Passion and lingering ghosts

The International Association for Suicide Prevention conference was in Montreal last week. Like Dubrovnik, this conference re-ignited and re-inspired my passion for the work. There were a lot of amazing people there – generous-hearted and ridiculously clever. There is something very cool about being able to talk with researchers who you’ve admired from afar and find out that they’re wonderfully and brilliantly human.

It made me think though of why we do the research we do – so many of us there in the one place and still not even close to being everyone – and what drives us to keep going. How the passion stays vital even in a metaphoric winter. And this is something that, were I to generalise, would feel too broad – that I’d be assuming there was one voice. What being in Montreal did was crystalise my love for this work – and how the personal and the professional are so entwined, why they both matter, why (I think) for me the personal grounds the professional, as well as strengthens it. I’ve written about some of this in a previous post.

I have lost a close friend and a brother to suicide: I was 16 when Mark died and 21 when Michael died. Mark has been dead for more than half my life now, an anniversary a little while ago which shook me quite badly. I’m not sure how I’ll be when that milestone is reached with my brother, how my family will feel.

Initially, I didn’t speak about these things so much. I still don’t speak about these things so much, so this feels a naked thing to be doing. The language of grief felt too limited to try and articulate what I felt, when sometimes I didn’t know at all, and feelings sometimes fluctuated. And sometimes you couldn’t be sure of your listeners either – sometimes I didn’t want to have to comfort them as well. Sometimes I just needed to be able to sit in the sadness, just for a little – to acknowledge that these two boys are frozen now in the past and my memories will only dim from here on in, that is, assuming, I’ve remembered correctly in the first place.

Memories though can be bastards.

There are beautiful memories of them both. Mark was the first boy to tell me I was pretty – so important when you’re 15 and deeply awkward. I remember walking along a street with Mark when a gust of wind roared through so strongly that it lifted me off my feet – and Mark held my hand, anchoring me to the ground. Michael was my idiot little brother – I never imagined he would not be there even when we were fighting over who should do the dishes, or who the new kitten loved more. These were boys whose presence I never thought to doubt. There never seemed any reason to doubt.

And there are other memories. The aftermaths of their deaths. And here, I remember Michael’s more clearly (or less hazily) because I was in such shock after Mark, felt such guilt. Everything passed by in a slow, painful blur. All I remember of Mark’s funeral is standing outside the church not wanting to go in because, if I went in, then it would be true and he really would be dead. I fell into a depression after this, stuck in the grief and the guilt that I know now is so common in suicide bereavement. I didn’t know this then though. I didn’t know then how many risk factors Mark (and Michael for that matter) ticked, not that this would make any difference to the sadness really. I didn’t know feelings could be so strong that they could kill you. I was put on anti-depressants for six months, where all my feelings sank as though under water so they were no longer so visible and painful. And then I was taken off them and worried whether feelings would ever be safe again.

When Michael died, it was almost as if what I’d experienced after Mark protected me. I knew it wasn’t my fault, and so guilt didn’t haunt me. Grief felt – not easier, not lighter – but different in that I knew the pain of grief dimmed, even if it left a scar. I remember first being told of his death. My hair was still damp from a shower and there was brilliant sunlight pouring into the lounge room where my kitten was sleeping, her eyes determinedly closed against the light. It was such an ordinary morning. I remember crying and packing while my partner at the time chain-smoked cigarettes.

Mostly though I remember the flowers that came in abundance after Michael died. Bright gerberas and other bunches seemingly made for grief – not too bright, not too fragrant. They sat on the table in the darkened dining room. More flowers than I’d ever seen in the house before. For all their good intent and love, they seemed to loom in the darkness – for the first time, I felt close to understanding Plath’s issue with the tulips in her room. My grief stole my breath – I want to say ‘our’ but I barely knew what I was feeling then let alone anyone else – and these things gulped all the air that was left. They felt more alive than the rest of us, more present in the space.

I’ve only begun to be able to bear flowers since – putting flowers from my ramshackle garden in milk bottles in the house. Flowers from florists though are still, to me, funerals and fuck-ups. Give me a bunch of flowers and I will automatically assume someone needs to be mourned, or something forgiven.

Sometimes the ghosts that linger are very stupid ones.

The only thing I remember of Michael’s funeral though is sitting in the front row, watching the coffin, willing it all not to be true, that is was all some fantastical mistake. I couldn’t grasp properly that my brother lay in there and that it was the end of him. I want to say that my heart hurt but I felt so numb and fractured, that nothing and everything hurt all at once, and none of that made any sense.

