Riding the wave

My silence here lately isn’t for a lack of things to say, but because I’ve been so busy doing something really different.

When last semester ended, I realized how long it had been since I had taken a real break from work. Although tenure-track professors with children may be perpetually busier than those like me without children, they typically feel justified in devoting time to their kids in their daily lives. In contrast, I had felt unable to justify taking time for anything but work, and couldn’t stop feeling bad about it long enough to enjoy doing other things anyway. Even my vacations have been working vacations, full of anxiety/guilt about the time I didn’t spend working. Facing my first between-semester break after receiving tenure, the pressure was lifted. It was suddenly clear to me that I need and deserve time for things besides work, just like everyone else.

I started doing very low-stakes craft projects:  things that serve no alternative purpose and that are inexpensive to make, so that if something is not working out I can stop and discard it without hesitation. These projects have involved a lot of experimenting, and problem solving as I go along; nothing has been from a kit, or with predetermined rules. Working on these projects, I get totally absorbed in what I’m doing, and my mind is clear of everything else. Psychologists call this a state of “flow,” a term that reminds me of lots of surfing metaphors for being open to the present moment. I don’t surf and can’t even swim well enough to try, but I can readily imagine that it would feel similar to the new and completely exhilarating sense of freedom I’ve been getting from bending wires or spreading paint.

When I was a child I was making things all the time, but as I got older my enjoyment of these activities was ruined by feelings of shame and fear.  My visual arts projects were an embarrassment to my father for as long as I could remember. (Ever give your parent a handmade gift and have them say “What the hell is this?” or “Why would anyone want this?”) He’d yell at me and criticize/insult me when he saw me working on crafts, and I remember my mother saying things like “Daddy will be very unhappy if he sees you playing like this.”

In part, I think my father hated my craft projects because he is so competitive and saw my record of accomplishments as a reflection on his. In other words, if my creative endeavors could have gotten me recognized as a child prodigy or something else I could use on my college applications, I’m sure he would have been all for it. In fact, when I was 12 my father encouraged me to submit my short stories/poetry and musical compositions for review for publication. But these weren’t adult-quality, publishable things — just private, personally meaningful endeavors, and therefore a shameful waste of time in my father’s eyes. Don’t get me wrong, though, my father doesn’t see all leisure activities as shameful. For example, he has always spent plenty of time watching sports events on TV (an activity that isn’t going to create anything prize-worthy), and he really wanted me to enjoy watching sports with him. But he saw watching sports as the kind of activity that normal, healthy, popular kids do, whereas he saw my craft projects as something only a “backwards” child would do. He punished me for my non-competitive creative hobbies because he cared enough about me to try to stop me from being so “backwards”.

I didn’t join the literary magazine club as most of my friends did in high school, because I felt so much shame about my writing. When friends said that although I wrote a lot, I wasn’t a “real” writer like they were, I assumed they were right to exclude me, and it didn’t even occur to me to question letting a bunch of self-appointed teenage writers decide whether or not my writing was “real”.  In college I continued to do creative writing, piano, and various crafts – but for no one but myself, and by this point largely in secret.

After I got married and went to graduate school I no longer had the private space/time I’d needed for my creative work, and moments taken away from pursuing my academic/career goals became harder for me to feel good about.  I sometimes found disguised ways to be creative – such as making window shades and other things for the household that I could tell myself had a practical purpose that made them worth doing.  But eventually these practical crafts felt more like pressure than fun, and I largely stopped doing them when I became able to afford store-bought or professionally made items instead.  It has really been decades since I have done craft projects for their own sake, as I have been in the last couple of months.

I’m needing to learn to budget my time better to fit creative projects into my schedule, and I’m also needing to find ways to keep my work space better organized to accommodate things like paint, wire, and glue along with the piles of paper I use as a professor.  But starting this seems to have opened up a floodgate of interests so long suppressed that I didn’t know I still had them, and I’ll ride this wave where it takes me.

Hard to imagine

About 30 years ago, after leaving residential treatment against the advice of my doctors, I finished my undergraduate requirements on a part-time schedule, took the GREs, and applied to doctoral programs in clinical psychology. I knew that acceptance to one of these programs straight out of college would be a long-shot under the best of circumstances, but because I had trouble imagining my life without being in school, I thought why not try applying anyway.  And go figure, I got in.

Shortly after my college graduation, I moved across the country to an apartment near where the graduate school was located, and found a highly-recommended psychiatrist (Dr. P.) to continue my mental healthcare in this new city.  Dr. P. evaluated me for several sessions and obtained my records from my previous doctors. Then, knowing that I was supposed to be starting graduate school in a matter of weeks, she urged me to withdraw. She said I wouldn’t be able to succeed in this path, and that it would be a terrible mistake to try.

I didn’t know what to do, but didn’t think it made sense to drop out of graduate school before I’d even seen what it was like. I tried to explain this to Dr. P., but she insisted that I was being unrealistic, and embarking on a dangerously stressful course that could only end in failure and regret.  So I went to a nearby outpatient clinic to get randomly assigned to a new psychiatrist, and started graduate school as planned.

My progress in school was slow and uncertain for many reasons. But the biggest reason was that every time I faced a setback, I feared that maybe Dr. P. had been right. Maybe I was too mentally ill to succeed as a clinical psychologist. After all, my own mental health history was more severe than the most impaired of my patients at the clinic, the ones my professors referred to with stigmatizing labels and hopeless prognoses. Though in retrospect it seems clear that every reasonably self-aware clinical psychology trainee ought to have some self-doubts, the degree of fear and stigma attached to my self-doubts was staggering. Maybe I never should have left the smoke-filled TV lounge of the residential program, where I had been so desperate for air and non-delusional conversation?

I did finish my Ph.D. after a decade which included two leaves of absence for depression. Afterwards I worked for close to a decade more in a series of temporary, often low-paying post-doctoral positions.  Still having trouble managing my illness (and requiring two more leaves of absence), I worried that I would never be able to use my degree for stable employment. It took me several years of applying for faculty jobs before I received an offer. And soon after starting this tenure track job I was back on emergency medical leave again, haunted by Dr. P’s prophecy.

It was nearly five years ago that I returned from leave for one last chance at redeeming my career, and though it hasn’t been easy or smooth, I’ve really given it everything I could. With the help of ketamine infusions, I have accomplished far more during this time – in terms of being a scholar and teacher and functional adult – than ever before.  It really has been one of the most strenuous challenges of my life, and I am grateful to everyone who has helped encourage and support me through it, including several on-line readers.

Today I found out that I have been awarded tenure. For the first time I feel like I can really say that Dr. P. was wrong about my future — and that she was wrong to have made my young self feel crazy and stupid for still wanting to try to pursue it. She might have talked to me about the likelihood that I’d need more time to get my degree, and more support, than my classmates. She might have talked to me about the importance of being patient with myself through this process. But what she said was more or less the opposite of those things. Even if she did it with good intentions, to tell me my plans were doomed to end catastrophically was harmful, as well as factually incorrect. Today as I am finally leaving Dr. P’s prophecy behind, my future is opening up. Sure the road I took to get here was much longer, steeper and more meandering than that of most tenured professors. But what I’ve experienced and learned along the way only makes me better at my work, not worse.

That I’ve actually arrived here hasn’t quite sunk in yet, but I know it will mean many positive, anxiety-reducing changes in my life. It also means that I have definitively defied the odds against me in a way that even now seems practically impossible.

After having seen all that they saw,
It’s hard to imagine. It’s hard to imagine.
Things were different then. All is different now.
I tried to explain somehow.
Things were different then. All is different now…
~Pearl Jam (1993)

For crying out loud

A few years ago I had been talking to colleagues about the discomforts of dealing with stressed-out students, when one announced that he has a strict “no crying” policy for his office.  Intriguingly, the way he phrased this made it sound like it was something he was proud to stand by — as if he had just said he had a strict “no cheating” policy, or something like that.  Listening, I asked myself why I hadn’t  ever even considered such a policy. Was I just too stupid, or too weak?

It wasn’t until I was preparing my application for tenure that I realized how angry I felt about my colleague’s stance on this issue. I wanted to ask him: What do you think happens to the tearful students you turn away? Do you think your office rules force your students to suddenly stop having the urge to cry? Or force them to finally get professional help, so that they’ll no longer need to cry in front of their professors? Well, what really happens is that your students a) feel worse and b) bottle up their feelings until they meet a professor with more flexible policies. Probably a professor who is a woman, because a woman with a “no crying” policy like yours would be widely disrespected and disliked by students for being a bitch.

Our students have signed up for college, not for bootcamp. Sure, they should be encouraged and taught to cope with stress in ways that will help them come across as professional, but they can’t be expected to have thoroughly mastered those skills on any schedule, let alone the schedule best suited to a particular professor’s convenience. And some of the reasons students cry are just as legitimate as reasons that anyone would cry. For example, several students have tearfully talked to me after friends of theirs died or nearly died by suicide. Even if I hadn’t been trained as therapist before becoming a professor, I would consider it cruel and inappropriate to prohibit them from crying in my office.

If you proudly announce that you prohibit crying, you may as well advertise that you refuse to help injured students stop bleeding – because you can count on the women in your department to clean up the mess.

I’m sorry

A week from tomorrow my materials are due for my tenure evaluation. What this means is that after next week the college I work for is going to decide: either I get a promotion, or I get fired. There is no in-between.  I’ve been working to obtain the desired position for most of 2-3 decades, and preparing for this evaluation practically non-stop for the last year. If I don’t get it and instead lose my job, my husband and I will have to move to who knows where to do who knows what, and I don’t even want to contemplate what this means for my treatment or my mental health.

I have plenty more unsaid stuff to say but I have been finding it hard to really invest in writing about it, because I keep thinking about the upcoming deadline and evaluation. I hope you understand and I’m sorry.

 

 

What does “be positive” mean to you?

Some folks may innocently say “be positive” as a general synonym for “do beneficial things.” But in Western culture, “be positive” has come to have specific implications, including:

  • fake it until you make it
  • look confident at all times, even if this means never trying to learn anything new
  • don’t be angry/unhappy because it might put someone off
  • your inability to consistently visualize a positive outcome might prevent it from happening
  • you deserve unhappiness if you aren’t able to think it away
  • and so on.

I’ve come think that “be positive” is actually a code word for something quite ugly, when you look at what it is doing to young people these days. Everyone has negative feelings and negative experiences. Pressure to pretend that this isn’t true (i.e., that we can have it all if we play the part well enough) is only making people extremely fragile and intolerant.

Truly “being positive” begins with allowing yourself to feel negatively, without needing to hide it or beat yourself up for it. And allowing others in your life to do the same.

Unsent replies to student emails

Under pressure

re: “I can’t come to class because I have to go home early…”  I am so sorry to hear that you are being forced against your will to miss class and extend your Thanksgiving vacation by several days. I know all too well how hard it is when external pressures limit our freedom and ability to make choices. You can do this — stay strong.

 But I care about what’s important

re: “I hope I’m not going to miss anything important…”  Nah, out of consideration for you and the other students who will be missing today’s class I’ve decided to make it a pointless waste of time for the suckers who didn’t just take off for Thanksgiving several days early.

re: “Please tell me if I’m missing anything important…” Important? Nothing so important that I couldn’t just it type up and send it to you in a quick email instead.

re:I assume it is just a regular class and nothing important…” Who knows, this could be the most important class session of your life. But who am I to decide for you what is important and what is not?

re:Will I miss anything important?”  To be honest, I’ve just been telling myself that what I teach is important in order to maintain my motivation to do all the hard work that teaching requires. But now that you ask, I have to admit that it is all useless and I’m just going to go back to bed.

And sucking up is always important, right?

re: “I hope you’ll accept my [extremely overdue] paper because I really enjoyed listening to Pearl Jam while I wrote it and I thought you’d appreciate that!!!”  I’m glad you enjoyed it, but no. And ewwww.

