Friday, April 26, 2019

Life and happiness after the tenure track

Updated May 17, 2020 to add the following: 

 My sister is a licensed mental health practitioner who recently started a mental health podcast. She interviewed me about my experience with depression, and you can listen here:
Original post:

I've been pondering this post for a while, because it's a personal topic and I haven't been ready to talk about this publicly yet, but I'm in a good place now, so it feels like it's time.

When I graduated from college in 1999, I didn't know what I wanted to do. Someone told me that I could apply to go to grad school and keep getting school paid for with an assistantship, so I applied for a master's program at my undergrad university, got a teaching assistantship, and promptly fell in love with teaching. On the advice of my professors, I decided to apply for PhD programs so that I could keep teaching at the college level and hopefully land a tenure-track job so that I would have some stability and earn a living wage. I was accepted with funding at all of the schools that I applied to, so I picked the one that was the best fit and went off to do a PhD in linguistics. In my 5th year, my dad had a major heart surgery, and I started feeling like I wanted to be a lot closer to home. However, I was still working on my dissertation, and had another two years left. I starting looking at HR websites at schools in Nebraska just for kicks, not really seriously thinking about leaving because I still had two years left, but then I found an ad for a job that looked like it had been written for me. I decided to apply, because I realized that if I didn't, it might be years before another job in my field opened up in Nebraska. I ended up getting the job, and my husband and I moved back to Nebraska. I was thrilled to have landed a tenure-track job (and to have avoided the academic job search), and to be within a few hours of family again.

The first two years were stressful because I was adjusting to a new place and finishing my dissertation a few states away from my dissertation director. But when I finally graduated in 2009, I thought things would get better. I still liked teaching most of the time, but there was one class I REALLY hated teaching that was a regular part of my teaching rotation, and I was getting really tired of whining from entitled students. I started having stomach pain that got worse and worse until it was pretty much non-stop, and I started saying that I hated my job in my 3rd year. But I felt trapped, because I had no idea what else I'd do, and I'd literally just finished 15 years of schooling to get my dream job as a professor. At some point, I remember thinking that everything would just be easier if I were dead because then I wouldn't have to work so much, and I finally realized that I was dealing with depression. I was surprised, because I didn't feel sad or any other emotions that I associated with depression. I was just tired and feeling like it wasn't worth it to be alive anymore. So that was good because once I realized that I was depressed, I went to the doctor and got a prescription. But what I didn't realize is that there are a ton of meds out there, and you might have to try a few before you find something that works. So I tried one and things got better, and I felt like I could function again. So I felt OK for a while, but then 2012 happened.

In the spring of 2012, I was scheduled to teach the class I hated again (senior composition in Spanish), and I also ended up with a TON of students. I had a course release from a grant that I'd written, but two sections of that one class somehow ended up being 47 students. So I was only teaching a class I hated, and it was hugely overenrolled, and a ridiculously labor-intensive class on top of all of that.

Because I started the job before I finished my PhD and didn't know to negotiate to have my tenure clock start when I finished, I was also slated to go up for tenure in the fall. I knew that my odds were bad since my publication record was modest and I'd been looking for other options. The dean scheduled meetings with all faculty slated to go up for tenure in the fall, and that meeting was the catalyst for a free-fall. I know it can't be easy to be an administrator telling a faculty member that she probably won't get tenure, but it does not need to be a debasing meeting that leaves a person feeling like she has spent the last 5 years draining herself for absolutely nothing. When I walked in the door, the dean told me that it didn't look good, and I told him that I knew, and I was looking for other employment. At that point, the best possible thing would have been to just express empathy and wrap it up. But instead, I got to hear about how my case wasn't great anyway, but because I'd been hired the same year as a literature professor in my department who published early and often and had gone up for early promotion the year before, my case looked especially bad. I don't remember most of what we talked about, but the dean going to great lengths to tell me how crappy my research profile looked compared to my colleague's is emblazoned into my memory. (This is beside the point, but it also made me angry because while we were in the same department, my field was linguistics and I did human subjects research, and my colleague's field was literature. These are very different disciplines with very different publication expectations. I should say that my colleague is a lovely person, and I am genuinely happy for her. She worked hard and earned her promotion and tenure.)

