Ending Self-Abandonment: Part 6

I’ve been working more hours lately, and my energy is improving. I am grateful for the gradual improvement in my POTS symptoms and my overall health. I am also grieving the many years of self-abandonment that led me into this long and painful process. I suppose this is the main lesson of last year’s crisis: that self-abandonment is self-destruction. I see that remaining in a driven career that was not aligned with my values or temperament set me up to feel permanently off kilter, developing one persona layer after another to try to fit in, to cope. No wonder my body started to block me–or rather, to rescue me.

But there is another aspect to this. It is as if I have lost the last 15 years of my life because I was so maladapted to the role I thought I should play. Now I don’t want to be that person or have that life and career. The false importance of it all, the artifice and emptiness of “fast” culture depresses me. And what confidence and stability did I build during those years? I feel like I’m starting over at 45 with no experience, and by that I mean experience that feels true to my core and my strengths. I know I do have deep experience, emotional intelligence, and talent. But I feel like a tender mollusk trying to form a new kind of shell before I can make my way onto the sea floor with some sense of integrity.

I have been networking and experimenting with vulnerability and transparency. It is uncomfortable to tell people I am meeting for the first time that I am healing from a health crisis and had to take time off work. In most situations I look across the table and perceive judgment and something else that brings up my fear and isolation. My challenge is to remain firmly in myself, to hold the gaze, to stay true to my words and my experience without catapulting into shame. It’s an act of courage and love, and it is so hard.

A Different Calling: Part 5

It’s not easy to give up money and the identity that come from a “career,” even if that career is making you sick. So many cultural norms pull me back into the web of illusion. And the illusion is that it will be different this time, that it is temporary. I have to remember this LIFE is temporary, and it is passing quickly. I must remember this when I start thinking, purely out of anxiety, about going back into marketing to re-stabilize myself financially. I’ve tried to make it work for almost fifteen years. Each time, it works less. I work more. I break. I can’t keep breaking.

I’ve been reading about the ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) study and the relationship to autoimmune disease, so articulately described by Donna Nakazawa in her recent book Childhood Disrupted: How Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal. Nakazawa writes that for every ACE score a woman has, her likelihood of being hospitalized with any number of auto-immune diseases increased by 20%; for a man, it is only 10%. Add on top of this the sensitivity gene, and you have a recipe for multiple chronic illnesses. So many women are suffering from these illnesses related to toxic stress that it seems overwhelming. What can be done? I have to start with the personal lab of my life, my body.

I know that my stress reactivity related to my early childhood and shame is a big part of my illness, and I do my best to take responsibility for my mental health. But I also know that even without my particular wiring, I might not thrive in this era and this culture of overwork, 24/7 availability, and competition. I dream of much more than that for my life. I dream of being connected, feeling a spiritual meaning beyond personal gain in my work. I’m looking for my deepest calling, not security as defined by the mainstream.

In looking for that calling, I keep thinking about joining with other women. Can we as women create new structures of business and community that do not operate on burnout, fear, and an underlying and secret sense of worthlessness? How do we do this so that we are in control of our lives, able to thrive and full of creativity? How do we do this so that kindness, innovation, and a life driven by different values is possible?

Episode 11: Tugs on the Sleeve: Worries, Blessings, and Ego Confusion

Episode 11: Tugs on the Sleeve: Worries, Blessings, and Ego Confusion

I had three professional conference presentations on the books this year. Big ones. One at my specialty’s national philosophical society meeting, one at a conference in tribute to my well-known dissertation advisor, and a keynote address at an international conference in Europe: A good year, for the girl who just went rogue. I was not sure how to approach these professional spaces, knowing I was probably going to give up my post as an associate professor. In the face of the usual professional “point/counterpoint” style debates and posturing, I was filled with a mixed sensation of “you all can just bite me” liberation, and “will you even let me into your club anymore if I’m not a professor?” fear and anxiety. I wondered whether I would have been invited to give a keynote address at an international conference if my title weren’t Associate Professor, but instead Independent Scholar.

As I began to confess to people what was going on in my life — that my job was really unhealthy, and that I needed to move on from it — the reactions started coming in.

First came the worries from my elders:
“So which school are you moving to? You do have another job lined up don’t you?”
“Why don’t you apply for this [top of the line administrative] job at [middle of nowhereville]?
“You aren’t leaving academia are you?”
“How are you going to pay the bills?”

Then came the “you rock, I am so envious” encouragement from my peers:
“You are so courageous, I am so proud of you, good for you!”
“Maybe I can quit too and we can start a business together!”
“Save a yurt for me in your yurt village.” (more on downsizing later)

And then came the response from “the big guy,” my dissertation advisor, the longest-standing mentor I had ever had outside of my own parents. In other words . . . Professor, I mean, Doctor, I mean Sir, I mean . . . what am I supposed to call you now?

I winced as I told him, thinking of his disappointment. He was so proud of me for my success. He was happy with himself at my success. My voice shook . . . and then, the confirmation of why he is “the big guy,” the guru, the mentor, the Dad of my adulthood. He looked at me with concerned eyes, the kind that tell me I need to rewrite the paper because I got it all wrong, and said: “You’ve got to do what your integrity tells you is right, even if it’s against the tide.” I felt myself tear up. I hugged him. “I’m really happy to hear you say that . . . I thought maybe I could move into your basement?” He roared . . . and in that moment everything was going to be ok.

Episode 10: Moving Beyond The Academy

Episode 10: Moving Beyond The Academy

I made my first dollar beyond academia. I can’t tell you how symbolic this moment is. I met someone who needed help with research, writing, and editing, and who was happy to have a brainstorming partner for issues of marketing, finding new clients, creating new programs, and organizing business procedures. She can appreciate philosophy, and is interested in finding a way to collaborate and bring philosophy into her programs. I started writing for her as an experiment. I had not done much non-academic writing. The topics interested me. The work was fun. It was not hard. It was not stressful. It meant dealing with problems that had solutions. I was able to make quick order out of chaos. I suddenly found myself bringing a calm and confident air to the work place, and to another person who was feeling really stressed out. (What a role reversal!) I felt, for the first time in a decade, valued for my work. I was doing something that utilized my skills, that was sort of fun, that was going to be happily used in some practical way, and that paid actual dollars. The job was not so different from one of the 5 service jobs I used to do on the side — with my hair on fire for no money — while I was a professor. (That realization, again, of all my uncompensated past work just nauseates me). It is amazing to me, after all this, how simple it is to feel valued, and to feel happy working. Maybe that is the phenomenon of someone who is starved and blissful at the taste of the tiniest crumb of something good and nourishing. Or maybe it means that it would not be hard for institutions to do a couple of important things to make their employees feel valued, alive, happy. I don’t know. Maybe I don’t care. I am so grateful to have a little work, and to have gotten past the major mental hurdle of “will you ever be able to do anything outside of academics?” The answer is, hell yes! And with academic training, you will kick ass at it, and people will love you for your hyper-diligent, efficient, clear, perfectionist, thoughtful, self-starter habits. Spread the wealth of your training to people who are happy to have you, and are happy to compensate you for your work.