I Aten’t Dead

…but I aten’t doing so hot right now, either.

I’ve always kept this blog* fairly impersonal, so I really have very little idea what most of the people likely to read this post think that I’m like. I mean, I’d hope you think I’m pretty sharp, or at least a little clever, but other than that, I don’t know. But if you’re reading this, it’s pretty likely that you’ve been here before, and you’ve wondered why the intermittently in my blog tagline** has become rather more inter than mittent over the last year. So this post is the explanation. As much of it as I can say.

[SPOILER WARNING: What follows is long and personal and not much like what I usually write here, so if you’d rather just wait for a resumption of normal service, you’re certainly entitled to that, too.]

The blog silence has been part of a larger silence. Indulging in more poetic than I have license to, I could say I’ve been drawing the silence in, wrapping myself in it, and hiding. I’ve been withdrawing from everything in my life. This blog was actually among the last things I let go. I’ve pushed away or let fade away nearly every personal connection I had, and I’ve never let myself have that many to begin with.***

At some point way, way back, it could have been called writer’s block. That’s what I often let people call it, certainly, and sometimes told them to call it, but writer’s block hardly covers it. Sitting in front of the computer to type has gotten harder, and harder, and just when I thought it felt as impossible as it could ever feel, it got harder still. The closest I could come to writing was rewriting the same few lines over and over: rephrasing, deleting, and reorganizing the same thought, never able to capture what I wanted, never able to let things stand on the page. And that was when things were going well. Most of the rest of the time, I would sit down at the keyboard with a clear and specific goal of what I wanted to write, but I could never make myself stay at the keyboard. Physically, I was there, but mentally, I was everywhere else. I’d look down at my watch and realize that though I had been sitting there for nine hours, I had no idea where I had actually been. And I wish that were a more rhetorical construction than it is. I have literally been losing hours, and over the past five or so months I’ve been losing weeks. Not losing them to a lack of productivity, but losing the awareness of their passing.

I haven’t been able to focus on writing for a long, long time, because I haven’t been able to focus on anything for even longer. Because I’m pretty sharp, and because I’m really, really, really**** good at lying to people, I’ve never had to admit that before. But I’m admitting it now, and I’ve admitted it over the past couple of days to many, though not all, of the people that I have not quite managed to push away irrevocably: I can’t focus. Every thought I have is immediately dislodged by another, and in the tumult time slips away. And when it slips, I cover for it. I spin wild stories to cover for not being able to… for not being able.

In this minute, now, I can focus. Clearly. I’m present in my head in a way that I haven’t been very often for years. That’s the medicine. It may not be the right medicine for me, and my current diagnosis may not yet have gotten to the reason for the tumult I feel, but I am on medicine to treat adult ADD. There’s depression on top of that, too, and anxiety, and maybe other problems as well. It’s only been six days that I’ve been ‘out’, and only four days that I’ve been in treatment, so take the medical term with many salt grains.

There’s a word like ‘ironically’ that I can’t quite put my finger on, but there needs to be a sentence here that starts with that word, like ‘ironically’ but not. Some close cousin. Because, clearly, I have been able to write while I’ve been unable to focus. Ironically. I’m paralyzed, but I still walk. I haven’t been able to write what I want or how I want, but I do have a blog, and it does have posts that were written by me. And I have three masters degrees, and each of them required papers to be written, and I did write them. I’ve delivered conference papers. I’ve written magazine articles. I have a journal article coming out soon with Geoffrey Chaucer (who Hath a Blog), and I wrote that, too. *****

I have written, and here’s how: exhaustion, cut with shame and well-leavened with terror. I wait until the deadlines that I have agreed to meet have already passed.****** Maybe wait is the wrong way of putting it, because during the time when I’m failing to start, I’m still telling myself that I’m going to start any moment now, but any start that happens doesn’t come until I’m already well past the deadline and have had to beg off people with various lies. The fear of discovery and disappointing others gets strong enough that I can stay in the chair in front of the keyboard until I reach the brink of collapse, the edge of exhaustion, when my mind stops jumping from thought to thought because I no longer have enough mental energy to power more than one thought at a time. When it takes almost every scrap of thought I have just to stay awake, somehow I find the sliver of attention I need to push myself forward. I’m most productive between six forty-five and noon, providing I have had no more than four hours of sleep over the last forty-eight. ******* The work I produce doesn’t live up to my standards, naturally, but it is work. And after I get it out, here and elsewhere, I’m terrified that others will see the frays and the disjoints in what I’ve produced and the jig will be up. But it never has been, until now.

It’s possible that if I hadn’t picked academia as my vocation the focus problems never would have gotten quite so bad. I’m apparently quite high functioning by most standards. Many people crippled with writer’s block would give anything to be able to have written a twenty-five page masters dissertation or the equivalent amount of text, even if they had to be absolutely out of their mind with lack of sleep to be able to do so.

But I signed up for PhD. And PhD requires a dissertation. And a dissertation requires more than the six or so hours of exhausted terror that has sufficed elsewhere. Six or so hours of exhausted terror bottoms out, for me, at about fifteen to twenty pages.******** For the really big projects like my my masters dissertations, I hit about twenty pages, collapse, remain immobile for three days, then reprise the night of terror to get the rest of the way. And afterwards, I would tell everyone, my advisors, my colleagues, my family and friends, that I had been working tirelessly over a long time, the way that I imagined that most people did.

