Dear Captain Awkward,
When I was laid off from ~the first job I ever loved~ earlier this year, it caused me to put every aspect of my life under a microscope.
I graduated from my small town university about two years ago, and this job was one of the most wonderful things to happen to me. My boss was a wonderful, inspirational person who gave me the opportunity to be creative within my position, and I felt valuable and needed. She had become like a mentor to me, as I had also studied her native language in college, and we shared many interests. Completely out of the blue, I got the word from her husband that they decided to sell the small business I worked for. I had no idea that this was even a possibility, and they didn’t even give me a heads up. I got a new job less than a month after they sold the company, which was a small relief. The new job is okay, but since I live in an area where there aren’t many jobs for young people, I had to settle for lower wages and a monotonous work environment.
When I was laid off, I was more depressed than I had been in years. Although I knew the selling of the company wasn’t my fault, I still felt like the entire world I’d built up wasn’t what I’d made it out to be. While I’ve recovered a bit, in my recovery, I started to wonder that maybe my life is going in a direction that isn’t really making me happy, and I’m not sure what to do about it.
This brings me to my next point. The man I’m engaged to (I’ll call him “T” here) is a wonderful, adventurous person, but we also still live in our small hometown. I feel like part of the reason my anxiety has been off the charts lately is that it’s a toxic environment for me to live in. Many people we know have gotten into drug addiction, have committed suicide, or get married and have children very young so we don’t see them often. Every time I travel, I notice that I feel so much happier in places that are basically anywhere but the place I attended high school and college in. I was also diagnosed with PTSD as a result of my previous boyfriend’s car accident that gave him permanent brain damage, so that memory still haunts my hometown, even if I’ve moved past my former boyfriend in a romantic sense.
I keep hinting that we could find a new town to live in, but T seems set on making our hometown work, since it’s cheap to live here and we’re doing okay financially with our current jobs. The thing is, while he has a few close friends that live near us, almost all of my friends live over an hour and a half away from me. I feel lonely, even though I have T’s company (we love to go hiking and camping together, he’s all about discussing feminist issues with me, and we’ve even has a great time traveling to another country!), and not having a support system outside of my fiance, dog, and parents has been difficult.
Then, an incident happened last week that made a side of my fiance come out that doesn’t show itself often, but isn’t pleasant when it presents itself. Driving tends to trigger panic attacks for me, and it took me years to be able to ride in a car without picturing my former boyfriend’s accident (we don’t have public transit where I live, unfortunately). I’ve since learned how to drive, but it is still difficult for me. When I was in a stressful driving situation last week in which I had to drive myself, T became frustrated and snapped at me. He thinks that telling me to drive myself *every time* is making me “strong,” but I explained that when I feel prone to an anxiety attack, me being on the road is not safe for anyone. While T is usually empathetic, sometimes the way he acts toward me when I’m having my panic attacks shifts dramatically between cold, confused, and supportive rapidly, even when I try to explain to him rationally what is happening, and what he can do to help. He works with children on the autism spectrum, and for some reason, I feel like he is trying to “condition” me the way he does his students, and I’ve tried to tell him “please don’t do that. I have a therapist who helps me with this just fine. I am able to help myself, and all I need is your support.”
Most of the people I know see me as a happy, outgoing person, and even my closest friends wouldn’t be able to guess that I’m going through a crisis. I’ve internalized most of it and don’t really know *how* to speak about it without melting down, because there’s so much conflicting within me. My therapist has been great when it comes to my anxiety attacks, but I also think input from someone else would be helpful. I’m trying to get my life in gear and figure out what I even want to do (I want to get into a different career, but I have no idea where to start, since I can’t afford grad school), but I am worried my life is going in a direction that doesn’t leave me a wide variety of options.
Quarter Life Crisis
Dear Quarter Life Crisis:
I want to trust that your fiancé is not a total tool and that his incredibly tool-ish behavior the other day was an outlier.
