On Healing and the Power of Storytelling

On Healing and the Power of Storytelling

I was overwhelmed by the reaction to my blog post last week on grief, loss, and healing. That post has now reached more people than anything I’ve ever written. Besides reading, many people reached out to say that my post had spoken to some part of their experience. I was touched by everyone who said my post made them feel less alone.

Sometimes we just need someone to let us know that we’ve been heard, understood, and validated. If you’re in grief, I see you. I hear your pain. If you need someone to support you in what you’re going through, I would be very honored to support you in whatever way would help the most. If you need me to just sit quietly with you while you’re hurting, I’ll do that. You are not alone. (Seriously. Drop me an email and let me know if/how I can best support you.)

Clearly, there’s some need to make space to talk about the difficult feelings that accompany personal and professional transition. We often don’t talk want about the ugly stuff, like the shame, grief, fear, and anger and yes, trauma, that accompanies our (often involuntary) exit from academic life.

If you’ve experienced trauma and loss before, the loss of walking away from academia can trigger all of that other stuff. Loss of professional identity suddenly triggers all of those other losses, particularly those unhealed, childhood ones. You might experience an emotional avalanche made up of all the unhealed parts of you. You may start doubting your own sanity. Don’t let anyone gaslight you into thinking that your loss doesn’t somehow count or shouldn’t hurt. It’s real. People who lose jobs and identities experience depression, health problems, and other effects of traumatic loss. It ain’t no joke.    

My day job is in crime victim advocacy. I help pull people through some of the worst moments of their lives. Because of that work, I’ve made this discovery: I’m not afraid of people’s emotional pain. Sometimes it’s hard to see people hurting so much. But I am not afraid to sit with people while they’re hurting and witness their pain.
And I’ve also learned that people can heal. Healing, however, doesn’t happen automatically. People like to say that time heals. It doesn’t. Some people carry emotional wounds for decades. When you’re done grieving (and there’s never any time table on that), your primary job becomes one of healing and moving forward. This will likely be a slow and almost imperceptible process.

In my last post, I wrote that healing isn’t a matter of “getting over” anything. We never “get over” loss. Healing happens when we start telling our story in a new way that acknowledges the loss, but also empowers us.

Healing doesn’t happen as long as we’re still telling the same story that goes “X thing happed to me. It was awful.” Don’t for a second think that I’m saying that your loss or experience wasn’t awful or traumatic. It was and it is. Walking away from the part of your life you love most is traumatic. It’s a huge loss. Lots of us thought that we’d get tenure track jobs. And then lots of us didn’t.
 However, telling your leaving academia story as a random bad thing that happened to you isn’t very empowering. In fact, it’s a story of victimization. Telling the story not getting an academic job as a thing that happened to you makes that experience the centerpiece of the story. The editor in me would like to call your attention to the fact that this story is also in passive voice, which I don’t think is an accident. You as a person have no agency in that story. Something happened to you that you had no control over. You were powerless to change it.

This was my story for a long time. As a recent refugee from academia, my PhD story was very much one of victimization. I blamed academia. I blamed other people. I blamed myself. My story went something like, “I got a PhD in history. Then I couldn’t find a job because the job market collapsed. And no one would hire me. So…here’s my resume.” It was self defeating.
This is an entirely true academic story. But it’s not the only way to interpret the evidence.

Other true stories exist to tell about your PhD journey. Healing happens when you can start telling the story in a new way.: “X thing happened to me. It was awful. And then I chose to do Y.” This story acknowledges the awful thing that happened to you. It doesn’t take away from the bad thing that happened. X was awful and it still hurts. But in this story, you’ve got agency. You’ve got power. You’ve made some choices.

This is what people mean when they talk about telling your PhD story in a new way.

When you start telling the story with the awful thing that happened to you, but then you chose to do Y, you’re drawing on your power, your agency, and your creativity. You’re changing the meaning of it. In fact, you’re giving the story the meaning of your choice.

So my story now isn’t, “I got a PhD in history. Then I couldn’t get a job.”

My story now is one like this: “I got a PhD in Latin American history. Then I didn’t get an academic job. So I chose to do some rethinking and decided that what I really wanted to do was live in Mexico and write and help other people use their own creativity to heal through writing.” [The Mexico part hasn’t happened yet. But there’s still time.]

And it’s equally true as the self-defeating story. But now there’s space for my own agency and power. Sure, some stuff didn’t work out (probably for the best), but then I decided to go do something else with my life that sounds more meaningful than sitting in a faculty meeting.

Writing is a powerful vehicle for changing stories. Looking back at my blog, I see the development of my new story, little by little. I’ve used my own creativity and power to reframe the story and move forward. Learning to tell my story in a new way hasn't happened overnight. As I move forward and start seeing new possibilities, those ideas become woven into my new story.

