on academia and life

(It might be over soon, two two)
Where you gonna look for confirmation?
And if it’s ever gonna happen
So as I’m standing at the station
It might be over soon

Bon Iver. 2016. 22 (OVER S∞∞N)

Academia can be a weird mix of empowerment/inferiority, engagement/burnout, enlightenment/isolation. You’re not alone. #WorldMentalHealthDay

Shit Academics Say

This is for my Nan and Granddad.


It’s complicated.

A while back I wrote about depression and alienation, and a boy who spent a lifetime trying to recover.

And a while after, after we had cared for and lost my Mom, I wrote about being Inside. Through. Beyond. Me., and about searching for an alternative Self or for the fix because the inside is too broken to be mended on its own.

And a while after I wrote about chronic fatigue and being increasingly anxiety hardened, and how I swore to myself that I would never drive myself to a breakdown again. Until I did.

And a while after I wrote about the impossibility of getting on trains and of speaking, and the rupture that was my unbearable anxiety.

And if you know me, then it’s no surprise that I have written about alienation, and the university as an anxiety machine, and capitalism, academic labour and ill-health. And that I wrote about the way that our work compresses what is valued and valuable, until it is either stolen or neglected (for Kate). In an abstract way, grounded by my ill-health.


And all the time multiple tracks are playing out. Track one is the history of a boy locked in a room suffering loss after loss, and trying to survive (although he never knew it). And track two is a boy trying to acclimatise to outside, and trying to understand how the world worked. So that he wouldn’t be left again. And so that he would never feel the same amount of loss. Because the loss was is everything. And track three is the man collecting all the badges, every last one, in order to feel something positive, rather than the unremitting, bleak, sherry-stained loss. And track four is the pain of remembering all this, and especially the room and the loss, in every moment of every day. And track five is the details of every day; of living. So that each track is compacted, one on top of the other. Compacted and compounded. The compound interest of a dysfunctional past represented in the present.

So the man sits in meetings and speaks at events and attends concerts and eats curry and reads books and walks and mentors, and has to do these things whilst analysing these things and working on not analysing these things. And it is exhausting. No wonder I had a second breakdown. For the lulz.

And this is where the weird mix of academia kicks in. With its empowerment/inferiority, engagement/burnout, enlightenment/isolation. You are in the academic peloton, with its cultures of omertà, or the silence of those who know that they are being forced to compete, and that to do so they must co-operate. And with its culture both of dietrologia, or the desperate search for hidden dimensions to surface reality. And when you grasp some meaning, some enlightenment, or some hoped for engagement, or when you speak and gain some sense of empowerment, you feel lifted. Like life might be possible.

You do it to yourself, you do. And that’s what really hurts.

And it becomes difficult to separate out academia as an anxiety machine, whose perpetual motion risks wearing you (r soul) through, and the past that has compounded that issue. So that your past plays and replays itself out in a space that feeds off the constant doubts, and the constant need to perform, and the constant need to re-produce yourself as someone more productive.

What it is to be anxious inside the anxiety machine.

And this is why I have spoken and joked that what I want is to abolish myself. Politically, it is why I am pointed towards concepts like mass intellectuality, or the dissolution of the academic at the level of society, in order to become something more. Someone more. Someone less concerned with the status and intellectual capital that gives academia its motive power. Because when academics are only concerned with shoring-up status, for whatever reason, rather than abolishing it, our collective work for liberation is lost. The refusal to become anonymous is where we are lost.


And I wrote about the fear of performing. That just as I received the badge I wanted the most, my Mom died, and the wheels came off. And of a sudden my universe contracted so that the singularity was my home and the road to my work, and maybe the road to Walsall. But it was very little else. And I described my panic on trains, and my panic when speaking, and my panic when travelling. A panic that had much earlier origins, an echo of a long-lost and apparently never-lost past. A panic that had origins in a first, previous breakdown. A panic that had never been healed so that after her death came a second breakdown.

All five tracks working in unison. Compounded in unison. Their singing in unison was is the tinnitus that walks with me.

And I decided that maybe all I could do was write. That I would become mute, unable to speak, to present, to have a voice. Ever again. That I would not be able to travel unless we drove places. That I wouldn’t be able to go to away games or take trains or accept speaker invites or go to the workshops in Lincoln that I so desperately wanted to attend.

And all the while I wrote. And all the while I did accept speaker invites. And all along I made myself speak in university committees. And all the while I did get on trains.

Because of the boy in the room, who kept a candle alight.

“You have to carry the fire.”

“I don’t know how to.”

“Yes, you do.”

“Is the fire real? The fire?”

“Yes it is.”

“Where is it? I don’t know where it is.”

“Yes you do. It’s inside you. It always was there. I can see it.”

Cormac McCarthy. 2006. The Road.


