Choices

I have a three inch scar on my left forearm, winding thin and white across my yellow-brown skin. The pup who gave it to me, with his jumping retriever excitement and sharp toenails, died of cancer almost three years ago now. Every time I look at it I feel the dusty, desert-like heat of a Prairie summer that never brought rain, and I’m reminded of the choices we have and choices we make, and what can happen when we think we have no choice at all.

Prairie

This is Prairie. Plain and simple. (Photo: S Boon)

That scar marks the beginning of loss – only a few at first, but gathering speed like a Prairie windstorm pushing piles of tumbleweeds ahead of it. Loss of first one young dog and then the next a mere nine months later; loss of confidence from constantly having to prove yourself to colleagues, students, and funding agencies; loss of mobility following a fluke field accident; loss of time and self into the deep well of work; and – most troubling – almost loss of a marriage.

——-

I was in South Africa co-teaching an undergrad field school when I received the initial offer of my tenure track position. I’d had the interview well before we left on our expedition, and was simultaneously enjoying the spectacular scenery (but appalling social situation) in South Africa and worrying about my future. By the time we’d negotiated the details, there was a scant month left to make the inter-provincial move. The classic vagaries of the academic job market.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Hello, said the giraffes. (Photo: S. Boon)

This position seemed like my only choice. No new academic jobs were appearing on the flat, distant horizon and my postdoc application wasn’t funded. I’d interviewed for several other positions and been offered one, but it was far from home on an island stranded out in the south Pacific Ocean. Within the confines of this self-imposed prison, I clutched at the new job like a drowning swimmer. I gave up things I might not have otherwise, and made decisions that ignored signals from both my heart and my family. I saw only the doors closing around me, like a dandelion shut tight in the dark of midnight. I lost hope, and rushed towards the one portal that seemed open, regardless of what was on the other side.

It wasn’t long before the losses began to pile up.

——-

I felt much the same a few weeks ago after my first appointment with a new doctor.

I’d gotten used to being a run-of-the-mill, almost middle-aged woman, over-medicated and over coddled for the depression and anxiety that runs like a rumour, a virus, amongst our privileged lot (can you hear the sarcasm?). Though I’d made it through our recent move back to BC, my days were draining slowly to their driest point in months. Christmas is normally my favourite season, but by the time January rolled around my GP advised I increase my medication to provide some moisture for my parched mind.

Since this latest appointment, though, I’ve strayed into the darker, less well known alleyways of mental illness. Where psychics and tarot card readers peruse the DSM5 bible to determine your diagnosis, and psychiatrists, like drug dealers on street corners, push new cocktails that even they don’t know will work and – if they do – why.

I’d always hoped (foolishly, I know) that the old me would eventually return. That me was like Kelly Ripa on steroids: she could do ten million things a day, read a couple of books in the evening, and whip up an edible dinner, without breaking a sweat. If I just did everything right and rode out the storm, this, too would pass.

Once I left the doctor’s office, though, I felt that awful Prairie wind rising up inside me, filling my eyes, ears and mouth with dust, tumbleweeds and garbage. Though his diagnosis doesn’t turn me into someone else, it closes the door once and for all on my hoped-for future. It’s taking a while to discover what doors have opened in response, and the dark corridor in which I find myself in the meantime is becoming increasingly claustrophobic. While I can expect more of the same as what I’ve experienced over the last two years, I also have to admit to losses – both in functional abilities, and of a way of being that’s no longer sustainable for me.

The tougher part is finding the hope to keep me moving forward on this dark path, to lighten the eastern horizon so I can see where I’m going. To remember that I have choices – though it may overwhelmingly seem otherwise.

—–

About a month ago I tried my hand at knitting, persisting despite the memories it invoked of the plastic needles and grubby white polyester yarn I’d used as a child. I repeatedly unravelled my rudimentary attempts at a scarf because of dropped stitches, added stitches, and stitches so tight I couldn’t even slide them on the needle. Turns out it’s not about how many rows you finish, but more about the silent click of (wooden) needles and the repetitive looping of (wool blend) yarn from right to left. It’s like a meditation, really, reducing anxiety and restlessness. The only time I count rows now is to find out when to switch to the next colour.

Knitting

My fabulous knitting.

This is how I aim to salvage my life: by changing my perspective to redefine success not as what I’ve achieved in terms of tangible items in a list, but what I’ve achieved in terms of stillness, contentment, and the ability to manage my illness. It’s a perspective that’s come up in Austin Kleon’s new book and Justine Musk’s latest post: the difference between doing and being, the space between process and product.

My latest health diagnosis is simultaneously nullifying and gratifying. Now I can relax, as it were, into a future where I won’t be aiming for big goals, such as getting that exclusive grant, full professorship, or a publication in Nature Geoscience (haha). Instead I’ll be focusing on much smaller ones: minimizing stress, maintaining an even keel, preventing major mood swings. Keeping an eye out for symptoms of a relapse, having a management plan in place for when one occurs.

It’s always easier said than done. The quest for accomplishment has been drilled into me since I was a child: if you’re going to do something, you must do it better than everyone else. Don’t just dabble, or do it for fun – be the best. This is what led me to a job that was all about product and very little about process, and kept me at it long after the enjoyment had passed.

—–

Those of us with chronic illness have to change how we see our lives – both for ourselves and in the context of those with whom we interact. It seems healthier for us to focus on process, which acknowledges that we all take different routes to a goal, whereas product requires only that we reach that goal. It’s the acknowledgement of the same equifinality we see in numerical modelling: the eventual outcome may be the same, but the path to reach it is different.

My visit to the doctor was a turning point, much like Sarcozona’s recent decision to take medical leave. I suspect – but don’t know for sure – that this is the route followed by many diagnosed with a major illness. These moments require us to acknowledge that things have changed – something we don’t often want to do because it makes our illness real, it reminds us that, yes, we are different from other people. These events are signposts along life’s path that aren’t well marked – or even understood – in public. They represent times of grieving, for what could have been and what must now be. For choices we had, that we have no longer, and the search to discover what our new choices are. And it puts us in a precarious position because difference – while celebrated in terms of creativity and originality – is not well tolerated in our society.

——–

I’m aiming smaller now. Or maybe just more realistically. I may not have the great Canadian nature writing book written by next year. Instead I’ll just plug away an essay, a paragraph, or even a sentence, at a time. Still searching for open doors – and choices – along the way.

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75 thoughts on “Choices

  1. What a very honest and insightful post, Sarah! Thank you for sharing. Your article is enjoyable to read with the many pictures you draw in the readers mind. I think there is great value in showing our vulnerability openly to the world and not only our strength and achievement. Ultimately when we really share ourselves with the world, we really live!!! You might be surprised at how many people are suffering from anxiety/depression, even if it hasn’t become chronic yet. I love your reflections about the difference in doing and being as well as processes versus final goals. I hope this ‘time off ‘provides a great opportunity for you. I am sure that this post will inspire readers to accept and embrace their anxiety rather than ignoring it and hoping it would go away, which – I think – is the first step in getting better…

  2. Pingback: Uncertainty, writer’s block and reconnecting with the arts | The Thylacine Reports

  3. We are in command of our own ship but the currents are deceiving and the wind blows in the direction it wants and not what we need. In other words we are floundering on good days and sinking on bad days. But we are still afloat and the sharks have not yet had at us.

  4. Thank you for your courage in sharing your story and struggle. I love that knitting has helped you so much, creativity, play and rest can do wonders for our health and well-being. Thank you again!

  5. Very inspirational. Thank you for sharing! I enjoyed the way you defined success, which is similar in a way to how Friedrich Nietzsche did:
    “The end of a melody is not its goal: but nonetheless, had the melody not reached its end it would not have reached its goal either. A parable.” (http://eliahlior.wordpress.com/2014/03/06/focus-on-the-process-not-the-result/)
    What I understand from this quote is that success is not defined by tangible goods, e.g. finishing a melody, but rather by the whole process of reaching that end. To me, Nietzsche puts it in different words, but at the same time what I understood from this article is similar to what I understood from his quote.

  6. Eloquently written post, thank you for sharing. Even for those of us who have mild (normal??) anxiety I can identify with your idea of redefining goals – great advice. And knitting definitely helps me relax too, it’s calming when in progress & incredibly satisfying when finished!

