My third-of-life crisis

I’ve been wanting to post this for a while, but it always felt too embarrassing. I’ve contributed next to nothing to this community, and I’m sure you have better problems to work on than my third-of-life crisis. However, the kind of problems I’m facing may require more brainpower than my meatspace friends can muster. Here I go.

I live in Colombia, where your connections have more weight than your talent. But I’m not sure about my talent anymore. Until I finished high school I had always been a stellar student and everyone told me I was headed for a great future. Then I represented my province in a national spelling contest and had my first contact with an actual city and with other students who were as smart as me. After the contest ended, I tried to maneuver my parents into letting me stay at the city, but they would have none of it. After an unabashedly overextended stay with my aunts, I eventually was sent back to the small pond.

My parents and I disagreed seriously about my choice of career, primarily in that they took for granted that the choice wasn’t even mine. Because my older brother appeared to have happily accepted his assigned path in business management, I was forced to do the same, even though it held absolutely no interest for me. But I wasn’t very sure myself about what exactly I wanted, so I wasn’t able to effectively defend my opposition. Another factor was that in the late 1990s the Colombian army was still allowed to recruit minors, and it’s a compulsory draft, and the only legal way to avoid it was to be studying something—anything. My brother did spend one year at the army, but at least the entire family agreed that I would break if sent there. No other options were explored. With my school scores I might have obtained a scholarship, but I didn’t know how to do it, whom to ask. My parents held complete control over my life.

So began the worst eight years of my life. Eight because the only university my parents could afford was terribly mismanaged and was paralyzed by strikes and protests every semester. I was deeply depressed and suicidal during most of that time, and only the good friends I met there kept my mood high enough to want to keep going. After I filed some legal paperwork and paid a fee to be finally spared the threat from the draft, it didn’t occur to any of us that I didn’t have a reason to be in that university anymore. None of us had heard of sunk costs—and my management teachers certainly didn’t teach that.

During that time it became clear to me that I wanted to be a writer. I even joined a writing workshop at the university, and even though our aesthetic differences made me leave it soon, I envied them their intellectual independence. Many of them were students of history and philosophy and one could have fascinating conversations with them. I felt more acutely how far I was from where I wanted to be. My parents sent me to that university because they had no money, but they chose business management because they had no imagination.

My parents had made another mistake: have too many children in their middle age, which meant they constantly warned me they could die anytime soon and I must find any job before I was left in the street. The stress and the fear of failure were unbearable, especially because my definition of failure included their definition of success: become some company manager, get an MBA, join the rat race. My brother was quicky jumping from promotion to promotion and I was seen as a lazy parasite who didn’t want to find a real job.

For a while I volunteered at a local newspaper, and the editor was very happy with my writing, and suggested he might move his influences to get me an intership even if I wasn’t studying journalism. Shortly afterwards he died of cancer, and I lost my position there.

I went to therapy. It didn’t work. After I got my diploma I found a job at a call center and started saving to move to the big city I had always felt I was supposed to have lived in all along. I entered another university to pursue a distance degree in journalism, and it has been a slow, boring process to go through their mediocre curriculum and laughable exams. I still have at least two years to go, if my lack of motivation doesn’t make me botch another semester.

Currently I’m on my own, though now my other siblings live in this city too, and all my aunts. I no longer visit them because I always feel judged. I’m close to turning 32 and I still haven’t finished the degree I want (in many ways it was also a constrained choice: I cannot afford a better university, and I no longer have anyone to support me in the meantime, so I have to work). I do not want to put my first diploma to use; it would be a soul-crushing defeat. I have promised myself to prove that I can build my life without using my management degree. But these days I feel I’m nearing a dead end.

Three years ago I found a good job at a publishing house, but I’ve learned all I could from there and I sorely need to move on. But it’s very difficult to get a writing job without the appropriate degree. Last year I almost got a position as proofreader at a university press, but their ISO protocols prevented them from hiring someone with no degree. I have a friend who dropped out of literary studies and got a job at an important national newspaper and from his description of it there’s no guaranteed way to replicate the steps he took.

So my situation is this: I’m rooming at a friend’s house, barely able to pay my bills. The Colombian government has launched an investigation against my university for financial mismanagement, and it might get closed within the next year. I have become everyone’s joke at the office because I am so unmotivated that I’m unable to arrive on time every morning, but I’ve become so good at the job that my boss doesn’t mind, and literally everyone asks me about basic stuff all the time. I was head editor for one year, but I almost went into nervous breakdown and requested to be downgraded to regular editor, where life is much more manageable. I feel I could do much more, but I don’t know how or where. And I don’t feel like starting a business or making investments because my horrible years with business management left me with a lingering disgust for all things economic.

Through happy coincidences I’ve met friends who know important people in journalism and web media, but I have nothing to show for my efforts. At their parties I feel alien, trying to understand conversations about authors and theories I ought to have read about but didn’t because I spent those formative years trying to not kill myself. I enjoy having smart and successful friends, but it hurts me that they make me feel so dumb. Professionally and emotionally, I am at the place I should have been ten years ago, and I constantly feel like my opportunities for improvement are closing. I don’t have enough free time to study or write, I don’t have a romantic life at all (new recent dates didn’t turn out so well), I don’t even have savings, and I can’t focus on anything. This city has more than a dozen good universities with scholarship programs, but I’m now too old to apply, and I still have to support myself anyway. Some days I feel like trying my luck in another country, but I’m too unqualified to get a good job. I feel tied up.

My 2004 self would have been quite impressed at how much I’ve achieved, but what I’m feeling right now is stagnation. Every time I hear of a new sensation writer under 30 I feel mortified that I haven’t been able to come up with anything half decent. My second therapist said my chosen path as a writer was one that gave its best fruits in old age, but I don’t want more decades of dread and uncertainty.

I don’t know what to do at this point. J. K. Rowling once said there’s an expiration date on blaming your parents for your misfortunes. But the consequences of my parents’ bad decisions seem to extend into infinity.