Monday, November 17, 2014

Saving Face

I was supposed to give a major presentation to the entire English Department at my school recently. I cancelled it. I am trying to think of things to say to all the grad students, lecturers, and professors who will want to know why I am the only Ph.D. candidate who cancelled her presentation (all the candidates are required to make individual presentations). Here are some of the things I might say:

Grad School Nemesis #1: Why didn't you do your presentation? Where were you that day?
Me: I don't know. Why don't you ask your boyfriend?

Grad School Nemesis #2: Why did you cancel your presentation? I know you were nervous, but that's really not an excuse to cancel something like this.
Me: I'm not nervous at all. I just earned a black belt in karate. Allow me to demonstrate some of my moves on you.

Professor who once referred to my work as a "disappointment": You do realize how important these presentations are, right?
Me: Are they as important as the days when Garrett gives out free popcorn?

I didn't want to cancel this presentation. I felt nervous, scared, and stressed out about it, as everyone else did when they presented their work. But I was anxious to prove that I WASN'T a mediocre scholar. For years, I've been told that my academic work was not good enough, which made me feel like I was not good enough.

I always envied and resented the other grad students for their academic accomplishments, especially because some (though not all) made me feel bad about my lack of awards, fellowships, and publications. I remember confiding in one classmate about how awful I felt after our professor and the entire class tore apart my paper. She responded, "Well, the professor really liked my paper. You should see all the great comments she wrote on it."

I was an A student from the first grade through the master's program. Everyone always told me that I was smart. But once I enrolled in the Ph.D. program, I didn't feel smart anymore. I just felt tired, stressed, and stupid.

Since this is supposed to be my last year in the program, this presentation was my last chance to prove to the entire department that my work really is good enough and that I really am smart. In academia, reputation is very important, especially when you are networking.

But I had to cancel it. Ever since my doctor increased my medication, the side effects have gotten worse. It affected my appetite, and I lost nearly ten pounds. I still feel tired all the time, and I get sick on a regular basis. One of the other side effects is that it makes my feet feel like they're falling asleep, and I often wake up in pain in the middle of the night. I'm not able to exercise as much as I used to. I still hear that whooshing sound in my ear. I'll ask my doctor to reduce my medication, but I'm scared that she'll tell me that a) I'm still not getting better; b) I'm getting worse; c) I'll have to stay on this medication indefinitely; d) I'll have to get surgery.

I have managed to get some work done. For example, I've applied to teach at more than two dozen schools around the country. I still have my website job, which I need to pay for these medical bills (my insurance doesn't cover all of them). And of course, I still have to work on my dissertation. So even though I don't have a lot of energy, I can't stay in bed all day.

As a workaholic, I always kept working, even if I got a cold or felt tired. But this is different.  I don't feel like I can tell the other people about what I'm going through. My dissertation committee knows, and they understood when I told them I had to cancel my presentation. But I don't know what to say to the other graduate students, and I don't think they'd understand anyway. Even though I am very sick, I don't look sick or act sick. If any of them tries to criticize me or question me too much about why I cancelled, I just might scream at them.

What about you? Have you ever had to cancel something that was important to you? How do you answer questions about private issues like health problems when you don't want everyone to know?

Monday, November 3, 2014

My Next Move

I wish I could participate in NaNoWriMo, but instead I'm working on my job applications. The application process in academia takes months. I've applied to more than a dozen schools so far, but I'll be lucky if I get one interview this year. The professors told the graduate students that the job search for tenure-track positions can take years.

And some people never find a tenure-track position. I seriously fear that I will be one of those people. But I will NOT go back to working in retail, because instead of telling people to "have a nice day," I'll say, "Have a nice hell! Hahahahahaha!" before the retail supervisors drag me away and punish me by making me fold a never-ending stack of sweaters and constantly criticizing "my folding skills."

Most of the schools I am applying to are not in Chicago; they're not even in Illinois. So far, I've applied to schools in California, New York, Indiana, Maryland, and Florida, among others. The thing about my field is that I can't pick and choose where to live and work. Instead, I have to go wherever the work is. That means that eventually, I'm probably going to have to leave Chicago, sooner rather than later.

