So Historiann featured a guest post by her frequent commenter Truffula today (it’s a great post – check it out!), but one line stood out to me, that is tangential to its actual topic, and I want to write about that. Truffula writes:
Many of us down in the trenches at Provincial State U are going to counselors now. Our jobs are driving us crazy but we can’t afford to walk away.
This stood out to me in part because of a recent conversation I had with a colleague, in which that colleague asked whether he’d been horrible in a meeting and wanted to apologize if so…. I said, no, you were fine, and then the colleague revealed that he was concerned because he hadn’t remembered to take his anti-depressant that day, and apparently that is a Bad Thing when that happens. I was taken aback, and I’m not even sure what I said in response. And then the colleague continued that he needs meds “to handle this place.”
So here’s the thing. I am not against seeking counseling when one needs help, and I even think that mood-adjusters are a good and necessary thing for people for a lot of reasons. Look, if one needs help, one should get it, and that’s a good thing. I am not pulling a Tom Cruise here – my problem is not with seeking help, or medication, to handle any number of things.
But if a day ever comes where I need to be drugged in order to go to work in the morning and be normal, or if I need counseling precisely because of my job – not because I am dealing with a wider-ranging depression or wider-ranging situational issues or another mental health condition, I really hope that I will be willing to take the risk to walk away from the job.
I know that’s easier said than done. I know that it requires a certain financial cushion, and that it requires a certain kind of privilege in terms of other non-monetary resources in order to do that. (Let’s note, I currently have neither.) But also, I think that it takes a certain willingness to make that leap of faith because one’s sanity – one’s self – is more important than any job.
Look, I get ridiculously stressed out by some of the things in my job. It’s stupid to think that one can be an academic and have that not be the case. My things are surely different from the things of other people at different institutional types, but I think that in general it’s fair to say that this is a high-pressure career. Stress comes with that.
And I probably should have sought counseling/drugs in the aftermath of my chair’s and father’s death/going up for tenure/revamping our gen ed curriculum/my grandmother’s death. I didn’t: I ate my feelings instead. This was not a “healthy” response by any means, but it’s what I did. Thank God I had sabbatical after all of that, and (I think) I took back control over my life, not only in terms of the weight issue, but also in terms of my attitude to the job. What I’ve been doing since return from sabbatical is that I try to be aware of how the job is affecting all the parts of my life, and when things reach “red alert” levels, which they have done at times over the past year, I strategize about ways to get out of whatever situation is putting me there. And once I have a strategy, I follow through. Because I am more important than any single part of my job. Yes, that includes students.
In some ways, I think that this makes me less “good” at my job. Or, well, it makes me less “outstanding in all areas.” As I said to my dean earlier this semester, “I think I’m good at the work that I’m doing, and I think that the work that I’m doing is important, and I don’t know that there is anyone who can do [a particular job] as well as I do it. But I’m not a martyr.” Now, that’s the privilege of tenure: that you can, in the words of Bartleby the Scrivener, “prefer not to.” And one of the tragedies of the proliferation of non-tenure-track faculty in universities (though not by any means the only one or even the most important one – clearly the biggest tragedy is the exploitation of people) is that the tenured don’t have the numbers to really make change happen through their resistance.
One of the things that I see, though, in many of my tenured colleagues – people whom I like and respect and value as colleagues, across my institution – is that for a variety of reasons, they will not put themselves before the job. The reasons include personal inclination – they are workaholics – sure, but those reasons also include fear of retaliation from administrators, fear for their department’s futures, fear that in saying no they won’t have power or a voice in the conversation, fear that they won’t be able to advance and to achieve their career ambitions.
And what I don’t want to happen to me is I don’t want to be ruled by that sort of fear. I don’t want to put myself into a mental health crisis because of a job. I don’t want to stop liking my job because I’m not taking care of myself first.