Tag Archives: mental health

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.

Don’t Forget Your Towel: A Guide to Surviving the Job Search with Your Ego Mostly Intact

job_interviewNearly two years ago (ok, three, actually, but I don’t really count the first one), I started my search for full-time academic employment, and I am here to tell you that much of the hand-wringing warranted. It’s kind of a bloodbath, to be honest, and there’s no real way around that. I have, by my estimation, a healthy number of publications and a standout teaching record, and in two years, I interviewed for seven positions and received one offer. When you consider that almost all of those positions received upwards of 400 applications, that’s actually a pretty outstanding performance. Even though I’m not heading into a tenure track job (and I’m fine with that), the fact that I am now employed full-time and without a hard-and-fast termination date (my three year contract is renewable) means that this was a successful job search. If you did better than me, you’re a freaking star. And I say that as someone with a pathological case of self-doubt. But despite the good outcome, this was without question the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. The odds are decent that I would have survived it without Lexapro, but let’s just say I’m glad I didn’t have to take that bet.

So yes, it’s as bad as you’ve heard. But the truth of the matter is that while MLA statistics and the sage council of placement committees can offer guidance, no one can tell you what your individual job search experience will be like or what things will matter most for your success. For me, having the degree in hand made a huge difference, but I know ABDs who got tenure track jobs their first time out. Publications do matter, but people without them do get hired. Teaching experience matters a lot, but some schools don’t necessarily care that you haven’t taught such-and-such course to first years. Some people seem to have gotten through their job search experience fairly smoothly (though maybe they’re lying), and for others (myself included) it has been a pitched battle with panic and self-loathing.

There is plenty of job search advice out there on the more practical aspects of entering the market: writing your cover letters, preparing your dossier, practicing for interviews, etc. And it’s possible that I’ll get into that in a future search. But surviving the job search emotionally is, while much more dependent on the strength of your self-image and your resilience under stress, also something I think you can prepare for. And mostly by telling you what I did that you probably should not do, I will try to provide a few pointers here based on my own experience.

1. It’s not you

Assuming you have done what you were supposed to do–taught your classes well, at least attempted to publish, made reasonable progress or (better) finished your dissertation, avoided vomiting on a search committee member during an interview–the subtle calculus of who gets hired over who doesn’t usually comes down to things you can’t necessarily control, and the sooner you realize that and embrace it, the easier this whole insane process is going to go for you. Very often, hiring decisions come down to that indefinable something called “fit,” and while there are things you can do to argue for why you are, in fact, a fit for this school, in many cases you simply are not or someone simply fits better. It’s not that you suck. It’s just that, like most relationships, this one just was never going to work out, and it likely has almost nothing to do with how awesome you are.

What this means is that while you should do what you can to put together the best job package possible, you can stop obsessing over whether or not to staple your cv or worrying about whether your ambitious research program is going to intimidate an older faculty member (you don’t want to work with him anyway). Focus on what you can control and let go of what you can’t. Seek pharmaceutical relief if you need to.

2. People in your life are not going to get it

Everyone understands that job searching sucks, but few people outside of academia–and a lot within (senior faculty are mostly useless in this regard)–get how ridiculous a process this is, especially now. They will not understand that you are interviewing for jobs in January that do not start until September. They will not understand that certain fields see 600-700 applications per job. If they are your grandparents, they will not understand that there are at least that many newly minted PhDs who are at least as qualified as you are. And they will not understand the panic you feel as MLA gets ever closer and you are trying to resist refreshing the wiki one more time. (Protip: five of the seven schools I interviewed with did their interviewing outside of MLA, so it’s not over for you if you don’t have tons of invitations in December).

For that reason, I made the decision this year that I would not answer questions from family or friends until I had an interview. I forbade my relatives to ask me about it at holiday gatherings, an injunction they pretty much accepted. At some point in January, I decided I wouldn’t talk about it until I had a campus visit lined up or until I had already been rejected. It was just too hard to come back and tell them it didn’t work out. I am thankful that I was too lazy to take The Chronicle of Higher Education up on their offer to blog about my job search. I do have a masochistic streak, but blogging about my failures in real time–even under a pseudonym–would have been a bit much. (Plus, commenters at the Chronicle can be vicious.)

