I’m currently going through a rough patch in my life. Two of my best friends moved across the country (away from me), I’m living alone, and I am stuck in a job that makes me very unhappy. The reason that I feel stuck in my job is that I am also in graduate school and need to keep my income and health benefits at least until I graduate.
I started going to therapy a few weeks ago and that has really helped, but recently my job has made me particularly unhappy. I’m torn between quitting now and trying to find another way to get by in school, and trying to stick it out for another year, risking my mental health. It is hard for me to tell which feelings are from my job and which are from loneliness, so I am having a hard time trusting myself.
Any advice you could give would be much appreciated. Thank you for listening.
You sound young, dear. Not just because you are in grad school. (Plenty of adults return to grad school, you ageist readers!) What sounds “young” is the vagueness within your letter. It reveals a self-consciousness and fear of diving into the specifics of your problem(s).
What about your job makes you so unhappy? Without the grit and filth of your life, all I can do is offer advice in broad strokes. I’m happy to do it, but I’m a nosy bitch and it won’t be nearly as fun as telling you not to fuck your boss, or whatever other juicy/horrific thing is happening at work.
Anyway. For all of the yearning to be young again that seems permanently embedded within the American pop-consciousness, most of my friends who’ve made it out of the decade alive would not choose to return to their twenties. One friend of mine recently admitted that as much as she misses her 20 year old body, she would only take it back if she could keep her 40 year old brain. I get it. It’s stressful as fuck to be a self-conscious young person!
So my first bit of advice for you, Struggling, is to look at your hot young body in the mirror. Naked. And enjoy how taut your skin is.
This is creepier than I intended it to be, now that I’m writing it down. In all seriousness, let me offer this: start writing in a journal.
The stories we tell ourselves about our lives are always changing. More than anything else, they reflect how we want to appear at the moment of the telling. When I feel sluggish, when it’s been raining for weeks, when my coworker beams his anxiety directly into my face and I want to strangle him, the title of my story is “My Life Sucks.” On a different day, under a different light, I might claim a more upbeat narrative. Journaling helps me remember how varied my own experiences are. It allows me to avoid becoming swallowed by the things that suck, believing them to be permanent states.
Once, after a relationship dissolved into a series of drunk arguments over text message (“OMG R U FUCKING SERIOUS RN”) I remember asking myself “why did I ever decide to date this person? I never liked him.” And I might continue to believe that story, if not for my journal. Because I journal regularly (and have for a while) I’ve accumulated a vault of physical evidence of the way I used to see things. When I want to know if my sister and I were getting along at Thanksgiving dinner three years ago, I embark on a mad search for entries dated November 2015. (My sister and I didn’t spend that Thanksgiving together, in case you wondered.)
When I dug up old notebooks to find the beginning of this particular relationship, I uncovered a part of myself I’d conveniently buried. In order to believe my own story about how much this guy sucked, I insisted that “I never liked him.” But when I paged back to the time we first met, I found a gooey-eyed girl who did, in fact, like this guy. And his hair. A lot. I can’t hide from this earlier me, even if she doesn’t fit my narrative.
You are a vast and mysterious creature, Struggling. Your inner world contains layers upon layers, and one of those layers knows the source of your sadness. I know that it’s sometimes impossible to tease out which feeling is coming out of which horrible thing, especially when you are caught in the midst of a sadness-rage-fear knot.
Try writing about it. Then read what you wrote, and ask yourself if it sounds true. Maybe tomorrow, or maybe next week, or next month, the way you look at your life will have shifted. It’s easier to see this change and take comfort in it when you have the evidence on paper.
And though it’s your decision to make, I’d suggest that you do not quit your job.
As I’ve learned through my extensive experience as a cash-strapped young person, the only thing worse than a shitty job is not having one. Waking up short of breath, fearing I’d forgotten a credit card or rent (or tuition, or phone, or internet, or utility. . .) payment took up a lot of energy. The job you have, while it might make you fantasize about burning the building down, frees up mental space for you to plan and dream and consider other possibilities for yourself.
But I know it’s hard to go to a place you hate, and to keep returning day after miserable day.
I’m not a good runner, but I run anyway. It’s hot where I live. The other day it was hovering around 90 degrees outside and the humidity in the air was just shy of water. Three miles from my apartment, I became completely overwhelmed by the task of running — breathing, moving my legs, swinging my arms, propelling myself forward, concentrating. It was too much goddamned effort. I convinced myself that there was no way I’d make it back home. The sun wouldn’t get out of my face. The sidewalk kicked up steam like a bathroom with a running shower.
At the same time, I knew I had to make it home. So I told myself to focus on one thing. “Just lift your legs.” I hyper-focused on each leg, one at a time, willing myself to lift. Then repeated.
The running itself didn’t get easier. I didn’t miraculously arrive home, wondering where the time had gone. It fucking hurt and it still hurts three days later. But focusing on the single, easy-to-digest job of lifting my legs somehow made it possible, when the big amorphous chore “run all the way home” felt impossible.
I promise, I’m getting somewhere with this! I encourage you to do the same thing with your job, Struggling. Even though I don’t know why, (ahem, lacking specific details!) I believe you that it sucks. Try not to focus on the job as some impenetrable mass like a vital piece of your identity, or a place you will be stuck for an entire year. Instead focus on one aspect of what your work is. You said yourself, “I need to keep my income and health benefits until I graduate.” You need to. So do it. Look at your job as just one thing you have to do to keep yourself healthy and in school, and it may be easier to keep going.
And continue showing up to therapy, which you’ve also said is helping. I’m so glad it’s helping, dear. Get a notebook, jot down a few thoughts after your sessions, and it’ll probably help even more. I have all the faith in you!