Illusions of Perspective

I am clinging to academia by the case of a very jaded laptop battery. A laptop that moves from institution to institution, coffee shop to coffee shop, awaiting students and marking and upfront teaching, whilst trying to ignore the pile of research papers that lurk menacingly  on its desktop. I should have been written months ago.

 This clinging means that I have just marked a set of fairly abysmal essays on the topic of optical illusions. Illusions like the Ponzo illusion where two identically-sized objects appear different sizes, because we are so used to viewing the world in 3-D.

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Identically sized Ponzo monsters in a tunnel

Reflecting this week, I realize that my relation to academia has shifted some in recent months. Before, I had an illusion of perspective. I knew, at some level, that taking 18 months away from research wasn’t going to end my career. That people are worth much more than the sum of their working life and professional identity. I would be the first person to tell someone else to take a break for the sake of their health, if they needed to do so.

But, at the same time, that  didn’t apply to me. I needed to stay linked in, to write papers in the background, to have contact with students; otherwise my career would fade away. That’s why other colleagues on breaks were staying in touch with their role. And, unlike them, I am utterly dislikable, so I really would be forgotten if I stopped being useful and cooperative.

The papers became true monsters. Publish or perish. Publish or perish. Publish or perish. So much of my interview feedback was about not having published my recent research findings. If I didn’t do so soon, I really would dissolve. The greater the stress I felt, the less I felt able to write. Colleagues were moving miles ahead of me; I was falling further and further behind. I was failing, and it was all my fault. I was being lazy, lazy, lazy.

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Until, I let go. Until, I accepted that I was simply no longer able to apply myself academically with the same force as I did before, and that things would have to be slower, because therapy is hard, hard work. Until, I took another step back, and started to think about the things that I love about academia, and started to focus more on those things: the things that I wanted to be doing, rather than those that I was told I should be doing.

And, I started to feel more motivated again. Not just to do the things that I am contracted to do (for the sake of a sense of mastery, when faced with a pile of essays to mark) but the things that before were terrifying me, for the not doing them. And, as contracts have ended, I have not actively sought to replace them, but rather to focus on the bits of academia I can engage with, in the spaces in between therapy. I am writing a little, again.

And that feels  – OK. It feels OK not to be actively pursuing academic opportunities, but to muddle along with the ones that I have. And it feels OK to say to myself that this is precious time – time when I am working – just that I am working on other things:

There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens:
        a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot,
    a time to kill and a time to heal,
    a time to tear down and a time to build,
    a time to weep and a time to laugh,
    a time to mourn and a time to dance,

Ecclesiastes 3 (NIV)

This is time that is a gift from God. A time to allow others to work with me, to work with myself at a different level. A time for healing. And that feels OK.

 

 

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Unravelling

This week  marks the halfway point of my time in the Therapeutic Community. Over the first three months, I made tangible changes; moved house, reduced working hours, withdrew myself from my parents’ “let’s divorce each other as inhumanely as possible” drama triangle. I learnt how to talk openly.

Over the past six months, I am not sure what I have opened up. Multiple issues around rejection, and fear of abandonment, and sexuality, and friendships, that I did know about. But also others, around clarity of emotional expression, and identity, and loss, that were buried deeper still.

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It feels like I am unravelling, more and more, and with each unwound thread comes more pain and fear and desperation. More needs that are unmet, more behaviour that I am at a loss to explain beyond the simple psychological theory: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, perhaps: everyone has a need to feel that they belong. 

A child’s behaviour is not a problem. A child’s behaviour shows us that they are trying to solve a problem.

That’s the maxim we worked with, when I was LSAing in schools. With those children, with some thought or simple enquiry, it felt like the answers would become readily apparent. Lack of sleep; dealing with parent’s new partner; hiding that they can’t read. I can’t find my own answers so easily. I don’t know why I need reassurance that I am liked before I will dare share anything with you; why I bury anger with colleagues, or feel ashamed in churches. I can guess at these things.

And sometimes there are no straight answers. Nobody knows the answers. The threads of my life are all over the floor, and I am at a loss to know where to begin untangling them; to wind them up again in a more sensible order; return those that belong to other people’s lives, to them.

Nine months. God, please take this time, and use it. Help me to rewind and reorganise the threads of my muddled and messy life, as You see best. 

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Glimmer

What do you want me to do for you?

Luke, 18 v 41

I don’t know. It’s a familiar defence. One that I go to often in TC, when I’m too terrified to think of what the honest answer is, what I really want from something or someone. Safer is to give the answer that I think is wanted; to say ‘I don’t know’ a slight improvement – but a refusal or fear to think about what I want.

I could begin to answer this question, though. I could say ‘healing’. I even have some sense of what that means. It does not mean that miraculously I want to wake up fully able-bodied, mental health problems-free. It means, rather, being able to find wholeness in Christ in spite of and through physical and mental disability.

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But what does that wholeness look like? That’s where I become terror-struck. Where I want to scream that I don’t know.

