a public feeling
By ANN CVETKOVICH
Duke University Press
Copyright © 2012 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One Going Down
THE SPRAINED ANKLE
It's hard to say exactly when my troubles began because the pervasive and relentless anxiety that settled in during the fall I went on the job market was difficult to pinpoint or describe. Sometimes, though, there were more obvious signs.
Like my sprained ankle, which was no accident. I was on my way home from a protest, part of ongoing campus activism for divestment from South Africa. The previous spring there had been daily sit-ins and a shantytown in the middle of campus, and although the intensity had dwindled somewhat, students were now demonstrating on the central quad by sitting inside of big refrigerator boxes that represented shanties. On this particular day, the campus police decided to clear them out, dragging people away with extreme force by pinning them in headlocks and subduing them with a device inserted in their nostrils. I was outraged. Although some protestors went off to the police station to provide support, I ended up heading home by myself. I was so busy applying for jobs that I had been unable to participate actively in this latest wave of protests. I felt distant from the events and regretful about not being more involved.
As I headed down the hill from campus, my mind was spinning. I was fretting about the scene I had just witnessed but also obsessing about job letters and a troubled romance. When I stepped off the curb at an intersection, my ankle buckled beneath me. I fell to the ground and, immediately feeling embarrassed and self-conscious, I picked myself up as quickly as I could and continued to walk the remaining blocks home. My main concern was to avoid a spectacle, and I tried to keep my limp as slight as possible. Once home, my attention was focused on getting ready to go to a party at a friend's house, where I could get more news about the demonstration and its aftermath.
A couple of hours and a few drinks later, having been filled in on events at the police station and having shared my indignation about police brutality, I suddenly realized there was a problem with my ankle. I was standing while talking to people and increasingly couldn't put any weight on my foot. I didn't feel any sensation of pain; I just couldn't stand up anymore. Before I had a chance to investigate further, I realized I felt faint. I managed to sit down before I actually fell over, but I was very close to blacking out. When I finally removed my boot, I discovered that my ankle was swollen to twice its usual size. The visual evidence forced me actually to feel the pain and to realize that I could no longer walk. An x-ray the following day showed no serious damage, but I had to use crutches for the next two weeks and walk with a cane for quite some time afterward.
Although it was very inconvenient, the most disturbing aspect of the whole episode was the fact that I had been so able to ignore the initial pain. By ignoring it, I had made it worse. I was able to recognize this as a warning sign—a notice about my inability to pay attention to the sensations of being in my own body—but I didn't really have any idea what it would mean to live differently.
It was also a sign of the upended nature of my life that a significant injury meant very little in comparison with the ongoing anxiety of being on the job market. I couldn't feel physical pain because I was so busy feeling other kinds of pain, which often took the form of feeling nothing at all. Everything blurred together in an amorphous sense of dread. I didn't notice autumn coming on or any other details of Ithaca's beautiful landscape of gorges and lakes. I couldn't focus on anything other than the pressure of deadlines that seemed unending.
Being on the job market is one of academia's major rites of passage. Huge uncertainties about the future—Is my intellectual work any good? Will I get a job? Where will I be living? Is this really what I want to do?—coalesce around an endless array of tiny tasks and decisions about everything from which font to use on a cv to how to describe one's dissertation, which represents years of work, in a single paragraph that will capture the attention of an unknown reader. I agonized for most of September over that one paragraph, and I spent the next month writing one letter after another, crafting endless small revisions in order to fit each different job description.
I spent one horrible week completing the last application, for short-term appointments at Yale that weren't even tenure-track positions but that required a five-page dissertation prospectus. Everything else I had just done suddenly seemed so much easier because it had been more about packaging than substance. With a longer description, I felt I could no longer hide—this time I had to tell the real truth about my dissertation and face up to the weaknesses in my conception. I cried, I revised, I spent every waking hour possible in front of the computer. And when that was over, I had to get my writing sample ready. I had spent the entire summer trying and failing to revise a chapter and now had to settle for sending out the same old paper I'd written the year before rather than a real dissertation excerpt. I couldn't even figure out how to cut it to writing-sample length.
I've now seen many people made crazy by the job market, but at the time I couldn't understand what was going on and why the pressure seemed so relentless. I had dealt with crises before, and the rest of my life was also currently in a state of major upheaval, but this felt very different. The abstract concept of being on the job market and the lived experience of daily anxiety didn't match up. Depression is too blank and unhelpful a term to explain what I was living, and the catch-all term anxiety that I often use here is also a vague and feeble substitute. The sprained ankle, however partial and tangential to the real problem, tells the story.
