The Big Mistake

Transferring away from Mercer University was one of the biggest mistakes I ever made.

I attended Mercer for four quarters beginning in the fall of 1985, after falling in love with the place in eleventh grade. I went into my first quarter with unreasonably high expectations, but somehow reality proved far better than my hopes, and it only got better over the course of the rest of the year. I was the happiest I’d ever been in my life there.

It couldn’t last. My mother had never been thrilled with me going away to school. She had wanted me to stay at home and go to UCF, and she never stopped pressuring me to come home. Mostly, that took the form of talking about how expensive Mercer was. I was being selfish. It was an enormous burden on my father. Eventually, I caved.

Not entirely. I wouldn’t go to UCF under any circumstances. I was planning a theater major at that point. Both Florida State University and University of South Florida had good theater programs, but I didn’t want to go to FSU, either. Too many of my high school classmates had gone to FSU—primarly the ones I disliked.

USF was enormous compared to Mercer, and I felt lost. I didn’t fit in with the chapter of my fraternity. I struggled to make friends outside of the fraternity. When the girl I had loved since tenth grade broke my heart, I had no one to lean on. The cherry on top was that I hated the theater program, so my ostensible reason for going there no longer applied.

I fell into a deep depression. I’d suffered from depression before, but never this profound. Food tasted like sand. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t laugh. I got by that first semester, but my grades went into free fall after that. When my GPA dropped so low that the school put me on probation, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to pull it back up in time, and I dropped out.

If I had stayed at Mercer, I still would have had my heart broken, and I still would have been depressed, but being surrounded by good friends in a place I loved would have helped me recover. And without that profound depression, I wouldn’t have fallen into the clutches of the toxic faith that devoured the next six years of my life.

The 30 Day Optimism Challenge

My peculiar brain chemistry makes me prone to depression, and toward the end of last year a variety of triggers, internal and external, damaged my equilibrium. Setbacks weighed on me more than they should. Every day felt like a chain of uniformly unpleasant events. When I realized last month what was going on, I knew I needed to change my thinking. The trouble with depression is that it drains your ability to take action, so I chose two simple tasks that I could do each day to change my outlook. I called it the “Thirty Day Optimism Challenge.”

In the morning, I would name one thing to look forward to. It didn’t have to be anything major. Some days, it was as simple as, “I look forward to coming home tonight.” And it didn’t have to be something that would happen that day. One day, I named a weekend trip to Saint Augustine that my wife and I were planning. The idea was to remind myself that no matter what was going on right then, something positive was on the way.

At night, I identified one good thing about that day. It was usually something simple: watching pelicans dive for fish during my morning commute, reading a good essay, or meeting a friend for coffee. It wasn’t about ignoring bad things, but about not focusing on those things exclusively.

I recorded the answers in my pocket diary. Writing them down made them concrete, and my mood began to improve by the second week. I began to make a game of finding something good—how early could I spot something I could use that night? Eventually, I started noticing so many good things each day that I had trouble selecting just one! And in the morning, if I couldn’t think of something to look forward to, I’d make a plan: tonight I will call my best friend. This weekend, I will visit the bookstore. I always had something to look forward to on any given day—whether it was something that night, the next week, or in a few months.

Yesterday was Day 30. The challenge worked. I feel more optimistic, and I’ve decided to keep up both exercises indefinitely. Depression will still surface from time to time, but I hope those incidents will be fewer, rarer, and weaker if I remember to keep my eyes open for the positive things in life.

On Being Laid Off

A year ago today, I lost my job due to a corporate restructuring. I received a generous severance package, and I had at least six months expenses in savings. It would be good for me to take some time off, I said. I told everyone I would be all right. But “all right” financially wasn’t the same as “all right” emotionally, and the experience threw me off balance for a long time.

In the weeks immediately following the layoff, I kept up a good front. I looked for work. I went to the gym. I wrote. But depression crept in around the edges. I found work quickly, but my physical fitness lagged. My writing suffered. I saw the world through a layer of gauze.

I wish I had been able to talk about what I was going through. I wasn’t that I lacked options. Immediately after the layoff, my family and friends all offered support. I assured them I was fine. By the time I admitted to myself that I wasn’t fine, I felt trapped into maintaining the positive front. After I’d made so many blithe predictions about how easy it would be for me, I couldn’t bring myself to go back to people and say, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m just going through the motions, and I feel bad about feeling bad.”

I’m doing better now. After spending seven months at a bad job, I had the good fortune to find much better, fulfilling one three months ago. That helped me re-orient myself. I hope I’ve learned from the experience not to pretend I’m invincible. I’d have been a lot better off for talking honestly about what I was going through than masking it.