For some time, there were few sentences more terrifying to me than “So, what have you been doing lately?”
In the past few years, I’ve had a series of physical and mental medical issues that finally resulted in me dropping out of university last year. I loved my program, I loved science and learning and thinking of myself as smart and academic and a good student. Losing that was incredibly dispiriting, to the point where I had fairly major depression which I’m only now starting to climb back out of. I spent months unable to leave the house, and still verge on a panic attack every time I try to think about getting a job or college training or basically doing anything with my life. I’m trying different antidepressants, and seeing a fantastic therapist, but it’s been hard getting myself back together.
I cannot imagine how I could cause more awkwardness in casual conversation than by answering honestly when old acquaintances ask how I’ve been and what I’m up to now. And lying is generally a pretty bad idea, especially about big things that might inspire follow-up questions. The solution is to have a simple and true (but perhaps incomplete) story ready to go. My story for this situation is “I had some medical issues that made it hard to be doing university, so I’m taking some time off to focus on my health.”
The extra advantage of this is that when I come up with a really good story, I can tell it to myself. When I get to thinking about how I’m wasting my life and probably worthless, I can say to myself “No, I’m taking some time off to focus on my health. That is not a waste of time. That is LEGIT.”
I use this strategy most often for things relating to depression. Mental health issues are often misunderstood and usually stigmatized, so it’s really handy having a plan ready to deflect conversation around having to say “I wasn’t able to ___, even though I tried really hard, because I’m depressed and sometimes accomplishing things is just not on,” and then having to deal with people’s confusing or pity or thinking I’m lazy because they don’t believe it’s a real problem. There are a few people in my life who get to hear the whole story in those situations, but for people I don’t know as well, the conversation will just go so much better if I don’t disclose much. Everyone wins.