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#295: When failure moves into your house to stay.

Grimace from the old McDonald's ads

“Hi, I’m your shame!”

Hello, readers. It is Day 2 of the Captain Awkward Dot Com half-yearly pledge drive. If you like it here and can spare a dollar, consider making a small donation and getting a copy of my short movie, The Wardrobe. Thanks to everyone who has contributed so far!

Dear Captain Awkward,

I have written to you in my head so many times already that this should be easier than it is. I need something like hope.

Everything I touch turns to ash. If I want it/like it/believe in it, it will fail. i keep trying to come to terms with this, but I guess I’m just too dumb to know when to quit. It’s not like my life has ever been a parade, so I should be able to just slog through this darkness too, somehow. I’m almost thirty now, and I never really expected to get that far – but there you have it. I guess the trouble really boils down to the slogging has gotten more like treading water, and ~I’m just so tired~.

I live in a really conservative area, and have since I was little. Every time there’s been a chance of getting out, something has happened to drain my meager resources and mire me here. What little passed for low-income health care/support has been utterly decimated in the last two years. Even if doctors/therapists could help with the pain/darkness, I don’t have access to it. It’s shameful, but if it wasn’t for Husband’s apparent superpower of Acquire Food (seriously – random coworkers/acquaintances feed him constantly) we seriously would not have had bread on the table since my monumental hubris invoked the Cloud of Doom to prove it’s still there.

The short of it is that on the hamster-wheel that is trying to survive, I had two jobs for a while. The part time job was at a small local business, apparently quite successful, with more demand than could even be met. Family drama seemed to be the prime motivator when the owner decided to sell. Being the idiot I am, I asked how much.

I had my plan, I raised capital, I sought funding for the rest.

Hindsight: I should have pulled out when the owner refused to open the books fully to my/lender’s inspection for “personal privacy”. It was a sole proprietorship – seemed reasonable at the time. We couldn’t get funding at that time without the old books, because the powers that be saw us as a successor business, though the management and practices and staff were all changing. I had my plan, the way to streamline the processes and produce a better product. I had grand hopes for Being the Change, and also, for once, having enough to live on.

So – gods help me – I proposed a payment plan for the purchase.
A year and some change later, with many smaller battles and struggles behind me, ~their~ bank showed up to foreclose on ~them~, and pulled the rug out from under us.

I was furious about the lies and the violations of contract – we all were, but there was nothing to be done. I tried to focus on the prospect of the new, far better machines, and this would be a minor gap in production. Demand was not only as strong but stronger than ever. The bank strung us along as Congress tried to decide about debt, and in the end said they weren’t loaning money to anyone who didn’t have cash reserves equal to the loan ~and~ solid profitability.

It’s seventeen kinds of messed up, and nothing I could do anything about. No one is lending to small business right now – and things like Kickstarter (awesome as they are) just don’t apply to what I was doing. Sadly.

So I closed the doors last fall. I thought by the new year I’d have the ends tied up and the thing dissolved entirely.

It’s been a continued, horrid mess. The details of the stupid that’s hounded the business-closing are so boggling I can’t even think straight to detail them here. I don’t know what to do about any of it, and I do need advice about that, but I don’t know where to go for that end of things. Maybe Team Awkward has ideas?

Its gotten under my skin in a way I never anticipated. I’m afraid to answer the phone, to open my email, to go ~outside~. I am constantly terrified that someone will ~know me~ and what a terrible failure I am, and demand that I… I don’t even know what. Explain myself? Let them take more from me?

I am afraid of losing everything – reason says that the LLC protects us some and reminds me that there’s actually not any debt on the business since the machine loan didn’t go through, but my heart won’t listen. I feel horrible guilt for putting Husband through this, for former customers etc believing in the project. Touching anything that is related to or reminds me of the business invokes the full force of the fear-response, and it is days before I recover the new and less stable version of normal. The only way I can bear to talk to anyone but husband is through the remove of internet and text

Some days I have the Victory of Pants, and make it down the hall to my tiny studio to scratch the pencil over the page, or bang away at some gothic story. Some days I lay in a ball of pain until Husband comes home from Job That Holds Things Together and herds me through the motions of being human. I’ve gained in size – bras and pants are tight and uncomfortable, even though I am eating less to account for less activity. Insomnia hounds me as bad as ever and the level of daily, stupid pain from old injuries and FMS has only risen. Now? Insult to injury: even the Ladyparts refuse to cooperate most of the time.

Parental Units and Housemate form a chorus of “You should totally do more push-ups, diet, and also suck it up and get a Real Job”.

Husband has been kind and helpful through all of this – the 70+ hour weeks, the stress, the financial trouble, the physical consequences of my folly. He tells me to ignore the Chorus, keep at my Real Work (art+writing) and we’ll get through. On the bad days, he reminds me about mortal limits, and shepherds me to a video game or something. I’m terrified he’ll leave me, and at the same time I wish he would so I wouldn’t be ruining ~his~ life anymore.

I’m not even sure what I am hoping you can do. I’m sorry I exceeded your word count by a lot. I pared down, I really did. You just seem to have some sort of magic on your team, and I could use a little.

- Death Warmed Over

Dear Death Warmed Over,

You sound like you’re from the USA (conservative area, no healthcare safety net, fights with banks), so I’m going with that in my answer. Apologies if that’s incorrect. And apologies if I get a little political.

Because in the USA, we’re just one giant fucking success machine, right? You had a dream and you worked hard and you used your BOOTSTRAPS! and you tried to make a business that  served your customers well and employed other people and then you failed at it. “Oops,” say the people who are deliberately killing the social safety net and deliberately making racist horrible arguments about “deserving” and “laziness” because it will be a tiny bit cheaper for them if we decide as a country that we don’t have to take care of vulnerable people anymore and that’s blah blah something about “American values.” Oops, looks like you should have succeeded. The system only works for you if you succeed. If you fail, we don’t talk about that. Come on, be cool! You’re ruining our story!

The truth is, businesses fail all the time. People make mistakes, people lie and cheat, market conditions change, that one supplier you counted on goes out of business because the owner is retiring and none of her kids want to take over, the company gets bought and moves production overseas, the economy tanks and people can’t afford your service anymore, the idea was sound but the implementation was lacking, or the idea needed a little more work and you launched too soon, or someone had your exact idea a month sooner than you and a little better than you, or the Walmart moved in next door, or there were a bunch of expensive lawsuits, or the loan didn’t come on time (or at all), people got sick and couldn’t work the 100+ hours/week it takes to make a small business run at the beginning…

People fail all the time. Everyone reading this has failed at something sometime. Things that are worth having entail risk. If you’re reading this and thinking “Nope not me, I’ve never failed at anything!” then consider yourself to be a failure at failing, and a very good day to you.

Let’s talk about some practical stuff what you can do.

If you’re not already doing it, I want to recommend you keep some kind of daily journal (I’m really digging 750words.com these days). You can howl your depression and failure into the void for about 30 minutes every morning and then close the book and leave that stuff there.

What’s going to happen in the beginning is that it will be a journal of horror and grief. “The story of how I failed because I am a failure, by The Jerkbrain.” But what will happen (if you stick with it) is that your brain will get bored with its own complaining and start to change the narrative. You will start to think in lists.  Think about stuff you learned. Think about stuff that was great about that project and that dream. Think about the people you met who were excited to work on the dream with you. Think about mistakes that you made, but try to think about them as lessons. “I’ll never make that mistake again.”  The heartbreak is that you came so close, but listen: You came so close. Nobody gets that close to their dream without doing something right. The same qualities that drew people to you, that allowed you to spot a good idea, that made people believe in you, the creativity and imagination to see possibilities, the ability to form business relationships – those qualities are inside of you now.

Forgive yourself.

Let your awesome husband take care of you for a little while. He wants to. And let him do it with grace (“Thank you, I love you.“) rather than an exhausting shame-dance about how you are horrible and don’t deserve him. There are worse things in life than having someone who believes in you and who will take care of you when everything goes to shit. Isn’t this why we get married? Didn’t you both stand in some pretty room and say some variation of “For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, as long as we both shall live” in front of everyone you know?  What he is doing is part of the deal you made. You would do the same for him, and you’ll probably have your chance. Someday far in the future you will be like my grandmother, who waited for my grandfather to come back into her hospital room so she could look at him one last time before she died. Eat the sandwiches.

Your family and friends are (annoyingly) right about the pushups and looking for a job. Though fuck dieting – that is NOT going to make you happier.

If you can manage it, some pushups, some walks or bike rides, a swim in a nearby lake or pool, some stretches, WILL be good for you. I know it, you know it, everyone knows it. It’s so hard to get momentum for this kind of thing, but look at it this way:

Exercise will kill some of that unstructured time you have yawning out before you and make you feel like you did something with your day.

It will give you something to write about in that morning journal that isn’t “GOD I HATE MYSELF” and also give you a way to answer the question “What did you do today?”