And once upon a time I wrote about how, in the aftermath of my first breakdown, it took five years to recover myself, to a position where I had some trust in my body and my mind (for what that was worth). And the moment I knew, was on the Saturday of the Edgbaston test in the 2005 Ashes. A walk on Moel Siabod. Falling into a peat bog up to my middle; then going in up to my neck (a proper, full-on panic-inducing moment); then being pulled out by Wheelist Wheels and Jane and Jo; then refusing to turn around but climbing the mountain. Fuck you. And the next day being able to get up and watch England draw level with Australia; with no ill-effects.

No.

Ill.

Effects.

Just patched-up enough to go on my way. Although maybe I thought this was less a puncture repair than a full service and ready-to-go.

Only it was a puncture repair. A pretty good one, as the Lyke Wake Walk will attest. But a repair that began to fail in the Fall of 2008 and was blown by 2011. A repair that was fucked by 2013.

And all the time, work. A safe space. A perpetual motion machine. Trying to manage a team and manage the projects and produce the reports and plan the programmes of work and support the Ph.D. students and publish the journal articles and edit the book and think about the next grant and plan the new job and survive in networks and engage with communities of practice and speak at conferences and laugh with friends and console friends and be.

The space between work and Self. The space between work and Self and the past. The space between work and Self and the past and the everyday. The tinnitus.


And this is a story that recognises the self-care and the self-harm in keeping the fire burning. So that the boy lit the way for the man. By cherishing a role as an independent visitor for a looked-after child. And loving being asked to become a trustee of the open library of humanities. By accepting invitations to speak, in spite of myself. Of doing what I can, whilst fighting the panic. Of setting up a new institute. Of submitting the next book proposal.

Self-harm and self-care. Self-harm or self-care. It’s complicated.

And then there was a new Moel Siabod moment. Because the boy had lain the groundwork, in keeping the man going, and in being productive as well as keeping up appearances. And the moment that the shape of recovery became discernible was on being invited to speak in Bradford. Of the reduced anxiety about travelling so far from home. On a therapy day. And the anxiety about speaking being utterly forgotten in a wonderful workshop about embodiment and trust in conflict arenas. So that by the time I came to speak an amazing calm had descended.

And the result was sitting at Derby Station at 9pm, waiting for the connection from Sheffield, and remembering how it used to be. How it was all those previous times I had travelled and looked at the world and spoken with a nervous excitement. And to travel home tired but feeling like the day had been worth something. A productive day. A day in which a voice was heard. A day that justified reflection with four tracks turned off, so that I could just focus on the day itself. The content of the day itself.


It’s imperceptible, knowing that being well and recovery and well enough not to be in therapy and well enough to have turned the tracks off and well enough to have distilled the anxiety and to want to purge it, are possible. And the feeling is almost impossible to describe. The shape of it being impossible to describe, but forming inside me nonetheless. I have no compass for being well. I have never been well, which is why the puncture repairs have always failed. I can describe the old anxieties and fears and panics and self-loathing. I can still feel them. But they feel disconnected, sitting there in my gut. Dissociated. A remnant of a past life, still real and painful, and yet so dissociated from the everyday.

They are a dissociation which mirrors that I felt in a previous moment of this life. That I needed in a previous moment. A mirrored dissociation which now makes possible a purging of anxiety. So that arguments and disagreements and failings don’t self-harm so much. And I sense these feelings being purged, so that the scars of the self-harm are simply birthmarks. So that my potential for self-harm is slipping away. Forgiveness.

And it feels so fucking weird. Letting go of the past and reframing the present, and letting sleights go, because there is too much in the bank. We’ve been through too much. We’ve self-harmed enough.

Maybe I have just decided to get well. Maybe I have walked far enough to be able to discern wellness ahead of me. And I laugh out loud about being well, out of a feeling that I cannot describe because it feels incredible to me. Indescribable because it’s not in my DNA. Faintly ridiculous, but I’m going to do it anyway.

And I discuss with a friend the relationship between our labour and our pasts and our mental health. And how Academia/life can be a weird mix of empowerment/inferiority, engagement/burnout, enlightenment/isolation. How academia/life can be a weird mix.

About how it’s complicated.

About how realising the shape of my/your life depends on the courage and the faith that emerge from our collective work and solidarity, in labour and life. And especially in our bearing witness for each other.

Courage is love’s miraculous face. It achieves its miracles through transformation. It allows the impossible to become possible; the unendurable to be endured; trust to be renewed; and the unexpected to become the inevitability that opens you to unprecedented insights about who you are, about what life is. When courage stirs, it delivers the strengths you need but didn’t know you had

Stephanie Dowrick. Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love. London: Viking, p. 24.


2 Responses to on academia and life

  1. Hi Richard- I am about 99.2% sure (always leave some room for wrong) that you have quoted the McCarthy “keep the fire” lines before and that I responded. In fact, I do not need to fact check. It’s one of the most beautiful book moments to me that most seem to miss in focusing on the dystopian setting of that road.

    I see the metaphor.

    I only wish to say I am in awe of, and appreciate the sharing of your own road. Maybe in writing we crave validation, but if anything, we can wonder if anyone even hears us.

    So just a signal to you that the answer is- yes.

    Keep at the struggle, stay on that road, keep writing. The fire is definitely real.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *