Anxiety & Academia

Book-iPad-wallpaper-Books-526x394A few years ago I read Rosalind Gill’s “Breaking the Silence: The Hidden Injuries of Neo-Liberal Academia”. I was reminded by it as I read Nadine Muller’s “Silences & Selfishness: The Politics of Blogging the Personal” and Katy Price’s “Work as Self-Harm”, as I read this article on graduate teaching assistants’ working conditions, as I thought wryly of the number of friends’ places at which I’ve slept the night before my lecture, as I contemplated my own precarious employment. I thought of it again as I read Richard Hall’s “Some Notes on Academic Co-Option and Exodus”, as I read Mark Carrigan’s “Why I Am Quitting the British Sociological Association”. I thought of it again as I read PhD(isabled).

I thought of it as I eagerly anticipated the weekend; not because it meant relaxation and friends and fun, but because it meant I had a chance to work on my own academic projects rather than other people’s. I thought of it ruefully on Monday morning as I observed how much of the weekend had been spent catching up on sleep rather than catching up on work.

Most of the time, I love what I do. I love the teaching; I love watching my students confidently explore ideas that were new to them only a few short weeks ago. I love that someone will give me a hard drive of data and tell me to go away and do something with it. I love that each day can be different. But, as Miya Tokumitsu suggests, “do what you love” can be a dangerous mantra, and is pervasive in academia.

1421416900_1385746862I’m aware of the dark side of academia. That it will take everything you give it and ask for more. I’m reminded that a career in academia is often based on two people’s labour: the academic and their partner, who has the kind of skills that are employable almost anywhere, is amenable to moving house regularly, can financially sustain the couple for periods of time and can do most of the household management stuff. As an early-career researcher – working three paid part-time jobs, helping to organise a conference, doing occasional invigilation and living alone – certain things are bound to slip; so far these have included “laundry”, “sleeping” and “eating”. This is not sustainable.

I wonder if there is a place in academia for someone like me, someone who cannot give it their all because they will fall apart if they do. Someone who will give enough – enough to submit a thesis, enough to defend it successfully, enough to juggle multiple jobs – but who cannot live and breathe it or they’ll suffocate. Despite having had what is euphemistically known as “mental health issues” for my entire adult life, on paper I’ve done pretty well. Those certificates are the thick cream wrapping paper over the difficulties of being a relatively high-functioning crazy.

self-careThere are things I try to do: I try to eat healthily, have cut down on alcohol, try not to have drifting, unfocused days spent in my dressing gown. I try to stay in touch with friends, people who will soothe me with mugs of tea and kind words and let me be fretful or silent at them. At the start of my PhD, recognising that I was not coping with anything, I saw my GP and started on antidepressants. Perhaps the biggest thing was being able to afford to rent somewhere that allowed me to separate my work area from my sleeping area, thus allowing me to impose a rule of “no work in the bedroom”.

And yet, and yet.

I remember trying to finish my thesis, being bounced between the GP and the counselling service and occupational health and every one of them telling me that I was doing all the right things. This was unhelpful: if I was doing all the right things, why did I feel so wretched? If I was doing all the right things, why was I stockpiling medication and looking at PubMed to reverse-engineer my suicide? I could perform a life in which I was feeding myself and washing and being active in my community, and I’d still feel coldness coiled in my ribcage, that grasping, sucking emptiness.

Now that I have my doctorate, I see the demands are even greater. I can never do enough, because I could always, always be doing more. Academia will take everything you have and demand more – more research proposals, that book review, those peer reviews, that presentation, that marking, that abstract deadline, chasing more funding … It is a nightmare for someone with anxiety who tends to shut down under intense pressure. Left to my own devices and allowed to work at my own pace I could pick through them, prioritise them. Instead I feel myself panicking in a ridiculous game of whack-a-deadline.

anxietyAnd through all this, I’m scared. That my “enough” is not enough. That I’m not enough – not as clever, not as productive, not as brilliant as my contemporaries. That if I declare my disability (and I have a disability referral form and evidence from my GP that contain words like “chronic” and “treatment resistant”) I’ll be seen as damaged goods, a liability to the smooth clockwork of academia. I’m scared that my current workload is unsustainable and that I’ll either be hurled or stumble or slip into that cold, despairing place again. These things keep me awake at night. I’m scared of feeling like this for the rest of my working life.

If I am sick, then this system is sicker.