Walks especially are great for me to think up stories & dialogue, and also concoct elaborate revenge scenarios where I run into people who wronged me at some point in the future and coolly look through them while they explain how everything was their fault. You may find this useful.

As for getting a job, it would be good for you to have some money coming in. It would be good for you to be out of the house and engaged with the world a little bit more. Right now, be very, very gentle with yourself about this. Think part-time. Think low-key. Don’t think about “careers” or “dream jobs,” and if the word “should” comes out of your mouth when you think about it take a break for the rest of the day and come back to it tomorrow. What is something you could do part-time, that would use your skills, pay you a little something, and give you a little breathing room? If you can’t find paid work right now, consider that it is an election year, and people could probably use your skills in canvassing on behalf of non-sucktastic candidates, helping people navigate Voter suppression ID rules, registering voters, writing op-eds, etc.

Now I want to talk about shame and I want to talk about fear.

Hiding from the aftermath of the business going under because you’re afraid will not make the problems magically go away. You have to deal with shit. You have to make a giant list of all outstanding nonsense (maybe put it in a folder marked NONSENSE) and deal with it a little bit at a time. I imagine there are phone calls to be returned, letters to write, accounting/reconciliation to be done, nonsense with taxes, lawyers, banks, etc. What would happen if you gave yourself permission to deal with the NONSENSE file for one hour/day, and then at the end of that hour you could put it away and go paint or write or swim or read without guilt? Also, since you mention money being tight both for mental health resources and probably for legal/financial help, I recommend you look into Debtors Anonymous. Some of the language around addiction/compulsion might be scary and off-putting, but what you’ll mostly find is a group of people who have messed up their financial lives in some way and who are working together to pull themselves out of it and to do so without judgment or shame. It may make you feel less alone. Your fears are understandable, so I want to recommend setting up some kind of support structure for yourself to make them more manageable and help you feel like you are making progress but not giving yourself entirely over to worry.

What comes through most of all in your letter is shame.  You’ve got the Gollum/Golem of Heartbreak following you around – I picture him looking pretty much like Grimace – and you think that everyone you run into can see him hanging out in your blind spot, stinking up the place like a fart in a car. He is the world’s most awkward dining and conversational companion, so you feel like you have to apologize for him all the time.

Uh, the thing is, he’s invisible. He’s your imaginary friend. No one can see him or is even thinking about him unless you point him out to them, and then they kind of politely have to go along with you, like “Oh yes, right, there is the shame monster, how silly of me not to see before, okay, sure, let’s of course make this interaction all about him. By all means.

It sounds like a lot of what happened with the business is publicly known and some people will be thinking about it when they run into you (especially if it’s dealing with stuff about the business). But you get to decide how much of the interaction is about your shame monster and how much is about getting shit done. People will take their cue from you. (That is true in SO MANY situations, btw). So if you are calm and collected, even if you are faking it within an inch of your life, people will be grateful for your poise and they will do whatever they can to let you keep it.

The way you get this poise is to fake it for a while. And to have a very short statement that you can make in response to questions or comments on what happens. Something like:

I tried to buy the business, but there turned out to be a lot of undisclosed, underlying problems and we could not solve them in time to save the company.”

No shame. No blame. Just facts, delivered levelly and comfortably.  Most times when you have to say this you’ll be saying it to people who want to express how sorry they are for what happened, so add on “Recovering financially and emotionally has been very difficult, so thank you so much for your kind words. That means a lot to me.

If it comes up when you’re looking for a job, add “It’s taken me a while to sort out all of the details, so I am definitely excited to move onto something new.”

People will be relieved to not have to meet the shame monster. You’ll feel better every time you get through one of these conversations without cracking.

After all, this is the U.S.A., where people are mostly looking for you to sweep failure under the rug and put a positive face on things. You might as well use it to your advantage to get out of awkward conversations and make yourself feel better in the meantime.

Little by little you are going to climb out of this and turn this into a story you tell as if from a great distance, the way we talk about long-ago exes who broke our hearts but we can’t remember how. You are obviously a creative, resilient person who is loved and has a lot to offer the world, so I’m looking forward to the day that you feel like that’s true of yourself again.

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About JenniferP

Chicago filmmaker, teacher, and blogger.

78 comments on “#295: When failure moves into your house to stay.

  1. Ten thousand hugs to you, Death Warmed Over! You took a leap, and that takes some serious mega super guts! Even though it didn’t work out this time in quite the way you had hoped, it’s still amazing and courageous of you to have taken the leap in the first place.

    Something that completely rocked my world when I discovered it (I can’t remember if I first saw it here at CA or elsewhere) was a drawing of the “Iceberg of Self” or somesuch. The idea is, all that people know about you is what they experience firsthand- your words and actions. That’s all anyone ever knows of you- what you say, what you do, how to speak to them, what you talk about. All that other stuff that makes up you- your fears, hopes, dreams, attitudes, secrets, loathings, doubt, worries, whatever- NO ONE EVER SEES THAT unless (!) YOU show it to them. I’m totally not advocating the “put on a happy face and shove all those feelings deep down and never deal with them”, but I AM saying that if you’re afraid everyone can see your “failure” written across your face- THEY CAN’T. The cashier at the grocery store can’t. Your hairdresser can’t. The mailman can’t.

    I don’t know why that changed my life so much, but it did. Knowing that the things going on inside my head (“Oh man remember that time I goofed up so much and embarrassed the crap outta myself? Oh damn it’s been three days since I changed my underwear! Oh gosh I need to remember to purchase hemorrhoid cream from the store on the way home!”) were stuff that only I knew freed me from being worried about what other people thought of me, because I can totally paint whatever picture I want for other people. And even in the case of having to talk to people about your past business ventures, YOU can decide how much you want to talk about it. You can paint them whatever picture you want after dealing with whatever facts you have to deal with. It takes some bravery and guts at first to do this, BUT you have bravery and guts in absolute droves!

  2. Oh LW, I am sorry this happened. This seems like a giant mess that is crushing you.

    I think the thing that struck me about your letter is how cruel you’re being to yourself – not just hard on yourself, but self-punishingly horrid.

    Would you tell a friend or your husband that “everything they touch turns to ash”? Or that they’re “just too dumb to know when to quit”? Of course you wouldn’t. Try and extend yourself the same kindness.

    • Would you tell a friend or your husband that “everything they touch turns to ash”? Or that they’re “just too dumb to know when to quit”? Of course you wouldn’t. Try and extend yourself the same kindness.

      This, to the nth degree. When I first started therapy for depression, my therapist had the hardest time getting me to go along with any idea that wasn’t “I suck, and it’s all my fault, I ruin everything…” etc. The first time she finally broke through and made me see how unfair I was being to myself was when she backed up and said, “Okay, what if X, Y, and Z had happened to your little sister? What would you tell her? Would you hate her/pity her/be angry at her? Would you yell at her? Or would you sympathize and try to help?”. In this, my therapist was (brilliantly) taking advantage of the fact that due to being the oldest of 5 kids and raised the way I was, I feel incredibly responsible for and protective of my siblings, particularly the younger two.

      LW, think of the people in your life you are most fiercely protective of, who you would do anything for. Best friends? Siblings? The husband? And then imagine all this had happened to THEM, and think about what you would tell THEM. It’s hard, and I know you’ll try to argue with it in your head, how it wouldn’t be bad if THEY did it, or THEY would never do anything so STUPID… but try. Try having some compassion for yourself. It’s hard as hell, but it’s worth it.

      • Thirded. My awesome therapist once listened to me recite my Jerkbrain Litany of Ways in Which I Had Fucked Up and asked me how I would respond to any of my friends who came to me with those problems. She then asked why I would be more gently with my friends that I was being with myself. My response (that I held myself to a higher standard) didn’t make sense, even to me, and ever since then I have tried to remember to show myself the same grace and compassion that I try to exhibit towards my friends and family.

        • Yes, this is exactly what I do, and it actually works for me. I think, “If I were my own best friend, what would I tell myself right now? If I were my own best friend, would I let myself sleep the entire day away/miss another workout/work all day without a break/eat popcorn for breakfast, lunch, AND dinner?” (Those are just my personal burdens–not necessarily what I get from your letter).

          Sometimes the answer is, “Yes, you do need to sleep all day and eat popcorn for breakfast, but maybe not lunch or dinner.”

          I really feel for you. It sounds like you TRIED your absolute best to do everything right and things still went sideways on you. Those are the failures that are the most difficult to accept. If I can look back at a project and say, “Yeah, that’s where I messed up. Right there. Not making the reservation for the venue in time,” then it’s easier to say, “Well, next year I will know I have to get everything ready by the 15th.” But when I’ve done EVERYTHING I was supposed to and I still had a colossal disaster–that takes some time to recover from.

    • I am trying *so hard* to put this in practice in my own life right now. I like to be a sweet and supportive person to my friends but I can be the meanest venomous asshole to myself. I would not put up with someone in my life saying these things to me, or saying them to someone I love, but I somehow have a hard time being as nice to myself as I am to other people.
      I’m aware that I do it and I know it’s ridiculous and a Bad Idea, but I can’t always get from realizing it’s a problem and actually stopping the behavior.

