Appearing here Wednesdays, Turning The Screw provides existential crisis counseling for the faint of heart. “Because misery becomes you.”
I’m a college junior abroad at a British university for the year. During the months I’ve been here, I’ve been getting increasingly anxious and depressed about my schoolwork and general life situation, to the point where I’ll just stay in bed for days on end watching “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and compulsively eating bits of compressed bread. I’ve stopped doing work, which had before been something I would always complete, no matter what. Before, other life things — things like self-image, friendships, romantic relationships, creative outlets, family life — had not been going so well for a while, if ever, but those weren’t things that got graded, so they weren’t red flags for life reevaluation or therapy. Clearly, not all the things in a person’s life (especially a mercurial twenty-year-old lady’s life) will be great or good all the time. But they didn’t even seem to be great a little bit of the time. And everyone kept telling me how well I was doing, and I would find myself telling them how well I was doing in return — or maybe it was the other way round — because that is what most people expect and like to hear, myself included.
I think what I want now is for someone to tell me I’m not well. But it’s hard for me to even articulate to others the ways in which I’m not well — apart from not doing my schoolwork, that is. I think burnout’s a part of it — the university I’m at demands a high rate of academic production. I’m tired. I don’t know if I like what I do, or if it’s at all important. But I think my incompletion of work is a manifestation of a bigger fear: that I will end up living a life in which everyone thinks I’m fine and good and healthy and happy, while inside my body I am bloodily gnawing at my insides due to loneliness, complacency, and fear. At this point, though, the thought of living a future, post-school life at all seems fantastical. I have no idea what I want to do for a career. My few friendships seem to bleed dry with distance. (I’ve moved around a lot in my life.) I have no romantic prospects and limited sexual experience. My family is well meaning but super religious (which was the main drama of my pre-college life) and, consequently, very emotionally distant. It’s all part of a hazy cloud of depressive despair. Which, granted, I was able to articulate now to you, kind of. But when people ask how I am, I definitely don’t ever respond like this. Because who does? Everyone’s going through shit like this, except it seems they’re better able to compartmentalize it.
I saw a university-appointed counselor once the work started slowing, who suggested several times, on several different occasions, that I go on antidepressants. I pushed it off for a while, because I believed that I needed to will or reason myself into functioning. But that wasn’t happening. So I’ve been on them for two weeks, which is apparently not really enough time to feel any effects, but I felt different right away. I no longer feel bodily convulsions of despair, or that I’ve always been a hopeless fuck-up, or that things would be better if I didn’t exist. I know I’m just a scared and lonely girl. But the pills also leave me not feeling much of anything, and I’m still not doing work, because I don’t want to, and I no longer have attendant feelings of guilt or fear. I’ve talked to some people about this (“this” being the situation at present), but often it comes out weird or wrong, and people get very uncomfortable. My counselor won’t even be able to see me for another couple of weeks.
I think I could live in my room forever — I mean, I have biscuits and a steady Wifi connection, and nobody’s exactly banging on the door to force me out into the weak British sun. I might get kicked out of my abroad program eventually, but it could take a couple of weeks before anybody really notices what’s going on. I would like for someone to tell me what to do with myself, but no one seems to care enough — myself included. So I’m asking you: what do I do? Drop out and start dairy farming in Argentina? Apply for medical leave and get a job, or take up painting again? Push through the inertia and just do my fucking work? At the moment, all I feel capable of doing is finishing the next season of “Breaking Bad.” I think I am desperate enough to push back against what’s expected of me, or what I expect of myself, to do what I need to do to feel better. I just don’t know what that might be.
There are two roads in front of you. One of them looks like a shortcut — a scenic, romantic shortcut! But you can’t see the cliff just out of view, where the road gets bumpy and steep and then disappears altogether, and you’re left to wander in the dark, cold woods without a warm coat, let alone compressed bread bits and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” DVDs. The second path looks boring and difficult. Many others are marching joylessly down it, so it makes you feel like you’re surrendering some important part of yourself just to consider it. But the road is there, it doesn’t crumble and turn to dirt and leave you wandering aimlessly in the wilderness. You’ll arrive at your destination, and you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment when you get there, knowing that you didn’t quit. You won’t know this when you get there, but you also dodged a bullet. You could be weeping and starving in the cold woods, but you took the road more traveled and avoided that fate.
