I'm not sure how to say what is wrong except this: I think sometimes I am losing my mind, and it makes me feel alien from other people and from daily life. I was diagnosed with clinical depression during college about eight years ago and have overcome bouts of panic attacks and cutting episodes. Since then, I have waged a daily struggle with depression through therapy and medicine.
The problem is that I feel like my very being is driving me to be a writer, and I don't know how to make it a possibility. I won awards for writing at the university I attended and have completed a couple of short stories and many poems. I entered the "real" workforce after spending a year in graduate school in literature -- both work and grad school seemed to leave little room for me to deal with the daily job of dealing with my mental issues and also to garner enough energy to write. My therapist said that dealing with my mental issues is like having a second job for me. I now jump from job to job, always hoping that the next one will allow me the space and freedom to be who I want. It is a never-ending quest. Over the past five years, I have worked as a technical writer, administrative assistant, legal secretary, journalist, online teacher, and then back around again. I have lasted at jobs from as little as a couple of months to a year. Every time I start a new job I get excited that this will be the position that will finally allow me to be me -- but I quickly fall back into the mind-numbing depression where all I can think about is how worthless I am, how I am nothing and no one important -- thus sapping my creative energy.
My husband is extremely supportive and has suggested I work part time at any job and dedicate my time to writing a novel I have put on hold. It's extremely hard for me to do this because of my perfectionist attitude, and the guilt I can see come out of this for "not doing my part" or being a bum. But currently I have shown new symptoms that are really scary. I have been working as an editor (as well as journalist, photographer and all-around-do-everything person) for a small weekly newspaper, and the responsibilities are so great that I have been feeling outside of my body and detached most of the time. I truly hate it and it makes me want to jump off a cliff. I space out, have what my therapist calls "dissociative" symptoms, and recently began to have crazy thoughts: that I am not real, that my true self is not inside this body, that I am far away and someone else. How can I gain control of my life again and pursue what I really want to do in my life?
Part of my problem, which I have worked for years on with my therapist and psychiatrist, is that I grew up in an extremely dysfunctional household that was both physically and emotionally abusive. To make things even worse, my family went bankrupt and we lost everything when I was 12, and part of my switching from job to job is somehow related to this feeling of losing everything that is important, to escape what is painful and upsetting. I love my parents, and our relationship has changed, but I am haunted and unable to truly live my life like this. How I can live my life again?
Desperately Seeking Self
Dear Desperately Seeking Self,
In connection with yesterday's column, I was reading up on the clinically observed effects of abuse, and those dissociative effects you are talking about are definitely among them. So it's no surprise that you're feeling a little nuts. But it sounds like you are in good hands and have a good support system.
Since you had this awfully dysfunctional and abusive childhood, you may be driven by a barely conscious hope that your work life is going to replace a happy family life you never had.
Try accepting the possibility that a workplace is never going to give you what you need. Try shifting your focus, reversing your approach: Do not look for a job that will give you what you need. Instead, try to give an employer what the employer needs, and then, on your own, figure out ways to get what you need. Oddly enough, that may take some of the pressure off.
If you stop looking to get your needs met by a job, and also stop trying to be a superstar, but just a regular employee, you may find, to your surprise, that the job is not so taxing. You may find that you have more time and energy off the job to write. Just try to do the job. You don't have to be brilliant. Give yourself a break. Pay attention to taking care of yourself. Take your therapist's suggestions. Simplify. Get plenty of sleep, eat well and exercise.
Maybe that sounds kind of dumb. Well, then, I'm a perfect example of what I'm talking about: Some days you just do what you can. None of us is brilliant all the time.
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