But It’s Heavy: Friendships, Expectations, and Illness

In this post, Xan reflects on the weight of chronic illness, and role of emotions, expectations, and caregiving in the experience of chronic illness and emotion management.  

In my last post I wrote about the fallacy of people thinking I cannot carry things because like many people with cystic fibrosis (CF), I am very thin. “But it’s heavy!” strangers will say. “You can’t possibly carry it all by yourself.” If only they knew. I manage just fine with heavy material objects, provided they aren’t especially large or unwieldy. No, the heaviest burdens I carry are those unseen to others.

Knowing the data, knowing people with your condition have an average life expectancy in the high 30s range, constantly explaining “well it’s really a bimodal distribution differentiated by access to care and a bunch of contextual factors” to wide-eyed people whose eyes well up with tears because it’s too hard for *them* to handle to know you are sick. Now *that’s* heavy. I spend so much time explaining things that people could Google, so much time bending over my phone responding to messages asking if I’m okay when what people really want is for me to make *them* feel okay. My neck has begun to hurt from the weight of my head literally dragging me down.

So now I’m holding my phone at 90 degrees to my face, stretching my neck and thoracic muscles, asking myself tough questions about why I’ve always swallowed whole the assumption that it’s my responsibility to do the emotional labor of coddling people in my life under the guise of helping them get educated. It’s never the people closest to me who ask for this. They know better, or they wouldn’t have gotten so close to me in the first place. Asking how I am is kind and affirming. Using that question to spend the next 30 minutes gobbling up all the emotional support you can from me about how hard my diagnosis is for you and how much it scares you…is not. It literally weighs me down.

Being open about your fears is a tremendously good thing in and of itself. It’s where you seek support in coping with those fears that matters. This isn’t black and white; it’s a question of nuances. Ring Theory offers a good way to understand socially affirming flows of emotional support, using a simple algorithm of “comfort in, dump out”. The basic idea here works like an earthquake. The person dealing directly with the challenges at hand (terminal illness, loss of a loved one, sexual assault, etc.) dwells at the epicenter. Then shock waves radiate around the epicenter with progressively lower intensity as distance increases. A life partner feels them most intensely, followed closely by other family members who are close to the person. Then come very close friends, then other friends and colleagues in a much bigger ring, and then casual acquaintances.

I’m a pretty textbook long-surviving CF patient in many ways, including both all the issues I do experience and what has heretofore been more minimal involvement of the pancreas. Whether I have any pancreatic involvement remains unknown, because I definitely have some bizarre endocrine symptoms these days. I just keep coming back to the fact that I had low-positive results on a sweat test *and* so many of the core clinical signs of the disease and nobody gave a damn. Why was my case dismissed when my parents kept fighting so hard to get me medical care? Why did I have to be treated in fragmented little pieces by specialists focused on this or that organ? Why did I have to undergo surgery to rebuild mucous membranes that could have been reasonably well protected by drugs that were already on the market? These questions pull me down like heavy stones.

I see a CF specialist tomorrow for the first time in my entire 33 years of life and these questions spin through my mind constantly. And I feel the lingering fear that this doctor won’t believe me either, that I’ll now be caught in a terrible limbo of knowing I need a specific type of care yet being just as unable to get it as when I had more questions than answers. Maybe I still have more questions than answers. I spend most of my time trying to answer other people’s questions, though. And it has exhausted me so thoroughly that I feel empty inside, as if my disease consists more of the need to justify it and reassure others than of its terrible physical mechanics, which I wind up with little cognitive space to consider. I go to bed each night feeling as if the day has drained all the life from me, questions racing through my mind in the darkness that surrounds.

I don’t have any real answers. I wish desperately that I did, but I don’t, and I often feel as if I’ve failed the people in my life because of that. All I have is a lot of lost time and an opportunity to do things differently with a doctor who stands a chance of understanding my case and my needs. So…to be continued. I’m excited about meeting with the specialist. I try to Be Positive in all things. But there’s so much beneath the surface, and it feels exceptionally heavy today. So I strive to grow more proficient and comfortable in asking others to shoulder a piece of that burden, not my grocery bags or guitar equipment. For it’s the invisible weights that bring us down the hardest.

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On the Dubiously Accessible Caste System of Conspicuous Fitness

In this post, Xan reflects on relationships between consumption and fitness while placing these cultural patterns within the context and perspective of people managing chronic conditions.

Recently the New York Times published an article about outcomes from wearable fitness devices. The takeaway from this article was that “Fitbits and Apple Watches and the like may have their uses, but they don’t appear to be effective in weight loss.” No surprises there. I’ve always looked at these devices as part of a culture of “conspicuous fitness”, in which folks manage their image more than their health.

I do like that these devices often encourage people to view activity as a continuous spectrum rather than a dichotomy of active vs. inactive pursuits. But most folks who wanted a life with physical activity integrated into the process of doing other things, like getting to work or shopping for groceries, were probably already doing that stuff. Plus, expensive devices really don’t target demographics of folks whose activity may be more limited by environmental factors like street safety and air quality.

The whole “conspicuous fitness” thing also seems alien to me because of the aggressive norming of how we perceive people as “fit” or not. I’m never going to be running marathons–which the literature suggests is probably not that great for you anyway, but I digress–or climbing mountains. But I have good strength and work to maintain it. I like to walk, either alone with some music or sharing time with my spouse. I like to dance at concerts and at goth clubs when I go.

And then there are the can’ts. I can’t run or ride a bike for long distances because the cystic fibrosis (CF) has attacked my joints, so anything causing impact or intense repetitive stress is decidedly off the table. I can’t swim in pools because I get pseudomonas infections easily and the chlorine plays havoc with my skin. I can’t go hiking in places where there’s no restroom access–peeing in the woods is well and good, but other things not so much. I can’t go waterskiing or do other stuff where I can’t use a bathroom at a moment’s notice.

I don’t mesh with the picture of “fitness” in many people’s minds, yet the work I do to keep my body strong–and how I integrate it into the bigger picture of my life–makes a big difference in my ability to live well with such a pervasive disease. People often think I’m frail. I wrote a publication about it. People don’t think I can kick some ass if I need to. My first paying job was teaching karate classes for junior students. People chronically underestimate me. They try to keep me from carrying my own groceries, from moving heavy things. The element of surprise never seems to lose its power.

I define “fitness” as part and parcel of my own continuous process of illness management, in which I adjust daily to nuances in the challenges of living with CF and its consequences. My disease and how it limits me seem as normal to me as the ways in which CF does *not* limit me. Walking down the street, legs in rapid swing, feels about as normal as it gets. But this activity gets read differently if I wear the sheath dresses and blazers I favor for work, or my weekend jeans and band T-shirts, versus spandex leggings and trainers.

I’m never that person cruising the produce aisle with workout gear and an mp3 player strapped to my arm. I have no interest in being that person. Trying to convince the world that my body conforms to preconceived notions of “fitness” would be an utter lie. I may be relatively strong, but I’m not *vital*. Article after article flying through my social media feed chirps that “fit” people don’t feel tired all the time. What goes unsaid is that many of these journalists never bother talking to people living with chronic diseases that impact our mobility, our activity choices, our energy.

