Post-Grad Depression: Making Sense of Lost Time

Lessons from the wasted year after graduation.

Photo: Sasha Freemind/Unsplash

While post-grad depression is not officially diagnosed as a mental illness, it’s a very real phenomenon. You’ll see sufferers everywhere around you (or maybe in you) — an invisible illness plaguing recent graduates with their newly-handed diplomas.

The post-graduation period can be the most confusing times of one’s life. It certainly is for me. Almost two years have passed since I left those carefree college days, and I’m still not entirely at peace with where I am now.

By recounting my experience with post-grad depression and the lessons I have found among its trials, I hope it can be insightful for you fresh graduates and final year students.

On That Fateful Day

Ah, the day of graduation. It’s full of joy and sorrow alike. We celebrate our victory over four years of rigorous study and bid farewell to the best times we have ever experienced.

The day after, however, feels 180 degrees different. It’s like a sugar crash on steroids. The euphoria disappears, and suddenly you’re forced to rethink your life seriously. It doesn’t matter if you’re an Ivy League or community college graduate, we all have parallels in this struggle to find a decent living and meaningful profession.

If you consider yourself ordinary in terms of academic success, then we’re on the same team. As a student, I can’t be regarded as diligent by any respectable measure. But I’m not hopelessly lazy either. My grades are okay, and I try to be active outside the class too. I have decent organizational experience, having assumed leadership roles in both curricular and extracurricular activities.

I naively believed that these average merits would yield an average result, but life doesn’t work like a balanced scale.

Perhaps you understand how it can still be challenging to find a proper job, despite having graduated from a prestigious campus with stellar grades and impressive extracurricular experience. Sometimes this makes me unsure if being a dutiful student does anything useful at all for your career.

This is where I got my first lesson:

Real-life is a different game altogether from college life.

This realization hits me hard. Not knowing where I wanted to go in life or what kind of person I wanted to be, a lengthy period of depression ensues.

The Quarter-Life Crisis

“Not all those who wander are lost.” — J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Well, yeah, but I was lost. For a whole year (maybe longer), I wandered around without a clear destination. This prolonged cluelessness took a significant toll on my mental well-being.

While navigating this grim chapter, I found it helpful to analyze post-grad depression using Alex Fowke’s framework of a quarter-life crisis. He categorized this critical phase into three aspects: career, finance, and relationship.

If I may guess, the problems you’re having right now must also be somewhere between those three things.

Or maybe you’re struggling in all three, like me.

Career-wise, it was spasmodic.

Naturally, I aimed to land a job that’s in line with my studies. But finding a perfect match isn’t that simple, so I jumped around between places. These are some lines of work I’ve attempted after graduation:

  • Writing urban planning books with a lecturer I was close with;
  • Trying to start an apparel business with a friend;
  • Working as a research assistant in a small urban planning studio;
  • Interning in an education startup, organizing career development classes for young professionals; and
  • Joining a newly established creative consultant as a strategist.

As you can see, they’re scattered all over the place. The common thread between these jobs is that all of them are either self-employed, freelance, or temporary contracts in small organizations.

In short, none of them feels like “a proper job.”

While they provided me with a wide range of opportunities, the skills I’ve learned and utilized in those jobs are mostly experimental, in the sense that I only do the tasks according to personal research and experience — thus leading to a lot of trial and error. Even then, I’m not sure if the way I do things is correct by an industry best practice.

In the end, I still strongly feel that I need to try working in a mature company with an established system, which usually has those classic 9 to 5 pattern. Not having this “proper job” makes me think that I’ve only been wasting my time, regardless of the learnings I have accumulated.

The lesson from this is:

Your environment matters way more than you think.

Find a work environment where you can grow the most, and stay as long as there’s knowledge for you to give and receive. It’s good to be explorative, but know when enough is enough. Don’t waste your time with purposeless experiments.

And this leads us to finances.

These random freelance projects and almost-unpaid internships were my primary source of earnings, and as you may have deduced, it’s nowhere near enough. I was living with less than minimum wage for more than a year.

I’ve always had a frugal lifestyle, so being broke doesn’t bother me. However, considering that I’m the eldest son with three younger siblings, I felt the need to provide my family with financial support — and not being able to do so has been a tremendous blow on my conscience.

My parents insisted on sending me a monthly allowance since they don’t want their child to starve. I thought that if I let myself be comfortable with this money, I would never be free from it. But I can’t return it either, as that would hurt their kind intentions. In the end, I decided to receive the money, but I invested every single penny in mutual funds or deposits, so I can’t use it for daily spending.

As for rent, food, and other necessary expenses, I make do with the little income I have. Of course, my choices are limited by the few coins I have. I adopted a minimalist lifestyle without even knowing what minimalism is. Honestly, with the way I was living at that time, I might as well be a monk.

And here’s the lesson I obtained:

Tough circumstances make a tough man, even when that circumstance is artificial.

While I have the option to live off others’ charity, I chose not to. This may sound like a stupid first world problem, but I believe it’s necessary. As they say, an empty wallet and a hungry stomach can teach you the best lessons of life.

Oh, and that complicated relationship stuff.

While the friends you’ve made in college can seem lifelong, in time, they will drift away from you and become busy with their own lives. Instead of lingering on it and risk worsening your depression, you may take it as a signal to focus on building your own life and finding new communities.

However, after getting out of college, it becomes harder to build genuine relationships. Everyone may seem like they’re interested in you only if you can give them value. Suddenly, social life becomes transactional. This problem is especially evident in dating endeavors, considering that after graduation, you will only get closer to the common marital age.

To be honest, I’m sick of modern dating culture. Call me old-school, but I prefer connecting with people by meeting them face to face. While dating apps and social media give us an effective method of finding potential mates, they are saturated with a psychological game of validation. Swipes, matches, likes, comments, you name it — they are one-way means for garnering validation, not connection.

Online interactions also made it easier to disappear without notice, hence the ghosting epidemic. There may be times where I’m guilty of it myself (and I regret that mistake), but I feel that some people don’t realize that it’s a horrible way to treat a person. If you don’t want to continue meeting someone, shouldn’t you at least have the courtesy to let them know?

What surprised me is that this behavior is not only exhibited by strangers on online platforms. Ghosting can also be done by people (you thought were) close to you — and these are the ones that hurt the most.

This lesson, I learned it the hard way:

Genuine relationships are to be treasured.

You should learn to differentiate between real and fake relationships. Keep the real ones close and throw away the fake ones, and remember that your real family and friends are your greatest treasure. Be sure to treat them accordingly.

Towards Uncertainty

While the flow of time can undoubtedly mend these problems, they are still present in my life until today. I’m just continuing to handle it to the best of my abilities.

I still haven’t found my dream job, a stable source of income, or an adequate degree of genuine relationships. However, I’m not staying still. I kept on moving forward, striving to get closer to my goals.

To lift my worries, I often remind myself:

Your day is your life.

Live your life one day at a time, and don’t dwell on the past or the future. While it is one of the most cliché advice I’ve ever received, it has done me wonders: Trust the process.

This bygone year had flown past me before I realized it, and now that time is lost. The best way I can honor that loss is to stop pondering in gloom and try to make sense of the experience.

I hope you found something here to ease your own post-grad depression.

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