Although you describe yourself in this sort of jaundiced hermetic state, what you’re doing is actually quite aggressive. You’re like a conscientious objector, except you’ve got biscuits and “Breaking Bad” where the strong will and the focused political message should go. You are tired of hiding behind this mask of “I’m fine” and “Look at my pristine academic record,” so now you’re going to (very passively, very quietly) reveal yourself to be a big fuck-up. No one can pretend that you’re fine anymore! Someone, somewhere will have to take action! But it won’t be you! Ha ha! Sure, maybe you’ll get sent to some kind of an institution (thereby forcing other people to demonstrate their intense concern for you), but after that romantic white-coat interlude, you’ll start dairy farming in Argentina, or you’ll get a job and take up painting again, and you’ll forever prove that you’re not someone who blindly follows the herd.
Look, it’s great that you’re tired of lying, and tired of meeting other people’s expectations at all costs. But what you’re doing right now is dangerous, and not in a FUCK THEM kind of a way, but in a way that will only end up fucking you. This path you’re on doesn’t lead to dairy farming in Argentina. It leads to you at home with your parents, more depressed than ever. If you think things feel bleak now, try dropping out of school without a concrete plan for what you’d like to do instead. You feel drifty now, but you can’t imagine what it’s like to really, truly drift. Total drifting, without school, without a job, without friends, without supportive family — that’s something that will transform the most optimistic person alive into a sullen ghost. You shouldn’t experiment with that.
You should take the ugly, paved road. Do your work. That’s my short answer. Put those DVDs on a high shelf, stop hiding from everyone, and do your stupid work — at the library, where the weak British sun streams in the windows, where you can see those sun-deprived British faces around you. I know it sucks, but it will make you feel a lot better once you start.
The longer answer has to do with living honestly. Because you’ve been lying to everyone around you about how well you’re doing, you don’t care about yourself anymore. The only way to care about yourself more (and make real connections with other people) is by telling the truth, without apology, without concern for other people’s comfort levels. You may freak people out at first. That’s okay. This is about survival. Tell people you’ve been really depressed. Tell them about your religious parents. Tell them you’re struggling with the academic demands of your new setting.
This is about you, not them. Don’t monitor their reactions and adjust your delivery as you see them twitch and flinch. Stay on target. Practice telling the truth without fear — and yes, it does take practice. Slow down and don’t explain, don’t giggle, don’t trail off. The more you try to cover your own tracks, the more uncomfortable people will get. What makes people uncomfortable is YOUR discomfort with what you’re saying. You can be a little off, a little too honest, a little depressed. If you own it completely, people will find it compelling instead of repellent.
Set up a regular appointment with the counselor, and if you don’t like that person (or if you always have to wait too long between appointments), find another one, even if you have to pay for it yourself. If you have to ask your parents for money to pay for that, ask them. You aren’t well. There, I said it.
But soon, at least you won’t be lying anymore. That is a huge accomplishment. Feel proud! There’s no reason in the world to lie to everyone. It makes you miserable. It leeches the good moments right out of your life. Your chances for happiness are nil as long as you’re lying. There are no real friendships, no real connections. It’s understandable that you got this far by lying your ass off, considering your family. But now you’re done with that. Every friendship you have, moving forward, will be a real one.
You need to force yourself to see the world around you. You are receding into this cocoon, and it stinks in there. It’s bland and awful and it smells like defeat and fear and self-hatred. You must force yourself to walk for at least a half hour every day, to go out and eat healthy meals in places crowded with other human beings, to experiment with being alone in public, so you can take in the sights and sounds of this place and really appreciate them, instead of receding into yourself. There’s strength in moving through the world, totally alone, if you accept it and wear it on your sleeve and show the people around you that you can thrive that way.
You have to force yourself into new, more rewarding habits. I know you can’t feel much right now, but bits and pieces will break through and touch you eventually. You just have to get out of your room to make that possible. So first: Go to the library and do some work, maybe three hours? Then reward yourself with a walk in that weak sun. Walk to the bookstore and buy a lined leather notebook, and a nice pen. Then go get a coffee and sit down and write down your feelings. Just write whatever comes into your head, and then, when you’re done with that, observe people. Allow anything to appear on the page. Congratulate yourself for allowing it. This is how you’re going to live, okay? Your feelings and thoughts matter. You are about to care what you fucking think and feel, a lot. No one else has to, but you do. You are the guardian of your own experience.