And that’s how it’s worked (when I’ve been able to work). I’ve been in academia long enough that it also hasn’t always worked. I’ve failed to produce things many times. I’ve begged, pleaded, and lied to get second and third and ninth chances, and sometimes it’s worked out and sometimes it hasn’t. My record is pretty spotty, though I’ve managed to hide just how spotty it is from most people with more of the aforementioned lying.

WordPress tells me I’m over 1400 words into this thing, so obviously I’m fighting pretty hard against letting the biggest lie come apart, so here goes. The truth is, I don’t have a dissertation. I have written, and written, and failed to write, and written, and failed again, and on and on, but there’s just not much there. There’s a lot of fifteen-page starts of chapters cluttering up my hard drive, because every few months the guilt of lying and the shame of not being done impels me to one of my long dark nights. But everything I’ve ever said about my progress here in the casual asides in between all the monkeys and boob jokes has been a lie. If you’ve every run into me in person, pretty much everything I said then on the subject of my dissertation was a lie, too.

I imagine that most of the people who are still reading this now are people I know personally, hopefully some of the people that I’ve been pushing away these last five years. So, for those people, I want you to know that I’ve been in a lot of denial over the years, but during those times when I could actually admit the focus problem to myself, I still couldn’t bring myself to get help for it, because I knew that in order to do so, I’d have to come clean about what I had failed to write. And I couldn’t bear the thought of people realizing all the many ways I’d lied to them to keep the big lie going. I kept telling myself that if I could somehow manage to get enough clarity to finish it then it wouldn’t matter anymore, because it’d be done and I wouldn’t have to come clean. And even if I did come clean people wouldn’t be as angry because in the end the big lie would be moot. And so on.

If there’s anyone still reading this who doesn’t know me personally, I don’t know what you should take from this. One selfish part of me wants reading this to help someone else see where they’re at and maybe start to see how to get out of it. I know that I’m not the only person who’s been in a PhD program and collapsed at the candidate stage. Among my close friends, I can say that it’s happened to at least two that I know of. One spent two years paralyzed in front of the blank word processor screen and just quit without explanation. Another has already come clean and been able to say what I couldn’t, ‘There isn’t a dissertation’, and is, I think, managing to finish. I know that the plural of anecdote is not data, but it seems like maybe the problem is chronic at Ivy League schools like mine. Everyone assumes everyone else is brilliant, or at the least very capable, or else they wouldn’t be there. Problems, we expect, will just handle themselves, because everyone is so bright and so able.

I’m tempted to now detail precisely how I’ve managed to get this far without having produced anything to anyone, to self-destructively glory one last time in the extent of my deceptions, but the word count is keeping me mindful of how indulgent I’ve already been today, and there are many other more important concerns. Chief of these, I haven’t yet squared things with my professional colleagues, the editors I’ve confused, or the advisers and committee members I’ve manipulated. Academia is a small place, so I imagine those people will soon know. If you’re one of them, just know that I don’t yet know what I’m going to do. I’ll be in touch when I can.

One final thing. I wish I could say that I found the strength to make these admissions and to seek the help I needed on my own, but that wasn’t the case. Truth is, my personal life finally fell completely apart. I won’t go into it, because I can’t. Just know that it took my hitting absolute rock bottom before I could see a way out. Mine is not the story of the guy who finally realized all his flaws and problems and vowed to make things right. I’m the guy who lost everything and, left with nothing, had no choice but to start over.

I do plan to regularly update here again, maybe sooner than is completely wise. For whatever reason, whether it’s the medicine or the relief from unshouldering the lies or something else I don’t yet understand, I can write now. I can write like I haven’t for a long, long time.

  1. * to the extent that my haphazard updating warrants the term ‘kept’ []
  2. ** I realized upon re-reading this after it was posted that I haven’t had a blog tagline for a while. It used to read, ‘A [(n) intermittently updated] tonic for the slipshod use of medieval European history in the media and pop culture.’ []
  3. *** So far, this reads like the confession of a suicidal mind, and so I should settle that question before it distracts too much from what I do want to say. I haven’t been suicidal, and I’m not now suicidal. Mental health doesn’t have a word for it, for the opposite of suicidal, but it should. I earnestly believe that this life is the only shot we get. It’s the brief light and warmth we feel on our sparrow’s flight through the hall, and as that good night approaches I intend to rage, make no mistake. []
  4. **** There aren’t enough reallys to stack on that word, so I’ll leave it at three. []
  5. ***** He helped. []
  6. ****** Or, in the case of the blog, I set for myself many unreasonable deadlines or goals. []
  7. ******* Those numbers are artificially exact. I apologize for that. I’m fighting the temptation to inflate them to make myself look more heroic and put upon by my illness. []
  8. ******** Double-spaced, one-inch margins, 12 point Times New Roman. []

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Anonymous

    I apologize, but I’m not allowing comments on this post. Those who need to contact me can, surely, but I don’t want a pity party to break out in the comments, nor do I want to learn that I’ve exhausted people’s pity by the lack of one.

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