    • If you were married to the Human Torch, you’d certainly be tempted to say the first from time to time. But even then it would be quite unkind.

  3. Hey LW. I had a small business fail about… geez, two or three years ago now; much smaller than yours sounds like, but the hurt and fail-feels are pretty familiar. The thing that felt the worst was dwelling on what must obviously now be my reputation (That is: a big faily failure who failed). What got me out of it was remembering that I’m not in that field anymore, and people are rarely interested in the past unless it relates directly to them. If I’m trying to sell someone a spa package, they don’t give a damn that I was a crappy mechanic. Ya dig?

    Right now, I’m working a corporate cog 9-to-5 deskjob to keep body/soul/health insurance together and am working on a side-project that is completely different from my first small business. So I’m going to echo the Cap: Get a small part-time job if you can, one that doesn’t grind you down. You may never start a business again, but holy smokes, you have more good experience at how businesses run in the real world than any number of recent MBA graduates.

    As far as resources to help you figure out this mess, give your Small Business Administration offices a call. Someone there may be able to help you, or at least act as a counselor while you pour out the Mountain of Scary Papers on their desk. Trust me, they’ve seen it before, and they won’t shame you. http://www.sba.gov/

    Jedi Hugs, and be so, SO good to yourself.

    • Seconding the suggestion to look into local Small Business Administration offices or Small Business Development Centers, if you haven’t already. I used to work for a council of governments (aka regional council or development district, depending on the terminology of choice where you live), and we had two business development specialists on staff whose entire job was to help people who wanted to open businesses in the community. They were wonderful kind individuals who went above and beyond every time to help people in any way possible, and a fantastic (free!) resource who most folks unfortunately didn’t even realize existed. If there are any SBDCs in your area or business development specialists at a regional council of governments, they could probably at least point you in the direction of some helpful resources. I’m beaming all my best thoughts your way, LW.

  4. I am so sorry for your loss, LW. Because what happened to you is a loss, a kind of death, but what died was not a person, but a dream. Grieve for it like you would any other loss.

    The big thing I will say, coming from the point of view of someone who is a free-lancer and so home most of the time– do something, anything that takes you out of the house and into the world. Now, you can start small. Maybe you just go pick up the mail from the mailbox one day and pick up the mail and go for a walk the next. It’s hard to get up the gumption at first, but staying in means that you don’t have to brush your teeth, wash your face, or change out of your pjs. It allows you to wallow in your own head. And that can be very bad for you, because it feeds your depression.

    Leaving the house also gives you a chance to re-learn how to interact with people and change your expectations. Right now, you’re expecting people to see how you’re a failure who fails at everything and is probably contagious and deserving of ridicule. But, actually going out into the world and talking to people should show you that you’re a person, pretty much like everyone else and the waitstaff will be friendly or rude and the cashier will smile or not and it’s pretty much like it was before IT happened. You’ll run into people who knew you BEFORE and they’ll probably treat you just like they did BEFORE because they don’t know how else to treat you. In other words, you’ll feel more normal and it will detract from this narrative that IT is the only thing you can be or do or have. At a certain point you’ve got to let experience teach you that IT does not define you, but you won’t get that experience if you don’t leave the house.

    Consider a job, but if that feels like too much right now, consider a volunteer gig. Given your financial situation, I would recommend a volunteer gig with an organization that can help you as you help others. For instance, I volunteered at a soup kitchen for a while (and they always need people who can do weekday afternoons), and if you volunteer at a soup kitchen, then you can eat a meal while you are there. I am not ashamed that I volunteered at a soup kitchen and ate my big meal of the day while I was there, I got to help a wonderful organization doing wonderful work and I got to eat. I also had a friend who volunteered at a free clinic doing reception and clean-up work and she partook of some medical care while she was there. There is nothing wrong with helping an organization and letting them help you out. Consider your skills and your needs and call around.

    • I second these emotions, especially the ones about voluntarism. Many volunteer organizations desperately need someone to help pull THEM out of the cack, and it’s experience that allows you to feel useful, skilled, valuable, and a little more visible to people who will appreciate you–and, as a side bonus, it’s good for the resume. It may feel like cheating to go help someone else when you’ve got the pile of Nonsense to deal with back home; it isn’t. It’s maintenance on your soul. You can go help other people for a little while, and when you get home, yes, the Nonsense will still be there…but eventually, so will the delicious sense of power and perspective that helping resolve other people’s problems can give you. Volunteering outside your home also just breaks your mental patterns; if you’ve started on some level to see life as a choice between “deal with horrible business hangover” and “curl up in a ball because FAILURE,” hauling yourself over to a soup kitchen/free clinic/church rummage sale sorting basement is a new and happier option.

      You sound like you’re in a horrible dark place, like a well with no rope. But strange as it sounds, sometimes what pulls you out is trying to find the next person down and pull them up a little. It wouldn’t work in an actual well; it somehow works with the inner variety.

    • I coordinate the volunteers at my organization and I will do ANYTHING for them. I take them out to lunch. I give them product. I will write them AMAZING letters of recommendation. And, if I know that they are looking for employment, I keep my eyes and ears out for potential permanent positions for them. We are too small hire another person, but I would be thrilled if I could land one of my volunteers a job, because that just strengthens the network I have. (And I really like them all.)

  5. LW, you did something so many people are afraid to do – you bought and tried to run a business. That took guts and an immense amount of hard work. You are not a failure because some other schmo took advantage of you. It’s a learning experience (or “Fucking Learning Experience,” to spell out the acronym) and you won’t make that mistake again.

    Honestly? Everyone fucks up. I think God gives us our 20s as a grace period to make horrible, tragic, horrendous mistakes so our 30s and 40s and 50s and so on can be much better. And they do get better. I destroyed my life in my 20s – homeless, dropping out of college, bankrupt, divorced, on Chexsystems, diagnosed with depression and PTSD, etc. – and now things are better. I also felt like I was the King Midas of Shit. You know – it turns out that no one hated me more than myself, and most people didn’t hate me at all. Even the ones who knew how profoundly I’d fucked up. And, I wasn’t the King after all, though it did take a while to overcome my personal disaster.

    Here is what I did. I did this for my finances and education, but you can do it for your business problems. I spent the first year (your time period may vary) seeking out advice wherever I could, before going back to school at the local JC. I even travelled to get the advice. I made lists of options. I talked over everything honestly and completely with my boyfriend (life moves on after divorce!). I charted out every single thing I needed to do to achieve my goal, and I didn’t do it in large chunks. I’m talking things like “appointment: college counselor” and “4 page paper due Friday.” “Read 40 pages after work today.” “Go to post office for rent money order.” Stuff like that. And because I did this and followed it faithfully, I ended up with excellent credit, bills paid on time, and two degrees, both earned as a “distinguished scholar.” I actually ended up covered in glory, which was really scary. And this despite the occasional falling on my face I encountered in the process (two majorly late papers, one horrendously failed question on my master’s exam, a death in the family, and a brief mental breakdown). You don’t have to be perfect to do this – you just have to put one foot in front of the other for as long as it takes.

    Anyone can do this. The real, actual King Midas of Shit could do this. You can do this.

    You are smart, gutsy, brave, resourceful, and you have the devotion of a wonderful-sounding person. You are also mired in the mess of a failed business (which happened to my bf, and he survived) and you sound depressed. You have real problems, but your problems ARE NOT YOU. I think you need a small taste of success somewhere in your life. When I took my first baby-step class on my route to fixing my life, I took a really fun class that had nothing to do with my previous education and was certainly not that academic. I got out of the class and had fun. I re-taught myself how to turn work in on time and show up to class in a low-stress environment. It helped. You can find a volunteer position somewhere. I know the others have said get a job that pays, and you might actually *need* that, but if you don’t *need* it, volunteer. People love volunteers. You could especially volunteer for an art school. Our local industrial art school is constantly looking for volunteers and I bet, if you live in a major urban area, you could find something like that. And, volunteering leads to confidence about seeing people and possibly to a job that pays. Also, if you volunteer outside of the immediate field your business was in, you could worry a little bit less about running into the people you fear hate you – at least until you build up a little more self-confidence.

    Last, because this is LOOOONG, consider Flylady. She is awesome and has many tips on how to change your life, 15 minutes at a time. Her site is pink and mostly focused around house cleaning, but it’s really behavior modification for the overstressed and depressed. I know someone who used her method to practice piano. It really helped me a lot. Here is a helpful link. Give it a try. http://www.flylady.net/d/getting-started/

    • PS – Flylady is free, and she encourages people to filter the bulk of her emails into the trash if they feel too overwhelmed.

    • Fly Lady’s “polish your sink” ritual CHANGED THE WAY I LIVE. God that sounds so trivial, but seriously, I go to bed with a messy kitchen like once a month now instead of all the time.

