In the year 2000, during my sophomore year of college, I came to a conclusion: I liked to study and I liked to write and I enjoyed being independent and, so, I wanted to take on the task of becoming a college professor someday. All the work that I did from that point on was in regards to achieving that goal. I read the books I needed to read to broaden my academic horizons (at times to the detriment of my other classes and jobs: the best still being when I was caught reading an “existential philosophy reader” while working at a factory). I wanted to be an academic because I loved the questions that came from the questions I was asking.
I graduated with my PhD in May 2011, having defended my dissertation in April 2011 and having my degree officially conferred in Aug 2011. And my wife threw a big party (because if there’s something I love, it’s a bunch of people coming up and congratulating me – Thanks Trisha). However, I had a hard time finding a job in academia for a variety of reasons. The first was my wife had a very good job and my family was kind of settled and we didn’t want to uproot for just any job, so I was picky. Second, the economic crash of 2008 had far-reaching consequences for higher ed in our country, not the least of which was the squeezing of humanities departments and the continued overuse of adjuncts in classrooms (universities became Wal-Mart, effectively saying “Why pay full-time employees when we can just have adjuncts teach the same number of classes and pay them a subsistence level with no insurance?”) And, third, when employers looked at my CV (the academic equivalent of a resume), it was chaotic. I had published in a number of areas and had used a large host of figures in my writings. I bounced around, a lot, just going wherever I felt was interesting at the moment. I also had a dissertation that included not only theology, but philosophy and ethnomusicology and studies in the avant-garde. As I was told by more than a few search committees, I did not have a discernible research agenda. And, they were correct, I didn’t. Anything at my whimsy or that caught my eye was up for further exploration on my part. And, for some academic departments, this is not conducive to the life and is not conducive to getting tenure (where you have to publish a number of articles and books in a field in a period of time, depending on the university). I also imagine that schools looked at my CV and said, “What if he decides to leave us next year or the year after?”
So, I taught as an adjunct (and still do). And I continued to do research and publish, having written one book and editing two others, publishing a number of articles, and presenting conference papers a little. But, after having graduating and having a third child, my mental illness started to become more and more a part of my life which made doing any sort of sustained research academic life difficult. However, I am bipolar so there were times when I would crank out huge amounts of work in a week or two and then lie dormant for a couple of months. And this cycle repeated.
Back to my book. I was writing a book and in the research I had presented and talking to people, it had interest. I had a contract with a good publisher and I was excited about it. But in February or March of 2014, I broke. I called my wife crying uncontrollably and was in as much anguish as one can be in – she came home and found me on the floor crying with my two small sons watching and not knowing what to do. My meds were not working and I was 8 months into treatment with my psychiatrist. We called her and she sent me to the mental hospital. I started to go through intake but was in a room and the thought of being in the hospital began to terrify me. I, like an excellent bipolar person does, talked my way out of going in with the agreement that I would not attempt suicide and my wife’s agreement that she would stay with me for the next few days. And I was given lithium.
For me, lithium is the grace of God in a bottle. It’s not a cure-all for my mental illness, but it works well and keeps me somewhat even. But it has side effects. The major one being that it makes my mind hazy and it makes my stomach upset. The hazy mind is what effects me the most though. I have a hard time, now, thinking through a long, sustained piece. I can’t finish my book because I can’t cut through my haze to do the heavy lifting necessary to sustain a book. It’s very frustrating. I can do an article (a peer-reviewed academic article – a blog post is not an article, but that’s a different diatribe) but lack the ability to carry the argument through a number of chapters like I once did. I also have this problem in conversation, where it is difficult at times to keep my mind focused on what is happening.
And this brings a dilemma. I know of other people who have cut their lithium usage down a bit in order to cut through that haze and to get some of their energy back. And with that means a little more instability. But most of these people do not have children and their livelihood is dependent upon playing the academic “game.” I have children who I stay home with and are dependent upon me for my care and I’m not reliant upon the academic game for my livelihood – I’m reliant upon making my wife happy. No one cares if I can explain Ricoeur’s conception of the hermeneutic circle or Heidegger’s use of gelassenheit or Karl Rahner’s theological anthropology. No, my life is dependent on doing ABCs, 123s, long division, baseball card stats, and how much paprika is needed for a good set of ribs.
Now, do I feel unfulfilled at times? Yes, I do. I remember the life I dreamed of when a sophomore in college, how my seminary professors praised me for my insight and said I’d be one of them someday, how much fun my doctoral advisor and I had talking about so many different things. But I’m also coming to grips with a new life of possibilities in front of me. I’m not giving up on academics, but I’ll never be “in the club.” From the outside I can make a contribution here and there, can push some stuff that my mental illness allows me to see differently, and be able to do it at my pace. And I can also do other work I find equally, if not more, fulfilling, like what we are trying to do through Here/Hear.
So, an unfulfilled life? Yes. But, unfulfillment always means more open opportunities.