Which is a shame, because you’ve got to be pretty damn fit in a number of ways to function at a high level with diseases that constantly attack your body from the inside out. Doubly so if you want to keep your independence, something many of us cling to like a life preserver, as if it is the only thing holding our mortality in check. Sometimes carrying our own groceries or wrangling heavy equipment feels like all we have. So all of this got me thinking about perceptions and reality, and about the nature of heaviness when you carry a ponderous burden everywhere you go. And that is a topic for a separate post.

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Sidelined: Contraception Side Effects and Gender Inequity

In this post, Xan Nowakowski explores recent discussions arising from clinical trials for men’s contraception in relation to broader patterns of gender inequity in health and contraception and some of their own experiences navigating gender, contraception, health, and side effects.  

I’ve been seeing a lot of posts on social media lately making fun of men for dropping out of clinical trials of hormonal contraceptives due to terrible side effects. This isn’t remotely okay, and it needs to stop. Suggesting that men should martyr themselves on the same crosses other people have been involuntarily nailed to for centuries isn’t a solution, and frankly it’s terribly cruel. The issue here isn’t that men are speaking up about feeling terrible and prioritizing their health in choosing to drop out of the clinical trials for these drugs. The issue is that women reported the same exact side effects in trials of the same drugs that are currently on the market for people with ovaries and uteri. Rather than those trials being shut down as the one for contraceptive pills for people with penises and testicles was, the trials continued and the women’s concerns were dismissed as weakness or figments of imagination.

Reproductive autonomy is a fundamental human right, and people shouldn’t have to feel physically and/or mentally compromised to invoke that right in their daily lives. No one contraception option is right for every single person’s health needs, even within a given sex or gender group. We should have hormonal contraception options for everyone that work without making us feel like epic shit. And nobody–and I mean *nobody*–should ever be discredited for saying a medication is diminishing their quality of life.

The timing of the news about the clinical trial for male contraception couldn’t be more ironic or apt. Those of you who know me well know that I’ve taken regular-dose triphasic oral contraception since I was 17 years old, even though I was ready to get sterilized in my early 20s. Although my doctors would have approved sterilization surgery given my lifelong knowledge that I was childfree, I would still have needed estrogen therapy to combat some of the health problems caused by my autoimmune disease, most notably the threat to my bones.

I took the same two or three brands of generic triphasic pills for nearly two decades. Then when I moved to Orlando, the Publix around the corner from my house didn’t carry any of those and offered me a different generic. Within a few days, things began to go downhill.

My mental health spiraled quickly. I became extremely depressed, which is so completely unusual for me that at first I didn’t realize what was happening. I blamed myself for “fooling myself” about how much progress I’d made with my PTSD or thinking that I could actually make a go of things in my new role with FSU COM. The future became a sucking black hole in my mind, full of nothing but hopelessness and the prospect of being gradually betrayed more and more by my body. I cried all the time. I experienced terrible paranoia and started hearing voices. I found it difficult to trust anyone, including my spouse and my parents. I thought about suicide constantly.

None of this is remotely usual for me. Even during my worst experiences with the PTSD, I haven’t felt like that. I’ve always had hope. You don’t survive 32 years with a disease like mine if you don’t have hope.

I also experienced bizarre changes in my physical health, like my breasts suddenly swelling an entire cup size and becoming painful to touch even while putting on clothing. I was so exhausted every morning that my whole body felt as if it were made of lead. My kidneys hurt and my intestines felt as if someone had tied them in a knot. The flora in my entire pelvic region got completely out of whack and a terrible smell seemed to follow me everywhere. And for some reason, my symptoms always seemed to be worst in the morning and get a little bit better throughout the day, then worsen again in the night.

In the back of my mind, the possibility that this might be a bad reaction to the pills I was given swam around. I wasn’t thinking straight by the time I became seriously concerned. If I had, I would have stopped the pills immediately and called Publix to switch me back onto my old medication. But my mind went instead to blaming myself, to thinking I’d done something to make my body and mind act like that, that I just wasn’t strong enough, that now I was becoming as grotesque on the outside as I felt on the inside.

I tried to communicate with my spouse about it and kept failing horribly. I worried about being a “quitter”, or worse, a bad epidemiologist–blaming medication I’d taken for half my life for my own failings. But eventually, toward the end of the pack when the swelling in my chest had gotten so bad that I was in pain all day and couldn’t wear some of my bras, I blurted this out to J between spells of inscrutable tears.

J stopped in their tracks. “You’re on the wrong pills. Xan, this isn’t you. You’re on the wrong pills. None of this is your fault.” So I stopped taking the pills, which I usually would have done before going to bed at night. When the next morning came, I felt somewhat better rather than worse. By that night, I started to feel a lot better. My chest deflated like a pricked balloon, returning to its usual size within 48 hours. All of my mental symptoms also disappeared. I felt hope and joy coming back into my consciousness. I felt alive again.

My relief was offset by my desire to blame myself. As J pointed out, I couldn’t have been expected to put the pieces together clearly when my mind was betraying me at every turn and making me doubt myself so much. I still feel some of that doubt now, just minus the crushing hopelessness that accompanied it when I was still taking those pills. After all, this wasn’t my first rodeo with medication side effects. I’ve been on dozens of medications, some that I need to survive and others that could have killed me. Shouldn’t I have been “better” at dealing with this kind of stuff by age 32? Not entirely, and certainly not in a world where pharmaceutical companies aren’t expected to be “better” at not marginalizing and ridiculing the adverse experiences of millions of women.

In my mind I don’t see myself as a woman, but this is one of those times where the reality of that being how many others see me has been driven horribly and irrevocably home. I struggle daily now with the feeling that I became every awful stereotype of a “hormonal” woman. The feelings of violation run deep, along with those of disappointment in myself. I got thrown headfirst into a mess of gendered experiences and stigmas, and although I came out alive, I did so feeling horribly dirty and despoiled. Weeks later, the dirt still won’t wash off.

I’m proud of the men who are standing up for their right not to feel like utter garbage physically and mentally in seeking reproductive autonomy and sharing that burden with other gender groups in ways that are long overdue. I just hope that in doing so, they will stand up for all the women who’ve been getting hurt since long before male contraception ever came on the scene. The fact that the FDA has only now, after 50-some years, approved an in-depth study of linkages between depression and hormonal contraceptive use in women, is both telling and damning. The recent closure of male contraceptive pill clinical trials represents an opportunity for all of us to affirm the struggles and amplify the voices of millions of women who have been harmed by paternalistic practices in the testing and prescribing of hormonal contraceptives.

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When the Personal Meets the Professional Meets the Personal: One Queer Trans Guy’s First Week of the Semester Processing Session

Jay Irwin, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He received his PhD in Medical Sociology from the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2009. He is heavily involved in activism and advocacy both on campus and in the larger community. His research and teaching involve LGBT health, trans identities, and sexualities.

