Tag Archives: depression

Mountain Climbing for the High Functioning Depressive, or What I Learned on My Summer Vacation

From left to right: North Apostle, Ice Mountain, West Apostle
From left to right: North Apostle, Ice Mountain, West Apostle

This is the penultimate week of my research fellowship here in Boston, which means that my summer of nomadic living will soon be drawing to an end as I head back to my parents’ house in Dallas for a few weeks to pack up for Moscow. Since the sale of our house was completed in early May, I have not stayed in any one place for more than two weeks, having visited five states and covered thousands of miles by airplane in a little over two months.

Included in this farewell tour of the US was a visit to Deer Valley Ranch near Buena Vista, CO, an establishment owned by long-time family friends and site of annual visits for my family for over twenty years. It’s one of those family vacations that makes you happy to be amongst a crowd of introverts, as our family of nine adults (and one toddler) can easily pass an entire afternoon reading and only occasionally talking for an entire afternoon (or for as long as the toddler is napping). In the evening, me, my sisters, and our spouses play Settlers of Catan, a ritual that very often sends us to bed hating each other but doesn’t stop us from starting another game (or two) the next night. (Josh, my sweet, infinitely patient missionary-kid brother-in-law is the most quietly ruthless player and regularly makes us feel like complete assholes for telling him where he can shove his Monopoly card. Anyway).

That level of competitiveness tends to bleed into more athletic pursuits as well. Five of the nine of us play tennis, and I suspect that if I were one of those, no one in my family would speak to me again. Ever. I don’t really excel at sports but do like intense physical activity, particularly hiking. This means that at the end of our week, I typically join my dad and now the aforementioned brother-in-law on an all-day mountain climb with Actual Mountain Goat Bob Marken. If you have never attempted climbing a Colorado peak, let’s just say that they are called the Rockies for a reason and with altitudes over 14,000 feet present a significant challenge for anyone who spends 51 weeks out of the year at sea level.  For that reason, the rest of the family, my spouse included, tends to opt for spending the day sitting on a deck looking at the mountains rather than scrambling over them. My other BIL, a Colorado native, swears that the next time he’ll climb one of the state’s famous “fourteeners” is when the Goths invade. And as my dad says, the two things required for this sort of adventure are a high threshold for pain and a bad memory.

The first major ridge we had to climb.
This was one of the easier parts

I’ve been up a half dozen or so fourteeners and other local peaks, and this year, our intrepid guide proposed what he called a “more interesting” thirteener. At 13,860 feet, the North Apostle is just 140 feet shy of the prestigious 14,000 but sits on the same ridge as two other thirteeners that present one of the greatest challenges in Colorado mountaineering. The mountain doesn’t have to be high to completely kick your ass. The North Apostle is the easier of the three in the sense that the climbing is non-technical and no special equipment is required. However, unlike the many Colorado mountains (including the most trafficked fourteeners), there is no trail for the last half of the four mile hike up, at which point the elevation gain becomes so precipitous that you are basically climbing a ladder for about 2000 vertical feet.

Uuuuuugggghhhh
Uuuuuugggghhhh

This is my way of explaining why, even though I made it to the summit, this mountain basically broke me over its knee Bane-style and has left me to painfully recover at the bottom of a sunken prison while it destroyed everything I loved. Not that I didn’t help it or anything. The day before, I neglected to get on top of my hydration and, not wanting to get stomach cramps, I didn’t eat anything on the trail until we’d already gone almost three miles. What this meant is that by that point I was dehydrated, hypoglycemic, and hyponatremic (salt-deficient), and throughout the day, my body would never really be able to catch up. 1400 vertical feet from the top, I got a calf cramp that made me see white. This is honestly probably where I should have stopped and waited for the rest of the group to pick me up on the way back. But no. I pressed forward even though my body was screaming at me not to. I was able to stretch it out, but in order to keep it from happening again, I had to take an unscheduled food and water break, and slow down and ease up my pace each time I felt my muscles start to seize up.

