Where is my true path in life?

I live in my head and need to move into the real world

By Cary Tennis

Published November 9, 2012 1:00AM (EST)

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

Dear Cary,

I have been following your column for a long time, but never had the courage to write in about my problems, which seem so petty and self-involved compared to those of others. But more and more lately, I have found myself spiraling into bouts of existential depression and in dire need of advice or -- at the very least -- clarity, which you seem to have an abundance of. So bear with me as I pour my heart out; I'm a little rusty at it.

I'm turning 24 in February. A decade ago, my family moved halfway across the world, and instead of embracing a new culture and a new life, I chose to retreat into my shell. I haven't emerged since. For the past decade or so I have lived -- or rather, merely existed -- as a wallflower, a shadow of my childhood self. I have built a rich inner world brimming with lyricism and abstraction, yearning for answers to questions that don't even exist. A world that, naturally, I've never shared with anyone. While I have made a few passing acquaintances during my school years, I have almost no friends -- people would always be put off by my reserved and awkward nature and drop me eventually. Only a couple have stayed in touch, and on the few occasions when I have initiated meet-ups with them I was met with flimsy excuses and lukewarm patronage. And so gradually, over time, I stopped making even that little effort.

This past May, I graduated from a prestigious university here on the West Coast with a degree in the sciences. It wasn't what I wanted to do with my life -- in my second year of college I had wanted to switch into the liberal arts, but was talked out of it by family. So I stuck with science, mustering up just enough motivation to scrape by with a bachelor's degree, a mediocre GPA and minimal participation in campus activities. For a while after graduation, I was determined to shelve those five wasted years and begin a new chapter in my life. I started looking for a job -- an endeavor that felt like plunging head-first into the deep end of the pool. I had no idea where to start, or how, and I went about it blindly, haphazardly seeking out and responding to online advertisements, job fairs -- I even gathered up the courage to meet with a career adviser at my school. Every resource I turned to told me the same thing: I need to network; I need to scour up names, contact information, make cold inquiries; I need references; I need to follow up. It's a shy person's nightmare, and, typical me, I shunned it all. Now, almost six months and hundreds of unanswered résumés later, I've all but given up.

The trouble is, I'm not even sure what's wrong with me, or where to turn for help. I had learned about social anxiety disorder in one of my college psychology courses, and for a while I was convinced that it's what I have. I've sought counseling and cognitive-behavioral therapy, both of which have brought slight amelioration to my anxiety while in session but no lasting effect on my condition. I've even tried medication, which left me feeling flat, like a zombie. I'm plagued -- no, consumed -- by the realization that my tendency toward avoidance and passivity is damaging my life far more than any social fears I have. I lack motivation and drive. Other people my age are laboring toward enviable careers and romances, while I spend my days lounging around the house in pajamas, fantasizing about life paths I never took -- in my imagination I'm a famed writer, a concert pianist, a talk-show host. In my imagination I have a bustling social life. And believe me -- I'm beyond exasperated with my own absurdity and escapism. I feel like I'm wasting my youth, my talent. I should be doing research and planning for my future. I should be an active, contributing member of society. But the mere thought of continuing on in my chosen field fills me with so much dread, I'm loath to get started.

I want change. I want to do something drastic to jolt my life out of this rut -- move abroad where no one knows me and start afresh, or something to that effect -- but without the financial resources or any viable plans on how to proceed, it's nothing more than a pipe dream.

How do I move out of my head and into the real world?

Yours truly,

Inside Wanting Out

Dear Inside Wanting Out,

You have been doing the bidding of others and it hasn't worked. Since you have been doing the bidding of others, you have been putting aside your own vital self. You can do this no longer. That is what your crisis means. You have to choose between your life and the life your parents have envisioned for you. You have to make a break.

The sooner you commence the better. To continue to live out the dreams of others will only cripple you further. Begin the great conflict! It will hurt at first but it will free you.

There is nothing wrong with you. You are just a certain kind of person. You are contemplative and artistic. The world crushes people who are contemplative and artistic. Many don't survive. They live out lives of quiet desperation, painting in their off-hours, writing in spare moments, playing music, or abandoning creative pursuits altogether in the mistaken belief that if they stop doing creative tasks the creative spirit will leave them alone. It won't. It will keep coming around asking for attention.

This world will crush you if you don't go into it and take what you need from it. It will crush you as it crushes countless beautiful souls who fear to fight it, who assume that the world is benign and will take care of them, who have been taught that the world is maternal and loving, who have been taught by well-meaning parents that if only they are polite and clean and well-mannered the world will be kind to them.

The world will be kind to some. But most of us will have to take what we need, tearing it out of the world's hide.

Inside you is a vital force that is mad with desire to be realized. It is not trivial. It is not fanciful. Your notions are divine and strong; they only seem airy because they have been drained of their power by repression; they are not wispy and airy at all; they are growling and earthy and loud.

This world you and I live in is rich. We have museums, art schools, libraries, concert halls and universities. You have advantages if you are polite and well groomed but that alone will not gain you admittance. You also need to be a secret warrior, plotting to take what is yours.

There is nothing wrong with you. You are beautiful and talented. You are rare.

You know this to be true. You know who you are. You must break with your parents. It is time. You must go on your own journey and let go of your desire for their approval. If you live out your life seeking their approval you will slowly starve.

A job may come if that is what you need. Or a friend may come. Or some tools may come to you -- a paintbrush, a harpsichord. What you need will come to you if you wander honestly. Trust who you are and move toward things that you yourself want and are attracted to, whether it makes sense to others or not. Only the world can give you what you need. Go out into the world and let it find you.

Cary Tennis

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