By Dan Ryan

“Hi, is this Daniel? Yes, I have some not-so-great news.”

The 202 area code that popped up on my screen had already sent my heart plunging into my stomach. After almost a year of dealings with Peace Corps headquarters, I knew good news was never delivered over the phone.

“Unfortunately, we are not able to medically clear you for departure to Nicaragua at this time as a result of mental health concerns.”

My departure was supposed to be in a week. The night before, I had gone shopping for all the supplies my sister, herself a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nicaragua, had recommended I buy. I bought a heavy-duty flashlight. That’s really when it hit me. In the months leading up, departure had been so abstract. Holding the gear in my hands made it feel real.

My thoughts were racing as I listened, unable to speak, rooted to the spot while this woman so casually waved away my life plan.

“I quit my job for this. I’ve been working to get in for over a year. They can’t be serious. They can’t be serious. This is a horrible mistake. They can’t be serious. They can’t be ...”

“You stated in your mental health self-assessment that you have dealt with anxiety and depression," she continued. "As a result, you aren’t eligible to serve.”

I had written that self-assessment a year ago. Why didn't they tell me then? It had to be a mistake.


My thoughts were racing as I listened, unable to speak, rooted to the spot while this woman so casually waved away my life plan.


“However, you’re welcome to reapply next year to a new program, and we’ll wo—”

I hung up on her. She had told me all the information I was interested in hearing, and I was done with the conversation.

Within the hour, I removed myself from social media — from Facebook to Snapchat. I felt a burning humiliation at the prospect of explaining myself online to a few hundred people I knew to varying degrees. I had already posted that I was leaving, in an effort to see as many of my friends as I could before I left. The sharp pain of having my biggest dream so casually dismissed consumed my thoughts, and the embarrassment of eventually having to explain on social media why I was not in Nicaragua was the laugh track in the background. I shut it all down, ran and hid.

For whatever reason, there was one person in particular I felt like I needed to call. After graduating, I had continued seeing the girl I started dating towards the end of college. She had become one of my biggest sources of happiness in those unsettled post-grad months, and my first instinct was to go to her when I had terrible days.

During the October after graduation, she left to teach abroad for a year, saying “I love you” for the first time only the day before she left. But those feelings faded soon after her arrival. She froze me out quickly and found someone else. We hadn’t talked in months.

So I just sat on my floor and stared at the wall for the rest of the afternoon.

☐ ☐ ☐

When I had walked across the stage to receive my diploma, I had no concrete plan for post-grad life. I knew the Peace Corps was on the horizon for the following spring, but in between, I felt adrift and uninspired. I traveled a lot and worked a couple of odd jobs, but I made no serious effort to start a life or build a career.

All the while my Facebook account, before I shut it down, was a reminder that I was seemingly the only one of my classmates who didn’t have his life perfectly in order.

There was everyone who had worked hard in college and “deserved” to succeed — it seemed they had all been rewarded with great jobs and wonderful friends right away post graduation. And then there was me: a failure with nothing and no one to blame.

Then, two months before I was supposed to depart for Nicaragua, I began traveling around the United States, updating my social networks as I went. A beautiful picture of a mural in San Francisco, a silly photo from a bar in Seattle, scenes from beaches in Hawaii, brunches in New York, cornfields back home. Following along on Facebook, it probably seemed like I was having quite a bit of fun. But everywhere I explored, my ex-girlfriend stayed on my mind — thoughts of her like unwanted and pushy traveling companions.


I’m back on Facebook now, but if you were to try to revisit that horrible month of my life on some form of social media, you would find no record of it ever happening.


I poured myself into preparing for the Peace Corps, hoping my departure would allow all that to fade into the rearview mirror.

When I got the call saying that the one thing I was looking forward to had been cancelled, I woke up every morning afterwards to my own everlasting “Groundhog Day.”

The first emotion I felt daily during that post-apocalyptic month was regret. Not so much regret at how I’d handled the last few years of my life, but regret that I’d woken up that day — every day — to the same sad reality.

I opened my eyes, laid in bed for an hour or two, ate breakfast (or lunch, depending on how late I’d slept), showered, half-heartedly played “Madden,” feverishly scrolled through job boards, hated myself, ate dinner, rolled a few cigarettes, polished off a bottle of whiskey and went to bed. Rinse, repeat.

I was stagnating, and being trapped with my thoughts 24/7 did a lot of psychological damage.

☐ ☐ ☐

“So how’d you wind up in San Francisco?”

The question I’m asked most often these days is a tough one for me to answer. I usually smile, and sometimes I can feel my eyes widen, unintentionally, as if I were about to embark on an oral reading of “The Iliad.”

But usually I just say that that I applied to a million jobs and found one in San Francisco at a mental health nonprofit, and jumped at the chance to take it.

I’m back on Facebook now, but if you were to try to revisit that horrible month of my life on some form of social media, you would find no record of it ever happening. As far as Zuckerberg is concerned, I graduated, bounced around the U.S. for a little while and washed up on the shores of San Francisco, happy, motivated and focused.

Dan Ryan is a nonprofit worker in San Francisco.



By Maria LaMagna

Labor Day weekend of 2013, just after I graduated from college, started with tears and ended with having too much to drink and throwing up into the downstairs toilet at our family friend’s beach house in Manasquan, New Jersey.

I still cringe when I think about that weekend now.

