Monday, January 14, 2019

Academic Work and Mental Health

I've always said to my students -- especially those thinking of doing Masters or Ph.D. programs -- that graduate work (and academic work in general) can psychologically take you apart and put you back together again. It will often bring up deeper issues that have been at play in our day-to-day lives for years.

As I was annotating a book the other day, I felt a familiar, dull ache start to radiate from my neck, to my shoulders, shoulder blades, and eventually lower back. I took a moment to think about how I was sitting and oriented in space: I was hunched over -- my shoulders were high up in and incredibly unnatural position close to my ears.  I thought about what my current acupuncturist, ortho-bionomist, and past 3 physical therapists would say. I stretched, straightened myself out, and paused to figure out why I hunch the way I do when I write.

It’s like I’m under siege, I thought to myself.

And then I realized there was something to that.

If there’s one refrain from my childhood that still haunts me when I work it’s “You’re lazy.”

My parents had this interesting pretzel logic: The reason I was smart was because I was lazy. I didn’t want to spend as much time on homework as the other kids because I just wanted to watch TV and do nothing. So I’d finish my homework fast and get A’s so “I didn’t have to work.”

No, that doesn’t make sense. But it was what I was told repeatedly when I was in grade school. Then in high school, on top of all of the above, I was accused of being lazy because I didn’t have a job at 14, like my father did.

And then in college, despite being on a full academic scholarship, getting 4.0s most semesters, making the deans list, (and eventually graduating summa cum laude), I was perpetually admonished by my parents for not getting a job during the 4 week winter break, or getting a “temporary job” in the two or three weeks between the last day of classes and the first day of my summer jobs (lab assistant for a couple of  years, and then day camp counselor). Again, according to them, it was because I was “lazy.” My work study jobs during the school year as an undergraduate didn’t count because they weren’t “real jobs.”

And even though I was doing schoolwork on evenings and weekends, my parents often maintained that I should be working some part-time job on the weekends.

So doing schoolwork (that is to say, doing the work to maintain my GPA, scholarships, etc.,) wasn’t “real work.” In retrospect, the biggest mistake of my undergrad days was living at home. But I did so because I got a good scholarship at a good undergrad institution close to home. It was how I afforded college without loans.

But just about every weekend, every break, or every moment I was trying to do work, I was at risk of having to field passive aggressive questions or comments from my mother and father regarding my avoidance of work.

My choice to go to grad school because I wanted to teach was, of course, because I didn’t want a “real job.”

Most confusing, though, was how my parents (my mother in particular) would tout my achievements to family and friends, even telling them "how hard [I] worked.” But when relatives or friends were gone, the criticism, passive aggressive comments, and negativity always came back. It’s no wonder why I hunch when I do work. I am in siege mode. It explains also why my dissertation took me so long to write, and why that period of my life was the most difficult in terms of my mental health: the more I achieved, the more lazy I thought I was actually being.

Even though I have generally come to terms with the complete irrationality of that logic, I do have to take pains (often literally) to be mindful of how I work, and not build a narrative out of the negative thoughts that do arise as I submerge into extended research. I went back into counseling last summer, mainly because I was starting to feel a sense of dread and depression about my sabbatical, which I knew made no sense. I'm so glad I did.

The things we achieve -- whether academic, professional, personal, etc. -- are things of which we should be proud. Sometimes we have to be a little proactive in reminding ourselves of how to accept our own accomplishments.

And maybe every 30 or 60 minutes, stand up and stretch.






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