Saturday, May 14, 2016

Climbing Mount Pergatory

Graduation has come and gone, final grades are in, and I am embarking on my first true summer off in...forever, it seems. No classes to teach, no workshops to lead, no papers or lectures to present, we're not moving, and I don't have to learn to read German in 10 weeks! Also, no research grant requiring me to travel and then present my findings, etc., etc., etc. And so I have some time to work on me before I have to turn my attention toward the Fall teaching load, and I must say, I am a bit of a mess. I have been through phases in recent years of trying to identify and address issues, past and present, to, as it were, identify my demons and try to confront them. I must honestly report that, so far, the demons have kicked my ass!

 But then this week a long-time friend who, like me, is an INFP, raised a question, and the locks and chains  that have bound me to that way of thinking began to fall away. What if I told you, to paraphrase her, that your "inner demons" are not demons at all, not something to be fought and quashed, or to be defeated by and consumed, but rather more like children, begging to be understood and nurtured? What if the real demon is conformist thinking and the external pressures we feel to be the person, at least in appearance, "they" expect or demand? Reject that way of thinking! Accept who you are. That was the clarion call that made me stop in my tracks. In other words, as a wise young woman once said to her kid sister, "You be you, boo!" Or in the words of the Bard, "To thine own self be true." Words to live by, I say!

 As a society, there is no doubt that we have failed to understand this, and we need to stop failing! We need to stop hammering each other and ourselves into identities that are more shaped to be comfortable to others than to be the right fit for the one being hammered! I, for one, have suffered way too much along this line in the course of my life: the misunderstood, misfit child; not the little girl Daddy wanted, obviously, as I do identify as heterosexual male, but neither was I the mirror of my tough as nails father when he was a boy. The child with the high IQ in a culture that did not value intellectualism, the "hefty" lad who was slow and clumsy, the user of "big words" and the creative kid who often failed to do what was assigned because he was having too much fun in his imagination to be bothered with the mundane, that was me. As longtime readers here know, the result was years of bullying, culminating in the unimaginable final assault on my innocence in the year from hell that was 1975.

 What I haven't spoken as much about is the dark decade that followed, the nature and self-destructiveness of my lifestyle during much of that time. I finally broke out of that pattern of self-loathing and, indeed, de facto self-abuse, but the breakout sent me into the Pit of Despair. Happily, I was surrounded by a loving community, one of whom was to become my soulmate, and so in 1988 I began the long climb out of the pit and up Mount Purgatory. In the process, I completed my Master of Divinity degree, pivoted, after a year of intense soul-searching, to teaching as my vocation, earned NC certification, then immediately went on to earn a Master's degree in American history, and then admission to a Ph.D. program, where I thrived for the first couple of years.

 And then I fell into the Pit again, as events triggered all the demanding memories, some of which I had buried so deep as to be all but forgotten. Now I relived them in full color surround sound, because my brain is, well, special. So back on the meds I went, back to channeling the negative into positive. I took up painting when I couldn't write, not continually but as a way to express myself in a positive, pretty way. I painted landscapes, tobacco barns, dogs, horses, tractors, and then sand dunes, gulls, a lighthouse. These were things that made me smile, and they made my wife smile. And we wrote poetry again! And I finally finished that dissertation, and I got a full-time job in academia, and she advanced to a very comfortable position in her company. Life was okay, even as we faced the unthinkable with death of loved was okay.

But the realities of my new job, the challenges of working in such a financially troubled school, the coming and going of good friends, and the ever-present cost of loving each subsequent class of students, then having to let them go, began to take their toll. I drifted back into bad habits, even as I continued to be successful. I landed a book contract; I published a book chapter in an edited collection, and I wrote an award-winning article over the next few years. I won awards for best faculty and best club advisor, I earned tenure. And then the playhouse fell apart. I lost my book contract, as I had failed over and over again to meet deadlines. And the faculty finally received the news we had feared for awhile: we were bankrupt. My fifth year at this job was the year a part of me stopped caring. All the wind left my sails and I drifted badly toward the Pit. When another institution purchased us the next Spring, many thought it was our salvation, but it hasn't played that way. The uncertainty and angst is still there, along with the institutional dysfunction.

