Category Archives: Just Me
Part One: A Perspective from March 2010, Finding Myself in Words
As I work on my dissertation I’ve been reading essays by some of my favorite authors. Most of them are women. One of them is Alice Walker. For some reason I’ve been particularly teary today. While taking a break from my reading and writing, I cried over a Buffy, The Vampire Slayer episode (“Amends” for my fellow Buffy fans). Before that I teared up at one of the more poignant Death Cab for Cutie songs. Now I am tearing up after reading portions of In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens. I’ve read it before. Some of the essays I’ve even read dozens of times, and they’ve always affected me deeply. Writers like Alice Walker, Adrienne Rich, Toni Morrison, bell hooks (to name a few) resonate deeply with me and often my first readings of the works that affect me most remain imprinted on my memory. Perhaps it is like this for other readers as well, visceral memories of when they first uncovered a favorite text and felt their lives change. Truly, I am not being hyperbolic here; words have changed my life. I would go so far as to say that they have saved my life. In my most difficult hours I have turned to the solace of books. It’s why I studied creative writing at SC Governor’s School for the Arts when I was a teenager. It’s why I became a scholar. Even more importantly, it’s why I teach and study writing. In particular my early exposure to these writers made me even more committed to writing about the voices that aren’t often heard, voices like those of trauma bloggers.
I’ve always been an avid reader. During the summer my mother would often drop me off at the public library when she went to work and pick me up that evening when she left. Inevitably I would be carrying several bags of books, a habit I have brought with me into adulthood (the carrying of excessive numbers of books). On the weekends, she would drop me off at the outlet mall near our home where I would spend the day scavenging through the books at a remainders store, searching for hidden treasures. That book store is probably why I belong to an almost assuredly small population of people who read Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being at age fourteen. There were other great books to be found there. At thirteen I read Benazir Bhutto’s autobiography and Colin Turnbull’s The Forest People. It was there that I found my first Alice Walker novel, Possessing the Secret of Joy. (I know what you were thinking, but The Color Purple came later.) After that I became obsessed with learning more about female genital mutilation and the activism surrounding it. Believe me when I say that I was quite popular after choosing FGM as a presentation topic for one of my middle school classes. What can I say? I was a strange kid.
Part Two: The Present Tense, Finding and Losing Myself in WordsI’ve been reading a lot lately, and not my usual diet of academic essays, theoretical and critical works, philosophical treatises, and infinite news sources, blogs, and magazines. Of course, these have still been a steady part of my diet. They are, after all, my meat and potatoes, my sustenance. However, lately I’ve immersed myself in fiction. Some of it excellently crafted and “literary;” others of a more purely visceral pleasure. Some, I would go so far as to say, delve into the realm of “guilty pleasure.” Long on plot and intrigue but short on poetic language and insight. I’ve been indulging in dessert words. Some of it strong dark chocolate filled with antioxidants and rich pleasure that lingers on the tongue while others are more drugstore candy–sweet in its momentary enjoyment but leaving little lasting memory. In fact, some of my recent forays into fiction have been saccharine, leaving me wondering why I consumed them at all. Of course I do know the answer to that question. It’s one of the things that is at the heart of my love of fiction. True, my love of reading is at its core the knowledge it brings, the insights it reveals, and the questions that raises deep inside of me. But the other side, the pure desire for fiction, is in its ability to provide escape. I’ve needed a lot of escape lately. Reading, you see, is my drug of choice. It saved me from sadness and loneliness as a child, a teenager, and continues to do so through my adulthood. The desire for that escape into fiction is also a kind of warning system, a signal alerting me when I near depression’s abyss. I know when my depression descends into an anhedonia where even books are unable to comfort me that I’ve reached a danger zone. That’s when I have to shift from avoidance to kicking my own butt. Then it’s time to drag myself away from the edge by any means necessary. Sounds a bit dismal, doesn’t it? A perhaps unhealthy attachment to reading? My perspective on it–if you’re going to have an addiction, reading seems like a pretty good one given the alternatives. I think the key is that reading is more than just an escape. It shores me up, helps me build dunes against the erosion that threatens my well-being. The dunes keep me from being beaten down so that I can pull myself away from those dangerous riptides. Pretty impressive mixing of metaphors, huh? Blame it on the fiction overload and the voices of various authors and characters echoing through my head right now.
As I mentioned in my previous post, life has been overwhelming lately. This time in my life has been a seemingly contradictory opening for losing myself in fiction. It has been a time where I’ve had the luxury to indulge in what has been a necessity. For various reasons (including the financial resources available to me and the unexpected consequence of unemployment) I have had the luxury to escape, to lose myself. Some might argue with my assertion as to the necessity of doing so. But I know myself well enough to know that the only effective strategy for saving myself in these times is to escape. There may be other ways; I just haven’t found them yet. Sometimes you have to lose yourself to find yourself again. I don’t know that I’ve completely accomplished the latter, but I am ready to try again.
But here’s the crux: it’s rare that you have the luxury of living in the extreme peaks and valleys that have been my method of survival. In the past I’ve worked through semesters never indulging in those times of escape and pure pleasure, mostly because I fear that I’ll respond like an addict and ignore the duties of my real life for the joys of escape. When the work is done for the semester, I go on a fiction bender. I fall into the escape until I have to force myself out and face reality again. Ultimately, I know this can’t go on forever. It might be cathartic, but it’s too much and not enough. It’s not healthy. I binge on catharsis then go cold turkey letting reality chip away at my psyche until I can batten down the hatches and find my cathartic shelter before returning to the storm. So, I’m working on a new strategy, and it’s going to take some serious cognitive restructuring. I have to make time to integrate those times of catharsis into my everyday reality. If I don’t, I think that I’ll either be swept away by the storm or forget how to open the hatches once they’ve been shut. It’s going to take willpower to unlearn a behavior thirty two years in the making. (Yes, I realize that I couldn’t read at birth, but my preliterate life was still filled with the escapes of childhood fantasy.) So, how am I going to do it? Well, I have a few tricks up my sleeve. Nothing too impressive. As with any good strategy, it doesn’t rely on one single foundation but a network, so that should one portion fail another should pick up the slack. Built in redundancies have served me well in running websites, maybe they’ll work with running my life as well. Suffice it to say that I don’t have the energy to go into full details here, so you’ll just have to wait for the next post. (Kind of pathetic in the cliffhanger department, huh?) So, tune in next time to hear how a reading social network, a contest for accountability, a set (but not too rigid) schedule, and a new feature for this blog is going to help my direct my life back towards the tracks.
For the past months I have not only taken a hiatus from blogging but also, to some extent, life. It’s been a difficult time for me, both in body and in mind. I’ve experienced a host of problems in all aspects of my life; perhaps I should have seen the implosion and explosion coming. I didn’t.
I suppose it all traces back to my dissertation troubles. When ethical issues arose regarding my participants, I had to make a difficult decision: complete the dissertation and risk harming my participants or rework my methodology, rewrite most of my diss, and risk my job in order to make every effort to protect the psychological well-being of my participants. I chose the latter, unwilling to take the chance that my career aspirations might harm someone else. For me it seemed like the ethical, the right thing, to do. I still believe that, in spite of the fact that it has indeed cost me my job. For the first time since I was old enough to work, I am unemployed. It may have been the best thing to happen to me at this point.
For six months I ignored an ongoing fever, increasingly debilitating insomnia and headaches, dizzy spells, and a deteriorating mental state. I moved 900 miles to a new town, became a first time home owner, started a new job as an Assistant Professor, taught writing to a total of 98 students, had no doctor, made no friends, and tried desperately to complete that dissertation so that come the Spring, I would still have a job. My illness, the stress and time consumed by teaching, lack of medical care (my fault, I know) and social support were too much for me. By the end of the semester, I could barely function, and I was profoundly depressed. I felt that I had failed at the one thing that truly mattered to me, the one thing that made me important and special– my career. And I was wrong.
The truth is that your career means little if you aren’t around to enjoy it. This is where the scary admission comes in: I was suicidal. It wasn’t the first time and sadly, it probably won’t be the last. I owe my survival mostly to the best friend of mine who didn’t. My first year of grad school at Purdue was his last and it damaged me so profoundly that I’ve understood how much more it hurts the ones who love you. Suicide is the ultimate ” fuck you” to the rest of the world. As easy as it might seem, I can’t hurt those I love the way I’ve been hurt. And damn, it’s really hard to admit publicly that I’ve wanted to make that escape, but slowly I am learning to practice what my dissertation preaches. I’m getting past my fear of disclosure. I’m speaking out instead of being silent, in spite of how it will influence the way others see me and, even more frighteningly, that it might hurt my career. However, I take comfort in knowing that my greatest strengths as a scholar and teacher are my compassion and empathy, my true desire to help others and work for positive change. I applaud my participants for speaking out, and my dissertation practically advocates for blogging as a mode of healing. How, then, can I see my own silence as anything but hypocrisy? Maybe I’m being too harsh, but even so, I’m taking my chance and stepping a little farther into the blogosphere of self-disclosure. I’m stepping away from my fear of being perceived as narcissistic and into an awareness that my writing is sharing. It helps me, but it also has the potential to help others not feel alone in their own struggles. And that, dear reader, is not in the least bit narcissistic.
And so, I return to both living and writing. I crawl out of my cave; blinking into the glare perhaps, but what really matters is that I’m opening my eyes again.
…but I haven’t fallen off the face of the Earth. I don’t have much time to post semi-polished blog entries, so I thought I’d just go with a little personal update. I’ve been insanely busy and stressed. For some reason I thought that once I got a job the stress would magically go away. Wrong. Between finishing my dissertation, buying a house in East Stroudsburg, PA (my soon-to-be home), preparing the syllabi for my upcoming classes at East Stroudsburg University, and dealing with all of the many hassles of preparing to move; my stress is through the roof. Somehow I doubt that it will be coming down anytime soon. At the same time, I’m pleased to say that I’m excited about my upcoming move, my new job, my new house, and the people that I’ve met in East Stroudsburg so far. I’m beginning a new chapter in my life, and I couldn’t be more thrilled–that is when I’m not paralyzed with fear. Seriously, my future seems bright, and I’m grateful. I hope to begin blogging again soon. Until then…take care and don’t forget about me.
At this point most of us in academia* know about the tragic events at University of Alabama last week when Amy Bishop, professor of Biology, opened fire during a Friday afternoon faculty meeting killing three professors and injuring three others. The Chronicle of Higher Education has covered the matter extensively with readers posting a range of comments in which they have speculated and responded to the violence that seems to be becoming so prevalent in the world of higher education. (Note: School shootings in secondary ed have been going on for some time, long before Columbine, which was more highly publicized because it was not an inner city school.) Since speculation has attributed to Bishop’s tenure denial this year, the shooting has raised questions about academic culture. Some have argued that the stress of tenure is partly to blame while others have wondered about how we care for mentally ill faculty and still others have firmly resisted making connections between the circumstances of Bishop’s work life and the shooting.
Let me begin my own commentary by saying that the tenure process is not to blame for this shooting. While few things in this world easily fall into black and white (the gray areas are far more prevalent), there are times when homicide can be understood. [I'm feeling chills of discomfort even here. I seem to be at a loss for words as to how to describe my feelings here.] A child whose parents have abused him or her mercilessly can suffer from PTSD (or a range of other mental disorders) causing him or her to dissociate and murder the abuser. I know that I am treading on shaky ground here. As I write this, I am still torn by my belief that murder is never right, never the answer. My next position is also shaky, given that I have just claimed that homicide can be understood. Still, I must say that many people do not receive tenure, and they don’t all go into faculty meetings and start shooting. By that same token, not all children who are abused kill the abuser. So, I don’t want to say that just because other people who don’t attain tenure don’t become shooters that Bishop’s failure to attain tenure could not factor into what she did. To be clear, this does not justify her actions. Ultimately, we will continue to have more questions than answers about her motivation and psychological state. Hopefully, her psychological evaluation will provide insight into why this obviously disturbed individual killed and injured her colleagues. All factors considered failing to attain tenure does not justify homicide.
In spite of some of the arguments that academic culture and tenure requirements can be blamed for Bishop’s actions on Friday, perhaps we can gain something by discussing the culture of academia– not as a justification for homicide, but as a part of our lives that might benefit from careful consideration, perhaps even a bit of excavation.
I have long been of the opinion that the culture of graduate school does not encourage self-care but in fact rewards behaviors that are unhealthy and even dangerous. How many of us have complained about the little sleep that we get while being secretly proud of our dedication? We work through the weekend, late into the night, at the expense of sleep. We fail to eat regular meals and crowd our schedules with additional projects and committees. Being busy demonstrates our ambition and dedication to our work, even when it comes at the expense of our health and relationships. I am completely guilty of buying into this culture and even having pride in my capacity to deny myself. In fact, it comes naturally to me. I’ve always been dedicated and obsessed with my work. It has been my life for so long that I almost forget that there are other things in the world. I inherited my mother’s workaholic gene. Yet this dedication that is so prized when demonstrated through our busy lives, sleep deprivation, and singular obsession with our work has often been to my detriment. Those who know me are aware of my health problems, which are extensive and at times have been disabling. There have been countless times where my obsession with work (and demonstrating the dedication that I have) has been extremely detrimental to my health, often resulting in set backs that I could ill-afford. As an epileptic, I must have a certain amount of sleep and avoid stress as much as possible. Two of the biggest factors in triggering seizures are stress and sleep deprivation. I know this and have tried to get enough sleep and avoid stress. (The latter of which is kind of a joke when you’re on the job market.) Yet even knowing all of this, last March I was working feverishly on a project, not getting enough sleep, and feeling the mounting stress of dissertation work and the upcoming job market. As a result, I ended up in the hospital emergency room, having my clothes cut off of me, and getting fourteen stitches above my left eye. I had a seizure and fell on my face, the cause of which, my doctor adamantly insisted, was my stress and sleep deprivation. This seizure could have caused me to lose an eye; the head trauma could have killed me; I was lucky. Every time I look into a mirror and see the arching scar above my left eye I am reminded of this. Yet even with this powerful reminder, I don’t always get enough sleep and the stress of dissertation and job market is such that I am losing my hair. My point in revealing all of this is simple: I can’t do this alone. I still live in a culture that praises lack of care and views care of self as indulgent. Continue Reading →
The following set of questions come from David Allen, developer of the Getting Things Done system of organization. I’ve been thinking of making resolutions and to do so well, it seems prudent to start with a reflection of what I’ve already done.
Completing and remembering 2009
- What was your biggest triumph in 2009? Dealing with my diagnosis of epilepsy, the disfiguring scar of my latest seizure and still managing to successfully defend my prospectus and apply for jobs.
- What was the smartest decision you made in 2009? Choosing to rise above the pain of a failed relationship and not allowing it to ruin my work.
- What one word best sums up and describes your 2009 experience? Difficult.
- What was the greatest lesson you learned in 2009? The importance of family and maintaining friendships in spite of how busy you get.
- What was the most loving service you performed in 2009? Providing support to a friend even though I disagreed with her decisions.
- What is your biggest piece of unfinished business in 2009? My dissertation
- What are you most happy about completing in 2009? My prospectus
- Who were the three people that had the greatest impact on your life in 2009? My dissertation director, my mother, and my best friend.
- What was the biggest risk you took in 2009? Taking the time to rest this summer rather than working obsessively.
- What was the biggest surprise in 2009? The end of my romantic relationship
- What important relationship improved the most in 2009? The relationship with my brother
- What compliment would you liked to have received in 2009? One that I did receive: [paraphrased] You’ve dealt with so many difficult challenges and yet you keep going on, so I’m proud of you.
- What compliment would you liked to have given in 2009? I feel that I gave all of them. I constantly give my family and friends compliments on their skills and talents and express my appreciation. When I consider what I could have said, I’m at a loss. I’ll continue to contemplate it and update it if I can think of anything.
- What else do you need to do or say to be complete with 2009? Move on with my personal life, putting aside the pain of a failed relationship.
Creating the new year
- What would you like to be your biggest triumph in 2010? Getting a job that I love with people that I get along with in a place that I enjoy living.
- What advice would you like to give yourself in 2010? Trust that things will work out and do not let stress overwhelm you.
- What is the major effort you are planning to improve your financial results in 2010? Consider carefully all purchases before making them.
- What would you be most happy about completing in 2010? My dissertation
- What major indulgence are you willing to experience in 2010? A trip to Italy
- What would you most like to change about yourself in 2010? I’d like to improve my organizational skills and stress management.
- What are you looking forward to learning in 2010? How to teach as a professor, adapting to the shift between graduate student and “professional” academic
- What do you think your biggest risk will be in 2010? Choosing the next step in my career.
- What about your work, are you most committed to changing and improving in 2010? My methods of organizing, collecting, and saving information in my research
- What is one as yet undeveloped talent you are willing to explore in 2010? Musical aptitude (if I can find the time)
- What brings you the most joy and how are you going to do or have more of that in 2010? Writing. I intend to set aside a special time each day for my academic writing and a separate time (at least a few times a week) for personal writing.
- Who or what, other than yourself, are you most committed to loving and serving in 2010? My mother
- What one word would you like to have as your theme in 2010? Success!
