Coming to Terms with the Past

Since I had my knee injury I’ve been sitting around pretty much doing nothing. I regularly ice my knee, and do loops around the house on my crutches to keep the blood flowing. I look out the windows at my garden (which I should be out planting!), and enjoy feeling the spring sun come through the window and warm me up (not today, though, it’s chilly and grey).
But despite all this supposed “free time,” I’ve been finding it difficult to write. It’s not that I don’t have ideas – I have several that I want to get on paper and submit to the many venues that have open submissions right now (e.g., Electric Lit, Catapult, and Orion).
I feel more as though I have an aversion to putting on paper what’s going on in my head.
I suspect it has to do with two things:

  1. My injury
  2. The book I’m reading about sexism in academia

The last time I blew up my knee this badly was in 2008. I was a year into a tenure-track position, and had so many balls in the air that my accident meant a lot of them crashed to the ground. I didn’t have time to be injured—I had courses to teach, research to do, papers to write. Instead of focusing on getting better, I focused on how I could get around my injury to still do work. How I could fit in a little here and a little there to keep up my frantic pace (which I’ve written about previously). (Note to self: this is not a smart approach.)
I was devastated by my injury. I was angry, upset, and generally a terrible patient. I felt like it was keeping me from everything I had to do and that I was going to fall so far behind that I’d never catch up and life would be ruined. Not altogether realistic, of course, but those were the kinds of things going through my head.
I should have rested longer, taken the time off work since it was a WCB accident. But I pushed to keep teaching and working in my office. To make sure I showed my face at work because I suspected that, once I was out of sight and out of mind, my courses would be changed, my lab might be changed, and I’d come back to a diminished version of what I had originally been doing (this is not paranoia speaking, but just what I saw/heard happened to someone who went on maternity leave).
At the same time I was struggling with being in the academy. With the weird double standard of being considered highly competent and an excellent researcher by colleagues outside my university, and basically a pain in the ass and mediocre researcher by colleagues within my university. I felt like a lot of it had to do with gender, but I didn’t know how to pull out that thread given all the other things I had on the go. I couldn’t disentangle my thoughts enough to discover how my experience was gendered, and not at all acceptable.
This time I’m more accepting of my injury. I’m doing everything I can to help it heal, including doing my rest-ice-compress-elevate, not weight bearing, and not doing anything stupid. I’m not trying to fit things in here and there. I do try to do things myself sometimes that aren’t the easiest when you’re on crutches, but mostly I ask my husband to help. This is a big deal: asking for help. It doesn’t come easily, but it’s important to know how to do it.
I’m still writing and reading, but I find that my surficial mental chatter has slowed to almost nothing. Anything I read drops into a deep internal void (for example, Jessica J. Lee’s Turning and Barry Lopez’s Crossing Open Ground).
Whatever I write has to be extracted from the depths that void. It’s as though my mind has gone into hibernation, and the thoughts I need to access are lower and deeper than I’ve had to look for them previously. As though they’re water flowing under a sheet of winter ice, or a circle of animal bones at the bottom of a deep, empty well.
I think it’s because I’ve been plunged mentally into a parallel universe in which I relive the experience of my previous knee injury. At the same time, I’m reading Kelly J. Baker’s Sexism Ed, which echoes a lot of my experience not just around the time of my previous accident, but around my entire academic career.
I haven’t thought about my failed academic career much recently, but this coincidence of injury and book has brought it all rushing back.
I think about how hard I worked to enter the academy, when perhaps I should have realized sooner that I wasn’t suited to it. How my brain gave out on me and I had to leave academic science. How maybe life would have been different if I hadn’t followed the academic route but had been a writer and editor from the start, as I’d originally planned. Would I still have had a broken brain? It’s a moot point given that time is long gone, but it’s hard not to go back over your life journey and wonder why the hell you did what you did (hindsight is always 20-20).
Most insidiously, I recall that I had a purpose when I was a prof, the last time I buggered my knee.
I am not sure what my purpose is now.
I had my birthday last week, and it made me think that time is moving on. I left academia almost 6 years ago now, and I feel as though I’m still in mental limbo – I don’t know who I am anymore or what I’m meant to do with my life.
I don’t know how to put these thoughts to rest. I wonder if having a purpose would help me get through this odd period of mental hibernation, but I don’t know how to create meaning and purpose when I have a sense that there’s none.
Maybe this hibernation time will help me come up with some answers.

9 thoughts on “Coming to Terms with the Past”

  1. Maybe the most important work going on right now is healing your spirit. Keep up the good work; contemplation can be a great route to insight.

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  2. Thanks for sharing. You’re not alone. Although not spurred by injury the same thoughts about purpose and mental hibernation are rampant for me lately. I’m hoping to find a reset button!

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  3. I have had the same doubts about purpose (without also having to deal with an injury, thankfully). I’m sure many have who begin a new career later in life. It’s another climb up from the bottom. Looking in from the outside, I kept thinking, “but, surely not, she’s so brilliant and has accomplished way more than I ever will.” I don’t have an answer to those questions, either, but it does comfort a little to share in that haze of uncertainty, so thank you for revealing your own. May you find strength, patience, and solutions as your knee recovers.

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  4. I can relate to your pain and thoughts, Sarah. I can tell you that the situation you describe from academia after returning from a long leave also happen to male researchers. I understand that many problems have to do with gender based discrimination, but academia is a nuthouse that treats everyone bad in some way. I also left the childhood dream of being a reseacher. I miss the research, but not the sick environment. Then, as far as working environments are made be people, there is always some malice around. I hope you find soon a new purpose, whatever it is, that makes you feel energized and fulfilled. Forget academia. It is an asylum, not worthy of having you as an inmate there ?. Best, Marcus.

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    • Thanks for the note, Marcus. It’s true, the academic system doesn’t quite prioritize kindness. In fact, competition between academics is kind of anathema to kindness. I’m sad that I can’t do academic work anymore, but am not sad about no longer being in academia. One good thing about my health forcing me to leave!

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