And in the aftermath of losing Michael, scared of falling apart like I had after Mark, and after being told by my then partner he was afraid ‘I would change’, I focused on being strong. I went back to uni and ended up with the best marks of my undergrad degree. I was untouchable because I pushed all the feelings aside to not let anyone know, still wary of these feelings that I knew from grieving Mark.

A year later though, I realised just how stupid this was, just how much I was hurting myself in being ‘strong’. I almost missed Michael’s anniversary and, in realising this, all the grief that I’d pushed aside fell over me like an avalanche. I realised just how much the death had left a wound, how little it had healed. And so I had to embrace those feelings of grief – the sadness and the anger and all the ones in-between. I had to rage about Michael’s death (here, Dylan Thomas felt more apt) and, as all my baggage became apparent, rage about Mark’s death as well. That their light had died, that it had just slipped away, nothing to could be done anymore.

And these losses stay with me still – healed scars but scars nonetheless. One of the things though – one of the positive things – is that I am very peaceful about feeling all the feelings. I accept that my heart is well and truly beating on my sleeve. I am very good at poker simply because people rarely believe my poker face can be so non-existent. A Brazilian poem called ‘The Almost’ inspires because it argues that you can’t live in the grey and the almost – that sadness exists so you can feel happiness, heartbreak for love, hopelessness for hope.

I didn’t enter this field because of Mark and Michael though. In many ways, it has made me more careful of how I research and what I do. It keeps me honest to what the purpose of this research should be, and that this job should be one of constant learning and questioning. I want to be passionate about this work because that passion is grounded in respect of those who share their stories, of the grief that those who work with me in projects have experienced.

I’ve sat down once before and written about Michael – encouraged by a brilliant Irishman I’d just met , and who is still a friend, to talk about the emptiness. I’ve not written about Mark before. That first piece took me months to write because I wanted it to be a perfect reflection of what had happened and how I felt – and nothing was perfect enough. But how could it be? All it could be – all this piece can be – was how the story came out in that moment. And in acknowledgment that this story differs depending on who I’m talking to, when I’m talking.

It also needs to acknowledge that these memories don’t tell the whole story, aren’t the whole story, can never be the whole story. There are things I know I don’t remember well and tell awkwardly because things are hazy. There are things I don’t know. My brother’s life and death were more than a fear of flowers; Mark’s more than standing outside a church. They are far more – far far more – than my grief. They exist now as a collective memory almost, shared between all of us who knew them, as we weave all our memories together.

I wonder though, will they exist after we’ve forgotten?

The majority of people in my life now have only ever known me in the after-time of these deaths. They will only ever know of Mark or Michael if I speak of them, and then only the memories I have or the stories told that day. It is strange sometimes to have something that I feel still in the pit of my stomach, that still seizes at my chest and stops my breath, that others don’t understand completely. And this is not in the sense of suicide bereavement and grief – this is shared with far too many people – but in that we are all trying to explain the person we loved long ago, and lost in a haze, to someone who will never know them. Our lost person is a mystery to anyone else who doesn’t weave the same tapestry of memories.

In all of this though, after all of this, I have finally found a voice, a niche, which feels right to who I am and to who I’ve lost. That they would laugh at my Sylvia Plath work because neither of them understood my continuing love of poetry but they would be proud of what the work otherwise, of the stumbles which have led to so much learning and, eventually, some success. That they would understand the drive behind work that sometimes leads to be the purchase of cat hats (and long story) but has also led to some of the most important friendships and mentoring of my life.

And for this, my work is always, will always be, in memory of Michael and Mark.

Is Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot a Parable of Modern Academic Life?

The cycle of writing is a strange thing sometimes. I’m just about to submit a chapter based on a presentation which had to be submitted as a draft article which started life as a blog piece. Refining the chapter has been helping to keep the nerdy academic inspiration alive from the Storytelling conference, even amidst the pile of marking from which I may be more drowning than waving. So I wanted to share the presentation as a way to show something from the conference outside its tangible space. Should you be interested, the draft article with proper referencing and other such fanciness can be found here –

The paper is called: “Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven’t tried everything”: Is Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot a Parable of Modern Academic Life?

Below is what I said – one of my tools to help with presenting nerves is to write my notes in full and I can now write as I speak. So this is what I presented in Dubrovnik, walking around the room for a mix of dramatic effect and to prevent my jetlagged brain from falling asleep.

So I want to mix some low-brow with my beloved Beckett. In one episode of The Simpsons, Marge says “Bart, don’t make fun of grad students. They just made a terrible life choice”.

So – at a time when it feels hard to say ‘No, The Simpsons totally didn’t get that right – I just wanted to thank everyone for these three days of academic collegiality and inspiration.

