I'm lost and wasting time

I'm nearly 30, but I hate my job and don't know who I'm supposed to be.

Published July 7, 2006 11:00AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm nearing 30, with kind and generous friends, a professional degree and something like a job (though no career). In fact, I'm a glorified file clerk, "temping" at a big firm, which is not at all what I intended to do with myself, but a confluence of factors -- including my serial indecisions, meekness in the face of adulthood, and a poor job market when I left school -- conspired to place me here. I hate my job to such an extent that I hide in my office behind a shut door; though I've been here for three years, I've introduced myself to exactly three people other than my boss. My self-imposed isolation began, I think, as a means of self-deception; as long as I wasn't too integrated into the office culture, I could pretend this was all temporary, a hiccup on the way to inevitable success. It's become, as so many things do, entirely self-destructive.

I am entirely lost in life, which I hate saying because it seems so much the privilege of the privileged. I'm not a scion of wealth or power, though I grew up in an objectively comfortable home. My mother, to whom I was very close, passed away when I was 14, and my father and I have always been distant at best, his obsessive calculations (born of his own childhood poverty) a consistent dampener to my intuitive self. I feel, in some way, that I am capable -- compelled, even-- to do so something interesting, dynamic, substantive, creative with my life. And yet I am wholly incapable of being interesting, dynamic, substantive or creative.

I want so desperately to be someone, to do something (though to no one other than myself) -- but I realize I have no idea what I want to say or, really, who I am. People constantly tell me to write, to be funny (they insist I am, though this letter belies another truth) -- and yet I find I'm terminally intimidated by the idea of actually defining myself, to the point of paralysis. I can't decide what to do with my life because whatever I do just won't say the right things, which sounds (and probably is) horribly solipsistic.

I've allowed things to wither to such a point that I'm literally involved in nothing, interested in less and less and, frankly, worried about a slide into real depression (there is a family history of mental illness and suicide, though I'm not near this point), where I exile the few things left that mean anything to me. I have no idea how to make anything of myself, no idea what to make of myself, and no idea who to make of myself. I volunteer and fade to the back of every discussion. I try to write words and music, anything to reengage a passion for anything, but nothing comes. I've seen therapists but the most any recommends is "try again" (I do not like therapy).

I feel, very literally, as though I'm wasting away -- muscles and thoughts and feelings just crumbling aside. And yet I have no idea how to make it stop. I hate myself for even being this awake to my own complacencies and grudges and otherwise dead to the world. Move me.

Yeah, But

Dear Yeah, But,

I think you are an ideal candidate for cognitive therapy.

Later maybe there is more. But cognitive therapy is not so much about the past. It's just about seeing how things really are right now. It's about getting rid of some thoughts.

There are many other things of course that we could talk about.

There is always more. It does not escape me that your approach contains a challenge. It is as though only through failure could you attract what you require. Perhaps everyone must fail you now. So perhaps I will fail you too. That is a possibility that we all must accept.

If you are willing to improve, though, you can find a cognitive therapist and do some cognitive therapy exercises.

I hope you do.

I mean, I really hope you do. I mean, I really, really hope you do. I'm not putting you off by saying this. We could sit behind the garage and smoke pot and talk about what has been done, what happened, why it sucked. We could talk and laugh because it is sad but funny too. I could pretend that you're not really asking for help, that you just want to hang out. Or I could plead with you, as though I were desperate for you to take my advice, or to be moved by my words. But people do improve when they are ready. There is something mysterious about how we get to the point where we have had enough and we humbly submit to the necessities of change. I don't know how it works, but until it happens we could smoke pot behind the garage and laugh and cry and analyze why things are royally fucked but nothing would change. We would still be losers smoking pot behind the garage. Which is very attractive, actually, the option of being a loser smoking pot behind the garage. It is a temptation I must continually pass up. As I must pass up the temptation to impress you or befriend you. I am here to help. I sincerely believe that the pattern of your thinking, as revealed in your choice of words, reflects the kind of thing that cognitive therapy is specially adept at changing.

So, like I said, I think you are the ideal guy for this kind of therapy, and even if you don't like therapy or therapists (and, after all, why should you like them?), I think that if you undertake a short course of cognitive therapy, then when you look back on this period of your life you will see that it was the right thing to do, and you will be glad you did it.

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