Anonymous posts have been written by authors whose identity is only known to the editor. Their identity will not be disclosed.

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8 Responses

  1. S. says:

    Okay, there seems to be this idea that the current state of academia is the way it always has been and the way it always will be. But that is a lie, a myth. Even “high-profile” academics will tell you that basically research and teaching are not independent. They won’t phrase it that way, they will just say things like, that’s the way it is, get used to it. Sometimes they actually just mean that, but quite often in between the lines they are suggesting that this is not okay. Economics should have no say in academia. The hard truth is that it controls everything. How your research is funded, the expectations of your quantitative performance, the bureaucratic effort whenever you start a project.

    Sure, you can argue that the single academic’s performance is what shows whether they “belong” in academia. But it’s ignoring the structural problems.

  2. Annabelle says:

    Instead of questioning your ability to be an academic, you should think carefully about whether academia is what you want to do. Whether it’s worth a try, whether the pros outweight the cons. It is so common in academia to overlook your own happiness and wellbeing… Being an academic is a job, after all, a high-profile job which requires a lot of commitment. If research, teaching, grant applications, conferences, etc. is what you really enjoy, then go for it. But if it makes you unhappy or if it’s just too stressful don’t feel like you have to keep trying until you destroy your mental and physical health. It’s so not worth it and nobody will tell you ‘well done’.

  3. Ava says:

    Thank you SO MUCH for writing about it so openly.

  4. jetude says:

    respectfully, aaron stoler – your definition – ‘pushes humanity a bit further’ could be touch narrow. What per chance do you think sculptors, musicians, chefs, and philosophers feel when they have those aha moments? That they have (and they have) pushed humanity forward a tiny amount! That is the goal of every human, whether they know it or not, be they biomedical research assoc. professor or a groundskeeper at the same uni. It is why we perservere, why we struggle with ‘how’ to hold on to life, even if at times that question becomes ‘whether.’

    In the spirit of the goals of nadine and the others who bare their souls on this site in the hope of helping another if not salvation I maintain politely that 1) marie and pete seemed to address the author’s fears (directly (& kudos to marie for hearing ‘anonymous’ wonderful written voice!) 2) your comments demonstrated sincere pride in your field’s efforts, however, elevating oneself at the expense of others is unseemly, and untrue. ‘everyone else in the world’ is a quite a broad swath of people – i hope you won’t rely on any of them to care for a loved one in hospital, grow the food that your child eats, … You see my point. It could be argued that the aha moment you feel has 1) no actual significance because it is merely your feeling and of little material consequence or 2) within your field it is significant, but unlikely to have any measurable impact. There is also a vast gap between research, knowledge production, etc. that pushes humanity forward a tiny amount (in a lab or library…) and the space that humanity actually inhabits.

    Again, what exactly do you think the teacher who taught you to read thought of his/her students that day – ‘Oh dear, have i simply maintained the status quo or pushed humanity backward?’
    I think I am simply remarking that your logic concerned me and reminded me of orson welles’ character in The Third Man, a bit removed from humanity, with little knowledge that outside of academia, unfortunately, the academy has little significance.

  5. Aaron Stoler says:

    let’s amend this a bit. To me, academia is everything that this article described. Except it fails to mention those singular moments of glory when data coalesce into something meaningful, i.e. those “aha” moments when you feel as though you just pushed humanity forward a tiny amount. No other field gets to do that. Everyone else in this world maintains the status quo or pushes us backward. Mechanics fix cars, teachers educate students, restaurants make food. Academics are the ones that invent new ways to fix cars, new information to educate, and new ways of preparing food. There is glory in that…at the expense of what this blog post describes.

  6. JP says:

    Academia is not for everyone, you know. No matter how much you think you want it. Why punish yourself like that?

    • Marie Rey says:

      Very simple response–because academia is in our blood–much like fixing cars is in the mechanic’s blood or writing is in the author’s blood…

  7. pete says:

    It appears that blogging and writing in the national press about my early-onset parkinson’s may have had something to do with my subsequent inability to land a permanent contract. Having missed the shortlist for one job, I was told those shortlisted had ‘more HE teaching experience’ than I did – one of the shortlist had been given their first TA job outside their home institution by me while I was a temporary lecturer, two of them had only just received their PhDs, while one had yet to be awarded. Not suspicious at all.
    Maybe I’m paranoid, but probably not.

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