On the surface, what I’m presenting today has nothing to do with my usual academic work.

My usual academic work is focused on narratives around trauma – suicide and self-harm predominantly. I’m fascinated by how these stories are told, how they’re heard, and how people speak about their journey out of the rubble. So a lot of my work is then about wellbeing.

I’m theoretically very good at wellbeing. Practically though, not so good. I’m stumbling towards grace with this one.

This paper came about because last year I had an academic confessional published in The Thesis Whisperer – a blog targeting PhD students and early career researchers. I wrote it when I was feeling lost and burnt out and very very tired. Inger gave it the very dun-dun-dun title of ‘Is Academia Worth It?’ I don’t know whether you’ve ever felt entirely naked in front of a whole lot of people but that’s exactly how I felt when it was published. More people though have read that piece than anything else I have ever written.

But, as a result, in the solidarity and kindness that exists within so many academics, a lot of people sent me their own academic confessionals. But where mine had been a wonder, a thought bubble, theirs were determined war cries of ‘This is why I left and this is why it’s better now’.

This is how I met the ‘I Quit Academia’ letters.

And just in case you think it’s just me and two of my mates, in recent years, ‘I Quit Academia’ letters have grown in such a number that they have been called a new sub-genre of academic writing. They not only expose the skeletons of academia’s closets, they dismantle the romance attached to academia. They acknowledge the privilege (hello conference in Dubrovnik) but also show how this privilege can be dented (hello more time flying here than actually being here).

For this reason, they can also be unpopular. As one I Quitter stated: “Complaining about a situation that other people would envy is not a way to make friends”.

But is this envy based on romance or reality?

And what has any of this got to do with Waiting for Godot?

I’m sure everyone knows Waiting for Godot So I’ll just give a brief précis from how I read it for this study.

It’s an absurdist account of two friends in a lonely, muddy field with too little to eat and nothing much to do. Vladimir and Estragon (Didi and Gogo) are simply waiting for Godot. We know little about Didi and Gogo beyond their waiting – we know even less about Mr Godot apart from the fact that he never appears. There appears no earthly reason for them to stay – and yet…

I love this play. It both makes me weep with laughter and want to open a cake and whiskey shop. I saw Godot in Dublin in 2013. The man who took me told me it was a blessing, and it was. It was one of those moments where a story you’ve known suddenly hits you between the eyes, tears right to your heart, and you know you have to write about it – you’re just not sure what. So I wrote on napkins in the intermission – took those napkins back home to Australia and was eventually writing an entirely different paper when the I Quit letters arrived and I realised, as I became immersed in both, just how the stories told in these very modern letters fit the story of Gogo and Didi.

The initial sense was one of stagnation – a fear of leaving, just in case. This uncertainty was somewhat based in leaving something others would envy – even with Gogo and Didi, if Mr Godot comes they will be saved.

The stagnation then becomes retold as an active choice, rather than a trap. The story becomes – well, we choose university and all the romance, we also need to choose the reality. This is the bed we’ve made.

But should we accept the increasing rates of mental illness and work-life imbalance attached to academia? Should we accept the stories of suicides linked to these imbalances as simply tragic one-offs?

Does the reality have to be either turnips or tenure?

So, in the spirit of ‘anything can become a research project’, I used content analysis to compare the language of 90 I Quit letters with the language of Waiting for Godot and found three shared themes: frozenness, worthiness, and hope for redemption.

While by no means a systematic sample (it’s coming), these stories demonstrate the difficulties attached to leaving a dysfunctional space when you’ve worked hard to normalise the dysfunction. If, as Didi says, “habit is a great deadener”, I Quit letters show hearts beating again with a new-found passion for something else.

At the risk of sounding like a certain Disney movie, Didi and Gogo have yet to learn to let it go. They are frozen in place, waiting for Godot. Throughout the play, the words “let’s go” are repeated eight times in two narrative sets. Yet no matter how determined the words sound, “let’s go” never translates into the action of going. Their despair, their hunger, their suicidality, attached to waiting – discussed at length while waiting – isn’t enough to prompt action.

This frozenness is mirrored in the I Quit letters. However, when academics recognised they were stuck – when they recognised the privilege was well and truly dented – this appeared to act as a warning bell for the I Quitters. Frozenness was their canary in a mineshaft. Yet this frozenness is not grounded in some Disney-esque fantasy. Teytelman writes:

I accepted the miniscule pay, the inability to choose where to live, and the insane workloads of professors. I accepted the uncertainty of whether, after 10-12 years as a graduate student and postdoc, I would actually get a job as a professor…. I saw all of these as the price to pay for doing something that I love.

