Secret Life on the Academic Scrapheap

Teaching with intense anxiety is not fun. Co- teaching makes it worse. Especially when I know that I am on the academic scrap heap, that my teaching skills are not good enough in the first place.

I watch my co -teacher; his expert performance, conscious that I am doing nothing useful. Then, falteringly, I talk to my slides; catch the eye of a student who looks bored beyond words with what I am saying. Wish I could make this more interesting. Too late now. Should have worked harder at the slides. Watch the steady stream of questions heading in his direction. His slides must have given them more to engage with, think about. I don’t deserve to be teaching.


Later in the week, the fact that I am not wanted becomes very apparent. I arrive to find a PhD student taking my class. Ring the office to work out where I should be. But the simple answer is nowhere. I haven’t made a mistake. And, the computer system algorithm can’t possibly make that error either. I wonder if it was a deliberate act on the secretary’s part. If I am that much hated. It’s possible. I try to explain to him, in words, why that was a difficult situation for me to be in. Why it has fazed me. But, he says, I dealt with it professionally. So why does it matter? Wrong again.

I fear how I am perceived by the students. And I fear how unwilling staff are to cooperate with me. I remember how ready they were to let me go; the switch from six months earlier, ‘we’d have to be really silly not to find a good excuse to keep you’. It feels like no one, student or staff member, wants me around.

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All in a name

My mother is married. Remarried. Divorced. Is she still divorced, now that she is married? I might as well ask how many wives Henry VIII actually had. It’s all semantics. But – semantics still feel like they matter. A rows is still a rose.


My mother has married, and has changed her name. She has stopped using my surname; started using that of her husband. And I have blessed this change. I have told her that I am okay with it. My brother and I sent a wedding card and gifts in absentum. She has said that she had thought about not sharing my name. She has also said that she doesn’t want to hurt me. She needs me to be okay, she says. So I am not sure what I can say.

I don’t know how to respond because I hate my mother for running away and getting remarried, for not including me in her new life. I hate her for not walking away from her first marriage before I was ever born, since by her own admission, it had fallen apart by then. I hate that she refuses to remember any of the conversations we had about her marriage when I was a young teenager. She remembers that she was not well then – admits that she was not well – but to nothing else. I know that these conversations happened. If they did not, how could I know as much as I do?
It feels like an abdication of responsibility: I was ill. An excuse not to deal with the impact she had when I was growing up.

My mother cannot hear that I am unwell. She couldn’t when I was in my twenties – I always had to be OK, getting better. But even now, when she is not so unwell, I have to be OK. I cannot be anything but OK. I cannot tell her how much she is hurting me.

I feel rejected, as my name has been rejected. That this is something she wanted to do for a long time. I feel I am barred from her new life. Kept at arm’s length. They didn’t invite family to the wedding because the two sides of the family would not know each other. But on Sunday, as a plus-one for a housemate, I was at a wedding celebration where I knew precisely – nobody. Nobody in the room was familiar to me, other than my housemate. And I talked with people, and went punting with them, and danced and danced. Because that’s what weddings are like.

And now she has forwarded the photos I said I was okay to see, I am reluctant to speak to her because it will mean more lies and more pretending, and I am sick and tired of pretending. And I’m not sure why I care about the relationship not being right. But I can’t bring myself to end it either.

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Silk inside a chestnut shell



Autumn days, when the grass is jewelled
And the silk inside a chestnut shell
Jet planes meeting in the air to be refuelled
All these things I love so well

Estelle White

The silk inside a chestnut shell. The silk inside a chestnut shell. The silk inside…

I love horse chestnuts. I love the smoothness of the conker on my hand. Its coolness against my palm. I love conkers. Conker competitions – because I was the Conker House Competition winner at primary school. Sepia Novembers.

My housemates aren’t so sure about a conker competition. They look on, smiling; seeming to find my childlike fondness for conkers bemusing, yet not joining in my search for them.

The horse chestnuts on the ground represent something else now, too, beyond memories: Prickly to the touch. Difficult to get near. Will break only if stamped on hard. The me I present to the world, to my workplaces. Resisting closeness, in case anyone takes it, and uses it against me.