My parents want me to live near them. They offered to help me get an apartment and a car. I told them no. I think it is better if I live on my own. Besides, I do NOT want to take money from my parents. I spent years grinding my teeth at nasty customers who threw hissy fits over the fact that I wasn't ringing up their purchases fast enough. Two people (who I think of as Satan's spawn) demanded that I refold their clothes three times (and kept insulting me) before they were finally satisfied and let me put the clothes in their shopping bag. It took all the strength that I had not to fling the clothes at them or to chase after them with a clothes hanger (though not in the Joan Crawford Mommy Dearest sense).

I spent years working as an adjunct faculty member at various colleges around the city, where the word "adjunct" basically means "those whom we do not have to pay a living wage, HAHAHAHA, now let's go and enjoy our country club memberships and houses in the suburbs, DAH-LING" (But I digress.) I dealt with way too many undergrads who waltzed into class forty minutes late, missed half a dozen (or more) classes in a row, turned in their assignments late (or not at all) and then blamed ME when they didn't get As. (If my life was a cartoon, that would have been the moment where my face would have turned into an erupting volcano.)

I put up with all of that and worked multiple jobs for the majority of my twenties and well into my thirties, specifically so that I would not have to ask my parents for money. Even all those jobs were not enough, to the point that I finally had to break down and accept the fact that even I couldn't keep working seven days a week (because it got to the point where I was so stressed that I kept shrieking at drivers who apparently think that if they stop staring at their phones, even long enough to keep their eyes on the road, they will burst into flames).

So for my last two years in graduate school, I went against my earlier conviction of never accumulating any student debt and took out a couple small loans. I'll have a sizable debt when I complete my degree, but at least it still won't be half as big as the debt that my fellow graduate students have, since they took out loans every year or relied on family members and did not work additional jobs like I did.

Financial independence is important to me, because it allows me to live my life on my own terms rather than someone else's. My parents have been talking to several of their friends who work in academia. My father even contacted a few faculty members at a couple schools in the state where he and my mother live and told them that I was looking for a job, which is why I received some bemused but kind e-mails from those faculty members who explained that I should send a formal application to their search committees. I was so embarrassed, and I told my father never to do that again (though he insists he knows more about this than I do, even though he's never worked in academia). He may have meant well, but his attempt to take charge of the situation only served to reflect badly on me and made me look like I didn't know anything about the application process.

I'd like to find a job in an interesting big city or a nice college town that's close enough to a big city that I could visit at least once a month or even every other month. I hope that wherever I do live has some good restaurants  (partly because everything I touch in the kitchen turns into fire, and I mean that literally, because I keep burning everything) and cafes that I can write in. It'd be good if there was at least one bookstore with a decent selection of books, as well as a well-stocked public library. It would also be nice to live near a Catholic church, since I am Catholic and I still attend Mass. I want to live some place safe, where I don't have to worry about creeps who try to grope me or think that following me down the street or yelling lewd things at me is going to make me run into their arms (instead, it makes me run in the opposite direction or throw things at them). I want to live in a place where I won't be made to feel like a freak just because I'm different, because I was treated like a freak for the first eighteen years of my life in the small town that I grew up in. If I could find a school in a town that fits most of that criteria, I think I could be happy (and of course, as long as the school was a good school with disciplined, polite, and hard-working students).

What about you? If you could pick and choose where you got to live and work (or if you already have), what kinds of factors would affect your decision?

Monday, October 27, 2014

Crying in Public

Last week I was waiting at a bus stop after I left the hospital (I had another doctor's appointment). I saw a small bird on the street, and it was hardly moving, but I knew it was alive. I thought maybe its wing was broken, but I couldn't be sure. I stood there, watching the bird, not sure of whether I should go out and try to help it or what I could do to help it. Suddenly, to my horror, a car drove over the bird and killed it.

I screamed. Several people heard me scream and kept walking, their eyes averted from my face. One guy who had also seen the bird die tried to comfort me, but I couldn't help it; I just started crying.

I read somewhere that one of the things about living in a big city is that you can cry in public and no one will notice. I've found that that's true. I cried the whole bus ride home, and no one looked at me.

I hated myself for not saving that bird, for not running out to the road, scooping it up in my jacket, and bringing it to a vet or an animal hospital. If I had just done that, that poor bird might still be alive. That bird looked so small, and it must have felt so scared, lost, and alone out there on the road. I kept thinking of what I had seen, and I couldn't stop crying.

I wasn't just crying about the bird. I cried because the doctor told me she was "concerned" about what she saw after she examined me, and she significantly increased my medication (which means the painful and uncomfortable side effects have only gotten worse since then). I cried because that meant I wasn't getting better, and I wasn't sure if I was ever going to get better.

