Was I a free spirit for nothing?

Everybody's doing well but I'm still struggling. Was all my exploration a mistake?

Published February 17, 2011 1:20AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

My whole life I have been a free spirit, following my dreams and heart and ignoring convention as best I could. Now, at the age of 37, I think I got it all wrong. I look at people my age who are successful at their careers, the people who did everything you are "supposed" to do, and I feel so inadequate. I suffer from low self-esteem and am frequently depressed.

It wasn't always like this. I moved abroad in my 20s, did a lot of art and studied successfully at a foreign university. I never did get a degree, however. Other things just got in the way, like when I got in on the Internet boom in the late '90s and managed to jump-start a successful career. After several years making lots of money I got tired of that and moved on.

That was when I joined a meditation cult. I sold all my possessions, gave up everything and became a devotee. I felt like I'd touched God and understood the meaning of life. Then it went sour and the cruel, abusive aspects of everyday life in an authoritarian cult began to hit home. I ended up having a nervous breakdown after an intense psychotic episode and, fortunately, I left. That was five years ago.

Since then I feel like a loser. I cannot forgive myself for having gotten involved in the cult and my feelings about spirituality are confused. I stopped meditating after I realized it was actually triggering panic attacks and side effects like disorientation and dissociation. Yet now that I have recovered from all of that, I feel like something is missing from my life. It is hard to live life as a free spirit without spirit.

I met a wonderful man and got married and had a baby. During the pregnancy I was doing great, but I struggled for a long time with postpartum depression after a difficult birth experience. I started seeing a psychiatrist and she put me on antidepressants for six months. Although they did help with the depression, the pills made me sick and ruined our sex life. So I don't see the pills as an option again. Our marriage is pretty good now and my child is happy and well adjusted.

My husband and I started what we thought would be this wonderful green business. We put all our savings in it and received generous loans from my family and even a small grant. It is now the beginning of our third year and sadly, it is not panning out. We underestimated how competitive our market is. And although I do bring important skills into the business, there are other skills I need that don't come easily to me, like networking, public relations and sales. I am tired and burned out from all the work, combined with taking care of my child and the household. (We do have good part-time daycare now, finally.) My husband is supporting us with his job, but he hates it. It is all wearing us down: my depression, the tight financial situation, the endless hard work, the sense that we have invested so much in a business dream that may fail ...

I feel terrible most of the time, and think constantly about what a failure I am. Everyone in my extended family has a graduate degree and owns their own home. Although those things never used to matter to me, my lack of them makes me feel inadequate now. I feel like I got it all wrong all along. What should I do?

Free Spirit

Dear Free Spirit,

I do not think you are a failure. I do not think that after living a life of courageous exploration and fidelity to your own spirit that you have suddenly seen clearly that it was all a mistake. Rather, I think that in a moment of exhaustion and despair you are falling prey to the kind of distorted thinking that leads to depression.

You have hit a tough spot. But you did not get it wrong all along. Rather, you are trying to do something heroic and it's not easy.

I don't buy the line of reasoning that says you are a failure because of how your educational and economic accomplishments stack up to those of others in your extended family.

None of the people you are comparing yourself to have done what you have done. They have not tried to reinvent the world. They have played by the rules and reaped the conventional rewards.

The truth is that what you are trying to do is harder than what they are trying to do.

You may fear that you have been foolish and egotistical to try to reinvent the world. You would not be alone in feeling that way. Icarus and Prometheus come to mind as potent warnings. There is a price to pay for flying too high, for stealing fire. We know this but we do it anyway. We pay the price.

One price is that you have been wounded. You ignored convention and now you have been wounded.

Rather than ignore convention, I suggest you defy convention. There is a difference. Ignoring implies ignorance, a turning away. Defying means facing the enemy, knowing the enemy. So I say this to you: Become a student of the conventional. Learn the language of the conventional. It is self-defeating to incur the wrath or disrespect of others merely because you have not taken steps to manage how you are perceived. If you dress outrageously or sloppily or say thoughtless things in open disregard of convention, you invite others to form poor opinions of you. If convention is to be your enemy, you must know it intimately. You must fight it on its own terms.

Learn the language of fashion. Learn the language of money. Study how business is conducted, how power is conferred. Study those who get the rewards you would like to get. How do they go about it? What do they conceal that you are exposing? What do they expose that you are concealing? What kinds of courage do they possess? 

And there is this too, about which I feel strongly: You must forgive yourself for getting involved in the cult. You were the victim. Why do you assume that you should have known better? If cults did not exert unexpectedly powerful control over innocent members then they would not be cults.

It's not a sign of personal failing to have come under its spell. Unprincipled people used your desire for a better world against you. Forgive yourself. It's time to recover. You dreamed of a better way of being. You were willing to give it a try. Things went awry. But it's not your fault.

The truth is that some bad things happened and you are still recovering from them. You need time to recover.

You must forgive yourself.

As I so often do, I recommend cognitive behavioral therapy for your depression and your post-traumatic stress. The way you interpret the events of your life is a classic recipe for depression. CBT offers a way to combat that.

So let me offer a counter-narrative that I think is a recipe for healthy struggle: You have led a heroic life, a determined quest for the truth of your own soul and your own experience. You have listened to your intuition and tried to remain true to your own feelings even when that meant sacrificing conventional rewards. You have lived a life of danger and you have had some shocks. You have survived encounters with powerful, evil people. You have been wounded but you survived. You found love. You created a business. You continue to struggle.

Now I recommend that you bring that same courage to the quest for proper care. Get the right kind of treatment for your depression. Try cognitive behavioral therapy. Stick with it. Get back to meditation, but in a safe way. Get treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. Take care of yourself. Get enough sleep.

It is hard to be an individual. It is hard to be true to yourself when it means going without the rewards that others reap with ease. It is hard to live with uncertainty, not knowing where your physical comforts will come from. It is hard looking around and seeing others who are better dressed than you are, who are driving better cars and living in better houses and sending their children to better schools. But this is the price you pay for something sweeter. What is sweeter is knowing that you have been true to your own soul. 

January 2011 Creative Getaway

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

MORE FROM Cary Tennis

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Business Since You Asked