DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: Here’s the skinny: It feels like time is running out and I’m scared to death of turning thirty.
I went to community college and ended up with a couple different degrees that I ultimately didn’t pursue. I was frustrated that I hadn’t found my calling. Instead I looked around for a year, found a part-time job working in the local community, and was hired into a full-time position a year later. I’ve held the same steady job for six years.
I settled. I went to work, came home, and ended up on autopilot. I stayed at home to help pay bills so my mom could afford the mortgage. I hadn’t dated, hadn’t built a network of friends, and went through the same routine. I became unhappy, tired, depressed, and struggled with anxiety. I cut when I couldn’t manage my feelings of loneliness. My life was going nowhere and I attempted suicide.
I went to counseling on and off and proceeded to see a general doctor. The pill I was given to treat my mood disorders literally changed me overnight. My anxiety went away instantly and signs of my depression lifted. I felt confident and unstoppable.
Insert Nine Inch Nails refrain: “Nothing can stop me now.”
I didn’t realize what I was doing at the time. I spent several times the amount of money I had in savings across multiple credit cards and loans in a very short and destructive amount of time. I was drinking during my lunch breaks and more at home. I was inappropriately pursuing a relationship with someone who already had a kid and a steady boyfriend. I was out of control. All in pursuit of happiness.
The medicine gradually stopped working despite increases in dosages. My depressive episodes slowly came back and I had gained an incredible amount of weight. After a year I took myself off cold turkey and went through an absolutely nightmarish month of withdrawal. Afterwards I began to reckon with what happened.
I was misdiagnosed. This year I’ve learned I’m bi-polar and the pill I was given wasn’t what I needed. My depression was treated but I was left absolutely manic. I felt good – too good – all of the time and didn’t understand that wasn’t normal.
My debts have since gone to collections, my vehicle was repossessed, and bankruptcy feels like the only way out. Back to less than square one. I still don’t know if should blame myself, the pill, or a little bit of both for my lack of self-control.
Doc, I feel so far behind and so incredibly alone.
I’m turning thirty this fall. I spent a lot of my twenties trying to figure out what the hell was wrong with me and blew up my life in the process. I still haven’t found my passions, entered the dating world, made friends, or moved into a place of my own. In the meantime I’m watching coworkers have fulfilling relationships with each other, have children, and live fulfilling lives. And in my manic state, I’ve damaged a lot of my own relationships with them.
I feel like I have to catch up to my peers. I’ve set up a lot of expectations for myself that I can’t possibly meet. I should be in an apartment by x date. I should have x paid off by x date. I should be starting to have a family. I should be financially stable. I feel like I have to fix everything all at once. I feel like if I had a couple more years, I wouldn’t feel so much pressure. I’m should’ing myself into anxiety filled rumination.
I’m working on agency and learning to control what I can. I found a new therapist and continue to work with them weekly (without medication which is hard but so it goes). I was connected with a fitness coach who’s helped me lose thirty pounds and made exercise a regular part of my life. I’ve been sober for six months. I’m slowly trying to mend relationships with my peers. I’m going to be volunteering soon to help me get out of my head, meet new people, and potentially live for something beyond myself. I even applied for school on a whim and am currently in the process of seeing if I get accepted. If I don’t I’ll get a second job to settle my debts.
It’s going to be a few years before I can get my life together. Settling my debts and repairing my credit is going to take a long time. But the prospect of having it all together well after turning thirty is eating me up. I’m already making a lot of sacrifices, such as not spending much of anything on myself or having free time to explore hobbies.
I’m not sure how to approach making friends, dating, and living in regards to this. A lot of meetups in my age group revolve around social drinking and I’m not touching alcohol right now. I can’t keep waiting to have it all together before I start looking for someone, because then I’ll always be waiting. Dating right this very second isn’t the right time, but when? How can I gain new and interesting experiences when I’m going to essentially be broke until my debts are paid off? How can I do any of this when I’m working on so much else?
How can I build the life I want without beating myself up or burning out in the process?
DEAR FIXING EVERYTHING: I think you’re looking at things the wrong way, FE. You’re not missing time, nor are you behind everyone else. You’ve been doing exactly what you’ve needed to do for you. You’ve been trying to fix these foundational issues in your life that have been sitting at your core and waiting to detonate like a bomb.
There’s no question that this has been a rocky process, but that’s not your fault. You were misdiagnosed and given treatment for a disorder you don’t have. That, unfortunately, is something that often happens to people. Many mental health disorders can mimic one another and many have what are known as comorbid conditions – conditions that often occur alongside those primary conditions; this can make diagnosis and treatment incredibly difficult. You were bipolar, not depressed, and the treatment that you were given meant that you were more prone to manic episodes. Again: that happens. And if I can be perfectly blunt: you’re incredibly lucky. There were people in my life who had bipolar disorder who would only take their antidepressants because they loved the feel of being on a manic high… and they suffered from the consequences of the way those highs impaired their judgement.
But you made it. You figured things out, you pulled yourself out of the spiral and now you’re starting to rebuild your life. That’s not something to be ashamed of, that’s something to be proud of. You shouldn’t be ashamed of this, you should be proud of the fact that you’ve yanked yourself back from the brink and all the progress you’ve made. I mean, look at what you tell me towards the end of your letter. You’re working with a therapist, you’re getting fit, you’re clean and sober, you’re volunteering and being financially responsible. That’s all so goddamn amazing that I’m in awe, FE. I’m unbelievably proud of what you’ve accomplished, and you should be too.
And holy hopping sheep s
t my dude, you’re doing this before you’re 30? That’s awesome. You’re not falling behind the game, you’re setting yourself up for an amazing life.
I’m gonna level with you, man: I didn’t start coming into my own until I was in my late 20s. I had to go through some dark crap to get to where I am today and while yeah, I wish I did my 20s differently, all of that lead me to this place in my life, right here, right now. And I could either complain about what I didn’t do in my past… or I can work on making my present and my future amazing. Past is merely prologue, FE; it’s the start of your story, not the totality of it.
What you need more than anything right now is self-compassion. You had a rough start and that’s fine. You are more than your worst day and you’re not defined by your worst mistakes. You’ve got the capacity to be so much more as you are proving right now. So do yourself a favor and eliminate “should” from your vocabulary. All it’s doing is blinding you to the amazing progress you’ve made and the brilliant future you’re setting yourself up for. Yeah, it can feel like you were supposed to hit these various milestones in your 20s… but you know what? You’re going to be in a better position to hit them now than you would’ve been then. Take it from me: your 30s are like your 20s but with more experience and better credit. That is gonna open up some wide vistas for you, FE, if you just take the chance.
Listen to Jay-Z and realize that 30 is the new 20. This isn’t the end of your life. It’s not even the beginning of the end. This is the end… of the beginning.
Be sure to write back and let us know how you’re doing, FE.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org)