Summit Ridge
Summit Ridge

This meant that I fell considerably behind the rest of my group and therefore never got to rest with them, even at the top of the mountain. Getting to the summit was exhausting enough, but after I snapped a couple of pictures and wolfing down half a sandwich, the sleet started, which meant we needed to face what I had been trying not to think about all the way up: climbing back down the steep rocks, which were now wet.

F*** this
F*** this

Anyone who has done a significant amount of hiking can tell you that the descent is often worse than the ascent. For one thing, you have no choice about it. While summits are optional, getting off the exposed peak before the lightning shows up—not to mention getting home—is not. For another thing, if you have terrible knees—which I do thanks to heredity, dance, and high school track—walking down a flight of stairs is way worse than walking up. And these stairs were slippery, uneven, and constantly moving around under me. About 500 feet from the top, on the way down, with 3.5 miles still to go, in addition to dealing with knees and sleet and burning quads, I hit what runners call the “wall.” I had completely burned through my glycogen stores. And I was still dehydrated. So, around 1000 feet from the top, I was not only physically running on fumes but had lost the ability to make good decisions about where to put my feet. Mountain climbing is a mental challenge as well as a physical one, and if your brain is basically just buzzing inside your head, then the physical side of things starts getting much harder as you slip all over the rocks, struggle to right yourself, and thereby make yourself more and more tired than you would be otherwise. At one point, my father had to start hiking right in front of me so that I could just step in all the places he was stepping.

Ice Mountain from the NA Summit.
Ice Mountain from the NA Summit.

Along the way, I ate the rest of my sandwich, a bunch of chips and other snacks (yay salt), and drank three bottles of water, but as a testament to the fact that my body was using every available resource for cell maintenance, I didn’t have to relieve myself once the entire day. By the time we got back, I was clearly in ketosis (which some extreme dieters and athletes try to induce but really doesn’t feel good). It took me an hour longer to get down than it had to go up, and in the car, I was too tired to talk and couldn’t eat anything without choking because I was so dried out. When we arrived at a gas station, I did what I never do and bought a 16 oz. full sugar soda and almost instantly felt better (protip: have these waiting for you in the car next time). But I was so physically defeated that getting to the top of that mountain feel like a pyrrhic victory. It’s been five days, and my legs are still a little bit sore. I also immediately came down with a cold, and there were a few other physical after effects of extreme exertion that are a tad too personal to mention here.

You could argue that the views are worth it. I'm not going to right now.
You could argue that the views are worth it. I’m not going to right now.

Mountain climbing is the source of a number of self-help clichés that I could no doubt spend another thousand words listing here. There’s the one about what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And the one about taking everything one step at a time. A journey of a thousand miles. Humility while standing before nature’s grandeur. None of those are the epiphanies I had while I was barking my shins repeatedly on boulders. No, the persistent thought I keep returning to—that I’ve actually been turning over in my head all year—is that there may be something really wrong with me. Because this flogging myself up a mountain even though I know that it’s probably going to wreck me, that I am probably going to embarrass myself while climbing with three men over six feet tall in top physical condition (there are plenty of female athletes who could have breezed right past them, but I am decidedly not one of them), is pretty characteristic. I am ambitious, competitive, challenge-seeking, and I see stuff through to the end no matter what. Those all sound like strong qualities. They are without question the reason I got a PhD, why I am moving to Russia, why I double-majored and graduated with enough credit hours for two degrees, why when I was thirteen, I went to Honduras for a month to lay concrete with a crazy fundamentalist mission group. While basically a home-body and not much of a risk-taker, I have a tendency to push myself in ways that get me things I want but that also know can become maladaptive.

For example, panicked about money and my job search, over the course of my last year in Austin, I was working no less than three part-time jobs at any given time. For a few months, I was working four. Granted, one of those jobs got me the job I have now, but piling on that many commitments is inadvisable if you are also supposed to be writing a book.