With aging families and seemingly a never-ending parade of deaths and funerals, life for us has been challenging. And with the new reality of my employment (at will status now, no tenure), where it seems like surface appearance takes precedence over depth of experience, and where we literally are in too precarious a position to give some students the grades they earned (the unspoken edict cloaked in the language of "retention"), it became too easy to let things go, to fake my way through teaching...and life. After all, any semester now they could (possibly will) calculate that they no longer need a full-time history professor, and that will be that. So I started to steal happiness, because I no longer felt happy, and when I couldn't steal it, I could drown out the pain. And so I got stuck in a deep, deep rut...not the Pit, at least not yet, but a helluva rut. We stole more than a bit of happiness on our wonderful 25th anniversary cruise, but by the time it was over, I was falling apart.

At some point this semester, with the grief accompanying the deaths of my Aunt Helen and Uncle Barry, word came to me concerning the personal struggles, based on a traumatic experience, of a student in one of my classes. I sought help from trusted colleagues in dealing with that revelation, including the anger I felt toward administrators for their inaction, and the anger I felt toward other students who were shaming and taunting the victim, or shunning her. I learned more stories...this was an institutional problem, and a dear one whom I know well and adore had suffered similar humiliation, shaming, victim-blaming, shunning, and even threats, when she had reported professional misconduct that needed reporting and investigating. The dam broke, and I cried me a river, let me tell you, projecting on those two young people all the feelings I had buried. I didn't just identify with them, I felt it all...everything I had "manned up" and swallowed, rather than face the shunning when, at age 16, I had been the victim.

I knew then that I had to act to take care of myself...I was in the Pit and it was worse than ever. It was swim or drown time. I chose to swim. I've been on maintenance meds for a long time, but I knew they were not nearly enough to cope with all this. So I acted on my instinct and long-time study of depression, and my doc backed me up, and the new regimen is helping. The river of tears has dried up, but the damage in the flood zone was formidable. I will be repairing bridges for awhile, but Spring has come, and with it promise of renewal.

The point is that I find myself once again wrestling with the great inner questions of who I am and how I can nurture and understand those inner voices that have become so demanding and petulant in recent years. There is the dead poet Lemuel Crouse, but who is he, really, and is "he" really a "he"? There is a strong feminine voice in some of Lemuel's work...I wish to explore this, as any artist should. And then there is the painter who for the last seven years has not dabbed oil to canvas. And there is the historian with a book people want that he can't seem to complete. And there's the guy with the ponytail and earring. What's that about? Is there a (modest, not really visible under most circumstances) tattoo in his future? And then there is the beloved teacher who can be so much better than he has been these past few years, despite the surface accolades.

It is an interesting time in my life. Most of the people who expected conformity from me are gone, so it is a bit easier for me to be myself, to find the masculine and feminine voices within, to let the introverted feeler feel, but to call on my shadow self, the entity I like to think of as an ISTJ female (perhaps naively believing that, somewhere in there, is a J, lol), to give structure and order to a professional life that has become far too chaotic. Mostly, one grows weary of always feeling as if happiness is something to be stolen, not lived. I intend to live! I will challenge people's comfort zones. I always have, but I will have better filters and, yes, a return to common sense and health. Wish me well! You know where to find me...


The Bug said...

You're doing some hard work dear heart! I'll be right here with you...

Jayne said...

You are SO courageous my friend... sending love and warm, supportive hugs. ❤️

NCmountainwoman said...

Difficult problems so well articulated. There are many with similar struggles who have not been as courageous as you. I do admire you. And send love.

Catalyst said...

Hard work, indeed, Dr. M. I can only wish you good luck in your struggle. Take care, my friend.

Optimistic Existentialist said...

I love the introspection here...yes - perhaps the "demons" are only wanting to be nurtured and understood. This was some amazing writing, sir. I look forward to following along in the future.