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  9. Reblogged this on Occupational Hazard! and commented:
    A beautiful insight into one person’s experience of getting a mental health diagnosis….
    My impression so far is that OT’s are very good at remembering the person behind the ‘client’ but I think we can only do that by listening to other people’s experiences. We can use our own personal experiences to help us understand what other people are going through but none of us can experience it all, and what we do live through ourselves can only ever be lived through from our own perspective and our own history. I think that’s why a lot of my non-academic reading in the last couple of years has been autobiographies and the like. I think I’m subconsciously trying to increase my understanding of different people’s lives to help develop my sense of empathy… I’m not too sure where Game of Thrones fits into that though…. 😉

  10. Thanks for your authentic, hopeful, and very real post about living with a mental health diagnosis. It seems that that world is changing. The economy is forcing all of us to redefine success. I love your acknowledgment of being vs. doing, from my perspective that is a spiritual lesson and practice. It is my hope that as we all redefine the world and redefine what is acclaimed as success, that we will also seek to reduce stigmas so we may all enjoy what it means for us to be human. Thanks again!

    • I think the joy in being rather than doing is something many of us have lost sight of. Whether people find that through spiritual practice, arts, etc – I just hope they find it.

  11. You have the gift of writing beautifully and candidly about all that you are going through. The maturity with which you write about changing goals and redefining life as one once knew it, is remarkable…

  12. Choices are sometimes difficult, most often they’re mundane, but every once in awhile – they take courage. This is a perfect example of that courage, through this beautifully written piece. I wish you all the best.

  13. That was very beautiful. By doing this I believe you reached another goal. You have a very smooth and most enjoyable writing style, and I loved reading it. I struggled with bipolar disorder most of my adult life and suffered for it. Many losses due to bad decisions because of it. Finally we found the answer and life is much better now, much better. I discovered blogging a year ago finding it a great release for my inner being and soul. I dumped a lot of garbage and then moved on to fun writing, and like you with your knitting, it really helped. You seem to be a person with a great deal to offer the world. I look forward to reading other pieces you write. Bravo! And congrats on your FP on wordpress.com.

    • Thanks for your comment. Seems it’s important to all of us to find our hobby – writing, knitting, etc – that will help us manage. Thanks also for the congrats!

  14. A beautiful mind!! A really lovely and thoughtful post on how to face the future in the eye of a dismal diagnoses. Mine was Parkinson’s at 37 years . . . how to find peace, beauty, happiness within the borders of our limitations. Also, i’m thinking, when and how to push those boundaries and live a full and meaningful life.

    • Yes, exactly! Figuring out how and when to push boundaries is essential, otherwise you just feel trapped within those limitations. Thanks for the comment, you hit on something I don’t think I managed to capture in the post.

  15. Thanks for writing this insightful piece.

    How sad it is to be the kind of different we desire, whenwemumble.wordpress.com

  16. What an empowering story you tell here.

    How sad it is to be the kind of different we desire, whenwemumble.wordpress.com

  17. So good- I am bipolar and can relate to so many things you were talking about in this choice, that choice, doctors on the corner disguised as drug dealers I too got dog bitten as a child right on my upper lip…I overreact at everything I’m 37 & still live with my parents but anyways perfect article & perfectly written

  18. I found this because it was tweeted to me with the comment that it was ‘incredibly brave’. I felt cynical: saving kids from burning buildings is brave but is writing blog posts?
    I didn’t expect to see so many of my own life struggles reflected back at me – an academic job that I’m grateful for but that wears at my soul; a mental health diagnosis that I struggle with bitterly; a midlife realisation that my task is to live mindfully rather than set the world on fire,
    But, I haven’t written about these things. Sometimes, I admit as much to colleagues, students, friends – but I’m often angry, disbelieving. I haven’t picked up my ‘knitting’ yet.
    You have. And you’re writing about it. That is brave. Thankyou. And good luck.

  19. Pingback: Accepting the things we cannot change | Watershed Moments: Thoughts from the Hydrosphere

  20. Pingback: Managing Your Mental Health in Academia | Watershed Moments: Thoughts from the Hydrosphere

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