Was it really an outlier?
What other stuff is T. automatically always right about? In what other ways does he set himself up as an authority and your teacher? He’s the authority on where you should live, apparently. And also on how to manage your anxiety about driving. I just…hrmmmm…I think there might be more things where you want x and he wants y and he reasons you into wanting y (but you still want x, despite his very cogent arguments) so you resort to “hinting” about wanting to live elsewhere because the emotional transaction costs of saying “I want to move to a place with more economic diversity and good public transit that is still near enough to wilderness that we can camp and hike on the regular” are high and asserting “I would like us to save up together and try to make that move happen within the next year” is too scary. So what would happen if you stopped hinting and said “I understand all of your arguments for wanting to stay here, but I feel disconnected and unhappy here, and I want to at least try living somewhere else for a while. Can we talk seriously about what that would entail?
You say “Every time I travel, I notice that I feel so much happier in places that are basically anywhere but the place I attended high school and college in.” That is a good enough reason to play the Anywhere But Here game. “We live too far from all of my friends, so I feel very lonely and isolated” is another good reason.
We talked a few weeks ago about looking for ways to connect with others in a small(ish) place. If you’re not already making an effort to meet more people where you live I want you to try going to a local Meetup of some kind in the next month or so. Even if you end up leaving, practicing the art of making new friends and finding some people to make your current situation less lonely will make you feel better overall. And I want you to try to go alone, without T. (even if he ends up giving you a ride).
I also want you to think about going down to visit your friends who live an hour and a half away for regular visits, and if possible, go without T. This doesn’t have to be something you’re doing Against T. or At T., but I think you would benefit from cultivating a support system and social life outside of him that is just your own. I think you would benefit from seeing your friends and having a long catch-up session with them where you can talk frankly about what’s going on in your life without having to edit what you want to coincide with what T. wants. You can love someone to bits and have a relationship that works very well and still
benefit greatly from require social interaction with other people. Spending all of your social time only with T. and with T’s friends is not good for either of you. It’s too much pressure!
We’ve also covered some ways to regroup after a setback and plan for a future move, when love is involved. There are lots of ways to handle moving somewhere new without grad school or a highly paid job, especially for a young, educated person with some work experience who is willing to try new things. The dream situation is that you have a highly paid job all lined up and that employer pays for your relocation costs. That is unfortunately not a common scenario for entry level employees in the current economic climate. But it’s far from the only scenario:
Method #1, or, How I Moved To Chicago With Two Suitcases and 1 Cat And $3500 in the bank during a recession:
- Pick a place with good public transit and fairly inexpensive rent.
- Find a cheap short-term sublet with roommates to get your feet wet for a few months, something in an established group house where you just need to bring clothes and very few household items.
- Research the job market there heavily before you go. Maybe look for businesses similar to the one you used to work in!
- Sign up with temp and staffing agencies in the city, look for jobs until you find something.
I’m not going to lie and say it was easy, but I did it and many of my friends have done it and it worked out fine in the end. If you couldn’t find work and needed to move back to your hometown, it sounds like your family and T. would be a safety net in helping you get re-established there. I have married friends who are doing exactly this: She went to dream new city to stay with friends they had there and try to get established, while he stayed at his steady, well-paid job. If/when she finds full-time work, he’ll follow. If she doesn’t find anything within a certain amount of time, she’ll come back and they’ll try again another time, maybe with him going first. Would T. be up for something like that?
Method #2: Volunteer
Apply to a volunteer service agency and get placed in the region where you want to be. If you’re in the U.S., Americorps has rolling placements in all kinds of agencies. If you are religious, The Jesuit Volunteer Corps (and other organizations like it, this is just one I know because friends have done it) can place you in communal living situations and set you up with work. Get work experience, feel like you are making a difference, be connected with other young people, have a roof over your head and food on the table. Again, it’s not easy, but it is possible.
Method #3: How Far Do You Want To Go?
