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08/17/2016

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Melinda Hall

Dear Karl (and Shelley),

Thank you so much for this beautiful, detailed, and incredibly nuanced look at the functions of anxiety and depression on a life lived in academia and the way that academia in turn functions "on" both of these and shapes how one is positioned. Karl, your answers were so thoughtful and thorough, and Shelley, your questions go right to the heart of the issues at hand.

I am extremely personally moved by this account (as I was by Audrey Yap's account in the last installment). I have what I now as an adult understand as acute anxiety that, for most of my life, I either failed to recognize as such or "self-treated" more or less disastrously. As a high-energy (and high-performing) person who lived and breathed on the opinions of others and dizzying levels of activity, I had huge difficulty recognizing the flip-side of my anxiety as depression. I just could not recognize depressive episodes as such, because it didn't fit with the way that others viewed me and the ways that I viewed myself. Significantly, my mood and demeanor were (and remain) highly variable and contingent in ways that confused me and my friends and family. Knowing me one day was not the same as knowing me the next --as a result, my identity is fractured as an adult in ways that I am still "narrating" or in various ways repairing and restitching. Karl, like you, friendships and relationships with family members are exceedingly difficult for me to maintain.

As an adult, my energy levels are much lower than they were when I was younger. My anxiety, however, is not. The primary issues that follow me to work in academia, both as a graduate student and now a faculty member, are the fact that I ruminate over conflict, interactions, and conversations and that I struggle with timely responses to communications. Phone conversations and emails are especially hard. I have "outed" myself to both students and immediate colleagues, but in the university at large I try to cover over issues that make it difficult for me to be a good colleague. The result is a lot of pressure on myself to pass.

I hesitate to identify as disabled. Philosophically, I work on disability and consider myself to work in solidarity with disability folks within and outside of academia.

Thank you for the space to share these thoughts and for your own story. I love your suggestion, Karl, that celebrating genuine inclusivity (not the buzzwords) as the discovery of diamonds-in-the-rough would be a significant and extremely exciting discourse shift.

Melinda Hall

and by "good colleague" in my other comment, I mean, of course, the image of a good colleague that most people have in mind (what Karl so wonderfully refers to as a kind of bureaucratic spiritedness, which I can really only muster if conditions are just right).

Karl Viertel

Thank you for sharing your experience, Melinda. It is quite well expressed in its own right. I'm particularly struck by your use of "passing," which is something I will have to think more about. Like "disabled," it's a term I would not have thought to apply to my own story: my initial reaction is to think that it's a term for people with *real* problems, and so, again, to understate or undervalue the severity of our conditions. These terms have a particular sanctity and precision to them (perhaps it is fascinating, at some level, that I am thinking of their sharpness, their ability to cut -- deeply, and so of this word's application to myself as akin to that of a blade), and of course I worry (as I'm sure you do) about denigrating or diffusing their significance through attenuation.

Nevertheless, there is a certain aptness to it. Like you, I feel a continual pressure to obscure my condition from view, to force the corners of my mouth upwards no matter how I'm feeling. I wonder, also, if it ever has a similar effect for you, where taking on the "good colleague" persona exhausts you or occasions a worsening of your symptoms.

It also sounds as though you've found a rather supportive community of colleagues and students. I hope they receive your "outing" yourself warmly and with encouragement and understanding.

Melinda Hall

Karl,

Thank you very much for your reply. Yes, I do worry about diffusing the significance of words like "passing" and "disability" - as many have noted, it would be awful to unthinkingly engage inappropriately universalizing phrases like "we are all disabled" and so too must the same be true of possible phrases like "we all work to pass". Not everyone has to work so that individualizing/stigmatizing differences are hidden in their day-to-day life. After reading your thoughts, though, and reflecting on my own experiences, I do think "passing" is appropriate in both our cases, as you note. It is certainly draining, and I detest the irony of the fact that, as and after I work hard to cover over my anxiety, my anxiety worsens considerably.

One of the oddest parts of my own experience - which goes back to the fracturing of identity - is just how unpredictable/uneven my anxiety makes me be, or appear to be. The circumstances of academia contribute to this. For example, I teach and interact with others most days, and I am a friendly person (or like to believe so!). As a result, I believe that others just can't understand why I have trouble with particular communications or particular circumstances, and not others. They assume (probably often without my knowledge) that I am deliberately deciding not to interact with them or reply to particular messages. (I still don't think I'm quite capturing the issue here with this description, but it's a start).

