21 and miserable. How do I cope?

With all my problems, will I ever be happy?

Published January 28, 2011 1:25AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I'm 21 years old, and I'm completely miserable. I have spent the latter part of my life working on "self-improvement," as it seems the world hates me and wants to see me fail. I don't abuse drugs, and hardly ever drink because I come from a family of alcoholics.

I dropped out of high school -- well, I never went back to complete senior year.

I was put down a lot as a kid, so I didn't have the necessary confidence to participate and make friends with other kids. The teachers even gave me a hard time because even though my grades were average, I didn't participate enough in class. After that, I stopped doing my homework. I started skipping class, and in junior year I missed 45 days of school. That's an entire marking period.

They didn't want to help me, or fix their flawed system. No, it was easier to just ship me off to a school for "slow kids with emotional disorders." They even reprimanded me for checking a book out of the school library about school shootings. Sure, it is violent material, but the school made it available on the shelves. Why did they single me out? I'm always singled out. I was looked down on like I was stupid, but I'm not at all.

My IQ is actually 139. Einstein was 140, not to be cocky but I'm really not an idiot, I just wasn't interested. I got my GED, and scored in the 98th percentile of the entire United States. I'm proud, but no one else seems to care. The mental abuse I suffered at school was 10 times worse at home. I began isolating and eventually developed generalized anxiety and social anxiety disorders.

I also suffer from insomnia, getting maybe five hours of sleep in a 24-hour period, after being awake for a full 48 hours. It causes me to crash during the day and miss appointments, phone calls, etc. I've been through a sleep study and seen a specialist, who refuses to help me because I'm just "not making enough of an effort to get on a normal sleep schedule." He insists on psychotropic medications which I refuse to take because I've been there before and I lost my friends, relationship, job and two years of my life to those medications. I am off them now and have been for almost a year. Friends, family and myself all see that I'm better off without the medications.

Although I'm still severely depressed, I manage it pretty well, which is why I'm here seeking advice.

If you couldn't guess, I am unemployed and collect disability benefits. My screwed-up sleep schedule makes me completely unreliable in any situation plus I will lose my health benefits and checks permanently if I get a full-time job, which is what I need. Part-time would only allow me to make about $50 extra a month due to the strict benefits policy I have to follow. Any job I take will have to offer benefits unconditionally or pay me enough to live off of and pay for insurance out-of-pocket, due to a countless number of physical health problems. I also don't drive because no one will teach me, I don't have reliable transportation, don't have money for gas even if I had transportation, and because of my SAD I absolutely am terrified of any forms of public transportation, and almost all modes of transportation in general. Despite this, I have applied for jobs locally, within walking distance, but can't get hired because the economy is bad and I somehow don't fit the qualifications ... to work at the gas station.

I have the worst luck ever and frequently find myself getting angry about things that wouldn't bother another person. I'm guessing that's because when I can't ever get a break, if I stub my toe, I'm just gonna lose my cool. When I do get really angry, I laugh an insincere, uncontrollable laugh. And often, when sincerely laughing, I feel sad and guilty and cry hysterically.

I lack advanced social skills because I lack confidence. I'm overweight and hate myself for it. I have had eating disorders in the past and continue to try changing my eating habits and exercising regularly, which is difficult when I'm so lethargic from lack of sleep, not to mention dangerous.

I also don't have anyone encouraging me or motivating me. "Atta girl!" would be nice.

My parents basically abandoned me when I was 5 or so, so I live with my grandmother. My father doesn't attempt to write or call me, not even for holidays or my birthday. The last thing he gave me was a glass of OJ when I was 3 years old. My mother also doesn't call, claiming she's "too depressed." It's true, she lives a bad life, but it's upsetting that all these years later I'm still not her priority, not even to check on me and see how I'm doing. She instead expects me to take care of her emotional needs and says that "by not calling her it means I don't love her or care about her." Oh, but 21 years of life devoid of love and attention because your parents could care less isn't wrong at all! I'm a good person, I love her and I don't do things out of spite, but why would I take care of someone who has neglected me my whole life? When I don't cater to her, she threatens suicide. She is not stable, but I cannot deal with it, I have a lot to fix, and without her or anyone's help. I can't prevent a suicide over the phone. She spent most of my life in jail. I don't even really know her, nor does she know me. It's very stressful, though, when she does call, because she's always angry and I feel like I'm walking on glass. I feel very unloved.

