I just learned the word "dysthymics" last night and it seems to apply to me. (I haven't yet figured out if this site focuses on dysthymics or if there is just one dysthymics discussion on a larger site, but my main goal is to learn more about dysthymics.)
This has turned out to be a VERY long text. Not quite a life story but... Well, yes, I guess it IS my life's story! Mostly, I'm wondering if the word "dysthymics" actually applies to me. If you have a clue, you can read about me below and tell me what you think. As I live and work in a foreign country, I have no way to find a professional to talk to. (And not enough money to pay for professional help, in any case.)
To the outer world, I seem to be fairly successful. I live and teach abroad, helping students improve their English. With the knowledge gained while earning a Master's degree and teacher certification and the experience accumulated over 20 years of teaching, traveling and language study, I have become a very good teacher. My students appreciate my classes and tell me openly how grateful they are. Employers, on the other hand, couldn't possibly care less if I'm good or not. Employers take students' money and their job is done. My career has gone nowhere and I now face the prospect of earning the same wages as a beginning teacher for the rest of my life, even if I end up working til the age of 90. And I will work til the day I die, or I will stop working, then stop eating and then die anyway.
Okay, that sounded too depressing! In fact, I have been down all of my life, since as long as I can remember. More than feeling down as a child though, I felt afraid. Afraid of people, as I will explain later. I don't think my childhood was very negative. Once in a while I tell people about some of the negative things I experienced as a child and many, many people can describe worse experiences. Often, much worse. The thing about my childhood is that it was close to 100% negative. I've done a lot of things in my life - getting a university education (the first in my family), traveling to other countries and learning other languages, doing public speaking through Toastmasters - but I have never been able to escape that negativity.
There was one thing in my childhood that was not negative. There was one place in our home that was "safe". That one place was a small circle in front of the TV. It was safe as long as I followed my loving parents' advice to keep my goddamn mouth shut. And I did, I kept my mouth shut, and became a virtual vegetable. But I was lucky, I think, to have grown up in a time when TV shows were all very positive. I mean, the most popular sitcom that I remember as a kid was called "Father Knows Best". A perfect man with a perfect wife with almost perfect kids who became totally perfect kids with the perfect advice from their perfect parents. I guess I kind of wished for that kind of family - it gave me a certain sense of hope, perhaps - even though I knew it was not real.
The TV show that ultimately influenced me the most was Star Trek. I am now bravely exploring new countries (as much as my limited energy will allow), learning about new life and new civilizations (well, new to me), boldly going where no one in my family has gone before. I was also greatly influenced by the optimism of Star Trek, where blacks, whites, Russians, even Vulcans (and later Klingons) worked together. Star Trek showed me a world where problems could be solved by a combination of creative insight and logic, where people worked together, never gave up and never surrendered, and managed to come out all right in the end.
Still, even with the immense positive influence of TV, I was always afraid. I didn't interact with other children much. Through an odd set of coincidences, I always ended up by myself, at home, at school, and in the neighborhoods where I grew up. My fear of life, mostly fear of people, grew as I got older, culminating in the day I finished high school. I went home and just stayed there for a year and a half, talking to nobody, doing nothing. Looking back I still am not sure how I got through every day. One thing that helped me to finally break away was reading I had done in high school about Zen Buddhism. I have no interest in religion - it seems to apply to other people who have totally different lives - but the idea of Zen as a "way of liberation", at least as explained by Alan Watts in his book The Way of Zen, meant something to me. I also, somehow, had gotten my hands on a book by a man named Krishnamurti (no relation to Hare Krishnas or any other religion) who talked about freedom from fear. Somehow, by trying to apply the ideas in The Way of Zen and the Krishnamurti book - by watching my own mind, by experiencing my fear directly, without the usual attempt to escape or fight it - I was able to overcome my fear of people.
I had, accidentally, overcome a fear of heights at the age of 12, when I had to cross a bridge to go to school. For three months, I felt intense terror on that bridge, which I hid from others. I guess I was even more afraid of what others would think if I showed my fear! I knew the fear was illogical. The bridge was solid. Cars were going across without crashing through. One day I just started watching my fear. I didn't try to fight it, because I didn't think there was any hope in that. And I temporarily stopped escaping it, stopped trying to pretend it didn't exist, stopped telling myself "it doesn't matter". I just looked at it. And within three days, the fear melted away. I could actually hang over the railing on the bridge, looking down, without fear.
