Sojourner is on leave from a long fought for tenured position at a prestigious liberal arts college.
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
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.
Episode 9: Misadventures in the job market
I’ve applied for, well, a good number of jobs since I went on leave. Jobs I was overqualified for, administrative jobs, jobs inside and outside of academia, teaching jobs, writing jobs, editing jobs, transcribing jobs, jobs I did 20 years ago right out of college, jobs I could really see myself doing well and enjoying, jobs in the nonprofit world, jobs in the art world, jobs that connected with my hobbies.
I put a lot of work into thoughtful cover letters, into making my ten page academic CV into a clear one-page resume. I took workshops. I networked. I met a lot of new people. Some of them really got me. Some of them told me I was a really great candidate, and I should have no trouble finding work with my impressive background. Some of them spoke to me in a grandfatherly voice asking whether it was really such a good idea for me to move on from my job in this market. Some of them, I think, wondered if I was lazy, and that was the reason I was leaving my job. My burn out was poor work ethic, they thought. They said: “Well no job is fun. It’s a job. It’s always going to be work.” I bit my tongue with these folks. They didn’t get it. And they had no idea of the discipline I was capable of . . . at all costs.
I went back and forth between thinking that the only way for this whole “leave my job” adventure to be a success is if I got an EVEN BETTER job than the one I had, to feeling like I just wanted to make enough money to eat, and that would be success enough. I went back and forth between feeling shame unless I could land an even higher power, higher status job, and feeling like I didn’t care anymore what anyone thought of me, just as long as I could slow down and not let this life pass me by anymore. I went back and forth between feeling like I would only be satisfied if I could use the skills and knowledge I worked so hard to develop in grad school and in my teaching career, to feeling like a use of any of my skills, as long as it was not too stressful, would be fine. Pride and exhaustion were battling it out in me. I think I’ve had the wrong kind of pride for a long time. It plays games. It misunderstands what is of real value. Exhaustion, on the other hand, is so simple and so honest. I think it is winning. I guess the positive side effect of exhaustion winning is that it makes you have to face your screwed up pride, reevaluate, look at your old patterns, your parents old patterns handed down to you, and get your shit together.
So again, I wrote a lot of applications. I got zero responses.
I’ve started to hear a message ringing in my head, loudly, powerfully and clearly: “Stop applying for jobs.” You are spending a lot of time doing it, it is quite possible that no one actually reads your well-crafted letter and resume, and frankly . . . here comes the big one . . . no job already created by someone else is going to be the great satisfying answer to your career woes that will really utilize your unique skills, be meaningful, creative, and a reflection of you and your passion. You must create your job. You must create your destiny. No more meat market that cannot see your value. Do not wait for another to notice you. You know your value. You know what you can do. Hire yourself.
Ok, so it turns out that this life and work transformation I am stumbling through is going to involve a much bigger change in mindset, in faith, in courage than I ever thought. Can I take it? Can I take this on? Am I about to create the work that I am made to do? What might that be? Am I about to become my own boss? My own sales-woman? How can I do it in a way that doesn’t run me ragged again? How can I do it in a way that will pay my bills? . . . . How can I change my bills so that they are payable? Much bigger changes are on the horizon. To change meaningfully I see now that “the whole” will have to change . . . and yet in a month I will be broke. How will I change the whole in that reality? How will I hold onto trust and integrity in that situation? How will I create the calm and peace I need so badly in the face of total financial insecurity? Should I really be documenting my possibly impending total failure here on this website? . . . There seems to be something about this documenting process that is necessary. I feel that my companions are out there, with me, and I am not alone.
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
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
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
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
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.)
Episode 3: Care Less?
I can’t tell you how many times I have received the suggestion from colleagues (male colleagues — there are few women in philosophy) that the problems I was having with burnout and dissatisfaction were due to the fact that I cared too much. I cared too much, so I worked too hard. I should care less. What does that mean? Why is caring a disadvantage? I chose a field I love because I care about it. I am a teacher because I care about human development. It is painfully obvious that so many of my students have had no one who cared for them enough to help them develop study habits, skills, passion, pride in their work, responsibility, independence, creativity, critical thinking. Should I be yet another who does not sufficiently care for them? I find it incredibly frustrating that being successful in a profession would require that I not care very much.
And yet, I see what a curse caring ends up being. Those who care are the ones who are expected to fulfill a thousand “service obligations,” (a contradiction in terms?) that others “aren’t very good” at fulfilling . . . aren’t very good because they don’t care!