I have just completed what has to be the most bizarre and emotionally draining first week of a semester – potentially in my entire academic career, both past and future. I had a rough summer to start. I had an invasive back surgery in July and was recuperating while teaching an online class from a rented hospital bed in my living room. I had a lot of time to think this summer and was excited for the Fall term to begin. I had modified my courses and was ready to engage students in new and exciting ways. My body wasn’t fully ready to go to work, but regardless, I had to go back to work and was intellectually charged to go engage with students. And then I had one of the most exhausting, bizarre, and hurtful first weeks ever.

THE PERSONAL MEETS THE PROFESSIONAL

Actually, this all started the Saturday before classes began. I teach an Intro to LGBTQ Studies course. To be more specific, I created the course, and I am the ONLY faculty member teaching this course. In this class we are conducting oral histories of LGBTQ people in the local community, part of a larger archive project my University just began this summer (http://queeromahaarchives.omeka.net/). I was contacting people all summer to gather a list of people whose history NEEDS to be recorded, and in my class, I am specifically prioritizing people over 50 years old, QTPOC, and trans folx, as their histories get lost the quickest. One person in particular was very excited to participate, but was currently in hospice care. They[1] were an influential and important member of my University community as well, so the archivist and I conducted the interview ourselves, on a Saturday, in their home, while their daughter and granddaughter sat by their side, holding their hand and giving them emotional strength. It was both beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time. They spoke about things – aloud – to people they’d not met before, about topics they’d spoken to very few people about. I felt honored that they let me into their life. I met their generous and amazing children and partner, who fought back tears as we said our goodbyes after the interview. Two days later they passed away. I learned about their passing in an email 15 minutes before I was to go teach my Intro to LGBTQ Studies class, where I would detail the oral history project to the students. And their history was the first life story contributed to this project.

I completely broke down. Thankfully my partner was able to talk with me and get me ready to go to class. When going over the syllabus and the project, I was honest with my students about how important this project is both personally and to the community. Our history in the local community is LITERALLY disappearing and will be forgotten if it’s not captured soon, and my community is not unique in this respect. I managed to not cry in front of the students, but I did see a few students wipe away a tear for a person they had never met. In fact, I knew this person formally for all of an hour and a half, but I can’t begin to explain the impact they have had on my life. I have never been so committed to a project like I am now with this oral history project. I refuse to let my local LGBTQ history, and more specifically the people attached to that history, go unrecognized and unremembered. I have a small suspicion that the person we interviewed held on a bit longer to life to be able to tell their story. To tell us their life. To gift us with their experiences. And I am forever changed as both a person and an academic because of it.

THE PROFESSIONAL MEETS THE PERSONAL

In this same week, I’ve helped students navigate the typical starting back to school stresses – where are my classes, what classes are still open as I haven’t enrolled yet, where do I find parking? But, as the only out trans faculty member on my campus, and someone that our students know from the larger community, many LGBTQ students come to me for support and affirmation of their identities. For example, I had a student show up outside my classroom door as I came in to teach my Intro to LGBTQ Studies class that first day. This student, who uses they/them pronouns, said to me “I need to get into your class.” No problem I said, I can get you a permit code, come on in. They said, “No, I NEED your class. I just got out of a class that was terrible and I NEED your class to feel safe.” I again assured them, no problem, and let’s talk about that other class after our class. I met with them, and they told me their concerns, largely that they felt invisible as a queer non-binary trans person in a white, cis, heteronormative space, and that they felt they had to educate their classmates on their own identities in a class dedicated to gender studies. Later in the day, I met with the professor who had unintentionally excluded this student by not being purposeful in including non-binary or LGBT students. I had to be careful in this conversation as to not make the faculty member feel shamed, but also to advocate for my student and to educate the faculty member on topics I assumed they already knew based on their own disciplinary background. It was an incredibly draining conversation, navigating multiple political levels, on my first day back at work after months off due to surgery, and on a day that I would work 11 hours due to my teaching schedule.

Next, at the end of the first week of classes, I got a call from the director of our LGBTQ center on campus, telling me she may need my help. She had just received an email that a student was in a course where the professor used the word “fag” in reference to gay people. Just in passing. Not as in the historical context of the word or referring to cigarettes in the British usage of the term. Just calling gay people “fags.” I was livid, as was the student and the director. Thankfully, my institution has mechanisms in place to address these situations, and those wheels are turning. But I couldn’t fathom, in 2016, how anyone involved in teaching would think that was acceptable.

To top it all off, a social media flare-up happened during the weekend after my first week of classes, all having to do with they/them singular pronouns. Yes, we’ve come full circle. I had posted, on behalf of my research collaborative’s official Facebook page, a video about how they/them pronouns are not new, are appropriate, and should be used. A debate ensued in which I felt personally insulted and attacked as a trans person. But, being the perpetual educator, I tried to rationally and reasonably respond to rather childish behaviors on the part of other professors at other institutions. As Facebook threads go, the conversation was on-going for about 3 days before it all settled down, but I refuse to be silenced and marginalized by other academics, whose expertise does not fall in LGBTQ or trans studies. I refuse to allow them to tell me and others within my community that they are not valid. That their pronouns are not valid. This is not how academia should work, and I’m consistently saddened to see that this is still sometimes how academia works.

OUR BLURRY AREAS NEED SUPPORT STRUCTURES

Thankfully, I have a healthy community of queer and trans spectrum friends and chosen family, both locally and from all over the world. They have reached out to me when I, the eternal external processor on social media, have posted vulnerable and raw posts discussing each of these issues. With every post, I’ve received love, encouragement, and affirmation. On Sunday, the day when all of the events of the week were being personally processed, I posted regarding my absolute exhaustion, but also my refusal to give up. My continued commitment to fight for those who are invisible in our society – the queer man who “looks straight”, the non-binary student who uses they/them pronouns but “looks like a girl”. And because my LGBTQ friends and family are amazing, I got lots of love. And then, something amazing happened. An academic inspiration to my own career – Jennifer Finney Boylan, the first trans academic that I ever saw, who helped me know that I could be an out trans academic – commented on my post and gave me support and love. It was the first time I had cried happy tears all week, a week of lots of unhappy, sad, frustrated tears.

I’m also incredibly thankful to work at an institution that, while not perfect (nor ever claiming to be), is making real systemic steps to address issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and all forms of bias campus wide. I have received so much support from administrators regarding the work that I do, which is not always the norm in academia. Support from my colleagues, department chair, dean, and upper administration has allowed me to continue to do the work that I do both inside the academy and outside in the advocacy world. I am grateful and lucky to work at such a university, a privilege I do not take lightly.

SUGGESTIONS FOR NAVIGATING THESE MURKY WATERS

I want to end my own, selfish processing session with some suggestions.

