In my early age, I started to feel the need to do something meaningful in my life, that it was too precious to be wasted living a regular life. I never really felt I fit in, all given structures around me never welcomed me. To illustrate, since I was the tallest baby born in my home city, at school not even the class tables had enough space for my legs! rsrsrsrsr So I knew I would have to build my own container in the world in order to be happy. But I never knew where to start!
Episode 1: Backstory
After eight years of grad school, living far from my family, with little social or love life, the nearly medieval torture of writing a dissertation, and then 70 job applications, I did the seemingly impossible: I got a tenure-track job teaching philosophy at a small college. I was exhausted, but proud of my newly minted Ph.D. The financial sacrifices, the life-sacrifices, the blood, sweat, and tears, seemed like they were finally going to pay off. I loved philosophy. It changed my life. It felt like what I had always been looking for. It was a great validation against those who claimed in my youth that I “think too much.” I was absolutely transformed by my college professors, and I wanted to live the life that they lived. I was in awe of them. I knew I’d never make a lot of money, but I would enjoy my daily life reading, thinking, writing, and discussing important ideas with other interested people. I wouldn’t have the kind of life I felt like I needed to spend a lot of money escaping from. I’d live as a life-long learner. I’d help open minds. That was my dream. I dedicated everything to it. And now I was finally going to live this dream. I had to be willing to live anywhere if I was going to pursue a career in academia. So I did. It took approximately 10 hours and $1,000 to get home to see my friends and family. Tough, but I thought it would be worth it to pursue the work I loved.
The first year nearly killed me. I created and taught a full load of courses for the first time, and spent every waking moment prepping class. I wanted to teach in the discussion style that had excited me so much in college, and so I did . . . Then I realized that most students didn’t read, and had no intention of reading. They were rather irritated at the suggestion that one needs to read to learn. Then I realized that most students did not want to discuss things in class, even ideas that did not require prior reading. Then I realized that many students had never written a paper, and could not write a grammatically correct sentence. Most did not take pride in their work, and many did not even care if they got bad grades. It was unclear why most students had chosen a philosophy class, since they seemed generally disinterested. There I was, day after day, spending every waking moment coming up with interesting reading assignments and questions to discuss in class, trying to learn all that I could about the philosophies I was teaching to be ready to discuss them . . . and I was alone. Alone in the room. I was confused, disappointed, frustrated. I thought it was because I was a new teacher, and I just needed to find the right ways to reach students, the right ways to motivate them to read and talk, the right pedagogies to teach them to write and to care about their writing, the right amount of comments on their papers, the right stepping stone assignments, the right suggestions for how to revise. And things would surely get better once I started repeating courses, right?
I spent nine years devoting myself to reworking syllabi, pedagogy workshops, spending time teaching students what seminar-style classrooms are, making guides for how to write an argumentative essay, creating evaluation rubrics, trying to change my expectations to better fit where the students were, even trying to rationalize that it was ok that students were not engaging in their education (maybe they were just really busy with other stuff I didn’t know about), that it was ok that I couldn’t change the situation (after all I was just one person); and it was ok that I didn’t feel like all my hard work was of any value (maybe 10 years down the line they would realize that my class had taught them something, or maybe if I could just reach one kid in the class that was enough). After nine years of this, I am done rationalizing or trying to make excuses that this whole thing is somehow “ok”. It’s not ok. The cycle has been completely toxic. The work has been unsatisfying. It has left me exhausted, demoralized, isolated, frustrated, totally burnt-out, and in physical and emotional pain. I was crying uncontrollably in my office on a daily basis. I had successfully achieved tenure; I had won the highest awards; I had published a book and articles; I was respected by my peers; my family and friends were proud of my accomplishments . . . and I was miserable. One comes to a point where one must save their life. That time is now.
Defeat. Accept defeat.
I think she’s saying, “Accept death.” That’s what it feels like to me across the circle, as I’m sobbing wildly, my torso heaving uncontrollably. She’s clearly gotten to me this time, beyond my defenses, because I’m disintegrating in public, burning up and out of control. I’m dying. The circle is quiet, except for me. I am invisible and on stage at the same time, flying and underwater. Mucous streams out of my nostrils, evidence that I’ve melted from within, liquid seeping out as part of my final something.
And then, I quiet. A great silence envelops me after the defeat. My head is a two ton bowling ball, so I move carefully on the rickety frame of my body to keep it from snapping under its weight. I am still alive, the group is rapt and with me as I return. I’ve gone into the darkness again, the terrifying place of falling and knowing nothing, struggling and screaming on the way down, and I’m somehow alive, doing the normal things again. My butt burns on the floor. I push my hair back.