So after that train wreck, I started looking for jobs while tanking from depression. I should have taken a medical leave, but didn't realize that it was an option, so I just kept trying to finish the semester. But it was a train wreck and I couldn't manage it. So my summer was also a disaster, but I was cautiously optimistic because I had a job lined up. But then the job fell through, and I was back to square one. I decided to submit my tenure portfolio because I didn't know what else to do, and in the past, the RPT committee had tenured weak research profiles without promotion. (It's also worth noting that my university jumped from a master's degree institution to an RU-D during my first year, and while in theory I was hired under the old guidelines, in practice, the expectations for publication became more stringent.)  So I submitted my portfolio and had the great pleasure of going to a meeting with my colleagues where my mental health became the main topic of discussion. When I left that meeting, I went back to my office, shut my door and shut the light off, and cried until everyone was gone for the day. Then I went out into the main office and pondered hanging myself. In the end I emailed my department chair and withdrew my portfolio from consideration, because I realized that if my portfolio went through the full college committee review and I didn't get tenure, I would probably decide to end my life. (For what it's worth, I was on an antidepressant, but it obviously wasn't working.)

I was in a dark place, but I kept moving forward, and was thrilled to discover after about 7 years of trying, I was finally pregnant. The hormones and happiness of finally getting pregnant gave me the boost I needed to get through the semester, and I was feeling pretty good until the Monday after Thanksgiving, when I went in for my check-up and the ultrasound tech discovered that there was no heartbeat. So I miscarried in early December (but I was still looking for jobs and went on a job interview while I was miscarrying). This is not the point of this post, but because I'm putting everything out here, I will say that my OB-GYN added to the misery by telling me that it would be like a heavy period. It was for a few hours (during my job interview), but then I started having contractions, and my OB-GYN hadn't prescribed any pain meds and sent me home to miscarry. So I labored all night to deliver a dead baby with ibuprofen as my strongest pain med.

Honestly, I don't really remember much from that time except crying every night when I went to bed. It was a terrible 5 months. But I got pregnant again in April, and my son was born the following January. I worked with my doctor to get off of my antidepressant to lessen potential side effects to the baby. In the meantime, I was in my last year at my school, still trying to find a job and sending out resumes and applications to anything that looked like it might be a decent fit, and getting 0 interviews or call-backs. My job ended in May 2014 and I still hadn't found anything. Over the summer, I applied for a job and finally got a call-back for an interview, but at that point my depression from my ongoing employment stress was combining with postpartum hormone drops, and when the person told me that they wanted to interview me, I remember thinking to myself "Why?" Pro tip: Just go ahead and turn the interview down if this is where your mental state is. It will not go well. I prepared, but as it turns out, when you're in the middle of a major depressive episode, you don't make great impressions. This is the lowest I've ever been. I sincerely believed that my family would be better off without me, and started looking into taking care of that. I dug out my insurance policies and made sure that they would pay out if I ended my life, and I looked for the most effective (and most immediate) method. Fortunately, we did not own a gun, we did not have any money to buy a gun, and I wasn't quite miserable enough yet to do something that would be less immediate.

I picked up some low-paying work rating tests online (which I emphatically don't recommend unless you have no other options, but it did not require an interview), and decided that I couldn't afford to be unemployed so I would go back on the job market and move away from our families. At that point, I got back on an antidepressant, but I didn't feel any better and it made me hungry all the time, so I gained back the 10 pounds I had lost since having my son, which made me feel even worse about myself.

