Hi Dear Captain,
I’m an 18yr old just on the last legs of high school. I’ve got this Huge! Life! Affirming! Exam!(equivalent to SATs) coming up on April, and I am so not prepared.
So, I’ve got a family that’s lowkey hellish to live with.My siblings are all nearly a decade older. My mum is diagnosed with a mental illness that manisfests in instability and extreme anger.I rarely get to see my dad. Growing up in this household surely messed something up, because I have low esteem and anxiety. Pair that up with subtle put downs and remarks about my intelligence and vague body shaming from my sisters, my feelings for my family are mostly contemptous and distrustful now.A big part of my life plan is GET FAR FAR AWAY THIS IS NOT HEALTHY RUN.
Unfortunately, to fulfill my escape plan, I’ll need to study well enough to land a scholarship to uni. Or else it’s forevermore being stuck in this place. As it currently stands, I’m officially unable to give a crap. About anything. Being overly sensitive and fragile,I tend to shut down and be an unresponsive zombie in the face of conflict of any sort. In previous letters you’ve said you have never been as unhappy later on as once a kid, I’d genuinely like to get to that stage from where I am right now. But it’s either running away or uni for me.
It feels like I know the starting position, I know where the finish line is, but I can’t muster enough willpower to work towards my goals. It just doesn’t register in my numbed brain that I need to study my butt off. I just can’t care about anything. It took me six days just to write this email.
I don’t know how to get out of this funk.Time is running out,I can’t afford to be depressed or I’ll be in even of more a clusterf**k.
So in short,how do I stop being a zombie and care about my future and everything else?
Sorry to dampen your holiday spirits,Captain. Merry Christmas to you and your awesome cat.
Dear Fingers Crossed:
I believe that you are going to get out of your family home at some point whether or not you do amazingly on your exams & get a scholarship. A lot of people find ways to go to school (if that’s what they want to do) and to move out of the family home (if that’s what they want to do) even when the circumstances aren’t ideal. So, you’re most likely not stuck FOREVERMORE (even if it feels that way). But let’s agree that doing well on the exams sounds like it is both potentially within your control and the fastest way to achieve escape velocity, so it’s worth focusing your energies there.
I think that you’ll do better at this exam stuff if you have a team on your side. To build that team:
First, does your school have a counselor or counselors? Sometimes one person handles the “talking to students about feelings & brain stuff” and “helping students prepare for future education and/or career stuff” functions, sometimes it’s split. You need both of these functions on your team. You need adults who have information about the steps you need to take in applying to schools, which universities are a good fit, where you have the best chance of getting in, etc. You need someone who can help you develop a “what happens if I don’t get into school” action plan for moving out and getting started at some sort of work. And you need someone who can listen to you about shitty things at home and help you get control of your schedule and your momentum. If you don’t know who these people are, talk to your favorite teacher and see what they suggest.
Second, does your school offer tutoring, study support, or even dedicated study time for these exams? Since they are such a big deal, I bet there is something there. You may have thought whatever program exists was for students who are less academically advanced than you, but if you feel like you need some structure and support then these services are for you. Somebody has broken down what will be on the tests and the recommended material to cover, somebody is helping students tackle it. Again, if you’re not sure where to start, ask your favorite & most approachable teacher.
Third, you need study buddies. Who are the other students at your school who are prepping for the same exam? Which of them are nice to you? Who might want to form a club along the lines of “Ok, let’s make a schedule and also flash cards and we can read each other’s sample essays and divide up topics and research them” and meet weekly to make studying for the exam a little less lonely? You may have a hard time motivating on your own, but this can get a lot easier if you have solidarity and accountability to peers. It’s scary to admit to people that you are disorganized and that you need help, but I guarantee you aren’t the only one freaking out about these tests and thinking “MY WHOLE FUTURE DEPENDS ON THIS WHY CAN’T I FEEL ANYTHING” constantly in the background of their brains. Find some people and work together.
Fourth, you could talk to your doctor (general practitioner) about feeling anxious and unmotivated and investigate medical treatment. I would work the school angle first because it’s the most likely to have resources in place for you, but this is something you can do and your doctor can’t tell your mum.
Fifth, there are some non-therapy mental health things that are free or very inexpensive if you come up short at school or with your doctor.
Now let’s talk survival strategies for a yelling house. One way of dealing is to be Not At Home as much as possible. Ways to be Not Home:
- Clubs, sports, theater, choir, and other school-related or hobby-related activities that are parent-friendly. (“Where are you going?” “I’m playing ice hockey with my Hamlet study group” “Ok, be home by 9”)
- Studying (perhaps with your study group) at the library.
- Solo exercise, if you have the ability – Long walks & bike rides are especially good.
- Part-time jobs! Your #1 job is to be a student, but I think you need something outside of your house that pays money (money that can be squirreled away in an account that no one else in your family has access to, gotta build your fuck off fund). You need to build some skills and work experience as a plan B if university doesn’t happen. If you don’t have a job already, make a list of things you can do that you could charge money for and start looking for part-time gigs in your neighborhood. Walk dogs! Babysit kids! Restaurant/catering jobs have an advantage of feeding you (so you can skip awkward mealtimes). Try to find something close by so you can depend only on yourself for transport.
If you can structure your life so that you are out of the house as much as possible working or studying, the time you spend inside the house might go a little easier for you. Or it may still suck there, but your week will also be full of time with people who don’t belittle you.
You mention that you barely see your dad. Does he financially support you at all? Does he know what your plans are for after high school? Only you can judge whether it’s worth having a frank conversation with him along the lines of “Dad, I’m taking my exams this spring and I really want to get a scholarship to university to study ______. Are you able to help pay something towards my schooling? I need to know so I can make a good plan.” He might say no, he won’t or no, he can’t, or there might be strings that make it very much Not Worth It but you aren’t doing anything wrong by asking and it might help to have the information.
I wish you allllllllll the luck in moving past this temporary block, acing your exams, and finding your Small Quiet Room.
P.S. The cat says hi