My grandmother and I have never had a good relationship. She's mean, egotistical, overly critical and argumentative, finding fault with everything. So even when I'm right, I'm wrong in her eyes. She is not supportive of me, and is completely indifferent to my opinions, thoughts and feelings. She never wants to talk to me unless it's about the groceries or politics. She hates my movies and music, and eavesdrops on me all the time. She never thanks me for anything I do and she denies having any flaws. She's impossible, negative and uninspired, which makes me fatigued with so much darkness.

In trying to cope I have developed obsessions, which eventually led to severe obsessive compulsive disorder and worsening social anxiety. My mind is always racing and even though I want to get out of the house, I isolate unintentionally because I'm self-conscious and at times I black out from my racing thoughts.

Instead, I choose to stay inside where I'm safe from public humiliation, and read about ways to improve myself. I do not watch TV because doing so causes a great deal of anxiety, reason unknown. I even worry about the way I sound or the faces I make when talking. I often hate the words I use and the cadence of my voice. I guess I just think that if I looked and sounded different, people wouldn't leave me all the time. It's just another obsession because I do not want to be poisonous like my mother and grandmother and hurt those around me, so I stay away from people. I don't ever want to offend, infringe upon, intrude, intimidate, condescend, patronize or insult anyone because my family does it to me, and look how I turned out: a train wreck. At the same time I feel silly and am frustrated by these feelings and wish I didn't care at all. I am extremely lonely, but my worst fear is turning into one of my relatives, because if I hurt someone I love, they will leave me, and I hate that because people always come and go, but once they go they're gone forever. I couldn't live with the guilt, that feeling because then it really would be my fault. They (my family) deny having these issues, because they're such hypocrites, who shun self-improvement because if you're trying to improve yourself, then you're not perfect, which means you are weak and stupid. So instead they blame me for the way they treat me.

They expect a lot from me; basically, they screwed up my life with their poor decisions and mental abuse and now they have this attitude that I should just "suck it up because I'm 21 now." So what? I'm amazed that I'm still alive. They have no resources and absolutely no interest in fixing things or helping me fix things. In fact, my grandmother committed credit card fraud in my name, crashing me $4,000 in debt which I obviously cannot pay off, and she is not paying it either. I'm considering pressing charges and filing a police report. But I'm trying to do it wisely.

I can't even afford to do laundry. I am forced to wash clothes in the bathtub. By now, if you're still reading, you are probably hoping that I'm at least seeing a therapist. I am. In fact, I see her twice a week. She's amazing, and great to work with. It does help, but I'm embarrassed that I'm so dependent on her because it's the most intimate relationship I have. It's also typically the only social interaction I get during the week.

I'm harboring a lot of resentment because people around me are always traveling, hanging with friends, seeing movies, going to bars and clubs and I never do. Or they're all happy with their lives and have options and opportunities that I don't. I'm always just faking that smile to make it easier for them. I can't and don't talk to friends about this because they don't understand. I'm just so miserable and it seems like it's always going to be this way. I don't remember ever being happy.

On top of it all, I'm actually really outspoken and outgoing, but this prevents me from showing the world my potential. I feel like I'm being held back, slowly drowning. I'm too nice, and too submissive, because I can't afford to get on anyone's bad side. It causes me to over-analyze everything, and hate myself for not just saying "f- it." I'm constantly comparing myself to others and even get jealous of babies because they possibly have a chance at a good life. It's gotten way out of control. I'm not lazy, I'm smart, well-rounded, hardworking despite unemployment, passionate and I want a career, a place of my own, a relationship ... happiness. I kind of feel like I never had a chance. I want to move out but I can't if I can't be truly independent. What do you think? What can I do about these feelings and problems? How do I cope?

Overwhelmed and Overlooked

Dear Overwhelmed and Overlooked,

The worst is over. You are now in recovery mode. You are going to slowly get better. While you get better, you're going to have some bad days. But overall, things are going to improve for you.

You are under excellent care. You have a therapist whom you like and you are able to see her twice a week. Concentrate on those meetings. Keep what you get in those meetings. When you leave your therapy session, see how much of it you can carry into the rest of the day. Cherish the feelings that arise there -- of mastery and confidence and acceptance, and being cared for. Remind yourself often of the progress you are making.

If there is an object you can carry with you that reminds you of the progress you are making, then carry that with you. Perhaps your therapist can give you something to carry with you, or suggest something to carry so that in a moment of despair you can turn to it. It might be a book or a piece of jewelry, or some object with magical associations -- a feather, or a shell.