      Her emails do get overwhelming, but filters are useful, and even if you only get one or two pieces of good advice from her… it will be worthwhile (even/especially if they aren’t housecleaning tips)

    • I second the FlyLady recommendation. Her system seriously changed my life when I was deep in the pits of depression. Also if you have any questions not answered on the site or in the emails, you can email the FlyLadies and they give you an excellent, detailed answer. I got some excellent advice on paperwork filing a few months back and it made a huge difference.

    • The only caveat about FlyLady I would add is that she is, well, not exactly balanced in the way she talks about weight and body image. Specifically, a lot of her personal weight struggles have now become Universal FlyBaby Weight Struggles, and she talks about food in an extremely shaming way. I even wrote to her about it basically saying, “Hey, the way you frame eating and weight is particularly uncomfortable for me, especially as someone who’s struggled with eating disorders in the past,” and not only did it not change, but she referenced what I said in a very snarky and passive-aggressive way in one of her e-mails to everyone the following day. It’s really too bad, because I was really benefitting from a lot of her techniques. I still recommend looking at her site for her time management and organizational techniques, but just have your body image guard up way high.

      • Unless she’s changed a lot, she’s also very not open to other cultural traditions than hers. In fact, I found her totally triggering and had to stop her emails after about a month.

        • Yeah, I filtered out all of the “body clutter” (ugh) and testimonial emails, personally. That made it a much nicer experience. I like the “flight plans” because they’re the straight-to-the point this is what I have to do today messages with a bit of inspiration.

      • I did Flylady before she did the body clutter thing – subscribed to her for a year, got what I needed, and moved on. I actually think the book Sink Reflections is better than the Flylady email site (if you’re enough self-motivated, that is), but since you have to pay for it, I didn’t recommend it.

      • To everyone who is having problems with triggering or judgmental language from FlyLady: there’s a Tumblr called Unfuck Your Habitat that does a similar thing. It’s much more specifically housework focused, but built around the idea of being a general “fix your life up with baby steps” support system, very welcoming to people with mental illness and related challenges, and has strict policy of nonjudgment. It is a different format obviously, Tumblr rather than an email subscription, but if this kind of encouragement is helpful to you it’s the daily reminder to make your bed and little hug-gifs to celebrate getting the dishes washed, without the hate. I see messages on there all the time from people who feel like it’s life-changing.

      • Hey, Lucy, I remember getting that email and wishing I could contact the person who wrote in to her to commend zir for zir’s bravery. You’re right on the money when you say she’s turned her body image issues into a universal absolute. Thank you for writing to her.

        LW, I agree with people who are recommending Flylady with caveats. I’m a recovering perfectionist, and I found the “just 15 minutes” mentality and calm concrete tasks she espouses to be really very helpful to break me out of my cleaning-related shame/failure cycles. <3 Best of luck to you.

    • If you’re looking for a system similar to FlyLady’s but with a really different tone, I recommend Unfuck Your Habitat. Again, focused on cleaning your home, but the concept of baby steps, no marathons, plugging away a little at a time is REALLY useful in many areas. (It’s also a site that’s very friendly and non-shaming towards people with depression/other circumstances that have caused them to let something pile up far more than they’d like.)

    • If not flylady (I can’t deal with something so cheerful when I’m unhappy) then I recommend http://unfuckyourhabitat.tumblr.com/. It follows a lot of the same principles and has a good tough-love encouragement community that’s firmly in your corner to help with climbing back out from the pit. It tackles everything from a different perspective than flylady and is geared toward putting yourself together no matter why you’re in pieces. Also, cursing, which Science says supposedly helps reduce pain responses?

  6. I have nothing to offer but Jedi Hugs, and the advice that you should note to yourself every day when you succeed at things. You husband may be good at helping you do this, if you have a “how was your day?” conversation regularly. You can reply with “Today I went for a swim and wrote a few pages” and he can casually reply with “Nice, well done, those are good things.”

    Because really, truly, sometimes you need to give yourself permission for life to be almost unreasonably hard for a while. If going to the store, smiling at the cashier, and making an effort to not believe that everyone is staring at your failure is difficult, then it’s fine to, (a), set aside the required amount of mental energy for the task and only do it if you have that much, and, (b), praise yourself accordingly. And yes, that goes on your list of things you did that day: “I went to the store and I was brave and the cashier was nice.”

  7. Hey… when I read your story, I didn’t see someone who is a failure, just someone who failed at something because someone else deliberately decided to lie to and cheat you! Maybe hindsight tells you that you could have avoided it, but we all know what hindsight’s like, right? You get some new information and suddenly it feels like you knew (or should have known!) it all along, somehow. Some people, like those people who owned the business, are liars and cheats and are going to lie and cheat to get what they want, and yeah it would be great if you could identify and avoid them ahead of time but a lot of the time we just CAN’T because there aren’t any clear signs/because they’re good at manipulation/etc. Having a modicum of trust (for people you already know and have been working with, no less!!) sadly makes things easier for them sometimes, but what can you do? Acting like everyone is probably a dishonest cheating liar until they’ve proven otherwise (and how could they do that?) is no way to live, obviously. You did the best you could with the information you had at the time. That’s not hubris, just misfortune.

    (And “undisclosed, underlying problems” is probably a good phrase, too. Nobody’s going to hear that and think you didn’t disclose said problems to yourself or something. You don’t even have to read between the lines to know it probably means fraud (which this is) and people will hopefully just go “ohhhhhh” and nod knowingly without you having to get into the painful details.)

    • I like the phrase, too. And I agree that it’s a really good way to say that the other party involved was damn fishy.

      And yes, exactly. If someone stole your identity and used your credit card to buy a boat and some large televisions, you wouldn’t beat yourself up for being really bad with money, would you?

      You did the right things–except, maybe, being deeply suspicious of a business acquaintance–and you worked very hard. Part of this story is the story of how you were failed by some lazy and irresponsible people who kinda sorta majorly fucked up your financial life. It’s not just not fun to beat yourself up. It’s unfair to you. I only know you from the letter you wrote about yourself, but you come off as a conscientious, diligent, tenacious person who cared very deeply about her business and is mourning her opportunity to do demanding work to support her family. Not a failure.

  8. LW:

    I’m going to say a word that might make you panic. I know because the first time someone said it to me in all seriousness I threw a righteous fit. But it is one of the things that turned my life around (the first in a long list).

    Have you thought about bankruptcy?

    You might not need it (or you might not qualify), so if it is really not relevant to you, please disregard.

    But if you have personal debt you feel is swallowing you whole (you mentioned there was no business debt, but didn’t say anything about personal debt) it is worth speaking to a bankruptcy lawyer. Most will consult with you for free to discuss your situation. Don’t be afraid to ask if you can get a free consultation, also maybe delegate this to your husband if you can.

    Declaring bankruptcy was scary, and I felt very ashamed, but getting all my consumer debt erased allowed me to move forward with my life (I didn’t have to say “I can’t go back to school, I have $800/month in credit card bills I have to get paid off,” for example). It’s a big decision and not something to decide to do because some stranger on the internet suggested it. But I would encourage you to at least consider it.

    • I just want to add here, in case LW reads this, a comment I recently read on another advice site on a question about dealing with the guilt and shame of bankruptcy that opened my eyes a bit:

      ”Suppose you’re playing a board game with friends and there was something in the game’s official rules along the lines of, ”A player may, at any time choose to [blah blah blah some special move] at the cost of [blah blah blah considerations].” And if you found yourself in a situation where that special move was a net win for you, you would take it. The other players would not be surprised or angry — they all read the same rules that you did before starting the game. They would not look down on you, for you’re doing the best thing possible for your situation.

      Bankruptcy is no different. It is a perfectly valid option that’s written right into the rules of the game. All the companies that lent you money knew there was a chance that you might declare bankruptcy and that they would never get their money back. They know this because they read the rules, and they factored it into their fee and interest structure. It’s a natural part of their business, no different than a car owner recognizing that they’ll need to factor in the cost of new tires and brakes every few years, and a major repair every so often. You are just doing what’s best for you, given the rules of the game. Anyone that faults you for that is simply small-minded.”

    • Everyone’s mileage varies … but as a caveat, when I declared bankruptcy it directly led to a 4 month homeless stint for me. No one would rent to me even though I had a job. I ended up moving into a slum – the slum lord was the only one who wouldn’t do a credit check. Renters are hesitant to rent to people with bankruptcies less than 2 years old on their credits, and bankruptcies last 7-10 years. Also, it’s a lot harder today to file for bankruptcy, and bankruptcy doesn’t do a damned thing for student loans. I’d direct someone to CCCS before suggesting bankruptcy – but the LW might be someone with a stable home situation who could weather the first 2 years after filing, so it might work for her.

      • Yeah – it’s definitely important to have a clear understanding of the consequences of bankruptcy and be clear-headed in approaching it. There were many ways in which my circumstances allowed me to make the most of the situation that would not apply to others.

        That said, before someone calmly and rationally suggested it to me, I thought bankruptcy was for OTHER PEOPLE (you know… those irresponsible people). It may or may not be for the letter writer (she may not even have extensive personal debt! hard to tell from the letter), but I think it’s worth examining.