1.) We talk about self-care so much in academia and advocacy circles, but from my own experience, we are terrible about putting self-care into action for ourselves. Do not neglect self-care. Yes, advocate when and where you can, but know when you have to take a step back when your body, brain, and heart can’t go any farther without burning out. There’s a saying in activism circles about self-care: it’s like the safety instructions you get on an airplane – put on your own oxygen mask before you put on anyone else’s. You can’t be an effective advocate for others if you have suffocated yourself by working yourself to exhaustion.

2.) Surround yourself, as much as possible, with those that lift you up. You need those friends and family to keep going. Allow yourself to open up to them and be honest in those conversations. Tell them what you need. Ask for them to support you if they aren’t. And allow them to hug you (if you are one who’s into hugging, as I’m trying to become more comfortable with myself). Human contact can be so healing for us. If you are partnered, allow your partner(s) to comfort you. I can’t even begin to thank my partner for helping me so much this week, by holding me while I cried, by listening to me again complain and rage against injustice, and by just being an amazing human and loving me constantly. Find that one person you can tell anything to, who can be there to support you when you need it the most, whether it be a romantic partner or just a really close colleague.

3.) Find the balance that works for you. Not every academic who works with marginalized groups operates the same in terms of activism and rabble-rousing. I’m comfortable in that world (after slowly ramping up my work in advocacy over the last 10 years), but that’s not everyone’s sweet spot. Find how you are your best in regard to being a professionally engaged academic who is also fighting for social justice. There is no mold, and one size certainly does not fit all.

4.) To academics, just because we have a PhD does not make us experts in all of the human condition. Be open to learning more, and be willing to be challenged by your students. It is the height of academic elitism to assume we are the holders of all knowledge and that it is our job to impart it all to our students. My students teach me new things each and every day, and for that I am grateful. It does not make me less of an expert, but it does make me a better teacher.

In loving affirmation and solidarity, always.

Jay A. Irwin, PhD

Associate Professor of Sociology

University of Nebraska at Omaha

 

[1] I am using they/them pronouns to protect the anonymity of this person. These pronouns are not necessarily a direct reflection of their personal gender pronouns.

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“You Poor Thing”: New Article Out in The Qualitative Report!

In this post, Xan Nowakowski reflects on and shares a recent publication in Qualitative Report (available at the link at the end of the post free of charge as an open access document) concerning the embodiment and management of visible chronic illness in daily life.  

Hello again readers! It’s a new season and a new academic year, and I’m happy to report that I also have a new autoethnographic publication coming out this week. If you’ve been following WWIH for a while, you may remember that earlier this year Sociology of Health and Illness published a piece called “Hope Is a Four-Letter Word: Riding the Emotional Rollercoaster of Illness Management”. This article, which focuses on the day-to-day processes and experiences of living with chronic disease, is still available online along with a video abstract introducing the piece.

In the process of writing “Hope Is a Four-Letter Word” I realized there was another rich topic nested within that study, and wound up breaking this theme out into its own critical autoethnography. Specifically, I focused on the nuances of visibility and representation for people whose chronic conditions produce readily apparent changes in physical appearance. The title comes from a comment made to me many years ago as the symptoms of my autoimmune disease became more visible to outside observers.

In this new autoethnography, I compare and contrast my own experiences of living inside a visibly ill body with others’ stated and implicit perceptions of what my life must be like. In doing so, I explore and refine theories of illness as deviance to accommodate multiple intersecting levels of divergence from normative expectations. I use interactionist sociological theories as well as a variety of other scholarly literature to analyze and contextualize my own lived experiences of embodying chronic illness.

As with most of my work, this piece strongly emphasizes the complex and dynamic interplay of multiple domains of life. These include personality traits, social structure, cultural context, political climate, and many more. Likewise, I focus on concepts of health equity and use my own experiences to amplify attention to persistent systems of marginalization and the voices of those affected. Above all else, I encourage other scholars with chronic conditions to share their own experiences of negotiating visible disease, and to advocate for active incorporation of these narratives in both formal systems of health care and informal systems of social support.

Please feel free to download and read the article at no cost here.

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Limits of Doctoral Education – Hunting for Public Aid

Erika G Abad, PhD, received her American Studies PhD at Washington State University in 2012. Since then, she has worked as a customer service associate, a scheduler, Caddy Head Counselor, Field Director for a policy education campaign, Farmers’ Market team member and oral historian–in that order–since completing her degree. She is currently a regular writer for Women in Higher Education and will be starting teaching full-time this fall. 

Writing this as a PhD is hilarious, in the midst of so many narratives regarding PhD poverty. Unlike those, however, I approach the conversation cognizant of my choice, my white collar poverty’s flexibility of time and of the systemic issues at play.

When applying for affordable care act (ACA) mandated insurance last April, a friend walked me through process, as he was employed by a grant specified to educate new participants. I picked my insurance, made the consistent monthly payments. From April 2015 to January 2016, income has changed, creating the possibility to qualify for public aid. This is the amusement of millennial scholars, and the heartbreak of parents and families who hoped a quality education would keep their progeny from the ‘shame,’ and stigma of relying on ‘government handouts.’

Chasing Eligibility

The millennial scholar amusement, that despite being a generation removed from limited education, two generations removed from the ability to read and write, those skills and assets do not secure a better income. And, the varied jobs I have had outside of (higher) education, reinforce the freedom to choose to live this way. It’s a commitment to the dream issue, which I have often questioned, much like I struggled with believing in the democratic necessity of a liberal arts education. The experience both with ACA and most recently, public aid eligibility paperwork, has brought that to light.

I begin writing this reflection in the midst of trying to assess where my paperwork is. It’s January, nearing the deadline, and the last thing I need is to be penalized for something that I can’t control and something that I did. In other words, I have submitted the paperwork, waiting for a response could cost me eligibility and any assistance, so I stop working to primarily address this issue. I stop working to call the series of north side offices where I would presume my file could be. During the first call, I connect with an immigrant woman who, assuming I work for the office, begins to explain her case. In the middle of her narrative, I say, “I don’t work for the office, it seems they connected us.”

“I must have pressed the wrong number,” she says. I smile to myself and say, “it may just be a glitch, try calling again.” Here, my educational-based privilege starts to sink in and I say, ‘shit,’ if they connected two clients together, what’s it like in the office?

That Friday’s phone call was preceded by conversations on Wednesday, and, on Thursdays, finally learning how to log on to get my pay stubs. Working class income, not wages, nor time limitations as a result of being a community-based researcher. The catch-22, the irony of PhD’s trying to find a way to stay relevant and competitive in an incredibly tight market. Changing is not that easy, by the way, because those other jobs where we could easily transfer our skill sets, see the PhD doesn’t have to stay. Cynical, yes, and a reminder education-based privilege has its limits.

So, that Friday, I am reviewing the list of numbers to call. The one on the mailer, the one I was told to call because that office did not, supposedly, have my paper work. So who else has my paper. The woman at the second office said she would call me back. I cannot get an operator on the third number I call. This is a major deadline day, so I try the office. The crowded waiting room confirms what I expect from a public service office at the last minute of paper work. Research grant funding works in funny ways, which means I cannot afford to wait. My collard shirt, unfaded jeans, and comfortable shoes remind me that my frustration will be temporary. Middle class privilege rings again and yet, my paycheck is the reason I still search for an answer.