Once you’ve done this a few times, and you’re mostly caught up with your academic work, go buy some paints. You have my permission to charge that shit on a credit card if you have to. Then go back to your room and paint, paint, paint. Paint badly. Just do it. If it feels like going through the motions, so be it. This is a reward for your hard work — you’re not allowed to spend more than an hour or two on this. The rest of your time, you need to be out in the world.
Before you go to bed every night, pull out your journal and write down one or two things in your life that you’re grateful for. They can be small or big things. Yes, it’s stupid. Just do it.
Smart people sometimes have trouble doing the sorts of things that most people — and most animals, for that matter — recognize as essential. Forcing yourself to feel gratitude, to believe in yourself, to say a small secular prayer at the end of the day: These things help to transform suffering into meaning. Also, moving around, getting fresh air, seeing other people’s faces, getting work done, and representing yourself accurately to the world? Those are the building blocks of good health, the things that intellectuals forget about, that dogs and cats and birds can’t live without.
That said, you’re right that everyone struggles with feeling sick inside, especially when they’re falling behind. Anyone with a huge pile of work to do battles self-hatred and avoidance. There’s only one immediate cure: Get the work done. Do it, and have faith that it will make you feel better down the road. If you drop out, you’ll end up doing 15 times the hard work just to get back to where you are right now. Don’t punish yourself like that.
You’re ready to move forward. You’re about to start to attracting real friends, who are a lot like you, for the first time in your life. You are about to live your life out in the open for the first time ever. You are about to feel things you never felt before. You are about to be devastated, and scared, and very, very happy. Write back soon and let me know how it’s going.
My problem is somewhat ridiculous. I actually cannot get out of bed in the morning…it’s getting to the point where I will fail college based on attendance because I never make it in for the morning lectures. I hear not getting out of bed is a sign of depression, but I don’t think that’s the case with me. Bed is just so nice and pleasant and warm, and I always sleep through my alarm or turn it off in my sleep, or convince myself that no, I CAN get ready for the day in ten minutes. I just don’t seem to have any sense of urgency until I’ve had my coffee and realize I’m running twenty minutes late. Any advice on how to break off my love affair with bed?
I Love My Bed (Too Much)
Boy, do I feel you. I’ve always been vulnerable to extended love affairs with my bed. And wait until you get an incredibly expensive mattress. (Mark my words: Every penny you waste on an overpriced mattress is a penny well wasted.) You won’t just love your bed. You’ll want to marry your bed and have a million of its babies.
But a strong Love of Bed shouldn’t be an excuse to ruin your whole life. At least turn to hard drugs and bad men and giant custard-filled doughnuts for that.
I mostly blame your snooze button for this state of affairs. I used to love snooze buttons. Now I hate them. Disagree all you want, but if you ever get married, you’ll have to kick your snooze-button habit or risk being murdered in your sleep by a spouse who couldn’t face hearing your fucking alarm go off one more time.
How To Get Out of Bed In The Morning
1. No snooze buttons, ever. Snooze buttons prolong your torture. They train you to hate waking up. They force you to pull yourself out of the swampy delicious realm of sleep over, and over, and over again, like the masochist you are. Get an alarm without a snooze button, and put it out of reach if necessary.
2. Put a very warm robe right next to your bed, so that the dread of freezing your ass off isn’t added to the dread of facing your day.
3. Get plenty of sleep. Somehow I never put this together when I was younger, but getting out of bed is much, much easier when you’re sleeping enough. (No, ample napping will not do the trick.)
4. Don’t go to bed very late every single night. Sleeping from 10–6 a.m. feels a million times better than sleeping from 2–10 a.m. Those are not quality sleeping hours. The earlier you go to bed (not every night, but most of the time), the more rested you’ll feel in general, and the less you’ll struggle in the morning.
5. Get a coffee maker with a timer on it.
6. Set your alarm so that you wake up earlier, not later. If you give yourself the minimum possible time to get ready, you’ll associate getting ready with panic and failure, and you’ll never want to get out of bed. Instead, leave extra time, sip your coffee, take a hot shower, and relax your way into the day.
7. Think really hard about what it would mean to flunk out of college. Imagine that alarm means you’re late to your job flipping burgers, instead of just late for class. You really want to land there, just because you didn’t get enough sleep at night? That would fucking suck. Get serious about your schedule and your life and don’t let that happen.
You can do it, sunshine!
Previously: Ask Polly: Why Do People Always Think I’m Gay?
Is some very small problem making your great, big problems seem much worse? Write to Polly and sort that shit out once and for all!
Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl’s existential advice columnist. She’s also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses. Photo by the Shopping Sherpa.