        CCCS is a good suggestion… I was personally too far gone for it to help, and it comes with its own careful research requirements, but is a good place to start.

      • This is true. But. I have a rental property, and it is nice, and if you tell me about your God-awful credit, we can work with that. Sublets and single-property landlords are often more flexible than larger outfits.

    • Bankruptcy is part of our system of law in order to give people second, and sometimes third chances. It is a legal part of our system of law and it is there for a reason. Businesses are risks. If you go out and DO stuff, you run the risk of not succeeding. Our society benefits when people with ideas can go out and try stuff, and maybe pick themselves up off their asses to try a second or third time.

      People who never take risks and would never risk failing usually don’t succeed spectacularly at stuff either.

      I had a boyfriend once upon a time, long ago, who had his own business and was doing well enough to have a nice house and three cars and support his hobbies…
      His parents wanted him to settle down and get a real job. Still.

      You took a chance. It was a chance not everyone could have taken. You were brave to do it, and I bet you learned a huge amount!

      Forgive yourself. Take some time and get yourself healed up. That was a tumble you took, and it HURT. Build yourself back up slowly, and be easy on yourself for a bit. Just do one thing at a time and it will eventually clear up.

  9. LW, I wanted to specifically address this part of what you said: “Everything I touch turns to ash. If I want it/like it/believe in it, it will fail.”

    I recognized that. I say/think/sob things like that on a regular (but decreasing!) basis. But it’s not true. It’s called “filtering out the positives.” (I got the term from this program: http://www.testandcalc.com/Self_Defeating_Beliefs/, specifically this page: http://www.testandcalc.com/Self_Defeating_Beliefs/indexf2.asp. I’d encourage you to read through it – it’s basically just a summary of some principles from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Very common-sense, very helpful.)

    Because lots of things I’ve done have actually worked out great! And the same is true of you. You have an awesome husband, a place to live, family who care about you. For some portion of your life you were holding down two jobs at once. You made the ballsy decision to become a small-business owner and worked your ass off to make it work. That’s a fucking impressive accomplishment, regardless of the outcome. You write and draw sometimes. I bet you’ve created some cool-ass art, and written some creepy/romantic/beautiful gothic stories (or portions thereof). I bet you’ve been a good friend at least a couple of times. I bet you’ve made somebody’s day with a compliment.

    So… only some of the things you touch turn to ash. And that’s true for everybody. It’s a chaotic, unfair world, and some people are assholes. But your life is a mix of good and bad, success and failure. Don’t ignore the good stuff.

  10. I haven’t had a business fail, but I did get laid off from my job a few years ago (a job that I LOVED), and for a while, it was the hardest thing in the world to get out of bed in the morning. I echo the sentiment that you need to have some structured time. For me, even when I had nothing to do, I would set my alarm every morning, take a shower, get dressed, and go out of the house. Even if it was just to go around the corner to the coffee shop to sit for an hour and read the paper, it was a ‘thing i had to do’. Every day. Then I made friends at the coffee shop with other ‘alternatively employed’ people, and our little coffee klatsch was something specific and support-groupy to look forward to every day.

    (There’s only so many hours in the day that you can look at job listings).

    It took me two years to be employed again, but I found another job that I also really like, and the 100-year old company that laid me off just failed spectacularly itself (we’re talking ‘front page of the NYTimes and head of the company being investigated by the district attorney’ failed).

    And while actual crossing over into depression can obviously be harmful, it’s OK to give yourself some time to wallow (the journaling advice is probably similar). The situation sucks and you’re allowed to acknowledge that, even if it’s just to yourself. I would sometimes just let myself have a good, cathartic, cry – where I let all of the emotion just roll over and through me. Then I’d sleep for 12 hours and feel much more proactive the next day.

    One last thing. It’s also OK to just tell people that you don’t want to talk about it. The thing that got me (and a friend/colleague in the same boat) the most crazy were people who, every time they saw us, would ask how the job search was going. He and I developed a strategy of telling people (including family) that we were no longer going to answer such questions, and if we had actual news to share, we would share it without prompting, because the questions themselves (even when well-intentioned) would send us back through the cycle of grief/shame/embarassment/etc. and we couldn’t do that on a daily basis. And then he and I would use each other as a sounding board to vent.

    • That’s very solid advice. I’ve been having to tell well-meaning, but nosy people not to pry recently. I’ve been getting everyone used to the fact that I’m free-lance and I don’t want talk about whether I have work or don’t have work because it makes me anxious to talk about. Now, we’ve just been informed that my husband’s job is going away at the end of the year, so he’s having to job hunt. People have been asking me about it and prying about it until I got off the phone with my mother the other day feeling like a ball of loose nerves and like I needed to be doing something proactive about the situation and it’s not even MY job. So, I’ve had to learn to just tell people, “Thank you for your concern, but I need to not talk about it. How are you?”

    • the 100-year old company that laid me off just failed spectacularly itself (we’re talking ‘front page of the NYTimes and head of the company being investigated by the district attorney’ failed).

      I am drinking deep of the second-hand schaudenfreude and it is DELICIOUS. Take that, company!

      I had a similar situation, although I got lucky and was only unemployed for 9 months. After wallowing for months, I ended up getting booted out of the house for a few hours due to an exterminator visit, and went to the library because it was air conditioned. After that, I went to the library every day, and the change in my mood was phenomenal. Get up, get showered, get dressed, gotta get to the library to hang out with the old guys reading the newspapers! It was so great.

      The thing that got me (and a friend/colleague in the same boat) the most crazy were people who, every time they saw us, would ask how the job search was going.

      UGH. Yeah. I know they mean well, but that is just the worst thing to ask, because it comes across as “So, have you stopped failing at life yet?” I had to do the same thing that you did. The less annoying people in my life got the “I am bored to death with talking about that stuff, it’s all I deal with, it consumes my life, PLEASE now and always in the future talk to me about other things, because I need that SO MUCH.”

  11. Oh, honey. Oh, honey. I am so, so sorry for what happened to you and what you’re going through. So many jedi hugs in your direction. This sucks hugely and honestly, if it were me, I’d be doing the exact same thing. Hell, I did do much the same thing when I got laid off, a few years back, and that was nowhere near the awful story that this is.

    The hardest, most wretched thing you have to do here is to forgive yourself. I know there’s that inner jerkbrain saying YOU DON’T DESERVE TO BE FORGIVEN UNLESS YOU HAVE DONE X, Y, AND Z TO PROVE YOUR WORTH AND DO PENANCE AND RUB YOUR NOSE IN YOUR MESS, but look, forgiveness, just like love and help, does not have a sign on it that says YOU MUST BE THIS HIGH TO RIDE THIS RIDE. There are no minimum requirements. You don’t have to prove that you’ve done something to deserve it. You are currently using up all your emotional resources on a) beating yourself up with a big club and b) dealing with being beaten up by a big club, no wonder you have nothing left! It’s exhausting to do all that work!

    You’re in private now. Nobody can see you and yell at you if you take a moment off of being angry at yourself. You can take a time-out for the next minute and just… rest. When the jerkbrain starts chattering, just breathe; jerkbrain can’t yell at you (well, without sounding ridiculous) for breathing. Let it go. Breathe. Just take a minute. You are spending 24 hours a day beating yourself up; you can spare one minute where you’re not. Breathe. It’s okay. You can go back to yelling at yourself when the minute is over. Just breathe.

  12. Oh LW. So many many Jedi Hugs to you. I had my Big Failure in law school: first I did not get a job offer from the place I hoped would make me an offer, then I failed the Bar Exam. Twice. So here I was, with two expensive Ivy-League degrees, and literally NO job prospects (because you can’t practice anywhere if you can’t pass the bar). I felt, like it sounds like you feel now, like a big fat failure who failed at everything. I hid from my law school classmates (on social media and in the city where I lived) and didn’t discuss my degrees (of which I would otherwise have been proud) with anyone new I met. I took a temp job to help my fiance with rent and insurance, and was miserable every minute of it.

    Eventually, though, I was able to climb out of it. I took the Bar one last time, and passed. I got a contract job in the legal field, which turned into the permanent job I have today, which recognizes the accomplishments I struggled so hard for. And now it’s a story I can look back on and hopefully share with you to make you feel better, that you can climb out of this pit too.

    One of the things that helped me was hearing advice from the father of an old friend, who said that he didn’t trust anybody who hadn’t failed at anything in life. And he had all the markers of “success” that I could ever want, and was a “grown up” (i.e., over 50) besides.

