Thursday, April 4, 2019

I Guess I'm Post-Ac Now?

As you all (all five of you still reading this blog that I update like four times a year now. HI!) already know, I was laid off from my full-time professorship almost exactly a year ago. As I've been trying to put my life back together, I kind of lost it—it being my sense of purpose, focus, and overall identity.

While I have been managing to keep it all together in a superficial sense (by, like, you know doing the things I have to do every day to keep my bills paid and my kids fed and whatnot), I haven't felt like myself for a long time now.

About two months ago, I started seeing a counselor (a thing I should have done earlier, but I was still reeling from my previous bad experience). Today, I think our session led to a bit of a breakthrough on just where my current struggles are rooted.


See, I have always had a plan. I went straight from being valedictorian of my high school class with my "most likely to succeed" title worn like a suit of armor into a B.A. into my M.A. and then finishing my Ph.D. while working full-time in an academic career that had clearly delineated steps. I was climbing the staircase well. I was ticking off the boxes and knew exactly when I would be up for associate professor and exactly when I would be up for full professor. I knew exactly what I was going to do in between to ensure that I would attain each of those titles.

It's not just the long-term track of academia that fit me so well, though. Every day was planned out in advance. I created the document that ensured it at the start of every semester when I made a syllabus that had each class period mapped out. I knew when I would be grading papers. I knew when they would be due back to students. I knew what topics I would cover on each day. I knew when I would hold office hours.

Sure, there were always little changes that needed to be made to adjust for life. A snow day could throw things off kilter for a week. A sick day could push back the paper due date. But, for the most part, I always knew where I needed to be, and I was always there. In my daily life, my monthly life, my yearly life, I could see the sign posts plotted out—distant but solidly visible—for literally the rest of my professional life.

This is where it's important to stop and tell you a quick story.

Once, my husband and I were chatting, and I was looking over my big, beautiful planner. I sighed happily and said something like, "Looking at this planner is the one thing that can make me feel calm when it's all going crazy."

He was shocked, "Really?! My planner does nothing but stress me out!"

It was a clear, foundational difference in the way we viewed the world. He looks at a planner and sees endless tasks to accomplish and time slipping away. I look at a planner and see order and undeniable proof that it can all get done and will therefore all be okay.

Planning is part of who I am as a person. It's as natural to me as breathing and (so it turns out) perhaps as essential.

I was dealing with grief over the loss of my career. I was dealing with anger over the way that it ended. I was dealing with panic over my sudden financial uncertainty. Sometimes I still get flashes of those things.

But they are not what has me here, a year later, spinning in circles and seeking therapy. Those things all make sense to me, and I have the comfort in knowing they will all—in one way or another—run their course and fade.

What is not fading, though, is the sense of being untethered. Adrift. Unstructured. Unplanned.

In fact, that sense recently got a lot worse when I decided to give up my adjunct professor position. This was without a doubt the most logical choice in terms of financial benefit, time constraints, and potential for professional growth. It was, by all accounts and months of obsessively considering the options, the right choice.

But it was also the ripping down of the only remaining pillars of external structure in my world. When they were gone, I felt immediate freedom. I could now spend my time doing exactly what I wanted.

Then I took a good, hard look at that freedom. It went on forever. Into the horizon. With no sign posts to tell me what to do tomorrow or next month or two years from now.

This, ultimately, is what being post-ac means to me. It means freedom so vast it is paralyzing. It means staring out across the barren landscape and picturing all of the structures I could erect there but still craving a bit of the comfort of an ivory tower that's nowhere to be seen.

Monday, February 4, 2019

On Expectations (Falling Short, Being Kind, and Recognizing Reality)

My goodness. I am out of shape. And not taking care of myself. And it's been going on way too long. 

I've been trying to figure out how to write this post without it sounding like 1) I am asking for a pity party or 2) I am making a list of excuses.

The latter is easier to deal with. I don't have anything to excuse. I don't owe anyone my fitness or even my health. I don't need to explain my own choices to anyone except myself, and I know that and believe it.

As for the pity party, I'm really not trying to do that, either. First of all, the time for pity (if it was warranted) has passed. Secondly, I don't think what I am about to write makes me pitiful. I'm sharing it not because I'd like pity but because I suspect I'm not alone in the (potentially fatal) flaw of not being honest with myself about what's really going on, and without an honest accounting of the realities around us, how are we supposed to make any real progress?