On that note, there seems to be no project so difficult that I can’t find a way to make it even harder. My dissertation project should be strong enough for publication with some straightforward revisions and the addition of a new chapter to replace one that no longer fits the book’s scope and methodology. Having spent almost three weeks in an archive this summer, I’ve come up with ideas for another two chapters and two articles with little clarity about how to prioritize what I want to do.

Again, all of this sort of sounds like good stuff. Having more ideas than time to write them is a high class problem. So is having more paying gigs than you can possibly juggle. And it sounds like all of this could be waved away with “work smarter not harder,” and “give yourself a break,” but this is as useless to a high-functioning depressive (which is what I am) as the advice to not worry so much is to someone with an anxiety disorder (which I have). But the truth is that this past year (the past few years, really) has taken me to absolutely terrifying physical, emotional, and spiritual lows that I might blog about one day if I’m drunk enough. And because I do not behave in stereotypically depressed ways, because I get out of bed in the morning and generally get shit done—whether or not I have to go cry for an hour in my office after teaching class—my particular form of depression is very difficult both to acknowledge and to treat. What it costs you to get to the top of the mountain and back again isn’t as significant to most people as the fact that you got there.

So, rather than write for another 2000 words on what should by now be the obvious similarities between mountain climbing and academic high-achieving (both are endurance games, both require mental toughness and very high tolerance for discomfort, etc.), so instead of that, I’d like to take a paragraph or two to recognize the wisdom of doing to reverse of making it to the top. Sometimes it’s ok to bail out. Sometimes it’s ok to not make the climb in the first place.

Critical to making those choices are enough self-awareness to know why you are doing what you’re doing. I am at the point where I can recognize what itch I’m trying to scratch but don’t quite have the will-power to stop myself. I attempted a hike I knew would be very difficult under circumstances that were less than ideal because I enjoy challenges, yes, but also because I was mad at my body. Moving around a lot has meant falling out of a regimented workout routine, usually only getting to it 2-3 times a week, and between that and new medication, my weight has creeped up bit. As someone whose all for body positivity and HAES and all of that, I’m a bit ashamed that that sort of thing throw off my equilibrium so much, but I live in the world, and sometimes it gets to me.

Likewise, I think some of us tend to pursue our academic careers, pursue a PhD or a particular job or tenure because of the feeling that it will fix something that we think is deeply wrong with us or because it will prove something about you. I defended a year and a half ago and spent the following two weeks in a post-partum fog expecting to change color or something, expecting some external sign that I had arrived. As anyone who reaches that milestone can tell you, it never really comes. You don’t suddenly become a different person (just as you don’t when your body changes, much as the diet industrial complex would like to tell you otherwise). And of course in a career like this, the goalposts just keep moving, so there’s always something new on the horizon to be neurotic about.

And finally, what it costs you to get something really does matter. I’m not just talking about the consequences of putting off family or neglecting friendships or whatever. There is a personal cost to everything that—especially if you are a very sensitive person—can be very, very real and long-lasting. And that is a thing that is worth weighing any time you are facing a difficult endeavor. Deciding that the terrible, never-ending scrutiny of grad school is just not worth it is not cowardice. It’s wisdom. And deciding that a job that is less prestigious or *gasp* not even academic is more amenable to your lifestyle preferences is knowing yourself, not selling out. I’m lucky in that I really do enjoy what I do and can’t imagine really being happy in other line of work (one of the things I learned from the multi-job clusterfrack of the past year is that I hate, hate, hate working in a normal office and love the fact that my schedule completely changes every few months). It’s also true that when the challenge is well-matched to my level of conditioning and acclimation, mountaineering is really fun. But with the work ethic of a Puritan and a masochistic streak, you can sure find a way to make it torture.

David Foster Wallace’s “Octet” and the Torture of Writing

One of my most intelligent students last semester told me that he’s always had a hard time getting into David Foster Wallace because he feels like if he fails to “get it,” he’ll feel stupid. Having sat through graduate courses on Postmodernism and Critical Theory, I know the feeling–really–and yet I find Wallace to be one of the more approachable, humanistic purveyors of post-post-whatever meta-fictional experimentation. His stuff is dense, sure, and often deliberately opaque, but in additional to probing and satirizing aspects of twentieth and twenty-first century life in apt and often prescient ways, he in the top 1% of writers who are capable of combining humor with a soul-rending sense of pathos.