But, in the therapeutic community, and away from the world, I break easily. The slightest push, and I fall into tears. I am cracked all over. Broken.

Broken, completely, on the inside. But there is no silk to find therein. I fill to brim with frustration at my father for not being able to grasp how a lever handbrake works; with anger and jealousy that I can’t take the steering wheel and drive for him, as my brother could. As I wish my mother well, in spite of the resentment roiling inside me, because being wished well is what she needed to be.

I am still bitter on the inside. I’m not sure breaking open was a good idea. Because now I am in pieces, and it hurts so much.

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Time for Grace

If and when a horror turns up you will then be given Grace to help you. I don’t think one is usually given it in advance. “Give us our daily bread” (not an annuity for life) applies to spiritual gifts too; the little daily support for the daily trial. Life has to be taken day by day and hour by hour.
C. S. Lewis

A quote from a reflection on grace given at a Two:23 meeting this weekend. One that hit home, because I have spent the past few weeks, months, desperately wanting to be sorted jobs-wise for the rest of my career. I am not.

And because, earlier this week, I had to desperately search for grace to deal calmly, at least in written word, with three members of academic staff who were bringing me different and confused messages, as a result of not communicating with each other. I was not calm. I still am not calm. I am livid.

A quote that hit home because after last week’s blog post, I learn in a ‘phone call that my brother has joined the swarm who feel the need to Go Ape! and my mother wants to know if I will do that sort of thing. Claims that I used to enjoy it at Black Park. My last psychodrama rears in mind. Her words jar and scrape against it painfully. Enjoy is not the verb I would choose. My memory is not my mother’s memory.

My name means “God is gracious”. As a child, I was full to bursting with rage and sadness, and shame and envy. And I still am. My mother’s new narrative, “you were a very difficult child. Nothing like I expected motherhood to be”. She has moved on. New partner, new life, new woman.


Grace is not envy and rage or sadness. It is not the thing with feathers that perches in the soul. It does not sing. It does not know the words. It is often silent. Grace is something of which I am learning to be aware. A small voice, reminding me to breathe slowly. A reassurance that I can bear hard emotions in myself; sit alongside them, rather than get caught up in them. It is something given minute by minute. I find it only when I seek it.

Grace allows me to tolerate the therapeutic community, to confront the rubbish stuff from the past; to work through the ups and downs that are happening right now.

Grace is God. God is grace.











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I hate the way you move

Since starting in the TC, I have addressed my caffeine addiction, reduced the lengths that I swim. I’ve also increased the healthfulness of my eating. I even cook for myself most days (in a world where ‘cooking’ is a loose term and veggie fingers are cordon-bleu cuisine).

I have made positive lifestyle changes, and I should feel good about them, but I do not. I compare myself with others instead. I am not good enough.

When I am swimming, I am not swimming well enough. Or evenly enough. I can barely vary my stroke, and I get out of breath too easily. I slow people down in the lane.

And I don’t run, or do any other form of exercise. Other people are running half-marathons, and cycling to and from work, walking to and from town. My physio. has forbidden running. That’s how all the problems with my knee started; a knee that collapses on itself when I run; that sends me to the ground. I walk 12 000 steps or more a day. But it isn’t enough. I want to be running.

I get the bus to most places. But I can cycle – I have a bike, I could cycle. Why don’t I unlock my rusting bike and cycle? I should drive places, too, not accept lifts. I can drive. And my mother has changed her car again – and laughed off the suggestion I should have her old one. That is a privilege apparently reserved only for my brother. I try to placate myself with the environmental reasons for not driving; for not needing to drive here. But they don’t work anymore. Others are driving. I want to drive again, too.

Other friends Go Ape! or spend weekends rock climbing or dancing, or kayaking, and I am no good at those things either. My body is stupid, and spastic and I hate it.

My peers are fitter than me, and move around more easily and more independently, without being stared at as they do. And this is probably jealousy again. But whatever it is, it doesn’t feel good or helpful, and I don’t want to feel like it anymore. But I don’t see a time when I will ever like the way I move.

