After OCD: What next?

I spent so many years depressed and anxious, now I feel like Rip Van Winkle

Published September 11, 2009 10:11AM (EDT)

Dear Reader,

As I write, it is Sept. 11, my birthday. Sept. 11 is not the best day to be wearing a shiny birthday hat and blowing out candles. But this week I hit on something: Use the cataclysm as a catalyst. So today, I call on all writers -- poets, prose writers, memoirists, essayists, playwrights, monologists, etc. -- to send your work out for publication in recognition of this date.

The act of sending out our work for publication is a perfect countermove to the violence of 9/11. It asserts our spirit, our belief in the efficacy of personal expression and inner change, our humility before the mystery of words and symbols, and our belonging in a universal culture.

I'll be sending my work out on this day and I suggest you do the same!

Dear Cary,

I'm a woman in my early 30s, married to wonderful man, and coming slowly out of years of dark, crushing depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. I finally found a great physician who is helping me ease into a medication that is helping me, and so I feel like I'm waking up to find myself in a life I want to change even more. But I'm scared. That sounds very pathetic when I read it, but it's true. I don't know how to make the most of the rest of my life.

Like many, I had what I consider to be a bad childhood. My parents were (and are) alcoholics, along with the majority of the rest of my family, and were always being evicted and moving my siblings and me to a new town. Consequently, I went to many different schools, and had no long-term friends. My family was (and is) cold in many ways -- very little physical contact, showing of emotion, or voicing of care or concern. Though they live in the same city, my family has refused to meet my in-laws and has never visited me in any home I've made since leaving theirs at age 17.

So, with therapy, I made some peace with this. I figure if I've had awful OCD and depression issues, then it's very possible my family does, too, so I remind myself of that a lot. I put myself through school with help from my husband, getting a B.A. in literature in my mid-20s. Great GPA, lots of encouragement from professors to apply to grad school, loved it. But I was exhausted from years of working shit jobs that fit my school schedule and the worry of all the debt I was incurring. I took the first job that came along: an office job, customer service and finance oriented (picture the movie "Office Space"). I excelled at my work despite my depression, have been promoted several times, and am now a manager. My husband and I are definitely not wealthy, but we are careful and are close to paying off our debt and have bought a house; I was very poor growing up, so these accomplishments are something I'm especially proud of.

But I have always hated any job I've ever had, including this one. And, I have a hard time visualizing something I would love to do. I visualized things I didn't want -- like being in a boring office job or middle management, which is what I am (like learning to drive or ride a bike -- when you realize that when you stare at something you veer right into it). I rationalized when I took this job that there were two approaches for a person entering the working world: You could do what you love and not make any money, or you could have a job that supported you doing what you love in your spare time. I don't know where this theory came from or if there is any truth to it, but it failed to take into account that I neither knew what I loved to do nor could climb out of my depression long enough to figure it out. Now I realize that what I do needs to mean something to me -- I need to be proud of the work, not just the financial rewards.

I feel very behind others my age -- like I pulled a Rip Van Winkle and I'm waking up after falling asleep right after I graduated. My husband and I still haven't decided whether we are going to have children. I still don't know what I want to do with my life. Many of our friends have professional careers and graduate degrees, or are in grad school (my husband is self-employed in a blue-collar field). I've tried to think of careers doing something I feel strongly about and could get excited by, but I get disheartened when I think of the time and cost of preparing for them.

I recently became interested in going back to school to study adult education and literacy, and began research on careers in that field -- until I found a lot of information indicating many of these jobs are voluntary or part-time with no benefits, or low paid. I haven't been able to find encouraging information to counter this, and so I'm really discouraged. I don't even know how interested I am in this field. What happens if I choose a path, but I end up exactly where I am now, again? I have a mortgage and other bills, retirement through my job, and my husband's health insurance is on my policy. Can I swing having kids while changing careers? How can I go back to school at this point in my life and incur thousands more dollars of debt in student loans? We are doing OK financially now, but if he were the only or main breadwinner, we would definitely be struggling.

I don't consider myself a person who is merely financially motivated, but debt isn't just financial for me. It makes me feel trapped and not in control. Being financially stable makes me feel like maybe I escaped my dysfunctional, uncomfortable, dreary upbringing. I panic sometimes that my family is cursed, and that I will also never be able to live a calm and fulfilling life. I want to improve my life but not put myself even more behind than I feel I already am. I have a maybe irrational but strong feeling that I am supposed to be doing something more important with my life; I'm scared that I could already be too late to do it.

I know this is a long letter, Cary, and maybe way too much information; thank you for reading it. Even if you choose not to answer, I feel a little relief from writing this. I enjoy reading your column and appreciate the kindness with which you approach your work.