THE DISSERTATION DEFENSE
Although academic jobs in English are notoriously scarce, there was a mini-boom in the mid-1980s. I had over a dozen interviews, four campus visits, and three job offers, and ultimately accepted a job at the University of Texas in Austin. The external recognition lifted my spirits and focused my attention. I not only survived the interviews and campus visits, I also really enjoyed them. Buoyed by my success, I made good progress on my dissertation in the spring. During the summer, though, the clock started running out, and the deadline for my dissertation defense loomed ominously on the horizon. I handed in a rough draft of the whole dissertation sometime in June, and after that, I got completely stuck. I couldn't make revisions on the chapters that were already drafted, and I still had an introduction, a conclusion, and a chapter to write.
I was living alone in an apartment perched halfway down the hill that separates the Cornell campus from the town of Ithaca. I loved the space—it was on the top floor of an old building, and the rooms were asymmetrically shaped by sloping ceilings. Since there were no windows at eye level, only one tiny window at ground level and skylights up above, it felt sequestered from the outside world. Up a twisting flight of stairs there was a windowed cupola with a spectacular view of the lake and the hills beyond. It was the perfect setting within which to play out the fantasy of having a room of one's own, and I had felt liberated by the combination of seclusion and expansive view. Eventually, though, the apartment became the prison in which the standstill drama of writer's block was played out. In an effort to move my mind, I moved my desk out of the tiny office space and into the roomier dining area of the kitchen. The desk's metal geometry, the white walls, the window high up by the ceiling, the closet under the eaves—I gazed at these familiar spots with a blank mind that contained only the details of what the room looked like rather than ideas for writing.
Sometimes my heart started pounding so fast that I had to stop working. I would leave my desk to lie on the living room floor, hoping that the brief respite would allow my beating heart to still itself. Everything seemed so quiet and ordinary; why was I so terrified?
Breathing as slowly and consciously as possible seemed to help. I didn't know much about yoga or meditation at that point, but I had an intuitive sense that changing my breathing was important. I didn't know that some people would call these panic attacks, but I went to the medical center and got my first ever prescription for Xanax. The pills offered little solace—they sometimes dulled the edge of the panic, but they didn't make me any more productive. Far more helpful was my friend Z, who knew the patient art of caretaking and had the skill it requires to keep company with people in trouble. She would bring me food, spend the night, proofread, say encouraging things.
All my efforts to write came to nothing. The only thing I really did in those final weeks was get scared while watching with envy as my other graduating peers experienced the closure of the defense. I set my defense date as late as possible in the hope that with more time a breakthrough would arrive, but to no avail. The fatal deadline came, and although I had eked out some form of introduction and even a brief conclusion, my Wilkie Collins chapter remained stubbornly unfinished. At the last moment, I scrapped a number of its pages because they weren't leading to any kind of conclusion. Much to my disappointment, I handed in the final version of the dissertation with a meager fifteen-page chapter that ended in midargument.
I can honestly say that I don't think I've ever attended a defense that was worse than mine. It wasn't that I performed badly in response to my committee's questions or that they criticized me; if anything, it was an exceedingly gentle affair because my chair knew that I was upset and protected me from any aggressive questioning. But as we discussed my work, I couldn't feel any sense of connection to it, couldn't claim it as my own to defend or celebrate.
THE FAIRY TALE
My dissertation reminded me of one of my favorite fairy tales from a beautifully illustrated volume I cherished as a child, one of the first books I was able to read on my own. In Hans Christian Andersen's story "The Wild Swans," a young girl is sent away by her stepmother, who also turns her eleven brothers into swans. In search of her brothers, the girl discovers them when the swans turn back into men at night. A woman comes to her in a dream to tell her that she can free her brothers from the spell by using nettles to make coats that will turn them back into men, but only if she remains silent during the entire process. She works in secret all night long, gathering the nettles that prick her fingers, spinning them into thread, and then knitting the coats. Running out of time, she is unable to complete the sleeve of the last coat, and one of her brothers has to live with a wing instead of an arm. So too with my ugly, scraggly, unfinished dissertation.