The punishing truth about campus mental health policies

Recently I have seen several articles critical of Northern Michigan University, where last year students received emails warning them that talking about their struggles with mental illness could result in removal from the college  (see link below). I’ve been following this story with quite a bit of interest, because as a college student I was profoundly affected by campus mental health policies, and as a faculty member I’ve served on the committee charged with creating such policies.

What I think is missing from discussion of this news story is recognition that students who want to stay in school while suffering from mental illness are ostensibly punished for suicidal ideation, nonsuicidal self-injury, and other aspects of their disorders (such as eating disorder symptoms) in colleges everywhere. In fact, the only thing really striking about the NMU case is that the school’s punitive policies had been expressed to the students directly, transparently, and in writing, rather than in the usual stealth ways.

At the college where I work, for example, students aren’t explicitly prohibited from expressing self-destructive feelings, but there is a policy that justifies a mandated (involuntary) leave of absence for students with mental illness if they 1) place their own health and safety at risk, or 2) cause others ‘substantial distress’ above a ‘normal, everyday’ level, or 3) are returning from a psychiatric hospitalization. While #1 is well-intended, it isn’t objectively defined, and students find it unfair that some forms of self-destructive behavior (such as nonsuicidal self-injury or eating disorder) result in much more harsh consequences than forms of self-destructive behavior with less mental illness stigma (such as consuming dangerous amounts of alcohol). What #2 means to a student with mental illness is that if your roommate worries enough about you, you might have to leave school, whether or not you want to. And #3 means that if you seek help at an emergency room or elsewhere in order to get through a tough time, you might not be welcome back on campus when you feel the danger has passed.

The language of our policy really troubles me (and I’m sorry that my need for anonymity makes me unable to directly quote it for you). For example, I wonder whose standards get to determine what constitutes a ‘normal, everyday’ level of distress, since it certainly isn’t going to be the level of distress that students suffering from mental illness live with every day. Is the college really requiring students who are disadvantaged by extraordinarily difficult lives to put on a pretty face about it for the sake of their luckier peers?

But perhaps what is most disturbing is how easily a school that considers itself modern and inclusive can get away with legitimatizing bias against people with mental illness. At this college, students with mental illness who have violated no conduct codes nor fallen out of good academic standing can nevertheless be banished from the college just because others find their presence upsetting. The campus community would strongly object to a policy like this if it were directed against students on the basis of their gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, physical disability, etc. It would even oppose applying this policy to students who persistently cause others significant distress by expressing abhorrent ideas. By adopting this policy specifically for students with mental illness, the college is telling these students that they cannot count on same basic rights as anyone else. And though the broader community doesn’t seem to care or notice, the targeted students really do take this message to heart.

I struggled with mental illness for my entire time in college. And one tearful night mid-semester in my third year, when my residence hall leader asked if I had any suicidal thoughts, I answered honestly. As a result I was faced with eviction, which unsurprisingly did wonders for my mental state, and I “voluntarily” withdrew from school because I had few other options. I still have a lot of questions about what happened back then. Did my undergraduate institution genuinely act in the interest of its students when it required me to decide between denying my suicidal thoughts or being forced to leave? When I admitted feeling suicidal that night, was I asking to be removed from college and placed in the mental health system for my own good? Or did I just make a stupid mistake that dramatically changed years of my life in a largely unwelcome way? Decades later I’m still not sure.

There are sometimes very good reasons to require students to take a leave, to protect those who aren’t able to freely choose protection. Indeed, my own sad story might have been even worse if I hadn’t been forced to withdraw when I did (we will never really know). Regardless of the intent of mandated mental health leave policies, though, the students faced with them quite reasonably feel disenfranchised; and the fact that these students realistically fear being punished if the college knew the extent of their suffering prevents them from getting help. I don’t know what the answer to this problem is, but the problem is far more complicated and widespread than either the administrators or the students closest to these policies are going to be willing to admit.

Reference: http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2016/09/a-school-is-threatening-to-punish-its-suicidal-students.html?