    Another thing that helped me was getting out of the house. I had quit my temp job and was hiding from the world, and my tutor for the Bar told me to get a job. Temping, Starbucks, whatever, but get a part time job, to get me out of the house. She also told me to get out of the house to do my Bar prep. So I’ll pass that advice along to you. As somebody said, you probably have a Folder of Paperwork and Other Stuff you have to deal with. Can you take that folder and a notepad to your local library or coffeeshop and spend some limited period of time every day dealing with one aspect of it? Open it and spend 20 minutes organizing it in some logical-to-you fashion one day. Then get yourself a cup of coffee or a fun magazine or something to reward your hard work. The next day, make a list of things you have to do, and REALLY break it down. Like, not just “Deal with foreclosure”, but “Google local Bar association. Call Bar association to get recommendations(s) for attorney. Call attorneys recommended and ask for quotes. Review quotes and call cheapest attorney.” and so forth. Then get yourself a treat. The next day, do the first thing on the list, and give yourself a treat. And so on.

    Somebody else mentioned Unfuck Your Habitat, and I’m a huge fan. I really like her 20/10 mantra for getting stuff done, especially hard or emotionally overwhelming things. I also like the idea of giving yourself some positive reinforcement– which can be as small as “sitting and watching an episode of your favorite TV show” — after you’ve done a Hard Thing, to incentivize yourself to keep doing Hard Things.

    I’ll also second getting some kind of part-time kibble job to (a) help you feel like you’re contributing, and (b) get you out of the house. But I’d second the Captain’s suggestion to make sure it’s a job you WON’T get invested in. Temping was great for me, because I knew I wasn’t going to get invested, so that may work for me. I have also heard that Starbucks is a good place to work and offers health insurance, so that may be another option (it was one I looked into).

    If a job isn’t in the cards, I agree that volunteering is a great idea. I know sometimes local animal shelters can use dog walkers or other folks to take care of/socialize the animals; is there one in your town you can get involved with? That will get you out of the house too, with the benefit of fuzzy animal contact!

    This is turning into a novel so I will stop, but I am thinking of you and pulling for you. Failure is just not something American culture has a narrative to handle, which is what makes it seem so shameful and hard to deal with. But you are still standing on the other side, and I know things will get better for you.

    • One of the things I really love about this site is reading other people’s stories, and seeing how other people solved different issues…

      Anyway, I second all the comments about how to get back on track, especially the bits about being nice to yourself, volunteering or even a part-time job that you don’t need to get personally invested in.

      These things worked for me when I felt like a big faily failure.

      Basically I went through a bad time when I moved to a new country, where my partner is from.

      In my home country, I had a great job (good money, and a good position), my own place, a group of friends. In my new country, I didn’t even know the language. I went through hell getting a job, and when I found one I landed in a place where people were horrible to me. Unfortunately, because I was new to the country, my Jerkbrain extrapolated my experiences and said “everyone in this country is horrid”.

      Basically my coworkers made fun of my nationality (thanks, TV, for national stereotypes that are oh, so funny! but actually racist!), told me my degrees were “worthless” in my new country, and all sorts of other crap. Oh, and my boss sexually harrassed me a bit.

      Eventually I quit that job (walked out, actually) and spent the next few months in a black pit, feeling like a TOTAL FAILURE. No friends, no job, partner’s elder sister kept “joking” I was sponging off of him, oh it was awful.

      The key to recovery ended up being baby steps.

      I volunteered in a charity that helps new immigrants in difficult circumstances and I realized that wow, my situation is cake compared to the family from north Africa whose parents were killed and who ended up with the 16 year old daughter dropping out of school to care for her five siblings.

      I took a part-time job that made peanuts money but got me out of the house and meeting people and learning about my new country.

      I learned that my former coworkers were not typical :)

      I took an intensive course and learned the language.

      I took an art class and made art and we had an exhibition! And I was proud, and my partner came to see it and he was proud too.

      In between all these things I still felt bad occasionally and even now I still feel bad (and whenever I hear jokes about “bad British teeth haha” I feel HULK SMASH, but that’s life).

      Things still get hard now, I still don’t get on with The Elder Sister, but I know I can survive. You are not a failure, you are a brave person who took risks and learned lessons.

  13. Since I’m guessing accessing therapy is a non-starter at the moment, try checking out Mood Gym. It’s sort of a do-it-yourself cognitive-behavioral therapy program that has, like, actual scientific data showing statistically significant improvements for people who do at least two of the five modules.

    Try reframing your story, too. Instead of telling yourself “I am a big failure with a Cloud O’Doom following me around ruining everything,” try “I was brave enough to pursue my dream, but someone I trusted lied to me, and the craptastic economy meant that I couldn’t get help to fix things.”

    I’m also a big fan of the Captain’s Gold Star method of positive reinforcement. You got out of bed today? Gold star! You bathed? Gold star! You put on pants? Another gold star! Seriously, actually writing these things down on paper (with an exclamation point!) and pasting in a gold star sticker (or drawing one, if you prefer) can genuinely help. Anything that was hard or scary or unpleasant or you just didn’t want to do it gets a gold star.

    Your Jerkbrain is going to try to tell you that you are pathetic for thinking that getting out of bed is a significant achievement — after all, NORMAL people do it every day. Your Jerkbrain is wrong. Eventually, you’ll be able to tell it that yourself, but until you’re able to do that, I’ll do it for you: your Jerkbrain is wrong. When all you want to do is lie in bed and cry, getting out of bed IS a significant achievement, dammit. It sometimes requires an exercise of willpower and emotional strength far beyond what a “normal” person uses in an entire day, just to do that one thing. It is, in fact, a pretty fucking amazing thing to be able to do.

    One of the really insidious things about depression is that it highjacks your internal feedback systems. Usually, if your body is telling you “I want to sleep” or “I’m [not] hungry” or “I’m not sure I’m up for going for a walk today”, or anything else along those lines, you’re supposed to listen to it. But depression makes your body lie to you. It tells you that you want the very things that will keep you feeling bad, and that you don’t want to or outright can’t do the stuff that will actually help.

    Therefore, seconding the recommendation for checking out volunteer work — soup kitchens are good (because they feed you!), but if you can’t handle dealing with that many people, libraries often use volunteers to shelve and alphabetize books. There are definitely days that I couldn’t face a soup kitchen’s worth of people, but wandering the aisles of a library works nicely. Or you could do art stuff with kids at a local family shelter or a nearby daycare — anything that gets you out of your house in a context that has nothing to do with the Late Unpleasantness.

  14. I totally want to second the advice to work on your nonsense one hour at a time and then put it away. I’ve had two big periods of unemployment in the last 3-4 years and I’ve found it extremely helpful to make myself to-do lists and schedules for every weekday, as if job hunting was actually a research and writing based freelance job I had taken. I assigned myself about an hour’s worth of concrete tasks for each day. No surprise tasks – new things had to be added to tomorrow at the earliest. Also, specific tasks worked better for me than a time frame, since you can’t cheat and procrastinate through them by staring sadly at a job description for the whole hour. Once you’re done with your to do list, give yourself a gold star! You are great at job hunting.

    I also found that “get a job” was an incredibly frustrating goal, since you can’t actually control whether people hire you or not. Once I thought of my goal as “be awesome at being unemployed,” I was able to do applications, take care of household chores, and drink wine while other people were at work much more productively and with less angst.

    I also think the Captain’s analysis of Americans’ obsession with success is spot on. I found it very satisfying to respond to people who asked me how I was doing with, “I’ve applied to a bunch of jobs and today I made a giant lasagna! I’m getting GREAT at unemployment!” It was a good way for me to productively channel my own American Project of Radical Self Improvement Brain, and also to confound people who expected me to do a dance of shame.

    • “I also found that “get a job” was an incredibly frustrating goal, since you can’t actually control whether people hire you or not. Once I thought of my goal as “be awesome at being unemployed…”

      This is super helpful, thank you!!!

    • “Once I thought of my goal as “be awesome at being unemployed,” I was able to do applications, take care of household chores, and drink wine while other people were at work much more productively and with less angst.”

      Thank you! I love that framing. I am going to try and be awesome at being unemployed from now on!

  15. Dear LW,

    I do not have the dramatic circumstances that you do, but I’ve been under/unemployed ever since I came back to the US from Asia, and I have been feeling like a big faily failure, tons of shame around things that I Have Not Done Correctly in my job search/informational interviewing/etc. Being kind to myself has been really difficult. Getting up in the morning is difficult. Having fun with my friends without constantly making every conversation about my stress and my failure have been difficult.

    Things that have helped:
    This TED talk by Brene Brown about shame: (http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/brene_brown_listening_to_shame.html)
    Keeping the kitchen sink clean
    Watching other TED talks or documentaries, when I can’t get out of bed (I’m learning things! That counts as success, right?)
    Making a list of things I enjoy and am not doing (reading books, taking walks, eating chocolate, knitting, drinking tea, hugging people I like) – however big or small, and trying to do one of them a day.
    Making a list of things UNRELATED TO WORK that I want to learn to do: multiply big numbers in my head, remember conversations verbatim, take apart and put back together a computer, change my own oil, make risotto. I haven’t actually gotten to the part of finding out which one is feasible for me right now, but I’m getting there. It’s a bucket list, not “do right now every day”
    Finding soothing hand-habits. Knitting is a big one for me. If my thoughts are dark and scary, watching an episode of silly television and knitting is extremely soothing. Or cutting apart clothing into scraps for other projects. Painting my nails.

