in the nest. Be extra considerate about chores. Volunteer for things before you are asked. Cook dinner. Wash up. When they give you “helpful” (annoying) advice, say “Thanks, mom, I’ll think about it.” Even if it’s wrong, you’ll think about it, right? Don’t pick fights, sulk, or punish them for your circumstances. Thank them for being a port in a storm for you. Take a lot of long walks away from home to give them space and privacy from you. Make effort to seek out their company and do stuff with them – board games, cards, renting movies, taking a walk after dinner. Ask them about their days. Treat them like adult humans who you like and not necessary evils.
I’m sure you are already doing most of this, but make an active effort to be kind and extra helpful to them. It will pay off for everyone.
2. Make something about your goal concrete and visible. Buy a calendar. The cuter and sillier, the better. This is no time to be cool. Find a day 1 year from now and say “On this day I will live in (City).” Cross off the days. Make a savings account and a jar for loose change. Put every spare penny in the jar.
There is power in committing to something. Sure, you don’t have money now and you don’t know that you’ll have a job. You have a lot of unknowns and scary uncontrollable factors. But by choosing a goal and saying it out loud and taking even a tiny step toward making it real has power. It will align your decision-making in good and interesting ways. It will give you a new story to tell about your life.
3. Tell a new story about your life.
Old story: “I was super-sad and then I moved back in with my parents and I don’t know when I’ll ever get out, I hate it here.“
New story: “I lost my job, and I’ve moved back in with my parents for a while while I save up for my move to (City).“
4. Buy some sticky gold stars and a notebook. Every morning, when you get out of bed, make a list of the stuff you need to do that day. Make it ridiculously obvious and detailed. Getting dressed is a list item. Putting on shoes is a list item. Eating breakfast. Making your list gets a list item. Don’t be ambitious, be really basic and list all the things you need to do each day to take care of yourself.
As you do each thing, cross it off your list and give yourself a star. Every thing on the list is something you’re doing to take care of yourself. If you don’t get to something on the list, don’t worry! Look at all the stuff you did! If it’s really necessary, carry it over to tomorrow’s list. If it’s not, delete it and don’t worry about it.
I wish I didn’t know this as well as I do, but depression in smart people often manifests as perfectionism and grandiose ideas about what we *should* be doing/should have done by now, and we cycle through those thoughts about how we’re not being all that we can be in a way that paralyzes us about doing the small daily stuff that would actually make our lives a little easier. We overthink everything to the point that small healthy habits and routines become impossible, because if something is easy we must be doing it wrong.
So I use the list as a silly way to short-circuit that shame spiral. Do I have to figure out how to get a film into a major festival, polish and sell a screenplay, get out of debt, find a tenure-track teaching job, and find a way to make a positive contribution to my city? YES, YES I DO. But I can’t let anxiety about doing that (or shame for not having done that yet) stop me from eating breakfast, scooping the cat box, and making the bed.
You need a job. There are no jobs.
You need to build your skills and put something on your resume for the time you spent during this year of living at home and show employers that you are motivated. “Freelance computer repair” will cover some of it, but why not volunteer somewhere?
You need something to get you out of the house regularly and give you purpose.
You need to get back in the habit of showing up somewhere and being a professional.
You need something that connects you to other people.
- It’s about to be an election year. Election volunteers can quickly turn into campaign workers. Somewhere in your state, no matter how red, there is a lefty organization that needs your energy and your skills (and may be your key to meeting other alternative people who want to go dancing with you).
- Register voters. Help voters apply for IDs and navigate all the new restrictions on voting.
- You’re a writer. Find local charities and nonprofits. Volunteer to write newsletters, letters to the editor, web copy. Start building a clip file of samples.
- Even if you’re not religious, don’t discount churches as a place to find volunteer opportunities. Help out at the food bank. Coach a kids’ sports team or drama club or music group. If people try to push the Jesus on you, say “Thank you so much, I’m not sure I believe, but I’m grateful for the chance to help out.”
You’re going to bite your tongue a lot. You’re going to deal with a lot of people who aren’t like you and who don’t necessarily get you. Those are useful skills, and better than being alone and sad. You’ll also start creating a network where you are who can look out for you and help you locate computer repair clients and/or other work.
5. Educate yourself. Take a class, use Lynda.com to learn a skill, suck all the knowledge out of your public library, read great novels, pick up a programming language. Start scanning the want ads in your new city. What kind of jobs are you drawn to? What skills would you need to be competitive for those jobs? What could you do now to get yourself ready? Do you have friends in that city that you could visit for a few days to get a feel for the place?
6. Revise your new story.
Old story: Heartbreak, failure, sadness.
New story: “I lost my job, and I’ve moved back in with my parents for a while while I save up for my move to (City).”
New New Story: “I lost my job, so I moved back with my parents for a while to save up money. I run my own freelance computer repair business and am learning x and y so that when I move to (City) I can get a job as a (job). In my downtime I’m working on (political campaign/at the food bank).”
That’s not a bad story to take with you to your new city.
Worst case scenario: Say you get to the end of the year, and you don’t have quite enough money to make the move yet. You’ll be in a lot better position to ask your parents to stake you if you have a year of showing them that you can work consistently toward what you want. And if they can’t or won’t stake you, you’ll have a lot more confidence in your own hustle after spending a year meeting people, volunteering, and learning like crazy. Getting to Ithaca is not always about getting to Ithaca.
And if you’re a typical depressed person (and believe me, I KNOW), you read this and thought of all the reasons that it won’t work or that you can’t, because that’s how depressed minds work. They only come up with obstacles and circular reasoning about how you wish you could do x but you can’t do x until you do y and you can’t do y until you do z and the serpent eats its tail and then it eats your life. It’s okay. Maybe you can’t. Or maybe you can’t right now. Or maybe you can’t do all of it. Give yourself time to think about it, and then think of one tiny baby step you can take toward the future. That will lead to another and another, and eventually you will pull yourself out of there.
You have been a person who can find work, find love, find a place to live, and survive and thrive on your own. Depression may always be with you, in some form, but if you’ve done it once you can do it again. The same qualities that made you what you were when you were happy and successful are still in you now.