I cried because I was scared. I want this medication to work and to cure me, so that I don't have to get surgery. I don't want to get surgery, and I don't want to go permanently blind if the surgery doesn't work. And I only have student health insurance, which I don't think would cover the entire surgery anyway. I'm having enough trouble trying to get referrals from my primary doctor so that my insurance company will cover all these doctors' visits and medical procedures. The insurance company is trying to make it so that I have to pay for everything myself. I don't have the money to pay for everything, and I don't think it's fair that I should be denied surgery and go blind just because my insurance company is full of jerks.

I cried because of all the work I have to do. I have to give a huge presentation to the entire English department in less than three weeks, and I'm not ready. I haven't had time to work on it. I've been undergoing all these painful medical procedures, struggling to stay awake due to the drowsiness caused by the medication, and spending hours waiting in doctors' offices, clinics, and hospitals (they won't let me use my laptop in there). I also haven't had enough time to send out all my job applications and missed an important deadline for a school that I really wanted to work for.

I cried because I'm supposed to get a fellow graduate student to make an introduction for me at my presentation. I've been to the other grad students' presentations, and they usually get their friends to write introductions that are filled with praise for their work. I asked several people to do my introduction, and they all said no. I rarely socialize with the other grad students, because I don't like going to the bar that they all hang out in (I don't like bars, period. In hell there is no "closing time" at bars.). And it's not like any of them invite me most of the time, anyway. Anyway, I can't even drink alcohol or soda due to the medication I'm on, so I don't really feel like drinking a glass of water and watching everyone else get drunk. I'm dreading getting up in front of the entire department and having no one do my introduction (even my own advisor was unwilling to do it), which will make it painfully obvious that I am an outcast.

I cried because I was angry. I'm angry at the people who refused to do my introduction for me. I'm angry at the people who claim to be my friends and that I can talk to them, but they won't even return my calls or my texts, even though they know what I'm going through right now. I'm angry that even if I send out all my applications right now, my chances of getting hired are slim to none because the fact that I'm a good teacher means nothing compared to the fact that I am an average scholar.

Most of all, I'm angry that even though I don't look sick or act sick (though I'm thankful that I don't look or act sick), I really AM sick. I don't deserve any of this. No one does. I don't know why this is happening to me. I've always been relatively healthy, and I always feel frightened every time I go into the hospital. (This is why I'm glad that I never went to medical school. I doubt my patients would have been okay with the fact that their doctor was more terrified than they were.)

I thought I would be able to go off the medication soon and that it would work. I thought I would get better. But I'm not getting better, and it just makes me furious at the whole world.

I'm sorry that this post is pretty depressing. I try not to write about such dark topics, but sometimes writing about what I'm going through helps me deal with it, if only a little bit. But I'll try to write about something less depressing next time.

What about you? How do you deal with it when you feel mad at the whole world? Also, do you know what you're supposed to do when you find an injured bird?

Monday, October 20, 2014

Friends and Frenemies, Part 2

In college, I called one of my friends in tears because I had to get my wisdom teeth taken out the next day. She showed up the next day to take me to my appointment, even though I didn't ask her to. She stayed there the whole time, and then she took me out for smoothies.

Another friend was upset because I couldn't hang out with her that often, due to the fact that I had three jobs and worked seven days a week. She lived rent-free with her parents and didn't even have to pay for groceries while she went to graduate school.

Guess which person I'm still friends with?

I read an article recently (sorry, I can't remember the author) about how important it is to "show up" for your friends. What the author meant was that it's important to be there for your friends, not just for birthdays and weddings, but also when they need you. It really hit home for me, especially because of everything I've been going through lately. The suffering I've experienced because of my neurological disorder made me realize who my true friends are and who my frenemies are.

I have trouble holding on to friends. I used to blame myself entirely for this, because I'm a workaholic and I think and talk about work 90% of the time. (The rest of the time I think about food.) It doesn't help that I'm an introvert and prefer to do most things on my own. (My idea of hell is being forced to party with the cast of Jersey Shore every night.) Most of my friends couldn't understand that my workday didn't end at five o'clock like theirs did, and I didn't get weekends or summers off, not if I wanted to have money for food and rent.

I canceled outings with friends on more than one occasion due to my work schedule, even though I didn't want to. And one by one, most of them walked out of my life and stopped returning my calls. One of them remained in my life because we worked together, but she pointedly ignored me; I often had to repeat myself two or three times before she finally answered.

