I've got "restless life syndrome"

I can't sit still. I can't stick with anything. I can't keep relationships.

Published September 15, 2008 10:17AM (EDT)

Hi Cary,

You know those commercials for "restless leg syndrome"? Well, I think I have "restless life syndrome." I cannot seem to get to a point where I can relax, sit back and enjoy life. No matter what I try to do -- jobs, relationships, hobbies, etc. -- I lose interest and motivation after about six months and then I feel compelled to move on to the next thing. In the past 16 years, I have lived in five states, moved 16 times and held 10 different jobs. I have a B.A., an M.A. and two professional certifications in different areas. I am contemplating going back for an MBA or a Ph.D. Or maybe I will just switch careers altogether and get a law degree. Who knows what my mind will concoct to do next? It was fine in my 20s and even my 30s, but now I am 40, and I am tired of my life constantly being in flux. I wish I could just settle down into a relationship or a career or anything.

Luckily for me, my lifestyle hasn't caused any lasting harm to my ability to find a job or take care of myself. I am a compulsive job hopper, but I have no trouble finding new jobs because I am smart and glib and I give a fantastic interview. Too bad I can't stay interested long enough to build a career somewhere or get vested in a good retirement plan. I have no savings because I use all of my money to move or start something else new. I easily attract men, but I have never had a relationship that lasted more than nine months because eventually I get bored and restless and irritable and feel like I am suffocating. Then I end it. A few months later, the whole cycle starts anew. Except for immediate family and a few close friends, I don't or can't maintain relationships with anyone else.

I am so lonely, tired and worn out from living like this. Over the past two decades, I have sought counseling for this issue and was diagnosed with everything from OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) to borderline personality disorder to ADD (attention-deficit disorder). I have tried every med available. I studied various religions for spiritual guidance and to find some semblance of peace. I volunteer when I can. I got a cat. In a fit of desperation, I even gave serious thought to becoming a Scientologist. Nothing worked. Finally, my last therapist said that he doesn't think there is anything that can really be done. My personality is just one that is bored easily and seeks constant novelty and stimulation. I might just have to learn to live with it. But I don't know how to.

I feel like a hunted person, constantly running and running, never being able to settle down, never being able to rest. If only I knew what I was running to or running from.

It isn't that I constantly seek something bigger and better -- like a luxury car or more money or a larger house. I just always want something new. Different. I am so jealous when I see people being able to stay married, have children or settle into a career for any length of time. But there is also a part of me that feels like I would suffocate and die inside if I had those things.

How can I find peace? I finally bought a house (in an attempt to force myself to build roots somewhere) and I found a job I love in a new city. But I am at the six-month mark, and I can already feel the faint nagging voice in my head telling me to run. I started off as a top-notch employee, but now I am losing interest, coming in later, finding excuses to leave early, etc. I just know in a couple months I will be cruising the want ads to see what else is out there. Then who knows where I will end up? I just want it to stop.


Dear Restless,

I am accustomed to trying to fix any situation in which flies are biting me. If flies are biting me, I'm going to take some action. I'm going to get in the car, or get some insect spray, or never go camping again. I'm going to make some decision based on this discomfort.

So there's this guy on some cable TV channel, I actually have not gotten his name, but I see this guy standing waist deep in water swatting at flies. He gets bitten by a fly and he goes, "Ouch, that hurt." But he doesn't freak out. He just feels the pain and keeps doing what he's doing.

It turns out he's a guy who goes out in the jungle and tries to survive; it's a regular cable TV show. I'm watching this guy and I'm going, Wow, this guy is not making a new decision based on the biting of a fly. He's just absorbing the bite and moving on. He's not focused on the itch, or the sting, or the rush of emotion that follows a sudden sting. He has some larger aim in mind. So he just keeps skinning the bark of a tree or tying some knot to hold his shelter together or eating something really weird and disgusting and I'm thinking, Man, this guy has got to be uncomfortable!

I am more like you. I tend to make decisions based on personal comfort. I get bored easily. If I'm uncomfortable or restless, my first thought is to do something about it.

Your therapist said you might just have to learn to live with it. You say, "But I don't know how."

I think it's not a question of "how" but of "what." The "what" is "what you are doing." If you keep doing what you are doing, there is no question of how. You already know how. You're doing it.

So what is "learning to live with it," exactly? I don't think it's the same as "learning to enjoy it" or "learning not to be bothered by it." Rather, it is learning to regard it with detachment. It is learning to live with discomfort, to notice it, to recognize, Gee, I am having that thought of leaving now. I am feeling the bite of that fly. OK, it's a thought I am having. It's a feeling. It hurts.

The way I used to be, if there was pain involved, it meant I had to do something else. It used to mean, also, I had to take a drink to change how I felt. How I felt was so damned important! How I felt was so much more important than what I was doing!

You take note of the discomfort and keep doing what you are doing. You live with it, literally, as though "it" were a thing in the yard.

"There it is. That thing in the yard."

"What is it doing?"

"It's writing on the window."

"What's it writing?"

"It says, 'You must move to Seattle and be a florist.'"

OK, so the thing in the yard thinks I should move to Seattle. OK. Our feelings of discomfort come up with ideas for us. They write these ideas on our windows. Oddly enough, they can write backward. Naturally -- they really want to be read. They probably also really want to direct.

Anyway, those of us with restless life syndrome learn to keep doing what we are doing. It is uncomfortable to do this. But then, in the caldron of continuing action, discomfort is distilled into knowledge. Discomfort becomes knowledge in the caldron of action. Discomfort becomes knowledge.

You come to know that if you just feel the pain and move on, you can build your shelter and keep out of the rain.

Just like that guy in the jungle: "Aha," he seems to say, "now I know precisely what that fly bite feels like. Yeah, it hurts pretty bad!" But he doesn't make a decision based on the pain. He makes a decision based on what his plan is. He doesn't interpret the pain as a command. He just gets to know the pain.

I really like that guy out in the jungle, eating bugs and getting eaten by bugs. I wonder who he is. I wonder if he is, by nature, a restless person. I'll bet he is.

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