A year ago today, I was sinking quickly. I knew the feeling from so many prior jobs over the past fifteen years. Fifteen! It shocks me to put the number down on paper. The sinking feeling is what comes when bargaining with the life force isn’t working. The deal I’ve tried to hustle looks like this:
“Please just let me get through this stressful self-abusing period so that I can achieve some financial security. Some spiritual security. Some physical security. So that I can have something I’ve never had from my family. Something solid, reliable. If you will, Body, help me keep going, I will be able to get us out of this mess.”
“When?,” Body replies impatiently.
“Really soon. Like maybe later this year.”
“You always say that,” Body says, slumping away. No trust.
This month last year, my days usually started with a heavy dread, A cup of coffee to boost my confidence might help, yes? It will push me on, help get me there. Be like the rest. Normal, high-functioning. Ambitious.
Up the elevator, and the masks are firmly in place. Fear rules the game, everywhere, driving, competing, dominating, out-strategizing, out-politicking. Jokey, fake and casual while you’re doing it—even better. I keep talking to myself, several dialogues going at once. “My sincerity, intelligence and integrity have a purpose. I am here for a reason.” But I can’t connect. No one says what they mean. I’m calling upon all of my meditation training just to get through my meetings, but a clammy acidic sweat tells me I’m in fight or flight all day, from the minute I board the bus and start checking my phone. I know I am strung out, trying to get clarity about what my boss wants. She has assigned me a huge project. It’s not in my job description, but then again, I’ve never had one. I’ve never done anything like it before. I try in my caffeinated sweaty nervousness to teach myself how to approach a project of this type, but realize the wise course is to be honest about my limitations, propose some solutions, and ask for help. I imagine it is what a secure, well-adjusted person would do, and I want to be that person: aware, healthy, unafraid of vulnerability. I envision the Universe rewarding this display of trust with actual help, delivering me from hell.
Asking for help is the perfect red flag to indicate my weakness, to allow them to begin eliminating me. As the days progress, I realize I am being set up. I overhear my boss telling my soon-to-be new boss that I am not a good project manager, that she doesn’t really know where there is a place for me. I’ve just completed a year-long brand strategy project for this company. I put in the extra hours, the evenings and weekends. I received praise for my work, but something is wrong now. My worst fears are externalized, on the phone, through the door, feet from me, by my boss, with her mask of hyper-competence, workaholism, insane, manic dedication. Is it sanctified mental illness? Every female boss I’ve had is in a desperate sprint that is really a death marathon. I watch her craft her martyrdom and heroine status. She does not eat. She does not drink water. She boasts not going to the bathroom all day. She boasts starting her work day at 1am. Emails from her prove the dedication. She is our heroine. She jokes about needing heroin, and I see the desperate girl running like mad under this grandiose façade. It makes me sick. I feel sorry for her and she is part of my destruction.
I am sick to my stomach again. The bowels roil in agony. I take time out to get calm, approach the situation with maturity, centeredness, which I have to imagine because in my body, it is not my state. I will fake myself into a different state of being OK. My body is rebelling again, shutting down, creating chaos, reacting—goddammit—in that sensitive way. Called delicate flower, mockingly at my old job. I hate you, body, for the way you force me to show my weakness through my sweat, my smells, my shit, my flushing, my shaking voice. If I sit too long, you make my muscles seize. Now if I dance or run, you make me collapse. You are my fat billboard of advertised weakness, my fucking genetic albatross! Weak mother and father, collapsing cells, lack of resiliency. Why was this genetic bundle allowed to continue this long? Thank God I’m the end of this line. I’ve failed. A billion trips to the ashram and mantras to the powerful can’t help me now. Accept defeat.
The truth of my body is the only clarity I have now. The defeat is the solid NO coming from the body, which forces a decision. It doesn’t matter what the mind says, or what I try to force myself to do. The body is collapsing. The body doesn’t want this lifestyle, this abuse. It occurs to me that it might simply quit, unless I accept what it is telling me. I cannot continue this way or I will die. Defeat is a blessing ready to take me out of hell. But the price is giving up whatever image I thought I could obtain through this sacrifice. Fitting in. Being a “warrior” worker or an insane person or a successful person. I don’t even know what the image is, but it involves manic martyrdom. Being overwhelmed and insanely busy is a status symbol, as Brene Brown says. What if I lost my status? But sick isn’t a status symbol, and I’ve crossed over into that murky realm.
My fatigue is growing just as I need energy to stay alive here. I’m that deer that is at the back of the herd, struggling to keep up. Prey. I struggle to stay alert and awake at my desk, though my heart races out control, a bizarre set of contrasting symptoms. Am I dying? I, too, want a version of heroin, relief from this madness. No more running. Impossible with this feeling of overwhelming, oppressive heaviness. I want to sleep, must sleep.