“Octet,” which appears in Brief Interviews of Hideous Men, is a story I’ve started assigning both because it’s a great example of meta-fictionality and because it dramatizes right before your eyes the crippling self-consciousness that afflicts anyone who has ever sat down to write something, from a novel to a term paper. Along with Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, it’s a terrifyingly funny and relatable depiction of just how torturous writing typically is–particularly in the era of detached, adultish, post-ironic snark.

Beginning as a set of experimental fictional pieces called “pop quizzes,” Wallace presents a series of stories that conclude with some kind of question that asks the reader to make some kind of judgment about the predicament of the characters in it, questions that are designed to probe something meaningful about the reader herself. We get 4 such quizzes, numbered 4-7 (two are labelled 6 and 6A). Number 8 is skipped. And 9 begins with a direct address to the reader:

You are, unfortunately, a fiction writer. You are attempting a cycle of very short belletristic pieces, pieces which as it happens are not contes philosophiques and not vignettes or scenarios or allegories or fables, exactly, though neither are they really qualifiable as ‘short stories’ (not even as those upscale microbrewed Flash Fictions that have become so popular in recent years–even though these belletristic pieces are really short, they just don’t work like Flash Fictions are supposed to). How exactly the cycle’s short pieces are supposed to work is hard to describe. Maybe say they’re supposed to compose a sort of ‘interrogation’ of the person reading them, somehow–i.e. palpations, feelers into the interstices of her sense of something, etc. . . . though what that ‘something’ is remains maddeningly hard to pin down, even just for yourself as you’re working on the pieces (pieces that are taking a truly grotesque amount of time, by the way, far more time than they ought to vis a vis their length and aesthetic ‘weight,’ etc.

What follows for the next 15 pages is a foot-noted diatribe on the difficulties of writing what the author declares to be “a total fiasco,” a series of pieces that the author insists, for some reason, on calling an “octet,” when it really isn’t, of a series of “pop quizzes,” most of which don’t really function all that well as such. The author asks the reader to consider all of the devices by which one might salvage the whole endeavor, perhaps by “some terse unapologetic acknowledgement” that this isn’t working, which might save face and deflate the pretentiousness of the whole thing but “also has the disadvantage of flirting with metafictional self-reference . . . which in the late 1990s, when even Wes Craven is cashing in on metafictional self-reference, might come off as lame and tired and facile.” The whole thing crawls further up its own ass when the author offers the reader

[A] chance to salvage the potential fiasco of you feeling that the 2+(2(1)) pieces add up to something urgent and humand and the reader not feeling that way at all. Because now it occurs to you that you could simply ask her. The reader. That you could poke your nose out of the mural hole that ‘6 isn’t working as a Pop Quiz’ and ‘Here’s another shot at it’ etc. have already made adnd address the reader directly and ask her straight out whether she’s feeling anything like what you feel.

The hazard of this additional, ultra-meta pop quiz, he warns is that

You’d have to be 100% honest. Meaning not just sincere but almost naked. Worse than naked–more like unarmed. Defenseless. ‘This thing I feel, I can’t name it straight out but it seems important, do you feel it too?–this sort of direct question is not for the squeamish. For one thing, it’s perilously close to

The whole thing is riddled with footnotes that dramatize the author/reader’s growing insecurity about his/her choices, obsessing over whether the use of the term “relationship” is too touchy-feely or whether the word “palpate” to describe what the quizzes are meant to do is too pretentious. This reaches its climax when he tries to figure out if the verb “to be” as in “to be with someone” carries too much cultural baggage to be taken seriously.