I am partly to blame for the loss of those friendships. I am a workaholic, and I always will be. That's something that's not going to change, especially because of the nature of my work and the fact that I have a Type A personality. But what I finally realized is that the people who walked out were partly to blame too.

I thought of the friend who didn't have time for me on my birthday, but threw a huge birthday party for one of her friends (I wasn't invited.). There was the friend who went on and on about his personal life, but said he was sick of hearing about my work. There were the people who made fun of me for being a teetotaler; they insisted on hanging out at bars (FYI: inviting a teetotaler to a bar is like inviting a vegetarian to a steakhouse) but never wanted to come with me to any of my favorite museums on free admission days or plays that sold cheap tickets. There was the friend who always said she was too busy to hang out with me, but had plenty of time for her other friends.

Remembering these things lifted a huge weight off my shoulders. For so long I'd castigated myself for devoting myself to my work instead of my friends. I thought that there had to be something wrong with me because I couldn't make lasting connections with them. I thought that if I had been a better and more interesting person, they'd still want to spend time with me. And in many ways, I think that's at least partly true. But on the other hand, if they had been better, more considerate people, we still would have been friends.

There are the people who say that they're for you, and then there are the people who will show up for you when you're feeling lost, sad, or scared. The people in the second group are the ones whose friendships I value, and they're the people that I strive to be like. The people in the first group are the reason that I think Facebook should have a "frenemies" list or a "people who I always fake smile with".

What about you? How do you deal with it when your friends don't show up for you? How do you show up for them?

Monday, October 13, 2014

Friday Night at the ER

It started with a whooshing sound in my right ear. It sounded like my heartbeat or like what you would hear during a sonogram. I heard it constantly, even when I was trying to sleep (which is why I hardly slept for weeks). When I sat next to other grad students at lectures, I was convinced that they could hear it, though they gave no signs that they did.

I went to the general practitioner that I normally go to. "It's just ear wax," he said. He cleaned out my ears, which was very painful. "The sound will go away in a few hours." It didn't.

He referred me to an ear doctor, who said that my eustachian tubes were stuffed up due to a minor cold I'd had. She made incisions in my ears to clear up the tubes (a procedure that was also very painful), and then my ears were in pain for several days afterwards. She said the sound would go away in a few weeks. It didn't.

Then my vision became impaired. It became a strain to watch TV, even if I was just sitting across the room. It was difficult sometimes to see everything outside without squinting. I thought it was the sunlight and that I needed to wear sunglasses. But one night I was walking around outside and I realized that the lights were blurry even then.

I also had headaches every day. I realized that it was time to see another doctor. This time I went to an optometrist at Lenscrafters for an eye exam. "This is what your eyes looked like last year," she said, showing me the pictures. "This is what your eyes look like now. You need to see a specialist right away."

That same day I went to a specialist who wasn't covered by my insurance. He charged me two hundred dollars for a ten minute consultation. He said that I needed to go to the emergency room right away, because there was something seriously wrong with my eyes. That was when I got scared.

That day I spent more than ten hours in the emergency room. I went there at 2:30 in the afternoon and didn't come out until almost one in the morning. I didn't get to eat lunch OR dinner. A kind nurse felt sorry for me and offered me some graham crackers and juice, but the doctors wouldn't let me have any; they said I had to keep my stomach empty in case I had to undergo more procedures and take more medication.

There was a lot of waiting (and freaking out, on my part) at the ER. I was freaking out because at first I couldn't get a straight answer from the many doctors that I talked to on what was wrong with me. They did another eye exam. Then they did an MRI, because at first they thought I had a brain tumor. For the MRI, they put my body in a noisy machine, where I wasn't allowed to move for an hour. I lay there the whole time, terrified.

It turns out I don't have a brain tumor, but I do have a neurological disorder. I'd rather not say what it is, but I will say that it is the cause of the whooshing sound in my ear, the impaired vision, and the headaches. It's also not a psychological problem; it's physical. The doctors did a spinal tap, meaning they put a large needle in my spine and drained fluid out of me; it was very painful (I now think of September 2014 as the Month of Painful Medical Procedures).

They prescribed me some medication, which comes with several side effects. One side effect is that my feet feel like they're falling asleep all the time. Another side effect is that soda is tasteless to me now (which SUCKS, because I love Coke). Another side effect is that it makes me tired all the time, which means I can't get a lot of work done (did I mention I have to make a huge presentation to my department next month, and my job applications are due soon)?

