I'm not ready to be 19!

I've chosen pre-med. I miss my friends and family. Some nights I just cry in the stairwell

Published May 2, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

In less than two hours I will be 19 and I am not sure what to do. I actually just Googled "I am not ready to be 19 what should I do," and your site came up, and I am relieved it did. I am a freshman in college and I am not happy. I really try to be, but it is difficult. It pretty much all started last year when I was applying for college. I had great grades, pretty good essays and a solid ACT score, but I did not get into any of my top choices, and it was devastating. And things just got worse from there. My aunt and uncle, whom I have always been really close to, turned on me, or least that's how it felt. They wanted me to go to a huge state school close to home that my uncle went to, but I ended up choosing a smaller private school over 800 miles away. My mom and grandma, who both raised me since my parents divorced when I was 2 and I have not seen my dad since, supported my decision.

After this, nothing was the same. My aunt was very cold to me and even rude. I wanted to yell at her, "What are you doing, don't you love me anymore?! I'm doing what I think is best for me!" But nothing happened. (I think there might be more to the sudden change in how she treats me but I do not know for sure.) This family chaos has really affected me because we were all so close. Being a member of a small family I loved our Sunday night dinners and conversations.

Other than aunt/uncle drama, I really miss being home. All of my best friends from high school go to the state school my aunt and uncle wanted me to go to and we still talk, but I miss them, but at the same time I do not -- or maybe I just refuse  to -- regret my college decision. I did what was best for me. I wanted to do something new and unexpected so I could grow and become a better person.

I am a good student, I study all of the time and I do not party, drink or do drugs, and I am doing pre-med, which I know is taking a toll. It is very competitive, but I feel like I have to make it work. To be honest, I do not know if becoming a doctor is what I really want to do, but I feel like I don't have any other choice. I know people say it is easy to switch majors, but it really isn't. There are so many classes to take that if I switched, I would be a year behind for most majors.

I sometimes wonder if medicine is my plan B pretending to be my plan A, and that my actual purpose in life is hiding from me. I just don't know where or how to find it. I love traveling but I would not call myself adventurous. I am scared of falling and being alone. I am also passionate about volunteering and helping others, hence why I think I would be a good doctor. But I am absolutely terrified to think that my plan, which sounds awesome but might not be right for me, is crumbling before me and I can't do anything about it. (I should probably mention that I am a perfectionist and I am very organized, analytical and anxious, though I am not diagnosed with anything, yet.) I freak out over everything even though I know it is not healthy. I am also a stress eater and I have tried to work on this but it is hard! I was an athlete in high school but my coaches hated me because I willingly admitted that my schoolwork would always come first, no matter what. And it still does, but everything is so much more difficult now.

I thought that once I pushed myself outside my boundary and went to a school that I chose, going without anyone I knew, it would finally help me find myself. I had to start over, make completely new friends and figure out a new city, but I find myself more lost in the sea of confusion and I don't know what to do.

To make things even more confusing, my dad, whom I haven't talked to or heard from -- absolutely nothing -- decided now would be a good time to friend-request me with no message or anything (on Facebook). Worst. Timing. Ever. Especially since I have finals for the next two weeks. Part of me wants absolutely nothing to do with him, to just block him and never think of him ever again, but at the same time ... I just don't know. He probably just wants something, maybe money, which I don't have. I am lucky I am even able to go to college thanks to scholarships, and the rest is coming out of my mom's savings, which is not much and from the little I earned being a swim instructor at a local camp.

I am trying to take charge of my life. I am becoming more involved in things outside of studying, which I do all of the time. For example, I was just elected to my school's Pre-med Society and our science and engineering Student Council board. And I tried to get a position shadowing or working in a lab this summer, but no response. I called three times, but nothing and do not want to harass anyone, but I could really use some experience, plus I really think it would be beneficial to see if it is something I want to do with the rest of my life. I mean, I only have one life and don't want to mess it up! Which is a problem: I can't imagine messing up or making the wrong decision. I know I over-think everything, but ... I just do not know what to do, or how to fix my life so I can be happy, or at least not as sad as I am now.

I feel absolutely terrible because my mom tries so hard to help me. She lost her job and has been unemployed, but she still does so much for me. She sends me wonderful college survival packages and gifts and I know she loves me so much. She is the person I trust the most; she is not only my mom, she is also my best friend, so she hears the worst of everything, and the worst of me. There have been too many times that I just blew up because of how frustrated, sad and confused I get about life and school and she is the one who gets all of it and I just feel so terrible! I always apologize, but it is not enough and I know it. I know that it kills her to see her only child so upset and unhappy and it just drives me crazy. I don't know who else to talk to. I have a small group of friends at school, but I am very closed-off and can't tell everyone everything. I am not that trusting and it is not for them to know or worry about (that's why I have never had a boyfriend or anything close to that, I guess).