All of this, of course, offers plenty of opportunities to talk about form and authorial choices and to what degree Wallace is just fucking with us. Many of my students think he’s doing quite a lot of the latter and find the whole thing more than a little pretentious and exhausting. This, of course, is what the authorial voice of the “Octet” anticipates, that the reader will be alienated by this excruciating sincerity in the same way that someone “who not only goes to a party all obsessed about whether he’ll be like or not but actually goes around at the party and goes up to strangers and asks them whether they like him or not” is going to terrify and alienate his neighbors. When I teach this piece, I show the Community episode, “Critical Film Studies” and talk about the fact that the terrifying sincerity of the final Pop Quiz shares features with Jeff’s speech to Abed when he confesses to calling up phone sex lines and saying he weighs 300 pounds because he needs to believe that he’ll be loved regardless of what he looks like. It’s something you’re not supposed to say, and because of that, it needs to be folded into layers of mediation and self-reference in order to defuse the horrifying nakedness of it all.

There is one sentence in “Octet” that runs on for three pages, footnoted no less than six times, requiring you, the reader, to decide whether to read the entire thing and go back to the footnotes, break up the sentence by reading the footnotes as they appear, or ignoring the footnotes altogether. If you go with Option #2, it’s easy to completely miss the fact that this sentence is essentially the thesis statement of the piece, which amounts to, more or less, the fact that we all desperately want to be loved and understood on our own terms but are desperately afraid (and rightly so) that we won’t. If you choose Option #3, you miss dramatization of the authorial voice’s excruciating indecision over specific word choices, and if you choose #1, you sort of get that but not with the same immediacy. In other works, both you’re going to kind of miss the urgency of it any way, and the author has designed it as such so that you can be impressed by the pyrotecnics in case you don’t “get” the essential terrifying point that he’s driving at.

The thing is that you don’t have to be a writer of belletristic fiction in order to get this. Every time you post something to a blog or to Facebook or Twitter or even go up to someone and say, “I was just thinking…” you are inviting a kind of rejection and misunderstanding and weighing against that terror the possibility that you might be warmly received, that your interlocutor or reader will say, “Hey, I totally get you.” In an age of endless self-disclosure that was only beginning to spring up when this piece was written, it’s a set of demons we do battle with not only when we sit down to do formal writing but with almost every online interaction.

And then you have to reflect on the fact that the more successful you get at this dance, the more people who are willing to buy what you’re selling, you run the risk of becoming further alienated from the people who provided you with that sense of connection to humanity. One of the demons Wallace seems to be battling in “Octet” is, in fact, “David Foster Wallace,” a literary persona weighted down with a host of expectations:

At any rate it’s not going to make you look wise or secure or accomplished or any of the things readers usually want to pretend they believe the literary artist who wrote what they’re reading is when they sit down to try to escape the insoluble flux of themselves and enter a world of pre-arranged meaning. Rather it’s going to make you look fundamentally lost and confused and frightened and unsure about whether to trust even your most fundamental intuitions about urgency and sameness and whether other people deep inside experience things in anything like the same way you do . . . more like a reader, in other words, down here quivering in the mud of the trench with the rest of us, instead of a Writer, whom we imagine to be clean and dry and radiant of command presence and unwavering conviction as he coordinates the whole campaign from back at some gleaming abstract Olympian HQ.

And of course, there is a degree to which this all just feels too clever, like the whole thing has crawled so far up its own ass that it ceases to be as human or urgent or relateable as it wants to be. The piece acknowledges its own manipulativeness, which in and of itself manipulative. But then you remember that David Foster Wallace killed himself and realize that this crippling self-consciousness and inability to escape the recursive loops of self-doubt might have had something to do with that. Because earlier in this same collection there is a story called “The Depressed Person” that lays out with excruciating accuracy the self-defeating, often fatal cycles of self-loathing that accompany mental illness. Such that the whole thing just spills open for you and becomes either a yawning pit of sadness or a sign that you, writing your blog post or thinking about your term paper, aren’t as alone as you think.