Yes, my students and colleagues have been very supportive so far. Students especially seem to appreciate my honesty. But there is significant risk. I am a young woman and discussions about anxiety can erode (and at times have eroded) my authority in the classroom, which I am loathe to lose (while at the same time I want to critique the necessity of the authority dynamic).

One more thing. I think it's important for us to continue the conversation you start here with regard to interviewing with anxiety and depression. I don't have any significant thoughts on it yet, but mentorship on this within the profession and for graduate students would be excellent.

I am glad to exchange these ideas with you and, again, really appreciate your interview with Shelley.

Audrey Yap

Thank you so much for this interview, Karl, and I'm so happy that my own interview resonated with you, since I can relate to so much of what you say here. I'm somewhat in the middle of the typical August panic that precedes the September term, so I'm afraid that my thoughts are a bit scattered. But I'm very glad for your insight about disability and norms of masculinity - I think there's a lot behind that having to do with the ways in which disability is gendered (and racialized, come to think of it.)

I also appreciate your criticism of various aspects of the modern academy - one that I hadn't thought of was drinking culture, which of course can be harmful to people in a range of personal situations. I do drink a bit, even though I'm in the same situation with it interfering with my medication. But given what I've seen secondhand from people with addictions issues (and knowing that such issues are more widespread than many people think) making drinking central to the hiring process is a pretty bad setup as well.

I'd love to talk more about this when I'm not so all over the place, though - thank you again, and thank you (as usual) to Shelley for the interview.

Thomas Nadelhoffer

Thanks for sharing your experiences Karl. As someone whose tenure just started a few days ago, I feel I can be a bit more forthright than would otherwise be the case (which is telling). So, what I want to do is build on what you say here by discussing what I will call, "The Tale of Two Disabilities."

First, I was hit and run while riding a bicycle as an undergraduate. The accident started what would end up being a 20 year battle with chronic pain. In these intervening years, I developed a form of cervical dystonia and I have also had two neck surgeries (with more surgeries to come down the road). While chronic pain is often "invisible", as they say, I have always viewed it as a disability. It certainly interrupts my work, affects my teaching, and spoils my attitude on bad days. But because pain is socially acceptable--especially if it results from an accident that wasn't your fault--I have always been open about my condition with students and colleagues alike. While invisible, because chronic pain is normalized to some extent, one can be open about without fear of being judged. In my case, because the dystonia leaves me making funny motions with my neck, jaw, and shoulders, I wear my pain "on my sleeve," as they say. So, it's a good thing that I need not fear judgment.

Second, in addition to chronic pain, I have also suffered from bi-polar disorder since I was a teenager. It has been a 30+ year battle that has affected and influenced nearly every facet of my life. Whether I am going on and off medications--as is commonly the case for people with the condition--or struggling with the side effects of a new medication, it is something I have had to do in relative silence. In many respects, my mental illness is more disabling than my chronic pain, but because it is stigmatized, it is something I have been forced to hide from students and colleagues alike. Given the kind of behaviors associated with the disorder, it has often led to tension between me and my colleagues--but because I didn't feel safe discussing my disability with them, I couldn't properly explain myself. Instead, I had to suffer the consequences in silence. Indeed, it is only now that I have tenure (as of August 16th) that I feel comfortable coming out in this way. And even now, I do so with some trepidation and fear. So, I completely understand why you preferred to use a pseudonym. I am also sorry that you had to do so. Hopefully, the tide will change--which is one of the goals of this blog. That said, your interview emboldened me to non-anonymously tell you that you are not alone, that you should not be judged, and that slowly but surely we hope to move the profession in the right direction. So, stay strong and keep on your present path.

Karl Viertel

These are three great comments that have appeared since last I responded. I'll try my best to do justice to all of them.

Melinda: Yes to everything in your second paragraph. I, too, experience that all the time, and I tend to internalize a lot of the blame in those instances, which is also not the best thing to do.

I understand, also, about the risks involved with outing your condition to your students. Of course I do not have the added layer of fighting against the narratives attaching to women leading college classes, and I do not know that I can respond meaningfully, except to offer my support and understanding. For whatever it's worth, it sounds to me as though you've been navigating those straits responsibly and thoughtfully.