In my 2007 New Media class, I posted a blog entry that I felt compelled to repost here:
My grandmother never had her own social security number. When she was born they weren’t issued at birth and the only time a woman needed to/could attain one was if she went to “work.” Otherwise, a wife used her husband’s SSN with a digit added to the end. First of all, let me emphasize how very hard my grandmother worked. She grew up on a farm and married a farmer. They had a little bit of land and by the grace, a home to shelter them; that was pretty much it (even though it was much more than many people had). My grandmother worked out in the fields with my grandfather, sun up to sun down. And working in the fields on a farm is very different from working in your garden, especially when you are working without the farm machinery that we take for granted now. This one photo remains burned into my mind: my grandmother, scarf tied around her head, breaking up soil with a hoe. Even though this photo is taken later, after they were successful enough to say own a camera, for me this is the document that will always serve as evidence of my grandmother’s work. A social security card would tell me nothing about who my grandmother was, about the things that she did. That single photo contains a world of meaning for me that extends far beyond The documents that prove that she was born, that she married and that she died tell me tell me almost nothing about my grandmother, yet even without the stories that I can associate with this photograph, it would still tell me more about who she was as a person. I could see where she lived, a piece of her daily life, how she held her body, what kind of clothing she wore. All of these seem so much more important than knowing her exact date of birth or death. Yet it is our birth certificates that we place in safety deposit boxes. It’s not that these things are unimportant but if I had to choose between a record of when I was born and when I died and a moment in between that showed what I did, I’d choose the photograph that caught me between the birth and death certificates.
All documentation, all records are necessarily incomplete. Even the official documents that tell you when you were born. They give you a date, a place, and the names of your parents. They don’t tell you about the ambulance driver who got lost taking your mother to the hospital and the elevator that got stuck between floors as your mother was being taken to the maternity ward. The entire story of the day that I was born tells you so much more about the bizarre life that began that day than knowing what day it actually was. The date is important for lots of reasons but the story of that day is so much richer. So, my birth certificate tells you little about the circumstances of my birth. Similarly, my grandmother’s photo represents a piece of a moment and place in time, providing no knowledge of what cam before or after or of what was happening outside of the photo’s boundaries, yet that document makes her real to me in ways that a birth certificate never could. So why is it more likely that evidence of her death and birth will remain long after I am gone than will any evidence of the life that she lived between? How do documents get imbued with value? And what makes an official document more valuable than that photo? And what does it say about the ways that women and men are valued differently, when those official documents, the ones that make you “real,” are denied to women?
(A note on my grandmother’s SSN: several years after my grandfather’s death my grandmother had to apply for a social security number in order to get Medicaid. Already in her eighties, my mother helped her with the complex application process to obtain, for the first time, her own SSN. Until then, in the eyes of government assistance, she wasn’t “real.”)
And a comment on the photograph: I don’t know who took it, although I know from stories that it is reflective of my grandmother’s life. It was only in writing this that I considered the circumstances necessary to take a photograph. Did my grandparents own a camera early in their married life? Wouldn’t that have been a strange luxury for a struggling farmer? Could it have been a wealthier relative? And if so, why take such a photo? Why be a voyeur to another’s hard work? (I know that photographers do this all the time but it somehow seems stranger that a relative would photograph and look on without offering help.) What was the impulse that made the photographer want to capture this particular moment in time? I welcome any possible answers to these questions.
I have found, that living under circumstances of chronic traumatization, of sustained abuse, has made me a better critical thinker and has increased my ability to understand the needs, emotions and motives of other. But this could be a mythos created by me to make sense of my disorder and pain. Still, I think that those who suffer chronic traumatization as children, and thus during crucial brain development, experience a different development of mental capacity. Forced to live in a mode of hypervigilance and to consider at all moments the thoughts and motives of those perpetrating the abuse, abused children learn a sort of “double consciousness,” W.E.B. Dubois’ name for the state of mind possessed by oppressed groups:
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,–an American, a Negro; two warring souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder (The Souls of Black Folks)
Often I have felt as though those around me were seeing the world with a different set of lenses, ones which are blurry and leave images soft along the edges, whereas in my world all of the edges are hard and unyielding. Speaking with other survivors has lead me to believe that I am not alone in this feeling. Many of us feel that we see what others cannot. Whether or not this is a deeper truth or a figment of the traumatized mind remains to be seen.
Judith Herman refers to a similar thought process in Trauma and Recovery, though she likens her version to George Orwell’s “doublethink” and the psychologist’s use of the word “dissociation” According to Herman, “the dialectic of trauma gives rise to complicated, sometimes uncanny alterations of consciousness” (1).
“To speak publicly about one’s knowledge of atrocitites is to invite the stigma that attaches to victims” (2) I have plenty of friends from high school (middle and elementary) who do not believe that I was abused. I worked long and hard to create the appearance of a normal family, not because I wanted to be like everyone else, but because I didn’t want my abuse to be the thing that distinguished me from the crowd. I wanted to stand out, but because of who I was not what was done to me.
Let’s take something horrible and make something good out of it. I want to show the horror; give voice to the voiceless; but I also want to make what we have, take what we have suffered and transform it into something that gives the former meaning. So that our sacrifices will not have been in vain.