Why do I choose to write about this? And, while I am writing, I’m scared about it. Scared about airing dirty laundry like most folks in this circuit are, because, what established PhD’s with full-time jobs, are thinking about the next generation scrambling to make ends meet, produce quality work and stay relevant enough to get a full-time job? For those that are, what can they do about it with strained free speech, confused and disgruntled students, and the working class, undocumented youth who deserve a chance to be more than underfunded educational institutions and the state say they can or could be.

So, I talk about it because my white-collar poverty and my intellectual training gives me the tools to complicate the difficulty. Because, as I am praying to be eligible for public aid to have more income at my disposal, to live more than from paycheck to paycheck, I am reminded of the threats to layoffs and the continued cutting of funds from public offices in my city/state. What else is a city with a debt like Chicago’s, what else can a state unwilling to tax specific populations like Illinois do? So, despite how frustrated I am by being connected to another client, not being able to find an operator to answer the phone and crowded waiting rooms, I know I am not the only one stressed. Each office which I have dealt with this week is struggling because none of their jobs are secure. Their stress, their inability to answer last minute questions coupled with my own stress clearly articulate both the need for Affordable Care Act but also the financial and institutional hoops created to assure the best access to health care possible.

The ‘limits’ of education-based privilege

Dividing my time between doing my job as a researcher and looking for long-term positions, explain why I didn’t immediately address the needed documentation to complete my application for public aid. In other words, because my PhD entitlement thought I did everything I needed to do but didn’t, I am working at the last minute to solve a problem I could have addressed had I paid more attention.

And yet, I still have time and flexibility to solve the problem. I did solve the problem and, what’s more, had the question answered by the first office—the one that said they didn’t have my paperwork. I knew to call them back because, when I finally reached the final office, they gave me all the information I needed to speak to the rep assigned my case. The organizational mess this was speaks volumes to the effects of cut funding, strained/stressed employees and the greater work ACA supporters need to do in order to make sure those in more dire positions than I get their needs met.

At this point, it is important to clearly define how, despite how little I knew about the system, my entitlement informed a lack of action, what are the forms of privilege I exercised that allowed me to solve my problem by the end of the business day.

  • rearrange my schedule at a day’s notice—a day off did not affect pay
  • call each office and speak to someone to whom I can readily explain what courses of actions I took and ask what else needs to be done.
  • Fax required information to multiple numbers
  • drive to offices when phone calls don’t address my questions
  • work, if needed—revise a paper, read a book, review ethnography notes— while I wait in line to address office needs (I didn’t have to but it was a plan B I had lined up)
  • be patient with the person on the other end because I was not losing a day of work
  • document all courses of action and speak with a discourse, dress in attire that may inform how others will take me more seriously
  • prepare to argue with the office because of the institutional limitations regarding meeting deadlines because of documented calls, detailed articulation of systemic issues in calling each office and awareness of the letter

The dance of affordability

The affordable care act is not yet affordable not only because of the hoops of today, but, more specifically, because state, city and federal offices in charge of making sure we are all insured vary in institutional and professional stability. Their instability parallels and conflicts with the uncertainty that those of us applying for public aid or any insurance may have. That’s a research question I hope someone is tackling in economics or political science, or even law.

I know this is just a hiccup along the way to a prolific career that can still promise white collar 9-5 middle class, insured stability. I know I have greater possibility to choose that anytime I want, comparable to others in the room and on the phone that Friday. Knowing that, however, does not change the weighted responsibility of the errors this system still needs to address. How does the education of life translate—and, right now, it’s all about talking about this question of access and productivity.

We all need to be healthy to effectively contribute to the market; we need access to health care stabilized and, in the midst of this, we need to work to make sure that happens. The ‘we’s’ here vary because of where the power lies, because of what choice, opportunity and support inform about that power. As a PhD with options and opportunities that have arisen since that January, praying for public aid, that’s what has me scratching my head. How do we work in specific career paths completely codependent on the government for its existence, completely codependent on society’s imposed value on our work?

Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?

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Dreams

 

In this post, J. Sumerau reflects on the possibility of focusing on and talking about dreams in contexts where we are more often encouraged to focus on what we should do rather than what we wish for.

A couple months ago, I posted a piece here about the emphasis on obligations, or the dreaded should, I have noticed so many fellow academics wrestling with over the years.  In the piece, I noted the possibility of shifting our focus from what we should be doing to what we have actually done that might deserve some credit from us or others.

Based on messages and discussions with people, as well as my own reflections, I could likely add more to the piece I published at this point, but that is not what I want to do today.  Instead, I want to talk a little bit about dreams and the importance of them – the wants instead of the shoulds – for self care and fulfillment.

 

Did you have a dream when you were younger or last night?

 

Does your current life, career, or circumstance match this dream or have you on a path to reaching it?

 

I think these are important questions that I never hear people talk about within or even beyond the academy. Social psychologists have even noted that having dreams is a very important aspect of selfhood, whether or not such dreams ever come true in one’s life. They provide motivation, joy, pain, and other emotional experiences that facilitate growth and development in a wide variety of ways. Of course, this makes me wonder why I don’t often hear people talking about their dreams. More often, I hear people talking about what they are doing, should be doing, have to do, or haven’t gotten done yet. I fully admit, as I noted in the previous piece, that academic culture especially seems to encourage – if not require – these questions much more so than any talk about desire, hopes, or dreams for the world or one’s self. At the same time, I think we – myself included at times – miss something when we forget to also think about whatever we might wish for, deeply desire, and hope for in our best imagined versions of our world and life.

I can’t pretend to evaluate the dreams of another, but I do think dreams are very important whatever shape they take. I’m reminded of friends and colleagues I admire who dreamed of being academics, teachers, scholars, researchers, and university administrators their whole lives. At the same time, I think about the fact that this was not the case for me, and that I kind of stumbled into an academic life as a way to facilitate and fund my actual dreams of being a writer and activist. In both cases, my colleagues and I had dreams that we ultimately got to touch in our own lives for various reasons and thanks to a lot of things beyond our control going well. Thinking about these things leads me to wonder what other people dream about, what do other people want most in the imagined case where it somehow works out, and what discussions about these questions might reveal about ourselves, about others, and about our lives.

I’m also reminded of just as many friends and colleagues I admire who dreamed of things that never came true, or continue to dream of things they are still chasing.  In both of these cases and similar to the above, the dreams themselves speak to the people, what they value, what they desire, and what matters to them most once upon a time, in the present, or in some imagined future.  Thinking about this leads me to wonder what other dreams people have given up, what dreams changed over time as people learned more about themselves and the world, and how past and current dreams or other desires speak to one’s current life or efforts.

