Tuesday, September 8, 2009
Another must-read from Elizabeth:
Three years ago I left a Ph.D program, and since then I’ve been working as an adjunct English instructor at local colleges. This turn in my life occurred for the same reason that most of my major upheavals have: I’m bipolar. I’d gone back to graduate school after a wild, Prozac-induced manic scotched the career I’d been working for a decade or so, ended my marriage, and threw me into a desperate three-and-a-half year custody battle to keep half-custody of my daughter. I persevered, but the experience involved me screaming at the walls many a late night and lots of pleading to a largely indifferent, uninformed justice system and a God Who was apparently busy elsewhere. My therapist couldn’t work with me because her notes were subpoenaed. My psychiatrist committed suicide. Friends abandoned me. Yet I endured somehow, and it was time to start over. I’d always wanted to be an English professor, and was accepted at a local Ph.D program toward that end.
For three semesters, things were going peachily, but then I had another major manic, then a year of severe depression, then another manic, then more severe depression, until I was sitting at my computer for five hours at a time every day in an attempt to write, and coming up with one ill-conceived sentence or two. My mind was so muddy and seeped in fear and guilt and suicidal ideations that I could barely hold a conversation, let alone write a dissertation. I found out that my dissertation adviser was cracking such hilarious jokes as “Elizabeth will be turning in her work. If she takes her meds.” What a punchline!
(Of course, most so-called normal people are led to assume that the psychiatric community has our disorders under control. For some of us, this is really true; for some, somewhat true. Not true at all for me and millions like me.)
After leaving the Ph.D program, I would have gone on disability if I could have, but as I’d been spending the previous ten years studying, working freelance so I could be there for my daughter, teaching part-time, and babysitting, that wasn’t a possibility. No disability for me. No health insurance. Life sucked. I despised myself for falling short and felt sorry for myself for the same reason. The world seemed like a nightmare, and I was terrified. Terrified by the people around me that thought my pain was a really amusing joke or a reason to villify me, or worse, dispense with me. But way more terrified that my mind kept generating horrific scenes of suicide, replaying the disastrous follies of my manics, berating me for the things I could not get myself to do. Terrified of my mind turning what used to be pleasant things—birdsong, tree branches swaying in the breeze—into demonstrations of shrieking, nefarious movements, nightmare.
I had to push that all aside as best I could. I had no choice but to keep going, keep working, and all I can say at this point is thank God. My work as an English instructor has saved me.
My work requires me to get up every morning and do the work. People are depending on me to teach them something worthwhile and to respond to their writing with sensitivity and good advice. I have to do what I can to make these students better writers and readers, and to do that I have to convince them that doing so will improve their chances and their lives. We have essays and short stories to discuss, which deal with the difficulties, complications, and joys of human experience. I have to motivate them to do exactly what I am having so much trouble doing in my own life: reading well, thinking carefully, and writing clearly.
I have a responsibility to these people. Some of them seem totally disaffected, just sitting there in a daze. Some have come from incredibly hard lives and dysfunctional schools. Some are trying to scratch their ways into a second career. It’s my job to try to encourage them to persevere, to spark their interest, to focus their attention. I need to get them to feel comfortable enough to ask questions and interested enough to want to join our discussions and do the work with integrity and hard work.
Something strange happens to me when I enter a classroom. I turn into someone else, or that person I am underneath the depression. For some reason, when I am with my students, my depression disappears, even if I’d been panicking on my drive to get to them, unable to recall what I’d planned to say and do. I manage to focus and come alive once I hit the classroom. If I’m still at a loss, I ask my students what they think and what they don’t understand. I listen carefully and try to respond the best way I know. I find myself having some answers. I find myself cracking jokes. The dire thoughts clear, and my mind regains some of its bounce and focus. Suddenly, I’m O.K.
I don’t know why that is, exactly. The showmanship of teaching can be quite heady, and my students don’t know that I’m coming to them from a life of confusion and despair. They do know, though, that I’m listening as much as talking, and that can mean the world to them. My students’ appreciation that I’m really trying to get concepts through is gratifying. When a young woman coming from a history of twenty ghetto foster homes says, “Wow, I had no idea people thought about things like this!”, I feel I’ve given her something. She certainly deserves it—it’s mind-boggling to me that she’s managed to even get to college, and it puts my life in perspective. Turning a classroom of people into a community is exciting. It’s an ego boost, to be sure. It’s fun. It’s communal. It’s everything I can’t manage without them.
Sometimes one of my students will disappear for a while and come back with a disability form. Bipolar. Depression. Panic attacks. I out myself to these people. I try to convince them to try, at least to continue the course and complete the work through an incomplete. I tell them about my first breakdown, when I was about their age. I say, “We aliens, we have to stick together.” And I hope that makes them feel less alone and better able to deal with it alll.
I’m not saying it’s been easy. For most of these past three years, I’ve gotten up at four or five in the morning so I’ll be over the worst of it—my daily intense three-hour anxiety-attack-mixed-in-with-panic-and-suicidal-ideations—by the time I hit the classroom. Adjunct college instructors (along with pre-school and substitute teachers) are the most poorly paid out there, with no job security and no benefits. But I can scrape together enough to keep a roof over my daughter’s and my own head. Resale shops are fun, and that’s where I get my clothes and even my art and various oddments. I don’t find them demeaning. I find them entertaining and surprising and useful. Whole grains and beans and seasonal vegetables are the best food for me, and they’re cheap. So far my 1999 model Beetle (dubbed “The Evil Clown Car”) is holding up, and when it fails, there’s always the bus.
John writes about tools for dealing with mentally illness that go way beyond the meds: sleeping well (if you can), eating well, talk therapy, support groups, exercise, meditation. My best tools are to force myself to communicate and to do things I believe in, and communicating and doing don’t come easy when I’m depressed. I’m lucky—I have a job where I actually get paid to do both, and a reality where I need to do that job.
Jobs that entail helping other people are out there. They are quite often underpaid, but they pay off handsomely in ways other than money. I don’t think I could have survived these last years if my work had been gauged by the amount of profit I made. I think office politics would have killed me, literally. But I also think that if I’d been able to get disability, that would have killed me also. I don’t think I’ve had it in me these last years to make a meaningful life without other people needing me to do so. Whatever the dynamics that make my job work for me, whether it’s more or less ego boost or more or less altruism (I could, after all, do a crappy, dispirited job and still look O.K. on paper), I do know that my attempts to help other people have been at least part of my saving grace.
Even if you cannot hold down a regular job, or if you need to keep a job that doesn’t exactly make you feel like you’re improving the lot of humanity, seek out ways to be of good use. Volunteer officially, or just listen carefully to other people’s problems and offer understanding and a hug. Help out when you can. If, say, your job is to ring up sales at a gas station, smile and be kind to everybody. Many of your customers will smille and be kind to you in turn. It’s infectious. If you practice empathy toward others, even in the littlest ways, you’ll find yourself stepping out of your own pain. You’ll find yourself feeling connected instead of alienated. All our great spiritual leaders have taught the essential truth that taking good care of others is the essential way to happiness. If you suffer from mental illness, doing for others might just save your life.