    I still don’t get out of bed when my alarm goes off, 6/7 days of the week. I don’t send off even 1 job application every day. I’m sort of panicking all the time inside, shaming myself, feeling guilty and like I am the worst and avoiding people because I am so ashamed. Reaching out and accepting kindness from other people is difficult for me, and it sounds like it is for you too. Baby steps, hey? Find those small moments – sharing a cup of tea or something with your husband quietly, or noticing the sunset, or feeling something soft against your skin – that let you take in a deep breath despite the weight of the Golem, and hold onto them. I started to pull out of my extremely deep Pit of Despair because I ate some goat cheese, no lie. Just a tiny perfect moment and a good flavor, and I remembered there still are good things in the world that I am allowed to experience without guilt.

    Find the tiny things that nourish you. Share them with people you love. Tell that toxic voice inside you that it is a liar. If journalling is a thing you like, follow the Captain’s suggestion (I do three pages longhand, more if things are still buzzing in my brain). When you can’t get out of bed, drag a book or a movie into bed with you if you can (public libraries!) and visit someone else’s world (bonus conversation topic with the husband!). When you have insomnia, as I often do too, do one of the things that soothes you (I knit long, repetitive scarves, read a boring book, bounce my pillow on my feet, sketch emoticons of my mood…). And when you have that fear response, give yourself permission to feel it and process it. My therapist recommends self-comforting gestures, like tapping your hands against your biceps in a right-left-right-left sequencial pattern (evokes a brain response used in EMDR that helps process emotions and trauma) and present-mind exercises (name five things you can see, name four things you can see, name three things you can see, name two things you can see, name one thing you can see, repeat for hearing and touch). They’ve been good for me when I’ve had panic responses.

    And if all of this is unhelpful or sounds too hard? You can ignore my advice and just know that the Awkward Army, including me, does not think you are a failure. We are here for you and hearing you, and sending positive energy your way.

    • I found askamanager.com to be incredibly helpful for job searching advice- she’s a great place for resources on writing cover letters and resumes that really put you in the best light and catch a hiring director’s attention with how awesome you are. You may already have all that under control and be sending in excellent applications, so only take this suggestion if you need it.

  16. I think Captain Awkward must have missed the “old injuries/fibro” bit in this letter. When you have a chronic condition like FMS, it isn’t always *possible* to go out for a walk or swim, or at least not with a week of flu-like symptoms afterwards. If you lived in a civilized country, the answer would be “go to the doctor, get a referral for physical therapy” but as it stands, maybe you know someone who knows someone who’s a retired physical therapist or licensed in another state but really likes art? I don’t know. But if you’ve been diagnosed with FMS, you have a real illness that requires real treatment, and pants? Pants are a real victory.

    • This reminds me of the spoons thing … let’s see if I can find it. Here it is:

      http://www.butyoudontlooksick.com/articles/written-by-christine/the-spoon-theory-written-by-christine-miserandino/

      An endo friend showed this to me to explain why she couldn’t do so much.

    • I did miss that, sorry! Thank you.

    • I’m glad you caught that, too, teasugarsalt – being newly diagnosed with fibro, it reached out of the letter and hit me in the gut, as did the description of being “just so tired” at around 30 years of age.

      Death Warmed Over, gentle Jedi hugs to you if you want them! I sort of ended up losing my job because my health was way worse than I thought. Thankfully I got several months’ notice, but I did take a month off in the middle of that, unpaid, to sleep and go to doctors. I was a mess, and felt like the most losing loser ever. Pants were an achievement for me, too; laundry was a near-miracle. I was afraid to leave my apartment, so light sensitive I lived in the dark, had insomnia and nightmares and then slept all day, gained a LOT of weight, etc.

      Are you getting any support for your fibro? I know it’s freaking expensive and draining to get help from medical professionals, but as someone who maybe feels your pain, I am hopeful that helping your body will help your mind. I’ve felt a lot of reassurance just reading fibro message boards, especially hearing from fellow overachievers; a lot of us apparently have the same pattern of doing awesome stuff (as you did!!! even if circumstances beyond your control made it not feel that way) and then crashing into pain and depression after our efforts.

      Here’s how I started getting out of the hole: I walked to the place where my mailbox was located to check my mail, daily. My therapist told me that it was more important to do something small every day than to do something big every now and then. Just going outside. I stayed in my pajamas.A friend told me what other commenters have told you: try to treat yourself the way you would treat a friend. I got help from a doctor with pain meds, and felt like I had awoken from some bad dream after they kicked in, and was able to feel not-unhappy for the first time in months. I gave myself space to be miserable. I whined to friends who knew the whining was more pain than me talking. Could any of that help you?

      Sending you lots of support and encouragement that you can escape the darkness! It feels forward to say this, but if you have any desire to do so, you can also email me, for commiseration or for swapping tips for silencing the Jerkbrain and the jerknerves. Also: go you, for writing to the Captain! It can take tremendous courage to ask for help, and you did it! So much luck to you…

      • Thank you guys so much for catching the fibro stuff. There was so much in the letter my eyes went past it.

        LW, that’s extra “BE NICE TO YOURSELF AND THINK IN BABY STEPS” advice for you.

        • If my sister and my uncle and several friends weren’t dealing with fibro (and several other relatives with several other chronic conditions) I might have missed it, too, little acronym with one mention that it is. No recrimination from me, here – I know if you’d caught it you would have addressed it because you do. It leapt out at me after seeing my sis go from Terrifyingly Amazing to Terrifyingly Amazing With Long Stretches Of Needing Me To Come Across Town And Get Her Vitamin B Shot From Her Kitchen For Her Because She Can’t.

  17. *Great big Jedi Hug* (unless you’re not cool with touch right now in which case it’s a jedi sandwch)

    Okay, you know what you have touched that *hasn’t* turned to ash? Your Husband. He is being there for you and picking up some of the slack while you can’t deal with it, and generally being epic.

    And you’re pretty epic too. You took over a business. You made things happen. It wasn’t “hubris” that made you think you could do this, it was courage, ‘kay? Heck, you could probably have done it if the banks weren’t being bitches. So it’s not “I thought I could do this massively complicated thing and then it failed so I suck”, it’s “I almost did this massively complicated thing and then other people sucked”.

    Also weight gain is a symptom of stress, which you have in bucketloads right now. I’d say “just roll with it” but I doubt you’ve become entirely spherical.

  18. When I was in my mid-twenties, I worked for 9-1-1. On a routine weekday afternoon, an inexperienced coworker mishandled a call. Three days later, the caller’s sister found his body. I was devastated at this failure; in fact I’m not sure that the word “devastated” can really express how bad it was. I was sitting three feet away from my coworker. If I had just known, I could have helped my coworker, and the caller, and prevented a fully preventable tragedy. I still can’t think about it without feeling profoundly sad.

    The training and supervision at my workplace were very bad. It seemed likely this sort of thing would happen again. My coworker, my boss and her boss were all fired. The city paid a large settlement. I was an absolute fucking wreck. The responsibility for this man’s death weighed on me. I had trouble eating and sleeping.

    I know it might seem strange that I was so destroyed by something I couldn’t have helped, especially since I had years of experience in 9-1-1 dispatching, including some tragic deaths. There is something uniquely awful about feeling powerless to prevent catastrophe. There is something uniquely awful about failing someone who is relying on you. There is something spectacularly awful about wondering whether today will be the day it happens again.

    I was filling out some 401(k) forms a few months later when I thought to myself, “I don’t know why I do this; I’m going to be dead before I’m thirty. I deserve it.” It was one of those fleeting thoughts, and it scared me.

    What you said about being almost thirty, and never expecting to get that far, and being tired and treading water–they all sound familiar. They sound like things I said to myself when I was playing with the thought of suicide. Realizing that I didn’t expect to live to thirty was a watershed moment for me. It told me how violent my self-hatred had become. It was then that I realized the problem was not with the situation, which was shitty, but with my emotions, which were in the midst of a sneaky campaign to kill me.

    You had a business, and it failed because the previous owners lied and the credit market was tight. This is shitty. But it sounds to me like your emotions are trying to kill you, which is a bigger and more serious problem. When I realized this was happening to me, I flailed around for a while, and saw a therapist and a doctor (neither of which helped at that time) and quit my job, and generally had a rough time until I worked through my distress.

    What I did do, and what helped, and what I hope you do: I stopped believing the lies my emotions told. I stopped believing that everyone hated me, even though that’s how it felt. You say you feel like you’re going to lose everything, even though you know that’s not true. You need to hold on to what you know, because it’s your bulwark against what you feel. I remember getting into the car one cold day, and reaching for the heat, and thinking to myself, “You don’t deserve to be comfortable,” and then thinking, “That is so unkind, and so untrue.” A previous poster mentioned Mood Gym, and I can recommend anything that gives you some basics of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, because that’s the technical term for fighting your emotional poison with reality. Please consider finding out more. Medicine eventually helped, and time helped. But learning to recognize the untruths and fight back helped most.