As I said, I can’t offer any real answers to these questions, but I thought it might be nice to at least broach the conversation. I thus invite people to think about, write about even on this site if you wish, and consider what your dreams might be, and what such reflection might tell you about yourself and others.  I’ll close this post with a simple question.

What do you get to do that feeds you enough to make the things you have to do worthwhile and what do you have to do to facilitate your ability to do the things you really want to do?

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The Dreaded Should

In this post, J. Sumerau reflects on interactions with other academics who experience considerable stress due to structural and interpersonal conditions encouraging them to focus on “what they should be doing” instead of what they have accomplished. 

I “should” be working on project x. I “should” be doing work-related task y. I “should” be preparing for academic meeting, gathering, conference z. I “should” be more productive in comparison to this person, that goal, or this norm. I “should” be doing more in my work about this issue or that problem or this population or that concern.

I should…

I should…

I should…

“Should” is a word I find myself hearing rather often from colleagues in my career to date, and it often carries with it an expectation that one is not doing enough in some way, shape, or form. In such cases, people I happen to know are hard working, incredibly talented, deeply committed, and quite impressive by any measure I can come up with downplay whatever they are doing, accomplishing, or achieving at a given moment based on what more they feel they “should” be doing, accomplishing, or achieving at that moment.

I should note that I am not in any way disparaging the people in question. Rather, from what I can tell, the dreaded should – as I call – is something they feel and experience deeply that causes them pain, turmoil, or other forms of anxiety and stress. I further recognize, as others have noted, that this “shoulding” is encouraged in academic contexts as well as broader capitalistic contexts. People are constantly exposed to messages suggesting they are not doing enough, requirements that are often incredibly vague and subject to interpretation, and very real fears concerning job security, opportunities, and resources in the academy. Put simply, I am not knocking the people who feel this way, but rather I find it quite impressive that they manage to do so well while feeling these things on a daily basis. For me, their management of such feelings demonstrates a special type of strength wherein one feels regularly that they are losing a game, and yet somehow manages to continue on, do solid work, and inspire and connect with others.

At the same time, as someone who – thus far it appears – is immune to “shoulding” or thoughts about what I “should” be doing, I think this is a pattern that should be noted, discussed, and recognized because the effects of such stress on people likely – and from what I’ve seen empirically do – take an incredible toll on their happiness, health, and well being. In many cases, for example, I see people who experience their lives in ways where “I should be doing x” overshadows all the things they are doing, takes them away from important self care, and / or leaves them constantly feeling like nothing will ever be good enough. This is a recipe for negative outcomes, and yet it is encouraged in academic fields in many cases.  I cannot pretend to understand what it is like to feel this way – I tend to live in the moment to the point where even when I need to plan for the future I don’t do so all that well – but I wanted to talk about how these patterns feel or appear to me as I often serve as a source of support for many people who experience such feelings.  In many cases, I am lucky enough to be helpful to them in such cases, but in so doing, I am continuously struck by how powerful and damaging “should” can be in the current academic climate.

As such, I wanted to focus here on what we may miss when we become – or are trained to become – focused on “should” instead of “did” or “done.” If you are one who often feels like you “should” be doing more, take a moment and ask yourself what have I done instead. I ask this simple question all the time when colleagues start talking about how they “should” be doing something. Universally, the answers reveal a lot of accomplishments – for example, well I did submit that paper; well I did inspire that student; well I did something special for my partner, friend, or other loved one on Tuesday; well I did rest and relax this weekend; well I did get to the gym; well I did start outlining that grant; well I did just present at a conference last week; well I did some volunteer work or charity last month; well I did get better at “insert hobby here” this week; well I did come up with that new teaching technique I wanted to try this semester; well I did get to hang out with my partner, friends, kids, etc this week; or well I did think about a paper idea that could be really cool.

I could go on, but odds are you are doing lots of things – personally and / or professionally –  that you could be giving yourself credit for, and when I have asked people these questions and they have answered they often feel better at least for a little bit. Ask yourself how your life might be different if you could learn – or be trained to – focus on what you did do instead of what you “should” be doing. I’m not saying this will work for everyone, but in many cases, I have seen people realize that they accomplish far more than they have been giving themselves credit for.

I also think we need to look at where the dreaded “should” comes from in most cases I have seen. Whether it is comparisons to other people or norms within a given department or program, the dreaded “should” tends to arise from the conditions of contemporary academic life.  People face serious concerns about, for example, job security; time for lovers, friends, family, and self care; deadlines tied to advancement or even landing one of an increasingly small pool of decent paying jobs; and a culture that is focused on “what are you doing next” rather than “what have you already done.”  These pressures are greatly exacerbated for academics from marginalized backgrounds, and scholars in search of stable employment in the present market context.  Each of these factors – and many others – feed the idea that one is never quite good enough, should be constantly working toward something new to set one’s self apart or meet some (often vague) requirement for a job, for tenure, or other potential source of stability, and should spend as much time as possible working on that next thing that will make all the difference.

We see these patterns translate into a continuous series of “shoulds” and “somedays.”  When I have the job, then I’ll focus on my self care, my personal life, that study I want to do, or other factors, but for now, I should be x, y, and z.  When I have tenure, then I can have time for a family, take that trip I’ve been planning, write about what I really want to write about, or otherwise do something else, but for now, I should be x, y, and z.  These types of feelings and statements are not only commonplace among academics from what I can tell, but also understandable when we consider the broader context of academic norms, markets, and opportunities.  In all such cases, however, we are encouraged by these structural and interpersonal patterns to downplay right now and what we have achieved or are achieving for the sake of some future possibility.

As a result, I find myself wondering how much of right now people miss due to these patterns?  What might academia be like if we were encouraged to celebrate the moment instead of wishing for the future?  What might it be like if we came together against the broader cultural patterns that create these conditions?  Until such conditions can be changed, I also wonder what little things each of us may do in our own lives to ease the dreaded should we or our colleagues face, and help lessen the negative consequences of such patterns?

I’m not saying it would be easy to change the culture of “should” or the economic and political conditions that facilitate such stress, but I think we would all benefit if we came together, and gave ourselves and one another credit for the tremendous amount we all do accomplish personally, politically, and academically.  At the very least, I think we should talk about these issues, help each other as we face and experience these shared conditions in our own ways, and look for ways to create better conditions for ourselves and our colleagues individually and on a broader structural level.

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The Anxiety Inscriptions

In this post, Lain Mathers reflects on zir experiences managing anxiety and graduate study.  Lain Mathers is a doctoral student in Sociology at the University of Illinois Chicago and the Assistant Editor here at Write Where It Hurts.

It is mid-February as I begin writing this post. I am sitting in my apartment at my computer, my hands floating apprehensively above the keyboard. This is an odd sensation considering the fact that usually I type so intensely that the tiny plastic squares pop off of my laptop and onto the floor. I can feel the words I want to write just out of reach, curled up in the darker corners of my brain. I start to feel my chest tightening. “No, no not right now, please not right now,” I plead with my brain. We have a constant dialogue going, but as of late it’s taken on a significantly more dominant role in those dialogues. I’ve come to know this feeling. It’s like watching a tornado bellowing toward me while being fastened to the ground. As the tornado gets closer and closer, I eventually give in to the fact that I will be swept up in the debris of my own internal natural disaster.

