For the last several years, I’ve felt a gradually increasing malaise. I told myself that it could be because I’m growing older, and the experience of losing friends and relatives has become far more frequent. I remember my grandmother Fina, my “Mama Fina,” telling me about how awful she found it to be 90 years old. “Ya no hay nadie…todos se han muerto…” In my 50’s, I think I’ve begun to understand a little better what it was she was saying to me. When I was in my 30’s, I could only try to empathize with her. Certainly, this could help explain the frequently low mood I was beginning to experience?
I had also taken on a graduate advising responsibility at work that was, as my friends and colleagues often reminded me, INSANE. Nine advisees, co-directing a few of them, but directing most of their comprehensive exams and dissertations, as well as dealing with the challenges of recalcitrant and stubborn delays and refusals to work up to par, emotional outbursts, and the realization that my own creative work was taking a beating… Surely this could also be part of it?
Or was it that I lived in Arizona? It’s too hot for most of the year, and the heat gets harder to handle with every year I live here. Sheriff Joe and “Juana la Bruja,” our governor, and the Tea Party, radically conservative and anti-immigrant political movements in the state create a rather dismal environment for this place to ever feel like a welcoming home to me. That could be it, right?
My brain injury has become more difficult to deal with as I age, as well. Compensating for the left hemisphere brain injury from my experience of having been run down by a student driver at Rutgers, when I was just one year into my first faculty job after getting my Ph.D., has always been an extra cognitive burden for me. And when that 2″x4″ wooden beam fell on my head in 2002, I developed symptoms of serious post-traumatic stress disorder, blacking out random experiences, history, and sometimes days in my life. Trying to be a professor with a working brain at a Research I University while compensating for these things even led me to my third neuropsychological evaluation in Fall of 2012. Learning to adapt to publicly facing the reality of my “invisible” cognitive disability has to have added something to my challenges in mood and motivation.
My house was becoming a wreck, along with my finances and personal records, class syllabi and schedule of appointments and activities… I felt like my life was like a minefield of unexpected surprises, largely brought on by the problems with my sequential memory, experience of time, and depersonalization from my brain injury. I could change my name, religion, lifestyle, and not feel it one bit! Surely all of these things were cumulatively responsible for this demise in my ability to feel joy at a deep, sustained level.
I worked on these things like a machine. Clearing my house and my agenda, adapting my yoga and meditation to a home practice to add time to my schedule, getting my students done and graduated, using a paper-and-pen calendar to help with my memory… but the “funk” that accompanied me was deeper than all these things could touch. So I began the deeper, more serious, shadow work that has been my “go-to” form of self-therapy when most troubled.
Here’s how it works when I do this: Come up with a list of the people who are affecting me the most powerfully at an emotional level, and in a way that is obsessive in its ability to take up my mental activity. Make sure that I focus on the emotions that are at the core of the problem(s) I’m trying to solve. Then, begin to sift through what those people are actually DO-ing, SAY-ing, or BE-ing that irritates or obsesses me. Next, explore how these things are somehow being denied, hidden, or otherwise possibly repressed in my own expression of who I am in my everyday life.
When I did this, what was it that was triggering me? People who espoused “what a great place it is that we work,” or “how much we respect each other’s work,” or “the difference our work is making in the world,” just to get started. But it was all about my work life–all about how it feels to work in the place I call my “job” for so many days and hours of every year. And what I came to realize is that my real misery and agony was at work–not the work that I actually DO, but the experience of BEING a part of the particular workplace that I call my job, attempting to be a part of that “team” of smiling, faculty-meeting-attending folks with the litanies of “aren’t we a great bunch of people with such lucky lives,” habitually joking with the same one-liners one can hear in almost any university faculty office or meeting. What triggered me was the expressions and expectations that we are supposed to love being with each other, feel grateful for each other, and express how proud we are of each other’s work, despite underlying realities that are understood to be inappropriate if expressed.