Meditations on a Mock Interview, Part 2

You guys are awesome.  The comments on and responses to this post were fantastic, and I wanted to follow up by letting everyone know that the crisis of confidence did come to an end.  In some ways, just writing about it and coming to the realization that this is a pretty common experience helped resolve those questions about my qualifications and temperamental suitability to academic work.  There are two Very Important Lessons that I took away from the experience (aside ways to perform better in an interview), and I thought I would share them here.

1.  My constant need for reassurance and approval from others probably stems from my unwillingness to perform that service for myself.  Yeah, that’s sort of Therapy 101, stuff that I covered in the first year of counseling, but it’s a surprisingly difficult idea to apply to one’s life.  But the simple truth is that I am an intelligent person with more than an average share of common sense.  I understand what the qualifications for doing this sort of job and living this sort of life are.  I am capable of weighing my strengths and weaknesses, and I am capable of saying, “Sure, some aspects of this path I’ve chosen are really challenging for me, but I do actually belong here.”

Jiminy Cricket from Pinnochio
Kind of like this but a lot less adorable

Why don’t I do this for myself?  Some it probably comes from growing up female in an environment where being uppity or over-confident was a liability.  Some of it just comes from being a former teenager and fearing the social repercussions of thinking too well of myself.  In therapy, I was introduced to the concept of the Inner Critic, which is that voice that basically tells you you suck.  In many people with depression, the Inner Critic can be pretty abusive, but in a healthy person it actually performs an adaptive person.  Your Inner Critic is there to tell you when you’re being an asshole, when you need to work harder, when you’ve crossed a line or done something that isn’t in your best interest.  I guess it’s sort of like that concept of Conscience.  It’s there, ultimately, to protect you.  There have been certain situations in my life where I counted on my talent and the quality of my work to get me something (into my first choice college, for example), and I was blindsided when it didn’t work out.  So, my Critic is sort of trying to make sure I’m never surprised like that again and consistently reminds me of my slim chances for success in anything.  Basically, I have an abusive boyfriend living in my head.

I find it interesting that no only do I require explicit affirmation from other people but that in the absence of any other information, I tend to infer disapproval.  It’s a sucky way of entering the world and trying to interact with others, but ultimately it’s also a way of externalizing my Critic, of taking all of the shit I say to myself and putting it in mouths and minds of others.  Then I can sort of blame them for the fact that I feel terrible about myself.  It’s my sister’s fault that I hate my body.  It’s this professor’s fault if I hurt myself later on today.  It’s my parents’ fault if I’m too scared to interact with people.  Etc.  Perversely, it sort of makes me feel a little better, like my depression is totally the fault of everyone I’ve ever come into contact with, but that’s a huge burden to displace on another person.  My sweet partner tells me I do this thing where I fight with him in my head before he even enters the room.  Usually, it’s because I’m feeling insecure about something–the cleanliness of the house, my lack of productivity that day, whatever–and I decide that he’s upset with me about it, and proceed to chew him out for being a demanding jerk.

2)  Sometimes a little external validation helps.  My Inner Critic knows that I require affirmation, and he thinks that makes me a weakling and constantly polices my behavior for anything that smells of “fishing for compliments.”  That makes a pretty logical and simple task like taking my advisor aside to talk about a shitty mock interview more complicated, especially when I’m afraid that I might cry.  At some points, my Critic sounds a lot like Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own, saying “there’s no crying in academia!”

I need a Rosie O’Donnell or Geena Davis type to remind my Critic that he’s an abusive has-been drunk.  Anyway, I happened to run into one of my co-directors yesterday afternoon, and he could tell that I sort of had something I wanted to talk about.  So, we went back to his office, and I explained what had happened (without tears!), and he was completely and totally sympathetic.   When he found out who had conducted the interview, he informed me that one of those people is notorious for giving blistering critiques in defense and writing groups and committee meetings department wide, that she is pretty thick-skinned herself and therefore didn’t have a great bedside manner with vulnerable grad students, though she is a brilliant scholar and a rising star in the field.  Furthermore, four other faculty members had approved of my job materials, which meant that the poor reaction of one of these interviewers was probably an anomaly.  Not everyone is going to respond to every item in a job letter the same way.   You can’t please everyone.  This makes perfect sense.

