I'm not achieving my dreams!

I thought I could excel in everything, but now I'm falling apart

By Cary Tennis
Published May 22, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I am lying in bed right now sobbing, which I've been doing a lot lately, and writing to get these twisted feelings out of my head and onto paper. I'm graduating college on Saturday ... wow, great, such an accomplishment. Did you read that in a monotone voice twinged with sarcasm? Because that is how I feel about it. Literally, whatever. I had so many hopes for this semester and everything has fallen apart.

I spent six months in 2012 traveling in Central America. Some of it was for school, some of it was because I wanted to throw a middle finger to everyone who has ever told me I couldn't do something. I planned the whole trip on my own, decided my travel itinerary, applied for an internship, and designed my senior thesis so I could do field work abroad on poverty alleviation, (I've had grad students tell me my undergrad senior thesis sounds like a grad level thesis). It was a monumental test of my independence and a challenge to all the fear I feel in my life. I wanted this trip to not be a generic study abroad experience; I wanted to break away, completely on my own and not rely on anyone else.

And that did happen, to an extent. I traveled alone, swam with wild sharks and stingrays alone in the ocean, napped in hammocks, went bungee jumping, saw unforgettable sunsets, spoke Spanish, lived out of a backpack and it was really remarkable.

But I have so many regrets. I didn't live every moment hard enough. I didn't push myself enough. I could've learned an indigenous language, but nope, I sat on my computer and got obsessed with Pinterest instead. I only made a few friends. I got homesick.

And I came back to the U.S. revved up to finish my last semester, get a 4.0, direct an outstanding theater production, write a 200-page senior thesis that wins me the "Outstanding Senior Thesis" award, have a job lined up in a state far away and be on my way to being so much better than I am now. This is not what happened. I may not pass all my classes this semester and my good GPA is gone. My senior thesis isn't anywhere near done, so I'm staying for the summer to finish it. There's no job, and the theater production did not meet my expectations.

I'm self-critical and I know it, but everything slipped away from me this semester. And I have more regrets for all the things I didn't do and for all the improvements in myself I didn't make.

I was recently diagnosed with major depression, got on medication and started seeing a therapist. I've been paralyzed by my depression this semester. Therapy has not been easy, it seems to make everything worse because now I'm forced to deal with all this crap I've repressed for years. A few weeks ago, my therapist helped me realize that I grew up in an abusive household and I'm damaged by it in so many ways. I didn't even know the terrible fights and emotional manipulation and the short tempers were abnormal. For 23 years of my life, I thought this was just how all families were.

I feel like the past four years have been a waste. My life has been a waste. I haven't accomplished half as much as I thought I would, and I'm terrified of the future. All the debt, all the uncertainty, all the thoughts of what I'm not and how I've failed ...

I nearly took every pill in my apartment last week because I can't deal with it anymore. I didn't tell anyone because I didn't want to risk being admitted to the psych ward and have everyone know about it.

I'm so lost. How can I make my accomplishments feel like accomplishments when all I hear is my critical voice telling me I suck? Has college been a waste? And how can I transition into adulthood with at least a tiny shred of confidence that I'm worthy of getting a good job? How do I stop feeling completely paralyzed by life, by my depression?

I don't want to die. I want the opposite: I want to suck out all the marrow of life and be incredible, interesting, remarkable, loved. I just want this pain, doubt and self-sabotage to end.

Thanks for all your help.

Lost 20-Something

Dear Lost 20-Something,

If you were an Olympic athlete and a Fulbright scholar, would that erase your memories of abuse? Would it give you the sense of fullness and serenity you crave?

I doubt it. Achievement brings momentary satisfaction, but chronic anxiety operates until we make peace with our past.

Before I get into my spiel, I have to suggest this to you: Please tell your therapist you made a suicide attempt. You and she can decide what it means and what to do about it. It doesn't mean you're going to be admitted to the psych ward. It just means you have to participate in your therapy for it to work. That means being honest with your therapist about what you're doing.

Now, you've got a long road ahead. I wrote an awful lot in response to your letter, but I'm leaving most of it out because most of it was about the society we grow up in and how it conditions us to believe that succeeding in competitions will bring us happiness. But I want to focus on your particular moment in time and how you can best direct your life from this moment forward.

There comes a moment of reckoning in early adulthood when you see that the world you live in has been hiding its true nature from you. You see that the rules you have been living by will not bring you happiness. You see that the rewards you seek are not necessarily going to be given to you no matter how well you do on tests. You see that the world is full of competition and willful misdirection. And you must then seek a new basis on which to live.

You had a hard time in your family and have looked around for the right way to address that. And it seemed to you that the best way was to achieve. To show your stuff. To excel. To win.

That is the message one receives in this culture.

But it is not going to help you.

So we must find ways, within this ravenous system of labor exchange, to live at peace with our own hearts and our own histories. How do we do that?

We spend time examining how we have reached this current moment. We find a wise person and a safe setting in which we can view ourselves with detachment and ask whether our received beliefs are true. We ask what we assume. We question whether what we assume is true and whether it will bring us happiness. We do this over a long period of time because it is a slow and detailed process.

It sounds like that is what you are doing, or what you are beginning to do. You fell into a depression and had to seek help. I fell into a depression as well, and had to seek help. And now I am on the greatest journey of my life. Now decades of dark, unexamined assumptions are peeling away and I am beginning to see many things about myself and the world I live in. I think you can do the same. I know you can. All you have to do is participate in the process.

Life is long. Slow down and pay attention to what is happening in your therapy sessions. Do the things that matter today. Let the rest go.

Cary Tennis

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