If you’re currently in grief, please continue taking the best possible care of wonderful you. Don’t even think about this mysterious thing called healing yet.     

If you think you’re getting to the point where you’re ready to start taking a few wobbly steps forward, you might think about how you tell your personal and professional stories. And then tell them.

Stories are powerful. The way you tell yours matters.  

Leaving Academia: Loss, Grief, and Healing

Leaving Academia: Loss, Grief, and Healing

I’ve been out of academia for two years, having finished my PhD in 2015. I think I’m finally on the road to healing.

I often joke that leaving academia feels like the worst break up ever.*

HAHAHAHAHA. That’s a good one!

Except that I’m not joking. Giving up on something that you thought was your life’s calling hurts like hell. When you experience rejection from the entire institution of academia after devoting years of your life and thousands of dollars to become an academic, betrayal and rage sometimes become your only emotions for a good long while.

For me, the grief of leaving academia feels about the same as the loss and grief of the end of relationship. Even when you know that the relationship wasn’t right for you (”It’s not you, it’s me. Well, okay, it’s you.”), loss is loss. The loss of my academic dreams also triggered a whole avalanche of of old, deep losses that I’m never going to really get over.

We’ve all got dreams that don’t work out, even when we really really really want them to, but academic grief hit me so much harder than the novels I want to write that won’t get written or the places I want to travel that I know I’ll never visit. In academia, your work becomes a part of you; you become your work. Losing the academic part of us feels like losing a limb, complete with phantom pain when it’s gone. Loss often involves a lot of self-blame, shame, second-guessing and endless asking why and what’s wrong with us and why the fuck are we never good enough anyways.

Academia requires a life commitment. I devoted a total of seven years of my life to trying to understand a single thing. I was committed to my research in ways that were sometimes deeper than commitments I’ve had to people. I was fully prepared to spend the rest of my life focused on this one particular thing. Some days I didn’t like my research very much and found it hard and difficult and frustrating. Nevertheless, I never for an instant wavered in my devotion to it. Like in any relationship, academia and I went over rough patches. I thought about calling it quits several times, but didn’t want to throw away something to which I’d devoted so much time. I was not a quitter.

I’m now working in victim advocacy and now talk to people about grief, trauma, and loss every day. I wish I’d had someone like me to talk to about grief and loss after my PhD. I wish someone had told me that they were sorry that I didn’t get a job. That it wasn’t fair. That it wasn’t my fault that the market had collapsed and hadn’t recovered. That sometimes stuff just happens to people for no reason. Sometimes the story doesn’t end the way that we want it to or expect it to.

The grief I felt when I conceded defeat on the job market was the real deal. I cycled through every one of the Kubler Ross model’s stages of grief several times. And as anyone who has been through the five stages of grief knows, they are not really stages at all, but rather suggestions. Grief is a full body contact sport that involves cycling and recycling through the stages of grief, moving forward and backwards and sideways at the most inopportune moments until the heart and soul decide there’s nothing more to be done and they’ve let go. There’s nothing rational about grief and no time table to “get over it.” It’s insanely confusing and consumes massive amounts of emotional resources. Grief is involuntary and wild and frightening.

If you’re coming to the realization that you’re going to have to walk away from academia, let me hasten to tell you that your feelings are real and valid, whatever they may be. I believe you. (Maybe your feelings aren’t grief. Maybe they’re relief? That’s valid and legit too.) Nonetheless, you’re going to have to do some stuff to get through the emotional crap swamp. Here are some suggestions. (Keep in mind that I’m not a counselor. I’m a victim advocate and post-ac historian. If you're struggling with mental health, please please please connect with mental health resources in your community.)

  • You’ve lost a big chunk of your identity, both personal and professional. Grief is a normal reaction. You ain’t crazy.
  • Self care is key. Emotional eating is okay for a little bit, but you’re eventually going to have to make real food. I know it’s hard.  
  • Let yourself be very not okay for a while. It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to be really really sad.
  • Healing isn’t a matter of “getting over it.” It’s a matter of incorporating loss into your story and telling it in a new way.
  • There’s no timetable. Anyone who thinks that you should be ready to move on according to any kind of timetable can shove it.
  • Take life one day at a time.
  • Know that healing isn’t a destination; it’s a journey and a process.
  • You might think about investing in a good therapist.

Leaving academia isn’t just a “career change.” It’s the worst breakup of your life and you might not even be able to see into next week, let alone imagine possibly being happy and okay again someday. Be in grief for as long as you need to.

You’ll heal. Eventually. You’ll have the scars to prove it. Healing will happen so slowly that you might not even notice it. In one of the biggest cliches ever, I’ve learned (and now teach people) that healing is a PROCESS.