So I wound up getting my affirmation anyway, and I did not suddenly become lazy or arrogant or entitled after hearing that yes, I belong here.  Furthermore, it would be insulting to the faculty members who have supported me throughout the process to suggest that their good opinion doesn’t count, that their investment and confidence in me was misplaced, just because one other person–no matter how brilliant–had a problem with me.

I’m getting there guys, but it’s a process.  Thanks for reading.

Meditations on a Mock Interview

Three minutes into yesterday’s mock interview, I knew it wasn’t going well.  Admittedly, this was something of a surprise.  I had crafted and honed my job materials, showing them to three faculty members over the course of a month and diligently following their advice on rewrites.  I had created one-page handouts demonstrating the range of courses I had taught and could teach.  I had been talking about my dissertation with friends and family, preparing to explain my project to the interviewers.  In the car on the way to campus, I was rehearsing eloquent explanations of how my research enhanced my teaching.

So, it was shocking to sit down in the room with two faculty members I have known for years, open my mouth, and hear a stream of incoherent blather come out.  I started my explanation of my dissertation the way I had intended, but I tripped over the first few words, the witty remark I had planned for the beginning didn’t land right, and in an effort to get my audience where I wanted them, I beat a particular point to death, and after that, I was just lost.  I could feel myself flaming out spectacularly as it was happening, mortified and yet unable to get back on track.  It might have been better if I had simply asked to start over, but instead they just stopped me and asked to move on.  The rest of the interview was sort of a blur.  I know I said a few things I was proud of, but for some odd reason, I changed the subject when asked to talk about an aspect of my teaching experience that I was actually very proud of, and clung to a particular idea so tightly that I sounded one-dimensional.

We wound up stopping the interview early just to talk about what was going wrong.  Everything they said was reasonable–I need to get to the point, be more confident about my pedagogical philosophy instead of trying to please everyone, offer very general summary statements instead of inundating them with the minutiae of my research project–but I was still emotionally wrung out with a gigantic lump in my throat by the time the whole thing was over.  But before it was over, they eviscerated my finely wrought job letter and c.v., documents that two other professors had declared “very strong.”  Granted, the task of writing job materials isn’t an exact science, and there is a great deal of disagreement on what should be emphasized and what shouldn’t be addressed at all.  My advisor had insisted that I spend a full page in my job letter talking about my dissertation, and these two wanted that cut to one short paragraph.  Even in that meeting, the two faculty members conducting the interview quibbled over how I should present my participation in various outreach programs, with one insisting that those were special credentials and the other arguing that it made me look like “a grad student who just signs up for stuff instead of being a leader.”  That sorta stung, especially when she read a few sentences of my letter out loud to in a “what was she thinking?” sort of voice in order to make her point.  That stung.

I did my best to plaster a look of openness and eagerness in the face of their criticism.  I kept making eye contact and did not let my voice break.  I thanked them graciously, got 50 feet from the building, and promptly burst into tears.  And I was ashamed of my tears.  It’s horribly embarrassing, but I cry easily, not because I’m weak or because I manipulate people with tears.  It’s simply a physical response to being overwhelmed, to having nowhere else to go with emotions.  When I was a teenager, I used to get angry and yell at people.  Now I tend to turn all of that inward and vent it in private.