In The Golden Book of Fairy Tales' lavish illustrations by the French artist Adrienne Segur, the blonde maiden delicately holds a strand from the spindle of woven nettles in the fingers of her white hand, watched over by a bird perched on her shoulder. One of her swan brothers sits in her lap, his humanity symbolized by his jeweled crown and the single tear he sheds, which is matched by the tear that rolls down her pale cheek. Although heartbroken and silent, the girl has the company of the animals with whom she can communicate in ways other than words.
As problematic as the image of the mute and pale white maiden might be from my adult feminist perspective, she was an icon of the melodrama of silent suffering that was part of my dissertation and the process of writing it. The story of lonely labor and unarticulated feelings was also a poignant reminder for me of the terror of being unable to make a deadline despite working as hard as you can. But the girl also represented the creative and reparative impulses of witchcraft, of being able to spin the pain of stinging prickles into something that, even if unfinished, could be powerful enough to transform swans into brothers.
Sometimes I tell this story to my own students, and I remind them that it's possible to live with a wing in place of an arm.
THE NEW JOB
It seems obvious now that starting a job and moving to a completely new place would be difficult. I grew up in Canada, and even though I'd crossed the border more than ten years earlier to go to college in Portland, I had always lived within striking distance of it. Now I was headed to the other border, a place that was off the map for most people I knew, who often indulged in stereotypes about the South and rednecks. I was too ambivalent about academia to be prepared for a real job or invested in the professional status that came with it.
The pop psychology lists that put moving and new jobs right up there with death and divorce provide some warning. But no one prepared me for the form that the stress would take, especially the relentless physical symptoms. Going on the job market, finishing my dissertation, and moving were all discrete events, with a beginning, middle, and end. Now I was experiencing a daily life of dread stretching endlessly into the future with no respite from anxiety.
Especially disturbing was the impossibility of physical relaxation. An unending series of mornings in which no matter how much I had slept, I did not feel rested. Nap times in which I would lie in bed aching with an amorphous set of pains—a mid-back ache that would not go away, persistent headaches, a furiously beating heart. Downtime, especially at the end of teaching days when I could give myself a break, was filled with fear, or tears, or a dull blankness that made no dent in the relentless pace of obligations and things to worry about. There was no rhythm of ups and downs, of challenges ventured and accomplished—just a dull and steady invasion of sensations without respite.
To describe anxiety as a psychological state or as subject to mental persuasion doesn't capture it. In my experience, it was a feeling deeply embedded in different parts of my body. Like physical pain, it kept me fixated on the immediate present, unable to think about other things. But it was also dull enough and invisible enough—no blood, no wounds—that I could live with it. I was confused about what to do because I no longer knew how to avoid it or how to imagine it ending.
One moment of relief lifted the seamless web of anxiety and allowed me to get outside of myself for long enough to remember that things could be different. A friend came to Texas for Thanksgiving. His parents lived in Corpus Christi, where he had grown up, and he invited me to visit him there and to go to their cottage in Port Aransas on the Gulf Coast beach.
That this friend from Ithaca also had Texas history made it seem as though the two worlds could coexist, that I had not just been shipped off to a place that was not on my personal or historical map. I was welcomed into the comfort of his upper-middle-class family life. His parents were pleasant, his brother was an interesting enigma, and, even in my dazed state, I could apply myself to one of my favorite pastimes: meeting other people's families.
The November light on the beaches of Port Aransas was beautiful, reflecting off of pastel-colored buildings, the flamingoes in the marshes, my friend's 1970s sports car. I took photos—classic American road trip images with the car and the landscape beyond as backdrop. We stayed up late talking, cozy in sleeping bags on couches. I was having fun.
And that was a miracle. Not only was the respite from the physical symptoms of stress welcome, but the knowledge that it was possible brought me additional conceptual relief. I could have something good happen to me in Texas, something that was new, not just a reminder of past comforts. Most recommendations for relieving anxiety are like this. Perhaps you can't avoid it all the time, but if you can have one moment of relief—doing exercise, watching a movie, getting a massage—it serves as a reminder that such a feeling is possible. The visceral experience of pleasure is a more powerful antidote than any memory, and I was getting desperate because most of the daily forms of respite that had served in the past were no longer working. This trip not only brought useful flashbacks, but it was definitely happening in a present that included my scary job in a strange state.
Excerpted from DEPRESSION by ANN CVETKOVICH Copyright © 2012 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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