You’re going to get through this. One day you realize that you haven’t cried in a few days. Then maybe you notice that you’re daydreaming about something you’ve always wanted to do. Some idea for interesting and engaging work crosses your mind. And then you might find yourself wondering if you could actually do that. And then maybe you start thinking of how you might do that. And then you start talking to other people about how you might do that. And then you’re off and running again.

You’re healing.

*This may not be your experience at all. A lot of PhDs these days are actively planning NOT to become academics, so I suspect their sense of academic loss may be less. I don't know. Those of the tenure track or bust generation, from my conversations with other people about their experiences, seem to have taken academic loss pretty hard. We didn't have backup parachutes ready; we made up the post-ac life as we went. We're still figuring it out. As always, YMMV.

Blog Birthday!

Blog Birthday!

My blog turned two years old this weekend!

I’m shocked that I’m still blogging. (Have I turned into a blogger?) I’ve started and abandoned oodles of other blogs. I’d write a single post and then quit the entire project. Blogging felt difficult and unnatural. And who would read my writing anyways?

Blogs aren’t quite the rage that they were when they first started. Twitter (which is really just micro-blogging) seems to have supplanted writing actual blog posts. A huge number of bloggers abandon their blogs, as blogging isn’t as easy as it looks. Few things are sadder than an abandoned blog. I still find blogging difficult. I struggle to produce regular posts. I wonder when I’m going to run out of things to say. (As if this has ever actually happened to me.) I fight with the length of a blog post, often too long for a tweet or Facebook post and too short to be a full-fledged article.

People sometimes ask me about starting a blog. Blogging can be complex. People smarter than I have all kinds of advice about getting more blog traffic, reading complicated analytic reports, and monitization strategies.

I’m not very interested in any of that. (I’m a historian. Maths terrify me.)
Keep it simple:

  • Make friends with other blog writers.
  • Be consistent.
  • Write about the things you care most about in the world.
  • Posts don’t have to be perfect.
  • Above all, be YOU.

The blog has become my favorite writing project. It has provided some unexpected lagniappes.

 Without the blog, my writing practice might have shriveled up and died for lack of attention. Aside from my dissertation, the blog is my longest and most consistent writing practice. After finishing the diss, I had no idea how or what to write next. The blog has improved my writing more than any writing group or workshop I’ve ever attended. I’ve thrown out passive voice (mostly), needless adjectives and adverbs, and learned to write with more active verbs. My writing remains a work in progress, but blogging regularly forces me to try to write better.

I’ve also found my public writing VOICE, which feels like a major discovery. The work of regular writing makes me think more closely about how I write and what my writing sounds like. Only after writing many blog posts did I figure out what I really sound like in written form. I still have an academic writing voice, which comes out when I’m trying to write something Very Serious. But my blogging voice most closely resembles what you’d hear if were were talking in person (complete with occasional snark). As William Zinsser reminds us, writing is really just talking to someone on paper.

The blog has also shown me where I’ve been and where I’m headed.

Year One of the blog was about sharing my writing process. I started the blog to promote my freelance editing services and build some public credibility as a writing person. I honestly thought that I’d write posts in which I’d give people sage and valuable writing advice. I found out much later that most people don’t actually want or need writing advice. My huge discovery was this: people want to feel better about themselves as writers and as people. When I wrote soul-baring posts about how mired in shame I felt about my writing, people responded with empathy. I came to understand that most (all?) writers feel like shit about their writing. What most (all?) of us really need is someone to share our writing struggles with us. Seriously, we’re all in this together.

During Year Two of the blog, I got a new non-academic job and an identity crisis. The non-academic nature of my job threw me for a loop. Was I an academic? Did I have to give up my research? Was I even still a historian? Could I teach outside of a university? I’ve spent the last year working out answers to all of these questions and more. (For the curious: yes, no, yes, yes.) Blogging helped me understand who I was without the academic identity that I’d devoted years of my life (and thousands of dollars) to building. Like my writing, its a work in process and progress.

I’m really looking forward to Year Three. I’ve been thinking about what I want to write about now. For the last few months, I’ve found my thoughts wandering towards how to make space for creative work in my life. Making that space seems all the more important now as Creating Important Knowledge isn’t in my current job description. Nevertheless, the soul yearns to make and create things. I’ve been thinking about doing more personal and freelance writing (maybe I will finish one of my novels in progress?). I’ve been also thinking about how to do some more non-academic teaching and help people create their own new knowledge of the world around them. I’m also thinking about community building, as creating and making stuff never happens in a vacuum, but results from interactions with other people and their ideas and creations. Stay tuned.

What possibly shocks me even more than the fact that I’m still writing the blog is that people are still reading it. I get tweets and emails from people every now and then telling me that they liked or learned something from my blog. And I’m so incredibly grateful and thankful for everyone who has taken the time to read, comment, and share. It’s awesome to feel heard. Thank you.

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