Episode 8: Am I sick?

Episode 8: Am I sick?

I am involved in about four kinds of therapy (emotional, physical, stress management, and a little pharmaceutical for good measure). The suggestion has been made to me (not by any of my therapists, have you) that perhaps I should pursue long-term disability. That means, by the way, that I could have in my medical history that I am disabled with a mental disorder. Oh yeah, and that the insurance company that pays for my disability-leave may divulge this information to whomever they see fit, as they are not bound by the confidentiality rules of medical providers.

You know what? I am not disabled. I am so able that I have endured this back-breaking, isolating job, in which I rarely, to never, get to experience my value, for nine years. I do not have a mental disorder. I have never been so rational as to stop this craziness. The tendency to medicalize burnout in a way that places all burden on the individual and their “sickness,” and not on the structure in which the individual is struggling and suffering, is beginning to really, really annoy me. “The personal is political” is filling my mind these days with a force and truth that it never had before. It is very convenient for those who wish to avoid a look at their own institutions, their rules and regulations, their values, their habits, and their patterns to medicalize anyone who does not persist within their structure. And guess who is formally in charge of this medicalization in an institution? The department of “human resources.” We are “resources,” like tanks of gas that fuel the institution and are available to use, to burn up, and burn out. Why? Because guess what: “There are a million people waiting in line to take your job” (heard that one before?). I am more than a human “resource,” to be consumed. And if I won’t be consumed anymore, that does not mean that I am disabled.

All right. Let’s see if I can’t make this simple. It doesn’t always need an accompanying analysis. Plain is powerful:

I don’t want to feel anymore like all my life’s energies are going down a drain. I want my work to be valued. For me, I know now that it is simply not enough to have “faith” that my work is having a positive effect. I need feedback. I need to experience the positive feedback loop. Without that there is nothing to refuel my energy to work, to study, to give, to care.

I don’t want to feel anymore that in order to be a professional I must give up the rest of my life. I am a human being. I need to eat healthy food, I need to exercise, I need to be in nature, I need love, I need friends, I need to play with my dog, I need to read for pleasure, I need to relax, I need to be able to think and feel. I need to stop being on-call 24/7. I need to stop frantically running, running, running.

These shall be the boundaries, the commitments, the touchstones to remember as I try to make a new life.

Episode 7: “Trust” is my new mantra

Episode 7: “Trust” is my new mantra

It is so hard to trust that I will find a way, find a future, find or create work, find or create satisfaction. I think I am almost ready to let go of the title “Associate Professor”, and trust that I am not that title; I am all of my experience, and knowledge, and character. No title captures that. I am disappointed in myself for how much the institution at which I have worked has gotten a hold of my mind and sense of self-esteem. Its power is evident in the fear I feel leaving. But it is not the thing with the value. The value of the institution is in its teachers, and the teachers’ wisdom and work are their own. I tell myself: My value is within me; it is not something the institution granted me.

I might be ready to give up that old title, but I don’t want to give up philosophy! (Damn it!!) I feel I am mourning a death or the loss of a great love, and I am cycling through the stages of grief, anger, and bargaining. I still love philosophy. I still have ideas I want to pursue and write about. And I have put so much into it. I love studying philosophy with other like-minded people. And I love teaching students who want to learn. But those students have been so few and far between. Where can I find a better educational experience? My mind is spinning. I don’t know what to do.

In dark hours I have found myself thinking: I’m on leave. I could go back. I don’t know what I am going to do to make a living. I don’t know how to find work where I can use my skills, do something at least mildly enjoyable, and feel valued. I could go back.

Some brave place inside me says: No. Just because you haven’t figured out the “right” thing yet, doesn’t mean you should go back to the thing you know is wrong. You can do better. Trust. You can create better. Trust. You must be devoted now to your health and future happiness. Trust.

Episode 6: Returning to the scene of the crime

Episode 6: Returning to the scene of the crime

I had to go back to my work-town. I had to empty my house and prepare it for rental. I had to empty my office so it could be usable for someone else. The whole experience was surreal. I always felt like a foreigner in that town. And yet it took care of me enough for my survival. I had some comforts – a few friends, my little home that was my sanctuary, the restaurants where I liked to eat, the pride of a tenured position, quiet nights in a town where you can see the stars, a view of green hills out my office window.

Leaving that town feels like Tom Hanks leaving the island. I know I’ve got to leave. It’s not a full life. Yet it gave me some things I needed to survive. It sheltered me and comforted me enough to keep going for a long time.

The day I went to the office and took my degrees off the wall was filled with mixed emotions of awkward guilt and anxiety. Was I no longer a Professor? Was I no longer worthy of those degrees? Did I quit? I felt shame in that office. And shame again in the face of colleagues who had succeeded at the profession, who never seemed to feel too much stress, who had never shown struggle, need, vulnerability, who simply don’t get what my problem was. To them, there must be some idiosyncratic problem or sickness that I’m dealing with. “It’s just a shame,” they think. But I find some sort of validation (in a sad way, I guess) in the face of so many professor friends who eagerly asked what I was up to, what I might pursue, confidentially telling me they hoped for an answer for how to get out too.