Before I left on the train from Manhattan to the Jersey Shore, I knew I shouldn’t go. I felt anxious and restless. My summer internship had just ended, and I had no full-time job lined up. My former boyfriend and I had broken up just before graduation, and he was already dating someone new. And even though I wanted to enjoy the few days of beach and sun, all I could think about were the photos of them together at our college’s football game.

I knew that being in a house, surrounded by my sister, our friend and her family, I would be unable to heal in the ways I knew how — sitting by myself, thinking, exercising, watching television shows on my computer. Having to put on a brave face for 72 hours seemed much too difficult.


But worst of all, there were the photos. Photos of my former classmates having fun, taking some time off before their jobs began, traveling in Europe. Photos of the friends I already missed, who felt so far away. 


And it was; I wasn’t much for conversation until the last night of our trip. We decided to play a Charades-type game all together, late at night and fueled by a bottle of absinthe we were passing around. And I broke; suddenly I was on the floor of the bathroom, teary and embarrassed.

My sister, even more embarrassed than I was, wouldn’t talk to me for the whole train ride back into the city. I played with my phone, looking at the Instagram I’d taken the day before when we were strolling through souvenir shops. I knew it was cheesy, a kitschy sign to put on a beach house wall. But in that moment I wanted to believe its message.

“The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.”

☐ ☐ ☐

Even before that  weekend, starting in the summer, I felt myself becoming fearful, a little unhinged. At first, I noticed that I was taking mental notes about the clothes other people were wearing on the street. For me, that was a change; even though I’d been surrounded by much better-dressed people before, even on my college campus, I barely thought about clothes at all. But a few months into living in New York, every person I passed on the street or smushed against on the subway was merely an outfit. I studied their clothes and shoes, becoming increasingly aware of the thinning of my sweater, the scuffs on my cheap flats.

And then it was money. I was starting to pay back my student loans. And besides that, New York prices — like $12 for a chopped salad in a plastic container… how was that even possible? — gave me sticker shock.

And then it was my job. When my internship ended, I had no full-time job offer, but I still had the chopped salads and the loans. And the rent. And the desire to become a journalist without knowing if that would really happen.

But worst of all, there were the photos. Photos of my former classmates having fun, taking some time off before their jobs began, traveling in Europe. Photos of the friends I already missed, who felt so far away. Photos of younger classmates, who were going back to school, when I couldn’t. And photos of my former boyfriend, the one who used to call almost every day to ask how my afternoon went and what story I was working on, in the arms of someone new.

Now, this period of time is hard for me to fully remember. It comes to me in certain images; I know I was sleeping late, then waking up to make tea and binge watch “New Girl” and “What Not to Wear” when I was supposed to be writing freelance articles and sending around my resume.

The happy moments from the last few months of college played like a highlight reel in my mind while I waited for the subway or walked down the street, remembering the pleasant chilliness of a nighttime Cubs game, giggly wine nights, the few gloriously warm days we spent sitting next to Lake Michigan, the prom-themed party my roommates and I threw during graduation weekend.


“We are all thinking about ourselves; no one is thinking about my failures — or my successes — as often as I am.


My pace of life got slower and slower, and the list of tasks I was able to accomplish in a day became short. I wanted to press “pause” and send the same message to everyone I knew: “I know I’m disappointing you. Please don’t ask how I am.” I was mostly embarrassed. I had been confident, even arrogant in college, about the opportunities that surely were lying ahead of me. And suddenly I could back none of it up. I wanted to be a journalist but felt completely unsure that it would actually happen, and my former swagger became paralyzing fear.

I fantasized about escaping. Where could I go to find reprieve from the eyes and the expectations of those around me?

☐ ☐ ☐

Now, I can recognize these same suffocating, ceaseless, inescapable thoughts have been with me for a long time — maybe since I was a toddler. They basically all say the same thing: “This isn’t good enough. You have to do better.”

Around the age of 4, I realized I couldn’t pronounce the letter “r” correctly, and I sat by myself, repeating the words over and over until I got them right: squirrel, girl, rabbit.

In fifth grade, I began hating the way I looked in photos.  

When I studied abroad during my junior year of college, I became frustrated when anyone commented on my American accent, believing my Spanish should be good enough no one would suspect I was from the United States. You’re too “autocrítica,” my host mom told me. Self-critical.

The strangest part is that I never recognized these thoughts as being potentially harmful. I leaned way into them and called them other names, like “ambition.”

I constantly would set “goals,” whether it was to get a better grade in Math or to hold my face at a different angle for my next school picture.

Now I know that in psychologists’ terms, that voice is called a “negative spectator.” No matter where I am in the world, in Manasquan, or Evanston, or Buenos Aires, I bring that voice with me, and all it ever says is, “Don’t relax. There are so many things about you we still need to improve.” At times, it is motivational; at other times, it is my greatest obstacle to succeeding. No matter what I do, it could always be different and better.

Right now, with some help and practice, I’m learning to tell it to be quiet, or at least soften a little bit.

I remind myself that to varying degrees, every person is plagued by a critical voice, and we are all thinking about ourselves; no one is thinking about my failures — or my successes — as often as I am.

I still don’t know if there’s a cure for anything, but I’m certain it isn’t as easy as crying, or sweating, or a trip to the beach. But there are things that help. On my best days, my internal voice sounds more like my mom’s. “There are so many people in your life who love you,” she says. “I wish you could see yourself the way we do.”

Maria LaMagna is a journalist living in New York.