I left a message for one friend that I had to go to the hospital. This "friend" never responded. I left another message for another friend, who didn't respond until several days later because she was "busy" with her other friends. I managed to text a third friend, who disappeared for a long time in the middle of our conversation and then immediately changed the subject of my health to something else. With friends like these, who needs enemies? I won't be calling them again. Ever.

I even Tweeted about what was happening to me. No one Tweeted a response. Celebrities can Tweet one word, like "Uh" or "What" and get a hundred responses from fans. I Tweeted about being in the ER and being sick, and no one asked if I was okay.

My father said that I brought my neurological disorder on myself and that I am to blame  because I am so neurotic (which contradicts everything the doctors said. They said that my disorder is very rare and happens to otherwise young, healthy women.). He said I must have worked myself up into a frenzy and that's why there's something wrong with my brain now. He argued with the ER doctors over the phone and forbade me from getting a spinal tap because of the risks involved. I told him that I am a thirty-three year old adult and that my decisions are MINE, not his.

My mother was very upset with me too, and she called several times to let me know how angry she was at me. The only people who showed me any compassion were two of my professors, who I had to tell because I wasn't able to meet all of their deadlines due to the fact that I was seeing more than a dozen doctors and was in and out of the hospital for more than a month.

Right now I'm feeling sad, scared, alone, and lost. The doctors are optimistic that the medication will work. BUT if it doesn't, I may need brain surgery. If THAT doesn't work, I may go permanently blind. If I wasn't neurotic BEFORE...

What about you? Have you ever dealt with something like this? How did you deal with it?

Monday, September 29, 2014

Dear Search Committee

Dear Search Committee:
    I'm writing to apply for a teaching job at your school in College Town, USA. Even though I've lived in Chicago for several years, I grew up in a small town. So it wouldn't bother me at ALL to move back to a town where people refer to Wal-Mart as "the mall."

While my grad school classmates were winning academic awards, publishing articles in scholarly journals that no one but other scholars read, and presenting their research at conferences that no one but other scholars cared about, I was taking orders from twenty-two-year-old retail supervisors on power trips.

I was shelving books and climbing over people who stretched out on the floor of the store while they read, scattered books all over the place, and never bought anything. At least fifty times a day I resisted the urge to bitch slap people who complained that The Economist wasn't where it was supposed to be or that I wasn't ringing up their purchases quickly enough. I was folding clothes and selling store credit cards to customers who didn't really need them, all so that I could get nothing more than minimum wage and a high-five from my supervisors. I was selling overpriced souvenirs to tourists who would say stuff like, "Wow! Is it this loud in the city ALL the time?"

Working in retail is an exercise in patience; you could say the same thing about teaching. Therefore, I'm much more likely to keep my cool when my students take out their cell phones for the twentieth time during class, rather than pry them out of their hands and fling the phones out the window.

My students will DEFINITELY learn about grammar. I correct people's grammar all the time for FREE, and no, I don't know why I'm not invited to more parties either.

I've taught students at schools all over the city. That means that I know how to teach students at all different levels, AND I know how to respond to all their excuses about why they didn't do the homework or why they missed the last seven classes in a row.

I'm a better teacher than I am a scholar, even though I know that's a MAJOR faux pas in academia. I just never understood why an academic lecture or discussion in an English department sounded more like a discussion that political science majors or economics majors would have. I'm pretty sure that when William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Ernest Hemingway sat down to write, they weren't necessarily obsessing over the political/economic/racial significance of their themes (though I know that some writers did). They just wanted to write good stories that people would read and enjoy, not stories that people would over-analyze in articles and dissertations with hundreds of footnotes.

I know that my lack of scholarly credentials means that I will probably never get a tenure-track job at a prestigious university. I think that's almost as unfair as the fact that university administrators get six-figure salaries, while untenured faculty members don't earn enough money to buy food.

I gave up almost everything else in my life in order to become a professor. I worked harder and suffered more than I ever thought I would.  I wish that mattered in academia, but it doesn't, at least not as much as all those scholarly articles and conference presentations.

Anyway, I hope against hope that I'll hear from you, especially because I REALLY don't want to go back to working in retail.

Neurotic Workaholic

I'm going on the academic job market this year, which is why I haven't been blogging as much lately. That letter is what I wish I could write, but of course, I'm not allowed to say anything like that to search committees. It's the truth, though.

What about you? What do you wish you could say to your employers, prospective or current?