In other words, you need to establish limits with the people in your life about when and under what circumstances you want to talk about your job search. Or you can say, “Nothing to report,” when they ask and then change the subject. Avoid, if possible, the impulse to take care of everyone else’s feelings about your job search.

3. Figure out who does get it

This is not your fellow graduate students who are so mired in toxic shame and panic that you walk away from job market check-ins reeling from the ambient stress in the room. It isn’t your advisor. This is also not your partner or some other person who has a personal or financial stake in whether or not you are employed next year. This is the person who understands what you are going through but doesn’t give a shit about whether or not you get some particular job. In my case, this person was my therapist. The point is that you do need someone to talk to, and that person’s emotional investment in the job search (yours or their own) needs to be minimal. You may have to pay them. But trust me, it’s worth it.

4. Be ready to bail on this whole academic career thing and decide what will trigger you to do it

I decided last summer that while full-time non-TT work was fine with me (and does actually present some freedoms not available on the tenure track), I would rather jump off the academic career path than do long-term work as an adjunct. There are many reasons why universities have become so reliant on extremely low-paid contingent labor. And while the corporatization of higher education and apathy of senior faculty and weakness of unions are certainly part of the problem, one other important reason is that there are desperate aspiring academics out there who are willing to take these jobs (and I know a few who are quite happy to do so because it suits their life circumstances, but they appear to be a minority). You don’t have to. You really don’t. If your threshold for indignity will allow you to do this for a couple of years, that is fine. Mine wouldn’t. I had non-academic career plans B, C, and D more or less figured out if some version of Plan A didn’t present itself this year. A lot of academics pay lip service to this, but you really do have to be willing to pull the trigger and recognize that leaving academia isn’t failure. In most cases, it’s an indicator of self-respect.

You do not need a tenure track job or even to stay in academia in order to have a good life, and despite what you may have heard, graduate school does not make you fundamentally unfit for any other type of employment. Not only can having an escape hatch give you peace of mind, it can give you the confidence that makes you an inherently sexier candidate.

5. Remember that it isn’t hopeless

This is definitely in the “do as I say, not as I do” category. There certainly aren’t enough tenure-track jobs out there, but there are jobs. We all know people who get them. And provided you’ve made the most of graduate school and provided you are able to support yourself in some way or another, it’s worth spending a couple of years on the market to see what opportunities emerge. Those opportunities might not be what you expect, and the best ones may involve stepping off the prescribed path laid out for you by your field, your department, or your advisor. But rather than seeing it as an exercise in desperate self-promotion, consider this a time in which you are shopping for potential lives. You are considering an array of possibilities, academic and non. You have choices. You have agency. You can say no. But you can also say yes.

TPYMIGS: The Busiest Person in the World

One of the things I loved about the response to my post on The People You Meet in Grad School was the number of individuals who were willing to admit (either in comments or email) to being one of these people.  Grad school and academic life both attracts and breeds particular types of personality dysfunctions, and being honest with ourselves about which ones we identify with is probably the first step to growth, or so I’ve heard.

I’ve been examining another academic specimen of late, and that examination has sometimes been a self-examination. The Busiest Person in the World is the person who breezes by in you the hallway.  If you try to catch zie’s attention, zie will say “I’m sooooo sorry, I just can’t talk right now” and then spend the next 10 minutes telling you how busy zie is.  The thing is that this person doesn’t necessarily have an observably fuller schedule than you.  You may be taking a similar course load, attending a similar number of conferences, teaching the same number of sections, and have similar family responsibilities, but TBPW (I’m all about the acronyms today) seems to live at DEFCON 5.  Zie is always sleep deprived, always barely making deadlines, but it would never occur to you that incompetence is playing a role here.  Because TBPW has turned harried exhaustion into performance art, a monument to zie’s commitment and passion and a reprimand to everyone who isn’t as tired and overworked as zie is, because clearly you all just don’t care or try hard enough.