In one week I emptied my house. I sold all of my furniture and gave away most of my house wares. I filled up a tiny pod of books and files and sent it home. I can’t yet sell my house because the housing market is still too depressed in my work-town for me to break even. Kind of like an ex who won’t sign the divorce papers, unwilling to let you go. I spackled the holes in the wall, took a final mop over the hardwoods, strapped down the stuff in my pod hoping that the two wine glasses I kept would make it through all the rumbling of their journey cross country, and drove away with my framed degrees on the passenger seat . . . saying to myself “these are mine.” They reflect me, my value, my knowledge, my skill. They don’t belong to the college, or the office, or the title someone else gave me. They are mine, and I take them with me wherever I go.

Episode 5: Slowing Down

Episode 5: Slowing Down

My old life was about racing the clock all day. It was about constantly working to understand new challenging material, then trying to put it into a form that could be approached and discussed with students, then preparing to “perform it” in an engaging sort of audience-participation play in the classroom . . . for multiple consecutive hours a day. And then I’d barely eat, barely sleep, and do it all again the next day with a new set of ideas . . . but with whom? With students who were texting, spaced out, sleeping, hung over, high. Students who hadn’t read anything to prepare for class. Students whose only question was “do we have to know this?” It was utterly exhausting. I was alone. Perhaps they were depressed. Perhaps they lacked interest. Perhaps they were home-sick. Perhaps . . . but it did not work. Education under these conditions did not function. I felt like my life’s energies were going down a drain.

At the same time, the course-designing, prepping, teaching, and endless grading and commenting on impossible-to-read papers (immediately thrown in the garbage without even reading my painstaking comments on comprehension, logic, critical thinking, and grammar) was just one third of my duties. “Service” took up the rest of my waking hours. Ah “service” . . . lots and lots of uncompensated work unequally distributed among faculty, mainly handed to those who are too new to say no, and anyone who showed some level of “care” for the workings of the college. Research, writing, publishing would always get the back-seat, though they were considered the most important part of an academic career by most employers. Every holiday and summer break would be spent doing nine months of research that could not be touched during the school year.

Telling this story is like a PTSD trigger.

I feel my blood pressure rising, my heart beating fast, hot under the collar. But, whereas I used to be thrown into fight mode by that feeling, get motivated, get a fire set under my ass, now I find myself glazing over, feeling frozen, feeling nauseated. I can’t live like that anymore. To survive . . . to do more than survive, to “live” again, I’m trying to learn how to slow down.

I’m not sure I have any experience with slowing down. I have spent my whole life in high-stress patterns, from the competitive, and often abusive sports of my youth, to college and grad school (self-abuse, one might say), to an academic job. This burnout is many years in the making. So, I can only describe some basic facts of slowing down right now. It means this: Making press pot coffee in the morning. Slow coffee. It means making my breakfast, instead of picking up a drive-through greasy breakfast sandwich. It means taking my dog to the park and breathing real air, instead of dropping him at doggie day care, and closing myself up in my office. It means that when I have a creative impulse, I can pursue it. It means that I can go to lunch with a friend. On short notice!! Maybe this all seems rather trivial, but it is extremely profound for me. I sense a little bit of life returning. There is a world. I can connect with people I love. I haven’t felt this for a long time. I have lived according to a strict regiment for so long. I almost feel guilty and lazy about slowing down. That is a hard feeling to shake. Should I be embarrassed for taking back my life? Am I being selfish? Am I being narcissistic? Am I being indulgent? I think these thoughts reveal a strange ethic that does not foster balance and health. I’m not sure where it comes from. It may have been the fuel for professional success, but it has never made me healthy and happy. Sticking with this old way, this old mindset, this old habitual way of being, means further isolation, further illness, further depression, further collapse.

I’m beginning to see that the risk is not in leaving this old life, this old job, this old professional status. The risk is in staying.

Episode 4: Not Sustainable

Episode 4: Not Sustainable

When I talk with other professors who are sympathetic to my situation, the most striking phrase I hear again and again is that the job is simply “not sustainable.” The feeling of having “no life,” of constant work, and of loss of control is pervasive. Many of the same causes are cited again and again: The growing requirements to “hold the hands” of the students and to be on call 24 hours a day to students’ every need and desire; the over-administering of higher ed and the growing paper-work, assessment, committees, etc.; the helicopter parents; and the current “market” approach to education, where students and their parents are treated as consumers, while teachers are providers of “experiences” or even safe “entertainment” and babysitting. Faculty, of course, are last in line in value to these consumers, behind boutique cafeterias and sports centers. And so facilities are first in line for funding in the race to grab students and their dollars. So many say the same thing about their current life as a professor: “I don’t feel healthy.” “I don’t eat well or exercise.” “I don’t laugh.” “I don’t have time.” “I am so stressed out.” “The students just don’t care.” “I am not sure why I am here.” “I am not sure how to leave, but I feel I should.” Some say, “I’d like to leave, but now I really need the health insurance!” (Hmm. That would be an interesting pattern to study.)