Finally, I agree that it's important to continue the conversation, and we should find ways to do that. And though I'd welcome a response from you, I at least initially worry about where one would focus one's efforts at mentorship. I am reluctant to believe that mentoring job candidates is the correct direction of that focus, though there are certainly short-term benefits and practical advantages to so doing. The worry is twofold: for one, I would not want solutions to our struggles to devolve into strategizing on new and better ways to "pass," and I wonder whether a mentor program, even responsibly run, would be able to avoid that sort of pitfall. Perhaps participants in other mentor programs would be able to contribute strategies they have developed to avoid that risk.

Nevertheless: secondly, and more importantly, I worry about the presupposition of a mentorship program, which would be that *we* are the ones who need to change, that *we* are somehow doing something wrong. I think if mentorship is required anywhere in the field, it's required of the judgmental and dismissive search committee member. I admit there's not the rough and ready practical solution and appeal of the former program, but I'd much rather we expend our efforts attacking the problem at its root.

In any case, these are of course just some initial thoughts on the matter, and I'm not convinced that I'm right. Let's continue the debate. Perhaps this would make for a good APA session or blog series or breakout session of a conference on disability studies.

Karl Viertel

Audrey: I'm glad you liked the interview. As to the different lenses of disability, this is a rather new thought to me. I just read The New Jim Crow earlier this summer, and in a book filled with earth-shattering insights, the parts of the book that treated the rampant self-loathing in black communities absolutely tore me apart.

Again, I don't know that I'm knowledgeable enough in this area to provide much insight, but it had me wondering about the effects that the words frequently attached to me and my condition might have on an entire community so labeled. I find myself still stunned to silence on the matter and would like to continue a conversation with you on this or those other, professional matters whenever your semester planning settles down.

Karl Viertel

One more thing, which is a piece of advice a friend shared with me yesterday after reading the interview: if one is reluctant to drink while out with colleagues, and yet feels pressured to do so, a seltzer with lime is sufficiently cocktail-ish in appearance to let everyone *think* you're actually having a Gin and Tonic. I plan to try this little trick at gatherings this fall; perhaps it will be useful to some others in similar situations.

Melinda Hall

Karl - your points are very well taken with regard to possible mentorship. You are precisely right that strategies for use in passing and/or molding oneself to the vagaries and disturbing and unjust challenges of the academic job market won't be the answer and should be carefully avoided. Better inclusivity training for hiring committees (I have been to a bad such training) would be far preferable. I love the idea of a panel or breakout session on these issues at an upcoming conferences and will keep a lookout for opportunities.

Thank you for your response!

Karl Viertel

I'm sorry, Thomas, for taking so long to respond to your post. First off, congratulations on tenure. It sounds like it's been a tough road for you, so I hope your promotion is accompanied by well deserved feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction. I also want to thank you for your comment. Really, the reception so far on this blog has been much warmer than I ever expected, and I am impressed and encouraged by the non-anonymous (nonymous?) support that has started to emerge as a result. I have to admit that this is another one of those moments that leaves me moved beyond the point of words. So let me just say: thank you. Thank you for your brave post. Thank you for your understanding. And thank you for your words of support. It means a lot to me.

Thomas Nadelhoffer

Karl,

Thanks for your brave words. Thanks as well for your kind words. I am just sorry I felt the need to wait until I had the protection of tenure to say something out in the open. But the stigma is real for mental illness/disability and it can have professional repercussions (as you originally noted). I am just glad what I said moved you in a positive way. Perhaps now I should be more vocal than I am. I owe it to people like you--who feel the need to use pseudonyms on blogs about disability, disadvantage, and discrimination. We can do better as a profession (and as a society). One small step at a time...

Andrea Nicki

Karl,

I appreciated your moving interview and the details about your personal experience of depression and anxiety. I especially liked your comment: "I think there are certain common depressive traits that complement quite well the demands of the life of ideas. The philosophical work requires periods of gestation and contemplativeness, and certain brands of depression manifest themselves in a deliberateness of thought and action that accommodates the maturation of great ideas." It struck me as very sad that philosophers who think and feel more deeply have more of a struggle trying to stabilize an academic career in philosophy. I had a friend who specialized in Hegel and Heidegger who experienced this struggle, as well as myself and friends in feminist philosophy. It seems in North America that continental philosophers and philosophers who deeply investigate issues of gender, race, disability, etc., are treated as irrational and "crazy" in academic philosophy, and such treatment can, of course, increase anxiety and depression. If departments dedicated themselves to recruiting more philosophers who suffer from chronic depression, it seems they would inevitably be recruiting philosophers in marginalized areas of philosophy...a good thing. I hope you will write more on these topics.

Best, Andrea Nicki

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