This is no blind romance. This is the academic version of Gogo’s continuing hope for a carrot, even when constantly presented with turnips. These are stories of people waiting in a muddy field for an elusive promise. And as the waiting became longer and harder, as even turnips became harder to find, there was increasing recognition that maybe the system was broken – because it didn’t matter what you did, how you tried, gaining employment outside casual and limited-term contracts was nigh on impossible. Leaving then became a protest against a broken system.

But the thing is – the system doesn’t look so broken from the outside – it’s only when you’re frozen inside that you realise the intimacies of the trap around you. How do you justify leaving something so romanticised and valorized by others – when confessionals can be heard as whingeing, even if that’s not the story told. Sarah Kendzior wrote a beautiful piece in her reasons around leaving academia which illustrate the continuing belief that education remains the ultimate meritocracy:

‘Our family came here with nothing’, my father says of my great-grandparents, who fled Poland a century ago. ‘Do you know how incredible it is that you did this, how proud they would be?’ And my heart broke a little when he said that, because his illusion is so touching – so revealing of the values of his generation, and so alien to the experiences of mine.

This realization of being frozen links strongly to how those waiting perceive their worth. Are they waiting so long because they’re simply not good enough?

Indeed, Didi speaks a line that can hit very close to home: “There’s man all over for you, blaming on his boots the faults of his feet”.

And it’s not as though academia has ever shied away from rejection and constructive feedback. We’ve all had drafts given back dripping in ink.

While we would be poorer academics without this, it also means we are at times chasing a rainbow. The bar for ‘good’ has now been set so high that good is nowhere near good enough. In a grant writing workshop, I was told ‘you don’t ever want to ever be told you’re just good’ – with real horror in the facilitator’s voice. We now must be outstanding just to have a shot. One of the I Quitters said: “everyone has a book contract, peer reviewed publications and stellar teaching evaluations. This was not the case when today’s associate professors were hired in the boom of the 1990s”.

Yet, also bubbling within this striving-for-better-than-good is the loss of your identity. Who are you if not an academic on tenure track? Didi and Gogo are so bereft of identity outside their everlasting waiting that we only know their full names in the play script – they only ever call each other by their nicknames. They almost become ghost-like at the end of each day – worried that they’re not memorable enough to be remembered by the boy who tells them Mr Godot isn’t coming.

I Quitters also found themselves lost without certainty. They spoke of themselves (and colleagues) being ‘spent’ after unsuccessful job interviews. They spoke of fear. Of sadness. Of being too tired for anger.

They talked about academia being a lottery with your life at the centre.

Those who quit had to find a new self – they spoke of peeling their identity away from academia and then having to forge a new one. They had to work through the label of ‘failed academic’ to see what failure meant.

They had to work through whether a job they loved despite everything was actually worth everything.

Yet, is there a  hope? Is the dawn at the end of this dark night?

Certainly what-ifs linger and lead an academic down a path of ‘just one more’ in the hope that it is this particular one more thing which proves to be the golden ticket out of casual contracts.

Didi experiences this hope when he believes Godot has arrived: “All evening we have struggled unassisted. Now it’s over. It’s already tomorrow”.

Yet Godot never comes and they continue to wait.

One of my PhD students examined experiences of hope within ambiguous loss. She was told that hope hurt – it was not this warm and fuzzy thing. Hope left you stuck waiting. Hope meant the loss never ended. When there was no clear end to the waiting, hope was rarely a positive experience for long.

And, indeed, many of the I Quitters found this too. Hope was not enough and hope hurt. And in realising this, they also realised there was life after the rubble of their academia.

They talked about new jobs and transferability of skills. But they also talked about simply feeling better – emotionally and physically. Blood pressure stabilised. Sleep became restful. Nosebleeds stopped.

Essentially realizing that they didn’t have to wait was liberating. It’s easy to look at these letters – and Didi and Gogo – and criticise them for their naiveté. They trusted, they presumed, they were too passive.

But it’s hard when you’re in the field to see what could exist outside it. In our frozenness, the broken system remains frozen too. As a result, either Godot arrives or we break out.

Yet, despite all of this, it is always a struggle to leave. And this struggle is evidenced by the I Quitters, demonstrates the enormity of the act and speaks to the passion that has fuelled them, and what they have had to leave behind.

In the end, it is awakening what habit has deadened.

Didi says: “What are we doing here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion, one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come”.

I Quitters looked at Didi’s question – what are we doing here – and made a new answer. They found their blessing in emerging from the rubble of academia into a brand new world.