I don’t have the direct experience to recommend or endorse a specific sponsoring organization, but what about teaching English abroad? It’s not for the faint of heart, but you sound like a born traveler with an adventurous heart. There would be steps in terms of training and red tape, but a round-trip ticket, pay, health insurance, housing, and time off for regional travel, etc. could be yours as well.
I put these out there to get you thinking and imagining. And maybe even planning. Because knowing how to drive is great, but I am 40 and I have never lived in a place where you must own a car as an adult. Lots of people want to use public transit for environmental or economic reasons, but those aren’t the only reasons. You could live near friends, in a place where public transit is common, where there are businesses like the place you loved working, for real.
Even if T. is a great dude and will be a great fit for you, if you are making your dreams smaller to conform to what you think he wants, and you don’t feel like you can even bring up the things you want without “hinting”*, there is some serious work to be done here before you pick a place to settle and before you marry anybody. Stop hinting. See what happens. Start researching places you might want to live. See what happens. Stop pretending to your friends and the other people closest to you that everything is great and you are happy where you are. See what happens.
The story where you feel like T. is trying to retrain you out of your anxiety is not a feel-good story. It’s actually a scary story, and the fact that you wrote to us about it means that your instincts are in good working condition and you know that it’s really, really wrong to behave that way. So I want to be sure to say, if that WAS a one-time thing and he really IS a great dude and a good fit for you, he will:
1) Support and encourage you in making new friends in your town.
2) Support and encourage you in visiting your old friends.
3) Listen to your hopes and thinking seriously about relocating without automatically shooting them down. He may have very good reasons for staying, but they are not automatically better, more logical reasons than you do for wanting to go. You should be able to ask for a periodic schedule of discussing the idea of moving without pushback.
4) This should have been #1: He will knock the pressuring you about driving thing RIGHT THE FUCK OFF.
Edited to Add:
The above is what a good reaction from a partner looks like. The below paragraph is what a bad reaction would look like. After reading a bunch of comments, I realize that was far from clear. For the record, I do not think T. will necessarily do any of these things or is doing anything of these bad things. I do not necessarily think that breaking up with T. is the answer or even my recommendation, just, don’t marry someone you are afraid to talk to about big stuff with until you figure out how to have those conversations and make sure you are actually on the same page. The stuff in the letter where the writer feels like T. might be “conditioning” her the way he does his students made me want to put the warnings about what controlling behavior looks like in my response.
IF T. reacts badly to you making new friends, going places without him, or bringing up even the idea of moving, please know that </Edit>…someone who insists on not letting you out of his sight, is threatened, hurt, and sulky when you want to see your friends without him, someone who makes talking about relocating feel like the “WHAT’S YOUR PLAN, SKYLAR” scenes from Breaking Bad* is very, very bad news. If pregnancy risk is a factor with the kind of sex you guys have, double-check your birth control, because a man who behaves like this is also someone who will help a woman who he is afraid might leave him “accidentally” get pregnant. I hope this is all an extremely laughable funny joke and not an overreaction on my part, but the guy who wouldn’t let his girlfriend pee had good feminist credentials, too, and “we can have feminist conversations” doesn’t mean shit if he is controlling the trajectory of your life or patronizing you about a reasonable anxiety about driving in the wake of a traumatic experience.
This is big stuff. It’s okay not to have it all figured out yet. It’s okay to listen to that part of you that wants to live somewhere else for a while, and the part of you that misses your old job and wants to get back into that field. Good luck.
*In general terms it involves a wife saying ‘I am not okay with what is happening and want us to change it’ and the husband looming over her and making fun of her for not having thought through every single step of the plan because she can only change things if she can logically ‘prove’ her case to him. His extremely logical plan is to make illegal drugs and murder people, and her illogical, emotional, stupid ladyplan is that he should stop doing that. The scene perfectly encapsulates why dudes who set themselves up as The Only Rational One fucking terrify me.