So, here's the thing. There was a point where I was pretty fit. (I was never thin, but this isn't about that.) There was a point (not even that long ago), when I was routinely running 10k, lifting weights multiple times a week, playing roller derby, and regularly getting 15,000 steps a day without even really trying. I didn't get winded climbing two flights of stairs, and I didn't have trouble getting up off the floor after sitting down to read a book with my daughter.

I was, looking back on it, taking care of myself pretty well. I drank water, ate vegetables, and generally did the things I was supposed to do to take care of this one body I get.

Somewhere along the way, I stopped doing that. I stopped running. I stopped eating well. I stopped lifting weights. I stopped even walking with much regularity or intention. And I started doing some other things. I started panting at the top of stairs, struggling to get up off the floor, and generally feeling like I wasn't treating myself very kindly.

So, today, I stopped and really tried to figure out what happened. That's when I came to a realization. Here's a simplified timeline of what I recognized:
  • June 2014- I broke my ankle and had to have surgery to put it back together. I wasn't even allowed to bear weight until August. It took a lot of physical therapy and struggle to be able to flex my ankle and rebuild my muscles, and I wasn't truly back to full physical function for almost a year. All the while, I was writing a dissertation.
  • June 2015- I got pregnant. Still writing a dissertation.
  • July 2015- I miscarried that pregnancy. And dissertations don't write themselves.
  • August 2015- I got pregnant again. I was put on exercise restrictions due to some minor complications. But those restrictions didn't extend to dissertation writing.
  • November 2015- I successfully defended my dissertation. 
  • May 2016- I had a baby. Then I started experiencing symptoms of post-partum depression and anxiety. I had daily panic attacks for most of the summer that eventually spaced out to weekly, then monthly, then occasionally. 
  • August 2017- I bought a house. (This becomes important in a moment). 
  • September 2017- I found out I might get laid off from the position I had been in for six years and had planned to do the rest of my life: my full-time, "continuing status" (basically tenured) community college professor position . . . and I had just bought a house. 
  • December 2017- I found out I was definitely getting laid off. 
  • January-May 2018- I had to teach my final semester, knowing I was losing my job and with it the only professional identity I had ever had or wanted. It destroyed me. 
  • May 2018-present- I have been trying to pick up the pieces of my sense of self, make up for my lost income through a scramble of freelance and adjunct work, and generally find out who I am on the other side of it all. 
Today, for the first time, I thought about all of those realities in succession. I recognized that what started as physical impairments that greatly altered the way I used my body (the ankle break, the pregnancies) cascaded into mental and emotional turmoil (the PPAD, the identity crisis) and that it became a chicken and an egg of what would need to come back first to help me recover the other.

Would regaining physical fitness help me become emotionally clear or would I need emotional clarity before I could get physically fit?

I imagined what I would say to a friend who came to me worried about her lack of fitness and self-care if she was failing to recognize the series of events that had led her to that place. Then I tried to tell those things to myself, and that's how I ended up writing this post.

Look, I know that it hurt no one but myself to stop working out at the moments that I most needed to be strong. I know that continuing bad habits (or continuing to ignore good ones) did nothing but dig me a deeper hole to climb back out of. I know that doing things like eating well and exercising more would likely have improved the state of mind I was in throughout many of those events.

But I also know that I am human, and I am trying, and that? That was a lot.

Intellectually knowing what the best choices are doesn't equate to having the emotional resources to make them, and I've been bereft. I haven't had the tools to do the work even when I knew what work needed to be done. It didn't matter how many times I looked at the blueprint.

Is it better now? I want to say yes, but the truth is, I can't really be sure. I know that it's easier to keep a habit than to make one. I know that the almost four years that have passed since I was last where I wanted to be, health-wise, have represented a physical aging that I can't undo, a collective impact that won't be erased.

All I can do is start where I am, and I think that starting where I am with the full recognition of where I've been is probably the best chance I've had in a long time.

If you are falling short of your own expectations (in whatever it might be) and you need a prod to take stock of where you've been and be kind to yourself because of it, I hope this can be it.