At this point, generally, when I can feel a panic attack coming on, I resign to it. Over the past few months, I’ve learned just how neurological and out of my control those events are, and that trying to resist them (and largely failing to do so) leaves me feeling significantly more exhausted, disappointed, and angry than if I just allow myself to lean into them, tear apart a cardboard box or two, and then sit quietly on my couch and listen to Rilo Kiley, Neko Case, or The Yeah Yeah Yeahs in the calm after the storm.

See, I’ve known that I exhibit symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (or Generalized Anxiety Condition, as I prefer to call it, since I am working against the internalized and institutionalized stigma that the ways my brain operates means there is something inherently broken about me) for a while. I’ve had nervous ticks like compulsively picking at my skin since as early as I can remember. I can be thrown into a state of total disarray over a two-lined text message that I’m afraid someone other than the intended recipient will get a hold of. I’ve found large crowds overwhelming for a long time, and regularly get up two to three times throughout the night to make sure I’ve locked my doors (so that no one can get into my apartment) and unplugged all the kitchen appliances / blown out all the candles (so that a fire doesn’t start when I’m asleep). On my walks to school, I try to replay my morning routine to make sure I locked the doors and unplugged the appliances, and if I can’t remember I will often text message my roommate (if he is home) to make sure I did. If he is not home, it is not uncommon for me to turn around and walk back home to check (even if I am only a few blocks away from school). I have to get to the airport or train station at least three hours before my trips out of town because I am constantly terrified that some catastrophic event will happen that prevents me from getting where I’m supposed to be, and I am known to check the pockets in my jacket up to 15 times before leaving my house, sometimes one right after the other, to make sure I haven’t accidentally lost my wallet, keys, or cigarettes.

All of these are symptoms I’ve learned to manage over the years. For example, I just plan my travel accordingly; I allow an extra 30-45 minutes before I go to bed to check the locks and plugs. I say out loud to myself that I locked my door as I leave my house in the morning so when I run over my morning routine repeatedly on my way to school, my own verbal affirmation to myself will be part of that narrative. And, historically, when I would get the occasional panic attack (every couple of weeks or months), I would allow myself to just experience them and make sure to try to get as much sleep as possible and drink lots of water.

Writing has also been a huge part of my anxiety management. For the past 14 years, I have been writing regularly in a journal. Presently, I am in my 94th book, and have no plans of stopping any time soon. Since I was old enough to hold a pen writing has been the place where I can document the conversations I am constantly having with my brain about all of the things I need to be worrying about or else something terrible will happen. Putting them down on paper both makes them feel real and also like something I don’t have to carry around in my head anymore (it can get quite crowded in there). Writing is the place I go during panic attacks when nothing makes sense and I can’t even really form complete sentences, yet something about the feeling of pen on paper keeps me anchored to this world. Writing is, without a doubt, my most significant and important survival strategy when it comes to my mental health.

So what do I do when I can’t write through the anxiety? For those of us that find a deep comfort in writing, the inability to do it is incredibly destabilizing and painful. Recently, I had to confront this question in a wholly unsettling manner.

For people who live with chronic mental health conditions and/or trauma, we know that triggers can pop up and derail our routines for hours, days, weeks, even months. We also know that triggers can come in the most unexpected contexts and magnitudes. So, just because one is perhaps prepared to handle a situation that has previously triggered them doesn’t mean they’ll be able to negotiate a totally new trigger with as much familiarity.

So, when my understanding of my life was recently upset by conditions entirely outside of my control, and unlike any trigger I’ve previously experienced, I began having panic attacks on a daily basis. Not only did they start occurring more frequently, but also at unexpected times compared to when they’ve previously boiled to the surface. By this point, though, I had convinced myself that writing was all I needed to settle the rush of chemicals in my brain. “Just write it out, Lain, you’ve done this hundreds of times before.” Yet when I sat down to put the chaotic words on paper nothing flowed. I was in a state of mental and emotional quicksand, sinking faster than I could get my words to secure me to this world.

This was even more unsettling because writing is not something I just do for personal pleasure or comfort anymore, it is part of my livelihood. I began to tell myself elaborate stories about how I will never be able to write again and my career as a sociologist is doomed to failure. I walked nervously around my apartment, screamed into pillows, ripped apart cardboard boxes, and smoked countless cigarettes to try and dilute the quicksand feeling but nothing worked. It was in this moment that my brain and I began to have a serious conversation and one unlike any talk we’ve had before.

“Maybe you should talk to someone, Lain. Maybe you really need that.”

“No, brain, I can manage this. You’re just really fucking with me right now. It’ll pass.”

“Will it?”

“It has to.”

“How do you know? Maybe you’re just like this forever. Maybe I’ll never stop.”

“Maybe I should talk to someone.”

“Should you, though? How do you know it will help anything?”

“I don’t.”

Before making an appointment with a therapist, I held my journal and a pen in my hand, so desperately hopeful that I would have some kind of breakthrough by just acknowledging that my mental condition is real, that this experience is out of my control (despite how much control I like to believe I have over it). Nothing. So, I made the appointment and had a flurry of panic shortly after doing so.

Over the past few months, I’ve started more openly acknowledging that I not only live with generalized anxiety everyday, but also that it profoundly influences my life in ways I never expected it would. I am continually learning that maintaining anxiety management strategies, such as writing, is one important component in a large equation of other management mechanisms, such as (for me) therapy, medication, painting, supportive friends and loved ones, and plenty of alone time. I am still learning to overcome the stigma associated with chronic mental health conditions (especially one like anxiety, that many people don’t believe to be real), and the path to figuring all of this out certainly defies the American ideal of a linear progress narrative.

Yet, here I am, in late March, sitting at a café finishing this essay that you are presently reading to the sound of Rilo Kiley’s song, “A Better Son or Daughter” and occasionally picking up the “I” and the “O” keys off the floor. The routine of bending over every seven or so minutes to fetch the tiny, plastic, lettered squares off the ground is a welcome reminder that I am still here, anxiety and all.

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Recovering from Graduate School: Rewriting the Trauma Narrative

Eric Anthony Grollman (@grollman) is a Black queer feminist sociologist and intellectual activist; they are an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Richmond. They are the founder and editor of the blog, Conditionally Accepted, which recently became a regular career advice column on Inside Higher Ed.  In this post, Dr. Grollman reflects on negotiating and making sense of trauma related to graduate education. 

“What’s the deal with this PTDS book,” my parents asked when they last visited me. Common understandings of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – the mental scars that soldiers, survivors of sexual violence and childhood abuse carry – certainly don’t call to mind any aspect of my life. My parents even sat through my talk on intellectual activism at the 2015 Conference of Ford Fellows, in which I attempted to identify the structural and cultural factors of graduate school that inevitably led me to be traumatized by my graduate training. But, maybe they assumed I was using the term “trauma” to be provocative or dramatic. With some embarrassment, I had to explain that I was, indeed traumatized by grad school, experiencing the symptoms of complex trauma, which is not (yet) officially classified in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual (the major psychiatric guide for mental disorders in the US).