I decided to see if I could find an anti-depressant that would work with me instead of working against me, so I Googled to see if there were anti-depressants that had statistically significant side effects for weight loss, and discovered that bupropion has that side effect. So I asked to switch to bupropion and FINALLY started feeling like myself again. I had several Skype interviews while taking the previous anti-depressant that went nowhere. I had a few interviews late in the semester after I'd been on bupropion for a few weeks, and I got invited for campus visits for those interviews. I ended up with 2 offers. One was for a full-time non tenure-track job in a major US city, and the other was a 1-year visiting position in Nebraska for a sabbatical replacement, but the department was hopeful that they'd be allowed to replace someone who had retired a few years earlier. In the end, the salary at the permanent position was so low compared to the cost of living that when I calculated it, I realized that we'd be better off financially staying in Nebraska with me still being unemployed. So I took the 1-year visiting position. The department didn't get approval to replace the faculty member who retired, so at the end of the year I was out of a job again. At that point we had decided that we'd rather stay in Nebraska and figure something else out rather than moving away for a job that I probably wouldn't like anyway. There were two college jobs open in my city as my 1-year job was coming to a close. I interviewed for one of them but didn't get it, and the other one got canceled for financial reasons. I cobbled together a few more freelance jobs, but I didn't like what I was doing, and it didn't pay enough to make our financial situation manageable. Sometime in there, our insurance company stopped working with Walgreens and we had to switch to CVS. When I went to switch my prescriptions over, for some reason they couldn't get my bupropion switched over. I don't know what it is about CVS, but if my prescription expired at Walgreen's, they called it in and got it filled immediately. CVS said they were doing that, but it didn't happen, and when I requested a refill myself, my doctor's office sent it to Walgreen's because the part about having to switch to CVS apparently got lost. So I ended up cold-turkeying off bupropion without planning to. (That said, cold-turkeying off of bupropion had 0 side effects, compared to tapering off of venlafaxine, which was hellish.) But I felt pretty good, and decided to just stay off of it.

I was still looking for jobs and saw a job teaching high school Spanish at a private school come up. I had lamented the year before that there were a ton of jobs teaching high school Spanish in my city, but I didn't have my certification (because you don't have to be trained to teach in order to teach at the college level...). Since certification isn't a requirement at private schools, I decided to apply, but then started looking into certification programs because most schools want you to at least be working on a certification. I figured I could afford to do a certification program if I had a real job, and then discovered that there was a program that allowed you to teach in a shortage area on a transitional certificate while completing a full certification program. So I went ahead and applied just to get the ball rolling. I had an interview at the private school, but it didn't go anywhere, and in the meantime, a job at a public school had come open. I applied and interviewed, and felt like it went really well, but I didn't hear anything by the date that they had indicated, so I decided to apply for another job that had just come open. I got an interview, and while I was at that interview, I got a call offering me the job at the first school. But I really loved the second school. They had told me to let them know if I got another offer, so I did, and they offered me a job the next day. So when I was going to start in the fall, my mom and sister suggested that I preemptively go back on an antidepressant so that I didn't tank from stress in a new job. For once, I actually listened. It took a little while to adjust my dosage because I had lost 30 pounds, so my previous dosage was giving me serious side effects (like bloody noses and a panic attack during my in-service), but once I dropped down the dosage, I got the side effects under control. I hadn't felt bad before I went back on the anti-depressant, but when I got back on, I had an amazing revelation. I had thought for the last decade that I was just cynical and bitter due to a job that sucked the life out of me and life kicking the crap out of me, but it turns out I just needed to be on the right medication. I have been ecstatic to discover that I am still an optimist! This sounds small, but I just assumed that the sweet optimist that went off to do her PhD was gone forever, and that I would always be bitter and cynical due to my crappy experiences. So discovering that I am not really a bitter and cynical person has been an amazing feeling. It has also been amazing to get back to 100% health, so to speak. I had been functioning at a degraded level for so long that I had forgotten what it felt like to not be depressed. So what I considered "not depressed" was still depressed, and my family recognized that I still didn't have my personality and sense of humor back.

So now I'm finishing my second year of teaching high school, and I LOVE it. I feel like I'm doing something meaningful, and I love being in an environment where I can build relationships with my students instead of seeing them for a few months and then never seeing them again.  I thought college would be better because I'm an introvert and I had more alone time, and it has been a challenge to adjust to being around people all the time, but what I've found is that as an introvert, I need more time to make connections, and I was never going to have that time at the college level. I connected with a few students and felt like I was doing something meaningful a handful of times, but for me, knowing that at this point I've forgotten way more students than I remember, it felt pointless. Especially when coupled with the pressure to publish research that maybe a handful of people will ever read.  So I appreciate the opportunity to see my students every day and have them in my classes for 2-4 years so that I really get to know them.

I've lost about 67 pounds over the last 5 years and have developed healthy coping strategies like exercise to deal with stress, and I've realized that I will always need to be on my anti-depressant. My sister was working on a counseling degree while I was going through a lot of this, and in addition to getting me to go see a counselor, she also helped me by giving me strategies to keep me from getting stuck (she cognitive behaviored me 😀).

For anyone who's reading this who is in one of the dark times, there is hope. Life will get better. For my fellow ex-academics, life is better on the other side. It just takes a while to get there.