I'm brilliant but I can't settle down. I can't keep a job. What's wrong with me?

I get panic attacks. I go from thing to thing. Do I need some kind of help?

By Cary Tennis
Published March 3, 2008 11:10AM (EST)

Dear Cary:

A couple of months ago, my husband and I moved back to the U.S. from a beautiful, exotic, mind-numbingly expensive and remote country. I was in grad school there. We liked it OK; at least it was an interesting use of our time. I graduated from my program with top honors. I finished the novel I've been working on for several years. Some great job prospects emerged almost as soon as our plane landed back here on American soil. Both artsy and corporate types, I've found, love to discuss their fantasies of moving to that beautiful, exotic country; it's as common as the fantasy of becoming a freelance writer. This got both my husband and me several interviews right away.

Now here's the thing. I turned down one good job offer because I was still interviewing for an incredibly cool dream-job-type position. Well, I more or less botched the interview for the dream job -- it was four hours long, and involved meeting with 10 people! -- and I wasn't offered it.

I'd gotten so focused on these two jobs, I'd stopped applying anywhere else. Besides, I didn't see anything really promising. Now those two jobs are out, and the whole field of work is looking arid, empty, desolate. Suddenly, there's nothing.

In years past, I would have dealt with this problem by moving abroad again. But I'm in my late 20s now. I haven't had insurance for years. My husband and I desperately need some stability -- financial, geographic, etc. We really don't want to move more than a couple of hours from the midsize Atlantic Coast city we live in right now. But there are so few jobs here that excite me, so few jobs in which I might actually use this master's degree, and I have this long, colorful, not very illustrious, family-joke history of being unable to hold down jobs I'm not passionately interested in.

Like, I take a receptionist job for a couple of weeks. Soon enough I start having panic attacks. I stop going. A couple of weeks go by. I get another receptionist job. This is my hometown pattern. (The only difference now is that I've got a massive load of student debt.)

There's a clear pattern here. Do I have some personality disorder? It seems like plenty of people are able to settle down to jobs and mortgages and TV. Why can't I buckle down, even for a couple of months? Should I try to stop panicking? What should I do -- temp for a few months and see if some exciting position appears? It isn't hard to resolve to do that. It's the temping 9 to 5, five days a week, that makes me feel crazy ... I wonder if I didn't botch that interview because I was already beginning to feel nuts again.

It's midmorning right now. I'm not even through the coffee-drinking hours -- usually the best of any day -- and I feel myself panicking. What will I do with myself? How can I be a good partner to my lovely, lovely husband if I can't hold down a job? He has already dealt with enough craziness from me.

Is there a way for me to change? What do you suggest?

Can't Settle Down

Dear Can't Settle Down,

I suggest you dig in for the long haul. I suggest you get grounded. I suggest you submit a second round of applications for jobs that will fulfill you. I do not suggest getting a receptionist job. I suggest waiting and doing things to keep you grounded while you wait.

Just to set the record straight, I wrote back to you privately first and said I'd answer your question if you told me what country you were talking about, because I am always curious about what country people are talking about, especially when they talk about extraordinary countries but do not name them. It's strange. Like if we knew it was Germany, we'd know who you are. But you told me what country it was and why you were there and so we have a deal. Your specialization is so narrow and the country so small, there is indeed a chance that you might be recognized, so I will not name either. Let's just say we share an intense literary passion for a certain author.

Think of what our mutual literary hero did. He was a singular genius. His mind was like a self-sufficient universe. And even he had certain physical routines that kept him grounded. Think about it, his other pursuits. Think about how those things kept him grounded. He turned those pursuits into aesthetic pursuits. But he was not some kind of superman.

I did not follow an academic career because no matter how much I read I will always want to put an old Chevy up on blocks, crawl underneath it and drink beer in the dirt. I left graduate school and went to work in a mailroom. I don't recommend that. But I understand now that I was looking for the soul of urban life and I found it in the mailroom. I found it working as a bike messenger. I had other problems, of course, and it's been a long road. But I understand now what I was looking for then.

My therapist said to me, "You cannot think your way through it." Yikes. I thought I could. Yikes.

I was sitting on the floor at Borders the other day in the psychology section looking at Thomas Moore's new book, "A Life at Work." He's a pretty good writer. In the introduction he talks about alchemy. He talks about finding your life's work, and what a long strange trip it is.

You have to get grounded. Getting grounded is spiritual but it is also physiological. It involves fresh air.

Do some gardening. Clean your house. Drink tea in the afternoon. Slow down. Wait for it. It will come.

A lively understandable spirit once entertained you.

I can make complicated things. I can make things complicated. But I am not complicated. I am simple. This does not frighten me, being simple. I watched "Regarding Henry" last night and felt like Henry, like a man at a party with brain damage. It does not frighten me to be a little slow.

What frightens me is the aridness of a life sitting in front of a computer. I have three bags of forest mulch outside the window. One is open and sitting in a garden cart. I can go out there when the time comes and spread some over the garden. I can mix it into the back stretch. That's what I do.

I'm saying get grounded.

I'm saying go to a blues bar and listen; I'm saying walk along the shore somewhere in your mid-Atlantic region and smell the decaying mollusks and the microbes in the muck, feel the biting February wind, get reminded of the immensity. Mourn something. Think of a sad time and mourn something. It will bring you back down. Visit a cemetery. Visit a carnival. Walk among small-town people in small-town clothes. Eat a hot dog. Get a massage. Mow the lawn. Buy a dog. Get out the guitar. Take the car in for a tuneup. Don't open your computer. Go barefoot. Run your hand along the surface of a piece of old wood, perhaps the balustrade of a dilapidated hotel in a small town with stray dogs running and wash hanging out. Smell the old, drying wood. Light a fire somewhere. Carry the wood in. Light a fire. Make some tea and sip it in a rocking chair. Watch a bird and don't do anything else but watch the bird. Envy the bird. Forget about the bird. Hold your husband's hand and sit on the steps of an old house.

Just drive for exactly an hour and then stop the car and get out. Place your hand on the hood of the car and feel the heat of the engine. If you have driven to a town, walk around the town and look at the town. Or maybe you have stopped on the road. Look at the horizon. Drive toward the horizon. Sing old Eagles songs in the car. Sing "Hotel California." Or sing "Desperado." Sing the worst song you know, and sing it with heart.

Vary the sentence length. Make some of these sentences longer and some shorter, because the litany of tiny sentences is getting old. Try some clauses ... ah, but then the images go. Fight the self-consciousness. Fight the tendency to criticize. Get in that car and drive. Keep driving.

This is a long drive. Pack sandwiches.

You don't have any problems. You are sitting on top of the world. So do this: Make an act of homage; go to a cafe somewhere where they have open-mike night, and read some of our favorite author's work aloud into the microphone. Sit at a table that won't stay level. Drink some mediocre coffee, but just one cup not two.

I envy you. You're not in trouble. You're sitting on top of the world. But you need to get grounded. It's too heady up there. The air is too thin.

We think our aesthetic passion will sustain us. It won't. You have to find a Russian bakery and sit with the old ladies. You have to change the channel. You have to find a longer wavelength.

Perplexed about grad school? Read 160-163

"Since You Asked," on sale now at Cary Tennis Books: Buy now and get an autographed first edition.

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