Question:

Hi! I'm a 16 year old boy. I'm writing because I don't know what to do with myself. I've noticed you answer a lot of questions on your site. I'm not really asking anything, I guess I just don't know what to do. I don't have much of a life. I don't go out much because I don't have many friends. I don't go to school and haven't since halfway through seventh grade. I have permission not to go because of a severe anxiety problem I have. I want to go back to school because I don't feel very good about myself. Since I don't feel good about myself I am usually depressed, but it'd be weird going back since I haven't seen those people in years and I wouldn't want to face that kind of problem. I just don't know what to do.

Answer:

I'm glad you wrote. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance. I believe I can help you sort some things out in your mind, but I need to know more about your background and your dreams. So I'm going to give you some direct contact information that you can use if you want or we can continue writing through emails. That will be up to you.

At sixteen, you would probably be in ninth or tenth grade. Are you being homeschooled or tutored? In other words, did your education completely stop in the middle of the seventh grade? Rejoining a public school in the middle of high school might be difficult if anxiety remains a problem for you. Has someone been working with you to overcome this issue? Also, how big is the high school that you are thinking about attending?

One of the greatest causes of fear in people is the unknown. When we don't know what to expect, people have a tendency to fill in the gap with their imagination. Of course, our imagination is much wilder than reality and so we get stressed about things which likely would never happen. But because we imagine that they could happen, it become more real to us than reality. This fear feeds on itself in a loop until we become immobilized by our own imagination.

Going back to school contains a lot of unknowns and I can understand that if you have a hard time dealing with anxiety that these issues can baloon out of control.

So lets look at the future from a practical matter for a moment. All of us need a job. "For even when we were with you, we commanded you this: If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat" (II Thessalonians 3:10). For men this is especially important because working is a part of the way a man thinks -- it helps define who he is and his value to himself. Most of jobs require at least a high school education and many require a college level degree. So it is important that we figure out a way you can get a high school level education, at least, so that the number of options you have for working is large. Are there things you like to do or that you have skills at doing?

Depression is one of those odd things. People who get depressed end up doing the opposite of what they need to do to overcome their depression. For example, we know that being outside in the sun will often counter a feeling of depression, but depressed people tend to stay inside and draw their shades. The more people you talk to on a daily basis, the less likely you are to get depressed. But depressed people tend to avoid people and keep their social network down to a minimum. Because they have few people to talk to, they have few people to share problems with, and it raises their level of stress.

So your few friends and your depression can easily be feeding on each other. So let's think of ways you can met people, perhaps a few at a time so it doesn't feel overwhelming. Do you go to church? Is there a sport you like to play or activities that you like to do?

I didn't completely stop. For grades 8 and 9, I had a teacher come to my home twice a week and I'd learn two subjects. The Highschool I was thinking of attending is under 500 students, not that big but not terribly small. I'd like to attend high school to actually feel like a normal teenager, but I don't want to at the same time because the majority of the people who go there are the ones that I went to school with when I stopped going. I really don't want to face a whole bunch of questions like, "Where did you go? Why did you stop going?" or listen to the rumors they heard about me. It's depressing, but I don't know what to do. I did have someone help with my anxiety problem at one point, and it isn't as bad as it once was, but I fear it's still there for some situations.

I guess I like problem solving. I go to church, though not as much as I could. I enjoy soccer, rock climbing, white water tubing, camping, and airsoft.

Let's start with the practical issues again.

What you describe is that you were tutored in eight and ninth grade. Two subjects isn't very many. Do you know if your local high school runs from 9th to 12th grade or from 10th to 12th grade? I'm trying to figure out how big of an impact being out of school is going to have on your being able to graduate when you would like to. If your 9th grade grades are included for graduation, I would like you to call the guidance counselor's office. Tell them because of medical reasons you have been out of school, but are thinking about trying to return. Ask them how the few grades you made in 9th grade will impact your ability to graduate. You might find out that taking classes during the summer will be necessary to catch up.

There are several alternatives to getting a high school education, but let's focus on attending a public school since that is what you are interested in doing. Your high school is a nice size school. In bigger schools you lose connections because there are too many people involved.

You're right people are going to be curious. It is only natural for people to want to know what happened. The thing is, if you avoid the questions, people will fill in the gaps with their imaginations and that will really start the rumor mill going. The best way to handle these types of things is to give a simple, plain explanation -- no dressing it up -- the more mundane the better. How comfortable are you with being open about your difficulties? Would you be able to say, for instance, "I had problems with panic attacks for a couple of years and I couldn't deal with any stress for a while. The anxiety has gotten more manageable, so I decided to try coming back to school and my friends." You are going to find several people will want to know more because they never experienced such a thing and they would like to understand what it is like. Be pleasant, keep the answers simple and light, and if they get too much, ask if you could talk about it later because you would rather think of more pleasant things at the moment.

By doing it this way, you acknowledge that people are curious and want to know. You give them a short version that satisfies them for now; thus, they won't start making up things unless they are the bullying type. All rumors won't stop and you are bound to be picked on by some because some will pick on anyone who appears to be weaker in someway than they are. High Schools tend to be worse in this regard. College is far better. But that is because high schools are filled with teenagers with bouncing hormones and lack of self-control.

If this still sounds doable to you, then when you run into difficulties or situations you don't know how to handle, you can talk to your parents, your guidance counselor, your preacher, or myself and we can help you find a solution. The fear is going to be there each time you face something you haven't done before. But when you face it and find what is real, you will quickly learn that the fear is manageable.

One thing I would like you to do is to early on find a club to join. I'm not going to recommend that you go out for a sport because of the competitive environment. But see if there is a camping club or a computer club that you can join. By finding people with common interests, you will be more relaxed and you'll make friends quicker, even among people who are not a part of that particular club.