But, where sometimes I can see a glimmer of light – of Life beyond fear and trembling. But I’m terrified of what it might take to get there. To be able to let go of the bits of my career that are less than helpful, the collaborations that suck me dry. The work that is more emotionally burdensome  than it is rewarding. To think about what it would mean to be able to connect with others properly, at work and at home. And elsewhere. Even, to have a wife. To be unashamed of who I am. These things feel like a very long way away.

But that is what, Christ, I want you to do for me. Free me to be fulfilled in my career, to connect with others around me; and to be unashamedly me. Saying that feels terrifying.

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Through the looking glass

Each to each a looking glass, reflects the other that doth pass.

George Herbert Mead (1903)

B4C3B6D8-DF1B-4E7A-931A-78A77955EC62My sense of myself depends on how I think you see me.

When you stare in the street, it makes me feel ugly, unacceptable. I hate the staring. I notice the quick glances, too. The glances that yell, “you’re different”.

I care so much about what you think of me. I study your facial expressions, body language, to check for the minutest sign that I am annoying you, boring you, that you dislike me.

I expect you to dislike me. I feel rotten, bad as bad, to the very core. Hell, my entire personality – all that I think, feel and behave is fundamentally disordered. The psychiatric looking glass. I try to cover that up in a cloak of kindness. I want to please you. I want you to like me.

When meetings are cancelled, messages go unanswered, I worry that it is because you would rather not have anything to do with me.

I need you to like me, but I can never ask. When I asked as a teenager, there was a long list of things offered; reasons why I was disliked; being avoided; being excluded. I thought I was OK before then. Wanted. But I was very, very wrong. I can’t trust that I am acceptable anymore. I fear your rejection, most of all.

I am frightened that you will see how bad I am. How full of rubbish. I am frightened that if I show you who I really am, you won’t want to know me. I don’t feel able to trust you with who I really am. But I want to trust you completely.

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To be and to grow

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Credit to elenaflutterby on Instagram

This quote, beautifully illustrated on Instagram by a friend, is one I know to be true. And yet – I can’t feel it to be so.

Even though I haven’t been paid for the past few months for it, I have been hacking away at my research as normal. Hacking being an operative verb here: I’m not sure I’m doing it any favours by trying to keep going, but deadlines and requests from others, keep me plugging away. It’s more than that though: I really can’t – I daren’t let it go.

But why? There are some solid, evidence-based reasons. I am repeatedly told in interview feedback to write more, publish more. If I don’t do that now, more time will have elapsed when I next interview, and relatively fewer publications will be shown for it. Publish or perish.

I am frightened to let it go. Frightened that people say that they admire my work, my research. If I am collaborating with them, it is not for my sake, being me, but because they like my work. If the work stops, the collaboration stops, (one co-author has already threatened to remove me from authorship when I asked for a few hours’ extension) and with it, any hope of future collaborations. I am scared of letting people down. If I do not work, I am not part of academia.

I must work. I work to drown out the suicide ideation that threatens to overcome me. When I work I am in flow. Flow means that time passes and I don’t have to feel bad for wasting it. And the psychiatrists say this, too. When crisis hits; bereavement, housemate arrested, parents separate, when anyone else I know in the same situation has been signed off, given space to breathe, the psychiatrists refuse to let me. Work is protective. Just as, 25 years ago, in spite of my classmates’ assertions not to work, the whispering, the name-calling, the teachers said that whatever they did, I was not to stop working. I must work. 

Beyond work, it feels like nothing I do is of use. And people disagree with this, cite other qualities, and that feels weird, but lovely to hear. But it still feels as if I am useless beyond being able to work – being able to do for others. I need to learn how to be. Ho not to rely on work, but to rely on God. Grow in God.

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Voices around my head

The voice in my head is unkind. When it is not telling me I would be better dead; that I deserve to die; it is running a live commentary on how rubbish I am. I shake my head violently in response to it’s accusations. But still it persists.

When I’m working with children, it tells me how much they hate me. That, that child is playing up because I am dislikable and no good at what I am trying to do. It’s often my mother’s voice, telling me I don’t have the manner or presence to work with children. That I can’t possibly think that I could work with children.

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These voices drown out the Taizé chants that I try to put on autoplay. Crowd out the better memories and the evidence of positive feedback.

So, when the job interview feedback is that I appear not to have the interpersonal skills or sensitivity necessary to work with children, yet am arrogant in thinking that I do, it pierces me to my core. Stings. Because it plays into the voice that tells me, when I am working with children, that I am absolutely no good at it. And it plays into a mind that knows she is no good at adult relationships. I am afraid of being no good at all.

And I know that, in practice, this isn’t a binary thing. Some children are easier to be with than others; some days I am more able to be with them than others. I know that it is my inner child who is in pain and fears being ostracised, again. But it hurts that someone who has known me for less than an hour; who knows on paper how much time I have spent with children; thinks this after my interaction with her.

It hurts too much. I despair and fold and I want to harm myself because being able to work with children is so important. And because if she’s right, maybe none of my relationships are ‘right’. And it includes my relationship with God. Because that is a relationship, too. I don’t get relationships. I can’t understand them. Not even with children.

 

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