Without realizing it, a momentous day has come and gone in my life. I didn’t notice until social media reminded me of a little song that I posted to mark the occasion and announce the event to my friends and family. It was a small piece of musical inspiration that came to me at the same moment that I decided to take a leap of faith.
One year ago I left academia indefinitely. For the second time in as many years, I decided I could no longer tolerate the demands of a prestigious graduate program that I had worked my ass off to get into. It was the right choice for me, but it was also devastating to walk away, and I’m still not over it.
A lot has happened in a year. I’ve started putting the pieces together to become self-employed in two ventures – one as an ecological gardener, and one as a freelance writer. Neither has taken off, partly because of this terrible weight of isolation and inertia that came over me after I walked away from graduate studies. It’s hard to start from scratch at working for yourself after investing all of your resources for the better part of a decade working for a spot in the coveted ivory tower.
While breaking out on my own I’ve also found myself overwhelmed with the duties of being steward to a new country home (an otherwise impossible gift that comes from being partnered with my best friend, closest ally and wonderful fiancée – I am so grateful for that) and being a split-custody parent to a pre-teen child who is approaching their middle school years in the midst of a smouldering pandemic and the increasingly raging infernos of climate change. Not to mention trying, feebly, to rebuild my social life the way I had been trying, only slightly less feebly, before the pandemic started.
I’ve really struggled to work over the past year. I’ve faced executive dysfunction (new term for me, but it explains so much), insomnia, panic, depression, anxiety, enormous fatigue and brain fog at times, among other things I’m not quite comfortable disclosing just yet. I’m reliving and finally processing traumas that go back to my earliest experiences, seeking a suitable therapist with little success and at prohibitive cost in order to become a healthier version of myself. It’s been really hard, and really slow. And I’ve hated myself for being so unproductive through most of it.
So I’m trying to be kinder to myself right now. And remembering that only a year has passed (it feels like a lifetime, to be honest) since I gave up the gauntlet of academic careerism, I find some room for self-compassion. Of course I’ve struggled to work – I no longer have a job! I left what had been my dream career, no wonder I’m hurting! I no longer have the support of a massive institution that was, despite the harms it caused me, an extremely powerful, resourceful, and enabling thing to belong to. Knowledge has been at so many times like a tonic for me and studying became a healing and emancipatory project. Without that tonic, no wonder I withered under the pressures of living.
Leaving academia was like leaving the only place in the world where I felt I belonged as an authentic version of myself, where my differences were valuable for their insight, and my skills made me a natural talent at producing sophisticated research and analysis. It was just the latest in a long string of experiences I’ve had, trying desperately to find community and ending up excommunicated with disappointment, regret, and the traumatic feeling of being, once again, rejected and abandoned by a society that has no place for a non-compliant neurodivergent like me.
Not unlike the trauma of becoming a new parent and witnessing the irrevocable changes this brings about (been there, too), becoming an ex-academic I’ve noticed how the professors I once worked with, the peers I would study and commiserate with, the conferences that invited me to their tables, and the prospect of a meaningful (if not lucrative or stable) career awaiting me at the end of all this hard work – all of that was gone in an instant. I witnessed my income disappear as scholarships ended and applications for employment insurance began. I felt cut off from a community of intellectuals, from libraries and archives of knowledge, and from my identity as a moral philosopher and scholar of the mind. I became an unemployed person. An ex-academic. A simple mad man.
I am calling this experience now post-academic depression. And I am still grieving. (I am aware that many people have written about post-graduation depression as well – but I did not graduate, so that’s not what I’m talking about here.)
I didn’t want to leave academia, but I felt I had no choice. I had been lobbying my professors for accommodations that would allow me to work more remotely and independently. I wanted to develop my own reading lists and conduct independent studies into sub-fields that existing faculty were unfamiliar with, like mad studies and existentialism. The department had no interest in giving me the autonomy to study without supervision, and since I couldn’t find any qualified supervisors, I couldn’t study what interested me. I decided I needed a break from it all, to taste what else life had to offer.
So I requested to take a leave of absence, my reasoning being that my child, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, would be doing school at home, and I wouldn’t be able to manage supporting them while also completing my own studies. I also mentioned that my mental health had suffered, and I simply wanted some time off to consider other career paths, with the option of returning after a year if I wanted to. My reasons were not considered enough to grant my request for a leave of absence. I was told to get a note from my psychiatrist that would attest to my being too sick to attend graduate studies.
A sick note to justify a leave of absence – during a pandemic, for a young parent? I was infuriated by the principle of it, as if because I held the status of a disabled student with a mental health condition, I could request kindness on no other grounds. I didn’t want to comply.
Because I wasn’t sick. Stressed, sure. Burnt out, absolutely. I was hungry for autonomy in my studies and support in my research interests. I was miserable with the coercive structure of my program. I objected to the arbitrary authority of a department that failed to accommodate my intellectual needs. But I wasn’t sick. It was not some neurological defect that prevented me from continuing my studies. It was the systemic barriers and traditionalism of an archaic institution that were preventing me from even beginning those studies. I was jumping through hoops, proving repeatedly that I deserved to be there, rather than doing the work I had been accepted into the program to do.
I let the administration know that being forced to admit that I was too ill to be a graduate student would feel dishonest and ultimately amount to a form of psychological self-harm – I wouldn’t do it. With no compromise forthcoming, and as I noticed my thesis supervisor and other faculty shrinking away from my appeals for help, I decided I had no choice but to leave.
I still think that, had I been given the appropriate supports and accommodations, I could have become a fantastic scholar. Universities need more marginalized people conducting research, delivering lectures, and guiding students through the rigors of academic study. Academia needs disabled/mad/neurodivergent people in its halls so that they might find empowerment, illuminate the discourse around madness, and challenge the ableist structures that have impeded the democratization of learning and knowledge production for so long. My experience is a testament to that need.
But I won’t get to be one of those pioneering scholars who speaks truth to power from the inside. As a fledging independent scholar with no credentials beyond a bachelor of arts, I will likely forever be on the outside looking in, trying to speak the language in a way that grants me enough credibility to be taken at least somewhat seriously.
It’s a loss, a tragic one, both for myself and for the academic institution. I want to forgive myself for hurting and struggling to move on from that loss, for investing so much in what I probably should have known would never work out.
And I also want to be able to forgive the almighty ivory tower for its role in sidelining me from my dream career, from a place I thought I would be able to best serve my community. I believe that the people who let me fall through the cracks had the best of intentions, and that a lot of really great work happens in universities that I still want to support and perhaps contribute to.
I’m working on that. I know I’ll get there eventually, that this post-academic depression is temporary. But it’s been really hard, and really slow. One year later, I am still grieving the loss and trying to fit the pieces of my life back together.
Have you left university or college and experienced post-academic depression? Tell me about it in the comments or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org – or message me on my social media pages here, here, or here. If you want to share your story with others, I can help.