When I had reached the depths of despair, someone gave me a book, a simple book of guidelines for how to live each day without drinking -- practical things, like don't hang out in bars, and make sure to eat. It wasn't just the instructions in that book, but the book itself, like a talisman, that gave me hope as I rode the Muni buses around the city and walked from place to place half-mad with the onrush of unfiltered sensation and long-buried feeling. I just gripped that yellow book called "Living Sober." It felt like a lifeline.

You've been through a lot. Progress may feel slow. So how do you cope? You cope by sticking to a long-term plan. It takes time. It takes a lot of time. I don't know why we can't magically transform ourselves into happy, functioning people. It seems like they promise that in TV and movies and books but in real life it takes time.

But it happens. We find ways to sustain ourselves as we proceed. We have big goals and small goals. Our small goal is to get through the day. Some days we just concentrate on that. But as we're getting through the day, we're also trying to apply what we know, avoiding thoughts and behaviors that we know for sure will send us into a tailspin, and looking, where we can, for uplifting and helpful images that will sustain us.

You are building a life. Each piece of your life that works for you is crucial. Pay attention to the parts of your life that are working for you, and build on them.

Building a life is like putting a puzzle together. Each piece that fits adds to the sense of a whole picture. It might seem that you don't have anything close to a picture yet. That's OK. Visualize the puzzle of the life you want. There is indeed an outline to it. There may be only one or two pieces in it right now. But you have some pretty great pieces. There is the therapist piece. There is the high-intelligence piece. There is your verbal facility piece, your ability to write persuasively and with force. There is the kindness piece, your dedication not to harm others as you have been harmed, which is a wonderful piece.

And there is the piece that is your home. Look for a place of safety there. Find your spot. Your grandmother may get on your nerves but there must be times you can be in your house and she is not bothering you and you can just sit and be OK. Concentrate on those times. Build on them. Make some tea and sit and look out the window. Find moments of peace and hang on to them. Build on the good things and expand them outward so that they begin to take over and engulf the other things. This is how you heal. It's like watching a wound heal. You see how the good tissue comes in and slowly takes over. While a wound is healing you protect it. So that's what you do in your life. You are wounded in certain areas, so you protect those areas while they heal. In social areas, for instance, due to your high school experiences, you have been wounded. So it's OK for you to withdraw a little as you heal. Choose one friend to talk to. Choose carefully. You are wounded in social areas, so you protect those places while they heal.

Ask your therapist to help you find ways to cut down on the number of times you express destructive thoughts. You may have these thoughts but you have some control over what you do with them. Slowly you may begin to take these destructive thoughts apart and see that they are not literally true. They are more like expressions of how you feel.

When you can get some distance on these thoughts, they will affect you less. So, for instance, instead of saying you are completely miserable, try putting your miserableness on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being truly, completely miserable and one being hardly miserable at all. Take heed of the fluctuations. Note the times when you are most miserable and ask what's going on during those times.

What is the weather like where you are today? Is it snowy and cold or is it warm? If it is warm, you can take a long walk. Even if it is pretty chilly, you can still take a long walk. Taking a long walk is a good choice for a day. Just that one thing alone may make for a relatively good day.

Talk to your therapist about simple changes in diet and behavior that might have some effect on your sleep patterns. If you are consuming a lot of caffeine, for instance, you might cut down. If you are getting no exercise, you can take a long walk in the evening and see if that helps you relax and get some sleep. When I can't sleep I drink a mint-chamomile tea we buy at the coffee and tea shop. It seems to help.

Because progress can be slow, in order to keep going you need some believable hypothesis that says this is going to get better. And you need some regular, pragmatic proof of that. In addiction recovery, we use the experiences of those around us as evidence of what may happen in our own lives if we do what they are doing. The reason your therapist is employed and your insurance pays for her help is that it does work. It does help people. Your therapy is one good solid shining part in your life. You like her and she knows what she's doing. You're enjoying your meetings with her. You can build your life around these sessions with your therapist. I suggest you consider everything else in your life secondary to your sessions with your therapist. That is your lifeline.

You survived a very tough family situation because you are resilient and strong and smart. You came up with coping behaviors to keep your soul from being obliterated. Some of those coping behaviors worked well at the time but now are not needed. Now that you are relatively safe from abuse, it is time to let some of those go and start developing new ones. That's what you are doing with the therapist.

It takes time. But it works.

You concentrate on the basics and you live one day at a time. You get up. You eat, you take a walk, you make it to your appointment.

That's how we do it. One day at a time. And why do we bother? Because we know that with a little bit of work, life can be pretty good. We also know there's no time to waste. You're 21. Pay attention. Stick around for the miracle.

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By Cary Tennis

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