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Playing pretend

I have spent large swathes of the past week in tears. Starting with tears of exhaustion following another stupidly early morning, and failed job interview. Tears on the bus that managed to perturb the five year-old child sat in front of me, who kept glancing back nervously. Tears of bitterness at a the situation I find myself in, where I am not good enough for appointment at the level my qualifications allow. Broken promises. A broken life that I do not want to be living anymore.

In the midst of this, in a compliments-based game at junior church,

“I like S– because –  you are always happy and smiley and positive”.

She turns her head to look at me as she speaks. And I suppress the wave of sadness that threatens to overcome me, its bitter irony.

I assume it a genuine compliment – and why not? This child won’t have been in church services at times when I was, in the Elder’s words, ’emanating pain and disturbing members of the congregation’. So, she sees me as a truly happy person.

The sadness is because I am not. Because her comment makes me realise that if that is the way that I come across to her, a child who sees me in a place where my guard isn’t always up in self-protection, then I am pretending to be OK (and effectively) more than I thought.

I know I pretend to be OK at work. The stigma surrounding personality disorder in Psychology is too great not to be pretending. To psychologists, I am manipulative, and attention-seeking and impossible to treat. Or, so I was taught ten years ago. Aside from that, work is not the place to unpack the mental health rubbish in which I am mired. I am there for the students, to help them through their degree. It’s an acting role. It’s all an act.


I don’t always pretend in the therapeutic community. But if I don’t pretend, then I get overwhelmed by a barrage of simultaneous unnameable emotions, whipped up in a perfect storm, where no one can reach me. So suppressing the emotion there is easier, than untangling it. There often isn’t the time to untangle it, anyway.

I don’t pretend in prayer. There is no point in pretending. So, I am real. But being real can be exhausting, the questions of the pray as you go app, searching. Some of them may be too so. And I end up crying to sleep, which probably isn’t honouring God at all.

Underneath the pretending, or in the midst of the overwhelm, I am not OK. I am dangerously close to self-harm, for self-loathing, for feeling lazy and exhausted, and not being able to cope with not having a job. For not having tried hard enough. For being stupid enough to believe those who said I was good at my job. For not being able to communicate how bad things are. I want to get out of my head. But I can’t. So I pretend that things are OK. But they never are.

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Sand, and sea, and symmetry

I am trying to practise being more spontaneous. So, when my housemate said there was a union trip to the seaside, and I wasn’t already doing anything else, I thought, why not. It is a truth universally acknowledged that swimming in the sea is far superlative to swimming in a pool, and even if the weather were to be rubbish, there’s plenty to do at the seaside.

And I got up early, and got the bus to the coach, and went on the coach, and got through the Bank Holiday traffic, and went on the beach and in the sea, and had fun with a toddler and her mother, and my housemate, and we took photos, and came home again.


We return home, and I check my ‘phone camera. And there are photos of the beach and the sky and the sand because the weather was gorgeous and these things make me happy. And there are photos of my bust, smiling in the water, my right-side hidden from view.

But there are more. Photos of me with my back to the shore, walking into the water, arms akimbo as I try not to fall over. God is taking care of most my sense of balance for now. One of the things I would dearly love to have back. God knows best.


I instagram the photos. Most of them. Not the ones of me walking to the water. They are horrid and repellent and ugly. I am ugly and unsymmetrical and unattractive. I know that it is because my mother always called on me to hide my right arm before photos were taken. There are very few of me where the disability is visible as child or adult because she reminds me still.

On Sunday, my housemate does the instagramming. I didn’t know she’d taken any pictures.  Me, looking into my flower press; hand furled. Ugly, the children at school called it. Ugly, ugly, ugly hand. Stupid hand that doesn’t work.


I hate my body. Not just for what it can’t do, but for the way it appears. And the way it appears isn’t the way that my head tells me it appears; my mind sees my arm as central, not sideways, not unbalanced.

The reminder that it isn’t this way is horrid. I want to be symmetrical.


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