I came to see that what I was repressing was my sincere unhappiness and distrust of my colleagues and work environment, responding to the well-learned awareness that “collegiality” is a valued behavior, and my knowledge that as a discipline of scholars in human communication, in general, we do not express what we are really having a problem with. Instead, we express that we are “doing well,” “making a difference,” and that we are “so fortunate” and “blessed” and “lucky” to work with such wonderful, talented people. That works, if and when it’s true. And for most of my career, despite the routine problems of organizational politics, I have indeed felt this way. But something changed during the last few years. And that is what I had to figure out. Because it was killing me–and at some level, I knew that if my mood continued as it was, that in fact, whatever this was, was doing great harm to me. My blood pressure was high, I had frequent insomnia, and I was wasting increasing amounts of time avoiding this plaguing emotional distress.
What was I keeping secret? What was I hiding in obedience to this culture of what I was coming to experience as harshly false solidarity? What was I internalizing, at the cost of my own health and well-being, and ultimately the quality of my work and relationships, for the sake of the orthodox culture of the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication…my workplace?
I figured it out. And how I knew that I had figured it out is that when I’ve done shadow work over the last 30 years, there’s a bit of ‘magic’ that happens when one accurately identifies the shadow: the obsessive and intense emotional state lifts. And if one can embrace that shadow, by taking action to bring it out of the dark, as publicly as possible, and changing the patterns and practices that have created it, it stays away. I’m working on the embrace of this shadow right now.
Several years ago, I became aware that there was a body of research about to be launched in my school that was so unlike anything I’d heard of in my field, that it sounded like science fiction. It was a SECRET. But I found out from someone who was distressed by it, and as a loyal part of this academic culture I’ve worked in for over 30 years, I voiced how awful I thought it was, but never said a word about it publicly, except for one attempt to ask about it while we were undergoing a departmental review. The responses by the officials present at the time made it clear that the discussion was over before it began. That was a couple of years ago.
But I can’t do that anymore. When I learned that “colleagues” were about to conduct research , funded by the U.S. military, under the guise of the study of “narrative,” but which was strategically aimed at the ultimate creation of a transcranial device that could be used to manipulate an individual’s capacity to participate in communication as someone culturally shaped to be and think as s/he was– by shutting off the brain’s responses to religious and cultural narratives that are important to the person whose brain is targeted… When I asked the director of the project, when said research was presented in a faculty meeting with no mention of these aspects of the research proposed, if perhaps they wouldn’t be utilizing some of the technology the same military funding source developed earlier, it was met with a delay, then an attempt at smiling/laughing, and ultimately abject denial… When colleagues refuse to work with a student who has taken courageous steps to reveal the nature of this work… and When we’ve begun working as a faculty to improve the culture and climate of our workplace by ‘learning about what we all do,’ and yet we are never asked why the culture and climate is problematic in the first place… These things are the things that were teaching me, telling me, and perhaps others, how to keep our mouths shut. These are the techniques used to keep people “in their place,” to encourage what I, and others in various areas of work* call a facade of false solidarity.
As I write this, I am aware of the anxiety that people will read this and “get mad.” Or that it will be ignored but talked about behind closed doors. That I could get called in to “talk” about what I have written, and be asked why I couldn’t have approached this in a more ‘civil’ fashion. I am afraid of losing friends who were probably never friends. I am aware that I am planning when I will resign, retire, or otherwise change my work. But I do not feel a dark shadow of despair within me, projecting itself onto every aspect of my life in an effort to avoid identifying what it is that has actually made me ill and unhappy for the last three years.
I find it morally repugnant that I, along with others, have had to pretend that this work was not planned within our school, and that our colleagues would not, or could not, reveal the truth about the research on which they were ultimately collaborating, and helping to obfuscate. I find it painful to synchronistically encounter a woman at a community event who was an unwitting research subject in the studies conducted by the project housed in our school–and to learn that she was moved to emotional agony and lay in tears inside an MRI machine, believing that the research “was going to help someone.” I hate that by association with my workplace, I was “supposed” to keep my mouth shut and encourage her to continue to doubt her gut feeling that what she had experienced was wrong.
But I’m not smiling from the shadows anymore, and I’m certainly not ashamed or obediently maintaining my silence, or pretending that I respect the work of my colleagues–or worse, that I somehow support it by narrating a fiction of false solidarity.