That spontaneous experience of overcoming my fear of heights (at least on bridges, I found out later that my fear of heights still came out in other situations) helped me overcome my fear of people. That experience showed me that the things Alan Watts and Krishnamurti talked about were not just ideas. Eventually, I was able to go out and look for a job. I remember feeling intensely embarrassed but I went out anyway. (I would guesstimate that 50% of everything my mother ever said to me could be accounted for by the single sentence "You should be ashamed of yourself". Though I never did anything even remotely shameful, her words had a lasting effect, maybe even up until today.) I watched my embarrassment at that time, felt it fully just as I did with my fear of crossing the bridge, and I could move forward. I got a nice job, earning minimum wage (woohoo!) and was able to get an apartment of my own. I realized that, having no skills and no experience, I was never going to do any better than minimum wage. After learning about a magical thing called "student loans", I decided to get an education...
This is already too long so I'll skip the details. I got an education, taking classes in Communication, Computer Science, Psychology, and French, then spent some time exploring strange new worlds in a place called "Europe". I managed to earn a teaching assistantship to pay for grad school, finished (barely, due to lack of motivation) my Master's degree, and decided to expand my horizons further. I went abroad to teach English - actually getting paid to learn! I've bounced around between a couple of different countries. Part of me wants to go to other countries but I'm older and tired now, so I'm not eager to go through the pain of being a beginner in a foreign language again. Seven years ago I joined Toastmasters International, a public speaking club and I now have no fear of getting up in front of hundreds of people. I have even joined speech contests in another language. Useless for my career, but still, I did it.
And now to the point (sorry for the long intro) - with all I have done, I am still alone, feeling cut off from the world. I know people who would call me "friend", but I can't tell them how down I feel because it will bring them down. (Yes, I've tried many times, with people who are now "former friends".) I can't talk to them about how I often wish life would end. I can't tell them how hard it is for me to keep a relationship. I do sometimes talk about how hard it is for me to focus, but they just look at me as being "weak".
I've been down since I was a child. Working to overcome my fear, to learn new things, to try more and more, has not changed my feelings inside. I am totally, 100% positive when I teach, and it is genuine, but it takes effort to keep my negative thoughts at bay, and that effort takes it's toll. I don't have enough energy for anything but work. No energy for a relationship, no energy for a social life. I have never had a good night's sleep in my life, though I did once have a restful nap. Just once, and I consider it a curse because everytime I wake up in the morning feeling like I've been in a boxing match, or each time a take a nap and wake up three hours later feeling more tired than before, I remember that one restful nap and think, why can't I do that again?!?!?
I also have felt real happiness on two days of my life. Again a curse, because I cannot feel that way again. How different my life would be if I could count on feeling a few hours of happiness just once a week! Or even once a month! (Well, to be realistic, maybe my life would be even worse, as I would spend six days a week feeling even MORE resentful!) I remember the first day when I felt happy (a feeling that came out of nowhere, when I was a university student) I had absolutely nothing to do, I was completely relaxed. The second day was on a Sunday of the first week of the busiest 8 weeks of my life, about five years ago. It was a time when I had too much too do, with many unpleasant tasks. The day was a normal, blah, down day. In the evening, out of nowhere - I felt good. The second natural, joyful smile of my life! I could stand on the balcony of my apartment, look down eight floors and think about my body smashing on the hard ground below, ending it all in blood and terror and agony and misery - and I just laughed! A happy laugh, born of genuine happiness.
Two days, well two half days really, out of approximately 19,000 days of my life so far. And now I'm getting older and dealing with various health issues. I'm in debt because I optimistically thought I could get a better job by taking classes to get teacher certification (I was wrong, but the bank still wants its money back), with little hope of improving my career, and little energy or focus to take advantage of the small bit of hope that does remain. I haven't got a real friend - I learned how to overcome my childhood fear of people, but I have never learned to really "connect". I am alone, tired, down (but not fully depressed, so nobody thinks I actually need help), frustrated by little things, just waiting for the end to mercifully come one and for all...
Is this dysthymics? Anyone have any idea? Anyone actually read all of that? Well, at least I tried. I would love to say that "getting this out of my system" has helped. It hasn't. It's not out of my system at all. I have to go now. I have tests to grade and later will go to the gym and push myself to continue my new exercise program, now in week 7. It's going to be tiring, but I know if I have my physical health, I can at least have some kind of job to keep this wonderful life going...