A 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.
I’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.
There 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.
And 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.