To those who “assign” service work (another tradition in academia worth being suspicious of), I must say: Actually, it’s not a great honor to be assigned more and more uncompensated work to carry the weight of others who “aren’t very good” at it because they don’t care. Guess who is suffering from this situation? The very ones you think you are honoring! Guess who benefits? Those you find incompetent. Those who are apathetic. They are off the hook, and as a result get to have a little balance in their life, go for a bike ride, cook a meal, and have time with their families on the weekend. Those who you think do the best work, and of course do work you think you can get “for free,” are burning out and will soon be lost to you, your institution, and even themselves.
Episode 2: Back-story Continued
People change jobs all the time. Why was the thought of leaving my job, which I knew was making me miserable, causing me to cry uncontrollably in my office every day? I think it was because the thought threw me into a real identity crisis. All of my energies had been devoted to this one thing — being a philosophy professor – for so long. It is who I had worked so hard to become, and who I had been for so long. It’s how I saw myself, even when seeing myself as just a professor was actually causing me quite a bit of pain. It caused me pain because I knew I was so much more than a professor – I was an artist, a friend, a mother to my dog, a family member – so many things I felt I had no time for. Identity was something that gave me comfort, and simultaneously caused me pain. It was who I was, but never captured who I really was, and even felt like something I had to strain to pretend to be . . . something I even had to hide my true self in order to succeed at. It was definitely something that did not allow me to listen to the messages that my emotions and body were sending me. Those had to be silenced to be productive as a professor, and yet that silencing was exactly what got me to the point where I couldn’t be productive at anything anymore. Identity fed my ego, and yet it made me feel bad about myself, like I was living a lie . . . like it was my greatest success, and greatest failure in my commitment to myself. Identity, it turns out, is full of paradoxes; a blessing and curse, something we make willingly, then something we become enslaved to. The most difficult thing has been, and still is, breaking my pact with the particular identity-lens through which I had seen myself for so long. I want to tell a little story about how that cord was finally cut, and how I still struggle to not retie it, when so many temptations ask me to do so.
Today’s story is a story of gratitude. Gratitude, especially, to two colleagues and one therapist, who had an instrumental role in getting me on a road I really needed to go down. It is a road, also, that I’ve been able try out because my parents and friends supported me and said: “Yes, we are proud of you for going down that road that we know you must go alone. We are here cheering you on.”
When you are having sort of a nervous breakdown, or anxiety attack, or midlife crisis or whatever the hell it is, your brain races way ahead of you. All the time.
Everything feels like the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” You know you need a change, and a big one. But big changes are super scary. When I sat in my office crying and saying that I think I need to give up my career, and then feeling the overwhelming fear of what that might meant, my extremely level-headed colleague and friend said: “Maybe we can ask a smaller question than “should I end my career,” like “could I maybe take a leave?” “Why don’t I look into that for you?” Thank the universe for sending me this level-headed friend. Questions like “should I end my career?” feel like “should I jump off a bridge?” . . . questions that should not be contemplated in this state of mind. They are too stressful and too crazy. I needed to wait on that, and make a smaller move that’s more manageable. Next question: What kind of a leave should it be? This is where I offer gratitude to my second colleague, who went to lunch with me and said: “I want you to make an appointment with your doctor . . . I recognize what you are feeling, I’ve felt it, and I’m going to call you at the end of the week to check in with you that you’ve made an appointment”. Ok, thank the universe for this colleague too. She gave me a direct assignment. I could handle that. I did it. The doctor took it from there. I accepted the doctor’s diagnosis, and the suggestion for medication and counseling. I was starting to let go of control and accept help. Those were huge, huge, necessary steps in this process. I made an appointment with a counselor who was recommended by a friend.
Day one with the counselor:
Counselor: “So tell me, what role does your emotional life play in your daily life and daily decision making?”
Me: “Uh, I basically suppress it in order to function professionally . . . and that’s why I’m here.”
Counselor: Ok, so what would it be like to give your emotions a say in your decisions?
Me, crying: “I probably would not be able to do this job anymore. I’d probably leave this town and go home. I’d probably find a way to do more art.”
Counselor: “So why don’t you?”
Me: “I want to.”
Ok. So, I go home and think why don’t I? What about all the work I put into this career? What about money, how would I make a living? Where would I live? How can I leave my colleagues hanging? How can I let everybody at work down? They are depending on me, and they’ve taken a chance hiring me. How can I let my parents down? They are proud of me. How can I let my teachers down? They are proud of me for getting a tenure track job. What do I do about my home? What if I can’t sell it? How would I get my dog to my home-town, that’s like 3,000 miles away and travel would be hard on him? What if he doesn’t like it there? What if I can’t find a new job?
And what if I stay? I can’t stay. I can’t live like this anymore. Truth time.
A leave is requested and granted. Three months of therapy and some pharmaceuticals to manage the emotional roller-coaster and to keep strong, and keep courage. A 4,000 mile southern drive across country in the middle of winter. Home. Comfort. Fears. Excitement. Adjustment.