Please sign me,

She Who Hesitates

Dear She Who Hesitates,

Know this, my dear. You are on the path now. What you do is ... you stay on the path. The path is full of illusions. It is lined with traps. But you keep going for now and things get better. While you are going along the path, you concentrate on what feels good to you when you think about it. That's how you end up with what you want to do: You think about what feels good to you, you write about it and make pictures of it, you look at it in detail: not how you're going to do it but just how great it is, how it makes you feel, what you love about it. Through that process you will likely find the strength and the energy to acquire it, to make it real, whatever it is, this new direction. Some people know how to do this. Others, like us, have to be taught what is for some a normal, almost unconscious and natural process: to think, dream and visualize what they want.

So I say be kind to yourself, allow yourself to feel wild and unkept, allow yourself to dream big, to use all your five senses to imagine and in your mind construct this thing in its physical nature, what you want; maybe you want to ... I don't know ... it may be that you want to be in a certain place. Allow that, too, to become part of your imagined thing, your destiny, your object of dreaming. Where you are doing it can sometimes be more important than what you are doing. I mean, sometimes I'd rather be pumping gas in a redwood forest than writing lyrics in a cubicle under fluorescent lights.

Here is my guess: Growing up, you learned that no good dreams were going to come true unless you nailed down every element of the execution; you learned you were not going to get help and so you'd damned well better be just about the best at whatever you tried or there was no chance; you had nothing to hold on to; even the environment in which you were dreaming your dreams might not be there the next day or the next week; you might not even be living in the same house or going to the same school with the same teachers. So you had to nail down every item of the execution of whatever small plan you might hatch; there was no nest, as it were, no cradle, no incubator, no fortress for your dreams. You were not held; you could not relax into the loving and secure.

So you naturally got, shall we say, a tad anxious? Like duh. Like me too. For various reasons. This stuff happens. So you naturally developed most strongly those attributes of self that would serve you most vitally, and they are your unsentimental, take-care-of-business attributes. But now is the time for you to feed your dreams.

You are at the beginning of an awakening, as you say. So you feel a little unsettled. You grew up in an unprotected and unsettling environment, so the idea of taking the time you need to grow into an idea is a little foreign; the idea of having enough time and security to see what unfolds for you is foreign; the idea of having people around you who are going to be there for you and not undermine you and not snatch from you what you most dearly desire is foreign; the idea of having your plans hatch well and bringing them together is foreign.

So stay on the path. Perhaps in connection with learning to live with your OCD you are learning to tolerate a certain amount of anxiety as part of the deal. That would be great. I hope so. Because the change is naturally going to bring on some antsiness. Understood. Hang in there.

I love the fact that you say you've always hated every job you've ever had.

Here's what our friend Andrew O'Hehir said about the movie "Office Space" in 1999 (my first year at Salon, incidentally, when after wandering the wilds of journalism and freelancing I had found myself in my mid-40s working for five years in the soul-crushing yet strangely reassuring air-conditioner hum of a great and powerful 130-year-old multinational oil company where I learned, unexpectedly, the noble art of copy-editing, a skill that would soon land me at Salon):

The point of "Office Space" is that none of us actually want to spend our time in anonymous, soul-crushing environments, constantly being told we put the wrong cover sheets on our reports or chided for having "a bad case of the Mondays." Many of us, however, don't have other realistic choices, and so the idea of doing almost anything else -- or nothing whatever -- looms like a vision of paradise.

So for the time being, do not think overmuch about how. Curb the research. Focus on the dream.

Pay attention to pleasure and desire and what you want. Work with your physician to keep the meds in balance. Pay attention to what unfolds. Hey, here's an idea, too, especially since you got a degree in literature and are aware of the many levels of meaning a piece can have: How about you go back and reread "Rip Van Winkle," and take a look at the similar ancient tales that inform it. There are some hints there, about becoming unconscious and waking up again; there are some hints, I dare predict, about the larger shape of your story.

Finally, I wish to say only this: A few months before he died, my uncle Edgar Hall Tennis gave me a gift of inestimable value to me, which was to tell me, or remind me, that one branch of our family is and always will be, as he put it, "wild." They cannot be corralled or programmed or controlled; they do not work regular jobs; they do not live regular lives; they are wild. They can be found in the hills and wilds of a certain old and venerable state, doing what they do and thumbing their noses at the rest. It was a gift to be reminded, in connection with my own often chaotic and aimless occupational wandering, that I do not come upon this wildness by accident, that I am not defective, that my wildness is a part of my heritage. Not that I even have to justify it. Our wildness is essential. We all have a little of it. Cherish it.

So that's the last part of my message to you: If your dream contains a fair share of wildness and is somewhat unexpected and not precisely how you thought of yourself, let it be. It's your dream. Follow it.

Thinking about what's next? Yep, there's stuff in here about that

Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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