I know life could be much worse, but for me, this year has been ... not good. I am close to my heaviest weight I have ever been (I think I might have lost a couple pounds in the past few weeks because I started counting calories), and this is the saddest I have ever been. I kind of wonder sometimes if I have a case of depression, because there are some nights (more than I would like to admit to) that all I do is cry in my dorm's stairwell.

Random thought: If I do decide to do medicine I think it might be nice to take a year off and travel and do volunteer work. And now that I think about that more, it sounds amazing, but I don't think I would ever be able to do that. If I took time off, I don't know if I would be able to go back to all of the stress and sadness, especially if it just gets worse from here.

I am not desperate enough to do anything drastic, and I never want to get to that point and that is why I am asking for some advice or anything. Please. What can I do about my aunt and uncle? What should I do about the guy who does not deserve the title of dad? And how do I find my purpose, the one thing that I am amazing at and enjoy, where I can help people and travel and volunteer before I collapse under the pressure? How can I become happy and satisfied with my life and myself?


Completely Lost in a Sea of Sadness and Uncertainty

Dear Completely Lost,

Take a year off and travel and do volunteer work. Do it. Make a plan.

You know that it would make you happy to take a year off and travel and do volunteer work. So that is now your job. Not next year but the following year -- the year between your sophomore and junior years -- you need to travel and do volunteer work. Find where you want to go. Look at programs that can help. Perhaps you can do a work-study program, or be an exchange student. Or perhaps you could just travel without any set program.

You can do it. But this is interesting: Right on the heels of your discovery of what you really, really want comes heavy doubt: "I don't think I would ever be able to do that. If I took time off, I don't know if I would be able to go back to all of the stress and sadness, especially if it just gets worse from here."

So your job is to accept that you have this doubt and fear. Sure, it's possible that there will be difficulties. Difficult does not mean impossible. There will be a price but there is always a price. You have some control over what the price is. You have some control over the details of where you go and for how long. But do not let this automatic thought of, "Oh, I don't know ..." stop you in your tracks. That's all it is -- an automatic, unexamined, negative, defeating thought, the kind that practitioners of cognitive therapy teach us to identify and deconstruct. You can deconstruct it by noting that it is not based on any clear facts, that it is global and not specific, that not knowing the future is a normal thing, that when problems are broken down into their parts we can find solutions for them. That is, what you are really saying is that there would be a certain increase in the stress, which you don't yet know how you would handle. That's a manageable problem: You can estimate just how much stress this would create and come up with a plan for dealing with that increased stress. So I really hope you do that.

About your dad: I suggest you let your mom know he contacted you and ask her what you should do. About your aunt and uncle, here is an idea: Reach out to them. Send them cards. Tell them how you are doing. Just reach out to them, without asking for explanations or anything, but just sending them positive energy. Even if it doesn't change their minds or feelings, it will make you feel better about the situation. As to finding your purpose, that will come through experience; you follow your instincts and talents, and learn from what happens, and that eventually comes together as a sense of purpose. That is, your sense of purpose develops from action in the world; it doesn't simply appear to you in your mind like a vision.

Before finishing, I also want to say something about the process of writing a long letter. It is like you wrote your way through all this gloom to a glimmer of hope. All of a sudden -- this "random thought" comes to you. This "random thought" is the most important thought that you have in the letter. It reinforces what I have observed and hypothesized about human interactions, and also my sense of why psychotherapy is so useful: Because we get to tell the whole story. We get to stay on the topic long enough for some sunshine to emerge. We cruise along in the gloom until almost exhausted and then: What was that? Look! Is that a ray of sunshine? This is yet another reason why we run letters at such length: It affords us the chance to observe an individual mind in the process of problem-solving through writing.

I might also note that one reason you miss the Sunday dinners is that during long dinners people get a chance to talk at length. Stuff develops. Which makes me think that at school, in your studying, it might not be just the sheer volume of work but how you divide the work up and the intervals at which you switch subjects, so you're not able to spend enough time on any one subject, that is leading to anxiety. So try changing your study habits so you go more deeply into each subject before turning to the next. You may find that if you stick with a reading, right on the edge of exhaustion is where you begin to solve problems.

But mainly, to give you some hope about the future, I suggest you commit to this plan of taking time off to travel and do volunteer work. If you plan and work toward this, you will always have this little light of hope to think about. Before you go to sleep you can think about it. When you are stressed or unhappy you can think about it. It can be your private little guiding light.

By Cary Tennis

MORE FROM Cary Tennis

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

College Since You Asked