Still, it seems weird that flaming out during a mock interview would have such devastating emotional consequences.  I have a history of depression and a history of inflicting minor self-harm, and this sort of thing is particularly triggering.  I knew it would be that way going in.  Granted, these people were not in the position to offer or deny me a job.  They aren’t in control of my future in that way, but pleasing people in positions of authority, appearing competent and credible, have always sort of been life or death matters for me.  I have a preternatural fear of giving offense to someone I respect and an intense need to be told that I am acceptable.  And no, I wasn’t unloved as a child.  If anything, I was probably over-praised, told too often how special and talented I was, until I believed that being anything less than extraordinary was tantamount to failure.  I don’t think I’m spoiled, just intensely fearful, terrified of breaking rules I don’t know exist and convinced that at some point, someone is going to discover that I am a fraud.  This is more than the usual graduate student “imposter syndrome.”  I’m not entirely convinced that my existence is much more than a sham, that someone isn’t going to come along one day at take away my job, evict me from my house, dissolve my marriage, revoke my “adult” card, and send me back to high school.  I have nightmares about having to return to high school, actually, and they usually involve math tests.

In the competitive world of graduate school, that feeling is heightened by the ridiculously competitive atmosphere.  If you aren’t in this world, it’s sort of hard to explain, but every interaction with a faculty member or even another graduate student can be an incredibly fraught experience, an opportunity to prove that you belong or to unintentionally give away the fact that you don’t.  For five years, I think I’ve been waiting for someone to either tell me conclusively, beyond a shadow of a doubt, “you can totally do this” or to conclusively tell me “you don’t have what it takes.”  Perhaps that’s what I was looking for during that mock interview, a definitive statement one way or another.  Even hearing that I should just quit now might have been reassuring, because FINALLY someone would confirm what I feel like everyone thinks but doesn’t say, air the horrible secret that everyone has been trying to protect me from.  Late last night, in the throes of insomnia, I fantasized about them talking about how unqualified I was after I left the room.  Of course that’s ridiculous.  There are no verdicts to be handed down one way or the other.  Academic labor is just very hard, and getting a job is very hard, and it is in my best interest to get feedback from every possible source and trial and fail in as many low stakes situations as I can.  Prior to this, the Graduate Advisor had told us that a student who finished last year gave a miserable mock interview and went on to land an excellent job, so to a certain degree, their expectations were probably much lower than mine.

Still, I’m becoming even more aware of how much my need to be validated, my paranoid suspicion that everyone–friends, family members, colleagues–thinks I suck but just won’t say it out loud, could limit me personally and professionally.  It does even now prevent me from pursuing certain relationships or being totally open in the ones I have.  And it makes me less inclined to seek feedback or ask for advice until I think a project is “perfect.”  And it makes experiences like these the sort of thing that will set me back for a few days, unable to really work until I assimilate the experience and regain a bit of confidence.  As someone who likes, needs, to be constantly productive, I really hate this particular weakness of mine, but as much as I strive to improve and heal, I’m recognizing that learning to work within those limitation may ultimately be more productive than trying to stifle them.  Because truthfully, my innate sensitivity makes me a better teacher, a more considerate colleague, and a more benevolent giver of feedback.  And my desire to please makes me a harder, more efficient worker.  But it also means that I’ve lived with chronic depression for fifteen years, and that depression has gotten life threatening at least once.

I am immensely thankful for the people on the feminist blogosphere who advocate treating depression like any other disability, something that requires accommodation.  Moving forward today, in the aftermath of that experience, I am figuring out how to do what I need to do while restoring a modicum of mental and emotional equilibrium.  I got up early and put on clothes that make me feel confident and professional (this just happens to work for me–not necessarily for everyone).  I’ve sent those faculty members a thank you note, indicating how much I appreciate their support in this process.  I’ll be sending them a revised letter of interest later, but not this morning.  This morning, I’ll sit here in Starbucks and sip tea and read Tim Gunn’s book for the pure gossipy joy of it.  This afternoon, I’ll be meeting with other grad students to discuss our writing projects and probably dish a little bit about the suckitude of our mock interviews.  And I’m going to acknowledge that, today at least, I need to limit my exposure to grumpy criticism more than usual.

Note for Commenters: In that spirit, I’m going to ask that you refrain from dispensing advice, especially of the “you just need to X” or even the “you’re too hard on yourself” variety.  You are encouraged, however, to describe your own experience with interviews or any other aspect of job seeking or school or receiving criticism of any kind.  For the next few days at least, this is a space for venting, not for pontificating.