I think there are various reasons why people engage in this behavior.  Some crave the sense of righteousness that comes from being a martyr to one’s work.  Some are addicted to adrenaline and can’t seem to finish a project or a semester without the catharsis of barely getting everything done on time.  And some are conditioned to think that the appearance of exhaustion grants them favor in the eyes of their colleagues and relatives.  I tend to occupy the latter category, coming from a huge family that always has too much going on, in which most members own their own businesses and yet rarely take vacation.  Everyone is late to everything because OMG, SO BUSY, and idleness is a kind of sin.  Before I started going to counseling, I used to sit around thinking of stuff to tell my parents so that I wouldn’t look like I was wasting my time.  We aren’t just that way about work either.  Overextending oneself, staying up all night to create a Martha Stewart Experience on holidays or birthdays was how you showed your love as well.

So let’s go over some red flags here, shall we?

Frequent illness and refusal to take time off. I’m not talking about people with actual chronic health problems.  I’m talking about people who come to work incubating streptococcal bacteria or norovirus.  Students are frequently terrible about this.  I love the ones who sneeze and drip and look miserable in my general direction as they hand their assignment in, proof of how much they sacrificed in order to make the deadline (this is a big reason why I don’t do late penalties or paper submissions anymore).

Poor time management that borders on self sabotage. TBPW often spends more time complaining about how much work they have to do than actually doing it.  This is especially true if zie is addicted to the adrenaline rush of having to stay up all night to complete a project or working up to the very last second.  Though they may not realize they’re doing it, TBPW may have a preternatural ability to orchestrate the conditions for an all-nighter or a panic-fueled rush to the finish by finding 1400 things that MUST BE DONE NOW before a big project can even be started, by obsessing over small details at the expense of big picture concerns, or by refusing to set reasonable priorities.  Zie’s philosophy seems to be that if it didn’t come close to killing you, it didn’t really count.

Radically underestimating the amount that can be accomplished in a set period of time. My boss’s book was due to the publisher on Wednesday, which meant we had to get it in the last FedEx shipment at 7:00 Tuesday.  At 9:00pm Monday night, he expressed the desire to edit the entire 500 page manuscript in the twelve hours left before he was supposed to hand it off to me for final proofreading (yeah right) and formatting.  He was also sick at the time and had spent the past hour editing a single photograph, an obsessive moment that I’ll cop to enabling (and sharing).  He asked if I would also be able to read the entire thing through for editing problems between 9:00 am and 7:00 pm (in addition to converting all photo files to TIFFs, re-paginating the manuscript, re-doing the Table of Contents, updating the captions list, and printing out three copies of the thing).  I actually said “no problem” without irony.  It’s been quite a week for both of us.

Constantly talking about how tired and overworked zie is. This behavior is especially insidious when it includes belittling the experiences of other people in earshot.  I was once in the vicinity of two colleagues, both of whom are parents, who had a 20 minute conversation, with many single and childless people listening in (we were in the writing center break room at the time, so there was hardly an expectation of privacy), about how women without children just don’t have their priorities straight and have no idea what being busy is really like.  Now, I have nothing but respect for graduate student and academic mothers and what they have to go through, but this behavior still struck me as gross.  Those of us in the throes of TBPW-dom are doing performance art, and this sometimes makes us assholes.  If someone is doing this in your presence, don’t compete.  Politely express concern for their exhaustion, but don’t play the game.  Even if you win, you lose.  If you got 2 hours of sleep, they got 1.

If you recognize any of these symptoms in yourself, take 2 Chill Pills and make an appointment with a massage therapist or a therapist of some variety.  You are a danger to yourself and others.  If you find yourself in the same office or house as this person, give them a wide berth, and woe betide you if this person happens to have some immediate supervisory capacity over you.

Certainly, there are times when work piles up, when the midnight oil must be burned due to no failing of our own, but so often this sort of stuff becomes competitive.  When we start taking too much pride in the physical and psychic scars we bear from our efforts and even begin lording them over others, we become toxic colleagues and teachers and toxic to ourselves.

Photo Credit:  mirjoran, Flickr Creative Commons.