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Carolyn Hax: Feeling lost, without purpose

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: Looking back on my life, I find that I hardly recognize myself from year to year. There used to be so many things I cared about, causes I was a part of, people I adored. Reading through some of my old writing, all full of fire and deep feeling, makes me wonder where my “self” has gone. I recognize that I don’t care about most things anymore, and I don’t feel as deeply as I used to. Even in my relationship of several years, I have no sense of being deeply in love or that I couldn’t live without him. I don’t think he makes me a better person or any of the common phrases typically associated with a normal relationship. We’re simply comfortable together and it works.

I understand that people and feelings change over time, but I feel so completely adrift and pretty numb. I would like to live a purposeful life.

Have others felt this way about life as time goes on? Is there anything they’ve done to regain that sense of purpose?

– Losing Steam

What you describe isn’t necessarily odd or even bad; I think just about everyone can look back on past selves and see a fire that no longer exists. Youth is a fiery thing.

What concerns me here is that new, more mature passions haven’t replaced your old ones. “Adrift and pretty numb” is not the thing you want displacing your youthful depth of feeling.

So, it’s time to get screened for depression.

This isn’t to say depression is the only explanation for feeling adrift. A screening is merely a logical first step because ruling clinical depression in or out changes the steps you take after that. Short version:

If it’s depression, you treat the depression and then see what changes you still need to make from there. There might not be many after all.

If it’s not depression, then you start the life inventory, where you figure out what you do and don’t like about your current circumstances and make incremental changes accordingly.

There are some things common to both paths, some you can start immediately. First is taking meticulous care of your health. Get your eating, sleeping and exercising house in order, with a doctor’s supervision if necessary. After that, get your finances in order, if needed. After that, sort out any issues with your professional path, at least enough to give you a sense of your direction.

I’m listing these at a fast clip to get the answer done, not to suggest they can actually be dispatched quickly. These are big climbs for anyone, and if there is an element of depression, they can seem insurmountable. It’s like the climb plus a heavy pack. And cast-iron shoes.

That’s why it’s so important to find the resolve to stick with this for however many small steps it takes, and to start in a reputable doctor’s office so you know exactly what you’re taking on.

This is not an unusual place to be in. Lives need inventories sometimes. Just be patient with yourself and with the process, and trust it’ll be for the good.