When my therapist pointed out the trauma – really only repeating back to me comments I had made just moments before about being traumatized – I also resisted. Seriously, who gets traumatized by educational training? I wasn’t physically attacked, I was not raped or sexually assaulted, and I did not endure torture or extreme warfare. Coursework, a qualifying exam, a master’s thesis, a dissertation, and some teaching experience – these, on the surface, are about equipping me with the skills necessary to become an independent scholar, the skills necessary to obtain a PhD and, ideally, a tenure-track job. To help me to begin to see the trauma, my therapist encouraged me to write a trauma narrative.

So, I took some time to write down every challenging, offensive, and potentially traumatizing event or condition that I could draw from my memory. In the midst of writing about one memory, I would have to make a note to write about another that came to mind. “Oh, how could I forget about that!” I thought several times in this process. In the end, I had nearly filled a 70-page spiral notebook with such memories. When I flipped through the notebook, I asked myself, “who wouldn’t be traumatized by all of this?” Guilty of being an academic geek, I took the time to identify some common themes: 1) repeated exposure to and witnessing of microaggressions, stereotypes, and discrimination; 2) devaluing of my research interests, in particular, work on my own communities (i.e., people of color, LGBTQ people, and, especially, LGBTQ people of color); 3) the undermining of my career choices, namely eventually becoming a professor at a liberal arts college; and, 4) an explicit attempt to “beat the activist” out of me through the graduate training.

I have continued to work through my therapist to begin to recover from the trauma. The initial and, it seems, hardest step has been to name the trauma. It has taken some time to stop denying that grad school could be so bad, that I was somehow too weak to survive traumatizing circumstances, or that it is my fault for not leaving at the first sign of trauma. I, like most others, would never expect trauma to be one of the outcomes of graduate training. So, blaming myself or denying the trauma doesn’t help.

Once my therapist and I opened that door, I began to grow impatient. Now what? I wanted some sort of homework to do outside of therapy sessions, though I learned that was not my therapist’s approach. So, I looked into buying workbooks that I could do on my own. Unsurprisingly, most that are out there focus on what my therapist calls “big T Trauma”: sexual violence; war; child abuse; being robbed; having your house burn down; and, natural disasters. My own struggle with complex trauma – “little t trauma” – is the result of prolonged trauma that is interpersonal in nature, and likely occurred at a key developmental period (early adulthood, in my case). Since it is not included in the DSM, there are few workbooks that even mention it, let alone offer resources to help recover from it. But, I eventually found one that does: The PTSD Workbook (second edition), by Mary Beth Williams and Soili Poijula.

I’m not as far as I’d like to be into the workbook, but I find that digging into traumatizing experiences is not something I care to do daily. But, so far it has been helpful to address it head on. Recently, I completed one of the exercises in which they instruct readers to “[t]hink of another person who has gone through a similar event. Knowing now what most helped you survive, what would you say to that other person?” I don’t think that I followed the instructions, but I ended up reflecting on something much more powerful. I ended up rewriting my trauma narrative, albeit an abbreviated version.

Rewriting the Trauma Narrative

Let me give some context. In the process of naming the trauma, I have closed my memory around all that was taken away from me in the process of completing my PhD and obtaining my current tenure-track position. I entered my PhD program in sociology as an activist with a desire to study racism in queer communities using qualitative methods. I figured sociology would be more likely to open doors to gender studies, sexuality studies, and even student affairs than the other ways around. A desired joint PhD with gender studies was discouraged. A desired graduate minor in either sexuality research or gender studies was discouraged. An intended dissertation in trans health was discouraged. I also learned to self-police my interests; for example, I selected a qualifying exam in social psychology rather than gender, sexualities, or race/gender/class/sexualities. I left graduate school with a PhD, trauma, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, a cute boyfriend, expertise in medical sociology using quantitative methods, and an acute awareness that I must hide any activist work or community service. The 28-year-old me was hardly an older and wiser reflection of the 22-year-old me.

That is, in my efforts to identify just how traumatizing graduate school was, I have focused almost exclusively on the negatives – what I have lost, what I compromised, what dreams have been dashed for the sake of job security. This has been a necessary step for me to stop denying how bad grad school was and blaming myself for the trauma. But, the unintended consequences of this focus is that I have lost sight of the ways in which I did survive and thrive, pursued my dreams and values, among other positive highlights of those six years. A while ago, I tried to write a positive-focused complement to the trauma narrative, and only came up with missing the excellent restaurants in Bloomington, IN and the friends that I made there. I also met my now-fiancé there, who moved to Richmond, VA with me. And, my excellent training – despite the compromises I made – opened a number of doors in terms of jobs and professional networks. So, hey – at least I don’t regret my time there. But, that effort felt like settling for an otherwise traumatic experience.

So, back to the prompt from The PTSD Workbook. I began my answer to the question about what I would advise to others, presumably to prevent being traumatized, with: “In the thick of [grad school], I attempted to maintain activities, relationships, and projects that were not valued by my program, but that fed my spirit nonetheless.” From there, I listed example after example of the things in which I was involved during my time in graduate school. Contrary to the sentiment that I left graduate school anything but a sexuality scholar, I identified plenty of examples of the ways in which I clearly demonstrate active involvement in this subfield. I published two articles on sexualities that were co-authored with people outside of my university; in fact, my advisors only became aware of these papers upon noticing them on my CV. I also started one on trans health late in grad school, which was finally published in September 2015. As the founder of the short-lived Campus Coalition for Sexual Literacy – an initiative through the Center for Research and Education on Gender and Sexuality as UCSF – I organized a few events to promote sexual literacy on campus, including a conference on transdisciplinary approaches to sexuality research. I attended a few conferences and workshops in the field of sexualities. And, I also was involved in service on campus and in the community that promoted community-building for LGBTQ people, as well as healthy relationships in the queer community. I could go on…

In essence, I rewrote my trauma narrative. In this narrative, I didn’t sell out, I didn’t allow others to dictate my career, and I wasn’t powerless. Rather, this was a narrative about pushing back against mainstream expectations in sociology to build my career as a scholar-activist whose work focuses primarily on sexualities. This narrative allows me to recall ways in which I defined my career for myself, with necessary compromises along the way. Would the trauma have been worse if it weren’t for feeding my soul with sexualities work and activism? Or, was the trauma the result of defying mainstream expectations in sociology by pursuing such work? I’m not certain at this point, and cannot actually say what could have been. But, I’m in a better position to say what actually was. Yes, I was traumatized; but I was no passive victim.

I hope through speaking openly about the trauma, about the efforts to “beat the activist” out of me, and the training that attempted to steer me away from studying my own communities to make it easier for current and future marginalized grad students to weather the challenging circumstances of grad school.

 

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