    At this point, I’m in my mid-thirties, and I’ve taken this particular ride three times. It’s not easy or fun, and I’m sorry. But it does pass, if you hold grimly onto the evidence instead of believing the demon emotions of fear, guilt and shame that are trying to eat you alive.

    It’s a battle, but it’s winnable. When I made it to thirty, I threw myself a fancy birthday party, although I didn’t tell anyone why.

  19. Oh, LW. I am so, so sorry that happened to you. Others have chimed in with fantastic advice, so much so that I can’t think of anything to add, but I hope you can work on being kinder to yourself. You did nothing wrong. Nothing. You were lied to and defrauded, and that is absolutely not on you.

    By the way, your husband sounds like a wonderful, wonderful guy. Let him take care of you, okay? You’d do the same for him. Jedi hugs, or jedi backrubs, or possibly jedi pedicures to you; whatever makes you feel good, I wish it for you.

  20. Hey LW, here’s something I can definitely say: obviously, you can write. That’s a good and useful skill and, believe or not, not everyone can do it.

    Sometimes, when I’m in a bad place, I go with the “stay alive” plan. This is very binary. At the end of the day (literally, midnight or when I got to bed), am I alive? Yes? Then I succeeded! It sounds silly but it’s a way to put everything else in perspective, in the “nice to have but not vital” category. Then I can slowly add things. Like: “it would be easier to do this, stay alive, if I had food in the house, so maybe I’ll buy food, and learn to cook it in ways that I like.”

    Also, it never hurts to sit outside for half an hour or so. The trees and the squirrels and the sun, they don’t care about your business. They are just there, being awesome.

  21. LW,

    I vaguely remember this ivy league commencement speech where the speaker basically told the students that the only way to be successful was first to fail again and again. The advice to students? Start failing. So I go to search “failure commencement speech” to find this for you but there were so many speeches on the topic I thought perhaps I’d find it with “best commencement speech”? I found a top ten list and EVERY SINGLE ONE was either explicitly about failure or mentioned failure as ultimately integral to their success. Something to think about (and maybe google and watch if you feel like it?).

    Although your business may have “failed” you are not a failure. There is a difference (seconding Brene Brown as a resource here). And today, you helped me. Writing your articulate letter inspired some awesome insights and resources from the community, and they were really helpful to me, both in terms of information and feeling less alone (3 year job search depression shame spiral here wooooooooo). So thank you, very much.

    Good luck LW. Just based on your awesome, I think you’re going to be more than fine.

  22. I’m just writing in to tell the LW that once a long time ago I was super successful and happy (though incredibly stressed out) and everything was going well for me. Then a whole bunch of factors collided together and I had a breakdown and suddenly went from super productive to not productive at all. I tried so, so hard for a few years and failed at everything. And it wasn’t like failure just happened to me. Oh no, I failed due to my own actions and decisions. I was so ashamed at how far I had fallen I could maintain no relationships from before who knew me from “before”. It was awful. I hated myself. I developed all sorts of neurotic traits that I never had had before because everything in my life was terrible and my coping mechanisms were drained in the first few months after my initial breakdown. I was trapped in my own self-made hell for a little over 4 years. I grew to assume that my success before was a fluke – the real me was a loser who had no worth and would surely die soon. I wasn’t suicidal exactly, but I imagined my own death constantly, by which I mean whenever the shame got too much to handle, which was constantly.

    But! As real and dire as my situation was, it is in the past. It is no longer my life. I got out!

    The first thing I had to do was to forgive myself. I had to reject the idea that my past mistakes would define me forever. I deserved a good life and had to stop punishing myself immediately. After that idea dawned on me, I got all these other ideas about how I could get out of my situation. It was like a fog had lifted – I had felt so stuck for years, but as soon as I could quit hating myself I had so many things became possible. And it took a little while to get things sorted out, but I had already turned the corner. Please, LW, don’t get sucked into believing that failure is all you will ever have. It’s a lie and a waste of time. Promise.

  23. Really great advice from the Captain and others above. Here are a few of my thoughts:

    (1) If you never fail big, you aren’t taking big enough risks. This is true in all aspects of life.

    (2) What you are talking about is very analogous in academia to people who fail to earn tenure. When it happens, it seems like the worst possible thing that could ever happen and a complete utter failure that will terminate your career. In the vast majority of cases, people who fail to earn tenure move either to other academic positions (and later earn tenure) or other pursuits. Many of these people years later talk about failing to earn tenure as the best thing that ever happened to them.

    (3) Huge numbers of supposedly brilliant MBAs and other business types blew through billions of investor dollars first building and then driving Internet companies into fucken oblivion during the Internet bubble of the 1990s. These people list their roles at the companies they destroyed on their resumes, and their experience at building and then destroying these companies and flushing billions and billions of investor dollars down the fucken toilet in the process is considered an asset to their qualifications, both by themselves and by others.

  24. I just wanted to thank the Captain and everyone else, especially including the LW, for this thread. As someone who has been living the scorched wasteland left after her own catastrophic failure for several years, it has been so incredibly helpful to read other people’s constructive takes on their own failures.

    It has been important to me admit that word to myself, as well — I failed. I wanted very badly to do a thing, and I was very, very good at it, but my circumstances simply didn’t work out, and I failed at it. Saying it, admitting it into my life story and trying to cleanse it of its shame — it is simply a fact, a fall — has helped me begin to see beyond the ruin of all I knew.

    This thread reminds me of the Elizabeth Bishop poem, One Art, in that it reminds me that every action holds a potential failure — “so many things seem filled with the intent / to be lost” — and that far from being a terrible thing, that helps us understand loss. We are all, always, practising “art of losing,” and that is very valuable information to me.

  25. People seem to be assuming you’re unemployed. Your husband seems to think you’re a writer and artist, and you mention actually working on your writing and art as if you do so regularly, despite some pretty awful feelings and situations. And you have fibro.

    I agree really strongly that you should see people regularly and work regularly, if possible. Are you a member of any writing or artists’ groups in your area?

    • Thanks for highlighting this.

      LW, your art and writing aren’t piddly side-projects. Working on that stuff is SAVING YOUR LIFE.

  26. I don’t want to deny or ignore your feelings, but I can I just say, wow, you sound like you are pretty bloody good at this whole business thing. Running a business – I couldn’t do that. I don’t think many people can. Most people are ultimately conservative (in the small ‘c’ sense of the word) and can’t see a different way of doing things. And I can’t think of that many people who have the courage you showed.

    I get freaked out about the idea of getting of taking a proof-reading job, “what if I’m shit!”, you took the plunge. Bravo.

  27. I realize that you may not be able to walk regularly, but if you are and do, I wanted to recommend that you have something repetitive you can think about while you walk. When I was depressed, my Jerkbrain went into overdrive when I was alone on a walk. Every bad thing I ever thought about myself would come out then, so regularly that I wouldn’t do it.

    What worked for me was learning the Rosary. This is ironic since I never was a Catholic and am not a believer at all now. There was something about asking for help from a woman who had known sorrow, and also I had to keep count and remember the words. Those things helped me shut up the litany of my failures. I’m not recommending the Rosary particularly, the periodic table would also work, but don’t let the Jerkbrain come along for any walks.

    Best of luck, you are a courageous person.

    • That’s a really good idea! I find audiobooks really helpful too, and if you restrict a particular story just for walking that can be a really great motivator even if you don’t feel like it. Although there is that weird thing when you associate parts of your walk with where you listened to this really emotional bit of the story, and start crying. And then having to explain to the person your walking with why you are so upset.

    • I’m in one of those historical groups where sometimes it’s appropriate for me to wear a rosary/paternoster, but I’m not christian at all …. so I use the Litany Against Fear.

  28. I will also sign on with the start making lists of any damn thing you accomplish every day. I’m currently a housewife but otherwise unemployed, after years of being a regular office worker, and it is kinda emotionally difficult. Feels like I “SHOULD” be Doing Something to justify my existence. So I got me one of those pads of paper that are 2″ square and every day it is my To Do/DONE list. With ticky boxes because TICKY BOXES ARE FOR TICKING.

    On bad days, I don’t put anything on that piece of paper unless I have already done it. Did some dishes? ADD AND TICKY. Did some laundry? ADD AND TICKY. Wrote an email? ADD AND TICKY. On really bad days, I have to put “Eat Lunch” on it before I do it so that I remember to eat, because my To Do list says I have to.

    On better days, I put down a couple or three things it would be awesome if they got done today (or tomorrow). If I can TICKY any of those, AWESOME. If not, they can go on tomorrow’s To Do list with no shame. I mean, look at all those other TICKY MARKS on all those other things I did, even if it is “brush teeth” and “eat lunch” and “water the plants”.

    The best part about the small pad of paper for this is that it doesn’t take all that many things to fill it up, so there’s always a “Look! My Done page is FULL! I have done lots!” without it having been overwhelming.

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