Thursday, September 8, 2016

A Restless Depression

[I wrote this in the summer of 2015. I am no longer depressed like this, but I'm perhaps still project-obsessed and maybe always will be. I spent Summer 2016 learning German, studying for my PhD exams, and spending all the summer money I don't have on my kids. But I wanted to publish this now because I found it abandoned in my list of drafts, and thought some of it was important to share.]

I would like to hear about it if you experience this affliction, fellow grad students, project-obsessed moms, workaholic creators, etc.

I am only fully functional when I am stretched to my limits of time and energy. I thrive then. I'm not necessarily happy. But I'm "on." I get amazing projects assigned to me, I travel to conferences, I work hard for my students, I learn ancient languages... and I never stop working at music.  This is all very stressful, but I do it anyway.

After a 35 mile bicycle ride
But when I am not very busy, every little task becomes difficult. I leave dishes for days. The stinking dishes are like the inside of my mind! I can't remember to eat. I sleep in and then feel guilty about it, and my head pulses and I feel swollen.  I don't even do the little bit of actual work that I absolutely need to do. I tinker on projects and stay creative. But I languish otherwise. Summer is so hard. This stillness is infinitely more stressful than being busy.

Do you feel this too, friends? I know some of you do. Why can't we relax? What is this crap? Will we ever retire, take a vacation, or rest on the laurels of a finished project? No.

When I see pictures of people on vacation, legs on the beach, couples' vacay selfies, I think they must be faking it. No one can relax that much. Can they?

The only way I've been able to relax is to ride my bike. Constantly. And at the risk of doing even less of anything else. [Editor's note: I rode 1500 miles last year.]

This year's transition to summer shiftlessness has been complicated by a bad depression. I recall times of stress and anxiety and sadness throughout my life, but nothing has ever felt so needlessly and irrationally miserable as the days when this depression grabs hold of me. This is something new this year. A novel experience. It's heavy and suffocating and stinging and it has no locus.  Things trigger it, for sure. Reminders of past misdeeds or of abuse at the hands of others, getting behind on work, over-drinking on a night out. But those are not the cause. The thing is the cause of itself. The depression is the depression. (I need to understand that as much as I need to understand that sadness doesn't define me. It's not a personality trait. It's a big dumb thing I'm dealing with. And maybe it's worth experiencing.)

A similarly depressed friend told me it won't help to dwell on the depression this way. I can see that. So I only bring it up as it ties into this summer's malaise and inability to do shit.  Or inability to feel like I'm doing enough shit.

So, sad disease aside, I wonder about this need to be DOING things all the time. For instance, even if I had the money to take a vacation, I would probably only go somewhere that I could make a project out of. The trip would have to accomplish something. Is that sick? But if that's what I want, then why not just live that way?  I won't relax. I won't.

I can't figure out if that's a tragic life or not. It feels really good to achieve and to create. And my obsession with that feeling makes my current depression, which is partly from not having anything to do in the first place, all the worse. You can see how this compounds. I don't really know the feelings of relief or rest. Maybe someday I will.

And maybe on this leg of my journey, rest is a thing I truly don't need.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Romance and Reality

I considered closing this blog up and starting a new one, now that I'm an advanced graduate student with "research interests" and a prospectus and all that.  But I reconsidered -- I am, after all, still A Student of English.
Published Editor!

I began this blog eight years ago because I am curious and writerly, and one of the things I was most curious about back then was grad school. I romanticized it, as so many undergraduates do.  Early career graduate students do it too, even as they get hit with the realities of long readings, self-conscious writing, endless grading, and low pay. Every semester of my master's program I had a romantic vision of what was to come next -- scenes of collegiate lounging, library lounging, reading-chair lounging. Boy did I expect a lot of lounging! But also scenes of classroom victories,  professorial connections, and important assignments.

All these scenes came true. And even better ones too. I edited journals, I ran conferences, I presented at an international forum, and I even pissed off a famous academic with a book review I wrote! But was all that romantic? Not in the way I thought it would be.

The other day I walked across the campus of my undergraduate alma mater, and I recognized a certain tall tree, and a bench where I had once sat and looked at that tree. As I sat, I had written about that tree and about Hawthorne. (I think I even posted it here.) And now I was walking across the same campus to fetch the books for the classes I am teaching there this fall, and to find the key to an office I'm borrowing. An office in the same building where I took my first philosophy class, years ago.  I realized then that graduate school is not what is romantic. College is what is romantic -- that is, the undergraduate years of not knowing what to expect, of being fascinated by everything, and of looking to the future with wide eyes and silly hopes.

I am not one to argue that grad school is a bad experience. But post-coursework it is not romantic.  I'd even lost the romance by the last semester of coursework, and I was the "senior" in the back of the room rolling my eyes at the new grads who were afraid to talk. (Yeah, I'm an asshole sometimes). But even though grad school is not romantic, I'd say it's noble.

There are still somewhat idealized pictures of the graduate enterprise in my head, even as I live it. I still treasure the smallest things as proof of my status -- my name on a mailbox, my pile of keys to various university office doors, the 30 library books I get to keep for months, for instance.  I still have a stupid pride about my low account balances and automobile struggles. As I write, my left sock is wet because I finally wore a hole in my shoe this rainy morning. I use the hashtag #adjunctlife when I want to point to that ambivalence many of us have about doing important work that we love while getting paid shit for it. I fiddle with my signature lines because I'm so much more than a TA now (I ended up just naming my department without a title, because I don't want to claim to be more than I am or less than I am). But these dumb feelings of pride are all mitigated by taking myself with a grain of salt -- I know what grad school is now. It's a noble pursuit, but it's a hard reality too.

I have friends who are master's students and first year PhD's who still have the romance in them. They love books so much. They can't get enough! They take pictures of their coffee and laptop setup as they crank out their term papers. But hey-- they're not any sillier than I was, even though I went though those stages before instant sharing was so much a thing. (Instead I journaled about all of it, or posed with my Beowulf books for pre-selfie self-portraits). I'm still excited about my new office(s), and my ever increasing responsibilities (with slightly increased pay).  But reading books? Writing? Staying up late to do research?  So over it. It's not romantic. It's just reality.

Does this mean I'm burnt out? No. Does it mean students who still have that little glimmer are all wrong? Nope. It's just that I realized the other day, because of that big beautiful tree, that junior-year-in-college-Robyn was an important and necessary stage of my development as a scholar. Without her romantic temperament, without her excitement for "graduate study" (whatever that is!), and without master's-degree-Robyn's continued, earnest idealizing of the hard road she had begun, PhD-Robyn never would be here, post-coursework, post-exams, working on her prospectus. Maybe I'm all business now, and maybe I can't keep that old sunshine-y shit up. But no amount of romance is gonna write this dissertation.

Now if you'll excuse me I have some office work to do, two meetings to go to after that, and I have to get these 30 books back to the damn library.